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Illustration by Wesley Allsbrook showing Essie with her purple braid wearing a suit and carrying a gun

It is probably best to for us to embrace subjectivity, to withhold judgement. Let us say that the entity believing himself to be Matthew Corley feels that he regained consciousness while reading an article in the newspaper about the computer replication of personalities of the dead. He believes that it is 1994, the year of his death, that he regained consciousness after a brief nap, and that the article he was reading is nonsense. All of these beliefs are wrong.
(...)
“It’s 2064,” Essie says. “You’re a simulation of yourself. I am your biographer.”

Ana: "Sleeper" by Jo Walton is a story that presents us not only with a technologicaly advanced world where it's possible to create a AI consciousness based on your understanding of a historical figure, but also a world where the stark economic inequalities we're familiar with today have been greatly magnified. The dystopian nature of this world becomes increasingly obvious as the story progresses, thanks to passages such as this:
She finds it hard to imagine the space Matthew had, the luxury. Only the rich live like that now. Essie is thirty-five, and has student debt that she may never pay off. She cannot imagine being able to buy a house, marry, have a child. She knows Matthew wasn’t considered rich, but it was a different world.

Later on, Essie tells the simulation of Matthew that,
“The class system needs to come down again. You didn’t bring it down far enough, and it went back up. The corporations and the rich own everything. We need all the things you had—unions, and free education, and paid holidays, and a health service. And very few people know about them and fewer care.”

This is not new territory for Jo Walton. Although at first glance this story is very different from the Small Change trilogy, they also have quite a few things in common. One looks towards the future and another towards an alternate past; one is science fiction and the other alternative history interlaced with crime — but all the same, the themes and political concerns at the heart of the two works are closely linked. I wanted to start by asking you what you thought of the world depicted in "Sleeper". Do you think that despite its brevity the story manages to set up a vivid picture of the threats of uncontrolled capitalism?


Jodie: Kind of.

I'm British so I've always been able to access free healthcare and my education was free up until I left college. And I think those are the two aspects of my country's welfare system other British people feel are part of their basic rights - if you live in Britain, you have access to some kind of free schooling and medical treatment.

We're not some kind of utopian country, and I would never claim that either the NHS or the education system in Britain is perfect and completely fair. Both are subject to unfair geographical variances. Both are dogged by problems of funding and resources. And some sections of British society have really crappy ideas about how much they should contribute towards the NHS and who "deserves" access to free healthcare. Still, it's incredibly important to people that free education and healthcare exists at some basic level, and the idea that these services are a right provides one uniting point of agreement between a lot of people who come from different backgrounds. So, speaking as a British reader, just seeing a story set in a world without our free education and our health service is quite a shock. Just that absence immediately conveys how deadly and suffocating capitalism has become.

However, while I understood the problems of Essie's world I didn't feel them in this story, and I think that's down to the way "Sleeper" is written. For one, it's set in a controlled environment that feels safe and focuses on a revolutionary but calm conversation between two people who are perfectly civil to each other. I think we saw from Farthing that just because a story's setting is civil & genteel that doesn't have to lower the menace of a situation, but I felt that the particular set up of "Sleeper" made it a little hard for me to connect closely with the systematic threats Essie faces. Perhaps it needed something else to be introduced; some small intrusion or slightly more specific memory of hard times to give it a bit more of a sinister feel for me?

I also felt that "Sleeper" often read like a rough draft concept for a story - a bit like reading a piece of headcanon rather than a full fanfic story inspired by that headcanon. Its third person narrative spends a lot of time telling the reader things by way of Essie's private thoughts. It's as if Walton worries she's going to run out of time or space and so throws all the information out to the reader as quickly as possible rather than in the most… I don't know… polished way possible? I found it very hard to feel much about this story and its characters even though I agreed with Essie's political feeling. What about you - did you feel much connection with this story?

Ana: I think I felt more of a connection than you did, but I can absolutely see how the story's carefully controlled, almost clinical tone could cause a disconnect, even though it wasn't as much of a problem for me personally. I can perhaps read that feeling that the story is about to run out of time/space as a deliberate attempt to create a sense of urgency — after all, Essie had to rush to get the simulation of Matthew on board with the revolution before they were detected — but of course that doesn't mean it can't cause legitimate problems for readers, as it did for you.

I have a bit of a tendency to second-guess myself when a short story doesn't feel like enough. Is it because I'm out of practice with them and very used to the narrative techniques used in longer fiction, and so expect to find the same here? Is leaving me wanting more a sign that the story is actually doing its job right? Or is it simply that something didn't quite work? All in all I liked "Sleeper" — I always enjoy Walton's writing and I found the ideas it explores really interesting — but it's true it didn't cause the same sort of emotional response I usually have to her novels. Just a few months ago My Real Children made me cry buckets; this engaged my brain but not my heart.

Jodie: I'm not surprised to hear that you second-guess your reaction to short fiction because when I started doing Short Business posts I used to do that a lot too. I think we're encouraged to believe that if we don't read many short stories and we're unsure that elements of a piece "work" then it's because we don't "get" it, or that we're too used to novels, or that we don't appreciate the wondrous variety short fiction offers. It's the same kind of literary nonsense you hear people spout about lit-fic and "serious" SFF; it's not bad, it's just too experimental and you obviously didn't get it, darling. Boo.

I am minded to reject this line of argument now. I enjoy hearing other perspectives (like the one you expressed above which was super interesting) but I've got to keep in mind that if I feel something technical in a piece is off that doesn't have to all be about me; it can be the story. I wouldn't tend to second guess myself (as much) if I were reading a novel, although I certainly have my moments, and I don't think short fiction plays by massively different rules than novels do just because of the shorter format. *waits for everyone who reads more short fiction to come out and disagree with that bombshell*

Anyway, I just thought I would lend you my idea if you want some support while reading short fiction!

Ana: Going back to what you said above about your perspective on free healthcare and education as a British citizen (which is not unfamiliar to an European lady like me), it was really interesting to see reactions to these ideas in the comments at Tor. I very much agree with the reader who says, "it seems to me that assuming this story is pro-USSR because it has pro-socialist themes is akin to assuming Animal Farm is pro-capitalist because it is anti-Stalinist"; and I also found this comment interesting:
I believe that the association between belief in a fairer society in the 1910s and 1970s is perfectly suited to today's environment where we have reverted to a stratified system of uber-wealthy elites, moderately wealthy enforcers and the rest. Whilst people like the soviet sleeper agents in Britain and America may have connected themselves to what turned out to be a brutal regime every bit as unfair (far worse in fact!) as the one they were trying to overthrow, it does not change the fact that they honestly believed and strived for a better and fairer society.

I have more to say about the above, but before we get into that I wanted to ask you if you were as surprised as I was to see the pro-USSR readings.

Jodie: I didn't think the story warranted that reading AT ALL. As other comments point out, the story bluntly says Essie 'has been cautious, too. She wants a socialist; she doesn’t want Stalin.' This should be enough to confirm that "Sleeper" isn't out to romanticise the brutal parts of Russia's communist history. However, I wasn't surprised to still see a few comments determined to read the story as praise of the Soviet Union. Wow, my part of this review is turning out really bitter! :P

The history of socialism is really complex. There's a lot to take in even if we just consider socialism in Britain. I think sometimes people, encouraged by politicians who are against social support systems like the NHS, come to believe that modern socialism is exactly the same as communism. And, because, for many, the most prevalent image of communism is Soviet Russia, socialism becomes inseparable from Stalin, his gulags and other brutal episodes in later Soviet history. And I guess a few readers believe that "Sleeper" justifies that perception of the link between socialism and Soviet communism because Essie wants to use a British communist sleeper agent to help spread socialist ideas of equality. At least, that's the only potential interpretive pathway beyond 'The C word scares us' that I can parse.

For me, the fact that Essie 'doesn’t want Stalin.' obviously refutes the idea that Essie believes the communism of Soviet Russia would solve the problems of her society. Then the story reminds the reader that Matthew Corley 'will be copied and sent out, and work to make a better world, as Essie wants, and the way Matthew remembers always wanting.'. Essie controls how Corley's projection will work and what kind of message he'll send. While revolution is unpredictable and, as one commenter points out, can unleash many unplanned, unpleasant things, the reader at least knows that Essie doesn't want to bring about the brutality of Stalin. She wants the justice she perceives in socialist ideals.

Ana: Exactly. Also, I think my background made that reading particularly counterintuitive for me, because even the idea of someone having been drawn to communism (which like you say is also not interchangeable with Stalinism) at some point in their lives doesn't horrify me. My parents, who grew up in a military dictatorship, became members of the communist party at a time when it was underground and illegal and provided a refuge for like-minded dissenters. There was a tense period in the history of my country, when just out of a fascist regime my father helped topple, we wavered between a hardline communist model and the social democracies we now have in so many European countries. Democracy won, and my parents (and a lot of other left-leaning people of their generation, who had grown up without so many basic freedoms) had no trouble whatsoever clinging to the ideals of justice that first drew them to communism while rejecting the undemocratic model adopted by the Soviet Union. This knowledge has always been with me and has shaped and informed my politics, so unlike some readers I really don't have an immediate negative reaction to the idea of someone with a communist past. Like the commenter I quoted above, I think it's entirely possible for someone to "honestly believe and strive for a better and fairer society" even if they were at some point a Soviet sleeper agent. People are complicated, and like everything else beliefs and allegiances are not static.

One thing you say above is that Essie, who clearly states she doesn't want Stalin, has shaped the simulation of Matthew about to go out into the world. I was struck by the story's closing lines, "We make our own history, both past and future", as well as by the reminder just before that of the urging to "embrace subjectivity" we got at the beginning of the story. I think history and the way we make sense of it is as big a theme in "Sleeper" as the political ideas we touched on above, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this as a history student.

Jodie: That last paragraph was one of the most interesting parts of "Sleeper" for me. Although the study of History is an evidence based discipline, all historians' perceptions of history are affected by more than existing evidence and new discoveries. The way they interpret and present history is influenced by their own politics and by the intellectual fashions of their time. So, in a way its true that 'We make our own history...', because historical thought and writing is often influenced by the schools of historical theory that our historians ascribe to.

This is not the same as saying that all writing about history is biased, unreliable, or so selective that it ignores evidence in order to make its case (although some historians certainly do create broken work like this). Historians can write from a particular school of historiography and produce an entirely justifiable argument. Most of the schools of historical theory were created because historians were influenced by politics or an intellectual change in how past historical writing was viewed (a change which was often prompted by a change in political thinking). Since we're talking about communism, let's look at how Karl Marx influenced historical investigation. Broadly, communism influenced historians and a branch of historical theory called Marxist historiography was born. This school also influenced historians to develop more theories of historical materialism (historical investigation focusing on economic factors) & grew the concept of looking at 'history from below' (part of social history which focuses on working class experience).

The development of Marxist history didn't change what happened in history; evidence was still evidence and ethical historians had to work with an eye to truth, as do current Marxist historians. However, learning about Marxist history and analysing historical events from this perspective does refocus the historian's eye, causing them to see a fuller picture of the past. In a sense, passing history through Marxist filter reshapes and remakes the past by changing the way the past has previously been interpreted. And that brings us to revisionist history, where old ideas are challenged either by new (or unsuppressed) evidence or by a new perspective on previous evidence. For example, feminist history aims to remove the heavy hand of sexist perception and suppression and recast female historical figures more as they were.

Allowing for new perspectives and new evidence is at the heart of historical investigation, and introducing a new angle, influenced by a political development, is a perfectly valid way of expanding the conversation. It's just important for readers to remember that no historian (much like no fiction writer) exists in a vacuum, or comes to the past with an entirely objective eye. This means readers must continually evaluate accounts of history (even if a historian's conception of historical events fits well with our own particular politics). Historians necessarily make a narrative out of the past, and it's up to us to try to use evidence and other accounts to decide whether their narratives are credible or not.

After all that, how do these ideas apply to Essie? Well, the final paragraph of the story seems to set her up as a biographer the reader needs to watch closely. By admitting that Essie can find no evidence to suggest Corley was a sleeper agent I think Walton has Essie push past what the bounds of 'taking a narrative angle' allow, and reminds the reader that they need to be careful to examine the stories biographers weave. Essie's tenuous case for saying Corley was a sleeper agent (Kim Philby knew everyone, Corley was great at keeping secrets) leaves room for doubt. Now, historical theories can be mounted on unknowns, but Essie's reliability as an 'honest historian' and a biographer depends on whether she plans to conceal that the links between Corley & Russia are slightly wobbly or whether she will reveal the weakness of her claims. She seems intent on concealing her lack of evidence and making the simulation of Matthew 'a direct consequence of [her] beliefs about Matthew.' in service of her politics. This makes her kind of a dodgy character, and provides a good reminder that readers should keep their eyes open when examining historical narratives even if we like a historian (Essie is charming, after all) and their point of view.

Still, I'm not quite sure how to take this idea being presented along with the final line 'And we agreed, did we not, to take the subjective view?'. Subjectivity is not the same as incomplete disclosure. I think this is a nebulous line which changes meaning depending on what tone you read it in, and maybe that makes it a final cheeky comment about subjectivity?

Ana: I knew you'd have interesting thoughts! When I first read those lines I thought about historians necessarily making a narrative out of the past and about how perhaps this was the story Essie felt she needed to see so she could find some sort of hope. But yes, one thing is finding certain past narratives personally strengthening; another is putting them out there without the kind of disclosure you mention.

One thing occurs to me, though: I wonder if Essie's questionable approach and her apparent disinterest in history and biography as disciplines where methodological rigour is important might be linked to her role as "only a content provider". "Sleeper" hints at the fact that there's been a shift in how writers and scholars are treated and perceived. For example, we have passages such as this:
Stanley, representing the publishing conglomerate of George Allen and Katzenjammer, thinks there is money to be made out of Essie’s biography of Matthew. Her biography of Isherwood won an award, and made money for GA and K, though only a pittance for Essie. Essie is only the content provider after all. Everyone except Essie was very pleased with how things turned out, both the book and the simulation.

I wonder if someone like Essie might have struggled to hold on to professional ethics and to carry on caring about truthfulness and intellectual rigour in an exploitative context such as this. Not that these things don't matter in their own right, and not that everyone in the same circumstances would inevitably have opted for intellectual sleight of hand. But perhaps this could be read as another possible form of damage inflicted by a ruthless capitalist system. The passage I quoted indicates that Essie feels alienated from her work, which might well made her less invested in being an honest historian than she'd be otherwise. So I think we can carry on being suspicious (the story gives us good reasons to) while understanding what might have helped shape Essie's decisions.

Jodie: I hesitate to comment on this because I know 1% about the economics of publishing, but I read that part as a sly jibe at the modern day state of publishing - the phrase 'content provider' coming from our wry, omniscient third person narrator. Reminder to self, finally get around to reading Merchants of Culture. Your thoughts hold even with that interpretation though because it would be incredibly hard to keep your personal ethics if you lived in Essie's Britain.

Thinking about the political side of what Essie does (creating propaganda history) the protagonist who does morally broken things for 'the right reasons' is incredibly popular in Western media. I think that has a lot to do with how downtrodden the regular citizen has felt for a long time now. Essie sees a chance to win a fight which materially affects her life and the lives of her fellow Brits. Is she in a place to consider the ethics of the situation? It's a big question that all political writers in an unjust but complicated society must struggle with every time they write and Essie joins their ranks.

Ana: Ha — possibly it's naive of me to call it a big shift! But yes, well put. You're right that these protagonists are very popular in our media landscape, and I tend to be suspicious of their stories because they often wander into "the ends justify the means" terrain. Obviously I don't believe that — as soon as you start allowing for dodgy thing x to be done because it's in the name of good cause y, you open the door to the rationalisation of all sorts of horrors and atrocities. Sometimes I struggle to articulate my need to look at context carefully and detailedly and my belief in its explanatory power in a way that doesn't come across as apologism, so hopefully that was clear in what I said above. I believe, as Terry Pratchett so well put it, that "people aren’t just people; they are people surrounded by circumstances", but that's not the same as thinking questionable decisions are inevitabilities we ought to explain away. I'll add one thing, though: in a world where the protagonists allowed to occupy these gray areas are almost invariably male, it was great to see Walton create a complicated lady like Essie.

Jodie: Less conflicting and just as fascinating is the way the story draws out the uncomfortable notion of a biographer rewriting a person as a character, or fitting them into too a tidy narrative. I've seen people express discomfort about how historical fiction uses real people and events, and I thought it was interesting to see that conversation expanded into non-fiction territory. Walton develops this idea both by showing how Essie works on Corley as his biographer, but also by referencing the way Essie has written about his wife Annette:
She has also tried to treat Annette as a pioneer who made it easier for those with cancer coming after her, but it was a difficult argument to make, as Annette died too early for any of today’s treatments to be tested on her. Besides, Essie does not care much about Annette, although she was married to Matthew for thirty years and the mother of his daughter, Sonia. Essie thinks, and has written, that Annette was a beard, and that Matthew’s significant emotional relationships were with men. Matthew agrees, now, but then Matthew exists now as a direct consequence of Essie’s beliefs about Matthew. It is not a comfortable relationship for either of them.

I would kind of like a story about Annette too.

Ana: Yes! I'm really glad you mentioned Annette, because I'd love a story about her too. And I agree that Walton did an excellent job of highlighting Essie's biases and showing how reality doesn't neatly match the narrative she tried to construct (which subtly alerts us to other areas where she might have done the same).

Jodie: Yeah, I loved that because to me the inclusion of Essie's opinion of Annette was a call from the story for close, careful thinking. And I guess that's what I take away from "Sleeper"; its subtle hints that we mustn't be afraid to dig a little deeper, darlings.



You can read "Sleeper" for free at Tor.com.

Date: 2014-11-26 06:44 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
I read this one when it first appeared on Tor, I've become quite the Jo Walton fan (have just finished The Just City which is due out in Jan & really loved it), but something about this short story didn't quite work for me. I reread it just now, and I think I agree that it engaged my brain rather than my heart.

The Just City

Date: 2014-11-28 06:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile] susanhatedliterature.net
It's available on netgalley if you have an account there. I will just say that it is book one in a trilogy, which I didn't realise until after I went poking on Walton's website when I'd finished the book. Made a huge difference to know that!

Re: The Just City

Date: 2014-11-28 06:50 pm (UTC)
nymeth: (Default)
From: [personal profile] nymeth
Aaaaaaaah I didn't know that! Thanks for the warning - I'll make sure I go in expecting that.

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