Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Bixi Praise

Found a link to Time magazine's 50 top inventions for 2008.

Catching Up

In the end, I made my 50,000 words for November, and the novel's actually progressing nicely. I want to keep going at a high rate, finish it, then research and rewrite it. It feels good, and I'm hoping I might be on to something with this one. Working title: A Treatise on Opticks.

I did buy (or was given as an early Christmas gift) Liquid Story Binder. I'm looking forward to bringing over other things I've been working on, and trying them out in this program. Opticks has benefited from LSB's architecture, but I have an idea some of my other long-term projects might make an even better fit.

I read one book in November, which was also a book I added to the apartment. So no change overall in the reading stats.

Finally, a significant document, courtesy of the Robot 6 blog: The series bible for Batman: The Animated Series. Some interesting notes in there, including character backstory that never made it into the show (Renee Montoya was married?). For its soundtrack and design sense alone, that show was one of the greatest achievements of American TV. Check out the link, and see that sensibility as it was first laid out.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Binding stories

For the last couple of years, I've taken part in National Novel Writing Month. I signed up again this year, and decided I'd try something a little different. In addition to generating 50,000 words of text over the course of November, I'd change up my habits a little, using some new writing software. Specifically, I decided to give Liquid Story Binder a try instead of trusty WordPerfect.

LSB isn't a standard-issue word processor; it's really a variety of things, allowing you to enter text in a range of formats to help you outline and organise a long multi-part work. There are text editors that you use to write "chapters" as well as "notes"; you can also create "dossiers" and "outlines", which format information in ways that might be useful as you work on the structure of your story, as well as "journals" which link info to specific days, and "mindmaps" which create a kind of virtual pin-board on which you can move brief notes around to help you get a visual sense of how ideas link up. You can use the program to set up a playlist of mp3s, or establish a gallery of images related to your story. And so on.

The program does so much, in fact, that it can be difficult to get your head around. It's possible to look at all these features and wonder what it all has to do with actual writing. Certainly I found it difficult at first re-imagining my working process to take advantage of LSB's features, but over the past couple of weeks I've come to find the program really helpful; I suspect the novel I'm working on has gained a level of complexity it might not have had otherwise. Or, more precisely, I've reached that level of complexity with a certain ease that I might not have got with a word processor.

A word processor is by its nature linear; you're basically entering text on the screen as though the screen were a sheet of paper. Liquid Story Binder takes more advantage of the properties of a computer. On one level, that means that you can change the colour scheme of the program to match the tone of your work. More profoundly, though, it makes it easy to have multiple applications -- or sub-applications, in this case -- open at once. So you can work on a chapter, have three notes open while you do, and have an outline next to the chapter which tells you where the chapter fits in to the overall framework. And you can have a visual reference in the background to help you along. The program seems designed for the current generation of rectangular monitors, taking advantage of all that horizontal space to have multiple stuff going on at once.

Crucially, having these multiple formats and multiple windows seems to make it easier for me to visualise what I'm doing. It's easier for me to make connections between parts of the book. It's easier for me to see how it builds, how the parts interrelate to the whole, and I what have in mind for each of those parts as individual pieces.

Now, up this point, I've actually just been working on the story's outline. Which is a bit of an issue in terms of NaNoWriMo, in that I now have to write 50,000 words over the next dozen days or so. We'll see how Liquid Story Binder does with that; I haven't yet tried out its actual text-entry aspect yet. That's where word processors shine, obviously, and we'll see if LSB can match the ease and flexibility of WordStar. That said, I like what it does so far, and like the way it helps me think about structuring fictions. I'm going to seriously consider buying the program when the free demo expires.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Another Book Sale

Last week the Friends of the Westmount Library had their autumn "Quality Book Sale". I picked up a bunch of stuff:

Stephen Baxter / Deep Future
Michael Chabon / Gentlemen of the Road
John Clare / The Wood is Sweet
Candas Jane Dorsey / Black Wine
J.P. Eckermann, translated by Gisela c O'Brien, selected and edited by Hans Kohn / Conversations with Goethe
Lev Grossman / Codex
Kathryn Lindskoog / The C.S. Lewis Hoax
Iris Murdoch / Under the Net
Patrick Rothfuss / The Name of the Wind
Dan Simmons / Darwin's Blade
Alfred Lord Tennyson / Poetical Works

So that's 11 books for $15. Not bad, and some very exciting titles in there. The Tennyson is intended as a gift, so that's 10 new books added to the apartment. Interesting to me to note that between this sale and the spring sale put on by the same people, I end up with 22 books, 21 to be read, while the McGill book fair this year gave me 35 books, 26 to be read. So these Westmount sales are kind of catching up to the McGill sale, if only for me personally. Fewer older books to be found at the Westmount sales, though, and generally less idiosyncratic and not as varied as the McGill fair; but the prices at the McGill sale this year were actually slightly higher than in the past, so the Westmount sales actually have the edge there.

The main concern for the Friends of the Westmount Library has to be the amount of space they have to work with, though. There just isn't anywhere near enough space in their current configuration, given the number of books available. It's one thing to have boxes of books under the tables, even boxes on top of boxes, but when the books fill the boxes such that they can't be easily examined, as far as I'm concerned you risk losing a sale. Still, between the Library and Victoria Hall, there are probably answers to these problems. We'll see what happens in future.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: October summation, and the McGill Book Fair

So, the final tally for me from this year’s McGill Book Fair is as follows:

The Cloud of Unknowing
Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer
M.H. Abrams / Natural Supernaturalism: Tradition and Revolution in Romantic Literature
John Aubrey / Brief Lives
Iain Banks / The Business
Richard Harris Barham / The Ingoldsby Legends
Max Brooks / The Zombie Survival Guide
Edward Bulwer Lord Lytton / The Coming Race
Italo Calvino, translated by William Weaver / Mr. Palomar
G.K. Chesteron / The Man Who Was Thursday
Charles Dickens (with plates by Cruikshank, selected by J.B. Priestly from Sketches by Boz) / Scenes of London Life
Nalo Hopkinson / Midnight Robber
Ellic Howe / Urania’s Children: The Strange World of the Astrologers
Sam J. Lundwall / Science Fiction: An Illustrated History
The Works of John Milton
Iris Murdoch / Acastos: Two Platonic Dialogues
Iris Murdoch / The Book and the Brotherhood
Iris Murdoch / Bruno’s Dream
Iris Murdoch / The Green Knight
Iris Murdoch / The Message to the Planet
Miyamoto Musashi, translated by Nihon Services Corporation / The Book of Five Rings
David Pringle / Modern Fantasy: The Hundred Best Novels
Apollonios Rhodios, translated by Peter Green / The Argonautika
The Complete Short Stories of Saki
Robert Silverberg (editor) / New Dimensions 1
Carl E. Schorske / Fin-De-Siècle Vienna: Politics and Culture
Leon Surette and Demetres P. Tryphonopoulos, editors / Literary Modernism and the Occult Tradition
John Timbs / Abbeys, Castles, and Ancient Halls of England & Wales: Their Legendary Lore and Popular History
Janet Todd / The Secret Life of Aphra Behn
Edward John Trelawny / Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author
J.F. Webb and D.H. Farmer, translators / The Age of Bede
H.G. Wells / Meanwhile and The King Who Was a King
Ronald Wright / A Scientific Romance

Oh yeah, and in a moment of nostalgia I also grabbed a couple of Fighting Fantasy gamebooks:

Ian Livingstone / City of Thieves
Keith Martin / Vault of the Vampire

So that’s 35 books for a total of $70.50. Not bad, really. Still, it was a slow year. The Milton I bought just as a replacement copy for another edition I own which is falling apart from years of use; the Banks was a mistake, as I already own a copy (anybody want it?); and I also already owned a copy of the Chesterton, part of a massive anthology, and bought this edition for the convenience of having the book in a stand-alone volume.

As a contrast, last year I bought 66 books (including gamebooks, graphic novels, reference works, and so on) for $141. Now, I’m not complaining about my haul this year; but the fact is I only bought half of what I did in 2008. Deduct the three books I mentioned above from the total, deduct another four books I’m planning to give as gifts, and ignoring the gamebooks — I end up with 26 books to be read added to the apartment. Which is a more manageable number than I’d been expecting.

I will say that there seemed on the whole to be less interesting older material at the fair this year— the John Timbs book is an example of the sort of thing I mean. An obscure hundred-year-old-plus book (this looks like a first printing, which would put it at 1872), with an odd subject. There’s a curiosity factor to volumes like that, and in other years I’d find several such, but not this time. Then again, I went to the fair hoping to pick up some books by Iris Murdoch — a major influence on A.S. Byatt, I grew curious about her after reading all that Byatt a few months ago — and that certainly worked out. Plus I found some books I'd been curious about for a while, notably the Bulwer-Lytton.

Fun as always, then, but not one of the great Book Fair years for me. That does mean, though, that I have a shot at ending the year having actually made a dent in my books-to-be-read pile, despite only completing one book in October. I added one book to the apartment besides the books I bought at the fair, as well (so 27 added, 1 read, 26 down for the month). Overall: 102 books read, 13 fewer unread books in the apartment on the year. Not bad.

Of course, next Saturday is another book fair at the Westmount Library ...

[This post was edited because I managed to miss the Trelawny in the first version of the list I posted.]

Friday, October 9, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Parish

The Parish
by John Clare

Interest in John Clare seems to be in something of a renaissance. A character in Alan Moore’s novel Voice of the Fire some years ago, he recently figured in (and posthumously contributed the title to) Iain Sinclair’s Edge of the Orison. This may not sound like much, but Clare’s not terribly well known; I took an undergrad course in the Romantic poets, and I don’t think his name ever came up. In later years, I came to know Clare’s nature poetry well enough, but I think this was my first exposure to his more satirical side.

It’s really very good. It’s angry, bitter, mournful, and — crucially — wise. Clare’s unconventional diction recalls Blake in more than just superficial details; there’s a feel here not unlike the Songs of Experience, as though the parish Clare anatomises in the course of over 2000 lines is itself fallen as a whole from the innocence of earlier days. Clare seems to touch on every aspect of parish life, rich and poor, male and female, young and old. And everywhere there’s a fire to his portraiture of life, a sense of outrage which I think holds up well next to Blake and Shelley. Even more than Blake (and quite unlike Shelley), Clare lived on the fringe of society, and turned his anger at what he saw into verse. It’s quite a sustained performance, and it deserves to be better known than it is.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Readings 2K9: A Man For All Seasons

A Man For All Seasons
by Robert Bolt

I have not seen this play, nor even the film based on it. So my reaction here is, as is necessarily the case with a reaction to a theatre script, a reaction to a blueprint. That being said, it strikes me as something peculiar.

It’s the story of Thomas More, and More is definitely the hero of the piece. Not only is he the most moral and most intelligent character in the play, none of the other characters really seem to be able, on some profound level, to even understand him. He is a great man, and nobody else in the play demonstrates a greatness kin to his. As written, the text seems to me to be trying to make clear to the audience wherein More’s greatness lies while at the same time hiding it from the other characters.

More’s downfall, if downfall it is, comes not from any weakness in himself; Bolt’s preface to the play makes it quite clear, in fact, that he sees (or has treated) More as “a hero of selfhood”. But this is not a typical tragic hero — he lacks a flaw. He is in fact much more like John Proctor in The Crucible; a moral man in a society that is afflicted by the immoral, who eventually is thrown in prison and sentenced to death for being, in essence, incorruptible in a corrupted world. The interest comes perhaps in empathising with a (morally) superior being, who is brought down, mocked, and destroyed by the world; which means, these are passion plays.

As such, this play is quite strong, or so it seems to me (and obviously this is a work that has been quite celebrated over the years). I’m interested enough to want to see the movie (or play, if I get the chance) to see what a director can do with the material. Bolt talks in his preface about trying to use Brecht’s alienation techniques; on the page, they don’t seem particularly likely to alienate, and I wonder what the effect is in production. Certain things one can imagine; other things one can’t, and that is why one must see it for oneself.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Readings 2K9: Captain of the Andes

Captain of the Andes
by Margaret Harrison

This is an English-language biography from the 1940s of José de San Martín, liberator of Argentina, Chile, and Peru. It’s narrative in focus, to say the least. More precisely, it’s intensely romantic. San Martín is cast as an absolute hero; and while there’s no doubt his actions were heroic on a grand scale (raising an army and leading it across the Andes mountains to capture Chile from the Spanish, then leading them by sea up the coast to besiege Lima), you tend to wonder at the enthusiasm Harrison brings to her subject. As noted, the book was published in 1943, and it comes off as a rewrite of Bartolomé Mitre’s The Emancipation of South America — or at least of the chapters to do with San Martín. Mitre’s book is more restrained, and even then it’s been criticised for romanticising San Martín. It may be that the man’s accomplishment lends itself to such approaches. At any rate, Harrison’s book tends to be good at giving background, but occasionally difficult to follow when it comes to the exact chronology of San Martín’s actions. A bit of a mixed bag, but an easy read.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Disinheritance Party/Appleseed

The Disinheritance Party
by John Clute

Clute’s two novels, published twenty-four years apart, are very different books. Both attend strongly to language, pushing syntax and diction in new and strange ways. In both cases, structure shines through the language; there’s the sense of archetypes in action. Of mysteries of sex and death being played out. But the connections between language and those deeper structures are dissimilar, and the feel of the books completely different.

The Disinheritance Party is nominally more realistic; a late modernist novel in the style of Pynchon, it follows an odd family group through madness, incest, and castration to a blow-out ending. Identity shifts, and one becomes other; history is mutable. It begins with a young man named Abraham Zuken (A to Z, Biblical echoes) and more-or-less ends with him as well; in between is a parabola of dysfunction and improbability, of hallucination, and of rebellion against a Cronos-like patriarch. The more extreme the book gets, the less real it feels; it becomes a modernist farce. It becomes an open question how much of what we're reading is 'taking place' in any kind of objective world, and how much is inside the head of (at least) one character. It’s an interesting performance, but it’s a burlesque of a story.

Appleseed is nominally a space opera, with a heroic roguish starship captain, evil aliens, traitorous AIs, and vast space stations. It completely inhabits the world of its future, such that exposition is effectively nonexistent, and we must piece together on the run the nature of its extrahuman species and also of the human culture that has evolved in this future, as well as technology and other elements of the setting. It moves toward a hieros gamos, a sacred and healing marriage. On one level a simpler book than The Disinheritance Party, it is on another level more complex; more human.

Both books seem to begin with simple family dramas, and both in their different ways play that drama out on cosmic scales. The Disinheritance Party hints at a fantasy of history, making the tragedies or black farce of its story the story of the human race, an inevitable Oedipal clash of generations and genders. Appleseed moves to the future, to transcendence. It is serious and comic. Not only longer, it is the greater and more sustained work.

Both books can be seen to lack something; the texture of character which is associated with the traditional novel. The sense of a society against which individual characters can be discerned. These books tell simpler tales (yet also more complex, particularly in The Disinheritance Party, where the individual players take multiple roles), almost play-like. They’re both successes at what they do. But they are in a sense unforgiving, or unyielding; by their abstraction of character, they are two very different approaches to the inhuman.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Readings 2K9: Camp Concentration

Camp Concentration
by Thomas Disch

A slim, ambitious, ecstatic book, Disch pulls off the difficult trick here of not only presenting a literary genius, but presenting the work of said genius, and making us accept the genius as a genius. Louis Sacchetti is a poet in a near-future US who is also a conscientious objector; arrested, he becomes part of a military experiment to enhance human intelligence, experiments which succeed but result inevitably in death. He’s locked up with a group of other test-subjects, and much toing and froing and playing about with minds follows. In the end the plot is worked out in accordance with symbol and image, a deft dovetailing of the novel’s concerns.

It’s a genuinely intelligent book, a concerned and human book. It draws from some surprising wells; medieval scholastic philosophy, alchemy, Thomas Nashe, Thomas Mann, Wagner, Lautréamont ... it plays freely with Western culture, but maintains a shape to its narrative. Not an intense shape; it’s not really a plot-centric text, though the story is consistent and engaging. It’s more to do with the matrix of Sacchetti’s mind, how it plays with his experiences, how he tries to ascend to revelation, how he balances heaven and earth and hell. Sacchetti’s underground prison inevitably takes on symbolic overtones; he's caught between the cruel and vulgar commander of the camp and the elliptical genius of the prisoners who have been in the experiment longer than he, with a consequent greater heightening of their intelligence.

It’s a powerful book, and Disch captures the tone of Sacchetti’s voice beautifully. He’s a poet, and so has a way with language; he is a prisoner and a martyr — but he is also aware that he is a prisoner and a martyr, and increasingly a genius, and his consciousness of these things is there in Disch’s language. This is not a book that an ungifted mind could have conceived of, or executed. Now, there are weaknesses; character is not particularly profound, for example. In some ways one could argue that it has the feel of a minor novel. But if so, it is the minor novel of potentially a major writer.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Readings 2K9: Little Brother

Little Brother
by Cory Doctorow

Your ability to appreciate this book — alternately frustrating and engaging — will vary depending on how much you believe Doctorow’s aware of his effects. I think he knows what he’s doing, and I quite liked the book as a result.

It’s the story of a teen hacker, Marcus, wrongfully arrested following a terrorist attack. He’s mistreated, but eventually released; a friend, arrested with him, is not released. So Marcus dedicates himself to bringing down the government in revenge, and to fighting to keep the US a free society even as increasingly draconian laws are enacted to prevent more terrorism.

Marcus is a bit of a jerk. To say the least. He tells himself he’s acting on behalf of his friend, but his actions don’t follow — he lets his friend’s dad think his son’s dead, for example. And he doesn’t really think about the inconvenience he causes to other people in the course of his civil disobedience crusade (it has been argued that he’s also irresponsible in discounting the harm he’s doing to valid anti-terrorism efforts; I can’t agree, as I think the point of the book is that no anti-terrorism initiative that interferes with a free society is legitimate).

I think Doctorow’s aware of this, because the reality is that Winston’s activities in the book as an outlaw hacker don’t really have any effect. He helps organise a rock concert that gets shut down. He forms a group of disaffected youth which is instantly infiltrated. In no way does anything he does actually initiate change — until he starts working with society, in the form of going to a newspaper and getting his story out to the world at large. This leads to him being arrested again, and tortured; and ultimately to a nicely ambiguous ending, which strikes me as entirely realistic.

In the end, the moral of the story isn’t that Winston is right. He frequently isn’t. The point of the story, what we’re left with, is the importance of paying attention to stories like his. The understanding not only that things like the suspension of habeas corpus are wrong, but that it is in part up to us to pay attention to the world around us and to act to prevent these wrongs, whether by voting or by volunteering or by financially supporting organisations we believe in. It’s a book about the importance of activism; about its frustrations, about how it can be done wrong, and also about how it can be done right.

It is also, incidentally, an sf book about a small group of outcasts fighting an evil empire, which, as I’ve previously observed, is a recurrent trope in genre literature. These things often test my suspension of disbelief because they tend to assume that the small group is smarter than the evil empire — leaving aside the number of smart people there must be within the empire. Here, though, Doctorow challenges that easy assumption. Winston thinks he’s smarter than the government and the adults around him. The book conclusively shows that he isn’t. The government does stupid things; they also do smart things. Winston does smart things; he also does stupid things, and often rationalises them to himself as being smart things. It’s that willingness to have smart characters be stupid that makes the book work, and that helps convince me Doctorow knew what he was doing all along.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Status Civilization/Anarchaos

The Status Civilization
by Robert Sheckley
by Curt Clark (Donald Westlake)

I read these two back-to-back, and it makes sense to me to talk about them together. In The Status Civilization, Sheckley follows a man condemned to a prison planet from which he must escape; on this planet the inmates have formed a society based on an inversion of values, where wickedness (as defined by society circa 1960) is celebrated — you go to church to worship the spirit of Evil, for example, and taking drugs is mandated by law. Anarchaos follows a man who travels to the titular planet seeking the man who killed his brother, a colonist there; on Anarchaos, there are no laws, and life is a struggle of all against all. So a pair of books with real similarities, though they play out in different ways.

Sheckley's is a more direct satire, as I take it, of nineteen-fifties life (it was published in 1960). It’s a solid adventure story, with nice action scenes, and an unexpected ending. It tries to have a character-based conclusion, but isn’t really as profound as it needs to be to pull it off. Still, it’s a clever extrapolation from the premise. It moves fast, has some nice set-pieces, and has a few ideas in its head.

Curt Clark — actually a pseudonym for Donald Westlake — goes a completely different direction. One of the things you find out quickly about Anarchaos is that corporations are effectively in charge, exploiting the lawless brigands who populate the planet. It’s basically a realistic depiction of libertarian fantasies; without laws, the strong exploit the weak. The strong and smart triumph — but only up to a point. An individual can't stand against a group. Malone, the main character, can kill a taxi driver easily enough; but when two or three people join together, he gets taken down easily. And that small gang is nothing compared to the corporations, who operate slave labour camps because there aren’t any laws to stop them. What's interesting about the book is that instead of following Malone as he cuts a bloody swathe through the planet, he gets captured early on and sent to one of those camps. He breaks free, eventually, but he's never the same after. It's a nice swerve, making for a vastly different book than you'd anticipate.

Both of these are good books, frankly better than I expected. They take a similar premise, but explore it in different ways. You laugh at the social satire of the Sheckley at the same time as you’re led through the highs and lows of an action story. The Westlake wrong-foots you completely, and you never know what to expect after. Stylistically they’re not dissimilar — neither of them are brilliantly written, but both of them are competent enough to accomplish what they’re trying to do. Together, they’re a good example of how a similar premise (one man against a wild planet) can be twisted in ways you wouldn’t expect.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Centauri Device

The Centauri Device
by M. John Harrison

First published in 1974, this book is in some ways curiously sedate. Harrison’s strongly associated with the New Wave of science fiction in England, but there’s little of the formal play that’s so often identified with the New Wave. It’s a fairly direct story, set in a human-populated galaxy hundreds of years in the future, about an alien super-weapon and the variety of rogues, scoundrels, and thugs who try to take control of it. In a lot of ways, it’s not that distant from classic golden-age sf.

Except, and it’s a crucial exception, in terms of sensibility. There’s a greater cynicism, a greater distrust of governments and militarism. A greater willingness to play with anti-heroes. The very end of the book seems to call in question much of what came before, especially the ending, explicitly declaring itself “a dramatized account” of history (it’s an imaginary story; aren’t they all?). So it’s bleaker; but there’s still a considerable romanticism at play here, and the anti-heroes are still notably effective, still sympathetic.

In a lot of ways, the book’s reminiscent of Iain M. Banks’ Culture novels. There’s a similar density of imagination, a similar use of sf adventure tropes along with a subtle questioning of those tropes, a similar downbeat ending that misses being apocalyptic only due its scale. Even a similar whimsy in its starship names: Intestinal Revelation, Les Fleurs du Mal, Atalanta in Calydon. It’s shorter than the Culture novels I’ve read, though, and I think the length does it a favour. I think Banks, although consistently imaginative, tends to fall into a rhythm in his inventions and conceits. That’s something Harrison adroitly avoids. This is a solid, tautly-written story. Maybe it’s no more than that; it’s certainly no less.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: September summation

I read eleven books this past month, but my birthday was in there early on so I also added eight new books to the household. And three of the books I read were library books. Thus a net gain of zero; still just 39 fewer unread books in the apartment. 101 books read so far this year. And this month ... the McGill book fair.

Readings 2K9: Orsinian Tales

Orsinian Tales
by Ursula Le Guin

This is an intriguing and strong collection of stories. They’re set in a fictional central or eastern European country, and range from the middle ages through to the mid-twentieth century. There’s no overt sf or fantasy element to them, though the way they’re presented has a visionary quality, a hint of something beyond the real. Yet most of the stories are what might be called bourgeois dramas; stories of young people in love, men and women trying to build lives for themselves, a man trying to find a way to escape into art. There are few stories in the collection about wars or treaties or the place of the country in the greater European context. But just by its existence, it situates itself as fantasy.

These paradoxes aside, the stories are largely excellent. Le Guin’s writing is understated and controlled. There’s a kind of impersonal perfection to many of them. Le Guin knows how to use implication, how and when to underwrite, to allow the reader to fill in the blanks. So her fictional lands come alive, her unreal cities have a life and an internal logic and culture to them. Although, that being said, there isn’t much of a sense of how the country interacts with the larger European context; of where its own traditions influence and are influenced by the ideas and arts around it.

Mind you, these stories wouldn’t work at all unless Le Guin had a strong grasp of her country, and of the times through which it lived. She’s able to evoke an era clearly, and create a convincing sense of the times in each story. In a way, this book is a good example of what I would call true post-modernism; an acceptance and revision of the past, a re-writing of what has gone before, suggesting new possibilities, new ways of looking at old accomplishments. And it is, in the final analysis, a considerable accomplishment in itself.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Atrocity Exhibition

The Atrocity Exhibition
by J.G. Ballard

Called a novel, this is actually an assemblage of short texts which collectively make up an excoriation of the barrenness of the modern world. It’s tied together not with narrative — though a kind of dream-story can be partially discerned in its early chapters — but with recurring motifs. The assassination of John F. Kennedy; automobile accidents and fatalities; the human body, dissected and anatomised; quasars and the observation of the sky. There’s a refusal to be bound by chronological time, an apparent attempt to give a kind of cubist view — but of what, is unclear. One of the characters is said to be attempting to start World War III in a “revolt against the present continuum of time and space”, which is as good a clue to the book as any.

So this is a radically experimental work. The text is cut up, glosses itself, rewrites itself. Words and phrases recur hypnotically (“the planes of her face”). Characters change names, die and then recur with no immediately evident explanation.

If it weren’t so short, it’d be unbearable. If it weren’t as tight as it is, it’d be unbearable. If Ballard’s language wasn’t as taut and controlled as it is, it’d be unbearable.

But it is all these things, and so it’s weirdly compelling. You have to re-read it, perhaps ideally re-reading it out of order. You have to be able to hold all the different parts of it in your head, I think, which is largely impossible even for a novel as short as this; in such a way you can begin to pick out the connections between the different parts of the book.

Is it ultimately meaningful? I think so. It’s intriguing in its use of language, for example. And in the way it subjugates form to theme; it’s a fine example of the modernist tendency to express (what was perceived to be) a fractured world through a fractured structure. It’s intriguing that it feels of its time. In part that’s because it consciously uses elements of the 1960s as a source for its imagery. But it’s also because that sense of a fractured world, in which human beings are alone within their skulls and cut off from those around them, seems slightly outdated in a twenty-first century defined by the internet. Our anxieties and stresses have become other than they were. That doesn’t make the book outdated; it means that it’s easier to see as a product of a specific moment. Ballard’s a good enough writer that this is still a living book. The anxieties of his time therefore speak to ours, and we can see ourselves in them. The book uses elements of its moment to speak to times beyond its own; which could be said to be the point of literature. In a different way than at its publication, the book takes us out of ourselves. Which is, to me, the point of reading.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Readings 2K9: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
by Tom Shippey

Tolkien’s a writer that you either love (most people) or hate (a vocal minority). I’m in the former camp, but I do think it’s by and large true that many of the people who love Tolkien’s work often don’t make a very good case for why, or have taken from it only surface or partial elements. Shippey’s book is one of the best appreciations of Tolkien I’ve seen, not least because it begins from a point roughly similar to Tolkien’s own interest, teasing out meanings in Tolkien’s texts based on Tolkien’s play with Old English.

This is hugely significant; Tolkien’s linguistic play, to me, easily outstrips Joyce in its verve and its ability to range across more than a millennium’s worth of language. Relatively few Lord of the Rings fans are competent to analyse Tolkien’s involvement with Old English and related languages. I’m certainly not. It’s good to see a book of criticism, aimed at the popular market no less, involved with the fabric of language to such an extent.

This isn’t to say its perfect. When Shippey tries to make a list of fantasy authors to compare to Tolkien, his selections often seem random. And he is at a disadvantage in responding to writers sceptical of Tolkien’s achievement simply because many of those writers never bothered to present any cogent criticism of Tolkien’s work, instead dismissing it without thought investigation. But Shippey does pay attention to Tolkien's construction of his story, recurring motifs of his plot, the development of character — and what language says about character, plot, and story. It may fairly be said of Shippey, then, that unlike many writers on Tolkien, he is worthy of his subject.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Readings 2K9: August summation

Slow month, due to Worldcon and assorted dentistry. I read three books. One of them was a library book, too. Eight books added. So on the year: 39 fewer unread books in the apartment, 90 read overall. The McGill Book Fair looms.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Readings 2K9: Port Eternity

Port Eternity
by C.J. Cherryh

This is a bit of an oddity. Certainly it left me with mixed feelings. The story of a group of artificial humans created to be the servants of a rich woman on her private starship, and what happens to them after an accident in hyperspace, it is on one level a straight-ahead sf adventure. But the artificial people all have names out of Arthurian legend, and it’s hard to shake the idea that some meaningful parallel is intended. I can’t really see any, though, so perhaps it’s more the contrast between these characters and their originals that’s the point. Certainly the characters act in (sometimes amusingly) non-sf-standard ways — faced with a mysterious alien spaceship that’s captured their own, they choose to barricade themselves in their ship rather than go exploring (even when that seems the only way back home).

The really strange thing about the book is the sudden shift in tone it takes in its last few pages. A shift for the better, I should say. As noted, the book reads as a straight-ahead science fiction story, crossed with a certain degree of soap opera, until those last pages — when style, diction, and point-of-view shift dramatically. It becomes more mythopoeic, striking a genuinely Arthurian note that’s been notably absent for the rest of the book. It’s much more interesting to me than everything that’s led up to it, and it sets up a kind of end-state which would also work as a status quo from which to launch another story. In point of fact, I can’t figure out why Cherryh told this story, and not that one. So, ultimately, this is a decent book that didn’t particularly grab me — but the sequel to which I’d grab in a flash, if it existed. As noted: an oddity.

Readings 2K9: Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges

Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges
by Richard Burgin

A book-length transcript of a series of interviews with Borges, conducted by Burgin. They’re interesting, but seem to have relatively little focus — each ‘chapter’ skips around a fair bit. Unsurprisingly, the interviews focus mainly on literature, and Borges’ favourite authors. But there are also some insightful thoughts on politics and war; on the nature of fascism and violence, for example (if Hitler preached strength and the goodness of violence, then does it follow that to exert one’s will through strength is necessarily to partake of the nature of Nazism?).

There’s a palpable sense here that Borges is not really caught in the book, for all that he talks candidly about major events and themes in his life. It’s as if he’s too subtle to be caught so directly; there’s some quality to him which comes out really only in his writing, and of which one has only an intimation when reading the interviews. While it’s not surprising that the writer can’t be depicted in a series of conversations, the presence of that intimation — the hint that there’s something more to the man than what we’re reading — is perhaps the most Borgesian thing about the book: if the interview reduces the man to language, this hint is the sense that he has yet other books within him than this one, books that are far more important than the book that comes out of his life and speech. Which is to say, the sense that Borges is a major writer.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Slow recovery

Anticipation ended ... what, three days ago now? ... and I’m beginning to feel like I’m getting back to normal. It was a blast. Most of my thoughts on it can be seen at the Narratives blog on the Gazette’s web site (specifically, at this link), but I’ll throw out a few notes here as a last look back.

First off, given what I’ve been writing about on this blog, I should note that between free stuff, review copies, and things picked up in the dealers’ room and elsewhere, I ended up adding more than half-a-dozen unread books to the apartment:

Crossing the Boundaries: French Fantasy from Bragelonne
Science Fiction: The Best of the Year 2006, edited by Rich Horton
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman
Sang du pierre, by Élisabeth Vonarburg (I’m hoping to lay hands on the English version, Blood From a Stone, soon; published at the same time, and sharing a title in translation, the French and English versions have different stories)
Objects of Worship, by Claude Lalumière
Magic Mirrors, by John Bellairs
Curse of the Wise Woman, by Lord Dunsany

... and then wandering around yesterday I bought The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance, so what the hell, let’s throw that in there too. Eight, then, nine if I get the other Vonarburg title.

Second, it was a lot of fun meeting people. And interviewing people; attending as a member of the press allowed me a useful perspective, and of course led to interviews with fine people like George R.R. Martin, Lev Grossman, and Felix Gilman.

Third, and related to the above, it was a powerful sensation being at an event of that scale dedicated, at its core, to writing. Sure, there were a lot of other elements to it — media, filk, gaming, and so on — but most of the programming had written work as its focus. I learned a lot, but even more, the sheer volume of writers, and of discussion of writing, seemed for me to reach a kind of critical mass. I don’t mean that it was inspirational, or even that it was a reaffirmation of the value of imagination and storytelling, though in fact it was both these things; what I mean is that it suggested to me, or reminded me, that writing and literature and language and dreams can be made a way of life. Or more precisely, a way of being in the world. Which is to say: a way of survival.

So there’s some value in that. Grace and I are looking at going to Con-cept, a local convention, in early October. We’ll see.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Readings 2K9: July summation

Got a lot of stuff to read with Worldcon almost here, but this is a quick note to say: 16 books read in July, 4 added to the apartment. Up by 12 in total. So, 44 fewer unread books in the apartment, 87 read so far this year.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Article up

A quick note to say that my Gazette article about Neil Gaiman is now up.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Worldcon, Neil Gaiman, and Marvelman

Anticipation, the 67th World Science Fiction Convention, is coming up soon — August 6 to 10 — and I, alongside Claude Lalumière, will be blogging about it for the Montreal Gazette's Narratives blog. I've been reading sf all my life, but this'll be my first convention; Claude has a lot more experience with publishing, fandom, and the like, so the two of us will be able to present both an insider's and an outsider's view of the con.

I've written a preview piece for the print version of the Gazette, which I believe will be appearing this Saturday. As part of the story, I got to interview Anticipation's Guest of Honour, Neil Gaiman. Obviously, I spent most of the interview asking him about Worldcon; but, given Marvel Comics had announced only a few days before that they'd acquired the rights to Marvelman, I also felt I should take a moment to ask him about that. And that part of the conversation is now up at the Gazette's blog.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Readings 2K9: Dying Inside

Dying Inside
by Robert Silverberg

After reading this book, my girlfriend compared it to The Catcher in the Rye, which she’d had to read in high school; she hadn’t enjoyed that book, either. I found the comparison interesting, because after reading the book I compared it to Malamud and Philip Roth, writers I’d had to read in high school and whose work I hadn’t enjoyed. The point being: this isn’t really a bad book, but it has the earnestness and self-conscious literariness of English class. It aspires to be the sort of book that attains bourgeois respectability.

Another way to put it: this book is the story of a middle-aged telepath in contemporary New York City slowly losing his gift ... and that tells you everything you need to know about the novel. Tone, plot, character, there’s nothing surprising in the book at all. Each individual scene is well-written, but put together you start to notice that you see too easily where it’s all going. Each individual character sounds good when you first meet them, but never really add up to more than a collection of stereotypes: the Black nationalist, the bitchy sister, the One Woman He Truly Loved, and so on. It’s ironic, since the book wants to insist on the value of every individual experience — but presents only well-written stock characters. Even the way the theme of The Depth of Every Individual is brought out is unsurprising (the main character, in a flashback to his adolescence, goes deep into the thoughts of a taciturn farmer, a Man Of The Earth, and finds that Still Waters Run Deep).

The style is solid, the construction — weaving flashbacks into the slow progress of the present-day sequences — effective. But the book never becomes anything more than a stylistic exercise, a series of tropes hit in practised order, all the right notes in all the right order. It’s the sort of book, I think, that attracts a lot of praise when it’s first published, and which slowly loses its luster as the years pass — a pat conclusion, maybe, given the plot of the book, but it’s the only assessment I can give. If you’re looking for literary sf, you could do worse — but you could also do much better.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Readings 2K9: The Jewels of Aptor

The Jewels of Aptor
by Samuel R. Delaney

Delaney’s first book, written when he was a teenager, is a fast-paced, imaginative pulp fantasy. Some solid description lifts it above the run-of-the-mill, and there’s a respectable amount of ideas per square inch. Occasionally the writing has some odd gaps in clarity or specificity — a character loses a hand at one point, and I don’t think it’s ever established which hand it was — and some unrealistic psychology; but it’s unrealistic in the style of fast-paced adventure stories, as it were, complex emotions skipped over to keep the narrative moving. It’s not, in other words, great writing. But it’s a good quick read, with strong rhythms and vocabulary, and some oddly psychedelic touches which help make the style stand out. On the one hand, it’s of interest mainly as Delaney’s first work; on the other, it’s far from the worst fantasy-adventure book I’ve read, and stands nicely alongside the pulpier writing of somebody like Michael Moorcock.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Readings 2K9: Artifact

by Gregory Benford

I don’t enjoy writing a wise-ass review. If nothing else, it means I’ve just spent time reading a bad book. But in general, I understand how much work writing is, and how much of the self is invested in a written work, especially a novel length work. So usually I think even a bad book is worth a serious response. Still, there are books which test that attitude; books which read as particularly half-assed, or which feature particularly ugly characterisation — negative portrayals of a particular ethnicity or gender, say — or simply especially simplistic, ugly prose. Which brings me to Gregory Benford’s Artifact, a book that comes close to hitting all of the above.

Let me begin by saying this is a boring, slow book. It opens with an archaeological dig in Greece in the late 1990s, something like fifteen years after the book’s publication in 1984. American archaeologists find a peculiar cubical artifact in a tomb from about 1500 BC, but are chased away by the agent of a new nationalist and socialist Greek government. This man, Kontos, is aggressively unpleasant: a trained archaeologist with a military rank and a tendency to violence, he sexually assaults, or tries to, the female leader of the Americans. The Americans leave at his order, then sneak back to the dig site (with the novel’s main character, a mathematician who came over from the States to work some scientific equipment, in tow) to recover their work, and end up stealing the whole artifact. That takes about 200 pages. Back in the US, they discover the thing’s radioactive, and set about trying to figure out why; that’s good for about another 150 pages. The final 150 pages of the book is about the scientists and the US military trying to prevent an explosion on the level of a 100-megaton blast, despite the interference of those pesky Greeks.

First off, the book’s got a basic problem: how do you justify the theft of a priceless historical artifact from its country of origin? One way is by portraying pretty much every single Greek person in the book as aggressive, stupid, and/or incompetent. The book does that. Another is to handwave the question away by saying it’s not important. The book does that, too. The point is: for the book to have a plot (however slow in developing), the Americans have to get the artifact back to the States to study it. So they do. I don’t understand why the book couldn’t have been about Greek scientists and archaeologists studying the artifact in Greece; at least that way, a sub-plot about war between Greece and Turkey wouldn’t feel like a tacked-on kludge to force characters to be in certain spots at certain times in order to build up to something resembling a proper conclusion. Which is basically what the subplot feels like now.

At any rate, the book’s one-sided portrayal of Greeks is in keeping with its one-sided portrayal of pretty much everybody. If Benford dislikes a certain group, you really get to know about it. Notably, you can tell whether he prefers humanities like archaeology or hard science like physics: at a description of a physics conference, one character sees the physicists “answering questions, handing out preprints, defending their ideas. It seemed very far from the meetings of archaeologists, who tended to hold forth in lengthy verbal talks illustrated by slides in darkened rooms, answering questions only briefly at the very end. That bull-moose pattern, trumpeting one’s position from a lordly lectern, had always irritated her. The physicists, with their unassuming posters, flatly displayed to lure an audience by snagging their curiosity, seemed more honest and democratic than the humanists.” Yeah, one thinks, dirty filthy humanists, probably the kind of people who’d point out that bit about the ‘honesty’ of the posters, which ‘lure’ despite being ‘unassuming’, and mutter things like “incoherent” or “contradictory” or “Orwellian”. Or maybe just “goofy”. (And then likely go on about the redundancy of "verbal talks".)

Anyway, the preceding quote is pretty much of a piece with the book’s view of things. One of the minor characters of the book is an archaeologist high up in academe; he’s a pencil-necked dweeb who ignores the female archaeologist character and believes whatever the evil male Greek archaeologist says, because of professional courtesy. Physicists, by contrast, are uniformly clever, funny, and respectful of people of the opposite gender (which is always female). We’re told that one of the physicists has a reputation as a ladies’ man, but this turns out to be a smear by those evil humanists.

The book tries to talk about gender roles and old-boys-networks — in the context of those archaeologists, of course — by having one of the main characters be female. You can tell because she’s tough and independent, with a fierce outer shell that she’s had to put up to protect herself from the male gazes around her. Yes, she does end up being rescued by the main male character at the climax of the book, why do you ask? And, yes, she does end up happily married to the same character, who after all is the only man she feels secure enough with to let her inner fears and tensions surface through her take-no-shit exterior. We could see this coming early in the book, you see, when said male character looks at her in her skirt, and wonders to himself whether she might wear garters instead of pantyhose. Guess what? We find out in an aside a few dozen pages later that she does! Of course, it’s because of a tendency to yeast infections, and not for any objectifying sexual reasons. Naturally. So that’s okay. Anyway, the point is, clearly these two were made for each. He’s a bland, generic southerner, she’s a walking stereotype and occasional fetish object. What could be better?

Mind you, the absence of characterisation in the two leads is matched by the absence of character in the rest of the book as well. Everybody’s bland (scientists, agents of the American government) or else straight out of central casting (the comic-opera military strongman who gives the book what passes for a villain). There are no surprises here, only stereotypes. One of the physicists in the book, for example, is a brilliant Italian. So, of course, he’s quiet, thoughtful, reserved. Right? Oh no he bloody isn’t. He’s extravagant and waves his hands about a lot. Sadly, he is also the closest thing to a memorable character in the book.

So the book is not good; it’s slow, somehow turning a story about a global drift toward war into a chore to read, and the characters are flat. Is it aggressively stupid enough to deserve mocking? I think so, yes. It’s not that Claire, the female archaeologist, finds that US Navy men are uniformly “quick, intelligent, and disciplined without being rigid” (she walks in on a group of them aboard ship sitting around watching a PBS documentary); I mean, you know, okay, why not? It’s that it’s part of a pattern of the way the US is presented in the book — “worshipful” is perhaps the adjective I want here, though “adoring” could fit as well. Basically, this is a book in which Americans are always superior to foreign-types, and indeed are unjustly persecuted (we’re told) round the world. So sad.

The thing of it is ... and the reason why I feel the tone of this review is appropriate ... between 1967 and 1974, Greece was ruled by a military junta backed by the United States. The junta was notable for mass arrests, use of torture, and the deprivation of civil rights for the population of Greece. Bill Clinton formally apologised for America’s support for the junta (which some people have described as a fascist government) in 1999. For Benford to write a book in 1984 in which he portrays Greeks as being, essentially, stooges who turn toward Marxism for no reason, and as anti-American for no valid cause, is ... ‘troubling’ is probably the mildest word usable. There’s no mention whatsoever of the American-backed junta, no basis given for the attitudes of the Greeks in the book. Why did he write the Greeks so negatively in the first place? One wonders whether he saw some article about anti-Americanism in Greece in the early 80s, or perhaps reacted to the election of socialist Prime Minister Andreas Papandreou (who had talked about withdrawing from NATO in his election campaign — he didn’t follow through, but Greece’s withdrawal from NATO in the book is presented as a sign of their essential wrongheadedness). In any event, it underscores the essential cluelessness of the novel.

In the end, politics are perhaps less significant from a reader’s angle (weirdly, a disclaimer on the book's copyright page claims that "The political views stated or implied in this novel do not reflect those of the author", which I don't even know what to do with) than the book’s uninteresting central premise — it’s just dull as ditchwater, a scientific what-if unconnected to any human question or theme — and the unremitting blandness of the prose. The sentences have minimal variation in their structure, no real complexity, and an impoverished vocabulary. The characters don’t sound as intelligent as their positions would suggest they have to be; on one level, that strains credibility, but on another level, it’s a reflection of the book’s overall dullness.

Not recommended.

Readings 2K9: Native Tongue

Native Tongue
by Suzette Haden Elgin

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I actually did. It had an interesting premise — in a future where women are subjugated, families of linguists are the only means for humans to communicate with dozens of extraterrestrial species; the United States government tries to usurp their power even as female linguists plan an unconventional rebellion. And there are good things about the novel; structurally, it’s nicely put together, with character and plot dovetailing well. The climax, with its presentation of reality shaped by language, makes for an interesting conclusion. Multiple perspectives are for the most part well-handled (though individual characters are often flat), and bring out different aspects of the theme and setting. But ...

The setting doesn’t really make sense to me. There’s a constant confusion between ‘humanity’ and ‘the United States’ which is really troubling; the US is the only nation that seems to be challenging the linguists’ monopoly on alien communication, and indeed other countries and cultures are only vaguely waved at in passing. Linguists are given the ability to manipulate people by language, which is okay, but the depiction of this process is clunky and unsubtle; it’s impossible to believe in the presentation we get. And the presence of aliens — nearly fifty of whom have dealings with humanity — has apparently not led to any significant change in human society.

This last is particularly odd given the subjugation of women in the novel’s society. Many of the aliens apparently have gender (both biologically and linguistically) — are all of them patriarchal, as human society has become? If not, how does that affect human relations with the aliens?

Crucially, the issue of the subjugation of women is confused. In the novel, women all over the Earth are legally disenfranchised, reduced to the status of children in the eyes of the law. There are references made to the failure of the Equal Rights Amendment in the US, and to discoveries in the 1990s — the novel was published in 1984 — which proved that women were mentally inferior to men. I get the impression that the reader is meant to assume that the chauvinism which led to the defeat of the ERA led to bogus scientific discoveries buttressing claims of male supremacy, in the same sort of way apartheid-era South Africa churned out studies claiming that White people were superior to Blacks. The problem is, that’s not really what the book actually presents. In the future the book gives us, countries all around the world apparently take these experiments as proven fact, and change their laws to match. Note some countries actually have, or had, the constitutional guarantee that the US voted down. Canada, for example, would have had to radically alter its constitution to fall in line with the kind of society Elgin suggests is normal in the future. It’s inconceivable that the failure of a single piece of American legislation (however regrettable) could have had that kind of global impact. So ... the only way to make sense of the world of the novel is to conclude that in this world, women really were proved to be mentally inferior to men. Which then becomes problematic, if only because there’s no hint in the way the characters think and act that the women are in any way less intelligent than the males, and certainly nothing in the book that examines the implications of the premise.

So, basically, the setting of the novel really doesn’t make a lot sense, and suffers from an annoying America-centric perspective. I get the impression that the novel was written as a reaction to the failure of the ERA; if so, it reads like it needed either one more or one fewer draft. One more, which would have fixed some of the problems with the setting; or one less, which might have allowed the emotion that inspired the book to come through. As it is, it’s an occasionally interesting but fundamentally flawed read.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Readings 2K9: June summation

Well, I read 20 books in the month, as I wanted. That's not counting three books I read on the computer. Two of those were library books, though, and I added four books over the past month (well, two months, as I forgot to mention picking one up in May). Annoyingly, I noted I was inconsistent in the way I was counting totals so far (getting confused about whether to count books added to the apartment against my total, which is what I really should do). So, as I make it now: 71 read for the year, 32 fewer unread books around the place in total. I've got a ton more books to read in preparation for Anticipation, the World Science Fiction Convention being held this year in Montreal. These would be sf books I've owned for a while, and Worldcon gives me a good excuse to finally sit down with them -- so hopefully I'll have another decent month in July.

Now I just have to write about them.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Readings 2K9: Vulcan!

by Kathleen Sky

Well, this is certainly a Star Trek novel from the 70s. It’s not as weird as some; you don’t have the Klingon Empire locked in a slow-time field by irate cosmic entities, for example. In fact, by those standards, the book’s positively sedate. The borders of the Romulan Neutral Zone are shifting, and the Federation’s about to lose a claimed but only partially-explored planet; it’s not clear whether the inhabitants are sentient, and the crew of the Enterprise has to figure it out before the Romulans take over. The xenobiologist who comes on board to do so is ...

... Okay, well. Katalya Tremain is “not beautiful, but well proportioned.” Her uniform “fit perfectly over her small waist and hips and the curves of her full bosom. Her eyes were dark, warm as forest pools struck by sunlight,” and so forth. Although age thirty-five, “she looked as though she might be twenty, at most.” So all this, plus her genius-level intellect, explains why both McCoy and Spock fall instantly in love with her (Kirk? He’s actually the model of professionalism and decorum). Ah, but, she is violently prejudiced against Vulcans. So, inevitably, when the time comes to beam down to the mysterious planet, it’ll be her and Spock in the landing party ... and the rest of the party gets killed ... and the two of them must work together to learn the nature of the planet’s inhabitants before they’re all lost to the Romulans.

There are some cute ideas here — notably, a past-his-prime Romulan commander who freaks out when he learns that the Federation starship he’s dealing with is commanded by the fearsome Captain James Kirk — but then there’s also the occasional terrible bit of writing: “Professionalism was warring with his gonads, and it was going to be a neck-and-neck race as to which side won,” we’re told at one point, which, as mixed metaphors go, is really pretty ugly and only gets uglier the more you think about it. The “he” in that sentence is McCoy, who acts as Tremain’s therapist when she comes on board the Enterprise, giving her drugs to increase her suggestiveness while openly hitting on her. They did things differently in the twenty-third century, once upon a time.

Reading the book, I was reminded of the fact that when I was younger, between the ages of, oh, let’s say ten and fifteen or thereabouts, I read a ton of these Star Trek books. As far as I can make out, looking at the Wikipedia lists of novels, probably a few dozen. Now, at that time, the early to mid 1980s, there were only 79 episodes of one TV series, plus the occasional movie and a few comics. I was young enough that the idea of ‘canon’ meant little or nothing to me. The point being, books like these meant Trek to me at least as much as the actual show did. This sort of writing, in a kind of penumbra between fanzines and “real” sf novels, not only kept the world and what we now call “franchise” alive, but also to some extent built up and shaped the characters and ideas of the original show.

Nowadays, of course, everything's different. I read (or perhaps reread; my memory for thirty-year-old Star Trek novels is not so great) this book at about the same time I saw the new film. It’s interesting to compare the two. Obviously, there are some surface similarities which may come out of long-standing desires to do certain things with the characters — you know how Spock is fundamentally rational and represses his emotions so strongly nobody ever sees them except under life-or-death stress? That notion is not operative in either the book or the movie, exactly — but the thing that strikes me is the difference between them. The new Star Trek film takes the surface structure of Trek and fits it into a Hollywood action-adventure film: lots of special effects, quick editing to create the illusion of intelligence, hand-waved science, a female character who does nothing particularly significant except be a lust-object for male characters, a fast-talking guy with a funny accent for comic relief (pardon me, two fast-talking guys with funny accents), a few vague nods in the direction of a theme which is abandoned once the action gets underway, and above all a bad guy who is thoroughly bad and cannot be negotiated with and is in the movie only to be blown up. Vulcan!, for all its sins, is actually smarter than that. As noted, the Romulans have actual personalities and motivations. There’s some kind of communication between them and the Enterprise. There’s even an attempt, however poorly-executed or heavy-handed, at character growth. A mind-meld scene late in the book actually tries to develop a sense of wonder.

This is not to say that I enjoyed the book more than the movie. It’s just to note that, while it may be bad, it gets something right. I don’t just mean that it gets something right in its approach to Trek; sure, it’s closer in spirit to the original show, but then it’s also closer in time, meaning both that there were fewer derivative works to sweep away, and that (perhaps more important) it was the product of a society much closer to that which had originally produced Star Trek. For example, the tense relationship between the US and USSR made itself felt, however hamfistedly, in the way the show depicted Klingons and Romulans and all sorts of things. There’s an echo of that in the book; at the time, I think it was inescapable. The movie ... well, there’s nothing that interesting in the movie. And that gets to the main point I want to make, which is this: The book follows on from a TV show that had to do, at however diluted a level, with dramatic things. Power, politics, dealing with the other. The movie is a deliberate attempt to reject all of that, leaving not a whole hell of a lot.

The book, like the original show, has a certain interest in aliens. Are these antlike aliens intelligent? What’s going on in the Romulan ship? The movie, well, not even slightly. Vulcans are racist and repress emotions and Spock turns his back on them and then they all get blown up anyway. It’s an inward-looking movie. It’s not at all interested in exploring strange new worlds, or in seeking out new life and new civilizations. This makes it, in the long run, awfully dull.

I suppose what I’m saying is that the movie is inherently conservative, while Trek has usually been concerned with the new. Not always in a sophisticated way, as witness Vulcan!; but the theme I think can be fairly said to be present throughout much of Trek. I suspect it’s that fact that drew me, and probably many others, to the show (in whatever iteration) in the first place. Books like Vulcan!, however flawed, kept me imaginatively involved in the show; kept the characters alive for me, kept their mission of exploration going as an ideal for me as a reader. I don’t know whether the new Star Trek movie would have been as effective, in the long run. I wonder whether it’ll be effective for others.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Readings 2K9: Last Legends of Earth

Last Legends of Earth
by A.A. Attanasio

I won’t say this book is what every science fiction novel ought to be, but it’s pretty near the ideal sf book as far as I’m concerned. It’s extravagant, epic, and consistently inventive, not only in terms of setting, and not only in terms of how the setting affects the characters, but in the way in which the setting is described — the language, the sentence structure, the way of thinking. It’s a book that, to me, fulfills every promise the idea of science fiction suggests. 

The novel’s set in the far future, long after the death of Earth and the solar system. An alien from a subatomic world, Gai, creates a new star system in the galaxy as a means of luring and trapping her people’s enemies, the zotl, who will come to the new star system to feed on its population; it’s a desperation tactic in a genocidal war. To draw the zotl, Gai creates bait to people her star system — human beings. But not new humans; these are the spirits of humans from the past, reincarnated as pawns in cosmic war. The book follows the war’s progress, but also follows the exploits of a pilot named Ned O’Tennis and his lover Chan-Ti Beppu, who are torn apart by circumstance and struggle to find their way back to each other across time and space. 

The scope of the book is tremendous, covering thousands of years of history and fifteen planets (more, in fact). It’s both linear and non-linear, which sounds confusing, but works smoothly in practice; it’s an example of the understated cleverness with which Attanasio has assembled his text. “Assembled” is perhaps not the right word, but does hint at the shifting points-of-view in the novel; in a way, it’s put together out of the stories of the many characters who wander through its pages, with Ned and Chan-ti only the most notable of several recurring figures. Everyone has their own story, here. More: everyone is a legend. One of the last legends of Earth.

The book moves easily from flying cities to primitive hunter-gatherer communities to the point where high technology and myth fuse. Attanasio makes all these things, all his wildly disparate materials, cohere into something with character all its own; the book is a true original.

Is it the best sf book I’ve ever read? Probably not; it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, which as far as I’m concerned is one of the greatest books I’ve ever come across in any form. But we’re talking here about degrees of greatness. I think it’s the finest book I’ve read this year so far, and I look forward to working my way through the rest of Attanasio’s work. For me, this is one of the best things about the book; not only is it great in itself, but it’s the first book by Attanasio I’ve ever read — meaning I have a new author to follow, a new bibliography to work my way through. It’s a treat to discover a writer like this, and a pleasure to find that there are more books out there that can give these kinds of pleasures.

Monday, June 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: May summation

This month, I read a total of nine books. All of them are from around the apartment, so that's forty-nine books in total so far, only twenty-eight of which are books I own. I've got to step that up to reach my goal for October, so my goal this month of reading at least twenty books.  I'm also going to try to be quicker about posting my thoughts on the books I read up here; that probably means that the posts are going to be shorter.

We'll see how that goes.

Readings 2K9: Anathem

by Neal Stephenson

This is not a bad book, but I’m reluctant to go so far as to actually call it good. It’s an odd sort of science-fiction novel; it’s really a set of extended philosophical dialogues, given a few nods toward a novel form. It takes place on another world, in which human history has followed a path roughly analogous to Western civilization on Earth (with analogues for Greece, Rome, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and so forth), though it's set a few thousand years after the point analogous to the present. Scientist-philosophers are contained within monastery-like maths, while outside their walls cultures and civilisations rise and fall. Anathem follows Erasmas, one of the inhabitants of a math; the first third or so of the book sees Erasmas getting involved with politics and mysteries within the math, the next third is a kind of father-quest in which he seeks an absent mentor-figure, and the last chunk of the book brings together and sums up all the mysteries of the setting with an adventure into space. It’s a nicely structured sf adventure story, then, with a constantly escalating series of payoffs.

Except it isn’t, really. The action, the forward movement of the plot, is sporadic at best. It seems to exist as a vehicle to move from one pseudo-Socratic dialogue to another. It’s like sf’s traditional weakness for infodumps and digressions has been apotheosized; taken to the utmost degree, it has become the main structural principle of the book, so that the novel (like a literal-minded Tristram Shandy) is composed primarily of digressions — which, it must be said, turn out in many cases to be not as digressive as they appear. Still, there’s no doubt this could have been a much shorter and more streamlined story, had Stephenson wished it.

Personally, I don’t think the book quite makes its case for its circuitous presentation of its ideas. One of the aspects of the nature of fiction lies in its difference from philosophy; fiction is philosophy in action, if you like, ideas given dramatic form. Anathem recoils from drama; even when important things happen, they tend not to be dramatic in the usual sense — hinging on human choice. Indeed, the novel’s extrapolation of its central premises suggests that choice is in a way moot; all possible outcomes of a given situation may be seen as equally valid. Which is an interesting thought-experiment, but Stephenson doesn't translate it into an interesting story structure.

Stephenson crafts the novel well on the sentence level. He coins new words, which are sometimes clumsy (and sometimes jarring) plays on standard English terms, but which occasionally bear more weight. One of the made-up words, “Suvin”, is almost certainly a reference to sf critic Darko Suvin, for example. His sentences are clever and occasionally intricate; his humour mostly works, and the book is readable enough.

The underlying science-fictional ideas are familiar. The ‘theorics’ studied at the maths are basically physics with some math and philosophy; so there's another sense here in which this is a classical science fiction story — physicists and physics students trying to save the world, in opposition to politicians and unenlightened non-scientists. It feels like a traditional sf juvenile, with students working out secrets of the world through sheer cleverness.

Unfortunately, it falls into the stereotypical pitfall of old-school science-fiction: the characters are rudimentary, to be polite. Erasmas has a crush on one character for the first two or three hundred pages, but if you don’t read closely you could easily miss it — it’s not like he actually does anything about it, or has his way of thinking affected by his emotion. Incredibly, Erasmas later discovers he’s actually in love with somebody he’s known for years; even more incredibly, we’re expected to believe that her removal from the math later that same day is a serious driving force for him. 

There’s a terminal blandness afflicting many of the characters, and it’s why at the end of the day I can’t bring myself to call this book a success. There’s nothing memorable on a human level in this novel. Even the father-figure Erasmas seeks in the novel’s middle part is flat; he works, to the extent that he works at all, only because he reminds us of mentor-figures in other stories, similar characters in similar roles in better books. This is kind of appropriate, given the notions of ideal forms Stephenson pays around with — archetypes as ideals. But in the end, all the book does is demonstrate the gap between the ideal and the real; and suggest that, in certain ways, it is the latter which is more interesting.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Readings 2K9: First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women

First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women
by Eric McCormack

It’s a pity that this book isn’t as interesting as its title. It’s not terrible; it’s the story of a boy born in Scotland, orphaned at a young age, who ends up travelling a fair part of the world and seeing some strange things before his story is wrapped up in Canada in his middle age. It’s an odd structure. The first two thirds or so are extravagant, set in exotic locales, featuring almost Gilliamesque oddities; the last portion is stripped of wonder and charm, livened only by an odd dream and a perhaps-supernatural vision of blackness. It’s clever, but makes the whole feel false. The two parts don’t coexist comfortably within one tale.

The problem may simply be the blandness of the narrative voice. McCormack chose to make his main character tell his tale in a very prosaic voice; there’s a reason for that, as we discover when we find out who he’s telling the story to, and why. But it doesn’t do the actual story any favours. There’s an absence of atmosphere that the story perhaps needed; lacking that atmosphere, the extravagances of the early parts never come to life, never catch fire, and end up even less substantial than they were presumably meant to. It’s a book that balances wonder against the quotidian, and tips the scales in favour of the quotidian.

Unsurprisingly, it’s a Canadian novel. It’s a decent example of the sort of tropes one thinks of when one thinks of CanLit — an erudite wander through a colonial culture’s history and literature; a tendency to flee the fantastic in favour of a bleaker realism (superficially bleaker, at least; one suspects that CanLit is more comfortable with the narrower bounds of realism). It’s a short and not terrible book; but, like much CanLit, not in the end terribly interesting.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Readings 2K9: Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible
by Austin Grossman

One of the charming and exasperating features of the comics field, and especially of the super-hero comics field, is the weird intertwining of both wildly inflated claims of value and self-loathing put-downs. So comics are both an outlaw medium that is the bane of the censor, and also just trash not worth keeping or re-reading. Comics are a neglected art-form with its own geniuses, and also the lowest rung of the pop-cultural ladder, schlock cynically ladled out to kids who don’t know any better. You can make a case for either set of arguments; what’s always impressed me about people in comics is how they can go from one set to another within a single paragraph. 

One could argue that this is a fundamentally adolescent mixture of arrogance and angst, reflecting both the young age of the medium and the target audience of its most commercial forms. I wouldn’t necessarily be convinced of this argument, but I can see it being made. I mention it because it seems relevant to Austin Grossman’s super-hero novel, set in his own world with his own characters, a daring imaginative enterprise that refuses to take itself seriously. Or, more precisely, refuses to wholly believe in itself; refuses to engage with its own imagination, falling back on unconvincing irony and affectless characters.

I should note, despite the above comment, that this isn’t a bad book. It’s the story of a super-villain, Doctor Impossible, and his attempt to get revenge on his arch-enemy, CoreFire, and, yes, to become invincible (though one suspects, based on the book, Grossman's mixed up the definitions of "invincible" and "invulnerable"). Alternating with Impossible’s point of view is that of new super-hero Fatale, recently recruited to the world’s premier super-team, which has dedicated itself to hunting down Impossible and bringing him to justice for the murder of CoreFire — for, to Impossible’s chagrin, it appears somebody else has killed off his nemesis. The story unfolds neatly, though Fatale’s point-of-view proves somewhat unnecessary, and the plot strands, loose throughout the book, don’t quite dovetail strongly enough. The ending generally is something of a problem, with a dea ex machina and expository anti-climax slipping into easy parody. Still, Grossman clearly knows his genre tropes.

It’s with the exploration of those tropes that the book disappoints. For Grossman, the experience of adolescence is the key to the genre; specifically, the super-hero story becomes a parody of high school, with heroes as jocks beating up nerdy villains. Questions of good and evil are secondary; this is not a book particularly interested in morality. Or in the cosmic sublime. Its sensibility is mundane, for all that it plays with superficially imaginative elements.

The problem, though, isn’t its quotidian and reductive approach to super-heroes; it’s the flatness of its metaphorical high school. That is, the problem isn’t the prevalence of adolescence, it’s the lack of credit Grossman implicitly gives adolescents. There’s no depth to these characters; no sense of real issues, real problems, of the process of growth and maturation. One of the female heroes is bulimic, which is a nice touch, but nothing's done with it. You don't have to spend a lot of time around actual teenagers, or in an actual school setting, to realise how much is lacking in this book.

That issue aside, certain problems of believability arise in Grossman's book. Is Doctor Impossible genuinely brilliant? He doesn’t sound like it, or behave like it. If he is hyper-intelligent, why does he act so foolishly? He’s physically humiliated by another villain after going to a villain hang-out; it’s impossible to imagine a major villain in an actual super-hero comic (Lex Luthor, Doctor Doom) suffering so, in part because they’d be intelligent enough — have enough common sense — to prepare. If you’re going to a location filled with physically dangerous villains, ensure you can deal with it. Basic logic, right? But if Doctor Impossible thought things through, Grossman wouldn’t get the scene he wanted. 

Now, Impossible ends up beaten up by the other villain, not killed. And in general, there’s a notable absence of death or substantive destruction in the book. This not only makes it difficult to take seriously, it goes against the grain of almost every super-hero comic for the past forty years. For at least that long — and arguably since the advent of Marvel Comics in 1961 — super-hero books have been about the illusion of realism, convincing the reader that the events in the book are grittier, more emotionally true, more adult and less kid stuff, than anything before. Of course most of the time this isn’t true, and wouldn’t necessarily be any good if it were; the point is that the genre is at its most adolescent in its striving to be taken seriously, and in the way that striving manifests. Had Grossman realised it, his book might have had a greater sense of depth; in any event, he doesn’t seem to have noticed this, and the book rattles along, slipping into parody and out of it again.

Generally, there’s a problem here with the fundamental ordinariness of sensibility on display in the book. We’re told several times how one of the heroes, Elphin, is a hero out of legend; we don’t get that sense from anything she says or does. Her dialogue is, if anything, notably uninteresting. It’s true that super-heroes are a pop phenomenon, but still at their best they transcend the mundane, and capture something imaginative. That never happens here. The book never touches the freewheeling imagination you need to mimic the best Marvel and DC books. Lacking any operatic emotions, any real sense of heroism or villainy, that lack of imagination is a killer.

Again, this isn’t to say that the book is unskillful. The prose is very slick, and within its limited tonal range it modulates itself quite nicely. And Grossman clearly has thought about his heroes and their nature, the key importance of their physical bodies in their powers and origins. He works thankfully unobtrusive Freudian touches into their stories — with parents absent, surrogate figures from an earlier generation of heroes are given mythic airs. It’s a clever, and convincing, bit of analysis.

The book is interesting, no doubt. But I can’t say that it becomes anything more than that. It’s not one of the best prose super-hero books I’ve read — not as good as Elliot S! Maggin’s Superman books, not as good as the best of the George R.R. Martin-edited Wild Cards anthologies, not as good as the surprising short fiction anthology Who Will Save Us Now? But it’s not a bad book. It does what it wants to do, and does it well. I just can’t help but feel that its sights were set too low; that there was a failure of sensibility, a failure of conception, somewhere along the line. Had it been more parodic, its failure to grasp what is most powerful in super-hero books would have been more acceptable. As it is, I can only say: it’s all right, if you like that sort of thing.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Readings 2K9: Crimson Shadows

Crimson Shadows
The Best of Robert E. Howard, Volume 1

When I was younger, I had a vague idea of Howard as a would-be tough guy, cranking out stories about barbarian hard men, militaristic and formulaic wish-fulfilment. There’s some truth to that image, but much that is wrong. And much that is left out; Howard seems to have suffered from clinical depression, for example, which shaped his life and his approach to the same. He knew and wrote about actual tough guys and guys who simply wanted to be tough; but although he believed the barbarian in humanity would ultimately triumph, he didn’t necessarily see it as a good thing. Howard, in short, was a much more fascinating figure, and fascinating writer, than I had supposed.

It helps, in reading this collection, that the key wrongness in the way I thought about Howard was the word “formulaic”. Howard occasionally wrote to formula, but he wasn’t formulaic that I can see; he made the formulas his own. And, frankly, much of the formula that we do see in his writings came about because he wrote material from which formulas were later derived; thus Kull, and Conan, and the barbarian swordsmen who followed. Howard wrote other kinds of fiction as well, much of it represented here — or, more precisely, he wrote in many different settings, though the adventure-fiction structure and tone was almost always the same, occasionally leavened by a greater sense of humour. But always there is a strong structure, always (even in the most comedic of stories) the almost homicidal sense of violence ready to burst out at any moment, always the swift relentless motion of the story ever onwards to bloody climax.

Technically, Howard could write taut, dramatic tales; often he didn’t reach this standard, but this book does a good job of selecting some of his most compelling work. You can feel the compulsions bubbling under the surface of the stories here, especially in his dark ages tales about Bran Mak Morn and the Picts. Howard researched his stories, and was strongly inspired by his sense of history — by the pseudo-Darwinian narratives of races rising and falling, of history as a tale of peoples climbing some evolutionary scale and then collapsing into nothingness. As I said, Howard believed the barbarian would triumph in the end; it’s a sort of historical nihilism, matching his Weird Tales companion H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmic nihilism.

Like Lovecraft, Howard was a racist, but for the most part that’s not directly reflected in these stories. Howard’s framework for thinking about races and peoples is clearly here, and, as in the case of Lovecraft, clearly influencing the kinds of fantasies and stories he imagines. It’s sublimated racism, in other words, which in this volume does not, by and large, break the surface. Gender politics, of course, is something else, and that — no surprise — is where Howard is weakest. 

The value of a book like this is in the way it makes a case for Howard, for all his flaws, as a writer worth taking seriously. That is, it presents Howard as somebody with a native sense for words; it makes a strong case for his ability to construct a sentence, to make it do what he wanted. The poems it presents are decent examples of what I mean — not vastly sophisticated, ballad-like, perhaps vaguely similar to Kipling or Chesterton (the latter of whom was a particular favourite of Howard’s), tremendously successful at stirring emotion or images in the mind of the reader. The point is not that Howard was a craftsman; he was, but my point is that he had something more than that.

This is not a perfect book, as Howard was not a perfect writer; but then he never had a chance to reach what for most writers would be considered maturity. It’s tempting to wonder whether it’s not time for a full-scale re-evaluation of Howard’s work. Lovecraft is, I think, becoming increasingly acceptable as a canonical writer; I think generally there’s a greater interest in American pulp writers. Could Howard be rescued as a writer worth studying? Maybe; maybe not; either way, he’ll be a writer worth reading, and a writer who will be read for a very long time. Books like this make the case that that’s a good thing.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

ByattBlogging Postscript: On Histories and Stories

This is a collection of lectures on the topic of storytelling. As with much of Byatt’s writing, it’s interesting both in its own right as criticism, and in what it says about her particular creative projects.

The first chapter, for example, is a consideration of the historical novel — how it has been viewed, examples of what has been done with the form, and what makes it important, especially in Britain. Byatt is strong on the value of historical fiction: “the aesthetic need to write coloured and metaphorical language, to keep past literatures alive and singing, connecting the pleasure of writing to the pleasure of reading.” The next chapter extends this discussion of the variety of pasts being created, and the voices being created; the ventriloquism which brings a past to life. (It is no surprise that Peter Ackroyd is discussed at length here.)

The next chapter considers the meta-narratives which frame a writer’s understanding of the world; Christianity, Newtonian physics, Darwinian evolutionary theory, the definitions of the world of which the writer is a part. Taking evolutionary theory as perhaps the most important for the present day, Byatt identifies a trend to the investigation of natural history, the discussion of the animal world, in several key (to her) novelists. This ends up as a consideration of Victorian thought and art, in the course of which Byatt discusses her own work in Angels & Insects. The book is discussed even further in the next chapter, which is about research and precision and, inevitably, language. Rather tenuously, Byatt links fiction’s alleged turn towards scientific accuracy with history and criticism’s turn towards ‘artfulness’. That’s arguably fair enough in the case of non-scholarly history, but much of academic history of the past generation or two has been marked, I think, by a move away from narrative. And to prove her point in terms of criticism, Byatt cites the puns found in a book by the critic Mary Jacobus; but the passages Byatt quotes seem merely trite, forced attempts to move from one subject to another or meaningless — perhaps anachronistic — attempts to avoid coming to grips with the writers Jacobus is trying to discuss.

In fairness, Byatt’s take on Jacobus is far from unmixed. But then she contrasts Toni Morrison’s Beloved to Melville and Poe, and I’m not sure she does the latter writers justice. Byatt specifically discusses colour symbolism — black and white — in these writers, and I’m not entirely convinced by her summation of their work. The symbolism is too uneasy, too multifarious, to be convincingly described or dismissed in a few sentences. (It probably doesn’t help that I thought Beloved was good, but not great.)

At any rate, Byatt then turns back to her own work, and it’s fascinating observing her discussion of her working procedure. She convincingly describes some of the moments of revelation common to writing — the points when suddenly things come together, and you realise you’ve become aware of something you’ve known all along. The points when something finds its voice, finds its form.

Which then leads into a chapter on storytelling and form, and European traditions with regard to story. Byatt here makes a firm distinction between tales, the romance tradition, and the novel, which is fair enough. But her discussion of storytelling involves, always, either classic stories — The Arabian Nights, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa — or self-consciously literary fiction: Salman Rushdie, Italo Calvino, Angela Carter. I found myself wishing that she’d move beyond this frame of reference to consider the output of Carter’s colleague Michael Moorcock, whose work covers a wide variety of storytelling forms — such as the pulp novel. What I mean is that I found myself wondering why, if Byatt wanted to talk about storytelling, she didn’t turn to the most prolific source of stories in the contemporary world — popular fiction, which, especially in the form of fantasy, is not only close to fairy-tale and myth in its plot structures, but also comes in a range of sophistication. Moorcock alone has written both potboilers and formally ambitious fantasy fiction; why not look at these things?

Byatt makes an interesting point in this chapter that tales have to do with death — or the avoidance of same. The story, she points out, is immortal; it outlives both reader and writer. It’s a good insight, but when Byatt goes on to try to contrast the tale with the literary story she runs into problems, and I think in part it’s because she’s missing a term in her argument; without the popular story, she can’t make things cohere. It’s no help that some her readings here are suspect; she refers to Tolkien, implicitly, as lacking “social density”, which suggests that she has not read The Lord of the Rings very closely at all (or else that she needs a more intuitively obvious phrase than “social density”). Byatt does, at the end of the chapter, bring in Terry Pratchett, and even calls him “one of the great modern storytellers”; one wishes she was able to present something of the context in which he writes, in the way in which she’s able to get across something of the intellectual background common to writers like Calvino and Calasso.

A chapter on “Ice, Snow, Glass” then follows, apparently because the book has reached a point at which an excursion into sheer symbolism is appropriate. Byatt considers this imagery in various writers and works, many of which have haunted her fiction even as the images of ice and glass have. Again, this piece is fascinating as a window onto Byatt’s own writing.

The conclusion, “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” is about The Arabian Nights, and its manifestations in writers like Proust and Rushdie. It’s a brief meditation on storytelling, the endless immortal death-challenging urge. It’s a nice coda, a subversion of the idea of endings; a justification of storytelling and life against destruction and death. It’s the proper way to conclude the book, an ending about endings and stories that do not end. If the book has begun with sophisticated modern and postmodern takes on the novel, it must end here, with pure romance, with tales interlinked with tales — in a structure more complex, told often with language more elaborate, than the literary novels with which this volume began. Byatt has worked her way back to the ocean of story (to borrow a term from another vast collection of narratives), and so we are released, as her critical writing ends, to find our way ourselves back into the fictions which she has just discussed; perhaps with better understanding, perhaps more aware, at any rate made joyful at, the freedom of all fictions.

  • Other posts in the ByattBlogging series may be found here.