Sunday, January 09, 2005

A Bootstrapped World: David Stahler Jr, Truesight (New York: Eos Harper Collins, 2004).

It's always harder to talk about a book that one really likes so it's taken me a couple of days to get my thoughts together about this one. There are issues about the way in which Stahler handles reader position, information retrieval and the overlap between growing as a child and learning something new that I found fascinating. This was a book which overcame enough of the problems which seem to bedevill the YA field that I could begin to pay attention to how the book was written as much as what it was about.

David Stahler's Truesight is set on the planet of Nova Campi. Here, two colonies have been established, one "normal" in that it appears to have no purpose other than to settle and make lives, and the other Utopian. The Utopian colony consists of people who are born blind through deliberate genetic intervention. A hundred or more years before, blind couples had begun to choose elective blindness for their children in order that their children might share their world (in the real world, this is currently an issue among the deaf community for whom the recognition of Sign as a real language and culture is an issue, see Forbidden Signs by Douglas Baynton). By the time the story begins, a movement has emerged of Blinders, people who beieve that to be blind is to find greater inner sight, and the colony is part of this religious impetus.

The first thing I liked is that the way in which this Utopian community is flawed are realistic. Several generations on, hierarchies are emerging. The colony elders choose what children should become, and this is decided as much by the status of the parents as it is by the child's aptitude. There is a hint that marriages are under the influence of the elders and that this influence is getting stronger. Food rationing too, is becoming vulnerable to entrenched hierarchies. Stahler does a very good job of demonstrating that this is not precisely corruption in that it becomes rationalised in an ideology that some responsibilities are more onerous than others. Communitarianism is breaking down.

An adult reader of Truesight will inevitably come to this book with memories of John Varley's astonishing 1978 story, "The Persistence of Vision" ( SF & F 1978) and there are likenesses. This is a world in which sound is minimized because sound is so important and precious a navigational and identificational tool. Everyone carries "sounders" and people move in a susurrus of notes in which the sounders chime on approach. Someone's sounder becomes intimately identified with them. Similarly, there is a very strong emphasis on everything being in its place: the idea that social conformity is necessary for public safety is here made dramatically immediate.

Where I did have problems was Stahler's limited sense of what the Blind could achieve. This community is almost entirely agrarian, children leave school at 13 and all technology is dealt with by outsiders. The colony relies on a computer and robot of some kind for medical attention and many other aspects of life. This could have been justified by ideology but isn't, and seems instead to be justified physical limitations which technology could have solved. I also thought it a little odd that guide dogs were no longer in use, although the Perpetual Mousetrap was breeding happily to keep the vermin down.

But back to the story: Jacob, child of a musician and a farmer, begins to see. At first he experiences painful headaches and flashes of light, then he begins to perceive colours and eventually can full sight. Stahler does a pretty good job of making this work although he does dodge around the issue (which he mentions) that those to whom sight was restored in the old days couldn't always process what they saw. Jacob comes to identify colours without it being clear how given that this is a community for whom any reference to what something looks like has become an obscenity.

What made all of this acceptable and interesting was how Stahler proceeds next. Jacob realises that sight is showing him things he didn't even realise he needed to know. Sight does not just tell him the world is beautiful, it shows him that the world is complex: facial expressions which don't match the words being said; fruit pickers eating a rationed crop; exhaustion and starvation and social inequality written on the body. Jacob does not become dissatisfied because he can see, he becomes unhappy because what he sees forces him to reassess what he believes. One of the points that impressed me most, is that Jacob comes to see how the lack of sight has isolated people and made them vulnerable to manipulation. Although Stahler cannot resist revealing real corruption--the leader of the colony may actually be sighted--the heart of the story remains with Jacob growing into an analytical adult. There is no great self-realisation here, but an application of his intellect to the world around him--the outbound trajectory I (personally) believe is important to sf.

Truesight is the first of a trilogy--something I always find a bit worrying, but so far, so good. It clearly works as adventure, it seems to fit my idea that sf should be about asking questions, and refusing to take things for granted, it doesn't rely on coincidence, fate or stupidity more than it has to, and it explains the relative quiescence of the population. There are some issues though about how the book is written. These aren't absolutely YA issues, but I've noticed that they crop up more commonly in YA and children's sf than in modern adult sf.

David Stahler cannot bring himself to trust the reader.

The craft of cognitive dissonance aims to create an immersion so complete that the reader takes the created world for granted as real, accepting that--like the real world--there may be things not understood. This is never easy to achieve. At its best, the author explains nothing and you can end up with a Cordwainer Smith like text (I am a big fan by the way) in which one can spend years trying to work out what the hell happened and what the world looked like. At its weakest, the author cannot resist explaining things, of the "Joe turned to Jill, 'Yes Jill, in today's society we all have plastic cards which we insert into slots in the wall which read the numbers, and contact our bank through wires to work out if we have money.'" variety.

The opening of Truesight comes perilously close to my parody. Instead of beginning with Jacob, and trusting us to work out from Jacob's movements what the world is like, we begin from the perspective of two outside technicians who describe the world to us. It's a real shame. If you skip the prologue and start at chapter one, Stahler provides the delicious sense of immersion in somewhere strange, and you are already on an independent intellectual adventure. If you start with the Prologue you'll feel you're on a school trip.

The reason I think this is a YA/children's literature issue, is that I see it a lot in sf for young people. The assumption is that because the young don't know much, it has to be laid out for them. But--as I've written elsewhere--children move continually through a world that is both familiar and strange to them, and they negotiate most of it without much explanation: they are biologically programmed to deal with the strange (the linguistic term is "bootstrapping" which I think Heinlein would have liked). If anything, it is when we grow into adulthood that we often lose this ability, something Diana Wynne Jones has remarked on in an interview. Children may be more able to cope with the demands of sf, than are adults coming late to the field. I'd like to see writers take that on board, and most of the time, Stahler does.


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Kind of ironic, isn't it. Adults, who are losing the ability to learn and adapt, assume that children won't be able to do so, even though learning and adapting is what childhood is all about.

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