Thursday, September 20, 2012

Caliban's War, by James S. A. Corey

I may not be the first to say this, but Corey's series The Expanse (and particularly this summer's installment Caliban's War) is the very definition of post-9/11 literature.

Of course, some obvious books are post-9/11 because they deal with the effects of that day directly (like Don DeLillo's Falling Man) or indirectly (like Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Caliban's War is a tougher book to pinpoint because it doesn't even mention the United States or twenty-first century terrorism, which it shouldn't, being set in the remote future and all. At the time of the book's events, there's too much recent history for an event in our present-day to bear much weight. It would be like you consciously dictating your life based on the Jamestown settlement. Of course, it affects our world today. But you're not thinking about how it does so.

I'm convinced, though, that if The Expanse were published twelve or fifteen years ago, it would have been a vastly different story -- or it wouldn't have received the attention it's getting now.

Up to World War II, conflict was simple: we understood nations like England and Germany. Even in Vietnam and with the Cold War, the threat might have been less bordered, but we could still call it Other, and in so doing we could perceive if not exactly understand it.

9/11 gave Americans our first taste of a threat we truly could not comprehend. Those who directly committed the acts against us were dead, so we could not bring them to justice. Whatever weight the conspiracy theories held, we could not begin to think that We, rather than Other, were culpable, so we dismiss them. We had to put faces on the threats in ways we could understand: individuals and nations. And, yes, as a nation we experienced catharsis when Osama bin Laden died. We breathed a little easier when Saddam Hussein was disposed and Iraq began following a different path, no matter what our individual beliefs about the war were.

But the real threat that 9/11 exposed was not bin Laden and it was not Iraq and it was not Afghanistan and it was not the Taliban. It wasn't even terrorism, not exactly, though we've tried our best to squeeze our hands around that wet sponge. The threat is one we don't know how to combat because we cannot comprehend it. Because of 9/11, we take our shoes off at the airport and we live under the constant and real possibility of indefinite detention. Those are the new facts, regardless of political beliefs or personal inclinations.

As humans, we feel the need to act when our survival-as-we-know-it is threatened. So we act, even if our actions are directed at the wrong source. Even if our actions are ineffective or counterproductive. We act, so that we feel like we stand a chance.

One definition of post-9/11 is the recognition that we may be acting against a bogeyman -- that we may not be willing to face or able to comprehend the threats to our existence because they are much more unrecognizable than Other. Or sometimes, the threats may be much more recognizable and closer to home than Other, which frightens us more than any foreign intrusion could. The key to survival in our worldview has become more than outgunning our enemies. It means either understanding that we may never understand the threats to our existence, or transferring those ghostly threats onto tangible avatars.

Those are our choices, and they play out in Caliban's War. I'm trying not to give spoilers to the book, for which you're welcome. But go read it, and then think about how your own understanding of the novel would have been different in August of 2001. (Then go brush up on The Tempest and see what you conclude about the title of the book. Corey ain't no dummy.)

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach

This book worked as one heck of a transition for me -- the last book I picked up while living in Ireland, the one I started while grounded in Europe, read the entire trans-Atlantic flight, and finished with my feet back on American turf. It was recommended by my favorite Irish bookseller (tip o' the brim to you, E) and it circles around my favorite sport. How could I go wrong?

I couldn't. The novel is fantastic -- one of those books that makes me happy to be a reader and a writer.

Part of my general motivation for writing is that I want to be a doer. The old adage goes that those who can, do, and those who can't, teach. I fear being "just" a teacher, especially an academic -- never mind that some of the most inspirational and impressive folks in my life have been teachers and scholars. The burning in my brains is to create, to contribute original material -- not to work with the creations of others.

I will never knock teachers (by which I mean those who teach, not necessarily always the same as those individuals hired by our schools and universities). The effort that true teachers put forth every day, even in those so-called summer vacations, shames many of the best of us. Thinking that they lack some essential trait of doing, though, is perhaps understandable. Teachers have to know the theory, the whats and the whys and the hows; but if they had the ability, wouldn't they be putting their talents into practice?

The Art of Fielding is full of this juxtaposition of teaching and doing. Its main characters are all doers (ballplayers and lovers) and teachers (academics and coaches). They are each defined by what they do and teach -- or fail to do and teach. Some of them struggle to harmonize their deep knowledge and understanding, and their yearning for more than their God-given portion of talent. (I think particularly of Schwartz, the baseball captain who sacrifices his own athletic and law-school goals to further the baseball career of his friend and teammate.)

The way I read the novel, what Schwartz realizes is that coaching is not a role to succumb to. Not when he's so good at it. Sure, some people who can't do teach. But the really good teachers? For them, that is doing. Teaching is as difficult to do well as playing baseball or writing a book or loving another human being. When teaching becomes more than the mere conveyance of information -- when it helps learners develop the framework to think and act on higher levels for themselves -- it requires a true set of abilities.

Those who can, do. And those who can, teach well.

(I almost wrote about the comparison of baseball to aikido. I'd never thought about it. But the way Harbach writes about baseball is often reminiscent of what little I understand of the gentle martial art. I've had baseball on the brain since I was seven. Anyone who can make me think of the game differently is doing something effectively.)