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Xorandor by Christine Brooke-Rose

Xorandor (1986) is a novel by Christine Brooke-Rose (1923-). Jip and Zab are preteen twins who speak a weird, unfamiliar slang and meet up with a talking rock that turns out to be a foreign lifeform from Mars, which they dub Xorandor. They communicate with it using a programming language somewhat akin to BASIC, and they discover it can consume radiation particles. This then spins into a tale of spies, nuclear disarmament, and a disorganized offspring of Xorandor who gets scrambled, decides it is Lady Macbeth, and demands that it and its brethren be given endless radiation or it will create a critical mass and destroy a good part of England. Jip and Zab work with Xorandor to stop its mad offspring, speaking to it in that same programming language, and they also discover more about Xorandor’s real provenance and nature.

My criticisms of the book ultimately fall away in the face of its mere existence. Boy is it a strange one. Thomas M. Disch reviewed it when it first came out, comparing it to A Clockwork Orange and Riddley Walker, clearly on the grounds of its distended language. But Brooke-Rose’s use of code snippets (in a BASIC-like language of her own design) as well as a certain lack of fluency with the concepts of computer science makes it both less and more than those other two books.

It is more in that neither Burgess nor Hoban attempted to graft a formal symbolic language onto English, preferring instead to deform English into a new, imagined human language. It is less in that the graft does not take: Brooke-Rose cannot create the hybrid she attempts, because she treats the symbolic language as human language when it is is not. To explain the nature of this failure is to understand the multilayered nature of metaphor and analogy in natural language.

Before critiquing, though, let me praise Brooke-Rose’s achievement. She engaged with the syntax and semantics of what I gather to be a genuinely foreign domain, and she managed to utilize them logically and cogently in a novel, at a level that I’ve only seen in Vernor Vinge (who, besides having background in the relevant domains, is a far more conventional and unimaginative writer). She did this well into her career, and she did this in the mid-80s, well before any such concepts had penetrated into the mainstream. Compared to the contemporaneous Tron, Xorandor is an algorithms textbook.

I caught a few slip-ups where she uses terminology in an invalid way or attempts to draw an analogy based on a misunderstanding of a particular formal concept, but really only a handful, which is really rather stunning for someone coming to the material for the first time. So my aesthetic criticism is balanced by my immense admiration for Brooke-Rose’s adventurousness, curiosity, and diligence.

The only hint of previous background I’ve found is in Frank Kermode’s piece on Brooke-Rose, where he says she served at Bletchley Park in World War II, alongside the likes of Alan Turing. Yet there is little here that has to do with the theoretical aspects of computer science. Brooke-Rose is interested in computer languages as language, not as a practical tool. Yet the problem lies in the inseparability of these two aspects.

Consider this representative piece of code from the book:

ABSTRACT 2 RUN
    JIP AND ZAB
        REM JIP AND ZAB NOW = ZIP ENDREM
      DEC 1 'ZIP USE SAME LANGUAGE RESTRICTED TO
      STRUCTURES MORE ELEM THAN ON SOUND WAVES AND/OR INEFFICIENT SEQUENCE CONTROL' ENDEC 1
      DEC 2 'POOR LEXIC BUT SOME UNFAMILIAR' ENDEC 2
ENDRUN

The vast majority of the code, in fact, ends up being DEC and REM statements, which allow Brooke-Rose to use English primarily in the code. These statements are made to seem more computer-like by mutilating English syntax, but they are no closer to actual computer language than English. She has taken the syntax of computer language and some of its semantics, but overlaid it with slightly altered natural language semantics. Within a REM or a DEC statement, anything goes.

Brooke-Rose makes steps toward accommodating formal language semantics within the DEC and REM statements, such as pointing out the problems of indefinite antecedents, but they are small and tentative, and these issues, which would be at the heart of an effort to deal with the difference between logical and natural language, fall by the wayside in favor of moves that belong purely in the realm of natural language.

The problem is that Brooke-Rose has not lived the language she is appropriating. This is as great a problem with a programming language as it is with a human language, although the nature of the problem is different. By utilizing programming language to serve the purposes of a human language, she neglects the very nature of the language, and so the result is akin to what would happen if one were to write poetry in an unknown foreign language with only a translating dictionary as a guide. It is the confusion of the (partial) definition of a word with the knowledge of its many uses and place in the language. Programming language is simpler than natural language, but by ignoring the greater part of the purposes the language can serve, Brooke-Rose’s code is enfeebled.

The problem manifests itself in Jip and Zab’s slang as well. Here is a brief bit of dialog:

Zab, do we have to reconstruct every conv?

That’s what storytellers do Jip, or else they invent them. But we can’t, this is real.

Floating-point real or fixed-point real?

Endjoke.

This rings false because this is not a joke programmers would make. (There are many others like it in the book.) The mere dual definition of “real” as both meaning “actual” as well as “a number belonging to a continuum” does not make it suitable grounds for a pun. Even puns, which exist on the surface level of language, require some conceptual apparatus to link their two meanings. By making the linkages purely on the lexical level, Brooke-Rose betrays a lack of conceptual knowledge of the language she is adopting.

To recast this exchange with German instead of computer language:

I have committed a mortal sin.

Are you sure it wasn’t merely a mortal bedeutung?

Endjoke.

Punning on Frege’s Sinn/Bedeutung distinction in this context serves no purpose. We can have some fun this way (I originally tried to do it with kind, kinder, and art), but it does not lend any greater meaning to the matter at hand or illuminate the connections between English and German. If anything, it trivializes them.

I have criticized science and engineering people for adopting too literal and too concrete metaphorical models of emotion and humanity. Rod Humble’s The Marriage was a model example, in my opinion. But this is a critique in the other direction, of the fact that Brooke-Rose has adopted the syntax and semantics of a domain without understanding their practical usage. That practical layer, which I hesitate to call sub-linguistic because it is still linguistic, is one that writers too often ignore. Beneath the shuffling of imagery and semantic ambiguity often lies a linguo-conceptual level as arid and stale as a formulaic plot.

The grammatical, rhetorical, lexical material of computer science have been employed without much of their actual content. Very little of the code apparatus serves much purpose except to give shape to the narrative that would otherwise be done with the usual natural language devices. Because Brooke-Rose chose a computer language rather than a natural language, the gap between the two languages is huge and starkly reveals what more subtle shifts do not. It is not always so clear what gets left out when interweaving two languages.

An analogical strategy of linguistic substitution is one of the core skills of any writer. Xorandor very clearly shows what such strategies easily miss or take for granted: the underlying, mutable conceptual matter, made to seem irrelevant by the manipulation of surface-level syntax and semantics, but in fact distinctively present. This matter is not plot, though it can take the form of plot; it is the subcutaneous ideological and structural stuff of writing and life that language captures inexactly, imprecisely and in multifold ways, but which is nonetheless there. It is present in the technical uses of computer language that Brooke-Rose did not make use of. This matter lies not in syntax or semantics, but in pragmatics and superstructure. And that is what is precisely missing, almost totally, in Brooke-Rose’s use of computer code. The deficiency of the book is astonishingly illuminating.

In this sense, Brooke-Rose is firmly ensconced in her time, in the post-structuralist milieu in which language slippages occur purely at the surface level of syntax and atomic signification. This anti-conceptualist dogma of deconstruction has been tremendously detrimental to the creative spirits of many writers, who too often forsake all thoughts of a deeper conceptual structure underpinning languages in favor of an emaciated, localized play on the simplest of word associations, as prescribed by the primitive associative models of Derrida and Lacan and the rigid structuralist networks of Barthes. Puns often come to dictate analogies rather than analogies dictating metaphors.

Brett Bourbon mischaracterized this deeper conceptual realm as the realm of nonsense, talking about deformations of language. But these deformations of language, exemplified by those of Finnegans Wake, are not excursions into nonsense, but attempts to pull and reshape our conceptual language in unfamiliar directions.

Most literature, of course, settles for much less than this. It is not necessarily a writer’s responsibility to operate on this linguo-conceptual (linguo-pragmatic?) level, but I believe the mark of truly substantial literature (as opposed to merely great writing) is indeed a work’s ability to wreak havoc to existing linguo-conceptual structures.

The challenge in addressing these structures and grasping them even partly is immense, and falling back on simplifications is tempting and sometimes sufficient to create a decent work of art. But only decent. The human tendency to reduce and simplify into models is unavoidable, but complacency with them, an unwilingness to accept their provisionality, is an unforgivable offense against our rational and creative powers. Every writer of “experimental” prose should reflect on this book and wonder if their amalgamation of novel lexical and semantic overlaps is only serving to reiterate unoriginal macrostructures.

Yet Brooke-Rose is smart enough to recognize this, and her essay collection Stories, Theories and Things (1991) shows her to be a keen and precise critic who draws on structuralist, deconstructionist, and speech act theory without becoming obfuscatory and usually not too straitjacketed. The essays on gender and writing, in particular, are some of the best I’ve read on the subject in ages.

And here she speaks, I think, exactly to the problem I describe above, the narrowness of the conceptual apparatus so often at work in writing:

Now knowledge has long been unfashionable in fiction. If I may make a personal digression here, this is particularly true of women writers, who are assumed to write only of their personal situations and problems, and I have often been blamed for parading my knowledge, although I have never seen this being regarded as a flaw in male writers; on the contrary. Nevertheless (end of personal digression), even as praise, a show of knowledge is usually regarded as irrelevant: Mr X shows an immense amount of knowledge of a, b, c, and the critic passes to theme, plot, characters and sometimes style, often in that order. What has been valued in this sociological and psychoanalytical century is personal experience and the successful expression of it. In the last resort a novel can be limited to this, can come straight out of heart and head, with at best a craftsmanly ability to organize it well, and write well.

What she also implies, which is something worth spelling out, is that the most egregious exponents of this anti-conceptual anti-knowledge tendency have not been novelists, but literary theorists, who too often not only sought little knowledge beyond their narrowly-focused reading, but then built even more constraining systems around those impoverished areas!

I will not analyze her criticism in detail here; I am only interested in how it serves to illuminate further the noble failure of Xorandor, as well as the less noble failures of countless other books. If Xorandor does not free itself from its theoretical shackles, its immersion into foreign territory remains a notable effort to escape the orbit around the endless deferral of signification.

That is to say: when we are captivated by the shiny surface of language, when pyrotechnics and puns and prestidigitation of words comes to substitute for attention to the far deeper realms of the conceptual and practical use of even the most ordinary language, then we have come to treat language as a solipsistic activity that turns us inward and away from the world. And so such linguistic activity becomes a way of avoiding life.

If we are content to refine and nourish only the epidermis of language, we let the innards rot.

RIP Joanna Russ

One of the lesser-known greats of the New Wave of science fiction has passed on. Matthew Cheney has an excellent obit and overview. I reviewed my favorite work of hers, We Who Are About To…, some years back. As a supplementary epitaph, I’d like to quote part of Thomas M. Disch’s encomium to her, from The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of:

Little wonder that Heinlein, in Friday‘s alphabetized dedication and tribute to twenty-nine members of the fair sex, pays his devoirs to a Jeanne, a Joan, and a Judy-Lynn, but omits the name of Joanna. Now that, truly, is a compliment.

…C.J. Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold have taken their cue from Russ, writing gung-ho Realpolitik space operas that make the author of Gor look like the wimp he was.

And also quote Ray Davis quoting a great bit from the end of Russ’s classic The Female Man, spoken by the character “Joanna”:

“I am the gateway to another world,” (said I, looking in the mirror) “I am the earth-mother; I am the eternal siren; I am purity,” (Jeez, new pimples)

My Secret Science Fiction Past

Perhaps not so secret, but I was raised on the stuff and so I’ve read far more of it than I might have had I been born into a different environment. This list of Gollancz “classics” is going around, and modulo its omissions and overinclusions due to rights issues and the like, it’s got a fair amount of good stuff on it. And some less good stuff. (It overlaps a great deal with David Pringle’s list, and gives similar overweighting to British writers…which is probably not a bad thing.) But if I’m a fan of any genre (that’s not literary modernism, that is), it would have to be sf. So I figure I should engage in an exercise like this from time to time.

I bold it if I’ve read it. I italicize it if I liked it and still like it today. I could go more deeply into degrees of liking vs. respecting vs. enjoying, but I’ll leave it at this.

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick

14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick

33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick

37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau

77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)

81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)

I’m only torn over Hal Clement, who is brilliant at what he does, but what he does well is not “fiction” per se. Ballard and Gene Wolfe (yes, really!) deserve more entries, probably in lieu of the excess of Dick.

A few more genre authors who really should be on the list: Thomas Disch, Richard McKenna, R.A. Lafferty, Russell Hoban (for Riddley Walker, of course), Stanislaw Lem, Mark Geston, Michael Swanwick, James Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller, Iain Banks, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin was the best genre-SF novel I’d read in ages). There are other big names missing, but, offhand, no one comes to mind that I would want to read again.

Thomas M. Disch Appendix

In dealing with Disch’s work, there was so much I had to leave out. I finished the article with an even greater respect for Disch’s achievement as well as a sadness that the rawness and brutality of his work perhaps confined him more to the generic ghetto than some of his peers. Certainly the quality and erudition of his writing matched any of his contemporaries. So here is an appendix of miscellaneous points that I didn’t have space for, in the hopes of pointing people to assorted other spots in his oeuvre.

  1. The short fairy-tale “Dangerous Flags,” published in 1964 and seemingly anticipating a lot of the work of Donald Barthelme, though Disch’s tale is far less goofy and more sinister. The tale of a bunch of small-town dopes manipulated in turn by the elite English teacher and the populist Green Magician. You can guess who won. But the general schematic for his view of middle America (the town is called Mean) is already quite formed here.
  2. “Displaying the Flag”: Nothing more and nothing less of the story of the sort of religious-right ideologues who amass power only to be found soliciting gay sex in bathrooms years later. Dead-on.
  3. “Feathers from the Wings of an Angel”: One of his nastiest stories, intentionally written in inept purple prose. A heartfelt story from the heartland that tells the chronicle of an ingenuous young writer winning a prize…with this very story! Arrogant, narcissistic, myopic. Has there been a metafiction so resolutely focused around crap writers writing about crap writing? (Mulligan Stew does not count.) Disch in a nutshell.
  4. The eccentric and hopeful story “Everyday Life in the Later Roman Empire,” part of 334, where historians specialize in a period in the past by inhabiting surrogate counterparts after great study. (Finally, Disch says, providing a use for PhDs.) The idea comes from Philip K. Dick, but Disch’s take is that by living out the misery of our predecessors virtually, we can gain a bit more insight and compassion with regard to our misery and that of those around us. He’s probably right.
  5. Terrorism forms a backdrop to several of Disch’s future versions of America. It’s there both in 334 and On Wings of Song, and in both cases it’s nebulous, seemingly coming from domestic elements but never conclusively explained. (The ACLU is blamed, but everything suggests they are just a scapegoat.) The responses are much more important: police control and xenophobic fear in the populace. I compliment Disch on not making too big a deal out of a specific counterculture (as many new wave authors did in the 60s). As you realize if you read novels from back then, the counterculture itself is not very politically interesting. It’s the establishment’s reaction and exploitation of it that is relevant.
  6. An allegory of power given by Disch, by way of analogy with Philip K. Dick, though really with any act of writing:

    There is a form of Monopoly called Rat in which the Banker, instead of
    just sitting there and watching, gets to be the Rat. The Rat can alter all the
    rules of the game at his discretion, like Idi Amin. The players elect the
    person they consider the slyest and nastiest among them to be the Rat.
    The trick in being a good Rat is in graduating the torment of the players,
    in moving away from the usual experience of Monopoly, by the minutest
    calibrations, into, finally, an utter delirium of lawlessness.

    I think Disch felt that if he did not subject his characters to such rules, he would be creating an improper fantasyland from which no one could learn anything.

  7. The M.D. is probably the most substantial work of Disch’s later career, and I wish I’d had space to treat it at length. It’s a perverse take on the Faust myth in which a young boy receives a caduceus from Hermes that has wonderful healing powers, but only to the extent that it has already done equal or greater harm. (Disch never explicitly states it, but the mistake of thinking of the caduceus as a healing object–i.e., as the staff of Asclepius–weighs in as a heavy irony throughout.) Naturally, apocalypse ensues. Disch’s only engagement with AIDS, as far as I know. It also features another instance of the dead-certain Christian believer, similar to Gus in The Genocides, perhaps Disch’s most frightening archetype, beyond reason and compromise.
  8. I rate Disch above the suburban disenchantments of Yates, Cheever, and Updike because their work was so ineffective as cultural commmentary. It showed no engagement with the greater meaning of these enclaves in the American political environment of the Cold War. Likewise, the capitalist critiques of Gaddis seem way off the mark because they assume a certain amount of rational action on the part of the characters. Who is closer to Ken Lay, J.R. or Grandison Whiting? The best American authors have, I think, understood that America does not lend itself to highbrow cultural theorizing in the way that Germany does, and so inhabit the more gothic and grotesque modes. (Notable exception: Ralph Ellison.) I won’t attempt to justify this here….
  9. I cannot say enough about how Disch’s work anticipates the delusions of the Bush administration flacks who attacked the “reality-based” community. A greater vindication for Disch I can’t imagine. We have been ruled by the ruralities of the Bush administration and the urbanities of Kennedy’s “best and the brightest,” and have seen the flaws of both.
  10. Disch authored a text adventure in 1986, Amnesia. It doesn’t rank with the Infocom games of the time, but it has several very Dischian touches. First, it includes a detailed layout of Manhattan, including the entire subway system, but because of disc space limitations, there is very little descriptive text, making the city anonymous and unwelcome and, well, off-limits. Which leads to the second touch, which is that you spend much of the game as a homeless man trying to raise 25 bucks to progress to the next stage, and your options involve little beyond begging and washing car windows. Disch wants to make you know what suffering is.
  11. Toward the end of his life, Disch himself embraced many of the xenophobic and hateful tendencies he’d so acutely condemned. This is a common danger of those who get so close to such motivations and grow to hate them. The line is easily dissolved, as it was for Poe and Lovecraft as well.

On Thomas M. Disch

An article of mine on The Prescient Science Fiction of Thomas M. Disch has been published by The Millions.

covercovercoverThomas M. Disch (1940-2008) was a brilliant, ornery, and greatly American writer. He was best known for science-fiction, and three of his novels—Camp Concentration (1968), 334 (1972), and On Wings of Song (1979)won places in David Pringle’s estimable Science Fiction: The Best 100 Novels. But Disch also wrote poetry, horror, mysteries, at least one pseudonymous gothic novel, and perhaps best-known, The Brave Little Toaster. He was a gay man who disdained being called a gay writer. He was as fine a prose stylist as his genres had seen, but he also possessed a nightmarish imagination that combined J.G. Ballard’s apocalyptic despair and Philip K. Dick’s nightmares. Disch’s particular gift was to root these qualities in the very heart of America. Dick predicted virtual reality; Disch predicted Sarah Palin. Dick killed himself with drugs, Disch with a shotgun.

Look at the big social novels of the 1960s. You find conspiracy theories in Pynchon and Mailer, suburban hells in Cheever and Yates and (in its apotheosis) Heller, solipsistic nihilism and self-indulgence in Barth and Wurlitzer, beatnik dropout fantasies in countless other authors. Even Gore Vidal was writing historical novels rather than anything set in the present day.

Disch, though, was ahead of his time. The American heartland of his novels, contemporary or future, now seems eerily prescient. It’s not that these trends weren’t visible in the 60s and 70s, but Disch foresaw their eventual impact in the post-Cold War age that his peers mostly did not. Frequently evoking the American grotesques of Poe and Lovecraft, he brought out the ghastly ignorance that increasingly defines American political life. He exaggerates, but the uncanny familiarity of the caricature is scary.

…[continued]…

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