Sunday, August 23, 2015

Michael Moorcock's BYZANTIUM ENDURES

Mention Michael "Eternal Champion" Moorcock in pretty much any crowd you'd care to and I'm 100% sure that no one is going to mention mundane historical fiction. Or social fiction. Or Russian fiction.

But he wrote some, and it was damned convincing. Someone I'm too lazy to look up again has called Byzantium Endures the best 19th century Russian novel written by a 20th century Englishman there is. And so maybe there's not so much competition in this category, and so maybe this is damning the book with faint praise, but look, this is still quite possibly the weirdest thing Moorcock has written, for all that it lacks soul-sucking swords and beast-masked warriors and six-fingered prosthetic hands that can summon monsters.*

How it manages to be weird without these kinds of things comes down to, of course, its narrator. For this is the first of four volumes, what is called the Colonel Pyat Quartet, and it's told in Pyat's own voice.**

Pyat was, or claims to have been -- yes, another unreliable narrator -- born with the 20th century and so has seen and experienced an awful lot on his journey from genteel poverty in Ukraine to the seat next to you at the English pub where he holds forth at great obnoxious and pompous length every exhausting night about what he's seen and done in his eventful life, living through two world wars, revolutions, etc. and what have you done with your life, loser?

For quite the Renaissance polymath wunderkind secret author of everything is Pyat.*** The only reason you don't know his name is conspiracy has denied him credit for his great inventions, his strategic brilliance, his general thwarted awesomeness. Most of which he blames on the Jews, even though he is himself probably Jewish, a fact which he rantingly denies at every opportunity, often (unintentionally) hilariously. He is, in short, the last guy you want to be trapped having to listen to for any length of time, and here he's gone and "written" four volumes of autobiography, apparently, all of it loaded with his overblown claims. I know a hundred guys like this one. They're in every dive bar in the land. It's never their fault they're not ruling the world. Nor that lesser men are ruling it, and letting it go to pot because they have no standards. Democracy and socialism have teamed up to turn all to kipple. No, he never uses Philip K Dick's awesome word for the deteriorated detritus of civilization, but yes, one can imagine him doing so if only he'd gotten to learn of the word.

But so why on earth should one read these things? Because, if this first volume is anything to go on, they're brilliant, and not just because of the character(s) they so vividly realize. They are absolutely convincing works of pseudo-Russian literature, full of period detail and gorgeous descriptive passages and vivid evocations of the whole lotta history through which our man has lived.

And yes, obliquely they tie into the Eternal Champion stuff, despite their complete lack of fantastic elements, for Pyat is a close friend of Mrs. Cornelius, mother of Moorcock's swinging 60s version of the Champion, Jerry Cornelius, whose adventures I have not yet read because the last time I had them handy I was too young and teenagery to want to read anything of Moorcock's that didn't involve moody sword-swinging albino sorcerors or hunted one-eyed princes or guys with big black jewels embedded in their skulls. I'm going to rectify this soon, though it's going to take me a while since I'm going to have to mess with a dead tree book to do so, and I still have big trouble manipulating dead tree books due to chronic medical conditions that have left me not very dextrous. But I'm gonna.

But there's more than just that obvious link going on, here. Check out the title: Byzantium Endures. Here, Byzantium refers to the cultural heritage of Greece as preserved and transmitted via the Eastern Roman empire, aka Byzantium, and the Orthodox church it spawned, a church that dominated the cultural and spiritual life of Russia until the Revolution. Pyat spends a lot of time rhapsodizing about this, and bemoaning the culture's decline, a decline he helped, at least in a small way, to set in motion. He had to, to survive.

An ancient and sophisticated culture that degenerated until it was finally all but destroyed by its scions. How Melniboné. How Elric.

But this is the real world, where the forces of chaos and law are lower case and lack any supernatural force. Humans did it. Humans can undo it. Byzantium endures. Sort of.

*And it seems that no one in my circle has read it. When I was debating giving this book a try, I asked a few times on Twitter if anyone had an opinion and got nothing but cricket sounds. Which is a shame!

**There's a whole lot of faux preface and appendix material dealing with how Moorcock had to stitch the narrative together from a lifetime's accumulation of notebooks and scraps on which his narrator composed his memoirs, his manifestos, etc. The effect of reading this "material" is kind of like slogging through a Christopher Tolkien hodge-podge of J.R.R. Tolkien's ephemera. I got impatient with it and finally just skipped to the story proper. The stuff at the end, proported to be raw snippets from Pyat's notes, is somewhat more engaging but it's a tough slog, in many languages and next to no complete sentences. I found it blurring, then interesting, and finally tiresome. Your mileage may vary.

***See also Philip K. Dick's CONFESSIONS OF A CRAP ARTIST.

Friday, August 21, 2015

Margaret Atwood's MADDADDAM

As my readers are aware, I've had decidedly mixed reactions to Margaret Atwood's idiocratic MaddAddam trilogy so far, and I was annoyed enough with the second volume to be at best lukewarm about taking up the third, MaddAddam.

But then I got my hands on the audiobook (bit of a mistake, although with the importance the oral storytelling tradition plays in this series, an audiobook version seemed like a naturally good fit, except, well, the narrators. Oh, the narrators*) and decided this would be good enough for pre-sleepytime ingestion and finally gave it a go.

But so I... I don't know where to begin with this one. Atwood has been crippling what should be a fascinating double-dystopia with soap opera melodrama from the start, but in this closing volume... well, it's almost all soap opera, right down to a major character spending most of the narrative unconscious/comatose. Yep. Oh, and the badass heroine of the prior novel, Toby, gets all her teeth pulled and instead of being smart and resourceful and tough, spends most of her time simmering with jealousy of the younger, prettier women whom she suspects of having designs on her man (who is admittedly a bit of a tomcat but whatever). Seriously. Did I miss a bodysnatching?

So yeah, I mostly wound up just glad it was over. It didn't help that the audio book featured two very annoying narrators, but even had I been reading the text myself I'm pretty sure I'd have felt that way.

I will say this, though: The narrative voices are distinct and masterful, the world-building is still great, and all of the narrative threads were pulled tight. Atwood is a total pro.

Just, someone take her TV away during the daylight hours? Please? Because DAMN.

*The narrators seriously drove me nuts on this one. Narrators, plural, because there is a female narrator for the Toby-centric bits (which also include most of the Crakker dialogue), and a male for Toby's boyfriend Zeb's bits-as-told-to-Toby. The female sounds like she's voicing cartoon characters most of the time (but especially so when she has Crakker dialogue); the male is an annoying cross between Dramatic Action Movie Trailer Guy and William Shatner, though he is funny on the songs. There is a third male narrator voicing a whole new character in the last few chapters of the books that's just fine, though. Why not just let him tell the whole story? Certainly it would also have made the production a lot less gimmicky, as well.


So, here's me, tucking into the third volume of Ian Tregillis' Milkweed Triptych after having thought for two volumes that I was reading a trilogy of cool Lovecraft-flavored alternative history where bio-mechanically engineered Nazi uberpeople were pitted against heroic British warlocks, only to finally, finally penetrate the fact that what I've really been reading this whole time is the ultimate Phildickian exploration of what it would really mean to the world as a whole if an actual honest-to-Yog pre-cognitive had surfaced in our midst, by whatever means, ca the early 20th Century. Well, that and a little time travel thrown in, so said pre-cog can correct some things she missed the first pre-time pre-around. As it were.

Gretel, Gretel, Gretel. The Romany girl who was warped into being able to see all of time, but was so warped by the very people who were busily exterminating entire races of people, including her own, so developed an extreme instinct for self-protection and so searched every possibility in all of World War II for the best possible outcome for her except WHOOPS there was one WORLD ENDING WHOOPS end result that she hadn't really seen (or hadn't really taken seriously) and so for her last trick she manipulates another of our main characters, poor old Raybould Marsh, into making HIS last trick a trip into a whole new universe that... Look, I'm spoiling bits of the first two books here, but like the warning on the very top of this blog says, WARE SPOILERS.

Anyway, suffice it to say that in this new universe, it is World War II all over again, and, in this universe, there are now two Marshes, the one "born" in this universe and the much older, spectacularly scarred, embittered, sad, lonely and really kind of hopeless Marsh that survived Bitter Seeds and The Coldest War. To assist the reader, sad old Marsh's passages are told in the first person, while era-approriate Marsh stays in the third person. But to further twist the reader's brain, we get long passages from Gretel's multiplied points of view -- a difficult narrative feat that Tregillis pulls off very well, which is good because otherwise this book would just be a hot mess instead of a satisfying conclusion to this series.

What really sells me on this last book is that this brave new world is pretty much exactly our world, as far as historical events go. In Gretel's and Old Marsh's world, for instance, the Little Ships never happened, and Britain lost an entire army at and around Dunkirk. Which means that we really are seeing that the world Gretel couldn't mess with is the "real" world*. I dig this. I dig this right to the hot melty bits.

*Except there are still warlocks and Enochian and Eidolons and stuff in it. They've just been circumvented by, uh, [REDACTED]. He.