Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up: The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead

In 2016, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination published my survey “A Crash Course in the History of Black Science Fiction” (now hosted here). Since then, Tor.com has published 27 in-depth essays I wrote about some of the 42 works mentioned, and another essay by LaShawn Wanak on my collection Filter House. This month I’m taking you along on an investigation of Pulitzer Prize Winner Colson Whitehead’s first novel, The Intuitionist.

DOWN AND UP IN OLD NEW YORK

Published in 1999, The Intuitionist harks back to an even earlier era than the end of the last century. Protagonist Lila Mae Watson is the first African American woman to join the august ranks of the Guild of Elevator Inspectors. “Verticality” has transformed the city, displacing immigrants and wrecking buildings too stubby for modern urban standards—“modern” most likely meaning sometime in the late 1940s or early 50s. (It’s difficult to tell exactly what year the novel’s set in, because the timeline is eerily alternative.)

SHAFTED BY BOTH SIDES

Pompey, Watson’s cooning Black male predecessor, is her primary suspect as the perpetrator of the crime for which she is the Guild’s primary suspect: the catastrophic failure and crash of Elevator 11 in the city’s fancy new Fanny Briggs building. Watson is already under constant scrutiny as “a credit to her race,” and by giving a good grade to 11 just days before it goes into freefall, she incurs the increased and increasingly hostile regard of both the Guild’s deeply entrenched Empiricist faction and her own minority cult of Intuitionists, the genie-detecting mystics of elevator inspection.

Who’s right? Are there spiritual components to assisted descent and elevation, as Intuitionism’s genius founder Fulton claims? Or are elevators mere machines, as Empiricists theorize—mere assemblages of lift winches and rope sheaves, their metal components liable only to physical problems like oxidation and stress fractures? Caught in the struggle between two groups of white men espousing radically different philosophies, Watson begins by learning to mistrust her youthful loyalties to the Intuitionist cause and ends by uncovering the meta-meanings behind Fulton’s gnostic journal entries about his secret invention: a black box he prophesies will initiate millennial transformations.

PASSING AND STRANGE

Elevators are way more important in Whitehead’s version of Mid-century modernism than they are in consensus reality. Esprit de corps keeps graduates of the Midwestern Institute for Vertical Transport from accepting cushy private jobs in lieu of the grinding routine and low pay of government inspection gigs. But said esprit also keeps demographic outsiders such as Watson at several arms’ length. The way the men of the Guild treat Whitehead’s heroine reminds me of my Aunt Cookie’s super-unfriendly 1960s “welcome” to the Brotherhood of Electricians.

Because while reverence for verticality is weirdly dominant in this milieu, racial politics are pretty much the same in The Intuitionist and in real life. And they follow pretty much the same timeline, from an earlier generation’s open slurs to the “joking” microagressions of the novel’s present day. Pompey clowns through them. Watson does her best to assimilate. Another character manages to convince all but a discerning few of their inherent Caucasity.

DIFFICULT LISTENING

Whitehead’s prose consists mainly of bolt upright phrasing and straight-ahead statements of disturbing facts. When thugs break a muckraking reporter’s index finger—his favorite, we’re told, for summoning waiters and picking his nose—here’s how the author describes the snapping noise: “Twiggy. The sound is far, far worse than the pain. Initially.” Watson offers no respite from scratchy, unglamorous matter-of-factness either. When a would-be briber complains about her fining him for infractions after he tucked 60 bucks in her suitcoat pocket, she states flatly that she never asked him for the money.

Though she keeps it. Later, on realizing a supposed suitor has been working her rather than dating her, Watson confronts him in his corporation’s offices, sans gun, sans drama, merely to record the pertinent details of her betrayal. She asks gently probing questions, paying careful, clinical attention to his confession.

WHAT A BEAUTIFUL ALTERNATE WORLD

Debate as to whether to label The Intuitionist science fiction is as prevalent as with many another title covered in this series. The closest match in terms of speculative fiction subgenres is alternate history, and that’s how I generally think of it. Diagnostic genies may or may not be part of the novel’s reality, but that reality itself is
strangely out of true with our own—at least in some points.

Whitehead’s genius—evident even this early in his career—lies in making metaphor do double duty. As critics have noted, SF often contains literalized figures of speech. Authors have to watch what they say and avoid the confusing use of lots of common idioms, since these could be literally true; a character’s eyes, for instance, may actually be able to fall physically to the floor without coming to harm. In The Intuitionist, as in The Underground Railroad, the power dynamics of racial inequality are metaphorized—in the first book as elevator equipment, in the second as a subterranean transportation system. Then those metaphors are explored as literal entities, the qualities and essential elements of racial politics mapped onto them the way their qualities and elements are mapped onto the abstractions for which they stand. And then the harsh, complex story of U.S.relations between majority and minority groups becomes a thing of wonder: a solidly beautiful, accessible tale any of us is able to understand on some level. A means of moving us to new states of knowing.

Everfair by Nisi ShawlNisi Shawl is a writer of science fiction and fantasy short stories and a journalist. She is the author of Everfair (Tor Books) and co-author (with Cynthia Ward) of Writing the Other: Bridging Cultural Differences for Successful Fiction, and the editor of the anthology New Suns: Original Speculative Fiction by People of Color. Her short stories have appeared in Asimov’s SF Magazine, Strange Horizons, and numerous other magazines and anthologies.

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