Sunday, August 31, 2008

Kim Stanley Robinson: A Short, Sharp Shock

Kim Stanley Robinson's A Short, Sharp Shock is a vague, meandering fantasy in which nothing interesting or consequential happens. Someone washes up on a shore and can't remember who he is or where he came from. A woman is also there in the surf, and when they are separated, he spends the rest of the book looking for her and then traveling with or passing time with her. The local terrain is an unending peninsula that apparently circles the world, providing an obvious opportunity for a trek. Thel (the name finally bestowed on the non-hero in the fourth chapter) wanders on his one-dimensional quest, encountering various bizarre groups with indecipherable goals and practices. Some of them chase him, some of them welcome him, some of them let him live peacefully with them. Thel doesn't spend any time trying to figure out who he was, or how he got here, or what his current situation means. Sometimes he's driven by events or pursuers on long sub-quests to find his companion again (who remains unnamed, and is merely "the swimmer" throughout the book). Other times, he spends long interludes in indolence or indulgence either with his swimmer or with someone else.

I've read other books in which nothing happens, but in the good ones someone learns or grows or at least strives. Sometimes the viewpoint character does none of these, but the reader is at least entertained because interesting things happen nearby, and the way these events affect or don't affect the protagonist is compelling. There was none of that in this book. Thel journeys, waits, searches, suffers, encounters, and debauches; all without learning, growing, or caring for anything beyond self-preservation and a drive to be with the person he first noticed next to him. This passage, near the end of the book seemed particularly apt. Thel has found a coin in the surf bearing a profile like the swimmer's.

"Were you ever the queen of an ancient kingdom?"

"Yes," she muttered sleepily. "And I still am."

But this, he supposed, was another of their misunderstandings. Thel had first noticed this phenomenon when he had seen a windhover, hunting over the meadows inland. "Look," he had said, "a kestrel." But the swimmer had thought him crazy for pointing into the sky, for that to her was the name of a kind of fish. And later he found that when he said loyalty she understood it to mean stubbornness, and when she said arbitrary she meant beautiful, and that when she said melancholy she did not mean that sadness we enjoy feeling, but rather mendacity; and when she said actually she meant currently; and when he said "I love you," she thought he was saying "I will leave you." They had slowly worked up quite a list of these false cognates, Thel could recite scores and scores of them, and he had come to understand that they did not share a language so much as the illusion of a language; they spoke strong idiolects, and lived in worlds of meaning distinct and isolated from the other. So that she no doubt understood queen of an ancient kingdom to mean something like a swimmer in the deep sea; and the mystery of the ancient alloy coin was never explained, and, he realized, never would be. It gave him a shiver of fear, thinking about it—it seemed to him that nothing would ever be explained , and that all of a sudden each day was slipping away, that time was flying by and they were getting old and nothing would ever come clear. He sat on the beach watching the clouds tumble overhead and letting handfuls of sand run through his fingers, the little clear grains of quartz flecks of black mica, pieces of coral, shell fragments like small bits of hard ceramic, and he saw that a substantial portion of the sand was made of shells, that living things had labored all their lives to create ceramic shelters, homes, the most permanent parts of themselves; which had then been pummeled into shards just big enough to see, millions upon millions of lives ground up and strewn under him, the beach made out of the wreckage of generations. And before long he and the swimmer too would become no more than sand on a beach; and they would never really have understood anything.

The idiosyncrasy of language between them hadn't been prominent to this point, and isn't raised again. If this is intended as the message of the book, it's a good thing Robinson spelled it out, because Thel and the swimmer don't spend their time searching for meaning or trying to build anything permanent; they don't even focus on enjoying their time together. They do appear isolated from one another when they're together, but not because they can't communicate so much as because they don't try. The passage seems a symptom of the lack of direction of the entire book.

1 comment:

William H. Stoddard said...

In copy editing scientific papers, I occasionally have to deal with French authors, in whose native language "actuellement" means "currently," who misuse the English word "actually" to mean the same. (There's a French name for this, actually: "faux amis.") But I don't recognize any of Robinson's other pairs of pseudo-cognates as originating in French vs. English. It would be more amusing if they all did.