Fast Fiction: The Turing Machines of Babel, by Eric Schwitzgebel

I just finished this embrace of the ridiculous, Alice-through-the-looking-glass piece of short fiction called “The Turing Machines of Babel,” written by Eric Schwitzgebel, published by Apex Magazine.

As a thought experiment, yes, it was interesting, and had all the appropriate start from nothing, build up to everything stepping stones one expects in a story that is really more an exploration of a concept than an actual story.  It is, I suppose, a philosophical exploration of the concept of existence, the kind of highly deep thinking every teenager engages in where one accepts the possibility that everything we take as real is just an illusion.

I read a short story last year by a Japanese writer that posited a cylindrical world in which one person decides they want to reach the top and find out who are the gods that every so often come through and destroy swathes of their supposed world.  At least it had less navel-gazing than the guy taking credit for all the women in his life who worked hard to figure out what the rabbits in “The Turing Machines of Babel” were doing, and how to program them.

About half-way into this story I got a serious Name of the Wind vibe from it.  A man who assigns himself to a quest, believes he knows better than everyone what is going on, collects accolades for basically doing nothing, and is shown to be much less useful than the women in his life, who for some reason shower their excellence on him instead of just going out and doing for themselves.

Maybe it was the author’s intention to explore the extreme self-centeredness of men, who believe entire made up worlds revolve around them.

Probably not, though.

The Just City, by Jo Walton

First book in the Thessaly trilogy, The Just City is a startling look at
human nature and the idea of justice. 
It starts with an idea, just as Plato began the Republic with an idea, and runs like a boulder rolling down a
mountain.  The Just City has an eerie feeling, as well it should for a city
built next to a volcano by Platonists plucked from history in order to fulfill
the thought experiment of a Greek god, that nevertheless is compelling and will
keep readers turning pages until the end. 

Much of the novel’s appeal comes from the way Walton writes
dialog and characters.  She writes
with practiced ease and confidence, pulling readers into the story by the
strength of her characters’ wit and will. 
Her ability to create and inhabit a space in which rhetoric is the coin
of the realm, and in which justice and excellence are called upon unironically,
rivals any diatribe on utopia that More could write any.  The premise, that Athene wants to see
if she can create the just city described by Plato in the Republic, but can only build it with people who pray to her for
direct intervention, leads to a cast of characters spanning much of our known
history.  Add to this stew another
god who wishes to incarnate in order to learn about the human experience, and
you have a recipe for endless uncomfortable revelations about humanity.

Uncomfortable
as situations may become, however, Walton’s characters are so infused with
life, reason, motivation, that instead of being pushed away, the reader feels
drawn in—and drawn to the characters. 
And then the final straw is placed on the pile.  Sokrates, and all his jubilant,
questioning energy, is brought to the Just City.  By asking questions and engaging in conversations, Sokrates
attempts to find the truth, even if it means invoking the wrath of a god to do
it.

Readers
interested in Greek history and philosophy will find The Just City to be a compelling read, as will those looking for a
well-written character drama.  The
novel is written from the viewpoints of its main characters, providing both
wide perspectives and unreliable narrators.  This is a novel that is not afraid to ask questions,
especially where they concern human knowledge and intentions.  Anyone looking for a cerebral summer
read to keep the mind active need look no further.

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

Though The Philosopher Kings is the second in Jo Walton’s Thessaly series,
the novel reads great as a standalone. 
It features strongly realized characters, however it is driven by
ideas—specifically human nature and what it means to strive for excellence, and
how the State comes into play. 
Individually, the tensions in the plot are small but considered together
they add up to a much larger conflict that is driven by time itself.  All characters grow up knowing that
they are participating in an experiment created by Athene herself, and that
everything they are working towards is destined to be destroyed by a volcano.

But
before all of that can happen, Apollo—incarnated as Pytheas—must find out who
killed his wife Simmea in a raid, and his daughter Arete—Greek for
excellence—must pass her tests to become an adult and find her place in the
Just City.  The Just City, though,
is just a remnant now, as many of the founding Masters have left to form new
versions of Plato’s Just City. 
Never before has Plato’s Republic
been so compelling.  A
2000-year-old thought experiement has come alive, grown, and evolved to fit the
people trying to live it.  Of course,
you don’t need to have read the Republic
in order to enjoy the novel, but it certainly does help.

The
premise that only Plato scholars—those who pray to Athene to take them to the
Just City—can create the Just City, even if it means transporting them out of
time, lends further depth and tension to the narrative, as former cultures and
lives affect the ways in which characters interact with each other and their
individual interpretations of Plato, justice, religion, freedom, and a host of
other concepts.  Issues which we
struggle with today are dissected and debated in The Philosopher Kings, in a way that allows the reader to really
think about concepts, all while enjoying a story of adventure and
self-discovery.

Readers
who are interested in Greek history and philosophy will enjoy how Walton brings
characters, places, and ideas to life in The
Philosopher Kings,
as will readers
who enjoy time travel stories and plots that feature characters our of place in
history.  Walton has written a
novel that tells the story from many points of view, including those often
overlooked in modern stories of ancient Greece and Rome. 

A Tale for the Time Being, by Ruth Ozeki

            A Tale for the Time Being is proof that big things come in small packages.  Not the book itself—at just over 400 pages, it’s a commitment—but in the characters themselves.  Ozeki’s Man Booker-nominated novel contains no larger-than-life or overly dramatic characters.  No true villains, no celebrated heroes unseemly with their own goodness.  But it contains heroes nonetheless.  It’s the story of Nao, who begins to tell a story just to pass the time, or just in time, or before time runs out. 

            A Tale for the Time Being is a series of stories that get bound up in others, swirled around, and tucked inside until the characters—and the readers—are so thoroughly engrossed that there is no turning back.  In Ozeki’s novel characters are drawn to relive and remember the past, theirs and others’, to feel regret and loss over events and actions taken and not taken, and yet the novel conveys the heady knowledge that whatever they feel about the past, they wouldn’t change it, couldn’t change it—there is no other way it could have happened—and yet, what if it just… did?  Ozeki plays with time; her characters play with and experience time in a multitude of ways.

            Nao’s story itself is a time being—a thing lost in time, a singular moment—as it wouldn’t even be told to the reader if not for the fact that Ruth picked it up on a beach on the other side of the Pacific from where it was originally written.  It is Ruth’s fascination with Nao’s story, her reading of it that in effect makes it happen for us the readers.  And Nao’s story gives truth to other stories, stories which have happened in the past, stories which may or may not be entirely true or real.  Nao has experienced heartbreak and loss of her own, made all the more heartbreaking by her revelations of the pain and suffering of others in her family.  Ruth’s experience of Nao’s story adds a further layer when processed through the conditions of Ruth’s own past and present.

            Ozeki plays with point of view in her novel, wringing the most out of how her characters perceive each other to bring her stories alive.  She uses the twinned storylines of Ruth and Nao to show how sometimes it takes more than one perspective to really understand a person or their actions.  She makes tangible how regret and redemption can be some of the most powerful forces in people’s lives, bringing them closer to each other even over vast distances of time.  A Tale for the Time Being is a powerful piece of storytelling, highly recommended for readers looking for a good existential read, or interested in complicated storylines.  This novel will also be a delight for readers looking for a modern novel that analyzes current events, or even for readers who fancy a blending of the past and present.  A Tale for the Time Being breaks down the barrier between reader, writer, and the story itself, and will be enjoyed by readers looking to break out of a reading rut, a change of pace from the business of usual of most novels.