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Lunar New Year Reads, Book 28: The X President

Book #28: The X President, by Philip Baruth.

You know, I’m crazy about time travel novels. There was a time when I hated them. No, wait, I despised and reviled them. And then I saw what Connie Willis did with the genre, in works like The Doomsday Book, and To Say Nothing of the Dog, and Fire Watch, and I changed my mind. Time travel stories, I decided, could be damned fine reading. It’s important I note that, before I discuss my dissatisfactions with this book, along with the things I liked.

And you know, I like SF that has no compunctions about being well-written. A (sorta-)recent rant by John Scalzi was responded to by Elizabeth Bear in the form of another rant, and it’s that rant which is pertinent here.

Like Scalzi, she addresses the myth of an SF monoculture by noting that it simply doesn’t exist. One of the myths she addresses is the “Big Ideas Over Character” (and everything else) myth. She points out that this is a toxic habit, because

in its reliance on idea over character, over theme, over plot, over prosody, SF basically condemns itself to the ghetto of fiction-about-ideas, and then has the nerve to look shocked when people say “but it kind of sucks.” Whereas I prefer to think of it as something bigger–and more challenging, alas. Which is to say, what I’m striving for is fiction.

Which also, mind you, has ideas. And preferably really, really shiny ideas. Which I think probably makes it harder than literary fiction, since at that point it’s an ape in a dress, and man, getting an ape into a dress is one thing, but getting that ape to look good in the dress is another entirely.

But she also notes that the best Big-Ideas SF also tend to transcend genre in the very way that SFs biggest Ideas-Uber-Alles apologists seem to fail to do. 1984 wasn’t chock-a-block with new ideas… but it hit you where it hurts, and it still does, in many ways.

And like Scalzi, I won’t condemn Charles Stross. I picked up a novel of his in Canada and believe me, it’s high on my to-read list. But I also like Adam Roberts, and from the one novel of his that I read (Salt) it was quite obvious he was much more about character, narrative, mood, and meaning than just about Big Ideas. And at the same time, I’ve read almost everything Greg Egan’s ever published, and he is a Big Ideas Monster. But then again again, the most moving SF novel I’ve ever read was Maureen McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang, and that was most definitely not Big Ideas fiction.

So what I’m saying here is that I’m totally cool with authors who transcend the SF boundary, who write SF in a literary mode (as I am working at doing), and who don’t slot themselves into a Big Ideas Rule mode. In fact, I tend to prefer those authors. I don’t understand people who read Asimov and then say, “Yeah, but… the Ideas, man, the Big Ideas.” I’m sorry, but I think you need to have read Asimov as a kid to really believe that when you say it. I tried to read the Foundation trilogy, and I couldn’t force myself through it. Hell, I’ve had it on the shelf here in Korea for nearly four years—and here in Jeonju, goodness knows, one at least sometimes finds oneself in a position to read just about anything available in English—but I still haven’t read the series. I can’t make myself do it.

I’m saying all this to qualify something else I have to say, which is that I kind of agree that the book was a disappointment, in a way I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s not because the tech isn’t central, or because the theories about time travel’s capacity to affect the future (the traveler’s home present).

Perhaps it’s just because I’m not American. It might be hard to muster fascination with an American president, even one whose Presidency I have to admit was much better than what came before, or, certainly, what came after (which was more of the same but more badly performed). I just don’t really care that much about Bill Clinton. I don’t think any minor decision he might have been induced to change along the way could have prevented the future America of the novel.

Now, that future America, as little as we see of it, is a fascinating thing. The snippets we glimpse of a Multiple-World-Wars-torn state, of a desperate populace, a drug-using and in many ways depraved society suffering the consequences of mistakes that didn’t even look like mistakes at the time, that was fascinating. Some of the best writing-about-the-future in this novel comes when the characters from 2055 try to express what America is to them, to a young man from the 1960s who will someday be the President.

But the most striking moment is a throwaway moment. Imagine the death of Timothy McVeigh. No Oklahoma bombing. No rising survivalist-separatist regime (which figures largely in Baruth’s imagined future). I know, I know… a novel could not be written about the assassination of Timothy McVeigh; people have written the “kill Hitler and prevent the Holocaust” novel too many times for anything remotely like it to work, right? Still, the glimpse of that moment comes, and then is fled at high speed. It felt, in that moment where the narrator, Sal, flees the scene of McVeigh’s trans-temporal assassination, as if it was also Baruth “fleeing” the consequences of this event.

I like that we don’t see the eventual outcome of the whole operation. I like the way the story ends, too; but there’s something about it, something I can’t quite put my finger on, which doesn’t quite work for me.

And I’m going to hazard a guess, because I feel a vaguely similar resonance with another big “crossover” SF novel: The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.

It’s not that the dystopia Atwood wrote wasn’t, you know, plausible for an extremely near-future setting. It’s not that I didn’t “get” the feminist commentary. It’s not that I don’t like Atwood in general—I didn’t discover that until years after I’d finished The Handmaid’s Tale. No, the reason I didn’t like the novel was because… well, for lack of a better metaphor, Atwood was going through the motions, like Offred on the Commander’s bed. She didn’t really enjoy the SFness of it; that was all just trappings, it was all just stuff to prop up a “new” and “radical” and “more forceful” way of getting her message across.

Which is about as plausible as, say, me deciding I’m going to address the issue of violence and silencing in contemporary society by, say, uh, writing… crime fiction! You know who ought to write crime fiction? People who love crime fiction. People who read it like mad, who adore it, who know the canon and love the canon, whatever it is for them. Not people who want to put on the trappings of the genre, for the sake of, well, uh, I don’t know. Some kind of faux-polymath reputation. Reading The Handmaid’s Tale, I get the very distinct impression that Margaret Atwood considers “real SF” beneath her; not that she knows what kind of diversity there is to be found in real SF, or that she actually loves the genre. Because, you see, the genre is something you interact with. It’s like a ballroom dance partner, and some of the moves you make, they’r made with that partner. It’s hard to understand why people choose a dance partner they really don’t care for, but when you see it, you can just kind of tell. It’s like watching people write about characters they just don’t like or care about, and it is worst when the author is not skilled at hiding her disdain.

Not that I’d accuse Baruth of this. But for some strange reason, Baruth, like Adam Roberts, feels like someone who comes to SF from the outside. And it would take one to know one: I’d been writing for years, in other genres like fantasy and horror and “serious fiction” and verse, before I discovered that SF was the one kind of writing that really turned me on. But what I feel in common with Roberts is a determination to internalize the genre, to really understand it and speak its language like a native speaker. I don’t feel the same bristling determination from Baruth. In some ways, he feels like a tourist in my adopted hometown, and even if he’s learned a few words in the local language, his consulting his phrasebook occasionally is a little too apparent to me. Far worse is Atwood, who sneers when addressed in the local language and pronounces everything wrong on purpose, but I still don’t feel fully comfortable with Baruth. I feel the strange urge to ask, “So, how long have you been in my country? When do you plan to go home?”

And maybe it’s unfair of me, but, well, it’s my gut reaction, and I don’t think I can see my way to apologizing for it.

Still, the funny thing is, the book is a bit like Clinton. I dunno, it has a kind of charm that overcomes its weaknesses, or at least well enough that you like it, and you ardently want to like it, and that’s why I wouldn’t push my friends to read it, but if someone asked about it, I’d definitely say it’s enjoyable. It’s just not, I suppose, canonical material within, or outside of, the SF genre. More’s the pity. Which is to say, bottom line, it’s pretty good, but it didn’t blow me away.

But it was a page-turner. I think, if it’s true that every book has some lesson to offer the aspiring writer, the lesson I take from this is not a negative one, but rather the necessity of withholding information, and of making your plot twists really twisty.

Here’s a review that, of the several I found online, I think was closest to the mark, one from the Vermont Cynic.

And by the way, I’d love to subscribe to any newspaper that billed itself on cynicism. Definitely. The Vermont CYNIC? Cool. Ah, but of course… it’s a student newspaper.

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