the Little Red Reviewer

Unpacking the Puppets

Posted on: March 19, 2019

 

Last week, I reviewed Derek Künsken’s The Quantum Magician. This hard science fiction thief story takes place generations after we’ve figured out how to manipulate our own genetic code to create subspecies of humans.  If you like biology and quantum mechanics, or anything that touches either of those sciences, this is the book for you.

 

I like me some hard science, but what I like even more is a book that makes me think about science, and how science and society and inextricably linked in ways I hadn’t thought about. This book also got me thinking about how when the equation doesn’t give me the result I need, it’s time to change the equation.  Design the input around the result, instead of the other way around. I’m a nerd, so that was a ton of fun to chew on.

 

But let’s go back to the genetic manipulation thing, because I got some stuff I gotta unpack. I gotta get it out of my head. If I’m going to enjoy the fun stuff, then I need to  stare this other shit in the face.

 

Nothing in this post is a spoiler, or at least not exactly. There’s just more than you ever wanted to know about the subtext of The Quantum Magician. And all this seemed a bit too much for the review, you know?

Once upon a time, about fifteen generations before the events of The Quantum Magician, a molecular biologist / geneticist (or their employer) thought playing god sounded like a great idea. But what sounded even better was becoming a god. Literally.  So they designed a slave race. But not just any slave race, a slave race that would never rebel, could never rebel,  because they were genetically programmed to worship their creators. (wait, something about this sounds familiar? I can’t put my finger on it).  Homo Pupa was created – colloquially known as the Puppets, this diminutive race of humans grew no taller than a typically human ten year old.

 

The Puppets are genetically designed to react with religious awe to a certain pheromone. The humans who created them, The Numen,  were genetically modified to sweat out that pheromone. When a Puppet recognizes a Numen in their midst, the Numen is treated as a deity.

 

This isn’t a story about humans who became gods.

This is a story about their slave race of worshipers.

 

What must it be like to be in the same room with your deity? To touch them, to touch their hair, to compare their body to yours?  I’m not talking about a person who thinks they are a god, or who acts like a god, I’m talking about a person that you believe are a god. This belief is not a choice, by the way.

 

There is a character in the book, William, who imitates a Numen for a period of time (sorry, that was a small spoiler!).  Here’s a conversation he has with his hosts:

 

“What’s wrong with you?” he croaked.

“Nothing,” the Puppet said, looking back at Teller-5, who eyed William dreamily. “We’re exactly as we’re supposed to be”.

 

That’s it. They are exactly as they are supposed to be, as we designed them to be. Do you like pizza? or flannel sheets? or lemonade? or chocolate, or reading science fiction or hanging out with your dog? Yeah, so did the creators of the Puppets.

And all the human races view the Puppets with a mixture of pity and contempt.

 

The Puppets didn’t rebel, and they didn’t revolt. But they did realize that their Numen deities were mortal. They realized the Numens were fragile and fleshy, and that crowds of ecstatically adoring Puppets could put the safety of the Numen at risk.  The Puppets needed to protect their Numen, especially those Numen who saw suicide as the only way to escape thousands of Puppets who adored them to the point of aggressive obsession. These days, most Numen are on the run, living in secret, and in fear of being found by Puppets.

 

The Puppets, by the way, are smart enough to realize that a)not too many people want anything to do with them and b)if all the  Numens die, the Puppets will die too. Their Numen creators gave the Puppets everything they could – an immune system that was a close match their creators, a culture designed around charismatic faith, and a passion for genetic research.

 

We shouldn’t be asking what the fuck is wrong with the Puppets, we should be asking What the fuck is wrong with the humans who thought anything about this was ok?

 

If you’re still interested in hearing this story from the point of view of the Numens, if you think creating a slave race of worshippers so you can feel like a god is a good idea, what the fuck is wrong with you?

 

And dear Belisarius, you knew what you were sending William into, didn’t you?  You ran a Puppet art gallery, for fuck’s sake. You asked him because you knew he’d say yes, you knew for what you were offering, he couldn’t refuse.  And you still sent him in there. You asshole.

 

Thank you for letting me get all that off my chest,  I feel better now.

 

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6 Responses to "Unpacking the Puppets"

Best rant so far today😁

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i feel much better for having gotten this off my chest!

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I think that a lot of science fiction actually deals with scenarios that right-thinking nice people would not actually want to come to pass; indeed, that’s often what’s interesting about science fiction. I don’t think that means you have to be angry at the readers – or the writers. And I think we’re sometimes missing the point a little when we conflate “wanting to read from this point of view” with “thinking that this point of view is good”. “What the fuck is wrong with” people who read books like this? Well, maybe they’re not just reading because they agree with the characters politically.

After all, we don’t assume that everyone who reads “Lolita” must be a paedophile, or that those who read “Fatherland” must be Nazis. So why do we keep making this assumption about readers of SF&F?

[Incidentally, I’ve not read the book, but your description makes it sound as though it’s a thinly-coded novel about social media and modern celebrity?]

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I’m not making assumptions that people who read this book, or any book, or this or any author are assholes. the opposite, in fact. I want everyone to read this book because it’s a brilliantly told heist story, I think they author is a genius in more ways than one.

I think if you’re the kind of person who thinks to yourself that you’d love to genetically modify a person to have zero free will and then forced to worship you as a god, and that that sounds like the pinnacle of life to you, I think that you’re an asshole.

it’s not what you read, it’s how you treat other people that makes you an asshole or not.

huh, interesting take. the book is a scifi heist story with commentaries on biology, genetic manipulation, society, and unintended consequences. But if you’re interested in a thinly coded novel about social media and modern celebrity, you might like Yarn by Jon Armstrong.

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OK… it’s just… I’m missing your point, then.

Who is saying that these characters ARE ‘the pinnacle of life’? Has the author confirmed that this is meant to be their version of utopia? Or is there an online flamewar I’ve not noticed (entirely possible, I’m only tangentially aware of fandom)? I get that you’re angry, but being an outsider I’m not sure who you’re angry at.

I was specifically responding to “If you’re still interested in hearing this story from the point of view of the Numens, if you think creating a slave race of worshippers so you can feel like a god is a good idea, what the fuck is wrong with you?”

First, putting those two descriptions of “you” in one sentence seems to be saying they’re necessarily the same – that being interesting in reading the story is equivalent to thinking that what happens in the story is ‘a good idea’. And second, while I’m probably not interesting enough to read the book, I feel that is a story I’d at least in theory be willing to read, so you’re asking me what the fuck is wrong with me. And I don’t necessarily think there IS anything the fuck wrong with me, at least not relevant to my reading habits. You’re asking me (as one among many, of course) to defend myself, and I’m just suggesting that maybe you wouldn’t think there was anything the fuck wrong with me if you accepted that sometimes wanting to read a story from a viewpoint doesn’t mean I necessarily think that people with those views are right!

[which is something that a lot of people don’t seem to accept is possible, these days, particularly online, and particularly regarding SF&F]

To me, being able to see the world from other viewpoints, including viewpoints I don’t personally share, that may even be objectionable to me in some respects, is one of the good things about fiction, so being asked “If you’re still interested in hearing this story from the point of view of [these people whose ancestors were bad people], what the fuck is wrong with you?” is kind of jarring. I’m not trying to make too much out of it – we’re all entitled to dislike whomever we dislike, and I’m probably just not your target audience, and that’s fine. I guess I’m just helplessly trying to stick up for people who MIGHT want to hear stories like this from objectionable points of view, suggesting that, sometimes, there isn’t necessarily much ‘the fuck’ wrong with them/us.

[within reason, of course. There does come a point where even I have to questions to tastes of some readers and how greatly they seem to identify with, and obsess over, the monsters they read about. I sometimes get creeped out by serial killer obsessives, for instance. But you don’t have to be an obsessive to want to hear one story…]

—-

I’m not looking for more stories about celebrity, actually – the whole of modern culture seems to do that job for me. It’s just that your description of puppets and numens* seems so much like the fan-celebrity dynamic (how the weight of adoration can become a burden and a danger until the ‘idols’ are forced to flee their worshippers because there are too many of them) that I assumed it was intentional!

*if anything were to make sure I wouldn’t read this, it wouldn’t be the moral objectionableness of the premise, it would be knowing I’d have to read an entire novel with my subconscious constantly correcting that to “numina”…
—-

Any

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sorry, that last line was meant to be:

*anyway, I intended no offence, and will leave you alone now.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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