Friday, January 03, 2020

Christine Brooke-Rose, Xorandor (1986) and Verbivore (1990)


These are not Brooke-Rose's first science fiction novels; that distinction would pretty clearly go to Out, with its alternate-universe South Africa and vague nuclear disaster. And yet, they do feel significantly more science-fiction-y than that one, the weight of which was focused on its avant-garde experimentalism, did.

Actually, I find it difficult to conceptualize the intersection between experimental and genre writing. You might think they'd go together, and clearly they sometimes do, but the genre aspects often seem more part of the experimentation than the thing itself, and it's not clear how "real" they are. There seem to be two "levels:" science fiction elements that serve the form of the novel, and ones that serve the genre they're nominally part of, and when you only have the former, it's easy to think, hmm. Is that really SF? People point to the the fact that Gravity's Rainbow was nominated for but did not win a Nebula Award in 1973 as evidence of the insularity and ironic lack of vision of science fiction and its fans, and it may be partially that, but while again, Gravity's Rainbow is clearly technically science fiction on some level, all of the genre elements are on the level of form, so it's fair to ask if it's really the same thing. Or so I think. Although I must admit, I secretly like judging SF fans in a snobbish way which really makes NO SENSE inasmuch as, while I don't read as much of it as many, I'm still a fan of the genre, and it doesn't have to be all hifalutin for me to like it. Anyway.

The same could be said for Out, but not of these two. They very comfortably fit into the genre of science fiction, and no one would argue otherwise. I would say, in fact, that compared to the other Brooke-Rose novels I've read, it's a little shocking how straightforward these freel, especially Xorandor. That's not to they're not weird compared to mainstream fiction, but compared to Brooke-Rose's output, they are definitely normal. What a great sentence that was.

Anyway, in Xorandor in a near-future Britain we have a pair of twins, Jip (from the initials for John Ivor Paul) and Zab (short for Isabelle), whiz kids living with their government scientist father and actress mother. They encounter a sentient stone-like organism that may or may not be from Mars that eats radiation, and with which they mainly communicate via computer language. They don't just call it "Xorandor" because it sounds cool and science-fiction-y; it's two programing concepts: exclusive "or," or xor, meaning an or where you have to choose one and only one of the options; and your inclusive and/or. Anyway, the government gets involved, it turns out that Xorandor can reproduce, and, well...you'll see. It's from Jip and Zab's perspective, including their own communications as they write it all down, and various recordings of other people's dialogue. A lot of it is about storytelling per se, as they bicker over what details should be included and why. In Verbivore, the sequel (both of these were reprinted in one handy volume by the sadly-defunct Verbivoracious Press, which, whaddaya know, took its name from one of them), some twenty years later, Zab is an MP in a united Europe (O the irony) and Jip is a scientist at NASA. The book initially seems a bit more abstruse, more in line with Brooke-Rose's other work I've read, but it's actually not that bad, though it does mingle the two "levels" of science fiction that I mentioned above in ways you rarely see. Anyway, what's happened is, broadcasts of language are being "eaten:" people can't communicate over the air, obviously having huge impacts on societies (though if anything, I think the novel underestimates what these would look like). What's happening? Who or what is responsible? We have different bits from different perspectives, not only Zab and Jip but various others, including some characters from Amalgamemnon, which raises the question: is there a CBR Expanded Universe? Somebody get on that.

All of this is kind of interesting. It's also really notable (I mean, not just here, but especially here) that even though Brooke-Rose is mainly known as an avant-garde novelist, she's extremely good at writing realistic dialogue. I'm glad to have read them. But, I have to say...as science fiction novels, they really aren't that compelling. Certainly not sense-of-wonder-evoking like the best of the genre. It may sound perverse, but I prefer Brooke-Rose at her more perverse. You couldn't exactly accuse her of pandering here, but I like her a bit more, I think, when she's making even fewer concessions to general accessibility. I may be a masochist.

2 Comments:

Blogger Achille Talon pontificated to the effect that...

As a Faction Paradox reader, I find your "two levels" idea very interesting, but would suggest that the perfect compromise between the two, which seems to be what Verbivore does, is when the unusual form is justified by the science-fiction elements but these are not arbitrary but rather based on the themes of the story; in this case, making the book about communication, having the alien's verbicoraciousness be a natural consequence from that, and only then does the experimental form come in, flowing naturally from the big ideas of the narrative. Does that make sense?

5:43 AM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

I think so! This is a really interesting line of thought that could definitely lead to fruitful academic work.

4:10 PM  

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