Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, August 5, 2012

1970: And Chaos Died (Russ, Joanna)

Words of praise are words of warning (2/5)

When a book is covered with more praise than synopsis, my instinct is to stay clear--within may contain an author's convoluted playground, an experimental foray, or a psychotropic explosion. Sometimes these books, like Delany's Dhalgren (1975), border on being an anti-novel but can also inspire and offer insight where the attention to detail is synergistic of the greater nebulous plot. Luckily for Dhalgren, the greater circumstances and lesser nuances meshed wonderfully--I was enthralled, immersed, and energized. This does not describe my affair with And Chaos Died.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The contemporary masterpiece that begins with a star voyage, ends on an autumn afternoon, and alters the very shape of science fiction between."


Jai Vedh is stranded on an uncharted planet after the destruction of the ship he was on. The rash captain joins him in the initial exploration of the eerie planet and its curious inhabitants. Jai comes to understand their psionic talents but the captain, in his self-pity and ignorance, is shut out from their mental linkages. When rescue comes, the inhabitant Evne is psionicly thrust into the ship returning to an Earth overpopulated by humans and underpopulated by plants, animals, and insects. The dire state of the Earth contrasts Evne's eden-like home planet where "nobody works, nobody does anything, everything just grows" (36).

And Chaos Died was recurrently frustrating. The crests and troughs of plot building and plot destruction is tantamount to punishment. When the reader is becoming engaged with the discovery of a new planet or old Earth, Russ donkey punches (mmm, never used that word in a review before) the reader just at the point of deeper interest; thereafter she makes a mess of the whole debacle with rants of unpredictable violence and psychotropic dalliances. I can appreciate contrast but this was ridiculous. The words of praise from Robert Silverberg, "A work of awesome originality!" ring true... it's certainly original but it's as unpalatable as a durian fruit: enveloped in the rich taste but smacked by the stomach-turning stench.

Fritz Leiber praised, "A stunning achievement," but after reading the 183 pages, the only achievement produced was ending the entire kerfuffle altogether. As with Dhalgren, there actually ARE greater circumstances which render the reader in awe, but when Russ turns mean, the delicate nuances are barbed with vindictiveness. Delany's aimlessness and prose heightened Dhalgren's nebulousness, but Russ doesn't have the finesse or courtesy (?) to allow the dichotomous writing to work for her or her novel.

I mention Delany again because he offered more words of praise: "...a spectacular experience to undergo." I'd prefer to misquote this as "a[n]... experience to undergo," like that of suturing a lacerated upper lip. There's the two-faced experience of Russ's delicate world building then her wanton destruction of sense, a backhanded flinch empowering chaos. If chaos died, it must have been when "the ship exploded" (4) because chaos was then reincarnated in the form of the psi-phenomena.

But not all is chaos. Russ does actually play the psi card very well. I'm typically not a psi in sci-fi fan, but Russ pushed the envelope when she took it upon herself to write a clever psi novel:
It's hard to distinguish from feelings and fantasies [...] it's direct perception of mass. If mass is energy, that means everything [...] There's no inside there's no outside. Mass affects space-time instantaneously and at a distance. This is all instantaneously and at a distance (66-67).
[...] if you can control heat you can control motion, if you control motion you can control mass, that the control of mass means the control of energy, and that both mean the control of gravity (140).
With this stretch of logic in psi-control, the ability to not only manipulate minds becomes possible but also the manipulation of macro- and micro-scale matter, inertia, and space itself. I like the way this is implemented, but it becomes hard to "distinguish from feelings and fantasies," I'm lost in Russ's purple haze and pink elephants. When the characters are unable to distinguish from reality and fantasy, the reader is left to the random acts of violence to interpret the shades of gray between the two.

If another reader is more tolerant of chaotic swings between plot building and plot destruction, between psi control and psi chaos, and between intention and impulse... then perhaps you'd agree with the words of praise by Silverberg, Leiber, and Delany. Treat the praise as highfalutin backslapping amongst authors.

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