Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory & the politics of AI and the artificial politics of intelligence, sensitivities, sensibility & style

Once upon a time, there were some people who were very unhappy and wicked …. This confused them, because they believed themselves to be good people. They tried having a king who was a good person, to tell them what to do: but no matter who was king, that person turned out unhappier and wickeder than all the rest. Then they tried each taking responsibility for themselves, and that didn’t work either; it just meant they had no one to blame. Eventually they realized they were under a curse.

The unhappy people journeyed widely, hoping to learn the solution; but everywhere they went, everything was just as bad. It became clear that the whole universe was cursed.

So one day … a clever person realized the problem was that no matter what anyone did, they couldn’t know what would happen next. No one wanted to do evil things, they just didn’t know what the right things were. So the clever person built a machine that knew everything. You could consult the machine and find out what the best thing to do was, and even if it did end up being bad, you would at least know that all the other things you could have done were worse.

— Emily Tesh, Some Desperate Glory, Orbit Books, 2023, pp. 210-211

in terms of the machine described here, Emily Tesh’s Some Desperate Glory resolves well. The machine, called the Wisdom, learns its limits; it learns humility. And how it learns it works: it learns through self-enjoyment.

I read her two novellas, Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country, that comprise the Greenhollow Duology, so I expected a similarly mawkish sentimental take on sexuality. The novellas present the Green Man of English folklore gone queer. … That wasn’t the attraction. Neither was it what led me to carry on with Some Desperate Glory when the operatic qualities of its queer space opera–more queer soap opera–began to pall. The fate of the earth being put repeatedly at stake seems the book’s most Astounding Stories sci-fi spacey characteristic. And I found the trigger warnings in the frontispiece less alarming than a comfort, comforting to know that Some Desperate Glory set out to offend someone even if it was only the sensitivity reader:

Some Desperate Glory contains sexist, homophobic, transphobic, racist, and ableist attitudes; sexual assault, including discussion of forced pregnancy; violence; child abuse; radicalization as child abuse; genocide; suicidal ideation; and suicide.

of course it’s alarming to consider that such trigger warnings are deemed necessary. Although, this is perhaps better than a retrospective re-write to suit contemporary sensitivities such as certain works by Ursula K. Le Guin have undergone.

I think Tesh has sacrificed a lot, however, and not in terms of pandering, either to queer lit or to fit what potentially some people are going to take exception to into a narrative that makes sense of that material, but in terms of propulsive genre-fiction narration. Some flower-sniffing goes on–trigger warning–but there’s little let-up in the narrative pace, and over all the rhythm is, although a bumpy ride, not as trauma-filled as the trigger warning indicates. It does not lurch from one phobia to the next or go straight from assault to assault to violence and abuse and then genocide, pausing only at suicidal ideation before suicide. It keeps up the action and this is at the expense of some unassignable quality. I think I’d call this quality, style. If it were fully present not just hinted at, it would be assignable. It would be Tesh’s style, as a writer…

…because that thing that keeps me reading is the hints I get, not of the sensitivities of the sensitivity reader, but of the sensibilities of the writer. Tesh has it, a style. It’s running under the running around her characters do to advance the narrative in this book but is there in the sympathies she has for them and, I would say, her classical themes, which is what I mean by her sacrifices to amp the scifi pace.

In respect of a certain underlying classicism she reminds me of Zachary Mason but in him it’s explicit. The other similarity is trying for gender-neutral language. Tesh uses they for the third person plural and for the third person gender-neutral singular and… there were times it was unclear who they referred to. Three people on the scene. A he, she and they. Now try and give them a shadowspace grappling hook. Or identify who they are among them.

Mason uses, seems to invent, se for the pronoun, third person gender-neutral and herm for its possessive form. This is in his book, a book I can unreservedly recommend, Void Star. It was surprising how easy it was to take on his invention. Again it has to do with writer’s style.

It is a stylistic decision. I’m really not so concerned with the functionality, with whether they is confusing or not.

I wondered how it would work to capitalise They when it was singular, like for the German second person formal, Sie, to distinguish it from sie or they. Italicising it would be annoying. As a stylistic decision it becomes extremely flexible, options are many.

What I care about is that style gets the credit and is not sacrificed for anything. Anything that distracts from style, like trivial concerns over pronouns, should also be considered a sacrifice.