Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Concordia book fair

Concordia University held a used book fair yesterday and today. I went not expecting much, but came away laden down with books. They had a lot of fine stuff which I already had too, including John Myers Myers' Silverlock and a collection of the first three novels by John Crowley.

So what I bought:

Iain M. Banks / Inversion
Iain M. Banks / Look to Windward
John Barth / The Tidewater Tales
Christopher Brooke / The Twelfth Century Renaissance
R.H.C. Davis / The Normans and their Myth
Philip K. Dick / Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said
Eleanor Shipley Duckett / Carolingian Portraits
Linda Haldeman / The Lastborn of Elvinwood
Tanith Lee / Black Unicorn
Tanith Lee / Days of Grass
Madelaine L'Engle / Walkng on Water
Iris Murdoch / The Nice and the Good
Ignazio Silone / Fontamara
Judith Tarr / Ars Magica
Lynn White, Jr. / Medieval Technology and Social Change
Austin Tappan Wright / Islandia
Douglas Young / Edinburgh in the Age of Sir Walter Scott
Three Greek Romances (Daphnis and Chloe, An Ephesian Tale, The Hunters of Euboea) trans. Moses Hadas

Eighteen books, plus two more bought as gifts; twenty books for twenty dollars. Not bad.

September 2010 Reading Summary

So in September I read eleven books, one of them a library book. I added eleven to the apartment, leaving me down one. That's now ninety-two books read, twenty-three fewer about the place.

But the McGill book fair's coming up this month ...

Friday, September 17, 2010

August 2010 Reading Summary

Again, a tardy post. I've been a bit busy, with some writing appearing at Blackgate.com and at The Rover. In particular, I've had a long critical piece being serialised at Black Gate over the past few weeks, as I talk about fantasy worlds and uncover who the first writer was to set a novel entirely in a fantastic otherworld; the big wrap-up, in which I name that writer, goes this Sunday.

I've also been reading a fair bit. I read eleven books in August. Two of them were library books, and one was borrowed. I also added one book to the apartment. So seven up on the month. Year-to-date, I'm looking at eighty-one books read so far this year, twenty-four fewer unread books about the apartment.

It has occurred to me that if I accept that I've got about a thousand unread books, then if I whittle that figure down at the rate of twenty per year I can get through them all in fifty years. I'd be eighty-seven. That sounds about right. What I really ought to do is make a precise count. Maybe next month.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

July 2010 Reading Summary (Okay, it's a Little Late)

I read eight books in July, one of them a library book, one of them a book borrowed from a friend. I added sixteen. Meaning I finished the month with ten more unread books in the apartment. Which makes the third straight month the number of unread books around here has increased.

Year-to-date totals: seventy books read, seventeen fewer unread books in the apartment. Oh well. At least the blogging at Black Gate has been going well.

Friday, July 9, 2010

June 2010 Reading Summary, and Future Blogging Activity

I read eleven books in June, which is good, but added fourteen—which is good in most ways, but does mean that I now have three more unread books around the apartment. Twenty-seven fewer on the year, sixty-two books read so far this year.

In other news, I do intend to start posting here more frequently. For some reason, I've been stuck coming up with thoughts about Thornton Wilder's book The Cabala.

In other other news (and more important news, too), I'm going to be posting regularly on the blog for Black Gate magazine. I've got two posts up already, here and here. I'll be posting every other Sunday, writing about stories and fantasy. I am quite looking forward to this.

And, speaking of things I'm looking forward to:

This and this, coming on an album next spring; but first, there's this from an album coming out in fall. Good days ahead.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

May 2010 Reading Summary

Only completed four books this month (one of which was from the library). And bought thirteen. So ten more unread books in the apartment, leaving me thirty fewer on the year. Fifty-one books read in 2010 so far.

Friday, May 7, 2010

April 2010 Reading Summary

I managed to read 30 books in April. All of them mine, none from a library. Didn't add any to the apartment, either. So ... forty fewer unread books in the apartment this year, forty-seven read in total.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Readings — The Wood is Sweet

The Wood is Sweet
by John Clare
selected by David Powell

This is a selection of poems by Clare, chosen by Powell. Powell (presumably it was he) also edited them, adding punctuation and normalising spelling. The result is a curiously sedate Clare, a partially domesticated Clare. Much of Clare’s distinctive wildness is lost, and the poems acquire a chiming sameness.

These are still fine nature poems, perhaps especially for young readers. Edited or not, Clare’s obviously capable of striking images, as when he imagines ants as deformed fairies. The book’s divided into sections by subject, which works for poems about times of the year or about times of the day, but not as much for others; again, a monotony sets in. Still, a sequence of poems about animals helps point up the intensity of Clare’s empathy with the wild, and his observation of the life around him. This is, in the end, a book that couldn’t help but be good — it is still Clare, at the end of the day — but which is not to be preferred to more faithful reproductions of Clare’s work.

Readings — The Zombie Survival Guide

The Zombie Survival Guide
by Max Brooks

Turns out, not being a zombie fan, I’m not the ideal reader for this book. Go figure. I’d quite liked Brooks’ other zombie tome, World War Z, a politically-savvy multi-voiced take on a zombie apocalypse, and had hoped this book would be something comparable. It’s not, really. It’s a series of tips on, well, surviving a zombie incursion, played completely straight. If you’re fascinated by zombie stories, you’ll probably quite enjoy it. Personally, I liked the last section quite a bit, which imagines zombie outbreaks throughout history, in a range of different cultures. Which is to say, that was the bit most like World War Z. Overall, though, I’d have to say this is a well-done book for zombie fans, and not terribly interesting for those of us who aren't.

Readings — Of Mice and Men

Of Mice and Men
by John Steinbeck

Steinbeck wrote this book, apparently, in a deliberate attempt to cross the novel form with the play form, creating a prose story which could be acted on stage. In practice, it feels like a fix-up afterthought; like a poorly-adapted play. The language is improbable and stagey, and a number of ostensibly major characters come off as mere devices (including the only female character). You can imagine good actors making something of this material. But it’s too much to expect a reader to cobble the hints here together into credible characters. Sure, novels can work by indirection and implication, but the gaps in this book are in the wrong places, and the work is unsubtle in language, theme, and character. The melodrama, and the overly-signposted symbolism of the speeches, drown out everything else.

Now, I’m not a tremendous fan of American literature in general (more precisely: not a fan of what I’ve read of the American-written literature that Americans chose to canonise in the twentieth century), still less of early-twentieth-century American naturalism. And the fact that the book’s been so widely parodied and has such a broad influence doesn’t help; it’s impossible not to hear some of the lines of dialogue spoken by Mel Blanc, and difficult not to think of Old Yeller at the overwrought tearjerker finale, as well. Still, the book seems to me to be dated in ways that Dickens and George Eliot never are, particularly in its slang.

I’d go so far as to say that the book was so bad that it called into question the idea of the pared-down narrative voice. That is, most of the book consists of dialogue between the characters, with only an occasional brief interjection by an omniscient narrator. Instead of feeling like a successful attempt at economy of diction, though, it felt like a half-assed attempt to turn a play into a novel. Which makes you wonder about other novels that try for a similar spareness. Is that stylistic direction really fruitful? Or is it something inherently un-novelistic? Is it a coincidence that this stylistic ideal became prominent at about the same times that films did?

No art form exists in a vaccuum, and different media forms will influence each other. But not every influence is necessarily positive.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Readings — The Romance of the Forest

The Romance of the Forest
by Ann Radcliffe

I don’t know why I never read any Ann Radcliffe before. I’ve enjoyed a number of early Gothic novels, but had yet to get to hers. I think hearing about Radcliffe’s notorious tendency to cop out on the supernatural aspect of her stories, presenting Scooby-Doo endings where all the apparent magical or ghostly happenings were actually improbable machinations by the earthly characters, caused me to shy away. In fact, I was somewhat surprised to see that the supernatural played almost no part in this book; it’s essentially a historical melodrama set in seventeenth-century France.

I was more surprised by the fact that it read less like an adventure story and more as an attempt to speak up on contemporary debates on the philosophy of the sublime. Radcliffe has a tendency, as many people have observed, to feature extended passages of landscape description; certainly, if you think Tolkien tended to excess in that respect, you don’t want to come anywhere near Radcliffe, but then as with Tolkien those passages aren’t just providing colour but actually providing shape to the theme of the book. So Radcliffe’s gothic is actually a part of an extended dialogue on the sublime and human reactions to nature. You can see the link to contemporary Romantic poetry clearly.

On the other hand, the descriptions of nature don’t do a lot to speed up the story. Coincidences abound; the structure is halting, episodic. Jane Austen, notoriously, rubbished Radcliffe’s character-writing, but she’d have been better advised to focus on Radcliffe’s plotting skills.

Since I’m on the subject, though, let’s look at that Austen quote. I’m referring to this passage in Northanger Abbey (here from Project Gutenberg):

Charming as were all Mrs. Radcliffe's works, and charming even as were the works of all her imitators, it was not in them perhaps that human nature, at least in the Midland counties of England, was to be looked for. Of the Alps and Pyrenees, with their pine forests and their vices, they might give a faithful delineation; and Italy, Switzerland, and the south of France might be as fruitful in horrors as they were there represented. Catherine dared not doubt beyond her own country, and even of that, if hard pressed, would have yielded the northern and western extremities. But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist. Among the Alps and Pyrenees, perhaps, there were no mixed characters. There, such as were not as spotless as an angel might have the dispositions of a fiend. But in England it was not so; among the English, she believed, in their hearts and habits, there was a general though unequal mixture of good and bad.

Okay, so, taking the last point first: I was surprised to find that, contrary to Austen, The Romance of the Forest actually did have a number of “mixed characters” in it. Pierre La Motte, who carries the story for the first part of the book, is decidedly mixed; well-intentioned, but weak. The same for his wife. Nor am I entirely convinced that Adeline’s meant to be entirely without flaw. Certainly, you can argue that these characters are not convincingly drawn. But Austen’s main point is that “human nature” is not faithfully represented in Radcliffe because her characters are “spotless as angels” or else “have the dispositions of a fiend”. This is simply not true. (It also ignores the fact that faithful representation of human nature is not necessarily the aim of a novelist; but that’s a whole other argument.)

Still, what always struck me as ridiculous about this passage — I can think of no other word for the incredulity with which I first read it — is the central part: “But in the central part of England there was surely some security for the existence even of a wife not beloved, in the laws of the land, and the manners of the age. Murder was not tolerated, servants were not slaves, and neither poison nor sleeping potions to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist.”

All right, then. Anybody who ever read Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge will recall that the book opens with a poor man selling off his wife, thinking that would count as a divorce. According to one reference book I have to hand (Daniel Pool’s What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew), “Between 1750 and 1850, in fact, there were some 380 of these do-it-yourself divorces effected in rural England. The general procedure was even crasser than Hardy suggests, for you typically put a halter around your wife’s head and shoulders and led her to the auction place like a cow, the only checks on the practice being occasional ostracism and not very stringent legal penalties.”

That’s assuming we’re talking about divorce, which in its legal forms was prohibitively expensive and difficult to obtain. Pool again: “Once married, a wife could not sue or make a contract on her own nor make a will without her husband’s consent. If he wished to confine her against his will, as Mr. Rochester does his wife at Thornfield Hall, until 1891 he was well within his rights in doing so. He could ‘correct’ her if he wished, too, a right which was supposed to mean only verbal chastisement but in practice often meant physical punishment.” So, yeah. I suppose you could make an argument that the Brontës’ brand of Gothic, unlike Radcliffe’s tales set in England, went some distance toward both disproving Austen’s take on a wife’s situation (Austen, of course, was never married herself) and perhaps validated the experiences of their readers.

While I’m at it, I might mention that when Austen declares “servants were not slaves” she neglects to mention that slavery was actually legal (she completed Northanger Abbey in 1799, the slave trade was outlawed in the British Empire in 1807, the book was published in 1817, Britain abolished slavery in 1833). And it has to be said that to someone in the contemporary First World, a servant’s life still seems pretty harsh. Pool tells us that a servant’s day might begin at 6 AM and end at 11 PM, with only half a day off on Sunday and two full weeks of vacation in a year, plus one evening a week and one day per month. Pay could be as little as 11 pounds a year. “The servants slept in tiny, overheated or freezing-cold attic rooms and worked in dark, dank basement areas that were too hot or too cold ... They were ordered around, sometimes insulted, and frequently treated with minimal respect for the long, hard back-breaking hours of work they put in.” And, of course, a female servant who got pregnant could expect to be fired.

(And just to finish everything off, Austen claims “neither poison nor sleeping potions [were] to be procured, like rhubarb, from every druggist”, which is a statement so manifestly false I have no idea why she made it. Laudanum, opium dissolved in alcohol, was widely available in patent medicines as a pain reliever and to bring on sleep. The best possible interpretation, I suppose, is that Austen was seeing around her only what she wanted to see and ignoring what didn’t fit.)

The point I’m getting to is that not only do I think Austen was wrong in her specific criticism of Ann Radcliffe, I have to wonder whether Radcliffe wasn’t a more accurate observer of the world around her. Was the Gothic form that Radcliffe partly created (the Brontës certainly seem to me to owe more to Radcliffe’s ‘realistic’ Gothic than to the overt supernaturalism of Walpole, Beckford, Maturin, or Lewis) a way to say things that could not be said more directly? There has been much written in recent years about Gothic as a female form of writing, about Gothic as a means of social criticism — does the form allow one to think more freely about the world around oneself?

(Edited to add: the thoughts on Radcliffe and the sublime follow from reading the 1986 World's Classics edition with notes and introduction by Chloe Chard. Some strong scholarship there, I felt.)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Briefly Noted

My review of Guy Gavriel Kay's new book, Under Heaven, is in today's Montreal Gazette, and up at the Gazette's web site.

Take That, Ecclesiastes

Overheard by Grace on Monkland Avenue:

Teenage girl #1: "You know what they say — there's nothing new under the sun."

Teenage girl #2: "Yeah. Well ... [flips hair] iPads."

Readings — Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author

Records of Shelley, Byron, and the Author
by Edward John Trelawney

A somewhat notorious book, this claims to be a faithful recollection of Trelawney’s experience with the two poets, and as well a discussion of his own military adventures. It is frankly beyond me to disentangle fact and fiction, and indeed has been a primary preoccupation of Shelley and Byron biographers for the past hundred and fifty years. What I can say is that it’s swiftly written and engaging in its own right.

Trelawney’s recounting of his escapades after the death of the poets (justifying the “and the Author” portion of the title) is particularly engaging; you get the sense that the subject which most interested Trelawney, at a basic level, was Trelawney. Shelley and Byron are useful insofar as it allows Trelawney to recount his experience of the two men. It’s impossible not to be sceptical, therefore, of that recounting. Certainly I had the sense of biography like a sun setting behind clouds: glints of something bright and real, shining behind a screen which was made fascinating by the light it obscured. Which is to say that the book’s intensely readable, but you take it for truth at your own risk.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Readings — Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey

Headlong Hall and Nightmare Abbey
by Thomas Love Peacock

Peacock, a friend of Shelley, is mostly known for books like these: light comedies structured around dialogues between characters standing in for people like Shelley, or Coleridge, or Byron. Or so I’d always heard. I was happy to find these books had more to them than just a roman à clef. Peacock’s got an understated sense of structure that makes his work feel taut, and a feel for humour writing — by which I mean that you don’t just get laughs out of the books, but you’re pulled on by sheer amusement to find out what happens next.

That said, these books do feel a bit thin. Partly that’s because the characters are (deliberately) very broad — so much so that a complex figure like Shelley can be playfully satirised by two differerent characters in Headlong Hall, each representing different aspects of his personality and thought. But the thinness also comes from the style in which Peacock writes, where action is described very simply and pictorial description hardly appears at all. In other words, stylistically similar to old metrical romances.

That said, though broadly similar, these two novels (the edition I have put them in a single volume) are very dissimilar. If you step back and look at the overall plot structure of Headlong Hall, it’s actually a pleasing romantic comedy in an almost classic sense. A group of unlikely characters gather in an isolated spot; a young man pursues a young woman’s favour; she takes against him, and may end up married to a pedantic older man (a satirical take on Coleridge); various zanies and guests add to the chaos; at the end the slightly-buffoonish-yet-patriarchal lord sets things to right, almost by accident. Plot-wise, you could easily imagine this adapted to stage or film. As a novel, though, it proceeds almost entirely through those dialogues, which don’t always move the story along. In fact, the story can come to seem an appendix to the dialogue, which is a shame, as the matter of the story is nicely-turned in its own right.

Nightmare Abbey’s a different creature in a lot of ways. Written by Peacock for Shelley as a comment on Shelley's romantic affairs, the lead’s a charmingly emo-goth take on Shelley (“He built many castles in the air, and peopled them with secret tribunals, and bands of illuminati, who were always the imaginary instruments of his projected regeneration of the human species ... He slept with Horrid Mysteries under his pillow, and dreamed of venerable eleutherarchs and ghastly confederates holding midnight conventions in subterranean caves. He passed whole mornings in his study, immersed in gloomy reverie, stalking about the room in his nightcap, which he pulled over his eyes like a cowl, and folding his striped calico dressing-gown about him like the mantle of a conspirator”). He ends up having to choose between versions of Shelley’s first wife, Harriet Westbrook, and an amusingly humourless Mary Godwin (Peacock thought Shelley should stick with Westbrook). It’s far more cynical than Headlong Hall, and arguably less predictable. I think it’s less perfectly structured, but the characters are more engaging, and since the dialogues are really the main features of these books, that means it feels more lively than Headlong Hall. Both books, incidentally, feature a romantic triangle between a young woman, a Shelley-analogue, and a Coleridge-analogue; the different ways the triangles resolve say something about the different spirits animating the two tales.

On the whole, both books are enjoyable. The style’s brisk, and humour still sharp and direct, and there’s an amiability to them that’s still pleasing after two centuries.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Readings — Biographia Literaria

Biographia Literaria
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

I’d read parts of the Biographia in a class on English Romanticism, so I was used to thinking about it as a text of literary criticism. Which it is, but in a roundabout way. The heart of the book seems to lie with philosophy, specifically Coleridge’s take on contemporary German philosophy. The question of plagiarism has swirled about this part of his writing for almost two centuries; I don’t have an opinion on that one way or the other, not knowing enough about the originals, but it does seem to me that the style and approach of the work shift substantially when Coleridge enters into a relatively technical exposition of these ideas.

That said, in general the book is a strange mishmash of things — philosophy, criticism, biography, anecdote, republished letters from years before — so a shift in style here or there is not uncharacteristic. In fact, there’s at least one part of the book which Coleridge claimed he chose not to publish, but which may in fact never have been written. It’s all very peculiar, but not, I found, peculiar enough to be consistently interesting.

I’d say further that when reading the Biographia, there’s a curiously orthodox sense to much of it, especially the philosophy, which seems to rest uneasily with the Christian belief Coleridge felt was important. I don’t mean that Coleridge was Blake’s Milton, in chains when writing of heaven; but to me there’s an almost domestic, traditional tone in his writing when he discuss his religious views, something that’s notably absent not only in the most vivid parts of this book, but in all of his greatest poetry. Coleridge at his best was one of the pre-eminent poets of the strange, and at its best this book touches that strangeness. Just not very often.

As I understand it, the book was patched together for the sake of having something to publish, and reads like it. That doesn’t mean it’s terrible, nor does it make it not worth reading; Coleridge is certainly enough of a writer, and enough of a thinker, that it at least repays the reader’s time and then some. But it does have, to me, the feel of a missed opportunity, of something less than it could have been. Which, I suppose, is something that many people feel about Coleridge in general — that his genius never quite found its fullest expression.

Readings — English Romanticism: The Human Context

English Romanticism: The Human Context
by Marilyn Gaull

This is a very impressive introduction to English Romanticism and its era. Gaull gives a real sense not only of the intellectual currents of the time, but of the way people thought and felt. It’s a wide-ranging survey not only of literature, but of politics, painting, philosophy, science, and other forces that shaped those turbulent, fruitful years. Gaull’s style is brisk and authoritative, and she moves quickly and easily from one subject to another. Mostly, she works through descriptions of the lives of prominent historical figures, creating a series of characters who collectively define the time.

It’s not a perfect book. The edition I had suffered from probably the worst proofreading of any book I’ve ever read (including a bewildering insistence on referring to Charles Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer as Melmouth). And inevitably there are a few judgements that I’d disagree with. But on the whole, it’s an incredibly valuable resource, and makes you feel the excitement of a time when great spirits on Earth were sojourning.

In the News

And now, a few thoughts on a subject I know nothing about. Comments letting me know where I'm wrong are strongly encouraged.

A friend just tipped me off to a proposal to have the Pope arrested when he visits the UK in September, that he might potentially be put on trial there or in the International Criminal Court. This strikes me as ironic, in that the only international judicial organisation I can think of in the Western world before the existence of the ICC was, in fact, the Papacy.

Now, I don't know if the proposal will come to anything; similar suggestions were made to arrest George W. Bush for war crimes during a state visit to Canada, and that of course went nowhere. There seems to be a higher degree of direction here, but I don't know whether the pedophilia in the Church will be seen to amount to a crime against humanity, and doubt whether the British courts have jurisdiction over the Pope. On the other hand, as the articles note, the British did arrest Pinochet, and did issue a warrant against former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.

Still, I doubt that prosecutions of heads of government will become common in the near future. I tend to think political pressure will lead to the quiet disappearance of such charges. Governments have too much incentive to do business with other governments that may or may not have committed legally questionable acts. But what happens as the near future shades into the more distant future, and a greater amount of legal precedent is set for the definition of war crimes and crimes against humanity? What happens when these things become even harder to sweep under the rug?

As human connective technology grows, as media outlets begin covering everything more intently, as organisation increases among those seeking to bring to justice states and politicians who may have committed crimes — will these sorts of prosecutions begin to succeed? Can the possibility put forward in the first article I linked to, that the powerful should be put on trial just as any citizen, come to pass?

It would be nice to think so. But what happens to international politics as a result? Note that the warrant against Livni, practically, led to the cancellation of a planned visit by her to the UK. Will there be a chilling effect on international diplomacy?

Possibly; but perhaps that would be no bad thing, if properly applied. If states that sponsor war crimes and crimes against humanity are held to account for it, perhaps it results in a lessening of their influence. Perhaps it even means states think twice about sponsoring crimes in the first place. The question really is, will statutes against those crimes not be weakened by governments and individuals seeking to give themselves as much leeway as possible?

It seems to me that if the precedents are there, then the ability to wish them away becomes reduced. If so, then the slow growth of the ability of legal institutions to effectively prosecute these crimes is appropriate -- as the effectiveness of the law increases, so (hopefully) will the ability of the courts to resist political interference. Either way, the establishment of a process by which the powerful are held to legal account can only be positive. My point is just that the institution of this process may not be quick -- but sometimes, evolution is preferable, so long as it gets there in the end.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Readings — Eric and Enid [Four Arthurian Romances]

Eric and Enid
by Chrétien de Troyes
translated by William Wister Comfort

A prose adaptation of Chrétien’s four completed Arthurian romances, this book is highly readable, capturing the romance — in all senses of that word — of Chrétien’s work. Now, Comfort seems, to judge from his introduction, to have been most interested in, or saw Chrétien as most interested in, just that; the pleasing narrative, the excitement and adventure. In the past century, though (for these translations are now a century old), I have the sense that scholarship has re-examined these works, with more of an eye for social aspects and thematic coherency. Indeed, according to Wikipedia, some scholars are now calling Chrétien the inventor of the modern novel.

That last seems a bit of a stretch to me, but I do find that this book hints at psychological acuity in the stories that doesn’t always entirely come across in Comfort’s words. I don't know if that’s a function of the translation or not. I do know that the stories all broke down very nicely into a tripartite structure. And that the theme of love seems to bind the stories internally, as well as each to each (some of them, notably Yvain and Lancelot, link up on a plot level as well).

The stories themselves are excellent, as you might expect. They twist and turn, and develop in intriguing ways. There’s a wealth of imagination here, as well, and coming near the beginning of the Arthurian tradition, some things happen that you don’t expect. More to the point, there’s a feel to these stories, in Comfort’s translation, that’s quite evocative. The details of dress and heraldry are described precisely; it seems logical to presume that they contain a wealth of meaning or references that are missed by modern audiences. Or, at least, by me.

When you read works from centuries past, especially eight centuries past, you have to be aware that writers and storytellers had different conventions, and different ideas of what they were doing and how they were doing it. Certainly some aspects of narrative are consistent across human experience. But perhaps fewer than you’d think. So Comfort translated Chrétien with his own expectations in place; reading these works now, trying to be more open to different conventions, it’s tempting to try to guess at what the translator missed. But that’s ultimately pointless. The texts are the texts. Take them for what they are, and draw from them what you will. Chrétien’s tales have lasted this long; they’ll last some while further, and be reinterpreted in each age to come.

Readings — Under the Net

Under the Net
by Iris Murdoch

Murdoch’s first novel, this is a polished and extraordinarily funny book. When I started it I knew Murdoch’s work only by reputation, and so was surprised, at least at first, to find a novel that seemed to owe as much to Wodehouse as Wittgenstein. But the book subtly shifts as it goes on, mirroring the growth of its protagonist — for this is a kind of bildungsroman, following a young London writer as he develops into maturity and responsibility — and reaching a depth, poignancy, and lyricism that you wouldn't necessarily expect from the early pages of dry comedy.

A.S. Byatt has suggested that Murdoch’s work is concerned with issues of representation, with the question of how much of real life can be contained in language and in a novel. Hence the title of the book, a Wittgenstein reference which nods to the difficulty of representation — Wittgenstein’s image is a bit complex, but can be thought of as referring to the resolution of a representation: The finer a net, the more points of contact with what it contains, the closer an approximation to the reality it holds. Certainly the book is concerned with representation and reality, in its main character’s writing, in the books that he translates, in film (one of the characters is an actor, another a movie producer), in politics (another character is a political agitator) ... the idea is certainly present, but in no way obtrusive. The theme and the story work together nicely, mixing in subtle ways.

There is, in fact, a tautness and density to the book that’s quite impressive, and matches the precision of its structure. But those virtues do not come at the expense of vitality. There’s a madcap energy in the book; it is farcical in the best sense. This, again, seems to me to be thematically appropriate; the use of the very formal tropes of farce points up the issue of representation, and the fidelity of prose to life. But then, to me, the book subtly undermines those formal elements, growing beyond them, becoming something greater. As a novel, I think it’s a great success; as a debut, it’s stunning.

Monday, April 5, 2010

March 2010 Reading Summary

So, as noted, I didn't read as many books in March as I wanted. I read a total of nine books, two of them from a library. I added one book to the apartment. So six books down, and I'll be trying for better in April.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Readings — Deep Future

Deep Future
by Stephen Baxter

This is a slim book of what might be called ‘popular cosmology’. Baxter takes a look at where the universe-at-large is going, according to the best that was known at the time of writing, and what science tells us about what’s coming up in the future. He spends some time considering possible futures of human technology, but so much is unknowable about how that’s likely to develop that he soon widely leaves this field to talk about the slow aging of the universe, and strategies for us to cope with same.

I gather Carl Sagan wrote books something like this, popular science outlining the grand scale of the universe we live in. Baxter’s used to that scale from his sf writing, and he plays with big ideas and vast reaches of time and space just as in a big-screen sf story. The writing’s not terribly sophisticated, but it is clear and non-technical while still being detailed. Overall, well-written and mind-expanding.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Readings — Nifft the Lean

Nifft the Lean
by Michael Shea

A collection of fantasy short stories in the Vancian mode, characterised by elaborate diction and a decadent mood. Like Vance, the diction isn’t quite supported by a style as smooth as that of, say, Clark Ashton Smith (whose work this sort of thing otherwise recalls). On the other hand, Shea’s work is probably more intensively plotted than Smith’s, and the volume’s tied together by ‘introductions’ that help situate the stories in their subject’s overall career. There’s an abundance of imagination on display, and the sort of cheerful refusal to take itself wholly seriously that can result in characters with names like Vulvula, the Vampire Queen.

But as you might imagine, it is a bit rich. I found the whimsy of the book, along with its richness of diction, made it best absorbed in small-to-mid-size doses. Which was a bit of a problem, in that one of the stories is a long novella in which Nifft and an associate wander through Hell. It’s not a particularly clever Hell, in the sense of presenting new spiritual tortures; but it’s quite spectacular, in the sense of presenting new physical tortures and gothic imagery. Still, it does start to become repetitive, and I at least needed some time away from the story by the mid-point in order to return later with refreshed eyes.

This is actually a bit odd, in that much of what makes Shea’s style (and Vance’s style, and Smith’s style) work is its novelty. That is, what really makes them stand out is not the ostentatiousness of the words they use, but the whimsy. The unexpected word that’s not only right, but arch, and throws a new light or an ironic tint across the whole scene or story. Shea does that, but while with Smith I’ll joyfully immerse myself in his wordplay for hours at a time, Shea’s prose tends to push me out. I think this speaks to a slight difference in the type of irony he uses; a little bit less profound, or else a little bit more prone to contrast itself with reality, I think (though, oddly, his world’s more fully-developed in terms of history and geography than anything I know of by Smith). Well worth reading, then, but the ultimate effect will likely be determined by your personal reaction to Shea’s tonal choices.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Readings — The Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer

The Woodcuts of Albrecht Dürer
text by T.D. Barlow

This is a small book (about 12 by 18 cm) from 1948 reproducing many of Dürer’s designs, along with a helpful introduction by Barlow situating the images in the context of the times and Dürer’s development as an artist. Curiously, the selection omits Melencolia I, Knight, Death, and the Devil, and St. Jerome In His Study (though another cut of Saint Jerome is included), nor are they mentioned in the introductory text. Still, what is here is well-reproduced and clearly-printed, to my eye. It’s just a pity the book couldn’t have been a bit more thorough.

Breaking Radio Silence

So of course the reason why you don’t make public resolutions is that, as my brother once pointed out to me, the universe runs on irony; and as soon as you say what your goal is, forces will conspire to make it impossible to realise. Or at least a major uphill struggle. Which is a roundabout way of saying that I’ve been pretty ill lately, making my aim of reading thirty-one books by the end of March virtually impossible.

Still, I am feeling better now, which is good. And I suspect I’ve finally kicked some sort of infection that’s been troubling me since January. Or else the advent of spring has given me some new energy. Either way, I’m actually feeling better than I have in months. So, if not thirty-one in March, perhaps thirty in April. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, we may be living in the neighbourhood of a thieving cannibal planet.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Readings — Behold the Man

Behold the Man
by Michael Moorcock

One of the stranger books I’ve read of late, the high concept of this book is simple: a London student in the 1970s takes part in a time travel experiment, and goes back to the days of Jesus — where he finds himself taking over the role of Christ. To Moorcock’s credit, he doesn’t rely on the concept alone to carry the book. It’s structured nicely, and spends much of its time taking apart the character of Karl Glogauer, its lead.

The result is one of Moorcock’s better books, I think. It’s short, focussed, and gets at a lot of material in a short space. It’s both experimental and highly disciplined. And it has to be said that Moorcock’s quite adept at using the Christ scenario to tap a kind of iconic energy. He does it with a light touch, setting up a properly inevitable climax. It’s a subversive take on the Christ story, of course, but Moorcock handles it well enough that, to me (and I’m not a Christian), it doesn’t feel exploitative. In fact, because it’s not exploitative, it is that much more powerful — compare, by contrast, something as witless as Garth Ennis’ Preacher graphic novels, and you’ll see what I mean. Overall, then, quite a success.

Readings — Lightning

by Dean Koontz

I don’t have a lot to say about this book. It has a nice hook: a man appears at crucial moments to save of the life of a girl; she grows older, he stays the same age, eventually it becomes clear that he’s a time traveller. But is he from the future, or the past? In fact, it’s the latter, and the novel’s playing with the old idea of Nazis trying to get their hands on future technology.

Still, I didn’t care for it. I found the prose flat and unengaging. The attempt to make the story fit with history seemed a bit sloppy. And there’s a passage in the book where the main character equates genocide and pacifism, which is a little strange, especially as it seems to be meant literally. So, no, on the whole, not my cup of tea.

Readings — Star of Gypsies

Star of Gypsies
by Robert Silverberg

Stunningly well-written, this is a book about a King of the Gypsies in the far future, where humankind has spread among the stars and the Romani are the only people who can navigate the ships that travel from sun to sun. Yakoub, the King, abdicated some years ago; now his brutal son has taken the throne, and Yakoub must face the responsibilities he abandoned. Sentence for sentence, this is easily the finest book by Silverberg that I’ve read, and one of the finest sf books I know. There’s a wealth of invention here that recalls Lord Valentine’s Planet, but the scope is even larger, and Silverberg creates societies and planets and larger-than-life personalities in glorious profusion.

That being said, I did often feel myself a bit detached from the story. That’s due to two reasons, I think. The first is that among all the extravagant characters in the book, Yakoub never finds (or admits to) a peer. He stands head and shoulders above all the other characters in the book, if only in his account; but then, while he certainly has a self-aggrandizing streak in him, I don’t think that estimation is wrong. In the long run, this tends to make the main story of the book less than gripping — his estranged son never really seems to have a chance. Basically, Yakoub comes up with a plan to remove him, executes the plan, and the plan pretty much goes just as he figured it would. Yakoub has no real rivals, and nobody to balance him or challenge him.

The other reason I felt a bit removed from the book was Silverberg’s decision to tell much of it in flashback, unreeling Yakoub’s early life in detail. He comes up with very elegant ways to introduce the flashbacks, and they’re as well-written as the rest of the book — in fact, they probably make up the majority of the book’s text. Silverberg gives Yakoub the ability to blur past and present; he can ‘ghost’ into the past, to be present at any point in history (this strikes me as a bit under-thought, though; it’d be a great way to spy on your enemies, but neither Yakoub nor anyone else ever uses it as such). He spends much of his time, then, observing or recalling his past. Effectively, the present-day story is like the surface tension on a lake, while the main part of the book, those past years, is the depths below. The problem is that the exploration of the depths makes the surface feel a bit thin. Oddly, I wonder if the present was less developed if I might have had an easier time with the book. But then again, as I say, perhaps it’s the mix of past and present (both of them looking toward the future) that’s the real point here.

So I’m hesitant to say that the problems I had with the book are real problems. They may well be cases of assumptions I made as a reader that were wrong-headed. Certainly the writing’s gorgeous, and Yakoub’s a vivid character — warm and clever, but so arrogant he’s difficult to warm up to; accomplished and yet flawed (I don’t feel I know anywhere near enough to speak knowledgeably about how he fits into traditions of romanticised depiction of the Romani; all I can say is that on its own terms, it seems to work). The depiction of the Romani as effectively an alien race is odd (it seems to relate to events in another of Silverberg's novels, Letters From Atlantis, which I have not read), but the depiction of their history is heartfelt, if not particularly novel. Mainly, the great strength of the book is its wildness, its invention, its unpredictability, and the elegance of its writing. As such, it’s well worth reading.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Readings — An Evil Guest

An Evil Guest
by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe’s latest novel strikes me as a mixed bag, both in terms of contents and in overall effect. By ‘contents’, I mean that it includes time travel, stage musicals, musings on celebrity charisma, dread Cthulhu, and a host of other things up to and including time-travel and aliens. By ‘effect’, I mean that I’m not sure Wolfe builds an involving novel out of the whole.

The tone, for example, is engaging, but noncommittal. What seems like it should be in one spot a screwball romp out of The Sound of Music, and then in another a suspenseful edge-of-your-set noir thriller, becomes flattened into an oddly grey, rambling story which contains these things but seems to lack their flavour. The setting is ostensibly the future, practically seems more like the big city of a 1930s Hollywood film, and feels really like nothing in particular. Sure, Wolfe’s linguistic dexterity is on display, his tricks with showing only what characters see (including what they see wrongly) are there as well, and it’s a book which will reward the engaged reader more than the casual page-turner — but I don’t know whether the reward’s really that great.

The WolfeWiki suggests an alternative reading of the work which is logical, internally consistent, and yet weirdly unaffecting. Which I think is my ultimate problem with the book. It’s too detached. Much of the effect of Wolfe’s writing, one way or another, comes from keeping the reader at a certain distance. I think for this book to work, the lighter sequences would need to be more affecting, and that’d probably mean allowing the reader a bit closer in. Lacking that, I found myself uninvolved with the characters and the world.

Now, it doesn’t help that the central character is not, to my mind, terribly well-written. Cassie Casey really hearkens back to the women in those ’30s films I mentioned above, and not in a good way. It’s not that she’s flat or unintelligent, though she’s both, it’s that she’s not credible. She sounds like a movie character, which means what a bunch of men in a smoke-filled room think a spunky woman sounds like — or what they think she ought to sound like. Adam Roberts, in his thoughtful review of the book, seems to me to have it exactly right: “Casey is not a strong woman. She is a conservative’s notion of a strong woman: an "Of Queen's Gardens" woman, permitted to explore to the very edge of her pedestal but not to step down from it.”

A concern with old movies is hardly new in Wolfe’s fiction; consider There Are Doors. But while that novel was, to me, genuinely eerie and unpredictable, An Evil Guest seems to struggle more with the pulp formulas it plays with. Certain Wolfeisms seem oddly out of place. For example, his fondness for what I think of as “Thursday” figures, after G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. Without giving anything away about that remarkable book, its central figure is a mysterious man, fat, cunning, and wise, who has a disturbing amount of both power and charisma, and who is perceived at the beginning of the book in a sinister light but who ends it being revealed to be something different and greater than was previously suspected. Wolfe frequently uses similar figures in his writing, some of them sinister and some of them not, some of them variations on the archetype; consider Benjamin Free in Free Live Free, or Rex von Madadh in Castleview. The point I’m getting around to is that you'd expect a figure like that — and there are two of them in this book, though they might actually be one and the same, depending on how you read it — to fit naturally with noir themes. But they don’t, really. They seem, to me, out of place; as though Wolfe hadn’t quite worked out how to make some of his recurrent imagery harmonise with the other images he was working with.

In the end, An Evil Guest seems to me more an interesting book than a good one. It’s intriguing, and worth thinking about, and moves at a relentless clip. Its language is spare and pared-down, but the dialogue is often jarringly improbable. What I suppose you can say is that for good or ill — for good and ill — it seems weirdly characteristic of Wolfe. It’s far from his best book, but it is still recognisably his.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Media Linkage

Wandering around the internets, I found the Muppet Wicker Man. Which is quite brilliant. Technically, I suppose that's actually a mash-up that could have occurred back in the 70s — but it took today's modern technology (in the form of Photoshop) to make it happen. Good job, modern technology.

And the other day HBO officially announced that they're ordering nine episodes of George R.R. Martin's Game of Thrones. In more peculiar media announcements, there's this.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

February 2010 Reading Summary

Not a great February on a number of levels (but then is there such a thing?). A plumbing incident in my apartment disrupted the first half of the month, and I think the repairs brought on a nasty allergic reaction from all the plaster dust floating around. At any rate, I was groggy and generally headachy throughout much of the month, which was only partially alleviated by arguably the greatest hockey tournament in history. The upshot is that I only completed two books this month. Plus, blog posting slowed down.

Bearing that in mind, I’m going to say this: I aim to read thirty-one books in March, and update this thing every day of the month from this point forward. I'd like to start talking about other topics here as well, but we'll see how that goes.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Readings — Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn

Tales From the Vulgar Unicorn
edited by Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey

This is the second of the Thieves’ World anthologies, the books that essentially created the shared-world writing form, in which different writers set their stories in the same fictional universe. There had been predecessors of a sort, in the form of things like the King Arthur stories or H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos — and of course Marvel and DC Comics had been doing this sort of thing for ages — but these are the books that really created shared-world writing, as we have come to know it, in print. I read the first six or eight or so when I was very young; let’s say, oh, ten or twelve. A couple of years ago I happened to pick up a used copy of the first one; rereading it, I was surprised, and impressed, to see how much it was of a piece with traditional swords-and-sorcery pulp adventure. My recollection, shaped by the later books, was of something more inbred and elaborate, with more graphic sexuality and gender-based themes — and an annoying tendency to soap opera and excessively powerful characters.

You can see that sort of thing beginning to develop in this second book. The stories aren’t bad, as such, but the apparently-immortal character of Tempus seems strangely out of place in the low-magic setting. Which may be why series editor Robert Asprin tried (unsuccessfully, as I recall) to write him out in the book’s last story. At any rate, you can see a tendency to angst in the stories revolving around Tempus, while the earlier stories in the book seem to me much more in the vein of Frtiz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories. Which, given the choice, I prefer.

Overall, these are competent pulp adventure stories, probably better as individual pieces rather than as a sequence. The shared-world aspect is useful, but not dominant; you certainly get the sense that anything could happen at any point — wars starting, Gods descending, you name it. Which is really the problem. If you try to look at the book as a unit, it starts and stops in peculiar ways and shifts from character to character in an inelegant manner. What you gain in unpredictability is offset in shapelessness. And one of the virtues of good pulp is cleverness in form (not brilliance, necessarily, but a clever play with plot structure). I think, all in all, that this and the first anthology were interesting experiments, but more notable in conception than execution.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Apparently, I'm In A Book

So I wanted to check if an article I wrote for a web site ten years ago was still online. The piece was a profile of Vancouver rock band 54-40, for The Rough Guide to Rock. Which was a sort of early crowd-sourced site, as I recall; fans were encouraged to write in about their favourite bands, with the possibility that accepted articles might see print if the site ever published a book version (there might have been a ten dollar payment or some such involved; at this point, I can't remember). The site doesn't seem to be around, but I guess the book did get published. And I do seem to be on the list of contributors, though Google Books won't let me preview the 54-40 entry.

On another note, I find I've also been cited as a source in Wikipedia for an article I wrote previewing the last Worldcon. Which is surreal in a way I can't quite define.

Readings — Zastrozzi

by Percy Bysshe Shelley

It’s perhaps unsurprising that Shelley’s gothic novel written at age eighteen suffers in comparison to his future wife’s gothic novel written when she was eighteen. The latter, after all, is one of the classics of the form, and arguably one of the great modern myths (depending on how one defines myth). So there’s a sense in which Zastrozzi is most useful as a way to throw the greatness of Frankenstein into stark relief. Comparatively, Zastrozzi is flat, and its prose more mannered. It never really touches on the primal fears that Frankenstein does, and seems much more of its era. Largely a violent soap opera, filled with lies and stabbings, its plot moves in fits and starts, and its conception of character is broad and simple.

But it’s not unentertaining, if you like the gothic. Specifically, if you like early gothic — Ann Radcliffe-style gothic, which was light on supernatural events but heavy on crumbling castles, sublime scenery, and villainous Byronic figures in the south of Europe conducting elaborate vendettas. It has been said that the gothic novel, in its original form, was in part defined by its anti-Catholic bias, its exoticising of Catholic societies, and you can see that in Zastrozzi’s wild Italian killers. That said, anti-Catholicism doesn’t seem to be a focus of the book, the way it seems a conscious interest of Maturin in Melmoth the Wanderer. In fact, other than the introduction of the evil Inquisition, there’s surprisingly little anti-Catholic sentiment here from such a noted atheist as Shelley.

You could probably read the book as an interesting contrast to Shelley’s own Cenci as well as a contrast to Frankenstein, or to Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest. Like The Cenci, it’s about thwarted love and heightened emotion, with aristocratic Italian characters. On a technical level, you could probably argue that it’s better than Radcliffe's Romance in its dramatic technique, and particularly in its concision — the book presents itself as a fragment, a favourite technique of the Romantic era as it is now, and so begins in the middle of things with background filled in along the way. It’s almost terse, in structure if not in style, and gains a real power from the extreme compression with which the material is treated. At its best, it’s almost hallucinatory in its intensity. Which is a good and fitting thing in a true gothic novel.

Readings — First Folio

First Folio: A Little Book of Folio Forewards

No editor is listed for this volume, which is a collection of forewards written by various authors for books reprinted by the Folio Society. Catherine Taylor introduces the book, which seems an engagingly post-modern exercise, being an introduction to a series of introductions. The whole project recalls Alasdair Gray’s The Book of Prefaces, though it doesn’t have the high ambitions.

The value for me lies in the quality of the writers whose prefaces are being reprinted. Those include Iain Sinclair (examining the geography of The War of the Worlds), PeterAckroyd (reconstructing the life of Dickens to shed light on Oliver Twist), and A.S. Byatt (considering the nature of fairy tales in reflecting on Andrew Lang’s Pink Fairy Book). Many others of these brief essays are intriguing, such as Fergal Keane’s appreciation of David Thomson’s Woodbrook, or delightfully unexpected, such as Philip Pullman’s celebration of The Anatomy of Melancholy.

Really, only John Sutherland’s piece on Slaughterhouse-Five is actively poor — Sutherland’s an example of the sort of Vonnegut critic one hears of, who feels the need to absolve Vonnegut of the sin of having committed science fiction, himself knowing nothing about the genre. Particularly egregious, and frankly unjust, is Sutherland’s describing Vonnegut’s character of SF writer Kilgore Trout as “that archetypal SF writer who, like others of his craft, has great ideas but can’t write worth a damn”; leave aside the description of SF as a craft and not an art, leave aside the fact that (for better or worse) many SF writers were focussing on ideas and not prose style, and consider that Sutherland follows this statement with a note in which he says: “It is assumed that Kilgore Trout ... was based on the actual writer Theodore Sturgeon.” Now, I’m not the world’s biggest Sturgeon fan, but to say, even by implication, that Sturgeon “can’t write worth a damn” is simply wrong on the face of it. Granted that Vonnegut’s acknowledged the connection; but the point is that here Sutherland is calling Sturgeon, a conscious literary artist, a hack. It’s the sort of whopping error that doesn’t just leave the critic looking foolish, but calls into question his reliability as a whole.

(For the curious, Vonnegut himself sums up science fiction, and his relationship thereto, in this only mildly outdated essay.)

Thankfully, this sort of thing is not otherwise present in the book. And there is a lot that’s intriguing, such as Roy Foster’s dicussion of Yeats’ collected poems, or Richard Holmes brooding on his own life and Robert Louis Stevenson’s travel writing. So while there may be no outright revelatory re-imaginings of the experience of a classic text, there is a lot of illumination of lives and times, and much careful thought. Which is what makes a useful foreword.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Readings — Seven Ages of Paris; Paris: A Secret History

Seven Ages of Paris
by Alistair Horne

Paris: A Secret History
by Andrew Hussey

Superficially, these two books appear quite different. But read a little ways into both of them, and you soon see that the core of them is much the same. There’s a slight difference of perspective, yes, and they do in the end do slightly different things; but they’re recognisably telling the same story.

That, of course, is the story of Paris. Horne’s book appears to aim, if not at greater authoritativeness, at least at presenting a more traditional view of the city. Hussey’s more conscientious about digging out opposing voices and counter-currents in the flow of history. Surprisingly, though, the difference seems to me to be not much. I think that’s because the books have to cover history on such a grand scale — well over a thousand years — that differences tend to fade next to the shared substance.

That being said, the books do have differences. Horne chooses to make his Paris a key agent in the story of France, and so provides a pocket history of the country as a whole alongside the story of the city. Hussey, on the other hand, sees his Paris in somewhat the same way Peter Ackroyd sees his London: a metropolis suspicious of its rulers, less a microcosm of the country beyond its gates than a counterweight. Hussey’s also far more sedulous about linking past to present, discussing themes of the city’s past in light of its present, describing present-day Paris as a continuation or contrast to its past, and speaking to relevant contemporary Parisians.

Both books are well-written, Horne’s style more magisterial and Hussey’s more immediate. Both have a tendency to focus on recent history in more detail than more distant times, which in sweeping histories is understandable and usual and, to me, always disappointing. I’d say that Hussey’s book is much better on postwar Paris than Horne’s, which probably gives it a slight edge if I had to pick one or another. Rather than do that, though, I’d say both are fine books, both worth reading, and just different enough to make reading both volumes worth doing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Readings — The Books of the South, the Return of the Black Company, and the Many Deaths of the Black Company

The Books of the South
The Return of the Black Company
The Many Deaths of the Black Company
by Glen Cook

The second through fourth collection of Cook’s Black Company novels features the titular hard-bitten mercenary company heading into the south of their world in a search for their origins — which we find are darker than even they might have suspected. Cook broadens his storytelling techniques here, playing with new perspectives and voices; he also introduces a host of new cultures into his world. These things help keep the momentum of the series going, preventing the sag that often afflicts long fantasy epics, until quite near the end of the fourth collection.

And it’s questionable even then whether that sag isn’t deliberate. Cook catches a kind of entropic feel in the story — it grinds on, through battle after battle, death after death, until almost without realising it the Company (or what’s left of it) has run out of enemies. But they still have promises to keep, and, indeed, miles to go before they sleep. It does feel like it captures something of the weariness of the surviving company members after a long and brutal campaign. Still, the relative laxness of the plot, with groups of characters making unusually bad tactical choices, makes it seem like the series is ending at just the right point — on the brink of a potential decline.

(Incidentally, the last book in the second collection, The Silver Spike, is a one-off that shows what happens in the north after the Company heads south. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t pretty. The story's a good exercise in balancing story threads and multiple tones, though. The odd thing is that despite the extravagant and often sudden plot developments, the most difficult bit to swallow is that one of the characters, notable for being particularly adept at violence even among the Company, twice gets his ass handed to him by a character with no particular military or martial training.)

All that said, in general Cook seems to expand his aims and techniques throughout the series. For example, for first two or three omnibuses, the world of the Black Company is a world of louts. That’s what gives it its charm, though it also comes to seem a limitation. You can say that there’s a kind of blue-collar ethos to most of the characters, sure, but the books never present a credible picture of somebody who lives for the intellect — not even when a wizard’s the POV character. The closest you get to something like that are scheming politicians. After a while, you do start to notice the absence; granted that the Company is pretty much the exact opposite of anything civilised or intellectual, you begin to wonder whether there’s something missing here, some alternative unexplored. Something that might cast the Company into starker relief. So when some scholars are introduced as minor characters in the first book of the last omnibus, it’s refreshing. Of course the Company doesn’t know what to make of them, and manipulates and uses them as they do everything else around them — but they’re there, and credible, and help broaden the world.

But the most notable way Cook plays about with his world is through point-of-view. Different books in the series are narrated, or compiled, by different annalists in the company; the story works itself out in ways such that we come to understand how the annalists can gather the information that makes it into the books. Now, the annalists don’t have voices that are tremendously different one from another — a few minor differences in vocabulary, most notably. But that works, because it reinforces the idea of the brotherhood of the Company, of a group mentality that shapes the individual perspective and personality. The annalists also compare notes with each other, and critique each other’s work, which helps bring out the individual differences while also bringing a charming self-awareness.

At any rate, Cook’s writing is terse, and moves like a shot. The overall darkness of the work is leavened by an appropriate black humour. This is the kind of writing that’s good enough that you think it understates things somehow to say it’s a great adventure story. But that’s what this is: some of the best adventure writing I’ve read.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Readings — The Golden

The Golden
by Lucius Shepard

At a convocation of aristocratic vampires in a vast castle in Europe, a girl bred for generations to serve as a blood sacrifice is found dead, torn apart. A newly-converted vampire, a former inspector in the Paris police, must find her murderer.

This sounds simple enough; the merit of the book is that Shepard consistently pushes every element of the story into more elaborate, more gothic, more sensual, more sublime detail than you might imagine. Start with vampire lore; his vampires don’t just burn up in sunlight, they have illuminations, and die ranting out prophecy. In becoming a vampire, you don’t just die; you pass through Blood Judgement, into Mystery, and then (perhaps) return. Or consider his setting: Castle Banat is a Gormenghast-like edifice, apparently the size of a mountain, containing massive shadowy gulfs, sprawling libraries, and mazes of secret passages. All of it based on Piranesi’s Carceri drawings, and partaking of that hallucinatory quality.

Which last drawings seem to me to suggest the book’s themes; as the Carceri drawings illuminate a fantastical prison, so the book’s main characters come to an end by leaving the castle behind. It’s a kind of vampiric bildungsroman, as we follow Shepard’s undead inspector through a series of encounters which grow progressively more outré and which lead him into increasingly metaphysical terrain. These things change him, but not always in a way which is immediately obvious in terms of character. Overall, though, you can see the progression: he loses his connection to the human world, he becomes increasingly heedless of others, he generally becomes more wicked. But if this is intended, the climax betrays this progression; not that he has any turn of heart, but simply that this tendency toward the psychopathic is given no clear way to manifest.

Discussion of the book often centres about its elaborate style, and I’ve seen the name Clark Ashton Smith invoked a couple of times. To me, it doesn’t read quite as smoothly or as extravagantly as that; I’d go more for Jack Vance, who anyway is not a million miles away from Smith stylistically. And it is quite taut, moving swiftly despite its extravagance of vocabulary and sentence structure. My concern is that I don’t really see the link between style and theme. Style and setting, style and plot, yes, certainly. It’s a gothic style for a gothic tale. But what’s the tale about? On the one hand, by the end, the European vampiric aristocracy, the castle/prison, and the Patriarch who rules both these things, are all abandoned. On the other, it appears a new vampiric colonialism is about to be born. So the political angle seems mixed. Perhaps that’s the point; that power and evil are necessary companions, that power always corrupts. Certainly even the best of the vampires are needlessly brutal and cruel.

A detective story can be about truth, and the search for same; it also can be a way to bring an investigator into contact with a world, giving a character a reason to go from point A to B to C to meet a series of interesting individuals. The Golden certainly follows the latter course. Its mystery is cursory, and committed by the person you suspect early on; and there isn’t really a series of clues suggesting a logical deduction of a chain of events, so much as a lucky stumbling-upon of large arrows pointing in a single direction. The plot, then, is not the point. But the investigator’s motive for solving the crime seems unclear, if not absent; he risks his life (or unlife) repeatedly, but there’s not much of a sense of desperation. There’s the sense that he’s on one of those tours fantasy characters take, shuttling around the world, occasionally getting involved in some episode of violence or another, reaching ultimately some sort of conclusion you can see looming off in the distance from quite a ways away. Still, that being said, The Golden is at least an enjoyable tour. I’m not sure whether it’s ultimately enlightening, but it is definitely engrossing.

Readings — The Golden Helix

The Golden Helix
by Theodore Sturgeon

I want to start off by saying that this is a good book. That said, this collection of Sturgeon’s favourites among his short stories draws heavily on tales from the 1950s, and to me largely reads that way. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though it left me personally cold. I find there’s a specific style and sensibility to American writing in the 1950s, especially commercial writing; there’s an odd balance between a desire for directness of address on the one hand and a tendency to conventionalisation on the other. So, for example, you find attempts to write out of a street argot, but the language lacks obscenities and sounds — to my ears — stilted.

More significantly, there’s an attempt, particularly I think in SF of the era, to depict a humanistic world, in which people overcome their differences through communication and learn how practically to live together. It’s liberalism in a very genial, non-political, form; indeed, it’s a liberalism that tends to undermine politics and political viewpoints — if people end up in agreement the more they communicate, then clearly the differences in ideology were never that significant. I find this liberalism difficult to accept, even when it’s well-written (and Sturgeon does write well); I don’t think people are all fundamentally alike, I don’t think disputes can all be solved by communication, and I do think there are problems in the human psyche with the drive for power.

(To give a concrete example of what I mean: One of the stories, “The Skills of Xanadau”, has to do with a paradisiac society on an alien world. Except, to me, it’s an unconvincing paradise. People are unconcerned with privacy, and go around almost naked; so how does that work with the human sex drive? I dunno. The story’s curiously sexless. Or take “And Now the News”, which ends up being driven by a man’s exasperation with the news presenting a constant parade of “damn foolishness,” which includes “people all the time pushing people around” and “Everybody hungry for a fast buck”. To me, calling these things — examples of the will-to-power, if you like — foolish is simply evading them, dismissing them without understanding them. Without understanding why humans act this way, and considering whether they’re a major part of the human condition. It’s the limit of that liberal viewpoint I’m trying to identify.)

I’m painting here with a broad brush, and I don’t want to say that that’s the only thing going on in these stories. As I say, Sturgeon’s technically a good writer. He writes in a range of different styles; probably the best story in the book, “The Man Who Lost the Sea”, plays with point-of-view and creates a memorable, hard voice. His prose is always readable, and set with memorable images. Notably, Sturgeon most often seems a tale-teller in these stories; there aren’t any obvious oral story-telling tricks, but the sense of a narrator’s personality is very strong even in the third-person stories. They’re good pieces. They happen not to touch me. Your mileage may vary.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Readings — Elantris

by Brandon Sanderson

According to the cover of this book, Orson Scott Card has called it “the finest novel of fantasy to be written in many years.” I really don’t understand why. It’s not a terrible book. It does what it does, tell a fantasy adventure story, and does it reasonably well. But its prose is gravely ordinary, the political world it creates is perplexing, subplots are left hanging (no future books seem to be planned), and characters are flat and unsurprising. It’s an efficient book, and people who like this sort of thing will like it, but I’d have no problem thinking of any number of finer fantasy novels in recent years.

The basic story has to do with the eponymous city of Elantris, once the centre of a powerful kingdom, struck down ten years ago by some kind of curse or blight. Its glory is dead and decayed, a parody of what it was, and its citizens, once elf-like beings of great magical power, are now zombies who cannot be killed and feel pain eternally until their hurts cause them to sink into catatonia. These Elantrians are not necessarily those born in the city; in fact, humans who live in the surrounding lands are unpredictably ‘elevated’ to become Elantrians. That was great when being an Elantrian meant becoming a powerful wizard; not great when it means becoming a cursed zombie. So the new Elantrians are forced into exile in the ruined city, where they’re left to rot with no food or fresh water. Oh, and meanwhile, an evil theocratic empire is planning to add the kingdom formerly ruled by Elantris to its domains.

The story unfolds through the points-of-view of three characters. Raoden is a prince of Arelon, the land Elantris once ruled; as the book begins, he’s just become an Elantrian, and so is exiled to the zombie city, where he sets to work building a community and trying to find a way to reverse the damage done to Elantris. Hrathen is a priest of the theocratic empire, trying to convert Arelon before his masters sweep in to invade; the idea seems to be that he starts off as a villain, but circumstances conspire so that he’s working with the good guys by the end of the book. Sarene is Raoden’s fiancé, a princess of a neighbouring country who comes to Arelon to marry Raoden only to find him gone (his father’s hidden his true fate, so everybody believes him dead.).

I found Raoden a bit bland on the page for someone as charismatic as he’s supposed to be; and he builds his new society with surprising ease. Moreover, he has a habit of not telling certain other characters, notably Sarene, certain vital bits of information — such as his true identity — until it’s particularly dramatic. Hrathen’s a bit of a muddle; the early chapters which establish him don’t really set him up as an effective character, as he stumbles around in a not-particularly-intimidating fashion and is generally a fanatical priest out of central casting. Then he undergoes an ordeal, and is retroactively revealed to have an interesting backstory. Sarene, meanwhile, suffers from a galloping case of spunkyprincessitis. Symptoms include being an intelligent liberated (but not sexually liberated) princess in a patriarchal and patrilineal society who is unmarried due to her independent spirit; nevertheless having other characters, including the priest of the male-dominated religion, fall immediately in love with her or otherwise treat her with constant affection and deference; having a romantic interest (Raoden) who is the nicest and most intelligent male character in the book but who she nevertheless (in a case of mistaken identity) at one point physically fights and defeats; being faced with a stupid king/father figure who at first is intimidating but who she immediately and comprehensively gets the better of when a confrontation occurs; and, most crucially, meeting no real opposition and living in a world which generally unfolds in such a way that things go easy on her. For example, easily besting a high-ranking priest of a religion not her own in a public theological dispute over doctrine — because he wasn’t expecting her questions, you see.

So it may be fairly said that I had some problems with the book. On the flip side, the best thing about the book, its readability, is not something that I can easily illustrate. I can’t even really use a quotation to show it; the quality I’m talking about is not something that you can see in a short passage, it’s something that becomes apparent as you read the book, and turn pages, and turn pages, and it’s easier to keep reading than to look away, and the pages flip by and you realise the thing’s moving you along faster and faster. This is nothing to be sneezed at, this quality. It’s an aspect to prose that I rarely see mentioned, and never quantified. It’s got something to do with rhythm and diction, though the drawback may be excessive simplicity. At its extreme, it makes the Harry Potter books bestsellers. Elantris isn’t quite at that level, but this is the sort of thing we’re talking about: a smoothly-written pop fantasy. It does what it does, and there you go.

I just think there’ve been better books written in recent years.

Readings — Reluctant Voyagers

Reluctant Voyagers
by Élisabeth Vonarburg
translated by Jane Brierley

This is the story of a woman in an alternate-universe Montréal who begins to have strange visions, and embarks on what turns out to be a quest into the north of Québec to uncover the truth behind her world. It’s a book dense with images and speculation, but at the same time presents a fast-paced narrative.

You can look at the book from a number of different angles. As being about identity, for example. Or about the mediation of differing realities. Or about views of deity. Or about gender. Or how these things interrelate. Published in 1995, it’s tempting to view it as a creative response to the political tensions of Québec at the time. You have Separatists (in the English translation; I don’t know what term was used in the original French) who have nothing to do with Québec sovereignty as we know it; you have suspicion of a Canadian government nothing like our Canada’s; you have a tense language situation nothing like our own. The ending of the book has largely to do with the peaceful resolution of a longstanding quarrel between a couple who have certain differences but nevertheless have more in common with each other than with anyone or anything else. So ... there are certain resonances, one might say.

I thought the book was exceptional and rewarding. Vonarburg’s writing is tight, direct, and yet also resonant. If science-fiction can be understood as visionary literature for the modern world, then Reluctant Voyagers is one of the more successful visions I’ve read.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Readings — In Conquest Born

In Conquest Born
by C.S. Friedman

A melodrama, this, a soaring, galactic melodrama that resembles nothing so much as a distillation of the 80s oeuvre of Chris Claremont transposed into a space-opera setting. You’ve got your angry super-competent female lead; your brutal yet not unsympathetic male counterpart; a seemingly-destined love that goes nowhere you’d expect; forced-sounding dialogue; complex pseudo-espionage sub-plots ... even issues with dominance and control. Above all, it’s written in prose that, while effective, recalls the emotionally-overwrought tone of Claremont in his prime; so imagine Claremont writing a Star Trek novel, and you’re halfway there.

It’s not unfun, if you like that sort of thing, but it is a bit wearying. It moves like a shot, and there’s a decent level of invention in it. But it gets a bit wrapped up in the details of its own universe and there I go talking about Claremont again. Well ... for better or worse, it’s unlike X-Men in that the book doesn’t focus on a group, but stays pretty tightly on its two main opposing characters. And having two super-competent characters in opposition to each other, alternately doing each other down, makes for an intriguing twist on standard adventure fare where it’s one hero and perhaps an almost-as-competent villain. So it keeps the attention. What more is there to say? People who like this sort of thing will like it a lot.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Readings — Footfall

by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle

This is not by any honest reckoning a good book. But that’s almost okay; I’ve never read anything more cheerfully disinterested in being a good book. This is a book that wants to tell a story about humanoid elephants invading the Earth, and by God that’s what you’re going to get, complete with heroic Americans, rugged survivalists, group-thinking commies, and at least one plucky military heroine struggling with her own sexuality. So, you know, it is what it is, and it burbles along with unflagging narrative drive, and it ends when the bad guys are defeated, and not one moment past that.

The characters are bland and undistinguishable. There’s an attempt at providing a cross-section of (American) society reacting to the invasion; now that we’re in the twenty-first century, and all, it’s striking how thoroughly white (and Northern-European white) that cross-section is. The prose isn’t engaging enough to really keep your interest on its own, but Niven and Pournelle are experienced and professional enough that it never really becomes bad enough to drive you away. The plot is sharp, but there’s something of a lack of real science-fictional sense of wonder. Overall, though, the book does what it does. If you’re looking for a pleasant, undemanding tale of alien invasion, and don’t care if you’re reading a good book or not, this is the one for you.

Readings — Avengers of the New World

Avengers of the New World
by Laurent Dubois

I read this book several months ago for an article I wrote about Toussaint L’Ouverture. It’s a highly-readable narrative account of Haitian independence, from the first uprisings in 1791 through to the country's formal winning of freedom from France over a dozen years later. Dubois has a strong feel for character and incident, and he makes a highly-complex story surprisingly clear, illuminating the way in which factions refuse to be reduced to easy labels.

He also situates Haiti’s story within the overall narrative of Western history, showing its links to the progress of Enlightenment ideals and democracy. I think it’s this aspect that makes the book stick in the mind, especially in light of recent events in Haiti. Without being a propaganda piece, it makes a clear and precise statement for the importance of the country, establishing what its history gives the world.

Haiti’s story is a story of people of three continents, really — the Americas, Europe, and Africa. Dubois makes that clear, and shows how these different groups and different individuals with different perspectives bounced off each other and came to form some kind of whole. That’s a valuable accomplishment, and not an easy one.

Are there difficulties with the book? Sure, since it’s a difficult subject. Dubois has to abandon chronological order at several points to explain one theme or another; that’s obviously not uncommon in historical writing, but I don’t know if it’s always for the best here. It has a tendency to feel, if not exactly vague, at least abstract. Generally, I would have liked to see more a bit more concrete narrative, precise outlines of L’Ouverture’s military campaigns, for example, rather than quick mentions of his brilliance. That said, it would have made for a much longer book, and might have distracted from the points Dubois was making.

Of course it’s impossible right at this moment to think of this book and not think of Haiti’s current situation (reading about a terrible battle around Jacmel, and then seeing that the city is being used by Canadian forces as their headquarters, is oddly sobering). But I don’t know that there’s a direct connection. The story Dubois presents is a human story, men (and very few women) dealing with other men. There’s not much to do with threats of the natural world. The book also gives us a story of, essentially, empowered people; it is in a sense the story of a people coming to power. The nature of the earthquake seems to have been an overthrowing of human agency (certainly the narrative I've seen in North American news reports has focussed on relief efforts from other countries). I suppose the only point I can think to make is that no such disaster can overthrow or obliterate history. Dubois establishes (for those who did not already know) that Haiti’s history is not merely colourful and dramatic, but important.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Readings — The Realm of Prester John

The Realm of Prester John
by Robert Silverberg

Silverberg, probably best known as a science-fiction and fantasy writer, also has a long list of historical non-fiction books to his credit. This one’s about the Christian King in the Middle East, whom medieval Europeans believed would give them victory over the Muslims who had taken the Holy Land. Guess what? He didn’t exist. How the idea of Prester John took hold, and what fragments of reality underlay the myth that developed, is what this remarkable book charts.

Silverberg covers a lot of ground here — almost five hundred years of history, and a sort of widening gyre that ultimately takes in large parts of three continents. You can’t pack that much into a book without strong writing and structuring skills, as well as a strong command of your sources. His research seems strong, and his ability to evoke the different eras and societies he writes about is superb.

Perhaps most suprising, at least to me, is the extended section toward the end of the book which follows the Portugese involvement in Ethiopia in the sixteenth century, a function of the last belated belief in Prester John. It’s a detailed, intriguing presentation of a part of history that’s not discussed all that much. But it’s only one of the cultures, one of the points of contact between cultures, that Silverberg charts; indeed, one might say that the Prester John myth was born out of a kind of interference pattern where different cultures met and failed to communicate. Medieval Catholics and post-Genghis Mongols, most notably, but also, say, early Christians and Indian kings, or romancers and quasi-historians from across centuries whose imaginings were, bit by bit, integrated into the story of the kingdom ruled by the wise Prester John.

There’s probably an inelegant comparison to be made between the realm of Prester John — said to be filled with wonders and gems and gold — and the riches of The Realm of Prester John — which is inarguably filled with narrative gold and colour. But stories and character aside, this seems to me (though I am not an expert in this field) a well-researched book. The version I have is lacking in footnotes, an omission which grieves me deeply; but Silverberg does not stint on quoting from primary sources, and so the book moves along with the rhythms of medieval prose, and thus also of medieval thought. Which helps the reader, almost subliminally, enter the mindset in which kings who command miracles may be imagined, and indeed may be believed to exist.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Readings — The Complete Book of Swords

The Complete Book of Swords
by Fred Saberhagen

On the one hand, this is a collection of a solid three-book fantasy adventure series. On the other hand, it’s an infernally frustrating piece of writing that never quite rises up to its potential.

You can’t really fault it. The ambition, or lack of same, of the series is plain enough from the beginning. It’s readable, exciting, and that’s it and that’s enough. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. The setting’s vivid in its little details, annoyingly vague or peculiar in its large scale. Names are generic, even everyday; Gods are (mostly) named for Greco-Roman myth, and it’s not clear why that is. But the plots are engaging, and vary in nature from book to book, and the scale does open out a bit as the series goes on.

But, damn, what a concept Saberhagen came up with. Those Gods created a dozen magical swords, somehow more powerful than the Gods themselves. Each sword has its own distinctive power, which tends to operate according to specific rules. And each sword has a name. So Coinspinner brings good luck — but tends to vanish when its needed most. Inevitably, the series becomes in part about the discovery of the secrets of the swords. And there’s nothing wrong with that at all. There is, really, quite a lot that’s right.

In fact, the constant presence and mystery of the swords gives the series a real touch of mythic power, of wonder; and makes you wish the three books were better equipped to take advantage. You can’t help but think that the machinations of Gods and the mystery of deep magic and the resonant imagery of the swords should have added up to something truly memorable. Instead, there’s just ... a solid fantasy adventure series. Nothing wrong with that at all.

You just wish it had been a bit more right.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Readings — Castleview

by Gene Wolfe

I’ve noted before that Wolfe is a master of playing about with perceptions, those of his characters, and those of his readers. This novel sees those gifts in full effect, in telling a tale that’s largely about perception, and about the parts of a story we don't see. In essence, this is a narrative about a seasonal war of faerie taking place in the near vicinity of a midwestern town; but exactly what’s happening, and exactly what the stakes are, are left deliberately vague, lost in the interstices between the overlapping awarenesses of the point-of-view characters.

The novel follows the shape of a familiar myth, then, a seasonal conflict, an archetypal battle between kings, between the day and night, the summer and the winter ... though it’s not quite clear who’s playing what role. The small-town setting is almost too real, the characters too purely human, to be reduced to bit parts in a romance. Or, put another way, they're too large; from one point of view they're one character, from another another. Still, the structure of the myth takes over, and guides the story along; the characters are caught up in it, each seeing only a part of what’s actually happening. The story works because the characters are fundamentally believable — simple, many of them, but each with their passions and interests and emotions and moments of transcendence.

The mythic apparatus is well-handled, as are the full-on incursions of fantasy. Wolfe modulates, as it were, the fully human and fully fantastic by including certain of his own archetypal characters — notably, a Merlin-like wise man figure (or is he Mephisto-like?), seeming now malevolent and now benign. It all comes together elegantly at the end, and leaves you with much to think on; much to try to understand.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Readings — Objects of Worship

Objects of Worship
by Claude Lalumière

Claude’s a colleague and friend, so of course this review isn’t going to be impartial by any rational standard. I mean, I do think this is an overall excellent collection of stories. I tend to prefer the super-hero stories to the zombie stories, but then that’s my attitude toward stories in general. So make of that what you will.

That being said, there are a couple of observations that occurred to me. One is that the title of the collection is very well-chosen; the stories tend to revolve around beliefs and Gods. If not Gods, then Heroes, super or otherwise. Literally, objects of worship. The point I want to make about that is this: usually, in writing about these subjects, writers tend to delve into myth. Obviously, there’s some of that here — but the stories here are at least as much about ritual. Rituals of worship, of eating, of hunting and loving and death. The myth that provides the text for the ritual act may or may not be present, characters may or may not take on mythic roles (the son succeeding the father, the child who renovates — makes new — the world), but the rite itself seems to me to provide the focus for most of these stories. Which in turn means a concentration on the physical, the visceral, the body, in a way that much myth-centred fiction, especially fantasy fiction, seems to me to avoid.

The second thing, linked to the above, is that most of these stories derive power from a deliberate incompleteness in their form. Of course a story is defined as much by what it leaves out, or leaves for the imagination of the readers, as what it gives explicitly; but I find a recurring structural principle here to be the sense of partial understanding of a text. The stories give us a glimpse of meaning, a hint of a world, a suggestion of background. We have the rite, but maybe not the myth; or we can deduce the myth from the rite, instead (as is more usual in fantasy, I think) of the reverse. This limited-information technique lends itself to horror — the lack of total understanding, the suspension of normative physical laws, the sense of being caught in something, indeed the inchoate sense of something greater than the quotidian which has overwritten reality, a something which defies expression in words and therefore is not put into words. But, crucially, all those things also may apply to the experience of the divine.

So that is what we have here, I think; stories aiming at unmediated connection with the source of myth. ‘Unmediated’ not only because the myth itself is not present, being for us to construct (so the stories force us or elevate us into the position of mythographers, being therefore mythopoeic in the purest sense), but also because of the absence of any personified sense of deity. There’s no actual God or Gods at the core of the fiction; only what you might call the sense of the divine, but what you could also call (if you are of a materialist bent) a perception of the scope of the universe. One could view this as a transcendence of the human; or one could view it as the culmination of the human. Either way, to return to my first point: that sense is the opposite of what is traditionally considered mystical, because it is of the body. It is, literally, sensuous. Overall, then, there’s a sensibility here unlike any others I can think of.