Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Readings 2K9: A Woman Worth Ten Coppers

A Woman Worth Ten Coppers
by Morgan Howell

A young woman destined to give birth to a saviour is taken prisoner by bandits, and sold as a slave to the former servant of a holy man. The servant tries to make his way back to his temple, at the heart of a great Empire, while the countryside is torn by war — which may be the sign of a new and wicked god encroaching into the world. He does not know that his slave is also to be the mother of his saviour.

This is the story of A Woman Worth Ten Coppers, and if the gender politics sound suspicious, the book ends up tackling those suspicions head-on. It is in part about gender roles, about oppression and privilege, about power and masters and servants. There’s a conscious attention to the roles of women in Howell’s world, especially as those roles are affected by war. There’s a specific attention to the experiences of the main character, Yim, as contrasted with the masterless swordsman, Honus.

There’s also a level in which the relationship of Yim and Honus play as something out of a romance novel — slowly-developing love complicated by inequities in power. Howell’s got a good hand with that, keeping the feelings of the two on a slow burn while the novel winds through the obstacles they face on their journey. If it’s a romance novel as much as a fantasy, it’s one with a certain clarity of vision about the issues it’s dealing with. The dangers Yim and Honus face are well-chosen to develop their relationship and bring out elements of their characters.

These dangers include both physical threats and, this being a fantasy, more supernatural obstacles. But not that many of the latter. One of the engaging aspects of the novel’s construction as a fantasy is the way in which it creates a credible low-magic setting; most of the population of Howell’s world are farmers living at subsistence-level, and even this precarious existence is threatened by war. Against this background, incursions of the supernatural gain a weight, a significance, which makes even a relatively minor event — a single vision, a spell — stand out as something strange and wonderful.

The prose is relatively undistinguished, and I’ve been told that the overall plot is similar to Howell’s first series, the Queen of the Orcs trilogy; I can’t say myself, not having read it. I was slightly annoyed to find that A Woman Worth Ten Coppers was itself actually the first book of a trilogy — that’s not Howell’s fault, though, it’s an issue for the people who designed the book with no indication that it was the first of a series. Overall, this was a relatively thoughtful novel, a competent fantasy with some intelligent touches, well worth reading for fans of the genre.

Readings 2K9: Marseguro

by Edward Willett

Golden Age science fiction is a funny thing. I’m talking here about SF written from 1926, when Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories, through to about the end of the Second World War. A lot of that fiction is good adventure-story stuff, and some of it’s even better. Characters tend to be flat, but often that’s in the service of getting across some aspect of the science-fictional setting; it’s weirdly like some of what’s called literary fiction, where characters may be made to develop in odd ways for the sake of some thematic point. By the time you get into writers like Ray Bradbury, you’re looking at writing that’s stylistically interesting as well. 

But on the flip side, much of what was written was pretty poor stuff. I’ve read Gernsback’s novel, Ralph 124C41+, and it was pretty rough going. Well, so what? Low-quality fiction is and has been written in every genre, every form, every circumstance. But: the problem with Golden Age science fiction, to me, is that a lot of the low-quality work has been held up as good, even as something to emulate. I think there are a number of reasons why this is so. SF was traditionally a commercial form, so there was likely an instinct to emulate what sold; like most marginalised groups, or groups felt to be marginalised, SF fans held tightly to what they had, and celebrated it, even — especially — in the face of mainstream condescension; and then, also, readers were more concerned with the science-fictional aspects of stories, rather than the quality of the writing (which is something I think is the case for most readers, of most kinds of stories — they’re more interested in form than content. Interested in what a story does with its genre, whether it’s in traditional ‘genre’ fiction or not; it should be obvious, but novels set in and around a university, novels about the immigrant experience in North America or elsewhere, novels of small-town life, all these things can be seen as genres as much as science-fiction, mystery, or westerns).

All of which is to say that there’s good stuff and bad stuff in traditional science-fiction, and in my opinion the bad stuff often gets hailed as good stuff. To me, the great example of the bad being hailed as good is Robert Heinlein. I’ve read a lot of his books, for various reasons, and on the whole I’d say that they’re mostly incredibly uninteresting. The style is undistinguished, the characters seem perfunctory, the morality is white and black and the good guys line up nicely on one side and the bad guys on the other. His plotting skills are typically strong, in the sense of keeping the action going, but to me his stories never come to life — they never become more than the plots that drive them.

Rightly or wrongly, I also tend to associate Heinlein with a particular plot structure which seems not uncommon in SF — the story in which a ragged band of rebels with minimal resources fight against and overthrow a corrupt empire. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress is an example of what I mean. There are obviously antecedents to this structure from long before SF; this is basically the Robin Hood story, for example. I think it’s often developed differently in SF, in that the small band is often depicted as winning by being more intelligent in the way they fight than their adversaries. In one sense, this structure seems to fit with an idea of justice appropriate to Heinlein and Golden Age SF in general — victory goes to the brainiest. But it’s often difficult to justify the imperial power being outsmarted, even notwithstanding Imperial hubris and the advantage of native guerillas in waging war; you’d expect the larger population base to have the greater share of geniuses. 

Small rebel bands may thus also be helped in their battles by coincidences of timing, which turns out to limit the imperial forces more than expected (by having much of the imperial force tied up elsewhere, for example); or by magic technology, which gives them an unassailable edge, such that the story may become about the rebels fighting to hold on to their technology against agents of the imperial power — in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress (which did seem the most interesting of all the Heinlein books I’ve read), the mass drivers which the rebels could use to throw rocks at Earth fit the bill. An interesting inversion of this (well, interesting to me) is Asimov’s Foundation series, which could be read as a parody of much of the above — a small band of geniuses on the fringe of a decaying Galactic Empire is faced with a series of crises, usually incursions by neighbouring military powers, and frantically tries to find ways to hold off the invaders; in every case, at least in the first set of stories, these efforts turn out to be misguided, because what saves the Foundation isn’t individual action but the inevitable force of History.

This is all by way of saying that I didn’t really enjoy Edward Willett’s book Marseguro. It seemed to me to have both the bad, and good, qualities of Heinleinian SF. The idea of the book is that about a hundred years from now a meteor crashes into the Earth; a few survivors get away to colonies elsewhere, and one group of genetically-modified humans found a colony of their own on a water-world. But there are survivors on Earth, who put together a church based on the sinfulness of genetic technology, and who set out to exterminate all genetically-modified humans they can find. When they locate the lost planet of Marseguro, the water-world, an invasion seems inevitable. 

The best thing about the book is probably the speed at which the plot moves. It’s quick, and filled with action. It’s also on an engagingly small scale — no vast interplanetary battles here, only a skirmish or two between colonists and landing parties. But: It’s got the small band of rebels fighting a greater imperial power, and really struggles with the difficulties of making the battle credible. 

So we’re introduced to an Earth general with clearly a genius-level grasp of strategy and tactics, who, once the conflict begins, is continually wrong-footed and makes bad decisions. There's a convenient battle against a rebel colony on Mars, tying up all the Earth spaceships capable of wiping out the Marseguro colony from orbit. Magic technology takes the form of a bio-weapon, a plague created by the scientist who modified the Marseguro humans (despite said scientist being adamantly opposed to the use of biological weapons). It’s such a clever plague, it can even get around the anti-bioweapons protocol on board Earth spaceships. Between the plague and the surprising incompetence of the Earth general, the book comes to seem a foregone conclusion fairly early on.

Still, all that said, I found the plot less problematic than the novel’s conception of human character. One can consider the shallow depiction of religion as an immediate example; the near-brush with the asteroid has caused every single religion on Earth to be swallowed up by the new anti-genetic-science cult. Which is difficult to swallow. Particularly since the gospels of the religion, some of which are given in the novel, are flat, uninspiring, lacking in anything resembling mythic resonance or poetry. Possibly Willett meant to portray the church as a kind of totalitarian government — certainly Earth is ruled by a dictatorship — but this never comes alive. It doesn’t help that the church is portrayed as solely evil, and genetic modification as an untroubling technology; which is to say that the book skates over the real issues of the science at its core.

Even more problematic on a character level, though, is one of the book’s central sf conceptions. The scientist who created the Marseguro humans also left several cloned embryo versions of himself behind when he left Earth, with arrangements for the embryos to be birthed and raised as his ‘descendants’ in later years. He also left these embryos with a genetic time-bomb, which includes memories of the location of the Marseguro colony, and some of the scientist’s personality elements, to make the clone think and feel like the scientist — to make sure the clone is loyal to the Marseguro colony, not to the church. Which only undermines the idea of human character entirely.

In the world of Marseguro, personality is virtually meaningless. A character can switch from believing one thing to believing entirely the opposite, not because of events changing his or her mind, not because of some sort of epiphany, not because of moral transcendence or revulsion, but just because a switch went off in their head. These characters aren’t characters; they’re chess pieces. Except in chess, usually two players compete. Here, it’s more like watching a run-through of a video game — the on-screen character moves as the player decides, not through the logic of their unique circumstances. The lack of understanding of character in Golden Age SF goes to an extreme; there is no character, only genetics. The reasons we do the things we do are explicable by, and manipulable through the use of, science. 

So I didn’t care for the book. If you like Heinlein, you might well enjoy this book more than I did. The question, though, is also going to depend on your outlook on character; on what it is that makes up a human being. It’s something which may not be easy to swallow. To me, though, the biggest flaw with Marseguro is that it doesn’t even feel like there’s anything to argue with; there’s no rational debate about the value of genetically-modified people, or about the way genes may shape consciousness. The issues of the technology, the questions of what makes us human, aren’t even noticed. The best stories of the Golden Age, I think, were canny enough to address the ramifications of their technology in human terms; Marseguro’s lack in this department means it can’t come up to the heights of its models.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Thoughts on the train wreck

Just saw the final episode of Battlestar Galactica. Sat through a good chunk in slack-jawed disbelief. I've seen a lot of bad TV in my time, but, well, wow. 

Leave aside the pop-psychobabble about "breaking the cycle" and "today is the first day of the rest of your life" (actually said, and delivered in an amazingly irony-free line reading).

Leave aside the decision by almost 40,000 people to settle a new planet without the use of technology — no farming equipment, no building equipment, no medical equipment (presumably nobody in the fleet was diabetic), not even facilities to build a new pair of eyeglasses if one breaks.

Leave aside the willingness by the same 40,000 people to abandon their culture — their poetry, their art, their religion, their identity as a people.

Leave aside the massive geological and genetic impossibilities.

Leave aside, even, the fact that the show tied up long-running mysteries by revealing that a) many of them were caused by angels, one of whom was b) a major character in the show all along.

Leave all that aside. Because that episode lost me when I realised ...

... it was ripping off the ending of The Restaurant at the End of the Universe.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Grace Notes

I've been far too slow in posting this, but: Issue 12 of the Beneath Ceaseless Skies literary fantasy webzine is up. I recommend the magazine highly, especially this issue, which features a story by Grace Seybold. It's really good. You can also find more of Grace's work in the new issue of Neo-Opsis. Excellent work, I feel.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Question for the day

Back in the twentieth century, one of the cultural commonplaces was the isolation of the modern individual. The idea that contemporary life entailed some degree of isolation was a staple of the culture of the day, both high and low. So: has that changed in the past ten years or so? It seems to me to be less of an omnipresent meme nowadays. Has the internet actually revolutionised the way people think and feel about their interactions with others and with the world around them? Has technology actually fulfilled a promise?

Heck if I know. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Readings 2K9: Thunderer

by Felix Gilman

Thunderer is a thick book, and the first in a series. It’s very good. The story is a fantasy about a traveller and a city: a man looking for a lost god comes to Ararat, a vast and labyrinthine city filled with gods. But it’s more than that. This is a fantasy in the spirit of Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd; it’s an urban romance, a fever-dream of an unreal city. It’s about the people that our traveller, Arjun, meets; it’s about the streets he wanders, the neighbourhoods he passes through, the artistic cabals he joins, the powers released into the streets of Ararat. It’s about the way those streets shift, are unknowable, unmappable. It’s about the way the city expands the deeper into it you get; how the more you learn about it, the more you realise there is to grasp.

There are bits and pieces of a lot of different cities, real and imagined, in Ararat. Overall, it has the feel of the eighteenth century, with one character more-or-less explicitly based around a legendary English criminal, and an association of scholars equally apparently based on the Encylopédistes. But there are bits of technology beyond that, and no real form of central government (Ararat is effectively made up of several countries). There are hints that the city is in decline, that it is fallen from what it once was, just as at the same time it is evolving from a more primitive state to a future which cannot be determined.

As a novel, the most impressive thing about Thunderer is the way it improves as it goes along. It opens with an appearance by a God, which is nicely-written; then it seems to settle down into a swift, simple story playing out through a number of narrative strands. Stylistically, although competent and smooth and clever, it doesn’t seem particularly exciting. But: the further you go into it, the more you realise that every character in the book has their own voice. Not only the point-of-view characters, not only the supporting characters they play off. Every character, from shrewish landladies to cadgy old bookmen to teachers recalled in a single flashback. All of these people — all of the people of Ararat — have their own voice, their own diction, their own vocabulary. It’s one of the truest evocations of a city I can think of; you come to know Ararat, not as a place, because it is too vast for that, but as a conglomeration of people — its controversies, its wars, its spirits.

This is the first book in a projected series, though it really is complete in itself. Arjun ends the book as a different person than he began it, but his involvement with the matter of Ararat is only beginning. Without meaning to say to much, by the end of the book he’s become a kind of ultimate flâneur; almost the incarnate equivalent of an Iain Sinclair book, connecting times by the walking-out of place. It’s a tantalising place to end, and I’m eager to read the next book.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Readings 2K9: Briefly Noted, Part Five

Completed A.S. Byatt's Still Life last night. As you might guess, this is all part of an ongoing Byatt-oriented project. Further details as events warrant.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Readings, 2K9: Briefly Noted, Part Four

Finished A.S. Byatt's novel The Virgin in the Garden, and will be writing more about it later — as before, either here or elsewhere.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Illness and inactivity

Things have been a bit quiet around here lately, due in large part to my being ill. I'm ill a lot, and the past few months especially. I'm prone to sinus infections, which just don't clear up; I'm having surgery in the next little while to fix a deviated septum (too much cartilege on the inside of my nose, impeding the airway and preventing the sinus from draining properly), which hopefully will go at least some way to making things better. In the short term, I seem to be on the upswing, so hopefully will post more here soon. I've been able to get posts up while going through rough patches over the past couple months, so I don't see why that can't continue.

The annoying thing about being sick -- well, there are a lot of annoying things. One thing in particular is the sheer variability of it. Sometimes you feel better than others. For a few minutes maybe you have some energy to work with; then it vanishes, and you collapse into an unpleasant clammy sleep. It's hard to make plans. Hard to be sure, even when you do feel better, that it's going to last. All of which said, it's important not to exaggerate: things could be a lot worse for me. 

It's just damned frustrating.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Readings 2K9: Briefly Noted, Part Three

A quick update: I completed A.S. Byatt's novel, The Game. I'll have more to say about it later, here or elsewhere.

Monday, March 2, 2009


From a story on the Comic Book Resources site:

“If you grew up reading Deathlok, you’re allowed to write serious, literary fiction about homicidal cyborgs.”

— Michael Chabon

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Readings 2K9: February summation

Kind of a mixed month, in terms of reading. I read twelve books (three write-ups are pending). But only three of them were mine; the rest were either Grace's or the library's. On the other hand, I managed to get through the month without buying anything new. So I've reduced the number of my unread books by eleven so far this year, and have finished twenty-four books in total.

Much of the imbalance this month came about because I was trying to find books worth putting on my ballot for the Hugo awards. I had some success there; I'll go through my final choices in a future post. But it did mean I was taking a lot of books out from the library rather than reading books about the apartment. Presumably that'll change now. It'll have to, if I want to hit my target of reading over a hundred books by Thanksgiving.