Saturday, August 20, 2011

Kazuo Ishiguro: When We Were Orphans (2000)

And this isn't how you do it.

I'm on record as having hated The Unconsoled, Ishiguro's previous book, but still I had high hopes for this one.  I seemed to remember it having gotten good reviews, and it came highly recommended by at least one person whose opinion I quite respect.  And:  I knew that with this book Ishiguro, for the first but not last time, had decided to flirt with genre fiction.  In this case, the detective story.

The fact that The Unconsoled had been such a dismal misstep didn't concern me:  I was entirely prepared to see it as the kind of experiment that, while not successful in itself, paved the way for future successes. Well.

At first that's precisely what When We Were Orphans felt like to me:  the kind of achievement that pre-Unconsoled Ishiguro wouldn't have been able to pull off.  From the start it's clear that we're, yet again, dealing with an unreliable narrator - a narrator whose self-deceptions it's our challenge to unravel.  But because of the monstrously unmoored quality of the previous novel it's not clear quite what our basis for judging the narrator of this novel is:  what is the nature of reality, of normality, in When We Were Orphans?  We need to know this to know how far his narrator, Christopher Banks, deviates from it.  In other words, the previous book casts a shadow of uncertainty over this one, and it's to this work's benefit, at least at first:  there's the sense that the book could go off in unexpected directions at any moment.  And since the plot here is quite straightforward and coherent, that sense of uncertainty is a good thing.  It provides a frisson of subtextual suspense that the first three books didn't have.

ButWhen We Were Orphans falls apart in the second half, precisely when it should be at its best. 

Banks is a self-styled Sherlock Holmes-type detective between the wars.  He was born and partly raised in Shanghai, but sent home to England as a boy when both his parents were kidnapped.  The kidnapping was never solved, and now as an adult, in 1937, he decides it's time to go back to Shanghai and solve their disappearance.  This, of course, brings him back to Shanghai just as the Japanese are invading China, giving Banks and the reader a front-row seat for this historical tragedy.   Banks's connection to it is personal, not just because he was born in Shanghai, but because his best friend as a child was a Japanese boy who lived next door to him.

There's a lot of potential here for social-historical critique, contrasting the International Settlement of which Banks is a product with the lives of ordinary Chinese citizens, exploring the distance between the behavior of the Japanese army in the '30s and Banks's knowledge of his friend in the '10s, etc.  And Ishiguro does pursue some of this.  But it's largely undercut by what he's trying to do with his narrator's self-deception.

Simply put, Banks is so obsessed with his parents' disappearance that he's completely unable to see past it to what's going on in Shanghai when he returns.  The second half is dominated by a long set piece in which Banks ventures outside the International Settlement in search of a kidnappers' safe-house where he thinks his parents are being held.  The invasion is in full swing, with much of the city lying in ruins and the dead and dying filling the streets, and all of this is described to us, but Banks doesn't seem to register it (despite the fact that he's doing the describing).  All he can think about is locating the safe-house; the battle and its casualties are mere annoyances to him, obstacles.  At one point he stumbles across a Chinese army outpost and demands of an English-speaking officer that he provide men to help him in his wild-goose chase, despite the fact that every last soldier is needed to defend the city.

It's pretty clear that what Ishiguro is doing here is satirizing the solipsism of empire, the cluelessness of Europeans in Asia who thought the world revolved around them.  And that's certainly a thing worthy of satire.  But this didn't work for me as satire - Banks's self-delusion is just too hard to believe.  Even the most oblivious expat would have noticed the bombs going off next to him.  It's clumsy.

And it's undercut by the way Ishiguro has other characters interact with Banks.  Banks demanding that the Chinese officer provide men is satire - we immediately see Banks as the white imperialist ordering other races to serve him instead of themselves.  But why does Ishiguro have the officer comply?  If this is part of the satire it's even less effective.  And, curiously, the scenes in which the officer complies don't feel like satire - the officer seems to have heard of Banks's parents' kidnapping, and seems more than willing to lead him around the city for hours.  It's one thing to posit, as part of the satire, subject peoples trying to please their colonial masters, but this is a bit heavy-handed...

And why do all the foreigners in Shanghai greet Banks with the assumption that he's going to somehow defuse the tension between China and Japan?  Several times people refer to the great work that he's there to carry out, and oh yes, he's also going to solve his parents' case - and why does everybody know about that, too?  Especially when it's revealed at the end what really happened to them, it hardly seems the kind of thing that would still be on the foreign community's mind twenty years later, while bombs are going off all around them.

The only way to explain much of the book is to conclude that Banks is not just in a state of denial about certain things, like the narrators of Ishiguro's first three books, but outright delusional - in this sense the resonances with The Unconsoled become dismaying as the book goes on, because the way things just don't add up means either that the narrator is nuts (which the book doesn't seem to support) or the world is...

So, to sum up.  As a satire of British imperialism this is weak, and as a depiction in fiction of the Japanese invasion of Shanghai it's distracted.  On both counts that's a shame, because there's a deeply coruscating novel to be written about the foreign community in Shanghai at this time - it's a rich subject. 

Meanwhile, as an examination of a self-deluding character it falls short of the achievements of Ishiguro's first three books, because it's impossible in the end to figure out exactly how Banks is deluding himself.  (For about a hundred and fifty pages in the middle of the book I had an entire alternate scenario worked out in which we learned in the end that Banks was actually ethnically Chinese or Japanese and had been adopted by white parents and raised in the English way - that would have explained a lot of the odd expectations people seemed to have of him, as well as a number of other details - and I think I would have liked that book better!)

Perhaps worst of all, as a detective novel it's a complete failure.  Now, I get that Ishiguro wasn't trying to write a straight detective novel:  rather, it's an Ishiguro novel with a main character who happens to be a detective.  Nevertheless I think Ishiguro is playing with the conventions of the detective novel - he gives us a mystery, puts a detective there to solve it, and in the end he does provide a solution to the mystery.  But the solution is simply ridiculous, and the detective does so little detecting that it's impossible to believe that he's the celebrated sleuth that everybody else in the novel seems to admit he is. 

Yeah.  I'm afraid I just don't get this one.  I still have two by Ishiguro to go - I hope he gets better.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007)

First things first:  in the Coen Brothers film of this that's playing in my mind, Adrian Brody plays Landsman and Sarah Silverman plays Bina.  I won't take no for an answer.

Another summer, another cold-weather noir.  Just a coincidence;  as is the fact that the last few books I've read in English have all been crime/mystery/noir/thriller type things.  Michael Chabon, whose career I've been aware of for a while, although this is the first thing of his I've gotten around to reading.  The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007).  I probably would have read it even if I'd never heard of Chabon:  the cover is one of the coolest pieces of graphic design I've seen in years.

It's a masterpiece on more levels than I can do justice to in a blog post.  As an alternate history it's tantalizing, giving a glimpse of a present that could have been but isn't (but at the same time is too, if you know what I mean);  and the achievement here is all the more impressive because it's a noir.  The Sitka, Alaska that Chabon imagines as a Jewish metropolis on the West Coast is required, by the rules of the genre if nothing else, to be a dark and dangerous place, full of festering evil and squalor. And it is:  but somehow Chabon also manages to make you wish the place really existed. 

(Is it just that one really, really wishes for a place, in contemporary America, where you can wear fedoras and listen to jazz-rock klezmer and have it be a mainstream pursuit?  Is it [somewhat less facetiously] that one suspects that a densely packed city of four million in the Pac Northwest would have an interesting effect on the cities we've already got?  What would Seattle, Portland, Vancouver be like with a megalopolitan Sitka up north?  The urbanist in me is intrigued.)

As alternate history it's also, of course, really a secret history of this timeline, our own, and as such it's - well, tantalizing is the word I'll use here, too, because of the way Chabon keeps his critique of contemporary America in view, even in reach, but just out of grasp.  With much of the Jewish immigration of the war and postwar years diverted, seemingly, to Sitka, Chabon's alternate America of 2007 is a much more Gentile place, which seems to have contributed to an even stronger tendency toward Christianist politics than we were already seeing in 2007.  So his take on what the rest of the US is like, outside of Sitka, is pretty clear, and yet hardly fleshed out at all - all we get are glimpses, off-hand remarks.  We're left wanting much more, but this frustration forces us to concentrate that much harder on the details we do have, which in turn drives home Chabon's critique.  This is how you do it.

As a noir...well, I posted that bit about Walter Mosley's writing style partly in preparation for this post.  Mosley's style is awesome, but not particularly original:  he's employing what I think we'd all agree is the standard thriller style.  The hallmark of which is functionality:  first of all, tell us what happens. Keep it simple and vivid, so the reader is never knocked out of the story, is pulled along powerfully to the end.  It doesn't have to be Hemingway-sparse, but embellishments should be kept to a minimum:  terse and wry.  Mosley does this style extremely well, but he didn't invent it;  in fact, perhaps the central pleasure of the Rawlins books is in how he appropriates this style and adapts it to a black narrator so that it takes on whole new meanings.

Chabon doesn't write like that.  His sentences are embellished, adorned, wrought.  There's something to knock you out of the story every few lines, some clever turn of phrase or elegantly complicated formulation of thought.  You have to read his paragraphs twice sometimes to get the gist.  This shouldn't work - it should feel like what it is, a literary writer flirting with a genre that most would consider beneath him, and ignoring (perhaps through ignorance) one of its central conventions.

But in fact he makes it work.  The plot and the subtext are quite absorbing enough to compensate for the prose's unwillingness to let you race through it, and the prose itself is beautiful.  It comes bearing its own gifts.

A randomly-selected sentence from p. 3:
According to doctors, therapists, and his ex-wife, Landsman drinks to medicate himself, tuning the tubes and crystals of his moods with a crude hammer of hundred-proof plum brandy.
We've already, in the first couple of pages, had to get used to Chabon's decision to narrate the book in the present tense, not a bad choice aesthetically by any means but still a deviation from the norm that takes some getting used to.  And we're still trying to process the perfectly evocative but determinedly unexplained details that bring Sitka to such vivid life, such as the fact that Landsman's drink of choice is plum brandy - what is this, and what does it mean?  So the sentence is already carrying a lot of weight - and then he goes and tosses in this image of the man's moods as a set of tubes and crystals - evoking a home-made radio, perhaps?  An unfamiliar image in 2007, to say the least. 

So, yeah, I had to read this one twice.  But what did I get when I did?  The moods-as-primitive-radio comparison is a nice one, and the image of bashing those delicately-assembled parts to bits with a hammer - an improvised one, no less - is a great one for reckless drinking (implying impatience with one's inability to get the radio to work, to pick up the signal one wants, to play soothing music?  his moods are uncooperative, and so he breaks them?).  And the image-quality of the sentence - tubes and crystals (which we can't help but imagine shattering), not just "liquor" but "hundred-proof plum" (nice alliteration) "brandy" (nice rhythm) - is great.  This is intense writing.  Good stuff.

What this book is, is a classic example of a, like I say, literary writer flirting with a lowly genre (or two or three), and flouting its conventions (some of them), and coming up with something that works anyway, pleases anyway, both as genre fiction and serious literature.  This is how you do it.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Walter Mosley: Bad Boy Brawly Brown (2002)

Here's why I love Walter Mosley:
BobbiAnne had big, upstanding breasts and broad shoulders, crystal blue eyes and a stomach that protruded just slightly.  All of this worked to make her more attractive as the moments went by.  She was the kind of girl who would turn beautiful on you overnight.
This is from p. 119 (Warner paperback) of Bad Boy Brawly Brown, the seventh Easy Rawlins book, and Mosley's return to the series in 2002 after a five year break.  It's a good book, maybe not the best in the series but a worthy entry.  And I love it for that.

But mostly what I love is his writing.  This is the real hardboiled deal.  That's a perfect paragraph.  Look how it progresses.  The first sentence is concrete description - carefully chosen details that make it so you can see BobbiAnne in your mind's eye.  And what details - they establish BobbiAnne as something other than your run-of-the-mill beauty (of which there are none in Mosley - they're all unique, like this).  The second sentence wastes no time in moving from the concrete and factual into the mind of the observer, the narrator Easy, as he responds to these details.  We're in the middle of the stream of his consciousness - time's passing, and his perceptions are changing - but there's utter clarity about all of it.  And the third sentence completes the move from the particular to the universal, as Mosley delivers to us one of those classic noir statements about existence:  that some girls will turn beautiful on you overnight.  And all that that implies, not just about sex, but about the whole shebang.

I see two main thematic developments in this installment of the series.  One is external:  it's 1964, and part of Easy's milieu is the emerging Black Power movement.  Not quite called that yet, but still it's something more assertive than MLK, and more streetwise than the beatnik Garveyites that he's encountered before.  You can sense Mosley laying the groundwork here for an assessment, through Easy's eyes, of the black experience of Mosley's own (b. 1952) formative years.

The other is internal.  Mouse is dead, or so everybody thinks throughout this book.  It happened at the end of the 5th book, and that's why we took the detour into the past of Gone Fishin'.  Hints are dropping right and left that maybe he's not really dead - nobody's seen the body - but what's most important is that Easy thinks he's dead, and that it's his (Easy's) fault.

Which means that throughout this book he's dealing with that guilt.  But what's more interesting is that he starts to hear Mouse's voice in his head.  Up to now he's had Mouse at his side as the Stagger Lee figure:  Easy knows he's only survived this long because of Mouse, and Mouse's implicit (often explicit, actually) threat of violence.  But Mouse's presence has also allowed Easy to distance himself from the violence of his life.  Now, with Mouse gone, not only does Easy have to consider how to survive without that threat, he finds himself urging himself, in Mouse's voice, to do the violence that Mouse would have done.  Kill him, Mouse urges in encounters with cops or thugs.  This is new for Easy, and worrisome.  He's internalized Mouse - internalized the threat of violence and destruction.  The stakes for Easy all along have been: can he survive without losing his soul?  Having Mouse in his head raises those stakes considerably.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

James Church: Hidden Moon (2007)

Second in the Inspector O series, after A Corpse in the Koryo.  I won't bother to try and summarize the plot, because I don't think I understand it.  Something about a bank robbery and a coup attempt and a Scottish intelligence agent who isn't.  More than most thrillers, a certain amount of haziness in the details of the plot is to be expected here, or maybe lauded:  the subtext of this series is how in a totalitarian state you can't trust anything.  Everybody lies to everybody about everything.  Communication is a matter of parsing lies.  If you don't understand, in the end, just exactly what's gone down, well:  welcome to the club.

To describe the situation as Kafkaesque is maybe too obvious - Kafka, after all, is one of the great progenitors of the spy novel.  But I think Church is hoping we'll be put in mind, not just of the great tradition of espionage thrillers that preserve and expand upon Kafka's wicked insights into the absurdist character of the modern state, but of Kafka himself.  I think that's what's going on with the name of his main character, Inspector O.  "O" is a perfectly serviceable, even common surname in Korean.  Therefore, the Inspector's appellation in these books isn't an initial or a code name:  it's just his name.  But the reader, I'd argue, can't help but be reminded of Kafka's ubiquitous K - can't help but think of O as an initial or a code name.  And if we do we may be reminded of things like The Trial or The Castle, and we may reach the conclusion that life in a totalitarian state like this so oppresses the individual, so alienates him (or her) from his (or her) own desires, that one's own identity becomes a code-name, an alias.  Everybody lies about everything.

I loved the first book.  Is it a worthy sequel?  Pretty much.  The tone is a bit lighter - O's narration is less mordant and more in the vein of black humor, and he and his new superior even engage in some banter.  On the one hand I found this a little less richly involving than the pervasive melancholy and sobriety of the first book.  But this kind of gallows humor certainly isn't inappropriate or even unexpected in depictions of this kind of society.  It fits.

Other than the humor, not much has changed about O.  His tics and his opinions are the same.  The most memorable of the former is his habit of carrying around scrap bits of wood in his pockets and keeping them in his desk drawers;  in idle moments or times of stress he'll sand them or just finger them.  It's an effective device in establishing him as somebody who in a different time and place would have been a cabinetmaker, say.  He's the Reluctant Warrior;  there's also a resonance with the East Asian Confucian ideal of the scholar-gentleman with his public life and his private creative, wholesome pursuits.

His opinions - well, the thing I like most about this character is how neatly he resists being co-opted into a narrative of "poor North Koreans yearning to be free."  I mean, basically the whole point of the series is to help us understand how somebody like O can chafe against the restrictions and privations that his country gives him as a patrimony but at the same time be quietly, fiercely patriotic when it comes to serving that country.  A recurring theme is his encounters with Western intelligence agents who assume that O is just champing at the bit to defect, when in fact that's the last thing he has in mind.  He loves his country.  The wood ties in with this, too, I think - he's conscious of the kinds of trees that grow in North Korea, their uses and personalities, and there's something symbolic about his penchant for remaining in physical contact with them, even when surrounded by concrete and asphalt.  Like, his love for his country doesn't have much to do with the state superstructure that currently stands on it - it goes deeper, into the trees and rocks.

Rebecca Reider: Dreaming the Biosphere (2009)

We were in Tucson a couple of months ago, visiting the 'rents.  Every time we go, we visit a few more of the places listed in our guidebook.  This time we hit Bisbee, Tombstone, and some of the historic spots in downtown Tucson.

We also drove out to Biosphere 2.  I had a vague memory of this from news reports in the early '90s, as many do:  it's a totally sealed manmade ecosystem, a kind of earthbound spaceship out in the desert.  A bunch of scientists locked themselves inside for a couple of years to see if they could survive on nothing but what they could grow inside the facility.  If you remember this much, you probably remember something of the media narrative, as well:  what had started out with such high hopes and idealism ended in failure and ignominy.

First, the place.  In purely architectural terms, it's fascinating.  We have a colleague, an architectural historian, who specializes in utopias, and this is one.  It looks like a spaceship out in the desert - between the geodesic domes and the greenhouses, the airlock through which you enter and the sky-reaching towers, it makes you think of Star Trek more than anything.  Not a ludicrous comparison, either:  remember that certain iterations of the Star Trek myth involve things like hydroponics bays, spaceship gardens - manmade ecosystems.  Biosphere 2 was meant to experiment with the idea that humankind might be able to engineer its way away from dependence on the planet, by recreating it under controlled conditions.  Utopian.

And, it's beautiful.  From a scientific standpoint this is irrelevant, but from a Utopian one it's not:  from the outside, from the inside, the facility appeals to the dreamer, the aspirer, in the viewer.  It makes you want to believe.

In the gift shop they had a number of books, and this looked like the best, so I bought it.  Rebecca Reider's 2009 Dreaming the Biosphere: The Theater of All Possibilities.  It's an amazing book, doing so much more than it promises.

One thing the book is:  a media critique, specifically a coruscating look at how the US mass media (mis)reports on science.  Her critique here echoes, intentionally or not, a lot of what has been pointed out about the way the media treats politics:  shoehorning everything into a narrative, a simplistic storyline with heroes and villains, winners and losers.  In the case of Biosphere 2, what that means is that science reporters wrote positively of the project as long as it fit easily into the mold of exploration, pioneers, heroic experimenters - but when it became easier to fit the project into a different mold, one of cheats and miscreants, the media tore down the Biospherians as quickly and eagerly as they had built them up.  All of this without much effort at presenting to the public the complexity of what was really being done at the facility.

Consider:  if you, like me, have only the vaguest notion of this project, but still have the general impression that it was a failure, what does that mean?  That the Biospherians ended up not being able to survive their two years completely without outside help?  But if this is science, if it's an experiment, how is that a failure?  It produced results.  It generated data.  That's no failure - but popular science reporting isn't interested in that.  It wants triumphs.  It wants the money shot of happy plump bionauts waving and beaming as they bound out of the airlock - not emaciated, older-but-wiser people stepping hesitantly out into a world their bodies have learned to cope largely without...

The media wants telegenic alphas, not weirdos.  And the Biospherians were weirdos.  (More on that below.)

Another thing this book is:  a critique of the way science is conducted, and most importantly funded, in contemporary academic America.  Biosphere 2 was constructed with private money by a private group, but when the plug was pulled it went on the market to anybody who might be interested in doing something with it.  It's a weird facility, but utterly sui generis;  surely somebody can do something with it.  Reider, writing in 2009, extends her story past the end of the original Biosphere project through the years when the place was leased and managed by Columbia University, and this is as fascinating a story as anything else in the book.  It seems the Biosphere was always either too controlled or not controlled enough for the kind of experiments Columbia's science faculty wanted to do.  It either simulated the real biosphere too closely - with too much complexity, too many natural systems interacting too unpredictably - or not closely enough, with too few variables.  That's bad luck, but what Reider also manages to suggest is that Columbia wasn't willing to look at what Biosphere 2 could do.  It wasn't designed as a laboratory, but as a living thing - but the kind of science that might be able to effectively utilize such a thing, she argues, doesn't fit into the small-ball, results-oriented, grant-proposal-friendly science that the current American system rewards.  Not being a scientist myself I have no idea if she's right, but it sounds right - it squares with what I see in my very different corner of academia.  (In this connection, I'd love to see her carry the story foreward someday.  After Columbia gave up, the University of Arizona, in Tucson, leased the place, and the day we visited happened, just happened, to be the day that it was announced that Biosphere 2 had been given outright to UA.  Are they doing any better?  They're well placed to, not just because they're local and Columbia wasn't, but because UA people have been involved with the project for a very long time...)

What this book mostly is, to my surprise and delight:  a counterculture chronicle.  And this made everything else make sense.  Biosphere 2 was conceived, funded, built, and inhabited by people who had been living together on a New Mexico commune called Synergia Ranch since 1969.  In her telling it sounds almost like a cult, centered around the charismatic John Allen - but if Reider had used that narrative her book would have been as useless as the pop science that gave you the "Biosphere failed" narrative.  She's quite sympathetic to the Synergians/Biospherians - which is not the same as saying she's "on their side."  She's open to their point of view, interested in their aspirations and achievements.

So.  The Biosphere was, like the Oregon Country Fair and the latter-day Grateful Dead, one of the ways in which the '60s counterculture managed to plant itself in the distinctly inhospitable soil of the '80s and '90s.  It was a hippie thing.

What's the Synergian deal?  It's very un-hippie - that is, not at all like what the mass media would have you think hippies were. They were Gurdjieffian rather than Learian, dedicated to a mysticism of self-improvement rather than worship or the pursuit of religious ecstasy.  They taught themselves how to be architects, builders, shipwrights, scientists.  Action was their thing - get out and do, then get out and do more.

Very Horatio Alger in some ways.  But they were doing this in a context of communal living outside of Santa Fe - and in many ways they kept up the communal arrangement all the way up through the Biosphere years.  Cooking and eating together, and performing regular group theatricals.  Theater as ritual, though, as Jungian group self-analysis or therapy.  Putting on masks to reveal the true face.  They were, like other communes of their time and place, rejecting straight society by withdrawing from it.

So, to put it crudely, they were science hippies rather than art hippies, I guess you could say.  But it was a different kind of science.  It has to be admitted that if they were presenting Biosphere 2 to the media as a wholly straight-science, experimental-data-gathering sort of thing, they were being a bit disingenuous themselves, because the philosophical roots of the project were in the '70s counterculture's sense of crisis.  The belief that humankind was rapidly making this biosphere, the real one, the first one, uninhabitable - polluting and destroying its systems, so that human life would one day become physically unsustainable here - not to mention cultivating political and social systems that have already made human life nearly unpalatable here...

(Well, they're not wrong.)

...and that therefore, forward-looking people needed to think about a way to get out.  The "2" in Biosphere 2 means just that:  the facility was designed to be humanity's second habitat, a prototype for what we'll need to build to escape the charred embers of Biosphere 1.

You can see this impulse, this vision of the future so strangely utopian and dystopian at the same time, in much of the science fiction and counterculture pop culture of the day.  What is Star Trek but an acknowledgment that the situation on Earth is going to get worse before it gets better (Star Trek is a utopia that takes place after a dystopia), and that for it to get truly better we're going to need to reach beyond our own planet?  Some of the better examples are more obscure - Jefferson Airplane songwriter Paul Kantner's recurring vision (in "Wooden Ships" and Blows Against The Empire) of hippies escaping straight society to literally found a new world somewhere, Neil Young's image of spaceships "flying Mother Nature's silver seed to a new home in the sun."

And once the media discovered that, it was all over, really.  Hippies?  With a bank account, and machines?  God forbid.

But:  as Reider notes, it may have been weird science, but that doesn't mean it wasn't science at all.  She makes a case for Biosphere 2 as swashbuckling exploratory science.  Build the thing and try the thing and learn what you can from that, rather than measuring every inch of ground.  It's not a kind of science, again, that plays real well in grant committee deliberations, but then again, maybe Magellan's wouldn't have, either...

If there was a failure in the Biosphere project, it wasn't a scientific one, per se, at least not a biological one.  The biosphere inside the facility did develop in unexpected ways, the systems did go a bit haywire, but again, all of that generates data.  What went wrong in less useful ways was the social system.  Reider does an excellent job of explaining how the crew locked inside the facility very quickly split into opposing factions.  Real Survivor stuff.  And she marshals all kinds of sociological studies to suggest that this was inevitable.  Small groups will always split into factions.  That, coupled with the fact that Allen was an autocrat, and the Synergians insisted on maintaining their separateness within any group of collaborators, meant that the social utopia that they had assumed would follow upon the physical one decayed even more rapidly than the physical one.

And that's what I found most interesting, even moving, about this book.  I'm fascinated by the idea of idealistic groups withdrawing from mainstream society and setting up on their own.  Of course in some ways it's the age-old American pattern, right?  If you think England, or Boston, or St. Louis, is screwed up, don't fix it, leave.  And in some ways it's the Mormon heritage to which I'm heir:  the people who set up Salt Lake weren't hippies, but they were radical idealists living in a commune.

I'm fascinated, but not very hopeful, because as near as I can tell what happens when you set up on your own is that, at best, you end up more or less replicating what you left behind, just with you on top.  As Euro-American society spreads across the continent it ends up not really improving on what it left behind, right?  Just replicating it - if anything, with more McDonald's.   Or, at worst, the community apart shades off into autocracy, cultlike organization, craziness. 

But it doesnn't have to be that way.  Sometimes, in a limited situation, it can work, for a while, or at least I like to think it can.  It did in the parking lots of some Grateful Dead shows.  It does at the OCF.  And by Reider's account, it did at Synergia Ranch.  Not that I'd want to live in any of those places - but the beauties you can glimpse in those times and places are things I wouldn't want to live without having available to think about.

(But I may change my mind tomorrow.)