Novels that turn on scientific or technical breakthroughs

Spoilers ahead.

Andy Weir’s novel Artemis and Ann Patchett’s novel State of Wonder are different in many ways, but apart from being excellent they both share an unusual point: their plots are driven by technological breakthroughs. In Artemis, the breakthrough is a zero attenuation fiber optic cable; the acronym ZAFO appears early in the novel and remains opaque until about halfway through. The “Artemis” of the title refers to a near-future moon base that is in economic trouble: there is little economic reason for humans to inhabit the moon apart from tourism, which is insufficient to sustain the base. The novel posits, however, that a technical breakthrough could lead to a massive new industry. The moon base’s administrator says:

Just imagine what a revelation that was for O Palácio [a Brazilian crime syndicate or mafia group]. All of a sudden, their insignificant money-laundering company was poised to corner an emerging billion-dollar industry. From that point on, they were all in. But Artemis is very far away from Brazil, and they had only one enforcer on site, thank God.

This passage is characteristic of the novel in another way: it’s not very attentive to language. Perhaps the character speaking would say “All of a sudden,” instead of the correct “All of the sudden.” Artemis has a lot of the bad language habits that MFA programs, whatever their flaws, tend to help writers avoid or ameliorate.

In State of Wonder, Marina Singh goes deep into the Amazon jungle to find her former supervisor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who is continuing her own mentor’s research into a tribal group where the women have extended fertility. At the same time, Swenson is seeking an anti-malaria drug that may stem from the same source.

I’m trying to think of other novels that have a technical breakthrough at their core. Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon is one (the data haven at the end likely qualifies as a technical breakthrough). Yet I can think of few others. If you know any, please leave pointers in the comments. Perhaps more novelists should be thinking about how technological or scientific breakthroughs might power the plots of novels. Alternately, perhaps more novels do this than I realize, and I don’t have a good sense of other, similar novels that have been published.

Ian McEwan’s Solar is another one.

I can’t recall any 18th or 19th century novels that turn on technical breakthroughs.

Why we like characters who battle institutions

David Brin’s “Our Favorite Cliché: A World Filled With Idiots… or Why Film and Fiction Routinely Depict Society and its Citizens as Fools” is great, and you should read it. He observes that novels, TV shows, and movies routinely depict heroic individuals standing up to corrupt or evil institutions or organizations. This tendency is “a reflex shared by left and right” to associate villainy with organization. Moreover, “Even when they aren’t portrayed as evil, bureaucrats are stupid and public officials short-sighted.” Brin notes some exceptions (Contagion is another, and the link goes to an article titled “Bureaucratic Heroism”), but those exceptions are exceptionally exceptional.

Nonetheless, I’d like to posit a reason why institutions and organizations are often portrayed as evil: they behave in ways that are evil enough with shocking regularity, and few of us have the means or fortitude to resist broken, evil, or corrupt institutions. The most obvious and salient example, much taught in schools, is Nazi Germany; while some individuals fought against the state murder apparatus, the vast majority went along with it, leading pretty much everyone who learned afterwards about the Holocaust to ask, “What would I do in that situation?” Most of us want to think we’d be heroic resisters, but the push to conform is strong—as the Milgram Experiment and Philip Zimbardo’s research shows. The Soviet Union murdered tens of millions of its own citizens.

Other examples exist closer to home: the Civil Rights movement fought corrupt institutions in the U.S. All the President’s Men exposed criminal actions, cruelty, and simple mendacity at the heart of the White House. The Vietnma War got started based on the invented Gulf of Tonkin. More recently, the Bush Administration made up evidence (or incompetently accepted made-up evidence) to justify the Iraq War. On a smaller basis, many of us have gotten caught in various nasty government bureaucracies in schools, universities, or elsewhere. Here’s one example from Megan McArdle’s struggles with the DMV.

Brin observes:

Now imagine that your typical film director ever found herself in real trouble, or the novelist fell afoul of deadly peril. What would they do? They would dial 9-1-1! They’d call for help and expect — demand — swift-competent intervention by skilled professionals who are tax-paid, to deal with urgent matters skillfully and well.

He’s right. I called the cops when a random asshole pounded on my door and threatened to kill me. They did show up (albeit later than I would’ve hoped!) and did arrest the guy. I’m grateful to them and for the police in that circumstance. But a lot of us are less grateful to cops, as reading Alice Goffman’s amazing book On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Police as an institution have largely failed inner cities. Ask black people about their interactions with the police, and you’ll get a very different view of police than that of many white Americans.

So we may be getting stories of (exaggerated) institutional incompetence both due to history and due to everyday experience with institutions that (sometimes) don’t work well. Nonetheless it’s worthwhile for those of us who write stories to contemplate the truth of Brin’s observations about cliché on the level of plot, because we should try to be aware of our own dependence on cliché and to break that dependence whenever possible.

What makes interesting fiction: Stephenson edition

In his Salon interview,* Neal Stephenson says this about “the broader vision of what science fiction is about:”

[Science] Fiction [is fiction] that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it. You can write a minimalist short story that’s set in a trailer park or a Connecticut suburb that might be considered a literary masterpiece or well-regarded by literary types, but science fiction people wouldn’t find it very interesting unless it had somewhere in it a cool idea that would make them say, “That’s interesting. I never thought of that before.” If it’s got that, then science fiction people will embrace it and bring it into the big-tent view of science fiction. That’s really the role that science fiction has come to play in literature right now. In arty lit, it’s become uncool to try to come to grips with ideas per se.

The implied vacuousness of “arty lit” is clear and, more depressingly, accurate. It’s something a lot of people who like to read but who don’t care much for a lot of contemporary lit fic feel but don’t always articulate. It’s a tendency I’ve been been noticing in one form or another for years. It helps to account for why nonfiction may be winning the perceived quality race. A lot of highly praised fiction is, at bottom, boring, and about boring people.

Many self-consciously literary novelists and critics don’t seem to mind. So lit-fic books accumulate blurbs that make them sound like the next coming of Shakespeare when they’re actually about dull people leading dull lives, but with interesting language that is supposed to elevate dull people above their surroundings. Sometimes this works (Raymond Carver, Ulysses). More often it doesn’t, or, even if it works, who cares? Murder mysteries are popular for many reasons, but one may be that there’s automatically at stake. Per Megan McArdle:

Eventually I decided the truth is this: We watch so many crime dramas because there are no big stakes in middle-class American life. The criminal underworld is one place where decisions actually matter — and can be shown to matter, dramatically”).

Science fiction also tends to focus on encounters with aliens, threats to the human race, jarring technology changes, and so forth. The stakes are high. Literary fiction writers might want to take some cues from Stephenson and, strangely enough, TV.**


* Collected in Some Remarks, which is a way of collecting previously published pieces in one convenient place and turning them into money.

** Stephenson is also fond of novels with plot:

What I’m doing here is writing novels, and novels — never mind what anyone else might tell you — novels are pop entertainment, and they have to tell a story and they have to engage the emotions. There are a few basic tricks they use to do that. One is to tell a good yarn and the other is to make you feel empathy for the characters involved in the doings of that yarn, but you’ve got to have that yarn. That’s what I seize on first. That’s what gives me confidence that I’ve got a pony I can ride. Characters tend to come out of that, and ideas — I don’t know where they come from. The yarn that got me going on “Quicksilver” was Newton pursuing and prosecuting an archvillain in London at the same time as the dispute with Leibniz is at its peak.

What an unappealing book description looks like: Jean-Christophe Valtat's 03

In an essay about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s novella 03, James Wood writes that the work is an “eight-one-page monologue, written in one unbroken paragraph, about a teenage boy’s unrequited love for a mentally handicapped girl he sees every day at the bus stop […]”

Although I can’t give a complete theory of what makes a novel unappealing, I do know that Wood’s description of 03 has many elements I might include: very little probably happens in terms of narrative, if the story occurs chiefly a bus stop. A whole book composed of a “monologue” sounds unappealing: the dialogic aspects, to use Bakhtin’s conception, of novels makes them fun and gives their stories urgency as people’s desires collide. I want plot. And “one unbroken paragraph” reads to me suspiciously like a gimmick, and, beyond seeming like a gimmick, this would make the book hard to read. The title, 03, also has the whiff of a gimmick or of existentialism.

The short description Wood offers tells me one major thing: I don’t want to read this book. I would much rather read Wood writing about this book than the book itself; he offers insights that are probably more important, in this case, than the work he’s writing about, which is never a good sign for a novel.

Various writers have raised the rally cry against writers who engage in confusing postmodern game playing for its own sake: this, more or less, describes B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, Tom Wolfe’s “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast“, Lev Grossman’s “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” and, most recently, Justin Peacock’s “The New Social Novel,” which actually isn’t new, but I’m willing to spot him the adjective in this case. Although I wouldn’t endorse everything every writer says in each of these essays, I do think they point towards a general idea: give us novels of substance, although we don’t always know what we mean by novels of substance and can’t necessarily define them.

I’m guessing 03 isn’t one, however.

What an unappealing book description looks like: Jean-Christophe Valtat’s 03

In an essay about Jean-Christophe Valtat’s novella 03, James Wood writes that the work is an “eight-one-page monologue, written in one unbroken paragraph, about a teenage boy’s unrequited love for a mentally handicapped girl he sees every day at the bus stop […]”

Although I can’t give a complete theory of what makes a novel unappealing, I do know that Wood’s description of 03 has many elements I might include: very little probably happens in terms of narrative, if the story occurs chiefly a bus stop. A whole book composed of a “monologue” sounds unappealing: the dialogic aspects, to use Bakhtin’s conception, of novels makes them fun and gives their stories urgency as people’s desires collide. I want plot. And “one unbroken paragraph” reads to me suspiciously like a gimmick, and, beyond seeming like a gimmick, this would make the book hard to read. The title, 03, also has the whiff of a gimmick or of existentialism.

The short description Wood offers tells me one major thing: I don’t want to read this book. I would much rather read Wood writing about this book than the book itself; he offers insights that are probably more important, in this case, than the work he’s writing about, which is never a good sign for a novel.

Various writers have raised the rally cry against writers who engage in confusing postmodern game playing for its own sake: this, more or less, describes B.R. Myers’ A Reader’s Manifesto, Tom Wolfe’s “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast“, Lev Grossman’s “Good Books Don’t Have to Be Hard,” and, most recently, Justin Peacock’s “The New Social Novel,” which actually isn’t new, but I’m willing to spot him the adjective in this case. Although I wouldn’t endorse everything every writer says in each of these essays, I do think they point towards a general idea: give us novels of substance, although we don’t always know what we mean by novels of substance and can’t necessarily define them.

I’m guessing 03 isn’t one, however.

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