Continuing with the Greg Bear Raw Feed series.
I bought this one in hardcover when in came out even though I didn’t have a lot of money. That’s how enthusiastic I was about reading it.
And, yes, I know my reactions sound a bit like a Dhalgren fan — and they annoy me.
Raw Feed (1990): Queen of Angels, Greg Bear, 1990.
This book was a grueling read not because it wasn’t well-written or enjoyable — it was — but because it was very complex, and I’m not sure as to what its answers were to the thematic questions it raised — if there are any final answers.
This is an extremely literary book. It has, at times, a James Joyce like run on prose with its lack of punctuation which causes words to be juxtaposed with either of two phrases or words. In effect, each sentence can have a variety of meanings depending on what you think a modifier should modify. There are four parallel plots (I liked the plot with Richard Fettle, failed writer, best.) which are all different reflections on the themes of self-awareness and punishment and crime. This is also one of those novels of character where much of the plot is concerned with why a character did what he did. In this case, we know immediately that poet Immanuel Goldsmith killed eight of his friends and admirers. Like Ben Reich in Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, we don’t know the motive for the murder.
The influence of other sf works seem to be present. The questions of crime, punishment, and therapy as reform are reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange. The exploration of a mind as symbolized by archetypal symbols is like Roger Zelazny’s “He Who Shapes”. The vodoun references follow those of William Gibson’s Mona Lisa Overdrive and Bruce Sterling’s Islands in the Net. Bear has sometimes been lumped with these cyberpunks. There use of voodoo in the future may have inspired Bear.
Part of my reaction to this novel stems from what I expected of it. Given an interview with Bear I read, it seemed the novel would be a police procedural set in a Haiti fifty years in the future. The police procedural part of the plot actually takes up very little of the novel’s beginning. Bear does some interesting extrapolation of forensic techniques involving biology (I found tracing people using the mitochondrial DNA of their symbiotes quite interesting) and nanotechnology (Bear’s use of the technology is interesting: nanoven, food, self-cleaning carpets, human “transforms”, nano build buildings, and weapons that assembles themselves from goo. It at first seems quite conservative but, on second thought, it is just a naturalistic treatment of a future technology.) Goldsmith’s guilt is quickly established.
Bear plays off the “conservative” view of punishment as deterrent and social vengeance against willful criminality against the “liberal” view that criminality springs from an unconscious malfunction of the mind that would respond to therapy. In Bear’s future, which to me, sounds like an intrusive, manipulative hell of involuntary and coerced social conditioning, most people undergo therapy to conform to an accepted definition of well-adjusted. I agree with Richard Fettle and his literary circle in seeing this as intrusive and sticking to their natural weaknesses. They see therapy as a destruction of personality, which it is. However, I confess this is not a rational view. As Fettle realizes, weaknesses can be quite dangerous, and when we seek therapy for ourselves we are attempting to change our nature. Bear, however, does not dwell overlong on these opposing views of therapy).
The punishment is represented by the Selectors, self-appointed vigilantes who punish through hellcrowns — devices that enhance and extend in subjective time harrowing personal nightmares with devastating psychic effects. The government prefers therapy. Putting aside Bear’s apparent — if it is a personal view — optimism in arriving at a rational, complete model of the mind and assigning criminality to its involuntary, unconscious malfunctioning, that model seems very reliant on a computer paradigm with its talk of programs and subroutines.
The book’s main theme, though, is the nature, qualities, and origins of self-awareness. That is the theme all four subplots revolve around. Bear uses the two metaphors of possession (Richard Fettle in, to my mind, the best writing of the novel, feels possessed by the spirit of Goldsmith when, through writing, he explores Goldsmith’s motives for murder) and the mechanistic, computer like model of the mind to explore this question. The subplots are reflections and contrasts of each other.
Mary Choy, human transform, derives her identity from her sense of duty as a policeman. That identity causes her to temporarily fall out with her boyfriend. She also (though this is not emphasized much — I found, in many ways, the Choy subplot of the novel to be the least interesting one) seems to have trouble reconciling her outer, “transformed” body with her inner self vision. Here Bear seems to be dealing with the role the physical self plays (and Choy is particularly sensitive to other’s reactions — she’s wildly different but wants to be treated normally) in self-image and awareness. As if to emphasize the point, Choy is a “natural” — well-adjusted without therapy.
In contrast to this, space probes AXIS and Jill achieve self-awareness through, grief, mourning, depression, and a sense of betrayal. They are superior intellects who must be hurt enough to feel indignation which engenders (or perhaps the order is reversed) self-awareness. In the story of their psychological development, Bear emphasizes his computer inspired model of the mind.
The other view, the spiritual, emotional view of possession as criminality is played out in the book’s most interesting part: Richard Fettle’s attempt to understand Goldsmith’s behavior. (One can’t help but wonder if the power of this character and his description is due to a fear in the writer Bear of being a failed, burned out writer.) Fettle’s self-image is a function of his relation to his friend and idol Goldsmith. Fettle feels betrayed by Goldsmith. All of a sudden, breaking a writing block of years, he tries to understand Goldsmith by writing, in first person, his story. In the book’s best writing, a riveting psychological study, Fettle begins to feel possessed by Goldsmith. He contemplates emulating Goldsmith and murdering Nadine Preston, his occasional lover. Eventually, in a stunning scene of memory and self-awareness, he realizes his inner strength and exact relationship to Goldsmith — an old friend who is now gone but fondly remembered. He reconciles himself to life, is now peaceful and content. (Unlike the above artificial intelligences who are decidedly discontent.).
Straddling the two sides of the possession and computer metaphors of mind is Martin Burke. He seems to draw his identity from his work. He is an expert in the computer model of the mind but finds, in Goldsmith’s mind, a desolation unexpected and evidence of a possession which eventually takes root in him. The question of criminality and its causes is suborned to this theme of identity and self-awareness. Bad self-modeling is the mechanist’s view of the mind’s answer to crime’s causes. The vigilantes see willful behavior (or maybe possession, Bear doesn’t make this clear) as the cause. In effect, the therapists see un-self-awareness, bad internal models of personality, as the beginning of crime. The Selectors seem to think crime involves full self-awareness that can be deterred by the hellcrown.
My problem and uneasiness with the novel lies in my inability to see Bear’s answer to the question of crime, its relation to self-awareness and the latter’s nature. I’ll be egotistical and view the failure as Bear’s inability to quite achieve the grand scheme he set himself rather than my failure as a reader. It may be Bear intended only to provoke thought and not give answers. Yet, the novel seems incomplete in its thematic exploration though that exploration is sophisticated and diverse. The last chapter throws out the possibility of guilt and sin being part of awareness. (Earlier Bear brings up insult as being a sign of self-awareness.) Guilt, Bear suggests springs from self-awareness; Yet, guilt hurts; self-analysis is necessary but injures.
My view of Bear’s ultimate failure is, I think, supported by others instances of incompleteness. We never get a clear explanation of the society of the shades and combs (or even a clear physical description of the latter’s architecture). We are not told the economics of a society with nanotech. (There also seems to be not much point to meeting Colonel Sir John Yardley’s or even to the constant references to him. His main function is as an icon in Goldsmith wasted mind.). We are not even told what IPR was or its scandal with President Raphkind. Nor do we ultimately see why Goldsmith murders. Was it an attempt to remake himself (self-awareness as a prelude to destruction) by irrevocably cutting off his past? Was it a strangely twisted mind devoid of a “prominent personality” as Burke suspects? Or was his act the outcome of a long process that began with an abusive father?
I enjoyed this book immensely, it was well worth reading, very well-written. But I find it a puzzle without an answer. I just don’t know if I can’t find the answer or if Bear didn’t provide one.
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3 thoughts on “Queen of Angels”