14 November 2016

Getting Away with Murder – and Other Things


by Janice Law

I have always believed that writers should try to get away with everything they can as far as plot, characterization, and style go. Experimental writers, naturally, have this as their basic brief and a straining after originality is the usual result. But genre writers and contemporary novelists like to push the envelope as well, and two well received recent novels provide good illustrations of blending genres for striking effect: Liz Moore’s The Unseen World and Ben H. Winters’ Underground Airlines.

Both incorporate elements of mystery and science fiction. Moore’s novel begins as a sensitive account of Ada, a bright little girl in a distinctly unconventional household. Folks looking for thriller velocity here may be disheartened but my advice is to stick with the story. When Ada’s father shows signs of early onset dementia, the novel morphs into a quest mystery with a good deal of information about artificial intelligence.

Sounds like maybe too rich a blend? Actually, no. Moore skips in time from Ada as a child and an adolescent in the 1980’s, back to her father in the 1930’s and 1950’s, and forward to the 21st century. At the center of Ada’s search is Elixir, her computer scientist dad’s experiment in artificial
intelligence. Elixir was designed as a machine that can learn, and precocious Ada, was one of the many people in her father’s lab who ‘talked’ to the program so that it would increase its vocabulary and eventually pass the Turing Test, that is, communicate in a way indistinguishable from human.

As a result, Elixir not only learns a lot of facts about the world, it learns a great deal about the personalities and histories of its lab friends. I won’t spoil how this works out in the novel, but Moore’s conclusion is imaginative and entirely satisfying.

In a quiet way, The Unseen World is a thriller, the novel structured as an investigation with high stakes on the outcome. The Elixir program and even the various generations of computers that Ada uses to connect with it, have surprising personalities, as do the principle characters, Ada, her father, David, his kindly co-worker and neighbor, Liston, and her family.

The Unseen World is a contemporary novel with what I consider welcome genre elements. Underground Airlines is perhaps the reverse, a thriller with serious literary chops that mixes mystery and science fiction with alternative history. In Winters’ novel, the Civil War was averted by a compromise following the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Four Southern states are still slave states; Texas is contested ground between an abolitionist faction and the federal government, bound by the constitution to protect the ‘property rights’ of the so called Hard Four.

The protagonist is a former PB – person bound to labor – who has a kind of quasi-freedom as a federal investigator. He’s a cracker jack detective but as his whole focus is runaways, Victor is a modern version of that hated 19th century figure, the fugitive slave catcher.
   
The character of Victor has attracted notice because Winters’ himself is not African-American, but he has certainly made Victor a complex character with a rich interior life. Further, the detective is not exactly our contemporary. He operates in an environment at once recognizable even in matters of race and politics, and peculiar, rather like the Alternate Universe in the old Fringe series or one of Philip K. Dick’s odd cities.
   
Part of Underground Airlines is straight detective work. Victor is a master of aliases and disguises, and, leashed by a tracking chip in his neck, he mostly focuses on his cases even though the poor souls he finds mirror his own experience and fears. His stoic indifference only begins to weaken after he meets Martha, a harried young white woman desperate to find her recaptured PB lover, and Lionel, their charming inter-racial son. But Victor’s rebellion really develops when a new case with an unsatisfactory file opens up unusual moral and physical dangers as well as unprecedented opportunities.

Victor is preoccupied with the various identities and schemes that comprise the mystery/thriller elements of the plot, but increasingly memories of his terrible slave childhood resurface. Later, certain sci fi elements are added to the mix, not, to my mind entirely successfully, but there is no doubt that they add a chilling note and bring into question Victor’s decision to focus on his own self interest.

The Unseen World and Underground Airlines are two novels with literary ambitions but strong genre elements. I think the mix strengthens both.

6 comments:

O'Neil De Noux said...

Yes- "get away with everything they can"
Nicely done.

Art Taylor said...

Thanks for the suggestions, Janice. I've actually been considering Winters' work for a course I'm teaching next semester--appreciate your recommendation and examination here!

janice law said...

Thanks- I think the students would find Winters book most provocative.

B.K. Stevens said...

Both of these books sound fascinating, Janice. Thanks for sharing your reflections on them.

Eve Fisher said...

Both have sounded interesting to me. Thanks for the review, Janice.

Paul D. Marks said...

I'm a little late here, Janice, but I really liked The Unseen World. Not without some reservations, but overall I thought it was a good read. Not familiar with the other book, but I'll have to put it on the list. Thanks.