Adventure, Zombies, Tragic Love, and Chess
By James Schellenberg
22 September 2008
I've noticed that there's a hobby that consumes a great deal of time among science fiction and fantasy readers: policing genre lines. If "policing" is too strong a term, then it's "discussing at length" all the whys and wherefores of one particular definition of "genre" or another. This discussion, in all its permutations and claims of near-death and acclamations of some new sub-sub-subgenre, leaves me entirely cold. I like knowing, approximately, what I'm getting into before reading a book, which is a huge and practical upside to the idea of genre definitions, especially if I have a hankering for something specific. But in general the whole idea of defining genres and expecting other people to share those divisions is . . . boring to me. I agree that there's a general consensus when someone says science fiction, and most people can point to a thing, like Tolkien, and say if it is fantasy. I'm fine with such broad constructions, useful as they are; all the same, I'm not going to argue about an edge case or if so-and-so has broken with orthodoxy or is treating the canon with respect. Get me to the good stuff and let other people worry about which label goes where.
This in mind, it was with no small amount of horror that I recently encountered a few titles that made me wonder about genre strategies and how they might be applied in a book that is more of a literary nature. I say "literary nature" very hesitantly. To say what I'm referring to more precisely: books that have somehow accrued the reputation of "mainstream respectability" despite using genre tricks. And by genre tricks, I mean techniques that are generally regarded as rooted in a tradition of a genre. Already I'm wading way deeper into the swamp than I'm ordinarily comfortable with.
The only thing I've said definitively so far is that I hate trying to make these kinds of definitions. So allow me to jump straight into the works at hand and see what I can make of this mess.
Life of Pi
Life of Pi by Yann Martel is a successful novel from 2001, winner of the Booker Prize and a handful of prizes in Martel's home country of Canada. It's been one of my favorites since I picked up; I had heard endless hype about the book before reading it, and I still enjoyed it despite the insistent buzz, which says a lot in its favor. For me, a key strength of the book is in the endlessly smooth writing; Martel makes it look easy, when in fact the book is an unusual feat. In science fiction terms, I would have to reference Ted Chiang, who could make the construction of the Tower of Babel seem fascinating. Like Chiang, Martel can hook the reader on abstruse topics, educate about that odd item while staying thoroughly entertaining, all in a glossy package.
In the case of Life of Pi, that package of odd knowledge includes zookeeping and a boy who follows several religions at once. The title character, Pi Patel, is growing up in Pondicherry in the 1970s, and there are two main things going on in his life: his father is a zookeeper, and he is fascinated by religion. The first third of the book tells of zookeeping life, and life in a multi-religious city, and this section never flags or becomes anything less than fascinating. I'll always remember Pi's comparison of running a zoo to running a hotel with a gang of perverts for guests, guests who never leave and never clean up after themselves.
In the main section of the book, Pi's father decides to move to Canada and their family goes on the same freight ship that is bringing many of the zoo's animals to their new homes in zoos in North America. This is the most famous section of the book, since a shipwreck is shortly followed by Pi getting stranded on a life raft with a tiger. Life of Pi becomes an extraordinarily vivid adventure novel at this point. Martel clearly gets it with regard to the adventure material, since it's compelling both for gruesome bits (which I especially liked for some reason) and the way that it is all still told in a smooth, smooth tone. For example, a zebra is getting eaten from the inside out, literally, by a hyena since the predator has fallen into the mess of intestines; when the zebra coughs up some blood, of course it goes over the edge of the life raft, attracting sharks. The initial section of the book has a clear payoff here, since Pi is one of the very few people in the world capable of surviving on a raft with a tiger, due to his zookeeping roots. He knows the theory of taming a tiger, but can he actually put it into practice?
Martel wraps up the book with a third section, about as short as the first section, but it's not one I particularly admire. Basically, Martel goes meta. I have come to sincerely despise meta-fictional items; if we're all pretending that this is a story, why pester me with this broken-fourth-wall idiocy? It didn't help matters that the example that I ran across most recently was in Atonement, a book which was by turns tedious, offensive, and supremely annoying. At least Martel makes his segment less jarring: Pi Patel is in a Mexican hospital, recuperating from his ordeal, and two agents of the Japanese company that is investigating the loss of the cargo ship have come to ask him about the events at sea. He tells the version that we just read, but the two men are frankly disbelieving. Then Pi supplies a slightly more believable (yet still fairly gruesome) version. You mean I just read your damn book and it was all bogus? I dunno, I think meta has a reputation as something sophisticated and interesting (at least it did; I'm a few years away from academia), but I find the long tradition of storytelling, accepting premises, using our imagination, and so on all down the line, much more elegant. The suspension of disbelief has been around for a while, but it's no less powerful for all that. If Pi disavows the tiger-related version of events, then the adventure portions disappear; it's as if Martel wants it both ways, and that's hugely disappointing to me. I was perfectly happy with the tiger version! Would the book have gotten the same acclaim if all of the genre elements hadn't been thrown into doubt? I would like to think so, but again, I'm enormously fond of both the set-up (zookeeping, Pi as a profoundly philosophical boy) and the pay-off (taming a tiger, being thrown deeply into oneself in a survival situation). The meta, not so much.
I still love the book, but it gets mixed marks from me on the way it doesn't fully commit to its genre roots.
Time Traveler's Wife
Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife came out in 2003, made quite a splash, and has done well in the years since. It's the story of a young man named Henry who has become unstuck in time. That's a plot idea lifted almost directly from Kurt Vonnegut, but Niffenegger puts her own stamp on the idea. For me, The Time Traveler's Wife oscillates directly between science fiction and romance with the scarcely a hint of mainstreaminess, which makes Niffenegger's accomplishment—convincing everyone that her book is a respectable novel—all the more entertaining.
From the romance angle, the science fiction bits are simply a novel way of supplying that basic bit of plot mechanic essential to romances: the obstruction between two lovers. Romeo and Juliet had bickering families; who knows what their relationship would have been like if they had been able to get together immediately, but their feuding relatives made that impossible. Wall-E wants to be with Eve, but she's a different type of robot and then she gets taken away from him altogether by her masters. In the case of The Time Traveler's Wife, Henry and his true love Clare have an unsteady grip on chronological continuity. Rather than being able to build a relationship, they are always recalibrating, figuring out where they are at, and facing life's trials with uneven strength. It's classic romance and you could theoretically read it at that level.
Unfortunately, it doesn't quite work that way in practice, since the book is pretty hardcore about its use of time paradoxes. You can't make your way through the book and skim the science-fiction elements and still expect to make heads or tails of the rest of it. Niffenegger doesn't use some Back to the Future-style lite version of time travel, this is the hardcore stuff. Fate, causality, time loops, it's all done in extraordinary detail. And as far as I can tell, Niffenegger never slips up, which is unusual for a time travel story. She chooses to go with the version you don't see in the movies very often: fate is fate, the events have always already happened, tragic moments are inevitable, and if you think about it too much, it can weigh heavily on your mind. It's like the Terminator movies without the hope of averting apocalypse in the second movie.
This is tragic love, and I think that the science fiction side of things fares much better in the exchange of genre ideas than the romance. If you take away Henry and Clare's romance and all of the tragic moments, the book becomes an intellectual exercise with no heft to it, no memorableness. In this sense, The Time Traveler's Wife strikes me as a much superior version of The Man Who Folded Himself, a book which went further with the time travel variations but had no core of humanity to it.
The Time Traveler's Wife has an attribute that might be one way in which a "mainstream" version of a genre story might be different than its genre cousin: a notable lack of agency. The root of the time travel story, in its modern SF incarnation, is H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. It's a story of a scientist, mad or otherwise, taking control of time itself, grappling with the powers of the universe in a manly way. Similarly, time travel is achieved in The Man Who Folded Himself by way of a time belt. Niffenegger's Henry has no control over his jaunts through time. Ironically, there's a similarity to where these three books end up, thematically speaking: the ordinary human is a small, helpless thing in comparison to the universe and to fate.
The lack of agency is not as clear-cut in Life of Pi. Yes, Pi survives, but his grand plans to take control of his own fate otherwise come to naught. Suffering at the hands of natural catastrophe, i.e. survival, forms a huge part of the typical/old-school adventure. Pi works day and night to survive, so let's give him at least that much credit. Henry works just as hard to "fix" himself, but he always knows that his fate is already set.
World War Z
Now I'd like to talk, more briefly, about two books that exist in the same uneasy relationship with genre, but that didn't make as favorable an impression on me. The first is World War Z by Max Brooks. The subtitle of the book gives the game away: An Oral History of the Zombie War. Brooks' book consists of a series of vignettes that cover the world, skipping from one character to another, averaging about a dozen pages per segment.
World War Z is an odd case, since I could hardly put the book down, but when people asked me about it later, I refused to recommend it. The book answers a lot of complaints about the narrow focus of most zombie stories, but it takes that intense identification of a protagonist in survival horror movies or videogames, and blasts it out way too far on the global scale. No character gets more than a handful of pages; while the overall storyline is clear—humanity nearly gets wiped out, recovers slowly but steadily—there's no human through-line, nothing for my story-addled brain to grab onto and run with.
Brooks is playing with horror tropes here, and horror is a much different beast than science fiction or fantasy. For one thing, lack of agency on the part of the protagonists is a feature not a bug in this genre, by which I mean that one of the key ways that horror operates is to take away human volition. Your soul has been possessed by the devil and there's nothing you can do about it, for example. In World War Z, the author seems to be treating the zombie onslaught as more of a natural catastrophe than something that operates in a typical storytelling scale.
All told, the book is more of an interesting experiment than a successful work.
The Yiddish Policeman's Union
I'll close with a few thoughts about Michael Chabon's successful alternate history/mystery novel—the chess of my title, since that game is central to the main mystery of the book. Chabon has raked in the honors with The Yiddish Policeman's Union, including both the Nebula and Hugo Awards for best novel, which puts it in a central spot in the genre, along with such dual-award winners as Ender's Game and The Left Hand of Darkness.
The book is essentially a blind spot for me, since I can't grasp the appeal. It's no great shakes as a detective novel, and the alternate history side is pretty bland. Unlike The Time Traveler's Wife, where the romance and science fiction elements are fused beyond retrieval, the different sides of The Yiddish Policeman's Union don't have a close relationship. It could come apart easily and never go back in the same way unless forced. Niffenegger makes that kind of fusion look easy, while Chabon seems to be toiling away mightily. All of his efforts are obvious on the page.
I'm weirdly low on anything to say about this book. For some reason, I just don't get it. Perhaps that's one of the perils of mixing and matching elements from outside of their "proscribed" or traditional realms . . . you might end up with something unrecognizable to someone who would otherwise become a fan.
So, as promised, I haven't solved the puzzle of genre definitively. My overall summary of these four books would come down to this: messing about with broad genre constructions is not an easy task. It's a worthy challenge, but be prepared for disappointment. The most successful of the four in this batch, The Time Traveler's Wife, was clearly a labor of love, and Niffenegger is not a prolific writer. I wouldn't expect her to be, in the face of such an accomplishment.