Friday, 26 March 2010

Resolution, Biologism and "The Devil's Alphabet" by Daryl Gregory

I took a long time getting into this novel by Daryl Gregory (who wrote the astonishing novella "Second Person, Present Tense"), but when I finished it yesterday, I really would have liked it to go on for another 200 pages. That's something that happens to me very rarely - normally, I'm kind of relieved about having finished a book, because another dozen promising books is waiting for me. I'd say that "The Devil's Alphabet" is a great novel, but also one that left me with a desire not only for more, but for a more satisfying resolution. However, the latter is probably the reason why I don't feel at odds with the book and why I'm able to embrace what I'm reading into it as its "message" despite the fact that Gregory is obviously so fascinated with biological determinism.

"The Devil's Alphabet" is about Paxton Martin coming home to his Smalltown of Switchcreek after fifteen years (or maybe it was ten - something along the lines). Shortly before he left, Switchcreek was afflicted by a weird illness that killed nearly a third of its pupoluation, turned most of the others into three different subspecies (or parallel-species) of humankind and then just stopped. Paxton is among the few who haven't been turned. i won't go into details on the story itself; let it suffice to say that Gregory has written a great, small cast of very flawed and relatable characters and a very quiet, unagitatet and moving story.
Among the central concepts if the novel is the question of how the changed people of Switchcreek, as well as the unchanged Paxton, are governed by their bodies. The "Betas", for example, procreate by parthogenesis and are therefore slightly a-social and totally focussed on their offsprings - most of the consider abortion a sin worthy of death. The giant, predatory "Argos" seem to develop a dangerous temper. And the montrously obese "Charlies" seem to have a complex biological strategy of mate bonding negotiated by the elders which is facilitated by means of some kind of psychotic drug that Charlies of a certain age sweat out (yeah, it's a little icky). It's made very clear that the transformed people of Switchcreak have been transformed in all regards, that their psychology is fundamentally altered by the biological changes.
It seems kind of deterministic. But before I'm getting to the question if this is really the case, let me outline what my problem with biological determinism is: While I wouldn't consider myself the hardcore deconstructivist I once was anymore (the one who read Foucault, Freud and Lacan only filtered through the perspective of Judith Butler), I still think that the insistence that certain kinds of behaviour are in some way biologically ingrained is more often than not a thinly veiled form of moralism that tries to prescribe to people how they should behave because it is supposed to be natural for them. Even in its less prescriptive forms, determinism seems to me mostly as a way to avoid a more complex evaluation of one's own behaviour ("Hey, it's not my fault I'm a rapist. It's my genes trying to force me to procreate.")
On the other hand, I'm absolutely in favour of acknowledging that we are our bodies, and that all of our behaviour, all of our options are in principle rooted in our bodies. I just insist that this relation should neither be charged with some form of determinism ("We have no choice but to behave in a certain way because we are automatons programmed by nature") or moralism ("we ought to behave like nature intended us to"). I also believe that Richard Dawkins is fundamentally wrong when, at the end of his "The Selfish Gene", he inverts this moralism and suggests that we should emancipate from our selfish nature (thereby reintroducing the idealist body/mind-duality he wants to leave behind). I think we should consider ourselves bodily creatures with a mind which is rooted in an evolutionary history as well as in the social interaction with other bodily creatures (who are the product of evolution themselves). I think evolution knows no goal and therefore, it's products (our social, bodily selves) can't be used "right" or "wrong" in any meaningful way. "Right" or "wrong" are ethical categories, and they are highly important because humans are social and self-aware creatures capable of empathy. However, nature knows no right and wrong, and trying to project these categories into nature are usually a conscious or unconscious attempt to close the debate about these categories and tell other people how to behave.
These beliefs admittedly put me in a difficult situation. I consider it important to acknowledge the importance of our physicality, but I get wary as soon as someone makes an argument based upon what we know about our physicality. So I'm not only on the fence, I have also already decided that I don't want to get down on any side of the fence.

And the wonderful thing about Gregory's book is that - for me - it articulates about how it feels to sit on this fence. Because the protagonists of the book constantly struggle with their bodies, and not in simplistic mind-over-matter sense. They struggle to understand and to position themselves within the fears and desires generated by their bodily situation and within their social desires and their sense of continuity as an individual. There are clues to what is what in this entaglement, but no certainty. And their struggle is never about finding meaning in biology or in rejecting biology, but about finding a way to negotiate the different aspects of their situation. It's not about finding the final answer about who these characters are, but about emphatically taking part in their ongoing process of self-definition in the face of new bodily and social realities. I even think Gregory explicitly comments on the futility of finding meaning in a biologically deterministic model of one's own self towards the end of the novel (you'll certainly know what I mean when your read it). I could be totally wrong and Gregory might not be sitting on the same fence as I am after all - but the beauty of it is that wherever he stands, his examination is so thorough and thoughtful and veritable that it is approachable from all kinds of positions.


Jasper said...

Nice obeservations...and a beautifully creative use of the term "fence-sitting" by the way :).

Daryl Gregory said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments on the book, Jakob. These are the kinds of arguments (about biological determinism, morality, free will, and the best possible beer to have with hot-wings) that I have with myself on a regular basis, and end up working out through fiction. I started writing a long response to your post before I realized that if I didn't stop I wouldn't get any fiction writing done this morning, and I'm way behind. I'll try to put it on my blog and link back to you.

For now, let me just say thanks for the post. The fact that the book triggered these kinds of questions is enormously satisfying, and it's one of the reasons I write science fiction. The other reason is all the free hot-wings.

Jakob Schmidt said...

A pleasure - and thanks for giving me so much food for thought with your book - it's been a long time since I really thought about these things in earnest ...
And of course I'm totally in favour of you writing fiction instead of writing extensive blog comments - I wish you a succesful writing day and lots of free hot-wings!

imago1 said...


If you like, I'm happy to email you a preview copy of the new collection.

drop me a line at

llairdsbarron at msn dot com

All best,


imago1 said...

And hi, Daryl!

Why has no one told me about the hot wings? First the secret handshake, now this...