Thursday, August 31, 2023

Tony Burgess' IDAHO WINTER (Narr by Tristan Morris)

"The ditches are shallow and the falls are all too short."

Sooner or later, I was bound to run into a book in which a character within that book not only discovers they are a character in a book, but also manages to have words with their author. It's been a temptingly low hanging fruit since the book tree was planted. Or something like that.

And I'm not surprised to see it in the works of Tony Burgess, whose narrators often address asides to their readers, asides that not only comment on events within the narrative but on literary tropes that are or aren't being employed, the weirdness of writing generally, etc. Ordinarily I roll my eyes at this kind of thing. But of course, this is Tony Burgess, a writer whose works I can't stop compulsively reading and re-reading, even though they horrify me body and soul the way nobody else's can unless it's maybe Jeremy C. Shipp.

Of course Idaho Winter's eponymous hero has a terrible, pitiful existence; he's in a Tony Burgess novel. He's not exactly going to be showered in praise and given everything he could ever want for his birthday and marry his childhood sweetheart and live happily ever after. But where in other novels Idaho (yes, that is his name; moreover, his dad's name is Early, as in Early Winter. But his mother is simply known as Wife. We'll get to that) might encounter language poisoned zombies, or a teeming hellscape in which zombies have been shot into orbit, there to block out the sun in their sheer twitching numbers, here his antagonists are merely everybody who knows him or meets him, and for no reason at all except that Idaho seems to have been Born to be Hated, like the hapless hero of some second-rate Middle Grade novel. Except turned up to 11. So Idaho's father, Early, only ever feeds him half-rotten (or wholly rotten; he's not picky) roadkill and uses Idaho's bedroom as a trash heap; the school crossing guard meticulously plans and maliciously executes Idaho's near-death-by-car every morning, cursing when he manages to escape today's car after she has carefully guided it to hit him at high speed; other students in his class not only treat him with grotesque unkindness but are punished by the teacher if they treat him with insufficient grotesque unkindness, making every day an unofficial competition to see who can be the meanest to Idaho Winter, with maybe an accidental actual school lesson or two.

All of this begins to change when Idaho, on the day we have first encountered the horrors of his daily existence, gets a tiny break from them when he meets a girl named Madison. Madison is so kind and has so much love for the world that she can even extend a little to Idaho, and furthermore not only shares his pain but is very much pained by the fact of his painful existence, and the two form the beginnings of Idaho's first friendship in a series of sweetly tender exchanges that are obviously setting up something horrible to happen to them both. And when it does, Idaho, who is completely alien to the concept of helping others or standing up to danger on another's behalf because there have been no examples of either in his life, runs home.

And things get weird, because Tony Burgess, author of Idaho Winter and of Pontypool Changes Everything and of The N-Body Problem*, informs us that this in no way reflects his intentions for how this scene was supposed to play out. Idaho has gone utterly rogue, off script, and, in the process, discovers that there is an actual author of all of his sorrows and that Tony Burgess is that author, and does what any sensible pre-teen boy who is all but feral and only knows how to lash out in hapless self-defense at best might do. As Burgess explains to him that his existence is so ridiculously and undeservedly horrible on purpose, the better to make his story stand out, Idaho realizes that nothing is real and that he actually has the upper hand in this weird moment.

When Tony Burgess, author of Idaho Winter, finally gets out of the closet in Idaho Winter's terrible house, he emerges into an utterly unrecognizable and bizarre world full of monsters from Idaho's unconscious (my favorite: the Mom-bats, and you'll have to read the novel to find out what those are like) and conscious thoughts and the surface of the earth is uninhabitably dangerous to characters and authors like him. When monsters finally chase him underground, he discovers a small cadre of minor characters from his story, most of whom he hadn't even sketched out beyond giving them names (leading me to of course conclude that his naming of Idaho's mother as simply Wife represents a writer's habit of using stand-in words or names in early drafts until they find the perfect moniker) and the merest beginnings of a role within the town -- which means in this world, they have almost as much agency as Idaho, though not his incredible power (comparable to that of Anthony Fremont in the famous Jerome Bixby short story/Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life", recently covered in my favorite of all the podcasts, Strange Studies of Strange Stories, nee The H.P. Lovecraft Literary Podcast). Among them is poor Madison, now a figure of almost holy reverence but unique peril; anyone who gets too close to her not only pities her sad fate at the jaws of the wolves that attacked her and Idaho in the Before Times, but is also afflicted with paralyzing, mind-destroying sadness.

Tony Burgess, author of Idaho Winter, knowing that all of this is his fault, resolves to set things right with the help of this strange underground (including Madison, whom he somewhat ingeniously finds a way to bring along on their quest). How successful is he in doing so? Knowing that this is a Tony Burgess book, you cannot assume that he will be successful at all, just that you're going to want to see if he is. Or isn't.

The absurdity and insanity of Idaho Winter is only enhanced in audio book form by the choice of narrator, and his choices in bringing the story to us. Tristan Morris gives a prim, Niles Crane quality to the prose that is so at odds with the subject matter that the listener/reader can't help but giggle at the slapstick horrors Burgess unleashes, and handles the many challenges of bringing a book like this to life -- like rendering the muffled voice of a second head that has sprouted from the back of Mrs. Joost, the homicidal crossing guard, a head that is compelled to narrate events in real time like a deranged newscaster -- with imagination and a minimum of fancy production tricks. Read Idaho Winter in print if you prefer, but I highly recommend the audio book, which will take up only three hours or so of your time, for extra fun. And this novel is fun in addition to horrifying and depressing and gross and sad. I mean, it's Tony Burgess.

*The title of which I kept conflating with the more famous Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu and thus repeatedly convinced myself I'd already read Three Body Problem for a very long time.

Saturday, July 15, 2023


It's always the books you don't have that call to you, you know that. Not the ones already on your shelf. They can wait.
A new trilogy from Mark Lawrence is an inherently wonderful prospect, but one set in a giant, labyrinthine library that not only fills an entire hollowed-out mountain but whose inside is probably bigger than the outside and allows people who explore it enough to engage in a limited form of time travel? Aww, Mr. Lawrence, you wrote a(nother) book just for little old me? You shouldn't have. But I'm glad you did.
The Book that Wouldn't Burn is kind of set in the same world as Lawrence's Broken Empire pair-of-trilogies-and-some-sidequels*, but absolutely does not require any knowledge of those other books to enjoy. There are simply a few Easter eggs to tell us that the Library and its people exist somewhere in that world's timeline, plus the name of the city at the base of the Library's Mountain is Crath, as in Jorg of Ancrath. It might prove, in the projected next two books, to have more and more definite ties to the Broken Empire, but it needn't; they'd just be grace notes for Lawrence's fans, of whom I am one.

We explore this tiny-yet infinite world with one Livira, whom we meet as a little girl who shares a precarious existence with a kin-unit of maybe 40 people in a settlement out in The Dust, living on a meager bean crop carefully tended with water from a single well. We figure out quickly that Livira, nicknamed for a tenacious desert weed, is another avatar of the girl Lawrence likes best to write: smarter than her society expects or wants her to be, fierce, inquisitive and bluntly practical. Her perilous existence out in the Dust where she regularly gets into scraps with boys much bigger than she and fetches water from a well her settlement keeps having to deepen to continue its usefulness (and their survival) would be a fascinating study on its own, a Fremen tale without a sietch, like the original settlers on Arrakis, but Lawrence has different designs for little Livira.

For a start, humans are not/no longer the only sentient species on this broken earth, as we quickly learn when a vicious band of Sabbers (the word just means "enemy" in the common language of Livira's people) attack and destroy and round up all the human children they can find, whether to eat or sell as slaves, they're not telling, but no sooner has Livira discovered that at least one of them can sort of speak her language and has started annoying that individual with endless questions, than the Sabber train gets derailed by a loosely organized military or paramilitary band from Crath City, locus of the famous Library, to which it has always been Livira's secret wish to immigrate someday. 
Be careful what you wish for, etc.

Livira quickly learns that, while the Sabbers are regarded by Crath City's inhabitants and their King (who has everybody convinced he's descended from the original builder of the library and no, it is not possible to encounter mention of him and not wonder if he's an ancestor or descendant of Jorg of the first Broken Empire series) as barely more than animals -- it is Known that they interbreed with dogs, for example -- "Dusters" like Livira and her friends are considered hardly any more human; her kind are fit only to work and live in the city's sewers.

But of course Livira is not going to settle for being perceived or treated like that, and by the time she actually enters the city, she has already convinced one of her new captors, a man named Malar who quickly became my favorite character, that she might be worth a bit more to him if given a chance. Eager to be rid of this tiny pain in the ass, Malar steers her into the notice of a mysterious man named Yute. Yute sees her potential even more clearly, and picks her for a point-making stunt in the "Allocation" process that assigns young Crathians to their future roles in the adult world. When she then bulls her way into making an even bigger Point than Yute probably intended, she ends up as his latest protégé and a trainee inside the Library.

Interwoven with Livira's story is that of Evar, a young man who is trapped and has grown up, Piranesi-style, with four other children deep inside the Library itself, which is, of course, completely uninhabited and falling to ruin, but a Chamber within it has been semi-repurposed for human survival with a central pool and book-soil in which a small crop of foodstuffs can be grown. Evar and his siblings all emerged as young children from a mysterious Library device called The Mechanism, about which more in a bit, into which each had disappeared at various points in the distant past, not having aged despite having been missing for perhaps centuries. Alll, except for Evar, have come out of the ordeal with a preternaturally acute and useful skill set that amounts to superhuman expertise. One is a master psychologist, one the greatest assassin since the word was coined, another has most of the history of the world crammed into his head, and the group's only girl is a one-woman army, with a headful of tactics, strategy and weapons-lore that matches her homicidal hatred of the Sabbers. Evar, though, just has a hole in his memory and a vague notion that he spent his Mechanism-time with a beloved Woman whom he knew, even as a little kid, was his Destiny.

Evar and his "siblings" have been raised by strange and powerful android-like functionaries of the Library that reminded me of nothing so much as the bakelite robots who raise Ishmael the Cyclops Boy in B. Catling's Vorrh Trilogy, the Assistant and the Soldier. We learn much more about these two mysterious guardians as the novel unfolds, but that way lies way too much spoileration, even for this blog.

The Mechanism from which Evar emerged is a fascinating bit of kit, even for an infinite Borgesian Library: a person who enters it with a book winds up experiencing that book in a very direct and lifelike way that alters that person's character and experience of the world forever. This is how Evar's siblings all acquired their superpowers originally: they wen't into the Mechanism with authoritative non-fiction books under various circumstances (the one female in Evar's world, for instance, whose name is Clovis, was hidden in the Mechanism as a small girl with a Big Book of War Stuff right after watching Sabbers slaughter her entire family and kin-group and yes, Clovis is very much more like Lawrence's typical tough little girl and serves here perhaps to show us what Livira would have been like without the Library), and as part of their continuing education when the five of them came out of the Mechanism together, Evar's siblings have all continued to use the Mechanism to broaden and deepen their abilities. Evar, though, avoids the Mechanism, emotionally haunted by his lack of real memories of his experiences within it. The big difference we know of between Evar's and his siblings' Mechanism backgrounds is that Evar went into the mechanism with a novel.

Considerable space in the plot is devoted to the wanderings of Livira and of Evar through the fascinating mysteries of the Library**, which eventually bring them together, but once they're very tenuously together, Lawrence explodes both of their worlds in fascinating and (for me at least) surprising fashion. It is telegraphed early on that little Livira will eventually grow into Evar's mysterious dream woman, but none of that prepares us for how this develops; I thought I had anticipated the nature of the obstacles to their relationship but I was delightfully wrong! And the actual antagonistic forces pack even more of an emotional wallop than I'd been bracing for. 

There is also some of Lawrence's best prose-craft to date, as when Evar, freshly parted from Livira by cruel fate, contemplates how much she means to him:
...he could do nothing but love, need and want her. Whatever she looked like and whatever crimes her people had wrought, she was Livira, coiled around his heart, woven through his veins. He would find her again... at least there would be an honest parting between them, not one forced by sudden circumstance. And having lived his life within the confines of a library Evar knew that endings were important.
I haven't yet read everything that Lawrence has published -- for reasons beyond me, for instance, my local public library has yet to purchase either of the sequels to The Girl and the Stars -- but this feels like somewhat new territory for Lawrence's fierce skinny weed-girl heroine, whose relationships with other characters usually revolves around friendship and sisterhood rather than romantic love. He writes the latter as well as the former, all while also crafting my favorite kind of novel hands down: one that begs to be read again immediately from the beginning after a revelation near the end invites me to completely change my understanding of key story elements.

I really, really hope that Mark Lawrence and his crew at Random Penguin don't dilly dally too much in letting me back into the Library, is what I'm saying. I haven't been this tortured by the immediate unavailability of a book's sequels in a long, long time and I'm not sure what I'm going to do with myself while I'm waiting, besides, of course, read The Book that Wouldn't Burn again.

*Or at least it takes place in a world that can access the Broken Empire World via its Lewisian Wood Between the Worlds-esque "Exchange." And yes, Livira and Evar have some very Digory and Polly moments together there, but, as Livira eventually comes to discover, in whatever iteration of the old stories she is thinking, she herself contains both the Witch and the Princess, because Mark Lawrence is serious about his fantasy.

**The biggest of which are what it's really for and if it is a net good for the world or not. We come to learn that civilizations have destroyed themselves utterly in possibly planet-killing ways, over and over again, always with the help of the knowledge they recover once somebody discovers the Library. We just never seem to overcome the warlike side of our nature that leads us to harness knowledge for its destructive killing power, and this entire novel serves very strongly as an indictment of the alas, still very common, perspective that knowledge isn't any good unless it's practical, that culture and the humanities are useless and the people who want to study them are frivolous drains on society's resources, but Lawrence doesn't err on the side of "no, the humanities are More Important," just keeps firmly pointing out that knowledge without philosophy is dangerous as fuck.

Saturday, July 8, 2023

Jeffrey Ford's THE PHYSIOGNOMY (Narr by Christian Rummell)

 Late last year the great Iggy Pop collaborated with Catherine Graindorge, an artist of whom I had not yet heard but of whom I am now a fan, on a song and a deeply affecting piece of video art called "The Dictator" which I think is useful to have in mind as we consider today's novel, Jeffrey Ford's The Physiognomy.

Like Graindorge's villain in the song, with "magic to turn the day to night," the dictator depicted in Ford's novel,  has magic to completely warp his citizen-slaves' perceptions of one another by having decreed that The Physiognomy, a species of phrenology in which it is the facial features more than the shape of the skull that is the Measure of All Things, is the only valid way to determine a person's worth.

Phrenology, which seems along with Flat Earth and Race Science and a lot of other odiously dumb beliefs we once thought safely Of the Past* seems to be making a bit of a comeback in our world, so it's perhaps a very good thing indeed that Cley, the physiognomist protagonist of the first book of Ford's Well-Built City trilogy is quite possibly the most immediately unlikeable narrators I've encountered since, well, the last student of phrenology whose story I read as one-half of Sarah Purcell's excellent The Poison Thread. Ford's creation, though, puts Dorothea in the shade early in his novel as, confronted directly with the appalling plight of one of his society's greatest losers, he shares very matter-of-factly with us a truly insupportable conclusion about the sufferer. 

The Physiognomy's narrator-character, sent on a mission to the back of beyond by the Master of the Well-Built City, has just seen a local yokel who has spent a life mining a substance called Blue Spire and is now in the final stages of being transmuted, while still alive, into the very substance the poor sap once mined**, which is the coal-analogue that makes the fabulous technologies that keep the Well-Built City running. As the pitiful figure, directly sent by the mining town's mayor to be observed first-hand by the Physiognomist, finally completes his stony metamorphosis before our protagonist's eyes, as the miner's own eyes startlingly shift to make contact in their last second of mobility before hardening forever, our guy says, right to the poor man's face, "perhaps you will heat my apartment this winter" and a moment later quips to a nearby worker that the miner needs dealt with as he "seems to have taken a stand." How droll.

The world Cley inhabits, though, is endlessly fascinating and a weird delight to explore. My favorite early example of this is Anamasobia's church, which sounds like... what if the fabulous Moria scenes from Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring had been filmed on life-sized, practical sets and then used long after the filming is over and done as a vast and awesome temple to Aulë? And then used as a giant examining room in which to force a town's entire population to strip naked for minute inspection of their bodies, one by one?

Jeffrey Ford has a hell of an imagination, is what I'm saying. For this is a mere detail from a grotesque whole: the civilization that gave birth to Cley and formed his character is every bit as ugly as he assures us are the "inferior" faces and physiques he rejects. As in very. 

The Well-Built City is the creation in every way (even its currency is named for the guy) of the authoritarian, sadist mad scientist cum dictator called The Master, who deliberately sought out the most odious methods of social control he could find, turned them up to 11, and demanded that the upper crust of his society celebrate them constantly or risk his painful, even fatal, disapproval. Chief among these is "The Physiognomy": the only judgement worth making about a person (aside from their ability to toady up to the Master (but not so much as to annoy him, of course) is how closely they conform to an arbitrary ideal of physical Beauty. If you come reasonably close to it, you are judged intelligent, noble, moral, etc by virtue of your personal prettiness. If you don't conform, you are obviously stupid and criminal and possibly not fit to breed even if you're actually quite talented or skilled (not that you'd ever be given an opportunity to demonstrate or develop such talents or skills because you ipso facto don't have them if you're ugly). And yes, this means that the beautiful people in positions of power and responsibility are often incompetent morons. One way to make sure you're always the smartest guy in the room is to make sure no other smart people ever get to enter the room. 

And so our boy Cley, vain, shallow, cruel and arrogant as he is, wields a great deal of power via his calipers and nostril-width gauges and his bogus erudition about how the minute angle of one's eyebrow determines your ability to pour him a decent drink or whatever. His judgment determines all -- so the Master must hold some other power over such as Cley, which he does via a heroin-like drug called Sheer Beauty, a highly addictive hallucinogen that gives Cley hours of dreamy pleasure by making everything around him seem like an exquisite aesthetic experience only occasionally marred by imagined visits by, say, Cley's judgmental former mentor, whom Cley helped convict of a crime, the capital punishment for which was having his head exploded by means up a drug (invented by the Master, who is really a demented evil genius) that causes one's head to swell up until it bursts. Often this sentence is commuted by the merciful Master, though; most people who "should" have their heads blown up are instead sentenced to an exile at hard labor, though it's an exile with some almost pleasant aspects, as I'll discuss in a bit, as we discover when Cley runs afoul of the Master and gets the same treatment himself.

What's most fascinating about this world, though. is the ambiguity with which we must regard it, not just from sharing the point of view of a privileged and unreliable narrator given to long hallucinatory flights of fancy, but also when we try to assess to what degree this is a genuine fantasy novel in which magic is actually a thing, starting with, is the Physiognomy in any way real? By which I mean, is this a world in which its claims are actually true instead of being accidentally true through the force of belief? Has the Master some how made it actually true with his magic? Or has he just used his magic to convince everyone that it's true? Or, has he just successfully bullied everybody, the mundane way, into behaving as if they believed it until (fake it 'til you make it!) they actually believe it?

These questions become even more interesting when we learn that the Master literally created the Well-Built City from the ground up -- or, at least we learn that this is the dogma in which Cley and all of his fellow citizens believe. Or pretend to believe so they don't get their heads blown up. Can the Master actually blow up people's heads, though? He seems always to commute that sentence, at least within the confines of this narrative.

Dude sure blew up my head, anyway?

As for how the Master's sentences are commuted, it doesn't seem entirely terrible, though it, too, has some bizarre aspects that we can't be sure are real, coming to us as they are from Cley's skewed perspective. The person to be punished is banished to an island where he is to be set to work mining sulfur for the rest of his life. But this isn't a gulag like we might expect if we've read, say, Dostoyevsky or Solzhenitsyn. For one thing, the accommodations seem kind of nice; the exile gets a room to himself in the island's only inn, with clean linen and privacy and a nice view, and he may, once his work shift is done, relax in the inn's bar, where he gets to enjoy the company of an incredibly intelligent and adept monkey who, among other things, "likes to play bartender" in the words of the only other inhabitant/inhabitants of the island that Cley meets, a guard who may or may not be two identical people, one vicious and cruel and the other friendly and kind. The cruel one plants an interesting narrative seed that some readers might already have noticed but I did not until this point, when he keeps telling Cley as he beats the tar out of the physiognomist that "the mine is my mind, my mind is the mine" -- suggesting that the Well-Built City might as much be a figment solely of the Master's mind and Cley just a figment within it, something that might be explored more in the book's two sequels.

There's so much more going on in this book, by the way. So much more. A bartending monkey is maybe the least weird thing we encounter. There is a representative of what may be a separate humanoid species, whose features both do and do not conform to the ideal Cley is charged with upholding to such a degree that they drive him a little bit crazier than he already is. There is a beautiful young village woman who is as ardent a student of The Physiognomy as ever there was, with whom Cley falls in love and then, Incel-style, punishes horribly when she is revealed to have a life and goals of her very own that don't include Cley. There is a giant of a man, Caloo, who falls into another punishment scheme of the Master's that reminded me of China Mieville's Punishment Factories in the city of New Crobuzon of which the Well-Built City was already reminding me before poor Caloo gets most of his internal organs replaced with clockwork/dieselpunk horrors. And there's the story's McGuffin, a mysterious White Fruit, the theft of which was Cley's original mission to solve. Supposedly the fruit conveys immortality to those who eat it, but does it really? The people who wind up eating it in this story don't fare too well after doing so.

There are, of course, two more volumes in the Well-Built City trilogy, but for reasons I haven't really been able to determine, I'm not rushing to read them the way I usually am. I do know that part of which is because The Physiognomy tells a perfectly satisfying self-contained story, with little to no pointing ahead to greater issues or further adventures the way, say, Ada Palmer's or the Dyachenkos' series did from book one. Its conclusion is open-ended enough to allow for continuation but isn't a cliffhanger, nor is it particularly a downer ending in need of uplifting by its sequels. I suspect that, really, though Cley definitely undergoes a great deal of character growth as he negotiates his new perils, he's still a thoroughly unpleasant person with whom to spend my time; while I feel for the little people in whose oppression he colluded for so long, I haven't been allowed to get to know any of them, trapped as I've been in Cley's repulsive head. Do I care about them enough to see how they fare in the aftermath of The Physiognomy? Right now, only in theory. I'm more intrigued, still, by their world, by the quest to find out how much of it as presented in this first book is "real" and how much is just Cley's addled understanding of it. Will the world as it really is be as interesting, though? I suspect that this is the question that may draw me to read Memoranda some day, and maybe even The Beyond. 

But, you know, I have an awful lot of other books waiting in a pile in my sitting room, on my e-reader, and in my audiobook library, and I don't at present feel inclined to postpone any of them to spend more time with Cley. Jeffrey Ford, yes, but not really Cley. Unless the Big Dictator someday forces me to.

*I imagine that even now some poor kid is enduring instruction in the art, though; it seems very much to be the sort of thing that The Indicted Guy might someday try very hard to promote as a means of regaining or holding onto power. He has already written off half the human race as useless except for intimately grabbing if we meet his standards of decorativeness.

**We have already been told, with chilling breeziness in audio book narrator Christian Rummell's perfectly supercilious tones, that miners whose families can afford to keep their stony blue bodies around as monumental decor, referred to as "Hardened Heroes"; our guy's hotel suite even features the owner's brother as a sort of human vanity stand. If a miner's family is less well off once the miner can't mine, though, the miner becomes a more consumable commodity. Hey, times are tough even in fantasy novels, man. 

Monday, June 19, 2023

Rachel Yoder's NIGHTBITCH

Her sense that society, adulthood, marriage, motherhood, all these things, were somehow masterfully designed to put a woman in her place and keep her there- this idea had begun to weigh on her. Of course, it had crossed her mind before, but after her son arrived it took on a new shape, and unwieldy heft, and then even more after she quit her job, as her body struggled to regain its equilibrium. And once she was stripped of all she had been, of her career, her comely figure, her ambition, her familiar hormones, an anti-feminist conspiracy seemed not only plausible but nearly inevitable.

Rachel Yoder's Nightbitch is that relative rarity, a novel about which I have precise memories of how I first heard about it. Caitlin Luce Baker, a bookseller who, like me, occasionally crashes the fantastic Two Month Review Podcast, plugged it at the end of this episode.*

I thought it sounded intriguing as hell, but just having blown two months' book budget on other things, I requested that my public library acquire Nightbitch, which seemed like a request that was likely to be granted because the book was making a splash. 

That was two years ago, though! And, well, this site bears witness to how I've spent that time, reading other stuff. I'd all but forgotten about this book when seemingly out of the blue my library announced it had just bought it in June of 2023 and I was first in line to read it. So, yowza! 

It was only when I went browsing for cover images for this here blog post that I finally figured out that the library's belated decision to grant my request wasn't out of the blue at all; Nightbitch is soon to be a major motion picture starring a perfectly cast Amy Adams.

Nightbitch lays out its premise right away. Its heroine, whom we only ever know as "the mother," in lowercase, is a former artist and career woman who is now a full-time stay-at-home mother. We see her constantly reminding herself that this is only because her husband's job pays him more than her "dream job" in the arts was ever going to pay her, a thought-terminating cliche that she employs whenever she catches herself resenting her being trapped in traditional gender roles, thus conveniently sparing her husband the tedious job of doing the reminding and being the bad guy thereby, (which, get ready for the husband). As the story opens she has begun manifesting symptoms that would lead a less rational woman (married to a less reasonable man) to believe she was slowly transforming into a dog, specifically a female dog. As in unexplained and unexpected patches of coarse and bristly hair suddenly appearing on the scruff of her neck, a suggestion of her canine teeth seeming, to her at least, to have gotten longer and sharper, and the odd homicidal urge, or at least an urge to unspecified violence. And the symptoms are worse at night, hence the title. Boom. 

I suppose I should note here that I am not a mother, never wished to be one, am perfectly happy being part of the village, as it were. And this book is a perfect showcase of what I've always imagined, with horror, my life would be like if I had ever had the misfortune to become one. The mother, whose son is two years old and whose husband is constantly away on business trips, is trapped pacing in the smallest possible space which she must share 24/7/365 with a tiny tyrant wearing her out with his demands, his anxieties, and his complete innocence and ignorance of all the terrible accidents waiting to befall him. Even when she leaves the house, he is with her; strangers focus on his adorability and regard her as his adjunct at best; the only people remotely interested in what she might have to say are other mommies, but only if she says something mommy-related. And she is constantly, surreally exhausted.

Until all of this starts happening to her, the teeth, the hair, the oh my goodness is that a tail growing at the base of her spine? Supernumary nipples? What?????

And by the way, yes, I totally think this book is in dialogue with Ira Levin's 1970s suburban horror classic, The Stepford Wives; both books are, after all, portraits of how a woman's transformation into a technology for keeping a man's house and raising his child** can make her feel like she is losing, or has lost, her humanity.

I would submit that as an explanation for the book's first half, anyway.

As for its second... the best I can come up with, and I do mean best, is that Rachel Yoder turned a feminist lament into a healthy, inspiring and daring feminist inversion of Chuck Pahlaniuk's Fight ClubAnd truly it is an inversion of that famous/infamous novel (and I'm already looking forward to treating myself to a double feature of the David Fincher film adaptation with Marielle Heller's of Nightbitch); we are completely privy to its strange protagonist's secrets and back-story, but unlike Tyler Durden and his Project Mayhem Space Monkeys, Nightbitch (the name the mother comes up for herself once she stops fighting and learns to love her fate) embraces its world and celebrates its weirdness and makes of it a positive thing, for isn't Nightbitch's experience -- motherhood and child-rearing -- in some fashion the most human story there is? Except maybe in the details?
She tipped her head back and filled the sky with a howl as big as her entire life, and, with that, was hell-bent on getting home, weeping now as her adrenaline surged and her muscles overflowed with blood and she crashed through the night.
A less brave author might have chosen to compound the horror by furnishing the mother with a typical suburban husband, happily benefiting from her dehumanization even if he's not consciously collaborating in it, insisting she "get help" when she begins embracing her strange transformation and starts looking to involve others in her discoveries. Yoder has dared to make of the mother's husband something much more interesting than merely the villain of an expected feminist parable, just as she keeps the mother/Nightbitch courageously and freely exploring what this all might mean and how far it's supposed to go. Then, too, the next logical villain would be the apparent frenemy figure of Jen the Big Blonde, a woman the mother knows from various kid-focused events at the library and the playground: the Big Blonde, after all, is never less than perfectly groomed and organized, always ready with toxic positivity and platitudes, making raising twin toddler girls look effortless and blissful, but again, Yoder isn't interested in making a villain of anybody but the incohate but near omnipotent forces of society that get women to connive in their own belittlement, that installs in most of us at a very young age a fierce internal critic that not only says we'll never be good enough but that we have no right to complain about anything or to feel badly about circumstances or to want to improve them, that it's wrong to ask for assistance when things get overwhelming. That it would be totally out of line for the mother to ask her husband to take on some more active parenting duties when he's actually home on weekends like putting their little boy to bed to give the mother a break from the nightly ordeal; that the perfect Big Blonde is anything but competition.

I still think motherhood would never have been the right choice for me, for so many reasons, but I've always at least intellectually understood why so many think I'm nuts for feeling this way. I've had many a discussion with my own mother, whose career as a pioneering female journalist at a time when that was still a bizarre novelty (she was actually the managing editor of a newspaper a little bit before Katherine Graham was, but it was a little podunk paper in a city barely worthy of the name in Wyoming, not the Washington Post) never got completely shelved but went into slow motion and stayed small when she and my dad started a family. To me it's always looked like she gave up all her dreams for the dubious pleasure of having me (though she did luck out with child #2, who is a genuine superstar), but she's always insisted she has no regrets and it was all worth it and like Nightbitch after her proclaims there is no greater love. I'll never know it, but I got a terrific vicarious experience of it from this novel and for that Rachel Yoder is to be celebrated for ever.

*The episode in question was devoted to a discussion of Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex trilogy, a discussion to which Your Humble Blogger contributed in another episode.

**And yes, I've borrowed this insight from Sarah "You're Wrong About" Marshall, who shared it in an episode of her podcast devoted to the Levin novel and its film adaptations, which she viewed through two lenses: one of the popularity of Miltown and later tranquilizers, and of Ruth Schwartz Cowan's More Work for Mother, which I own but still haven't read because it only exists as my reading nemesis, a trade paperback. But I think I'm finally going to have to read it soon now that I've got Nightbitch under my belt.

Monday, June 5, 2023

Ondjaki's TRANSPARENT CITY (Tr Stephen Henighan)

Admit it: you've been waiting your entire long, lonely, colorless life to read a novel that contains a line of dialogue as brilliantly bizarre-yet-perfectly-contextual as "these are difficult times for sorcerer roosters."

Satisfaction is just a few clicks away. Hurry up and get yourself some format of Angolan novelist Ondjaki's incredible Transparent City, which I caught myself explaining to my mom as "Ulysses with less stream-of-consciousness and more characters but also imagine if they discovered oil under the slums of Dublin and the Chinese were the economic powerhouse of the day."*

The "sorcerer rooster," by the way, is largely unremarkable except it recently lost an eye when, preparing to do his job and start the day with a mighty crow, he was instead struck in the eye by a stone shot from a great height by a young man in the multistorey apartment building next door -- which building is almost a character in itself, as is an albino cockroach that keeps appearing and stealing scenes -- one morning in 21st century Angola. 

The rooster is no more a sorcerer than any other urban bird; he is just referred to as one by a pair of suspicious tax inspectors struggling to make sense of the aforementioned building and its inhabitants, which, get ready for the inhabitants, most of whom sport incredible names like Ciente-the-Grand and Strong Maria and Little Daddy and João Slowly. And our sort-of protagonist, Odonato, which is very close to the insect order Odonata (which includes dragonflies and damselflies and is evolutionarily quite ancient even for insects), derived from the Greek word for "tooth, " and someday is really like to have a look at the original Portuguese text of this novel to see if all the character-names-as- English-words are original to that text or translated from the Portuguese words, and if so why Stephen Henighan left Odonato** alone instead of calling him "Dragonfly" or "Tooth." But that's a project for long winter months instead of brief summer ones.

Odonato is the father of Ciente-the-Grand, and has already begun (but barely) to become the literally transparent man he will be by novel's end when his wayward son gets himself shot in the ass and wanted by the authorities, which sets in motion the incredible mutual aid showcase that is the building most of these characters call home. They have worked out elaborate warning systems to alert one another of any government or other unwanted attention they're getting, have worked out schedules for exploiting the weird pools of water that collect in the first floor hallway (possibly due to deferred maintenance on the city's water systems, but maybe also a feature the building's residents created for themselves. Or both. I'm inclined to say both)***, and are in general very much entangled in one another's lives to a degree we mostly associate with extended families and I had to keep reminding myself that for most of human history this was the default setting for humanity -- mutuality and cooperation whenever possible, competition only when absolutely necessary -- while I caught myself regarding these relationships that pretty much amount to found family, with wistful awe.

As you see from these international book covers, the city is only part of the title in the English language editions, and is thus singular. For once, though, I think I like the English/ American title better; the plural in the romance languages (including the original Portuguese) would more directly translate as something like "The Transparents" as in, perhaps, the transparent people, but making it a singular/collective noun phrase and extending it as a description of the city of Luanda entire, it draws our focus to how most of the many foreign visitors drawn into the story of Odonato's building and its inhabitants must view the city: the petroleum engineers and other consultants brought in by the government to complete plans to exploit the oil that's been discovered literally under the city, for instance, seem to look right through its buildings, its infrastructure, its people (and of course a lot of the oil is under the Angolan equivalent of the famous Brazilian favelas). Even its local officials seem to have shifted to this perspective; those who aren't busy entertaining visiting American geologists are working to capitalize on another, more fleeting and ephemeral natural resource their country has to offer in the form of a coming solar eclipse, which will be total in Angola. As a Wyoming girl, still living in a place that is functionally also a resource colony with delusions of sovereignty that also, just a few years ago, cashed in on eclipse mania, I felt a kinship with the characters in The Transparent City and their ambivalence about the coming opportunities (a homeowner in Wyoming's capital city for many years, and a former journalist who covered the mineral extraction industries, I was always extra wary after learning that I did not own the mineral rights to my own property and that this is standard out here. Meaning of course that if oil, natural gas, etc were ever discovered in my neighborhood there would be swift eminent domain action and I would have to just hope that I'd be offered something reasonable in exchange. These characters, though, in Odonato's building... are they renting tenants? Co-operative owners? Squatters? It's never addressed.).
Ultimately this, like so many good literary novels, is a story of relationships, not so much between family members for all of the Odonato/Ciente plot as between friends, neighbors who have become friends, and yes, a few romantic relationships, such as the long marriages between Odonato and Xilisbaba and between their neighbors Edu (who has a formidable and world famous hernia swelling right next to a testicle that he carries around a little stool to support whenever he gets to sit down) and Nga Nelucha, between the entrepreneurial Joao Slowly and the actually hard-working Strong Maria, and the supportive appreciation the entire building extends toward a character known only as The Mailman, whose only wish in life is to be issued a moped with which to make his rounds delivering the city's mail but who can't even get home anymore because a huge and sprawling unauthorized garbage dump now blocks all access to his house so he sleeps... we don't know where he sleeps. Too, the figure known as Little Daddy, who was separated from his mother in the most recent interlude of  Angola's civil war and who is hoping that an upcoming TV appareance will help reunite them. Little Daddy just sort of crashes at the apartment building and maintains goodwill with its official residence and sort of earns his keep by doing any and all odd jobs that need doing, is a lens though which we see a huge variety of tendernesses and neighborly acts of good old fashioned kindness. It's all rather deftly sketched through us in Ondjaki/Henighan's understated style but we get to know everybody well enough to know them as distinct characters and to weep along with them and their friends when a few meet ignominious fates.

About that style, though: if you're not used to, say, Portuguese literary fiction and yes I'm mostly thinking of Jose Saramago here (and hey, this book was awarded the Jose Saramago Prize!), it might take you a while to get used to this text, in which there are phrases and phrases that feel like they could be sentences in that they contain subjects and predicates but are neither capitalized at the beginning nor punctuated at the end with periods, to say nothing of spoken dialogue, which mostly just appears amidst narrative lines, set apart at best with an em-dash. It's not at all good English literary prose like we're taught to respect and to try to produce in school, but its effective and evokes the way real conversations happen and real thoughts occur and real events unfold without resorting to the stream of consciousness text that makes, say, Ulysses so challenging for so many.

I have a lot of candidates for "my very best read of 2023" already as I've no doubt shown in this blog, but were I to explicitly list them all, Transparent City would be one of them, and were I to make a short list it would probably be on that as well, though the year is not yet half-over. The next time you want to feel something from a read, you could do a hell of a lot worse than get your mitts on this, or, I suspect, anything else of Ondjaki's. I'll be looking for more of his work sometime soon.

*This is not to disparage Ulysses,  especially not so close to Bloomsday, which I always devote to enjoying that book on audio, but a) Ulysses is on my mind because it is almost Bloomsday and b) I've had more than one person tell me, in my lifetime, that they like the grand tour of Dublin life James Joyce shared with the world but would prefer it without all the interiority and linguistic pyrotechnics. To which a legit reply might be, "then don't read Joyce, read, say, Edward Rutherford instead" but whatever. You do you. 

**Though I can certainly see why Odonato's wife, Xilisbaba, is left alone in this regard. What even is that name, though an exceptional name it is to be sure! I thought, of course, of the Mayan underworld, Xibalba upon first encountering this name but that's as close as I could get on this one. 

***At first this just sounds like an unfortunate puddle from leaking plumbing that has been neglected and allowed to accumulate a bit but this actually turns out to be at least deep enough to soak in like a hot springs and several scenes take place here with residents of the building and their guests soaking and socializing and affirming belief in the healing or restorative powers of the building's waters. And then the tax inspectors behold it and...

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Edward Ashton's ANTIMATTER BLUES (Narr John Pirhalla & Katharine Chin)

Somehow I didn't know that a sequel to Mickey7 was in the works, let alone already published. Thank goodness for Mastodon, where I landed early in the Twitter diaspora and where frank curiosity about what everybody else is reading is possibly the most common conversation I have there, or I still wouldn't know that Edward Ashton'sp Antimatter Blues existed!

I hadn't planned to read the audio edition, though. But for some reason, that's the version my public library bought despite owning only the ebook version of Mickey7, so, since beggars can't be choosers and I'm a beggar since retirement, audio it was this time. 

Except now I have a new audio narration pet peeve: when a (first person) narrator aims for callow and casual but the only note he really achieves is every sentence that isn't another character's dialog ends in what I can only describe as a verbal shrug. Like when a parent tries to warn a kid not to come crying to them if they ignore the warning and suffer mild to moderate consequences? Except it's every single sentence, and usually nobody could have predicted the consequences of a thing so nobody could have warned about a thing and the consequences are usually way beyond mild to moderate -- often they are severe to near-fatal, i.e. the kind after which it is never appropriate to say anything remotely like "I told you so" especially since usually no, in fact, you didn't. It makes the narrator character, Mickey, who is already not the most sympathetic or reliable of these, sound like he is constantly abdicating responsibility for every single thing that happens. This could be excused as an audio narrating choice when it's a thing for which responsibility might be assigned, like having lied to your partner or lost an important resource or, you know, actually did tell you so, but this tone is even used when describing perfectly mundane things like crossing a room or biting into a protein bar. Over eight or so hours of a really great story, this goes from being annoying and occasionally misleading to my finally wanting to send narrator John Pirhalla* back to high school speech class. And flunk him on principle the first time so he has to take it twice. 

As for Pirhalla's co-narrator, who's really more of a guest voice but that's not really officially a thing, Katherine Chin, she is fine. I can't say more than that, though, because of a weird choice the producers made to have Pirhalla voice everybody's dialogue, including the female characters', including Mickey's beloved, Nasha, who is actually so important she's basically a co-protagonist... in the bog-standard "raise your pitch above your normal speaking level, add lots more vaguely "feminine" breathiness and give most of your lines a flirty tone" style that way too many male narrators use for female or enby characters. Why do they have Chin at all, then? Only to play Nasha when her dialogue comes over the radio. Um, whut.

Anyway, the book is good enough to make up for all of that. I'm a big fan of the book. I recommend it to everybody who likes science fiction. But I'll urge anybody who decides to read to to do so in digital format or in good old fashioned print.*

Well, except for one kind of neat thing about the audio versus other formats: in the book, we come to know a non-human character called Speaker, who not only learned human language wholly from years of eavesdropping on radio conversations between Mickey and his best friend, Berto, but has also exactly duplicated Berto's voice and speech patterns; if they heard but couldn't see the one speaking, nobody could ever tell Speaker and Berto apart until it became a matter of each character's unique perspective or experiences being communicated, i.e., the voice said something that only Speaker or Berto could or would say. Berto is a daredevil pilot who talks like Buzz Lightyear. Speaker is a constructed representative of a vast hive mind and its body, like all of its kind, is a vaguely insectoid/trilobite-ish form. So imagine a Buzz Lightyear and a giant pill bug who also talks like Buzz Lightyear on a desperate mission together. It's amusing in audio book format in a way print could never match. If that sounds like fun to you and you think I'm being overly sensitive (I mean, I've coached high school speech teams to state championships a few times so I've made a lot of kids pay attention to details like this, so yes, I am more sensitive than most when it comes to vocal narrative) to the Verbal Shrug issue, hey, sample it and see. 


Our story picks up two years after Mickey Barnes, seventh of his name, resigned his job as the "Expendable" for humanity's beachhead colony on an icy frost clod of a planet called Nefilheim. A mission's Expendable is a person with no particular skill set of the kind that would ordinarily merit a spot on a mission but is simply willing to do all the dangerous/fatal tasks that need doing on that mission. If an Expendable dies in the line of duty, a new clone of that person is quickly grown in a vat and imprinted with the previous clone's memories and personality from up to the moment the prior clone last submitted to Upload. The memories might thus include the prior's experience of dying from, say, being the first to try eating vegetation or meat from a new planet, or being attacked by a new creature, or exposure to radiation while making emergency repairs to the kind of thing that emits radiation.

Mickey 7 explored the consequences of an Expendable actually surviving a supposed death but only making it back home after he, presumed dead by the rest of the crew, had already been replaced by his clone. In the process, Mickey discovered that an alien monster (that happens to be what everyone thinks killed him) is actually sentient. And in his dealings with the monster species that I don't want to get too specific about, one important thing that I can't help spoiling happens: he left a very powerful antimatter bomb in their possession. Or at least told his commanding officer that he did.

As Antimatter Blues gets going, Mickey's colony finds itself sorely in need of getting that bomb back, not to use as a weapon or to blow anything up, but to drain of its antimatter for fuel to keep the colony going through a projected planetary winter that could very well render the whole colony extinct. And we find out /are reminded what Mickey really did with the bomb, which becomes a McGuffin in a vastly entertaining plot that involves renewing relations with the alien Creepers, whose vast underground labyrinth of a habitat is very near the humans' dome, meeting another population of Creepers who are even weirder and scarier than humanity's neighbors, and getting inextricably and irrevocably involved in inter-population politics as they race to recover humanity's only hope for survival. In the process we get to know Berto and Nasha a lot better than we did last novel. Nasha especially gets a chance to become a more important character in her own right, starting with a pretty grim and close look at what it has been like for her to watch her boyfriend die of various hazards seven times. Amusingly, she gets referred to as "The Nasha" by the Creepers, whose perspective on her, remember, has been formed by supposedly private conversations between her boyfriend Mickey and her fellow pilot, Berto, both of whom affect an exaggerated fear of/respect for Nasha at all times. In other words, the Creepers think that Nasha is pretty much the biggest badass ever, and she comes pretty close to proving them right.

Mickey, also, gets to show a bit more general heroism as he is all but shoved into command of the mission, since it's his fault the antimatter is out of human control. He makes a hell of an ambassador to an alien race, but his unique experiences as a former Expendable give him an equally unique perspective on what it means to be an individual, a concept he has great difficulty explaining to the two flavors of hive mind with which he has to negotiate.

But of course it's the Creeper called Speaker who steals the show this time around, weirdly charismatic, stern, occasionally baffled by us weirdo humans and very, very committed to his Nest's survival. It's the Speaker's presence in this second book that really makes it an even better read than its predecessor and makes me hope for a few more Mickey7 novels to come. Mickey and the Creepers. I mean, come on!

*Who sounds enough like Casey Kasem that I was constantly waiting to hear this. And so I hereby renew my plea for blooper reels at the end of audio books. They would be the most fun. And if there are still more than a handful of home-producers out there, I absolutely want to hear the takes spoiled/enhanced by your pets (*cough* especially Paul E. Cooley *cough*). Come on. You know it would enhance the whole audio book experience and thus allow your special friends to contribute a tiny bit more to your (hahahahaha) livelihood (hohohohoho).

**I have a terrible, terrible time with paperbacks, especially trade paperbacks, because I can't physically handle or manipulate these for more than about 15 minutes per day without searing physical pain and inability to get pretty much anything else done that day. I have a category on most social reading sites I call "On Dead Tree Despite The Pain" into which I put books that I found worth that annoyance and discomfort to read and finish. Guys, I would have read Antimatter Blues in a mass market paperback if I had to. In fact, I seriously considered DNFing the audio book (no sunk cost except a tiny bit of my tax dollars) and waiting for a cheap used paperback to wash up at Alibris or my local used bookstore. But I really got into the story so I forged on through. 

Friday, May 12, 2023

Olga Ravn's THE EMPLOYEES (Tr Martin Aiken)

I know you say I'm not a prisoner here, but the objects have told me otherwise. - Statement 021

I really, really wonder if Olga Ravn is a fan of some of the same weirdass international cinema that I am, because this novel made me think of some of the strangest films I've seen. It's even, kind of, structured like they are, its narrative decidedly non-linear and divided into little vignettes we're left to ponder, rearrange, connect for ourselves into something that feels meaningful enough to be a story.

In the case of The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 23rd Century, what we are given is a collection of statements from workers on a spaceship called the Six Thousand (six thousand of what, we are left to ponder) that has taken on a collection of not-entirely-inanimate objects found on a planet on the ship's route to an unspecified destination. The statements chiefly concern the emotional effects the various objects have on the members of the crew, and appear to maybe be a sort of threat assessment, or at least to be trying to tease out what idiosyncrasies each employee, of which there are some who were born, some who were created, some who will die, and some who will never die,  has that make them more or less susceptible to these effects. 

From the very start The Employees had me thinking of visuals from some of the weirdest bits of fantasy filmmaking I've yet encountered; the first "statement," for instance,  has an employee talking about a large machine they regard as female. The employee is responsible for cleaning it and mentions that "One day she laid an egg." Immediately I was reminded of one of the more perverse scenes in Alejandro Jodorowsky's feature-length freak-out, The Holy Mountain and of course I'm talking about "The Love Machine." 

Simultaneously I also thought of the weird alien bio-contraptions in Katsuhito Ishii's Funky Forest: The First Contact -- especially once I encountered this passage:

Despite your numbering system, which I personally find reasonable indeed, I can inform you that the crew employs countless unofficial names for the objects, some more improper than others. Examples include: the Reverse Strap-On, the Gift, the Dog, the Half-Naked Bean... My own impression is that this idiosyncratic naming process is an indication that crew members feel a need to appropriate these objects in their own way, reducing the distance between crew member and object, and establishing a form of intimacy, so to speak. It's my assumption that naming in this way renders the object harmless, scaling down its strangeness and assimilating it into a reality the individual crew member can both relate to and accept, thereby facilitating coexistence with the found objects.
For illustrative purposes, here are some stills from Funky Forest, a film I still feel that not enough of you have given the chance it deserves. This first image, could it not indeed be the Reverse Strap-On? Or perhaps a parent producing a whole new generation of Reverse Strap-Ons?

This second still doesn't really fit any of the names described in the passage above, but in its Cronenbergian intimacy between a strange machine and a person, it uniquely depicts visually the kind of relationship some of the Employees have to the objects on board the generation ship.

If you someday find out that a certain cute house on a certain cute street in Casper, WY was mysteriously stricken by bolts of pure fury and burnt to a cinder, you might later learn that Olga Ravn is not, in fact, a fan of either of these films and is deeply offended by my comparisons. But then again, you might not.

One might also consider the sub-genre that shows up more in TV and video games of "mundane objects imbued somehow with weird/supernatural powers or properies" like The Lost Room, Warehouse 13, or Remedy's magnificent video game, Control. Since the objects under discussion seem, most of them, to be at least partly alive, though, I go for the Funky Forest imagery.

Another work of art The Employees brought strongly to mind as I read it is something Ravn might find a more flattering one to be compared to: the epic poem by Nobel Laureate Harry Nilsson and the 2018 film adapted from it, Aniara, which features a technology that swamps the entire sensoria of passengers on an accidental generation ship with detailed recordings of natural scenes of Earth that was. It's only when this artificial nostalgia machine finally burns out that the passengers finally face the reality of their fate and go mad from existential dread. This doesn't quite happen aboard the ship in The Employees, but it always feels like a possibility as many workers express longings for scenes and experiences in the natural world of Earth that are no longer available to them, and reveal that they have sort of incorporated some of the more evocative objects into their fantasies of walking through a forest or sitting by a babbling brook.

Those of us from Earth, we can hardly talk to each other. We're weighed down with memories of where we came from and what we left behind. Seeing the others on the ship, speaking to them, all it does is make me unhappy.

While most of the statements give us little glimpses of life with the objects, some invite us to ponder other matters, as when an employee who is evidently of the "created" category wonders just how meaningful that status really is:

I know I'm only humanoid and that it's not the same. But I look like a human, and feel the way humans do. I consist of the same parts. Perhaps all that's needed is for you to change my status in your documents? Is it a question of name? Could I be human if you called me one?

In an age where some of us seem to be agitating for up to (or maybe even more than; it all depends on how bigoted one is) half of us to lose our status as fully human, this bit hits pretty damned hard, as I'm sure it was meant to. 

It hits even harder in a statement or so later, when another -- or possibly the same* -- employee tells us "You can't cry, you're not programmed to cry" in response to the employee's reaction to the news that they will be allocated less time with their human co-workers : and that you want me to stay with my kind." One now wonders -- are these four categories of worker inherent in the individuals' beings, or assigned/imposed by Authority? Is the difference between those who will die and those who will never die that some are functionally immortal, or that they've been artificially designated for their fates?

As is probably inevitable with a storytelling structure like this one, we finish The Employees with possibly more questions than we started with. What happened to the Earth? What does the Employer want with the objects? Is the distinction between humans and humanoids even real (one of the few questions that kind of get answered, but only kind of)? Is this actually a meaningful mission, or just an experiment to see how much people will put up with? What are the objects? What's the deal with Cadet 04? What the hell happened in the canteen? Who was Dr. Lund and where is he now? Is he the speaker in Statement 160?

When does Tadanobu Asano show up?

Olga Ravn, you've got my attention. 

*The statements themselves are given unique individual numbers, presented in sequence but not in their original entirety (some numbers are missing) but the employees aren't.