What I've Been Reading
The Ice Trilogy, by Vladimir Sorokin
The Ice trilogy by Vladimir Sorokin comprises the novels Bro, Ice, and 23,000. Coming off Malice and Roseneath I didn’t want to tackle anything long yet and figured I’d cut out after Bro. But I got into it, and I got hooked, and I kept going, and now I’m done, and in retrospect I wish I had put the brakes on after the first book? But also maybe it’s good I got it all done in one go. Either way, the whole thing bothered me.
The series establishes a mythology in which, billions of years ago, there were 23,000 beings made of light, and they were floating around the universe creating lifeless worlds that existed in perfect harmony with the cosmic order. Then they accidentally created a world that had water on it. Whoops! Water gave rise to life, and life was chaos and bad, and when the light looked into the water, they saw themselves reflected back at themselves, and they all immediately became trapped inside mortal, physical beings.
For all that, the story starts off small, as the bildungsroman of a young boy coming of age during the Russian Revolution who soon after joins a scientific expedition to locate the hypothetical meteor at the heart of the 1908 Tunguska event. Our narrator, who, as it so happens, was born at the exact moment of the Tunguska event, finds a mountain of magic space ice lodged in the permafrost; it awakens him to his true nature, and sets him on the path of locating his other 22,999 brothers and sisters of light, so that they can all join together and recite the 23 magic words that will return them to the cosmos and destroy the Earth.
Writing this reminds me why the first book hooked me. The rise of the Brotherhood of Light as a strata of the structures of early Communist Russia and Nazi Germany is compelling, and their misanthropist view of humanity is something to behold, in doses. I stayed with it into the second book, when the story jumps from the first’s sacred/religious tones into the more profane territory of the early 21st Century, describing the awakenings of three individuals via an extremist sect of the Brotherhood that acts like a crime syndicate. This is great fun, and I craved more of that contrasty tonal-shift energy going forward.
Instead, tiring repetitiveness sapped my enthusiasm. The stories felt interchangeable, the details felt aimless, and the ending felt unsatisfying, either because I’d lost my patience, or because there really wasn’t much there, there.
Yet I’m curious enough to want to read something else by Sorokin, in the hopes additional context might help. And while I’m not tempted to push this book at you, I wouldn’t knock it out of your hands if I saw you take it off the shelf at the bookstore. I’d like to have someone who loved these books clarify what I missed so I could appreciate them better.
Simulacron-3, by Daniel F. Galouye
A while back, E. and I fell deep into a Criterion Channel collection of ’70s science fiction movies, fun stuff like Rollerball and Logan’s Run and Demon Seed and No Blade of Grass. Turns out a lot of those movies were based on books that I did not know existed. Since then, I’ve thought it would be fun to do a whole movie-and-book club around that idea, comparing movies everyone knows about with their lesser-known source texts. But we’re adults, and it’s impossible to do things, so I’ve never done it.
Recently we watched World on a Wire, a four hour made-for-TV Rainer Werner Fassbinder movie from 1973. It’s about virtual reality. The sets are full of mirrors. I loved it. Afterward, paging through the trivia, I learned the movie was based on the book Simulacron-3 by Daniel F. Galouye, which was originally published in 1964, and is credited as “the birth of cyberpunk.”
Fastest. Bookshop order. Ever.
The movie is generally faithful to the book; they’re worth experiencing in tandem. The movie is a stylistic wonder with some unique, wild story beats. The book clarified a lot of second-tier plot that felt murky for me on screen, probably because I was too busy lusting over the set design.
We live in a post-rebooted-Matrix world, so it’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that Simulacron-3 is about people creating virtual realities who themselves maybe also exist in a simulated reality. Which is great and also, unexpectedly, not the thread of the book I fell in love with. What captured my attention was the motivation behind the creation of these simulated worlds: market research.
Wait, I promise, this is awesome.
Our main character, Douglas Hall, exists in a world where “reaction monitors” have a mandate to gather opinions from common people, who are required to provide their opinions about whatever and everything, lest they be forced to pay punitive fines. Hall works for an organization developing “simulectric” systems designed to replicate reality and cut out the middle-man, so to speak; by loading up a computer with fully realized AIs, they can model human behavior and gather that data without the need for reaction monitors, improving the efficiency of the consumer goods industry. Shadier figures, of course, want to use this technology to manipulate society so they can claim power by installing a fascist single-party system of domination.
Except…we’re the AIs.
Wait…did I say this was awesome? I meant terrifying.
I know, I know the history of literature is riddled with unheeded alarm calls and that “cyberpunk was a warning, not an aspiration.” But, like. Dude saw this coming in ’64.
Anyways, great movie, great book.
Here’s a good take on the Ice trilogy that basically mirrors mine with additional detail, including context about Sorokin himself.
In my “stuff I’m looking forward to in 2022” list from last time, I left one out: Dalkey Archive Press is coming back! And they’re re-releasing Miss MacIntosh, My Darling by Marguerite Young. If you know about this book, you know it’s impossible to find. Knowing we’ll be able to own it this year without committing ritual sacrifice is great news. If you don’t know about Miss MacIntosh: it was published in 1965, it was written by a woman, it’s one of the longest novels ever written, and it sounds exhausting. I’m stoked.
I learned about Miss MacIntosh because, a couple years ago, I read Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, a novel that contains the most compelling 1000-page sentence you’re likely to encounter in this reality. The fact that I still think about this book, the fact that its rhythms live rent-free in my brain, the fact that I sincerely think about rereading it several times a year. It’s great. Last year I listened to the 2 Month Review podcast’s read-along about Ducks. At some point, they mentioned Miss MacIntosh as a potentially interesting precursor novel, and it’s been worming around in my mind ever since. The podcast was a lot of fun, and even though they talk smack about Ohio, I’m thinking about reading other books they’ve covered, just so I can listen along again.
I’m not getting into detail because I am lazy and am not going to re-read an 800 page history text for research purposes, but the Simulacron-3 stuff got me thinking, as many things do now, about the great These Truths by Jill Lepore, and how one of her arguments was about how the relationship between opinion polling and technology were direct throughlines of the 20th century that lead us almost inexorably toward our contemporary hell-scape. So I’m hazy on the specifics but feel comfortable saying that Galouye was clearly reading the room, early and accurately.
Not to brag or anything, but…I’ve recently been noticed. Specifically, Bookshop.org noticed that I’m a “frequent customer.” Which, okay, that’s sort of like the Great Pyramids or the Grand Canyon: you could notice it from space. Still, they recently recognized my mildly-unhealthy-don’t-worry-about-it spending habits, and invited me to beta-preview their fancy updated checkout system. I mean…I’m morally obligated to take it for a test drive, right? Wasn’t I saying I needed some fresh sci-fi on the TBR pile? Right? Yeah? Anyways! It’s slick. Two thumbs up! Go buy some books. Keep them in business, so I don’t have to do it single-handedly.
E. and I finally watched Tenet. Little indie film, you may have heard of it? I went into it with low expectations, because I caught the general vibe that it didn’t make any sense, and because Christopher Nolan was such a dick about the theatrical release. But I loved it. It’s really just a James Bond popcorn flick; the IMDB trivia makes that much clear. The villain’s chosen weapon of global domination just happens to be extremely heady. So, sure, there were a couple times I could have used a corkboard, but I didn’t need total comprehension to enjoy the ride. Five stars! Tempted to watch it again in reverse. I bet it syncs up with Dark Side of the Moon.
On the other hand, we also recently watched She Dies Tomorrow. Which is the most truly annoyed I’ve been with a movie in ages. For context, check the critic/audience split on Rotten Tomatoes. Not to come off as some kind of reverse snob here, but, uh, hey, critics…huh? Y’all okay?