Monday, March 04, 2013

Sivertsen, Shianshenka (2011)

Rowen Sivertsen, Shianshenka, the Rise and Fall of the Perfect Creation. Birch Tree Road Publishing, 2011. Pp. 366. ISBN 978-8-2998770-0-8. $10.00.

Reviewed by Kate Onyett

This lengthy and involved narrative is the epic of the Zhongzi—their culture’s rise and fall, as the title tells us. They are little man-made life forms, no bigger than a palm of a hand. They are made to be ‘perfect’ by their human bioengineer; to never need to be violent, never to suffer excessive pain, never to fear for food or a partner to reproduce, never to question their existence, as they all carry specific Callings (drives towards specific intellectual pursuit). These critters are dropped onto a planet, wild with geothermic activity and toxic to humans, as an experiment in survival. Thus begins the Zhongzis’ existence, as we follow first one, and then another as they awaken to consciousness high above the ocean, the main land mass and the geysers of the planet, which will be the three main stages for their play.

This is Sivertsen’s philosophical experiment. Having read it through, and thought about it, there are huge issues here, big themes of existence, humanity’s response to life (played out through our involvement with Zhongzi events) and social-political debate carried out on a level of fictional exploration. This is speculative fiction at its purest: an actual speculation. Here’s my idea of a perfect creature, the answer to a ‘perfect’ society (e.g. one that does not seem to have the aggressive faults of Earth’s leading predator), and here’s how they could develop. Sivertsen is a pacifist; active in aid and peace work, a qualified biochemist and her work is a direct reflection of this: a mixture of moral discussion and grounding biological detail. Perhaps most poignantly, mentioned in a small dedication, are the “survivors of massacres everywhere and especially to the young survivors from Utøya, Norway”—her adopted homeland. Perhaps this is her way to explain bad events happening to ‘good’ people: a purging of grief and regret over the behaviours her work and life choices suggest she abhors? These are big, BIG issues—social, emotional, humanistic—that a review is no place to go fully into. As the book’s website says, this “crosses many genres to challenge readers to imagine and experience a unique existence in a better world. Or is it a better world?” But I shall pick up on some of them as I felt they added or detracted from the presentation of the piece. After all, anyone could read this, from a casual reader to a follower of the same causes as Sivertsen. How, then, did the book match up as an experience to read, and a story to discover?

I did begin reading, thinking that this was going to be too vast to produce in a reasonable scope, thinking that this was just a little too pretentious a project to be readable. I was very surprised. I actually came to care for the little Zhongzi, and to want to know what happened next.

First—the format. I read the Kindle version, so I had open electronic links to the ‘multimedia’ aspect of the book; a multimedia ‘project’ with its own webpages, songs and pictures. If someone approached this via the hardcopy book, they would not have such direct links. Since I did not have the hardcopy, I cannot say if there are pages in there with typed-out URLs to show readers the way to go, but having dipped into the songs and images online, I have to say that they were not intrinsic to my enjoyment of the book. Indeed, I enjoyed the book more without them. As with the adaptation of a book onto a visual medium, what we ‘see’ when we read of characters, how we ‘hear’ them is never the same as how they are presented—how could they be, given the multiple variations of how the characters appear to all the readers of a book? But this felt the same. Even though the pictures and music were developed as part of the ‘experience’, I was quite happy having my own experience between me and the narrative. Besides, the songs and the pictures came across as a little… bland. I would have liked a little more fire and passion in their execution. To make this ‘multimedia’ seemed more the pretension of an artistic group having a love-in than providing any great additional pleasure to the narrative. The two most useful illustrations are included in the text: a map of the Zhongzis’ home land-mass (useful for keeping all the locations mentioned in order), and a diagram of the strange, cone-shaped, feather-limbed, waving-sensor Zhongzi themselves. These are the little people of the narrative, but it is easy to forget their very alien shape in their very human interactions.

The major question posited is: if intelligence is gifted to a creature, in what way will it be used—or not used? From this comes the idea; what use intelligence? What use curiosity? Sivertsen decides for the route of development: that life will find a way, that personality and curiosity will take a creature from beyond its instincts towards active decision-making, which will then start the foundations of a civilising, collective nature. Thus we come to a first Major Point: social critique. It cannot be ignored: as charming as the Zhongzi are, they are Sivertsen’s tool for social discussion. And on the Zhongzis’ world, two major social blocs arise. That of the original, liberal collectivism by which the Zhongzi started their civilisation, and later on, the technocratic, autocratic, hierarchical society of more sedentary Zhongzi. Comparisons between naturalistic ‘native’ peoples and technology-bamboozled Europeans and how we managed to ride rough-shod over the more ‘natural’ peoples trumpets in one’s ear loudly.

The difference is between the freedom of a life lived in the air by the collectivism—literally a ‘lighter life’—following one’s nature (which for a Zhongzi is airborne, preventing any form of settling and materialistic acquisition), compared to one derived from intellectual pursuit gone extreme, dependent on subjugation of life forms mobile and plant-like in order to sustain it. There is a loss of contact with one’s inherent nature that is mourned over here: that the nature is not one for manipulating the world to suit you, but rather to change your own habits to allow your place in the world to continue. To be in harmony with the world, instead of trying to work against its rhythms. There is also the cruelty in inherent in a system that requires subjugation of any other being in order to make one’s own life possible. The ‘original’ Zhongzi do their best time and again to free those caught in the machinations of the sedentary Zhongzi; both beast of burden and fellow Zhongzi who, once ‘healed’ by the original groups back to a sense of their true Zhongzi self, weep for the distress they have caused.

The suggestion is that people are not inherently evil, that we have just lost sight of what we really are. There is, as is noted on the book’s website, and in the afterword, a distinct lack of ‘evil’ in this history of the Zhongzi. Instead, bad things are done out a sense that this is the correct thing to do to, based upon the ideas of the individual concerned. Where they go ‘wrong’ is in not taking advice and opinions from others, especially those who lives they think they will ‘improve’ by their actions. Acting alone, then, is a first sign of possible slip towards bad deeds. For Sivertsen, the road to hell really is paved with good intentions, and there is a strong sense of needing to explain that bad events are not from an intangible force, but more a differing point of view on events. Sivertsen shies away from any idea that evil—the desire to hurt for hurting’s sake, that an individual can make an active choice to be selfish, unkind and allow hate to blind them to common decency—can happen without such justification as she has. In her ‘perfect creation’, even evil is a type of ‘perfect’ mistake. Given her work and background, and that sad dedication, these are perhaps concepts she does not feel she can tackle, or admit into her paradise.

But that the individual as a concept is not necessarily a bad thing. There is much in Shianshenka that celebrates the strength of the individual. It is the waking of individuals to a wider consciousness of the world around them, the work of individuals towards making a viable form of communication to build a social framework, the decisions made by individuals to stand by their convictions, to pity and help others, to attempt rescue of fellows in distress, and the idea of living one’s life to the fullest by being truest to one’s intrinsic nature (the cultural heritage of one’s forefathers added to the imperative of one’s intellectual Calling); all these are incredibly important in creating the Zhongzi culture, its morals and ethics, its movements and choices. Indeed, instead of simply taking on their father’s names, multiple versions of the same type of Zhongzi modify their names to distinguish them for their own sakes. But Sivertsen adds to this the need for others around one; to temper one’s wilder ideas, to enjoy one’s company, to be a support network and prevent those suffering from fear or distress from going rogue. It is the collective nature of the Zhongzi society, making use of the treasure of their individual natures, and the subscribing of the individuals to this collectivism, that makes the ‘original’ Zhongzis successful in their existence.

Contrast the greater number of Zhongzi; their different colours defining their specific skills and Calling, the Sons of Hera strain; larger, golden Zhongzi, longer-lived and held in awe by their smaller cousins. The Sons of Hera may have multiple interests and talents—multitasking which seems almost magical to smaller Zhongzi—but they are also the most discontented. They live loner lives, drifting about, not really settling down, not following one distinct Calling. Too much diversity in their minds has made them distant, unhappy in their drifting. The two who will bring down the Zhongzi are from this line and have eventually also lost their intrinsic sense of self—a disastrous decision to try to free them from adherence to cultural imperatives, made for them by their direct progenitor, Hera. Without self-knowledge, without a sense of cultural history or of distinct purpose, the individual starts to become rogue: a danger to others as they become high-handed and autocratic in their decisions. Insert your choice of European/Non-European metaphor here, or possibly, if you feel like it, a Red Menace Happy Little Mindless Drones metaphor if that floats your boat. The beauty is: responses to Sivertsen’s text can be as varied as the minds of those reading it.

The most direct critique in the book is that of the influence of religion; the mindless following of another simply because they appear mystical and amazing. From this comes the dangerous act of ‘interpretation’: what has been used as an excuse to oppress in the name of something ‘better’ since religions were first organised. These are the means the two final Sons of Hera attempt to use to fill their inner personal voids leading to an extreme case of knowing-best and the utter destruction of the original Zhongzi habitat, along with most of the Zhongzi. The religious criticism also stretches to god-beings of any race who create life with ‘good intent’ and who then leave them alone to try to cope. The feckless abandonment of created life is not one that will go down a happy route. Indeed, the original Zhongzi form of reproduction; a direct cloning of the self into an embryonic bud, which is shot into the air high above to begin the Zhongzi life-cycle of falling gently to the sea, features a ‘Golden Hour’ when the father clone is in direct communication with the offspring clone, and passes all their knowledge and cultural memory to them. Intensive parenting. But the ‘better’ form of clone-rearing is discovered with the riding of geysers of water, which fling the Zhongzi back up into the air again, allowing them a life-span of several falls, instead of just one. By this route, fathers can accompany their children and nurture them for a greater period of time. Although the Zhongzi are aware they were created and dropped onto their world, they feel ambivalence in their respect for their Creator: why did he not stick around to see how they did? The reader is encouraged to consider this lack of parenting as a bad idea.

This is a major undertaking: the charting, through narrative, of the creation of life through to its destruction. The rise and fall of social constructs, ethics, creativity, and ideological conflict. It is carried off in an episodic fashion. The chapters are long, and each deals with a major step in Zhongzi development. Referential appendices describe characters, flora, fauna and locations. The idea is an immersion into the Zhongzi world, told with absolute conviction, presented as a ‘real’ history. The appendices, mentions within the text, and indeed the website, should you choose to browse there, describe that the writer is trying to translate Zhongzi experience into a human one to be understandable, that Bard, an enthusiast for Zhongzi culture, has worked hard to translate their songs; shows of movement and dance, into formats that humans can read (these are the poem-songs that appear in the text and in the multimedia recordings). Like Tolkein, this is to be taken very much as presented: ‘real’ characters. Unlike Tolkein, there is a sense of the narrator being a part of a collating human agency, instead of a god-like omniscience. This is a creative anthropological study, instead of a fantastical polemic.

It is the total conviction that this is a reality that is possible, that has happened, that, is the main charm of this book. Cute little critters, almost deadpan delivered dramatic moments and a general sense of trying to aim towards a ‘greater good’ making for a warm fuzzy feeling about the Zhongzi made this a joy to read. The style is steady in pace, consistent and calm in tone, and the information given rich but not over-involved. This, then, will not be a book for everyone. There is no great ‘quest’, no good vs. evil slam-dunk and righteous black-and-white drawing of lines. The climax is one of total destruction—Sivertsen’s warning about human warlike excesses leading to our own destruction, perhaps? Although a sense of continuance—the seeding of other, smaller landmasses with Zhongzi survivors before the ‘final solution’—gives some hope for the species. And I found it was a hope I wanted to have: that these little guys had found a place in my curiosity and my heart. Although I am dubious about anything (organisation, writing) that smacks of zealous crusading, and while it opened ideas that I don’t necessarily agree with—and not everyone is going to agree with Sivertsen’s politics or social ideas here expressed—this was no fanatical exercise. I felt Sivertsen’s work, whether she really intended it or not, encouraged personal reflection and consideration, and created an interest in agreeing or disagreeing with her that made the book more truly interactive than the multimedia aspect. Possibly the very innocence of the Zhongzi and their presentation as basically decent, caring, socially aware creatures makes them more heroic, more worthy of hope, than flawed heroes, or god-like beings. We are encouraged to like them, and instead of a direct cultural debate, dry and headache-inducing, Sivertsen sneaks up on us via her adorable little creations.

‘Zhongzi’ translates as ‘seed’ in Chinese. ‘Seeds’ can cure or kill: and seeding of certain spores forms the final self-destructive act of the seeding Zhongzi. But they still, like their translated namesake, represent potentiality. The book’s lasting impression is that of potential, of hope rising above individuals and even societies, that the next chapter is not the ultimate one. The book is rounded off focusing on the single survivor of the main landmass Zhongzi, caught by the returning scientists decades later. This little one is programmed by his clone-father to ask the question ‘why’ of their Creator (the ultimate philosophical quest—and thus Sivertsen brings her experiment to a full circle). The ‘why’ that lead to their creation, consciousness and destruction; why make a species that could do this?

And then the Zhongzi potential for hope, positivity and expansiveness provides a final seed of continuation for anyone in this wide, wide universe. It might feel like a trite ending for some, but it is entirely in character for the ‘perfect’ beings that Sivertsen has created as a mirror for us. “And then, Ne’ne, forgive him!”

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1 comment:

Rowen Sivertsen said...

Kate, for some reason I never picked up on the fact that you had written a review of Shianshenka until today!! This is amazing, thank you so much for devoting so much time to it, and writing a review with such deep reflection, and I am so sorry that I didn't find this earlier! Rowen
PS. the first edition of the book is sold out, and I am busy preparing a new editon!