Book Review: What Entropy Means to Me, George Alec Effinger (1972)

(Stanislaw Hernandez’s cover for the 1973 edition)

5/5 (Masterpiece) (*caveats below*)

Nominated for the 1973 Nebula Award (lost to Asimov’s disappointing The Gods Themselves)

“She was Our Mother, so she cried.  She used to sit out there, under that micha tree, all day as we worked cursing in her fields.  She sat there during the freezing nights, and we pretended that we could see her through the windows in the house, by the light of the moons and the hard, fast stars.  She sat there before most of us were born; she sat there until she died.  And all the time she shed her tears.  She was Our Mother, so she cried” (11)

What Entropy Means to Me (1972) is one of the more satisfying products of the New Wave science fiction movement of the 60s and 70s that I’ve read.  I place it in the pantheon of Malzberg’s Revelations (1972), Samuel Delany’s Nova (1968), and Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968).  Effinger revels, and I mean gloriously revels, in metafictional experimentation.  The result is a multi-layered/complex homage to the the act of literary creation.  The novel will especially appeal to readers who love to read about the act of writing, readers who have previously tried their hand at writing, and those aware of the history of literature (Medieval Romance, etc).

I found Effinger’s themes are appealing and thought provoking: the destructive and creative power of the written word, mythologizing, ascribing/creating theology, and the strange malleability and power of memory.  Throughout the novel Effinger gloriously subverts the genre of the fantasy quest, takes satirical jabs at hagiography and religion, and pokes fun at what he sees as the excesses of literary criticism.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Seyt is one of many brothers and sisters — it is difficult to tell if they’re all directly related — descended from Our Parents (Our Father + Our Mother), the first settlers on the planet Home.  Subsequent families are named in order of their arrival on the planet.  Over time the characters of Our Father and Our Mother are ascribed by their children certain mystical and holy properties.  For unexplained reasons, Our Father leaves the family and heads up The River. Dore, the eldest son, is sent by Our Mother to retrieve him.  Our Mother dies in sorrow, crying continuously on her “throne” in the yard.  The entire story of the arrival on the Planet Home and the backstories for how and why Our Mother and Our Father were forced of Earth are shrouded in legend.  But they appear to be debtors who were deported.  Their subsequent deification further obscures the account.

Seyt is asked by the family to write a history of Dore’s journey to seek Our Father.  Without doubt Seyt loves to tell outlandish stories and discuss his own allegorical frameworks which may or may not exist. The novel contains three simultaneous narratives which Effinger interweaves with a delightful ease.  First, Seyt’s invented account of Dore’s journey to seek Our Father.  Second, the family’s reactions to and the ramifications of Seyt’s story as he is writing it.  And third, Seyt’s recounting of the Family’s past which are often tangents attached to the story of Dore’s quest.

Of course, no one has any idea of what actually happened on Dore’s quest because he has not returned.  For all they know, he died in a nearby ditch.  Seyt has conflicting motives for writing: first he claims to just be “telling a story; [because] some of [his] family want to forget that Our Parents and Dore were people, too.  They walked around and stubbed their toes and performed bodily functions.  Except Our Mother, of course; she just cried” (48).  Other times he suggests much more lofty reasons for writing, “I do not intend this history to be merely a collection of simulated exploits.  There is in it the potential for a truly useful homiletic too” (55).  As in, the story as part of the official religious canon containing useful maxims, morals, and lessons…

The family is transfixed by what Seyt is writing: he recounts, “standing behind me are my bothers Jelt, Wole, and Niln, and my sisters Aniatrese, Lalichë, Ateichál, and Dúnilaea.  They follow my pen across the page like spectators at a very slow tennis match” (27).  At first Seyt is overwhelmed by the “luxurious feeling it is to get up and know that you’ve become a celebrity overnight” (25).

Over time Seyt’s family divides into two camps: “there is a sharper division among my brothers and sisters. some intrigued by my imagination, others put off by the implausibility and the “misrepresentations” (46).  Dore, considered a holy figure, often is tempted, or easily duped, or gives in to his baser desires on his quest.  These stories are interpreted literally by some members of his family who see him violating the sacred figure.

Likewise, the figure of Our Mother is a point of contention.  Why Our Mother perpetually cries is unclear.  According to Dore’s final explanation (potential fabrication) of the reason for the trip to Home as supposedly told by Our Father,  Our Father bashed her head with an ice pick (186).  Of course, this is also as much of a fabrication as any of Seyt’s other stories because he cannot possibly know.  Seyt’s underlying motive reason for his iconoclastic portrayals of Our Mother is his claim that it is “dangerous to romanticize her faults.  Surely I am not the only one who will remember them” (35).  Seyt recounts a bizarre story where Our Mother emerges from her “veils of tears” in order to perform a practically demonstration on how to treat the rebuffed suitor and abandoned mistress: “we improved our stills upon a lifelike dummy, “treating” it for shock, water and smoke inhalation, and unrequited affection” (59).  This develops into  “what she called her Sorrow Drill” — whenever the children feel the “poisons of heartache  they were to dress in dirty garments and go around barefoot (59–60).”  Seyt’s literary treatment of Our Parents and Dore infringe on the community’s commonly held beliefs.

Seyt’s story of Dore, which forms half of the novel, takes on the shape of an allegory-heavy medieval quest narrative purposely subverted.  A mysterious figure, Glorian of The Wisdom enters the narrative whenever Dore is in trouble.  Dore confronts Dr. Dread and his gigantic vegetable monsters, falls for damsels in distress, plays games in mock war for various warlords, replays Greek legend, etc.  Seyt himself is an awful storyteller.  The characters are constantly changing, the action is told hastily with endless discussion of all the symbolic qualities — often incredibly obvious ones.

This is due to the fact that whenever a family member finds a fault in his narrative, often conveyed in the form of a written message passed to him, Seyt modified the allegories, the meanings, the characters, their actions…  Seyt has to be constantly aware of how the story he is telling will be interpreted by various members of the family.  For example, “Laliché is reading this as I write; she suggests that I am subconsciously introducing an overtly phallic symbol here.  I don’t think so.  For me to have Dore meet and overcome a symbol of his masculinity would be to metaphorically castrate our sacred brother.  We wouldn’t want Ateichál to read that; she always dug Dore’s body” (81).

The story of Dore becomes the most talked about topic of discussion.  It is even merchandized!  As the family reads Seyt’s version story of Dore’s journey their own beliefs become increasingly radicalized as they are forced to either come to grips with his portrayals or react against them.  Eventually an entire theology is developed between the figures of Dore, Our Father, and the River (of course, Effinger is pulling in Medieval arguments — and later one — on the nature of the Trinity):

“There are several whose varient ideas may lead to corruption of straight thinking.  For instance, Chel speaks of the idenity of Dore’s two missions.  The very elevation of Dore’s quest for Riverlore to an equality with his reunion with Our Father is a bold heresy.  But Chel takes the Terian error further.  He equates the three offices of the River — Water, Channel, and the ineffable Current — with the three members of our pantheon.  Our Father, he claims, is the fleshy manifestation of the River’s sacred and life giving fluid.  When it is given direction, as Our Father’s essence was through the agency of Our Mother, the result is a Current, a force, in which our experience it is Dore, who proceeds from our Father and is made appreciable to us by Our Mother [...]” 148.

Seyt himself treads a difficult line.  His own exuberance in telling the story often causes him to ignore the ramifications of how he tells it.  He is routinely accused of heresy but his quick rewrites and reconceptualization can only appease the critics for so long.  Eventually he too must undertake a quest up the River to seek out Our Father and Dore, but who will be the official historian who writes about his journey?  And so begins, and endless descent into entropy…

Final Thoughts

My review has only touched on a few of the multi-fold themes and metafictional techniques that Effinger deploys.  Simply put, What Entropy Means to Me is a masterpiece of literary science fiction.  I was never overwhelmed by the incredibly layered nature of the work (some readers will be).  In Barry N. Malzberg’s metafictional novels from the early 70s (Beyond Apollo, Revelations, In The Enclosure, etc) his anti-heroes are obsessed with seeking the truth but are unable to do so or create incredibly layered artifice that “represents” the truth.  In What Entropy Means to Me, Seyt is utterly uninterested in telling the truth despite his claims that his portrayals are more realistic and his explicit attempt to subvert the clearly “untruthful” beliefs held by his family.  Of course, his story is as much a fabrication as the mythologized knowledge of Our Father, Our Mother, and Dore that his family adheres to.

For fans of literary, metafictional + experimental, science fiction low on plot and heavy on character.  Be warned, if you do not enjoy other works of the New Wave Movement you probably will not tolerate What Entropy Means to Me.

(Dickran Palulian’s cover for the 1972 edition)

(Uncredited cover for the 1989 edition)

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26 thoughts on “Book Review: What Entropy Means to Me, George Alec Effinger (1972)”

  1. I’m not entirely certain I have read any new wave fiction. I do know that I don’t consider myself a fan of experimental fiction. Oh, I’ve read stuff that I actually enjoyed very much but at the same time it is that kind of description that generally has me saying ‘thanks, but no thanks’. More than anything it is probably because I haven’t developed a good working knowledge of the form and so don’t appreciate what it is I am reading.

    Good to come over here and see that you have a 5/5 book on your hands. I always enjoy it when a book grabs hold of a reader and their passion pours out in their review.

    1. You’ve never read any of Zelazny, Silverberg (late 60s early 70s), experimental Brunner, Aldiss, Disch, Delany, Sladek, Priest, Bayley, Malzberg (somewhat late to the movement), Ellison, Spinrad, early M. John Harrison, or Ballard’s works? I suspect you have read at least three New Wave novels/short stories….

      The term is a very loose term — that’s for sure. But, a lot of my experimental works from the 60s and early 70s fit into the movement. Effinger and Malzberg are slightly late figures — one or two years too late I guess….

      Haha, yeah, I’ve only given out 6 5/5’s in the multiple years I’ve had the blog.

      Here they are ordered by rating ;)

      http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/science-fiction-book-reviews-by-author/sci-fi-book-review-index-by-rating/

      1. Ummm….no (he types sheepishly). My first Silverberg was earlier this year and that was some of his earlier pulp works, which I enjoyed very much. I have at least one Ballard book on my list because of one of your reviews and/or book covers that I’m trying to track down and I bought a book of Ballard short stories a few months back.

        I also have not read a great deal of 60’s fiction outside of Heinlein, Harrison and Cordwainer Smith. Herbert’s Dune last year. My exploration of the “classics” has been more in the 50’s and I don’t think I’ve read a great deal of 70’s fiction either (Ringworld…not much else springs to mind). I’m not a big fan of the 70’s mindset (or my own limited experience of it as a child) and so I, probably unjustly, tend to avoid the decade altogether.

        Obviously I have a great deal more to read to expand my education of what has went before. Stand on Zanzibar is one book I find myself wanting to read after reading Jo Walton’s Among Others.

      2. Well, sci-fi from this period can be very polemical, interested in the social movements of the day (not so much Effinger but Silverberg, Aldiss, etc).

        I recommend: Silverberg’s Downward to the Earth, The World Inside — very early 70s, Silverberg The Man in the Maze, Delany’s Nova, Priest’s The Inverted World, Malzberg’s Revelations, M. J. Harrison’s The Pastel City, Ballard’s The Drowned World and The Drought etc….

      3. Could care less for most of Heinlein’s novels but that is probably one of his best…. Yeah, I wish I had the willpower to write a review for Ballard’s The Drowned Word — a 4.75 or 5/5 for me — great novel.

        I recommend his short stories. My fiance gave me his collected works volume and I’ve read it steadily over the last few months. Great stuff.

      4. Nice gift! I can’t remember off the top of my head what small paperback collection I bought, but the cover was nice and it just had to come home with me.

      5. Yeah it was a great gift, I generally don’t buy omnibus collections because I love the old cover art — but, for my favorite authors I do (Ballard, Borges, Philip K. Dick, etc). And, only the more famous authors have omnibus collections — I must admit, it’s nice having them in chronological order…

  2. Or, read the Hugo winners from the Late 60s early 70s.

    1966 Roger Zelazny,This Immortal
    1967 Robert A. Heinlein, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress
    1968 Roger Zelazny, Lord of Light
    1969 John Brunner, Stand on Zanzibar
    1970 Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness

    But, besides the Brunner and Zelazny work not very New Wave-esque…

  3. I wonder why Effinger Is not widely read now. I think he would compare well with Calvino. I’m guessing the ‘Sci-Fi’ label hurts his reputation. He’s not a ‘Sci-Fi’ writer, but I’d also recommend Nicholson Baker if you like metafiction.

    1. Effinger wrote quite a lot — his work apparently varies greatly in quality — his later works are apparently rather overblown which I felt like he could easily do at any point in What Entropy Means to Me but didn’t — thankfully!

      I think a playful Borges mixed with some medieval-esque fantasy is a nice comparison ;)

      What do recommend of Nicholson Baker’s works?

  4. I love this book; I just reread it last year. Effinger is one of the writers I point at when I try to articulate the literary possibilities of science fiction and fantasy.

    I just found a copy of Effinger’s “The Wolves of Memory” in a used book shop a few weeks ago. I look forward to rereading it; I thought it was amazing when I read it in college.

    1. Have you read any of his short stories?

      I want to procure his 70s collections: Mixed Feelings (1974), Irrational Numbers (1976), Dirty Tricks (1978)…

      I might buy a copy of his second novel after What Entropy Means to Me, Relatives (1973) in a bit… hmm…

      (probably won’t move into his 80s works — like The Wolves of Memory — for a while)

  5. I have a huge fondness for GAE, and haven’t read this one so thanks. His Budayeen trilogy is I think one of the great works of SF. He’s a bit of an undersung hero in my view, so it’s great to see him getting some attention.

    After reading this review this morning I saw that most of his back catalogue now seems to be available on Kindle, so I’ll be exploring some of that.

    Do you recall which were supposed to be the more overblown works? I thought, incorrectly, that he hadn’t written much but it looks like instead I just wasn’t aware of much of what he had written.

    1. I think Relatives (1973) and Those Gentle Voices: A Promethean Romance of the Spaceways (1976) fall into that category. But don’t take my word for it….

      The Wolves of Memory (1981) is claimed by some to be his best work…. But yeah, he has many a short story collection as well. I’ve put multiple ones on my to acquire list.

    1. Thanks! A very experimental book…. Do you like the 60s New Wave movement? But I think you’ll enjoy the commentary on the writing/creative process and its pitfalls….

      1. I really don’t know about the 60s New Wave movement…I guess I’ll see! I do tend to be interested in this kind of commentary though, and the summation you gave intrigued me.

  6. Auto listed, thanks for pointing this one out so thoroughly. Brunner’s Stand on Zanzibar (1968) notching & nod sells it.

    1. Stand on Zanzibar is my single favorite SF novel… With What Entropy Means to Me, some Malzberg novels, soem Russ novels, some Le Guin nvoels, Bishop’s A Funeral for the Eyes of Fire (first edition, 1975 — not the cut later edition), all following close behind…

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