Book Review: What Entropy Means to Me, George Alec Effinger (1972)
December 13, 2012 § 20 Comments
(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 through 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…
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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