Monday, December 31, 2012

100 Books #126 - Jose Saramago's SEEING

"...since the citizens of this country were not in the healthy habit of demanding the proper enforcement of the rights bestowed on them by the constitution, it was only logical, even natural, that those rights had been suspended."
Terrifying thought, isn't it? And an eternally fresh and topical one. And this is not some talking head pundit on one of the opinewz channels that infest American TV, but a Portuguese Nobel laureate describing the immediate aftermath of one of the most farcically awful political crises he could imagine for a proud Western democracy. And there's more, so much more, of this where that came from.

Last year, I twisted my mind into a pretzel taking in the odd but absorbing prose style of Jose Saramago's Blindness, and felt that I would never be the same again. And as I finish out this year, achieving my stated goal and then some in terms of number of books read in a year, I here prove that indeed, I am forever changed. Which is nice if you're going to read more Saramago.

Sing hosanna, my mind snapped right back into that pretzel shape. And good thing, too, because if I'd let myself get distracted by the difficulties posed by the prose style, I would have missed one of the most horrifyingly entertaining and terrifyingly funny reads of my life.

As the title might suggest, Seeing* is a sort of antithetical sequel to Blindness, though not strictly in the sense of the continuing adventures of a hero or heroine from the earlier novel. Indeed, the events and truths of Blindness are not even alluded to until rather far into Seeing; there is simply a strong sense that the early crisis here -- a general election held on a bizarrely stormy day not only has a disappointing voter turnout but also results in more than 80% of the cast ballots turning up completely blank -- is the aftermath of an earlier catastrophe, but the contemporary reader could substitute any recent disaster (Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy, say) for the plague of "white blindness."

Unlike the unremitting tragedy and squalor of Blindness, though, Seeing has a pretty wicked satirical bent, especially in the early chapters when the parties on the left, middle and right are squabbling over for which party/candidate all those blank votes are "really" for, and government ministers are trying to come up with a solution to this crisis. One feels in their deliberations, in which the suspension of every civil liberty that First World citizens cherish is at least considered, one by one, echoes of the kind of panicky calculation and hapless cruelty that led to all of the white blindness victims' being herded into a disused mental hospital and left to fend for their helpless selves in Blindness, but here it's all taken much further. And the reader learns an important thing: Saramago is funny.

And yes, it's all but impossible, as matters escalate, to read Seeing without thinking of the Arab Spring, as what started as simply a casting of blank ballots develops into full-scale Gandhiesque passive civil disobedience and the government, for its part, makes an un-Arab-Spring decision to simply withdraw its services. No confidence in us, the officials seem to say? Fine. We have no confidence in you, either. Enjoy your lack of services. As an alternative to mass slaughter, it makes me wistful, that decision. But then things get silly, in a scary way (or possibly scary, in a silly way) when the government-in-exile basically just comes around to treating the "rebel" populace of the capital city pretty much exactly the same way it treated the disease victims in Blindness; this subversion is an infection that must be quarantined, but it would be heartless not to poke food in at them once in a while, wouldn't it?

And again, all of these vicious and brilliant insights into the nature of government and the responsibilities of citizenship, into the way people generally treat each other and into the way they could if only they would keep to their principles (ah, me), are delivered in Saramago's crazy and yet perfectly lucid** prose style. I don't know how he does it, you guys. Again, no dialogue tags or quotation marks, hell, not even any proper names, but the reader still winds up with a perfect insight into who all the characters are as individuals (even though they are known by only the most generic of referents) to the point where she can tell who is speaking even from just a fragment of dialogue. The only other writer I've seen come close to pulling this off is Theodore "Godbody" Sturgeon. But he broke everybody off into point-of-view chapters.

So in the end, Seeing feels rather a lot like a lost J.G. Ballard apocalypse, one in which the world is poised to end, not with a rush of wind or water or a crystallization or a drought, but with a refusal to participate, with apathy. Which, given Ballard's style of apocalyptic heroes, is very Ballardian indeed!

And on a purely personal note, oh, could I sympathize with those elected officials who had this crisis dumped into their laps. "The biggest mistake I made in my political life was letting them sit me down in this chair," the president says at one point. When I was a member of my home town's town council in 2001-2004, I said the same thing. All the damned time. Less so his next remark "I didn't realize at the time that the arms of this chair had handcuffs on them." But sometimes I did. Sometimes, I did.

All in all, a  horribly fun read. If ever there is a film adaptation, I demand it be directed by the likes of Richard Lester.

*Ensaio sobre a Cegueira in the original Portuguese. Portuguese isn't my best language, but I muddle through okay (not for a whole novel yet!) and so I get "Essay Concerning Sight" as a more literal translation. I guess I can see how that "essay" might throw an English-speaking reader, mislead him or her into expecting non-fiction, but remember that the word "essay" originally meant something more tentative, an attempt, the thought conveyed being that someone is playing with an idea rather than making declarations about it. And since this book is, in part, exploring the consequences of the prior novel's "white blindness", I like the "what if" quality the original Portuguese title suggests to me. But, you know, marketing.

Also, check out this cover for the Portuguese Spanish language edition! I love it so much!

**This despite some of the most convoluted sets of mixed metaphors I've ever encountered. But people do talk that way, especially when they're excited. How mimetic. Or something. Also, I read this book via my Kindle, as part of a single file that contains the Collected Works of Jose Saramago. I thus never had any idea how close I was to the end of the book, as the "percent completed" indicator stayed at the same number for chapters and chapters. With a dead tree book (which is how I read Blindness) there was a physical cue that the end was approaching. With an ebook as one of a single file of collected works, the ending sneaks right up on one and there is trauma. Aaah! This is, though, my only quibble with ebook reading so far.

100 Books #125 - Charles Palliser's QUINCUNX

I suppose we could regard Charles Palliser's Quincunx as final proof that for every genre or great genre master of fiction, however obscure or archaic, there is not only someone who will attempt a pastiche of it/him, but sometimes there is even one who is very, very good at it. Charles Palliser is one of these, an otaku's otaku in the realm of... the nineteenth century social novel?

I didn't know there could be such a thing. Did you?

For Quincunx* is a Dickensian pastiche of the very highest order, though it goes Dickens one better, or at least earlier, by setting itself in Britain's late Regency (and therefore pre-Victorian by a good bit) period. And perhaps it takes the Dickens to 11 at the very least, both in terms of legal/inheritance wrangling as plot driver and of risible degrees and numbers of coincidences at least in that Dickens' and Palliser's Londons have hilariously small populations.

And there is still more to keep the 21st century reader chuckling, for about halfway through, when a certain heraldry puzzle assumes paramount importance, the penny drops and one realizes she is in fact reading a high quality prose version of a hidden object game. All that is missing is the frustrating experience of "breaking" the cursor by mis-clicking on too many objects, but then again, that could be substituted for by our young hero's continually narrowly escaping yet another assassination attempt -- or only sort of escaping, continually forced as he is to more or less respawn as the penniless, near-helpless, delerious, paranoid, starving waif that he is for most of the novel.

And why is this so? Because, as I said, property inheritance and greed are the great drivers of the plot. An ancient francophone family (lots of glorious surnames feature in this story: Umphraville, Palphramond, Mompesson!) whose possession of a profitable estate dates back, apparently, to the time of William the Conqueror and whose bloodline includes Plantagenet ancestry, fell on hard times a few generations before our hero (John Mellamphy, he who answers to oh so many other names as he grows up) was born has been shadow-fighting over different versions of the patriarch's will in addition to publicly battling it out in the Court of Chancery (shades of Jarndyce and Jarndyce, eh wot?). Depending on what document finally surfaces and is approved, one family could be turned off the estate in favor of, well, several others.

The plot is intricate and small details matter; like in playing a hidden object game, we have to scrutinize every scene with care, somewhat hampered by our guide through all of this, John of the Many Surnames, from whom Secrets Have Been Kept and whose life is perpetually both endangered and protected by different interests, depending on which will from which they would benefit.

All this and all the Dickensian social justice hand-wringing you could ask for, as we spend time with body snatchers, dishonest bankers and lawyers, out-and-out bandit gangs, "down below men" who make their living salvaging coins and other valuables that have fallen into the sewers, starving Victorian garment workers, and, every once in a while, the gentry living high and betting too much on cards and horses. Like you do.

If that sounds like something you might enjoy, you'll enjoy the hell out of this book. I did, even though I snickered a lot. Hey, snickering is good.

*And I absolutely wound up reading this one now because of Aliette de Bodard, whose Obsidian and Blood Aztec godpunk trilogy employs the visual device and term of "quincunx" - a five-fold cross, more or less - and every time I came across the term, I remembered that my mother had presented me with a battered but still nice hardcover edition of Quincunx and it was still the substantial base of my small but formidable tower of dead tree TBR. Brains are funny old things.

Monday, December 24, 2012

100 Books #124 - Joseph Roth's THE RADETZKY MARCH

"A word, a word so easily spoken; it is not spoken."

I am developing a minor obsession with the literature of the 19th and early 20th century Hapsburg Empire, and I can't quite put my finger on why, or how it started, unless it was when I read about Robert Musil in Philip Ball's amazing Critical Mass: How One Thing Leads to Another. Ball's interest was in Musil's unfinished two-volume novel, The Man Without Qualities, and its depiction of a mathematician's dispassion for the world, which doesn't sound terribly promising on the face of it, does it? But it's quite an engaging read nonetheless, and one that I look forward to re-reading again soon; I'm a Robert Musil fan (see also my look last year at Musil's first novel, The Confusions of Young Torless, from last year), loving his way of examining moral and social paralysis and its consequences, as well as how his German prose becomes English.

The (delightfully!) occasionally ornithological Radetzky March* both does and not partake these qualities (or, I guess, lack of qualities) as it details the misadventures of three generations of the Trotta family: a grandfather ennobled as a reward for sort of blunderingly saving Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph's life in battle, a son whom the new Baron forces into a civil service instead of a military career**, and a grandson who takes up the family's military mantle again, only to very nearly disgrace it.

But this makes it sound like The Radetzky March is a book in which things happen, and really, it's not. It's more a book in which things are felt and perceived, and what is perceived is mostly that the Empire is in a period of stasis and stagnation, a period in which the gloss of civilization is polished to a blinding brightness, the better to conceal the turmoil it hides, the turmoil of an empire that purports to bind a staggering variety of cultures, religions and ethnicities into one people*** but really hasn't, except in that all those different peoples are temporarily too busy buffing and polishing (under some duress) to get on with the business of being themselves and hating each other. But don't worry, they'll get around to it. Boy, will they get around to it.

But even that makes it sound like stuff is happening. Which is erroneous. I mean, these people don't even eat:
"The baron had a bizarre relationship with food. He ate the most important morsels with his eyes, so to speak; his sense of beauty consumed above all the essence of the food -- its soul, as it were; the vapid remainders that then reached mouth and palate were boring and had to be wolfed down without delay."
"He was sorry that Trotta had missed the schnitzel. He would have gladly chewed a second one for the lieutenant -- or at least watched it being eaten with gusto."
Nor do they ever really seem to talk to each other, especially not the Trottas. Especially not the youngest Trotta, who is constantly struggling over whether or not to utter even the most banal pleasantry: "Carl Joseph almost replied reverently 'Good evening, Herr Doctor!' But all he said was 'May I?' and sat down."

And things get worse when young Lieutenant Carl Joseph Trotta (the grandson), posted to a border village whose chief employer is a bristle factory, suddenly faces his duty as a soldier to put down an insurrection at said factory. He insists to a colleague that he "simply won't order the men to shoot!" because he now realizes that the factory workers are "poor devils" but another tells him "You'll do what you have to, you know you will." And what he has to do right away is get drunk... And do things improve from there?
"Immense files swelled around the Trotta case, and the files grew, and every department in every agency splattered a little more ink on them, the way one waters flowers, to make them grow."
So, uh, not so much, then.

And then there's the dreary love affair and whatnot (in general, women are not well-regarded in Radetzky March, but what are you gonna do? This is a story about a young man raised motherless by, apparently, a motherless son of a military hero, said son spending most of the novel either in military school or in the military. Sausage fests everywhere). Sigh.

But so then why bother to read this stuff at all, you might ask? Because it's good. As a masterful evocation of the spiritual paralysis of an entire society, as a look at the consequences of too much civilization as something that does not require robot butlers and flying cars to happen, as a vivid portrait of the twilight years of Emperor Franz Joseph (who had "lived long enough to know that it is foolish to tell the truth.") and the Hapsburg Empire just before the outbreak of World War I****, and, yes, as an exquisite piece of writing for its own sake -- as all of these things, The Radetzky March is a very, very good book.

*The book's title comes from a piece of music by Johann Strauss, Sr., which a military band plays outside of the grandfather's house every Sunday to salute their local hero. It's a nifty, stirring tune if you care to enjoy:

As for my characterization of Radetzky March as occasionally ornithological, dude, it is loaded with references to birds, from a servant's caged canary to the different birds singing outdoors in every season in Austria and the empire -- a very charming touch. Seriously. More birds than anything I've read this year that wasn't by Michael Chabon. Birds signal changes in scene and setting and sometimes provide the strongest of dramatic counterpoints (hello, wild geese and Russian ravens!). This is wonderful!

**The grandfather's insistence that the son have any career but military stems from a misunderstanding regarding a children's history book that presents a tarted up version of how the grandfather saved the Emperor's life, to which the grandfather takes great but ultimately ineffectual umbrage in one of the more bitterly humorous sections of the novel.

***All in the service of allowing the Hapsburgs, once Holy Roman Emperors and lords over most of Europe in one form or another, to feel like they still had an Empire and were still a relevant power in world affairs, big terrifying inbred jaws and all (though yes, I'll admit to having been a little sad when they finally had to cut down the Sisipalm in 2008).

Oh, and check out the people, as seen through the eyes of a somewhat minor character, Count Chojnicki:
"The German Austrians were waltzers and boozy crooners, the Hungarians stank, the Czechs were born bootlickers, the Ruthenians were treacherous Russians in disguise, the Croats and Slovenes, whom he called Cravats and Slobbers, were brushmakers and chestnut roasters, and the Poles, of whom he himself was one after all, were skirt chasers, hairdressers and fashion photographers."
So, the Austro-Hungarian Empire was basically the Golgafrincham B Ark, then?

****Weirdly, it was only when the assassination of Franz Ferdinand was communicated (very dramatically) that it hit home for me that the events of this novel were taking place in the 20th century. The book otherwise feels so timeless, so universal, that a particular historical event's depiction, even second-hand as happens here, is really jarring, but not in a bad way. Just a wow way.

Friday, December 21, 2012

100 Books #123 - Diane Duane's SO YOU WANT TO BE A WIZARD

Oh man, it's a good thing a certain someone who talked me into reading Harry Potter this year didn't show these to me until long after I'd done with Hogwarts, because Potter & co. would have suffered even more by comparison with these than they already did with the Greats.

As I found myself explaining to a work colleague who is trying to get her 13-year-old son to read more, among the many reasons Duane's Young Wizards books look to be better than Potter is that their would-be wizards are teaching themselves (with a lot of help from the natural world, which is all quite magical if you're just paying attention) instead of slaving over, e.g., potions in a student cauldron in a dreary classroom for a grade. I like the way Duane has conveyed the pleasures of learning and discovery rather than making the learning process seem like a dreary chore, a set of hoops the impatient student must jump through in order to get to do the cool stuff.

I also like the way Duane has situated magic in the world of Young Wizards. It's got a slight Jedi/Force feel to it in that the practice of magic is one of the things that keeps the universe working (the idea that humanity/intelligent life is the universe's consciousness trying to understand itself is a subtle theme), but in a very reasoned and scientific, rather than a mystical, way. Magic slows down entropy, if it's practiced by the right kind of people, by which is meant people who care enough to make the effort even if it costs them everything. And thus the universe can be safeguarded.

Magic, in this world, then, is a calling rather than a privilege, a practice to be undertaken alongside of, rather than instead of, the rest of one's life in the world. Which means there's no elitism to it, no us versus them mentality, despite the secrecy.*

That's not to say it's not quite a lot of satisfying fun for our two young heroes in this first novel, Nita and Kit. Both of them are nerdy little outcasts with a bent for book-learning (the scene in which Nita comes across this first novel's titular textbook is one every bookworm will recognize, a bit ruefully) and a need to exercise their talents, but of course that means both of them are ostracized according to their lights: the rather passive Kit is a wallflower, the more aggressive and active Nita gets beaten up a lot. But lest this start to sound like a magical Revenge of the Nerds, Nita is more interested in harnessing her budding powers to protect herself from damage and recover a treasured space pen than in tit for tat. And soon, when her spell to recover said pen brings a fascinatingly strange new presence into her and Kit's lives, she's got much more interesting stuff to think about than getting back at some bullies. Like getting to know the trees, especially the rowan tree she's been climbing in her whole young life, who tells her of how the trees have always been watching over and protecting humanity, since they were just another primate screaming in the branches -- and why humanity is worth protecting.

Too, this book does the best job of any I've seen since Fritz Lieber's Our Lady of Darkness of fulfilling the promise inherent in that oft misused genre name, urban fantasy. Here as in the Lieber, we get a true magic of cities, in a radiant and lively good aspect as well as in a creepy and malevolent evil one. And, rarity of rarities, the good aspect is every bit as interesting and vividly imagined and engaging as the evil -- and that's saying a lot, because the foe Nita and Kit and their white hole pal Fred (!) take on is quite possibly the most genuinely heartbreaking and terrifying dark lord I've encountered at least since Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy -- and this being-or-nonbeing, the Starsnuffer, let me say, licks Voldemort and Sauron hollow, as his world is way more interesting and scary than Mordor could ever hope to be. The fire hydrants alone!

And so again I find myself asking, just as I did in my prior post, why the hell isn't this book more famous? Seriously, kids, check this stuff out. Diane Duane is amazevaries.

*I want to make a comparison. If Harry Potter is Big Bang Theory, with muggles standing in for nerds as the class to be either mocked/attacked or protected, but hardly ever respected in their own right (even as it pretends to be a sop to those nerds reading), then Young Wizards is Community.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

100 Books #122 - Philip K. Dick's THE PENULTIMATE TRUTH

Holy Mother Lug Nuts, how did this one escape my notice for so long? And I such a Dickhead that I've even enjoyed Clans of the Alphane Moon? But so it goes: of the handful of Philip K. Dick novels that are/were still on the eternal to-be-read pile, The Penultimate Truth was one for a long, long time. I guess this was partly because I'd assumed I'd read all of his A material and most of his B and all that was left was, well, not either of these.

Shows what I know. Thank goodness for my pal EssJay (who else?), who broadcast her great love for this all-but-forgotten work earlier this year. In her opinion, it should have been a bestseller.

And speaking of EssJay and Philip K. Dick, if you happen to be someone who hasn't read any of my all-time hero's work and are wondering where to start, she went so far as to make a PKD newbie decision tree. And really, even if you're not a newbie, you should go admire. You might even find it useful in helping a friend figure out if PKD is right for them!

Of course, I'm one of those fantatics who thinks PKD is right for everybody, so, well, caveat lector for the rest of this blog post. Because it's not just going to be about this book. No.

Several years ago, I had a dream, a dream so marvelous that I actually cried on waking up and realizing it had all been a dream (even though my dream self had spent a lot of the dream questioning how it could possibly be real). In it, I had found in my father's garage of all places, a big wooden crate brimful of those trade paperback editions of PKD's novels that Del Rey was releasing in the 90s. Among all the beloved familiar titles were some I'd never heard of before. As in they didn't exist. At least not in our world. I'm talking dozens of new-to-me, new-to-everyone, full-on PKD novels. I couldn't decide what to read first. I couldn't carry them all. I couldn't figure out how they'd gotten there, because my dad doesn't do science fiction, nor did my grandfather (most of whose crap is what posthumously clutters that garage). And there was no one with which to share my discovery, my joy, and obviously it was meant to be that way.

Then I woke up. To sadness. So much sadness.

Anyway, I bring this up because I realized, as I was raving to EssJay about it, that The Penultimate Truth feels like one of those books from my dream. How is this book not more famous? It's kind of the bridge book between his conventional* science fiction and his batshit looney tunes theo-philosophical druggie cuckoo stuff. Read closely. You can almost watch the artistically refined madness taking hold of him, in, for instance, the plot the Yancemen (think of them as the 1%, who managed to provoke World War III and then duped the entire surviving population of both sides into evacuating into vast underground "ant tanks" to live and work at an ever-accelerating pace building more weaponry because the Yancemen have also duped everyone else into believing that the War Never Ended) cook up against one of their number, to get him out of the way forever, according to their law: said plot involving fabricating ancient artifacts and alien skulls, salting a building site with them, and letting him get busted for not reporting a discovery that would put a halt to his building project. Dude. The Yancemen are pretty close to all-powerful. They could pretty much just disappear this Runcible guy. But no.


And yet agonizing, too. The Penultimate Truth is also one of the most conscience-burdened of PKD's novels, if not the most, more so even than Dr. Bloodmoney, for Bloodmoney is just concerned with the agenbite of one man's inwit. This one features a whole society of Yancemen whose sole and circular pursuit in life is keeping 99%** of humanity from discovering their hoax -- and working at an ever more frenzied pace to build the robotic "leadies" the tankers believe are going to the war effort but are really going to fill the entourages and private armies of the Yancemen. And most of these Yancemen are at least a little uneasy about their part in this monstrous deception, although none of them seem to have the courage to do anything to address the wrongs from which they benefit. Pangs of conscience never overcome complacency -- or fear, with fear being perhaps the stronger obstacle/opponent, fear of reprisals from betrayed fellow Yancemen and fear of "another war" if the 99% ever emerge from the ant tanks and learn the terrible truth -- in PKD.

Or almost never. Because someone is acting in sneaky ways for the benefit of the 99%, adding delicious mystery, and another layer of paranoia, to the plot.

"Not much of a way... of inheriting the Earth. Maybe we haven't been meek enough." That one little line of dialogue neatly sums up the whole book. It could be spoken among either the Yancemen or the tankers. You'll have to read the book to find out who says it. And you'll remember that I quoted it here, and you'll feel what EssJay calls the "Dick Click" -- that frisson of understanding you get when all the weird crap PKD has been throwing at you finally starts to make a kind of sense, though I think the real Dick Click in this novel is a few chapters after this exchange.

At any rate, for this PKD fan who is also a big fan of hoaxes and hoaxers, this book was pretty much a pipeful of crack. As my bit about my PKD book dream I mentioned a few paragraphs ago might indicate, I'm kind of trying to ration what new-to-me PKD remains. After this, though, my resolve is kind of crumbling.

*Well, conventional for him, anyway.

**Dick never uses these figures, but the dystopia he has created for The Penultimate Truth so perfectly fits our current situation and rhetoric that it's impossible not to use them, just as its impossible not to think of the robotic "leadies" the tankers keep building as our modern drone weaponry, at least in part. PKD was a freaking precog, yo.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

100 Books #121 - Jonathan L. Howard's KATYA'S WORLD

I had to keep reminding myself, as I read Katya's World, that without Wesley Crusher, who annoyed millions with his over-the-top precocity and tendency to save the occasionally weirdly bumbling asses of the crew of the Enterprise-D, we would not have the 24k slab of awesome that is Wil Wheaton today. Which is to say that sometimes, it's worth putting up with an improbably gifted young protagonist being the one to think of all the solutions to all the problems in order to enjoy the rest of a show's or novel's offerings.*

And what offerings there are! Like a stormy human-colonized water world, in which everybody lives in underwater cities, travels by submarine, and struggles to exploit the amazing mineral resources on the ocean floor and in the ocean water. Like a colony of entirely Russian descent (the powers-that-were in the waves of human colonization having concluded that removing the possibility of ethnic tensions was a very good idea) who eschew intoxicants and other Russian folkways because the environment is too hostile and drunkenness can easily lead to death.

Like a war fought under the waves, not among said Russian-descended colonists, but against invaders -- from Earth! A war that warped the culture of Katya's world forever, ten years before the events of this novel unfold, and is still warping it.

And, most importantly and excitingly, like a giant mysterious something haunting the deep, destroying subs and interfering with transport and commerce, which Big Benthic Baddie starts having a direct and frightening effect on Katya's own fifteen-year-old life as she starts her career as a submarine navigator! Said BBB and its secrets providing a marvelously creepy and menacing undertone to the whole novel. Yowza.

All this and a fascinatingly enigmatic hero-villain amalgam who totally steals the book even before we find out what he's really up to. Except that might not be what he's really really up to. Except that it might be after all. See?

So on the whole, I agree with my dear EssJay, who loved the Snape out of this book and hopes to see more works, maybe even for grown-ups, set in this fascinating world. Howard handles the science and the sociology very well, as well as the tension of sub-oceanic combat, sub-hunting, seek-and-destroy missions, discussions on the nature of synthetic vs. artificial intelligence**, so I know that, for instance, some prequel work on the war that preceded this story, or how Earth went from a colonizing powerhouse to something mysteriously crippled and desperate, would make for good reading for any age group.

And really? Katya's Wesley Crusher-ism isn't that annoying. If you could tolerate Sheriff Carter's always being the one to come up with the brilliant off-beat solution that all the scientists in Eureka couldn't, Katya won't bother you at all. But if you caught yourself rolling your eyes at Carter sometimes, well, they'll roll a bit more for this. But don't let that stop you. This is a neat book!

*And really, I want to forgive said annoying precocity and ass-saving as maybe one of the necessary trappings of young adult fiction, which I have but rarely read, even back when I was a young adult, but is that the case? At any rate, I probably wouldn't have noticed/been bothered by it so much had this been a first person narrative, in which case I could take it as a slightly unreliable narrator maybe inflating her importance to the course of events a bit, instead of the third person omniscient that I got. A pity.

**And, as Essjay so gleefully pointed out, even this heady stuff is made lucid for young readers but is never presented in a condescending info-dump, in narration or dialogue, which is always appreciated!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

100 Books 120 - Octavia E. Butler's WILD SEED

It's been too long since I immersed myself in one of Octavia E. Butler's magical-biological-genealogical-alien-witchcraft-historical-futuristic-mind-blowing series. I always forget, until I'm deep into one, how much I love them, love her way with language, with imagery, with storytelling, with poetry, with imagination.

Wild Seed begins a series I've long had my eye on but had long avoided because my local public library didn't have all of it: the Patternmaster series, a late entry in which (Survivor) I accidentally picked up there many years ago. I have since learned that it is not specifically sequential, and that I could have enjoyed the books in any order, but now that I have them all in one convenient e-book file, my serial compulsion can be satisfied and I can submerge myself without anxiety.

Which is to say that I'm going to be picking up where I left off and starting the "next" Patternmaster book, Mind of My Mind, immediately after finishing this blog post.

Wild Seed concerns a sort of battle of body and mind between two all but supernatural beings in the colonial era, when black slaves were Africa's greatest export and white settlements in the New World depended on them utterly, north and south of a certain arbitrary boundary that would be drawn in a hundred years or so. Living and ruling several settlements in America (and elsewhere) is one Doro, thousands of years old, a being who takes over the bodies of others (sadly killing the original occupants in the process) and who has been breeding pockets humanity in semi-captivity to produce individuals with unique abilities like telepathy and telekinesis -- with the attendant responsibility to protect them from the rest of humanity who would regard his human livestock as witches and torture and burn them as such. And in Africa, living quietly but treated with reverence as an oracle is Anyanwu, an immortal shape-changer, a woman with such minute control over her body that she can analyze and overcome any pathogen or poison, can alter her very DNA to become any creature she has "analyzed" (by eating), and who has thereby lived for a good 300 years. Anyanwu turns out to be a "wild seed" -- the descendant of some lost or escaped members of one of Doro's earlier captive populations, whose talents are beyond Doro's wildest dreams. He Must Have Her and breed her with his other stock, whether she is willing or not.

If you're guessing that Butler has found in this science fictional/magic realistic story a way to comment on gender, slavery, race, free will, coercion and class, you're guessing right, but if you're guessing that she ever beats the reader over the head with these heavy notions, you're not. As Doro and Anyanwu struggle for control, these ideas and problems naturally occur, but only subtly. Butler is too deft a hand to preach at the reader. While she is often regarded as Zora Neale Hurston in genre fictional disguise (and Butler does have some of that lyrical quality for which Hurston is praised), Butler never feels like she is writing polemics or parables, even when some of her novels have "parable" in the title.

That being said, there is often a slightly creepy quality to Butler's work. I trace it to its explicit physicality, its minute focus on biology and how biology can be manipulated. Thus the Oankali of Lilith's Brood/Xenogenesis trilogy fame are some of the most fascinating and frightening aliens I've ever encountered, and here in this book we find that Anyanwu herself is one of the most compelling heroines, very nearly omnipotent, but cowed by Doro's threat to round up and all but enslave* her descendants (two of whom were caught in the same net she herself was, and whom Doro promptly bred to one another over her objections that this was incest; Doro forces his populations to breed incestuously all the time and just kills off any babies born with too many undesirable traits). Her power just makes her subjugation all the more desirable, and Doro is just the being to try to keep her in check -- and to keep her from realizing that she alone in all the world could actually oppose him if she dared.

Despite it all, though, this pair has a kind of love, and Octavia E. Butler is one of the very best novelists in the world when it comes to writing about love -- agape, filia or eros, it doesn't matter which. Reading one of her novels is like gorging oneself at a feast, but without the bellyache afterwards. She leaves me wanting more.

Good thing there still is some. But I probably should hoard those works of hers I haven't read yet and ration them out like EssJay and I do with Philip K. Dick. That's what I should do.

But, you know, I'm weak, and silly, and don't always do what I should.

*Doro's people do not live like slaves, happily dwelling in rich and prosperous towns and villages here and there, thriving and free to exercise their weird talents within those carefully controlled and defended enclaves, but their apparent freedom is that of pampered zoo animals, who don't even really get to choose their mates.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

100 Books #119 - Fydor Dostoevsky's POOR FOLK

At first glance, there would appear to be just two characters in Dostoevsky's epistolary first novel, Poor Folk, but really there are four. We have the two letter-writing doomed lovers, Barbara (Varvara) Dobroselova and Makar Devushkin, and we have the pair's mental models or emulators of one another. The story told in the letters of this pair of chastely loving neighbors, in which they live out their lives of privation and longing for one another, is thus given an almost unbearable tension as they all but scream at one another for understanding. "Ah, little angel, you are a perfect child! I know well you are weak as a blade of grass," Makar might say to the decidedly not weak Barbara, for instance, projecting quite forcefully his distorted ideal of femininity on the woman he has decided he must protect even though it is obvious from the very beginning that, sad as Barbara's straits are, she is doing a much better job of taking care of herself than Makar is.*

It's this tension, rather than the horrible living conditions described or the novel's famed status as a possible satire on Gogol's "The Overcoat" and other works, that kept me reading this**; it's the same inter-character tension that I love best about Dostoevsky in particular, and Russian novels in general, after all. There is a perverse streak in me that loves to watch characters willfully misunderstanding each other while claiming (usually dismissively) to understand each other perfectly. I say perverse because nothing makes me angrier than when this happens to me in real life. In fiction, however, it's my crack.

So, while earlier this year I decided, after having thoroughly loved the first volume of Joseph Frank's giant biography of Doestoeversky, that I needed to read Poor Folk right away, I kind of put it off, largely out of a feeling of obligation to others. I am comrades with lots of writers who released new fiction this year and whose work could benefit from what small light I could shine on it; I finally allowed some friends, new and old, to talk me into reading all the Harry Potter and all the Dark Tower novels.... the year slipped away.

But as it comes to an end, I find myself in what my good pal EssJay aptly describes as a "sneaky hate spiral" in which all fiction annoys me or otherwise fails to keep my attention. I've been here before; I know what I need, and so I keep "guaranteed good stuff" that I know I'll like against such times. Hence Poor Folk at last. AaaaaaAAAAAaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh.

My own pecadillos notwithstanding, this book is a searingly worthwhile read even if  you don't get off on the kind of tension I'm celebrating here. Doestoevsky at the kinda-faltering start of his career is better than almost anyone else at his or her peak. Listen: I hate epistolary novels. Hate them. But if all of them were like Poor Folk, I would love them. They would be my favorites.

For instance, a good chunk of Barbara's correspondence is devoted to a rather lengthy account of her childhood and upbringing, which means Dostoevsky, brand new novelist, has already set for himself the daunting task of writing convincingly in a female voice -- and a unique and specific female voice at that, for Barbara is revealed as a woman whom we would now understand as a survivor of domestic violence, both physical and emotional, whose character has been shaped/warped by terrible events that she simply understands as commonplace, as just the way the world works. Her presentation of self, not precisely from a victim mentality seeking redress but as one who subtly demands a weird blend of pity and respect for her suffering, is astonishing and uncomfortable to read, and utterly masterful. One cringes at lines like "Yet this did not arise from any WANT OF LOVE for me on the part of my father, but rather from the fact that he was incapable of putting himself in my own and my mother's place. It came from a defect of character." Isn't making excuses for one's abuser a classic sign of abuse in the modern paradigm of same? But Dostoevsky knew it and saw it from the very beginning of his career, decades before it got codified into modern social services jargon. He was that good, right from the start.

All that and a bravura depiction of the humiliations and extraordinary degree of unrewarded effort that poverty inflicts on its victims, whatever the century.

Dude. My jaw is still in my lap. And I'm thinking about opening a hot dog stand.**

*Indeed, Barbara spends a lot of the novel berating Makar for spending money on unwanted gifts for her, which he insists on doing despite her many, many protests, because as far as he is concerned, that is what men must do for women they love, and women who claim they don't want them are just being coy. This, of course, enrages Barbara further, even as it also causes her to worry because it is plain that not only can Makar not afford the bonbons and presents of cash he is constantly sending her, but that he is basically endangering his own survival to do so. Her protests just drive him to try harder to please her with gifts. And so on. It would be hilarious if it wasn't so awful. Or vice versa.

**Well, that and the "just enough" funniness, chiefly achieved in exchanges between our lovers about whether or not a writer for whom Makar serves as amanuensis is a genius (Makar's version) or a hilariously bad hack (Barbara's), complete with extensively quoted passages so ridiculously overblown that they can't even be counted as satire. When Barbara continuously declines to read more, Makar's assumption that she is simply reading them in the wrong spirit and might like them better "when you have a bonbon or two in your mouth" makes it all even funnier. If you're the type who can laugh at patriarchy and patronizing, anyway. Which I can.

***Wink again at Unca Harlan.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

100 Books #118 - J.G. Ballard's THE WIND FROM NOWHERE

Were I a little better at anthropomorphizing, if I could bring myself to impart sentience and a unified will to planet Earth and its ecosphere without giggling, I would say that sometime in the mid to late 20th century, Gaia decided that, once and for all, She needed to get rid of this bad case of humans she's got and started working on a plan. And that furthermore she convinced J.G. Ballard to allow her to use his fiction as the laboratory in which various schemes were tested out. Ballard would perform Her thought experiments so She could pick the best way to bring the human world to ruin, or at least chase us off this planet, without unnecessarily expending all the energy and endangering all of the other life forms She wanted to keep.

Hey, you've got to admit it's as good a characterization as any for this cycle of "elemental apocalypse" novels. J.G. Ballard has drowned the world, crystallized the world, dried up and burned the world, and, in The Wind From Nowhere, blown the world to dusty pieces with hurricane-force winds.

But hey, as well I've come to know, even if his world is just one posh apartment building, J.G. Ballard enjoys destroying with gleeful abandon. Or rather, enjoys letting a single force (usually one that humanity has unleashed upon itself in one way or another) have its wild and wicked way with the world, to the world's greatest possible cost. It's not Ballard's fault everything gets trashed; it's ours. Or, very occasionally, that of the odd freak cosmic accident.

Unlike Hollywood, though, which is addicted to focusing on heroic efforts to fight disaster -- fire a missile to destroy the comet that's going to hit the Earth! Infect the invading alien ship with a computer virus! Sic the army on the giant ants! -- Ballard is more interested in watching ordinary, passive, bemused observer-refugees, whose lives usually were already pretty much trashed due to these same faults long before the natural disaster du novel hit, watch the disaster. And occasionally make a token effort to survive it, but, you know, nothing too strenuous.

I'm amused with myself to only now be reading this one, which is not only the first of Ballard's elemental apocalypses, but Ballard's first published novel of any kind (though Ballard dismissed it as "hackwork" and tended to refer to The Drowned World as his first novel). I tend to be fiercely chronological when I take up a new-to-me writer, but I also take advice from friends seriously, and the many passionate Ballardians I'm blessed with in my life, concerned that The Wind From Nowhere might sour me on the author, all told me to start with The Drowned World or Hello, America.* So I did.

And yeah, my friends were right. Had I started with this novel, I might not have gone on to read others, might not have become a Ballard fangirl, because while The Wind From Nowhere features a lot of the things I've come to love or at least find interesting about Ballard, they're buried in a conventional fight/rescue narrative that is weirdly dull compared to the passive/observing motif of the rest of the elemental apocalypse, and flat out boring compared to the disintegration and madness of High Rise.

That being said, this is still not truly a bad book. There are loads of hints of future greatness to be had here, most notably in the small but vivid storyline of Susan Maitland, estranged wife of one of the sort-of protagonists**, who elects to stay in her posh London apartment when everyone else is evacuated to the building's foundations or other underground locations. She wants to watch the houses fall down, she tells the porter, thus presaging so many Ballardian observers, and  she and the state of her surroundings prefigure many of the delights of High Rise and other of Ballard's bravura descriptions of destruction and swift decay.

And, of course, speaking of destruction and decay, there's plenty of that to be had, too, for Ballard was obviously a master of depicting that from the get-go. As almost the entire planet (save the extreme northern and southern latitudes) becomes a giant dustbowl and some of the characters begin speculating about most of the formerly human-dominated planet turning into a band of permanent storm a la Saturn, the reader feels every sandblasting whipcrack of the mighty winds that have leveled everything in their path across the earth. One can almost imagine this being apocalypse of which Cormac McCarthy's The Road is post-.

Although I'm not sure that road, to say nothing of its surrounding trees and whatnot, would have survived The Wind From Nowhere.

*Hello, America is still on my to-be-read list. I've actually started it a few times, but only get a few chapters in before I get the screaming willies over how much it reminds me of the later stages of Greg Bear's Blood Music, which is my #1 freak-out novel of all time.

**A big flaw in this book, for me, was the surfeit of characters, none of them in the spotlight for long enough to become anything more than stick figures blowing in or hiding from the wind. A few figures eventually emerge as important to what actual narrative there is here, but they're little more than cameramen, roving around London or the central Mediterranean to show us the awesome destruction.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Claw of the Conciliator 1-5

After leaving  us with a bit of a cliffhanger in the chaos at the Gate of Nessus at the end of Shadow of the Torturer, Gene Wolfe engages in a bit of torturing of his own now by starting us off with a scene involving someone named Morwenna, which who the Snape is this and why do we care? What happened at the Gate, dammit!

We get bits and pieces but Severian is grudging with this information and insists on mixing it in with his dreams and his "perfect" memories, claiming that sometimes he just trips out on those memories like when someone says the name Vodalus. And someone said Vodalus to him on his arrival, post Gate Chaos, in the town of Saltus, where we're taking up his story, so as far as  he's concerned, his perfect memory is crowded by... his perfect memory of his cemetery encounter with Vodalus at the beginning of the first book?

Aww, man!

But soon Wolfe is making it up to us, because Saltus is serving  up a variety of delights, partly just because Severian is there. The aforementioned Morwenna needs killing, for one thing, and so does another guy, who everyone has decided is a dirty spy for Vodalus (hence the Memory Lane), and so does yet another guy, a cattle thief. And if there's gonna be an execution, there needs to be a fair! And if there are gonna be three executions, it needs to be a really great fair!

And the first attraction is, a very special attraction! Saltus, it seems, has a tradition of sealing up malefactors in their houses (after removing all of the food and valuables) to starve in the dark! And then, when said malefactor is good and dead, they break open the house and remove the corpse (or thing the malefactor has, uh, become*) and sell the house off! And Severian and Jonas (the only member of the Gate Gang who managed to stick with Severian) are just in time to watch the fun! And so, onward, the battering ram, let's get this guy Barnoch out.** Barnoch being, of course, the aforementioned dirty spy. Who might not be dead yet because hey, if they'd have known Severian was coming, they would have baked a cake. Or at least not tried baking a Barnoch?***

And of course Severian, who still considers himself a follower of Vodalus, starts fretting about having to kill one of his fellows. This doesn't stop him from following the battering ram into the foul-smelling house once they break through, though! And yes, what they find is kind of a tall Gollum, except instead of muttering about The Precious he insists that "I will be free... Vodalus will come!"

Oh, and in the resulting hullabulloo, whom does Severian glimpse in the crowd but Agia? Man, that chick is a bit of a stalker, no? But then Severian can't locate her! But soon something more important happens because GREEN MAN.

He was apparently captured a little while ago, and is going to be exhibited at the fair. He might even grant you three... oh wait, wrong green man. Or is it?

And also, Severian learns, someone brought a cathedral to the fair! And yes, it's that cathedral! Well, a replacement for that cathedral because of course the one Severian accidentally pillaged burned down! And supposedly rose up into the air on the updrafts it created because the cathedral is a big tent! Maybe that's what Severian and Dorcas saw! But, you know, only on the most pathetic level of reality.

But then, monomaniac that Severian sometimes is, he gets the idea that the Green Man might know where Agia is, since green men know everything and all. And so soon Severian is alone with said green man, whom he finds a prisoner and possibly a slave, which is contrary to his ethics. But he is also quite a fascinating specimen who claims to be from the far future, his green hue being due to his people's having established a symbiotic relationship with some algae so that the green man can basically keep himself going via photosynthesis instead of food, as long as his captors don't get mad at him and cut off his sunlight. Finally, though the green man can only tell Severian that Agia is "above ground" Severian hands him half of his whetstone -- in other words, giving the green man the means to free himself from the chain that binds him to this place and time. This act of kindness will resonate very subtly through the rest of the Book of the New Sun, and possibly through the entire rest of the Solar Cycle, but Severian pretends to be unaware of this at this point in his narrative and just mentions watching comprehension dawn on the Green Man's face as he realizes he's being freed.

Then comes the time for Severian to do his job again, this time with Jonas as a sort of assistant. This turns out to be even more of a production than when he executed Agilus near the end of Shadow of the Torturer. This is not only because there are three victims, but also because the alcade of Saltus is a bit of a showman, though a nervous one. First he leads everyone in a prayer to the Increate/Conciliator/God that is pretty amusing considering that Severian is standing right next to him as he intones:
"You, the hero who will destroy the black worm that devours the sun; you for whom the sky parts as a curtain; you whose breath shall whither vast Erebus, Abaia and Scylla who wallow beneath the wave; you that equally live in the shell of the smallest seed in the farthest forest, the seed that hath rolled into the dark that no one sees."
I've always paid more attention to the first part of this prayer than the second, but since I've come to align myself with those who argue that the Whorl system in which Book of the Short Sun takes place and that of Urth (which is our own good old familiar system in the unbelievably distant past or future, depending on how you choose to look at this whole Cycle) are one and the same, I find myself entertaining thoughts of Severian  somehow carrying on through Book of the Long Sun and Book of the Short Sun, perhaps via the Green Man, who might be himself in a later state of being just as some suggest that Severian himself might be Typhon in a new guise/incarnation; perhaps in some more mundane form in the person of Patera Silk, or something? I need to think longer on this. My brain is wanting to make a logical narrative connection in which Severian winds up in Green's jungles, wherever they "really" turn out to be, but I'll confess to feeling a little defeated in this, just now.

At any rate, it's killing time. First up is Morwenna, accused of poisoning her husband and child, chiefly on the word of one Eusebia, who we learn was in love with said husband and considered Morwenna a hussy who stole him away. Eusebia's successful prosecution/persecution of the beautiful Morwenna is her revenge, but Morwenna manages to avenge herself before she dies by poisoning a bouquet of purple roses Eusebia brought to taunt her with ("die before these fade") on her way up to the scaffold. As Severian ends Morwenna's life, he tries to comfort her with another unintentionally amusing observation "Try to remember that almost everyone who has ever lived has died, even the Conciliator, who will rise as the New Sun."****

From here we move briskly along to the aftermath in which Severian and Jonas enjoy a brief spell of being treated like rock stars. We don't get any description of the man's execution, because Severian tells us he doesn't really feel like talking about every single one he performed on his way to his post at Thrax. "When I describe my travels, you are to understand that I practiced the mystery of our guild where it was profitable to do so, though I do not mention the specific occasions."

Over dinner, Severian finds himself the recipient of a note! And what a note it is, for it is purportedly from none other than his beloved Thecla, who claims that Father Inire interceded on her behalf and she just faked her suicide. "Did you look? I lay as still as death... I seemed to feel your pain when  you saw me there." And Severian is given instructions to proceed to a rendezvous with her that she might impart to him "a grave secret." Snickerhoot.

Not one to wait around when a girl calls for him, Severian asks to borrow Jonas' horse-thing but winds up stealing a destrier (some kind of alien-horse hybrid that serves as the mount of the very important) and following a brook to its origin in a cliff face "flooding out like saliva from the lips of a petrified titan."****** This is how to get to the mine shaft where he is supposed to meet Thecla. Cue Admiral Ackbar? At any rate, Severian would utterly fail at text adventures, for he never bothered to Get Lamp.

And thus, in the dark, we leave him for now.

*As the alcalde (the mayor, more or less) tells Severian: "A woman sealed in the dark long enough can become something very strange, just like the strange things you find in rotten wood, back among the big trees. We're miners, mostly, here in Saltus, and used to things found  underground, but we took to our heels and came back with torches. It didn't like the light, or the fire, either." Heh heh. Sounds like at some point they accidentally cooked themselves a Gollum, eh? But of course, what they sealed in the house might have only appeared human to start with. This is Urth, not Middle Earth, after all.

**When people fret that Gene Wolfe doesn't seem to have a sense of humor, I always want to trot out Barnoch. As far as I can tell, and I'm no hagiographer, not even Catholic, but as far as I can tell, this guy's namesake saint is Barrog, who is famous for being... hee hee hee... a hermit. A hermit whose chapel became a famous pilgrimage site. Come on. That's funny!

***Hee  hee.

****Tee hee.

******Our first hint that all of these mountains have been turned into a giant Mount Rushmore, really, no? Or at least a foreshadowing of same.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

SUNS SUNS SUNS - Shadow of the Torturer 31-35

We now find Severian poised to do his job for the first time in public. Step One: stand there and look menacing to "symbolize the unsleeping omnipresence of justice" and intimidate the crowd. Step Two (apparently) muse to himself about the nature of crowds and mobs and make socioeconomic assumptions about this particular crowd-mob who is gathered to watch him execute Agilus. Step Three: Off with his head (with graphic descriptions of how it feels and smells to cut off someone's head). Step Four: Profit. So at least Severian has this over the Underpants Gnomes. Step Five: Sing an XTC song* to your [REDACTED] new girlfriend. And reflect on what a dirty liar Agia was for saying, among many, many other things, that the avern's leaves alone could kill people. Ha.

And while Severian and Dorcas are somewhat cattily recounting their adventure together so far, talk turns to the note left for them at the Inn of Lost Loves. Severian goes fishing in his murse for the copy of it he made but pulls out... oh noes! The Claw of the Conciliator! Which  he and Dorcas figure out must have been slipped into the murse during the scuffle at the Pelerines' Cathedral Tent by Agia, making Severian into a dirty liar in that encounter.

And of course, though this won't occur to Severian until later (supposedly), the presence of the Claw on his person when he fell into the Lake of Birds is probably what brought Dorcas** back to life. For of course she was not only a corpse in the lake, but the very same Cas for whom the Boatman was searching, suddenly in vain. Poor Boatman.

Anyway, then they see something over which I still tend to scratch my head a bit: "Hanging over the city like a flying mountain in a dream was an enormous building -- a building with towers and buttresses and an arched roof." Severian's jaw barely has time to drop before it disappears, though. Of course, this is probably our first look at Tzadkiel's spaceship, and maybe Tzadkiel getting His/Her first direct look at Severian, but why here, why now? Is it really just because he found the Claw at this point?

Oh, the Claw. The Claw and the vision of the City In The Sky Thing touch off a long philosophical discussion between Severian and Dorcas about metaphor and meaning and The Wonders of Urth and Sky that is basically just Gene Wolfe making sure we understand that this is not just another Dying Earth adventure story we're getting into, here. We know, sir. We know.

And while they puzzle over this stuff, they encounter, well what do you know? Dr. Talos and Baldanders' Traveling Show! Performing right now! And Severian is just in time to play his part, and hey, there's a part for Dorcas, too! Severian is Death and  Dorcas is Innocence!*** And though they don't know their parts at all, Talos is such a great director that they manage to play them anyway!

Oh, and by the way, there is a new member of the troupe, though it turns out Severian met her once before, for she was the bedraggled waitress whom Dr. Talos convinced to let him make her into a beautiful actress. Which Talos did, boy howdy. Helloooooooooo Nurse! Jolenta**** is one Marilyn Munroe caliber bombshell (and Wolfe has said in interviews that this was a resemblance he intended, but, you know, Wolfe in interviews. Heh). But meanwhile, the play. The play! We don't get to read the text of the drama until the end of Claw of the Conciliator because Severian has chosen at this point to convey only his confusion and first impressions of it. Baldanders is Big and Scary. Talos is Wily and Foxy. Speaking of Foxy, Jolenta is Purty. Did he mention that Jolenta is Purty? Jolenta is Purty. And the play is Weird and Metaphorical and he gets to tie everybody down at some point or other, like a good little Torturer. And then at the end of the play, when Baldanders scares off the audience real good, the party combs the field for "dropsies" -- valuables that audience members happened to leave behind in their haste to get away from the Maddened Giant. How droll.

Really, I kind of love this interlude. Can you tell?

Then it's time to sleep under the stars, and, for Severian, to secretly ogle the Claw some more. And, um, reminisce about his first teacher, Master Malrubius (who was possibly Father Inire in disguise before Master Paleamon was Father Inire in disguise? Maybe?), and then dream (or maybe not?) about a visit from Triskele, possibly following up on the Tzadkiel fly-over? Perhaps summoned by Severian's thoughts of Triskele's fellow aquastor? And then Severian, now lying happily back-to-back with his (resurrected?) dead dog, dreams of Master Malrubius quizzing him on the seven systems of government. How much of this is a dream and how much a visitation from his aquastors? Are they testing his fitness for his eventual role this early? But if not, why else would these two appear in the story at this point? And does Baldanders get a similar visitation in the night?

The next morning, Severian shares a bit of an account of his experience with Talos, who assures him that out here in the real world, he noticed no such thing, and since he doesn't really ever seem to sleep, he would notice if there was something to notice.

Then over breakfast, Severian lets fall the news that he's not going to travel along with the troupe; he has "business" with the Order of Pelerines, i.e., he wants to return the Claw to them. So then comes time to divvy up the money, and Talos shocks everyone by not taking a share at all.

And then they are interrupted by the coming of Hethor, he of the unprepossessing yet familiar appearance and stuttering, riddling talk of a sailing ship among the stars. It all sounds, again, very like a hologram-view of Severian's larger story arc. Turns out he is quoting from the play, the text of which we readers have not yet had the benefit of getting, which is itself basically a hologram of Severian's story. Ow, my brain. At any rate, he comes across as just a deranged fanboi at first, and Severian dismisses him as such (once Talos establishes that he isn't one of those lunatics who thinks the play is real): "There are a good many of them... They find pleasure in pain, and want to associate with us [Torturers] just as a normal man might want to be around Dorcas and Jolenta." And all Hethor wants is to come along with them, just for the love of... them.

Oh yeah, that's going to end well.

Next thing  you know, Dorcas is talking again about how much she didn't like and actually was kind of afraid of Agia and Hethor is offering to carry Severian's sword! Of course Severian politely refuses, and while he's yes, thinking of Agia's plot to part him from Terminus Est, he thinks it's just a coincidence.

And then CHAOS. Because they've finally come to the enormous Wall (so tall that only big powerful birds like eagles fly over it, made of the same strange black metal that the spaceship-that-became-the-Citadel was made of, etc.) that surrounds the city of Nessus*****, and there are crowds. And from the crowd emerges a man on a merychip (basically, an archaic name for what might well be an archaic horse. At any rate, I've always pictured a near ancestor of the good old horse we know, possibly one with toes), Jonas(Hooray Jonas!) who claims that he's heading to meet the Pelerines on business himself! But actually, they've left the city; he saw their mournful procession (doubtless mourning the loss of the Claw?).

So through the Gate they go. Or rather, into the Gate, which Severian compares to entering a mine, but a mine with windows in its walls through which passersby can observe men and women and "cacogens" (aliens) and "beasts with too much of men about them, so that horned heads watched us with eyes too wise, and mouths that appeared to speak showed teeth like nails or hooks." Talos explains that these, all of these, are soldiers who live in the wall "like mice" in honeycomb-like passages and tunnels all through it; they are Nessus' real defense.

As they proceed, Jonas ingratiates himself further to the party by telling them a myth he knows about the Wall, which of course also gives  us some hints about the origins on Urth of Abaia and his Brides in the tale of a woman returned from the stars with a handful of black beans and told the "lords of men" that if she were not obeyed she would throw them into the sea and thus end the world. Which, guess what happened there.

Meanwhile, chaos. A wagoneer accidentally-on-purpose hits Jolenta's face, then Dorcas', with his whip. Severian attacks the wagoneer, everybody else freaks out, and... the story shall continue in The Claw of the Conciliator. Where we can immediately start off by wondering WTS is Morwenna, and what does this have to do with this mad scene at the Gate?

*This one. And yes, I have it playing on the jukebox in my head every time I come to this conversation.

**And here is as good a time as any to talk about Dorcas and death. As far as I can tell, this character's namesake saint was a disciple (mentioned in the Book of Acts) basically famous for dying and "being mourned by all the widows." So merely by her name, Wolfe is telling us that she was dead until Severian came along.

***Though I suppose a case could be made for it being the other way around, eh?

****I guess she's named for Yolanda (aka Jolenta) of Poland? Beatified for her kindness to the poor while married to Duke Boleslaw the Pious (she herself was the daughter of the King and Queen of Poland), she is otherwise only known for being the daughter, wife or sister of famous and important good people. In addition, the BotNS character is described by Severian in the same kind of terms with which he described the woman who portrays Holy Katharine for the Guild's ceremonies: Jolenta's face is "pure and perfect as the curve of a rainbow" (earlier in Shadow of the Torturer, Severian described Catherine/Katharine's face as "a pool of pure water found in the midst of a wood").  This all kind of argues for her maybe being Severian's imagined twin sister in addition to all of Borski's claims. But like I said, the sister hunt is not that big a deal for me.

*****I want to take a closer look at the name of the city here, because it is here that we learn a bit about why it has that name. Jonas tells us that Nessus was not the original name, for back when the Autarch first established his dominion there and built the Wall (not to defend his city from outsiders, but to defend himself from his subjects), "the river was unpoisoned." In Greek mythology, Nessus was a centaur whom Heracles defeated, and whose tainted blood in turn killed Heracles. Nessus' blood, of course, was tainted by a poisoned arrow Heracles fired at him when he tried to make off with Heracles' wife; whom the centaur tricked into dosing her husband with his blood later on in the mistaken belief that it would keep him faithful to her. I'm still sorting out how all this relates to the relationship between the Autarch and his city. I suspect it has something to do with a bad bargain the exultants struck with the Autarch to come and suppress dissent and class war. Old King Log vs. Old King Stork and all. I'm also interested in how this river gets the name of a creature from mythology, which, according to the naming scheme pretty much everyone has accepted for these books, means that, somehow, the river itself is somehow an alien? Or perhaps it was just altered to make it more hospitable to the aliens like Abaia and his Brides?

100 Books #117 - Richard Stark's THE HUNTER

I first became aware of the character of Parker, celebrated and brutal mid-century modern antihero, through Darwin Cooke's amazing graphic novel adaptations of this and two other novels. Well, of course I did! Although I still haven't seen the adaptation of this one; the story is brand new.

So the tone and content of Parker's first story, The Hunter, had little to shock me (though I won't say it had nothing to shock me, because I can't. Some early plot developments made my jaw drop), but that's not to say the novel itself did not.

It's a weird, weird thing to do, reading crime fiction from fifty years ago. It's still shocking*, still thrilling, but probably not in the way the author intended. The modern reader is largely desensitized to the brutality, but becomes shocked by, and perhaps a little disbelieving of, the ease with which so many of Parker's crimes are committed. In the first chapter, he forges a driver's license with just a form he picks up at the DMV and a ballpoint pen, commits check fraud multiple times, kits himself out in style, and checks into a nice Manhattan hotel. No photo ID required for any of it. Once or twice a store phones the bank he has duped into giving him some other guy's checkbook to make sure the funds are there, but that's it.

So yes, that's right: The Hunter's power to shock the modern reader lies in its status as a study in the freedoms we've all had to give up because of amoral asshats like Parker. One can almost hear the heavy metal security doors slamming behind him, from the perspective of 2012.** To say nothing of the trust extended toward strangers -- though of course the kind of  trust from which Parker benefits in his early chapter identity theft spree was only ever really extended to confident, well-dressed white men, wasn't it? So once the shock of watching him proceed this way wore off this reader, it was well-nigh impossible not to think, in part, serves the jerks (those would be his dupes) right for having that kind of attitude. Even though, yes, yes, they all did and it was the social norm of the time, blah blah.

I told you reading mid-century modern crime fiction was a weird experience for a post-millennial girl.

It's also, though, a weirdly rewarding one, a short burst of action and speed and relentless drive, to watch Parker hunt down his double-crossing partners who let him take the (supposedly fatal) fall for a complicated theft that involved deserted landing strips, cross-border munitions shipments, South American revolutionaries, and, of course, murder. It's hard not to be gleeful as he shakes down the people whom those partners threw up between him and his targets like so many human roadblocks, though of course one has qualms about innocent dupes being so treated.

This all means that Richard Stark (real name Donald Westlake, and what a prolific son-of-a-gun that guy was) achieves quite a lot in a small space. His first novel with his signature character as Stark may even be a richer read for us post-millennials than it was for the thrill-seekers who pulled it off a drugstore paperback spinner "back in the day."

But of course, I would say that, wouldn't I?

*Largely due to its depiction of both Parker's and his foes' seriously brutal treatment of the women in thier lives, the casual violence, the contempt, the commodification. "Mysogyny" feels like too weak a word to describe it. Eugh.

**Of course one knows that these losses took place gradually and slowly, though at increasing speed since we declared war on yet another intangible at the beginning of this century. Give it another decade and people will barely remember a time when they didn't have to bring reams of proof of identity to get a driver's license.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

100 Books #116 - Hugh Howey's SECOND SHIFT: ORDER

After a reader has taken a few of the pummelings that Hugh Howey delivers so very, very well in his Wool/Silo series, one starts a new one with a certain caution that is not unlike the so-called Firefly Effect, I find. One knows going in that one is going to love at least one of the characters passionately, and that one is going to suffer horribly as a result. So the teeth clench, the abdominal muscles tighten and "guard" even as one flips past the title and copyright pages.

Such was my experience of starting, and reading, and finishing Second Shift: Order, the immediate sequel to First Shift: Legacy, and the middle of a prequel trilogy giving us a glimpse of how the world of Wool came to be. I was still reeling from Juliet and her fate when I took up First Shift; I was still recovering from the revelations and the anguish of First Shift when I took this one up.

And so I started reading with my dukes up, yes I did.

So the big questions now, for the purposes of a review* would be 1. Was this preparation on my part justified, i.e., did I wind up taking another pummeling as I'd expected and 2. Did said preparations help, or make it worse?

And the answers are... well, of course it's more complicated than that. Of course!

Second Shift is told from the points of view of two protagonists, whose stories unfold in alternating accounts of life in Silos One and 18. In Silo One, we rejoin Donald, an unwitting engineer of the world of the Silos whose journey from the world we readers know and down into that of the Silos we followed in First Shift -- and whose essential annoying nebbishness this reader totally failed to notice as the horrifying events of that novella unfolded, but whom she really wanted to slap quite often in this one and, retroactively, that one. For Donald is a guy that just lets things happen to him, who doesn't question what he's asked to do until it's too late, and who lets himself be manipulated into making this whole agonizing world possible. In First Shift, he designed the Silo system and seems to have just pretended to himself that it was some kind of intellectual exercise that might see use as a sort of rhetorical weapon in the hands of an authority figure into whose orbit he was drawn by a girl (of course), but never really thought we get used... even after it got built.... And now, in Second Shift, he is one of a small, elite cadre of dwellers in Silo One who are not living the true Silo life but are instead cryogenically sleeping through it, taking turns (Shifts) spending time animate and in charge of making sure all of the other Silos are functioning, technologically and sociologically. And of shutting down Silos that "break down" in one way or the other. Even though there are lots of people inside even the most dysfunctional Silo. And Donald is still pretty much a nebbish. Uh oh.

In tandem and in contrast to Donald in Silo One is young Mission Jones, a blue-clad Porter in Silo 18. He is a new member of what amounts to a guild: the people who haul stuff from one level to another. Computer parts, food, messages, dead bodies, whatever Silo dwellers need transported, the Porters, in singles or in pairs, do the hauling, up and down the endless stairs of 140 levels of underground society. It's an important job, and Mission is proud to do it, even though he knows he will eventually sacrifice his joints to the decades of toil. He also likes being a conduit for and a discoverer of knowledge and gossip, even though very little of what he learns is pleasant or has happy implications. Like the fact that some people on levels far below the Farms near the surface have decided to grow their own food. Or that some people are sneaking their own cargo up and down the levels, either on foot or by means of midnight pulley rigs. People, he finds, tend to resist being cogs in a well-designed survival machine. They don't like being parts that make up a whole. They want to be wholes themselves, independent and free. Which is dangerous in a society so closed and minutely designed and balanced that even an unauthorized glitch of a pregnancy guarantees the erring mother a sentence to cleaning once the child is born. Birthdays are deathdays, after all.

Unlike Donald, though, Mission is an active character in his own story, making decisions and doing things, taking risks and reaping rewards and punishments. The reader gets high on his agency and the mixture of hope and tragedy that make up Mission's very nature (nomen est omen, eh?). Howey gets his hooks into us with this character, oh yes he does. That bastard.

Ultimately, Second Shift is about the quest for forgetfulness. Those still alive who created this world do not want to have to think about, to remember what they did or why, and their efforts to keep everyone else docile and ignorant keep backfiring in tragic and yet horribly predictable ways. Failure and tragedy are always inevitable in this world, which Howey was at great and horribly successful pains in First Shift to show us could become our world with just a little more remote weaponry, a little more population pressure, a little more Tea Partying, and a little less fellow feeling.

But then, he reminds us, that no matter what happens to us, no matter what we do to ourselves, even if we're trapped in Silos below the ground in conditions that mimic, perhaps, those of a generational spaceship**, what we're packing away like so many grain seeds for the future are still people, and they are still capable, within their confined spaces, of great things, of acts of nobility and sacrifice, of lovingkindess and creativity, of demonstrating over and over again that they are worth saving, if those who put them there can just find a way to keep them alive without destroying what they're trying to preserve. If only.

A third volume in this series, Third Shift something, is due out next year. And you'd better believe I'm going to read it. And you'd better believe I'll have my dukes up.

*Though do I really write reviews, really? I'm more into the autobiographical experience of reading a book. But anyway.

**Which really is kind of what these Silos are, except the world they will someday colonize is the same planet they "left" when they went below its surface. Neat trick, that.