Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Bookish Bliss

The other day, I went to the library and took out a large stack of books I need or want to read over the summer, either for writing-related research or class prep. Earlier this week, I devoured Ellen Klages' gorgeous The Green Glass Sea -- which I've heartily recommended to my writing students -- and I'm now happily ensconced in Julie Phillips' much-feted biography of James Tiptree, Jr., which I requested and received as a birthday gift last September and have only now started reading. It's been months since I've read for pleasure, and I'm having a wonderful time falling into books again.

I'm feeling unusually energetic and motivated at the moment, without any of the exhaustion and brain-fuzz that often plague me at the end of the semester. I suspect this is the product of months of sustained exercise (six days a week at the gym since late January, except when we were in Maui) combined with my two antidepressants. Last summer's a gray blur, except for the art course in Berkeley and the fun of starting the blog, and I'm really hoping that this summer will be more productive.

I've made up a daily schedule for myself, to start after we return from WisCon, which will include three hours of writing or writing-related research, my habitual two hours at the gym (only about fifty minutes of that is actual exercise), and three hours of course prep: this last includes retooling my fall freshman comp course, catching up on Tolkien criticism for my spring JRRT course, and trying to bring myself up to speed in narrative medicine for my work at the med school. We'll see if I manage to stick to that schedule, but I hope I will!

In the meantime, here's that Locus review of Shelter I promised you. The reviewer is Gary K. Wolfe.
After producing a total of two books in the first 13 years of her career, Susan Palwick seems to have suddenly shifted into overdrive with two more books within six months of each other -- The Fate of Mice (a collection reviewed here in March) and now Shelter, a huge novel that has the earmarks of a magnum opus, or at least a magnum. But dates can be deceiving. The Fate of Mice included some 20 years' worth of stories, and the buzz about Shelter goes back at least a decade (she says she's been working on it for 15 years, which dates its inception all the way back to 1992, the year Palwick's stunning debut novel Flying in Place appeared). Both her two earlier novels and her stories suggested that Palwick is a writer of considerable narrative economy, but Shelter is far more ambitious in its purview, covering more than two decades in the lives of two women in a mid-21st-century San Francisco which, having survived virulent plagues, terrorists, and environmental disasters, has evolved into a kind of social-welfare dystopia. "Excessive altruism" has been classified a mental disorder, "brainwiping" has become a widely accepted behavior for everything from criminal behavior to recalcitrant teens, and the local kindergarten is run by an insufferably patient AI who is modeled on Mister Rogers, but who -- before growing into a sympathetic character in his own right -- too often sounds like HAL the computer. For the most part, though, Palwick doesn't spend a great deal of time foregrounding her SF elements; the only real sense of the effect global warning has had on this world, for example, is a massive, hurricanelike storm that opens the novel, and the main evidence of terrorism is a particularly harrowing episode in which a character is dismembered by an army of reprogrammed service robots. There are debates about the morality of brainwipes and the legal status of AIs, there's a megacorporation selling the possibility of postmortem immortality on the web, there's an emergent Gaia religious movement, and there's a lot of other stuff, but at the center of the book are a deeply disturbed child and those two women, one of whom is his teacher and the other his adoptive mother.

The novel opens on an almost startling note of loss and mourning, as eight-year-old Roberta Danton, confined to an isolation ward during an outbreak of the virus known as CV, learns of her parents' death from the same disease and is befriended by the electronic presence of Preston Walford, a wealthy industrialist who is the first person to have himself posthumously uploaded to the web. Walford's own daughter Meredith, suffering from the same disease in the same hospital, won't talk to him after his "translation." When Roberta is cast into the foster-care system, Walford keeps in touch with her, but never offers her the kind of privilege that Meredith, another rare survivor of the disease, enjoys as a wealthy heiress. Decades later, Roberta is a social worker on probation for an unnamed crime, and a mutilated and exhausted Meredith shows up at her flooded apartment building, seeking shelter and hoping to be rescued by her husband Kevin. Meanwhile, Kevin himself has been killed during the storm, and a brainwiped homeless man named Henry has moved into his house at the invitation of the house's governing AI. Much of the rest of this quite formally structured novel is devoted to explaining who these people are, what happened to Meredith, what was Roberta's crime, and why everyone is coming together at this point in the tale.

The next two long sections of the novel, taking up nearly three-quarters of its length, tell that tale from Meredith's viewpoint and then from Roberta's, before returning to the present for a resolution which, while dramatically satisfying, isn't entirely convincing. But the story itself gains immense power, once it gets past a faltering start that devotes entirely too much time to Meredith's adolescence and residency in a Gaia temple. As the daughter of the founder of the conglomerate MacroCorp, Meredith is something of a celebrity kid, and she blames herself when a former lover -- now involved with a flake named Zephyr -- is kidnapped and meets a horrible death at the hands of anti-AI terrorists. Eventually she's drawn out of her funk by a teacher named Kevin, whom she marries. At her insistence, they adopt another CV-survivor child, Nicholas, and enroll him in that Mister-Rogers-haunted kindergarten where Roberta is now a teacher. But Nicholas is plagued by nightmares of monsters, which he tries to appease by sacificing (and mutilating) mice (Palwick is tough on mice). His only friends are Roberta, Fred the AI (after Fred Rogers), and a cat-friendly homeless man named Henry whom Meredith had encountered earlier while working at an animal shelter. Fearful that Nicholas' weird behavior will lead to his being brainwiped, Meredith inadvertently sets in motion a series of events that cause catastrophic harm to both Henry and Roberta and eventually to her husband Kevin.

So despite the richly textured but understated SF setting, despite the catalogs of grief and loneliness that would just give Thomas Hardy a glow, despite the reform-minded concern with social justice that would give other Victorian novelists a glow, the novel finally stands or falls entirely on character -- and here Palwick is firmly in her metier. While it's a bit risky to have so much of the narrative rest on the point of view of the relatively unsympathetic character Meredith, both she and the more courageous Roberta emerge as complex, conflicted figures caught in a system in which even the right actions can lead to disaster. The child Nicholas, whose troubles are never fully explained, is both heartbreaking and hopeless, and the main secondary characters are drawn with a depth of insight that's often brilliant: Preston, never quite certain of his own humanity as he navigates afterlife on the web; Henry, the victim of his own compassion; even the superannuated flower child Zephyr, insulated from the world by her collection of pet bots. In the end, Shelter is as much ghost story as SF -- Preston initially introduces himself as a ghost in the machine, and we later learn that the survivors of brainwiping are sometimes called ghosts. Toward the end, in a scene that must have been tough to write, Palwick has no less than three disembodied personalities talking through the voice of the intelligent house which is the novel's central image of shelter, and by now they're all distinct enough that it's like a family reunion. But even if that ending cues a few too many strings, it earns your respect. Shelter, almost certainly one of the major novels of the year, is a story about damage that wants desperately to believe in compassion, and it nearly gets you there.
As I said in yesterday's post, this is a really smart review: for one thing -- unlike the disastrous Publisher's Weekly review (which unfortunately is the one reprinted on Amazon!), it gets the foreground and background right. Nicholas, Meredith and Roberta are the center of the novel; all the socio-political stuff is background, albeit very important background. The PW reviewer read the book the other way around, and wound up cranky and confused as a result.

I'm particularly impressed by Wolfe's comparison to Victorian novelists, and not just because this book may strike contemporary readers (and has already struck some of them) as overblown and long-winded. I was working on my doctoral dissertation while I wrote Shelter, and since the diss was on 19th-century narrative, it makes sense that some of that would have bled through. As for Wolfe's opinion of where the book's overblown . . . well, I'm attached to the temple chapters and consider them crucial to setting up Meredith's character, but he may well be right that, to borrow Faulkner's famous dictum, these were darlings I should have slaughtered.

Re chronology: I turned in the manuscript of this book in late August, 2001 (although it will almost certainly be read as a post-9/11 novel), and finished the revisions my editor requested in 2003. The book's inception actually dates back to 1988, before I'd even started work on Flying in Place. Back then, I thought it was going to be a short story; if anyone had told me it would turn into a 576-page novel, I'd have run screaming in terror (which was what I wanted to do during much of the torturous writing process). On that note, I really hope this won't be my magnum opus, even if it retains its standing as my magnum!

Funniest line in the review: "Palwick's tough on mice." Ha! Good one!


  1. Have fun while you're here in Madison! If you need restaurant/pub recommendations, let me know - I've probably been to most of the best in town, and definitely most of the fun ethnic eateries. I always get breakfast on Saturdays at a French cafe near the Concourse, but there's a few other great places really to them, too......

  2. Deborah Roggie10:38 AM

    Susan, what a wonderful review! It's so satisfying when you find that someone really "gets" your work. I'm looking forward to seeing Shelter in the bookstore (and reading it, of course).

  3. You may be tough on mice in Shelter, I haven't read it yet but the description of action implies some rough times, but you weren't in the titular story in "The Fate of Mice."

    While I found myself wishing that Rodney had heard more about Margery Sharp's Rescuers series, Bernard would have been a great role model, I read the ending of that tale as decidedly upbeat.

    At least, it was upbeat if you consider the fragility of a mouse's existence a small price to pay for freedom. I thought "Fate" was a wonderful discussion of the importance of embracing life, even one fraught with uncertainty and danger, so long as one is free.

    As for the political criticisms of the Publisher's weekly review, I'll have to read your book before I really comment on their obsession/disagreement. One might imagine a good discussion might be how your narrative making "excessive altruism" a mental disorder could be viewed in light of Nietzsche's vision of the Last Men. But that is another discussion.

  4. Alexis -- You're in Madison? Any chance you'll be at WisCon? And sure, we'd love some restaurant recommendations! My husband's more of a foodie than I am, and I enticed him to the con largely by tellng him how much good food there is there -- but I'm sure you know more about it than I do.

    Deborah -- Thank you!

    Christian -- Actually, I agree with you about "The Fate of Mice." As for PW, I think their problems with the book (not that I'd claim it's perfect!) can be explained without recourse to Nietzsche. Trying to read the novel as an SF political thriller (the last way I'd describe it), they fastened on a relatively minor subplot and tried to read it as the main engine of the book. This resulted in very predictable bewilderment and disappointment.

    Shelter's "domestic SF," just as my other two novels are "domestic fantasy." All of them are, in one way or another, about relationships and family.

  5. I am, indeed, a Madisonian. Sadly, I always forget about WisCon until after the tickets are all gone.

    What kind of food would your husband most like to eat?

    you can always e-mail me (WestlinWnd at aol dot com) for a better exchange o' information.


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