Sunday, January 31, 2010

Readings — The Magicians

The Magicians
by Lev Grossman

At first glance it seems almost precious: a novel about a young man who’s inducted into a secret university for wizards, and the schooling he gets there, and then also about the series of children’s books that inspired said young man with a love for magic and what he finds out about them. But this isn’t a sterile exercise in post-modernism. Grossman’s characters live, his prose catches real magic — something that’s a necessity for a book about magic, and a book about books of magic — and there’s a fertility of imagination and invention that convinces. The imagery of clocks and fountains, suitably redolent of Narnia, is worked nicely into the overall structure of the book.

Where the book seems to have a problem, in fact, is in the excessive debt to C.S. Lewis. While the structure of it seems like a parody of Harry Potter, with sexually and pharmaceutically aware college-age students in place of oddly asexual high-schoolers, in fact the heart of it tries to enter into a dialogue with Lewis and the Christian beliefs that are at the heart of the Narnia books. The difficulty is, Grossman’s characters don’t really carry the philosophical or experiential heft that they need to really struggle in a meaningful way with Lewis. They don’t have the intellectual equipment or life experiences necessary to engage with him. That could be intentional; this would then be the ultimate parody of children’s fantasy, a story in which the protagonists are too small to really matter, and, only half-aware of their lack, throw trivial complaints against the architect of their destiny. But it seems unlikely.

The magcians who we follow in the book seem meant to represent people of talent, if not of genius. But none of them seem to think deeply; none of them seem aware of, or moved by, art or philosophy or religion or anything else on a profound level. In that sense, the central conceit of Grossman’s book works against itself: These characters are all linked by their love of a fictional series of children’s books, but none of them seem to have the mental or spritual equipment to move beyond that. I don’t mean leaving children’s books behind for some more “adult” literature; I mean reading in an adult way, whether what is read is nominally for adults or not. It’s that evolution in the reader that really, I think, reveals the quality in a good children’s book — the fact that you can come back to the book as a different, older, person, and still find the book worth reading.

Of course, the experiences the titular magicians undergo in the book are presumably meant to depict the process by which they come to maturity. It’s just that I wasn’t entirely convinced. Certainly the characters, by the end of the book, are older; it’s difficult to tell if they’re wiser. In a sense, the facility of Grossman’s writing is a drawback here; it sometimes seems glib, 'facile’ in the usual, negative, sense. That said, it’s far more often perceptive, gentle, thoughtful, and unexpected. So in the end, the journey here is worth following. It takes you places you wouldn’t imagine, and keeps you involved and engages as it does. I just wonder whether more profound travelling companions would make the experience richer.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Readings — The Silent City

The Silent City
by Élisabeth Vonarburg
translated by Jane Brierley

A complex and resonant story, the most notable thing, perhaps, about this novel is way it shifts and reinvents itself, becoming a different kind of tale every few chapters. It’s set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic setting, with most of the world regressed to savagery and a few mechanised cities still holding secrets of high technology. The story follows a girl (later woman), Elisa, who may hold the secret for the rejuvenation or re-creation of the human race. Gender and reality dissolve and reconstitute themselves as we follow Elisa over the course of decades.

It’s thought-provoking, and almost too rich to hold in the mind. The translation seems solid to me, though I haven’t seen the French original; at any rate, there weren’t too many Francicisms that I noticed (am I wrong to think that Gallicism would be an inaccurate word when speaking of a Québecois text?). It’s thoughtful, unpredictable, and satisfying. Intriguingly, to me it has the feel of a European sf novel — which I suppose I would identify as a kind of allegorical sense, a story that is conscious of itself as a vehicle for ideas more than as a tale driven by genre or indeed narrative conventions. Which is to say that it’s not plot-driven, even though it contains a complex plot, a rich world, and elements of adventure and exploration. It’s almost too full of matter; and that is always worth reading.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Readings — The Folk of the Air

The Folk of the Air
by Peter S. Beagle

When Grace loaned me this book, she mentioned that she didn’t know why it wasn’t in print. Casting about online, I found out that Beagle is in fact in the process of rewriting it. Which disappointed Grace, as the book is a favourite of hers, and she likes it as it is. I can her point, but I can also see Beagle’s. The novel’s a fine tale about a wandering musician who gets involved with a group not wholly unlike the Society for Creative Anachronism, and then also with magic and old Gods and time-lost souls. But it’s slightly loose, the plot maybe not so perfectly constructed. Yet there’s no doubt that overall, it’s a very strong book.

What anchors the novel is its sense of emotional reality. On the one hand, it’s about fantasy and the fantastic impinging on and shaping reality; so it’s about a sense of transcendence, about being touched by extraordinary powers. But it’s also about real life, about mundanity, if you will, in the various senses of the word, about love and lost love and moving on from lost loves. It’s genuinely realistic, in that sense. And it has a heft, a credibility, that many attempts to mix fantasy into reality don’t attain.

But, yes, I can see why Beagle would want to rewrite it, if only to reshape its plot; the novel sometimes doesn’t seem to build in any obvious way. There are payoffs at the end, but the book seems to wander into them, with incidents not quite building on each other in the ways they perhaps ought to. The atmosphere of the book is strong, but becomes somewhat diffuse as a result.

Still, this is a fine book. The character work is fine, the prose exceptional. A lesser writer could be quite happy with having produced this novel; I have to think it says something about Beagle that he’s determined to do better.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Readings — 26th Annual World's Best SF

26th Annual World’s Best SF
edited by Gardner Dozois

This is a thick book, and a good one. It almost goes without saying that enough science fiction is published each year that any year’s-best collection ought to be at least a solid read, Sturgeon’s Law be damned; Dozois has assembled a book that’s a lot better than solid. He’s also, as per his usual practice, included an extremely comprehensive and useful introdfuction, looking back on the sf/f field as a whole for the year previous, investigating trends and presenting all kinds of solid data — number of magazines, number of books published, you name it.

So, what is there that we can gather trend-wise from this collection of over 30 stories? Where’s the cutting edge of science fiction? In general, the prose is very strong, contrary to general prejudices, and covers a lot of different styles. Characters are front and centre. In terms of content, there seems to be a strong tendency toward multiculturalism, towards sf explorations of different cultures. Or, putting new cultures in new contexts. Space opera of one sort or another is surprisingly common, but not space opera per se — large-scale events, but viewed from other, more marginal perspectives. It’s a strong collection, and one of the best sf anthologies I’ve seen.

Readings — Prince of Stories

Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman
by Hank Wagner, Christopher Golden, and Stephen R. Bissette

A kind of bibliographical commentary on Gaiman and his work to date (actually, to the date of the book’s publication), this volume is not what you’d call seriously critical. What it is, though, is comprehensive. Gaiman’s written a lot of fiction over the years, in a lot of different places. I’m genuinely impressed by how much of it the book’s authors were able to dig up.

The book also scores points for clarity. Its discussion of the incredibly convoluted copyright situation surrounding the Marvelman character is excellent. And the interviews that conclude the book, with Gaiman and with Gaiman’s assistant, are fine.

It’s just a bit cloying, at times, and a bit reluctant to really look critically at Gaiman's work. I would have liked to see more clarity about Gaiman’s connection to the authors; he’s a friend and former collaborator with at least one of them. And, friend or no, when you see a statement like “It is our contention that Neil Gaiman is one of the premier fantasists writing today,” you’re already starting to list off other writers in your head to figure out if that’s true; to follow with “perhaps even the premier fantasist” is almost asking for trouble. I mean, I like Gaiman’s work a lot, at least the best of it, but the next sentence after that is ranking him with Tolkien and Borges, and the odd-couple pairing alone makes you wonder what kind of criteria the authors are using.

Still, issues of critical practice aside, the comprehensiveness of the book makes it a valuable resource for anybody interested in Gaiman; and, as noted, the Marvelman section is useful for comics scholars trying to work out that thorny history (which has already moved on since the book’s publication). Overall, valuable, within its limits.

We apologise for the slight delay

Sometimes, plumbing happens.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Readings — Icarus Descending

Icarus Descending
by Elizabeth Hand

This book is the third in a trilogy, following Winterlong and Aestival Tide. This fact was not mentioned at all in the back cover copy of the edition I bought. As it happened, I’d read Winterlong, but not Aestival Tide; so it’s maybe not surprising as I read it that it seemed to me that I was missing something.

That said, the book struck me as a fair example of Hand’s work, with characteristic virtues and defects. The prose is very strong, and the character work is effective, though the science-fictional aspects of the tale tends to put them so far beyond the real that they become somewhat difficult to identify with. The plot is not terribly well-machined, but moves with a relentless momentum nevertheless. There’s a bleakness and a decadence, lush imagery and a web of references.

It’s a strong book, but does seem to me to depend upon its predecessors. There’s a lot of plot, and the book takes a bit of a while to get its legs under it and the backstory is presented. Not having read the second book — and, frankly, with a fair amount of time having passed since I read the first one — it’s difficult for me to judge how this book caps off the story. I think it’s very strong, but does have the feel of ending a larger tale than is actually bound between its own two covers.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Readings — Quarantine

by Greg Egan

I remember, when I was very young, reading an anthology of Isaac Asimov’s science fictional mysteries; that is, mysteries with a science fictional component. He noted in the introduction that editors used to tell him that it was impossible to write mysteries that were also SF. I found it difficult to believe at the time, but after reading Greg Egan’s Quarantine I have to wonder a bit.

It’s not that Quarantine is a bad book. Far from it. It’s well-written, imaginative, challenging thematically and intellectually — Egan works some solid science and math into the story, and keeps things moving along briskly enough that it never bogs down or comes to feel like a digression. His first-person narrator has enough life to carry the story, and enough cleverness and competence to make an acceptable genre hero.

So: This is a good book, and I recommend it. But. At the start of the novel, a private eye, our main character, is hired for a new and seemingly-mundane case. That’s all right. Only the setting is the late twenty-first century, when forces unknown have isolated human beings from the rest of the universe; a kind of bubble appeared around the solar system some years before. Now ... reading the book, I found myself waiting to see how that bubble would play into the unfolding mystery. As indeed it did; because it had to. Because it was part of the world. Because it was part of the SF given. Because why was it there, if not to be in the story? So the apparent triviality of the mystery was obviously a red herring. You knew, all genre conventions aside, that the private eye was going to stumble on something bigger than he could have imagined; because the story had to be structured in that way, just to accommodate its own setting.

It’s not a critical problem, by any means. But it does point up the difficulties that long-ago editor expressed to Asimov. It's not that your suspension of disbelief is challenged, but your suspension of awareness of conventions; your suspension of foreknowledge, if you like. When two sets of conventions mix, sometimes they do get in each others' way.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Readings — City of Saints and Madmen

City of Saints and Madmen
by Jeff VanderMeer

One of the best evocations of a fantasy city I’ve ever seen, this book reads like Loveraft revised by Nabokov. It has Nabokov’s sense of structural play and precision of diction; it also has Lovecraft’s sense of brooding horror, the frisson of man meeting the inhuman. Perhaps Clark Ashton Smith would be a better point of comparison, as there’s a sense of decadence, and indeed of irony, that fits perhaps more closely with Smith than Lovecraft.

Lovecraft was at heart a classicist, and if he extracted a new kind of horror from godless 20th-century science, it was I think ultimately in the tradition of 18th-century deism. City of Saints And Madmen is much more thoroughly post-modernist; in form, it’s a series of texts having to do with the fungi-beset city of Ambergris. Although appearing at first to be separate things, the various pieces of the book cohere to make up a whole. It’s subtle, unsettling, and very well-done; it’s also an intersting way to get at what cannot be known, allowing elements of history and myth to as it were fall in-between the texts. This is less man in an unknowable universe than a universe in which knowledge is futile and untrustworthy.

It’s not as if the stories here aren’t fine tales in their own right, either. VanderMeer’s a strong writer, and builds up an understated atmosphere in his Ambergris, fusing horror and irony in different combinations to create a city of obsessions and degenerate artists and obscure crimes. It’s a truly original creation.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Readings — Cities

edited by Peter Crowther

This is something of an odd collection. The idea seems sound; four fantasy and SF novellas, by four well-known writers (Paul Di Filippo, China Miéville, Michael Moorcock, and Geoff Ryman), on the theme of cities. And certainly the results are never less than interesting. It’s just that the stories don’t really stick to the promised theme.

The first piece, Paul Di Filippo’s “A Year in the Linear City”, is certainly metropolitan enough. It follows a group of bohemians and drug addicts in a vast, perhaps endless, city. Filippo’s satirical, pulpy voice fits well with a story that is, well, pulpy and satiric.

China Miéville’s “The Tain” also works with the theme of cities. More or less. It takes place in a London devastated by a magical apocalypse. But its troubled hero and small group of survivors don’t seem really to have a lot to say to actual urban life. The setting is something that once was a city, in other words, but the environment doesn’t have the cohesive social structure of a real city.

Similarly, Michael Moorcock’s “Firing the Cathedral” is — well, it’s a Jerry Cornelius story. So it works through a kind of dream-logic, with coherence of setting minimal. Nominally it takes place in (a version of) London, but practically, as with Miéville’s piece, it has no real feel for a city’s life.

Geoff Ryman’s “V.A.O.” is a charmingly hard-boiled tale set in a futuristic retirement home. It’s clever, well-written, and seems to have nothing to do with cities at all. It does create the sense of a solidly-constructed world and community, and one based around a science-fictional conceit; but it’s the community of the retirement home, not the community (or communities) of a city.

So the book succeeds in presenting solid, quality fiction; it’s just that the stories don’t have a lot to do with the nominal theme. One wonders what the point was; it feels like something of a missed opportunity. Di Filippo’s story is the only one here that really conveys an urban feel, the only tale to create a living city, with its own personalities and controversies and economies. As I said, odd. Worth reading, though.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Readings — The Adventures of Alyx

The Adventures of Alyx
by Joanna Russ

There’s something understated in this collection of short stories about an adventuring swordswoman and thief. Understated; also thoughtful. Superficially, there’s not much similarity to something like Fritz Leiber’s swashbuckling Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, though Alyx apparently cameos in two of those and vaguely recalls Fafhrd in one of the stories here. The stories are nominally adventure fiction in content, but aren’t structured much like it — the high points seem to come at other points than the action scenes.

In fact, each of the five stories here has its own feel, almost as though each were in its own genre, ranging over both fantasy and science fiction. It’s actually a confutation of genre, changing approach and tone each time out, rather than riffing on a standard concept. The last story, in particular, “The Second Inquisition”, almost entirely discards adventure trappings to tell an affecting SF tale.

The world-building is haphazard, but that’s fine; that’s usually the case in picaresque adventure fantasy, I think. At least, writers like Leiber and Moorcock seem to make up their worlds from story to story, as the individual piece requires; and so it is here. But Russ has a consistent and politicised world-view, with stories shaped by issues of class and gender and power. This seems to make up for a relative lack of imaginative detail, substituting ugly human truths for invention quite effectively.

Russ is known as an early feminist sf writer, and certainly one can see that in these stories. One could argue that there’s a greater interest in these tales with what might be called women’s concerns, and specifically with women relating to other women; the first and last stories both show Alyx in a sort of mentoring role with a younger girl. On the other hand, there’s also strong irony in the handling of domesticity and relationships, which matches the dry tone of the writing overall.

In the end, it’s that laconic style that makes the stories work. Russ is capable of writing lush fantasy scene-setting when she wants, particularly in the first story, but mostly aims for a spare, tight style. It works quite well, and emphasises the untraditional aspects of the stories as a whole.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Readings — Scar Night

Scar Night
by Alan Campbell

A dark fantasy novel set mostly in and around a city suspended by chains above a deep abyss filled with secrets, this book manages to be both inventive and conventional. Inventive, in the fantasy imagery and ideas, and also occasionally in its prose; conventional, in its characters and much of its plot. It’s a first novel, and what I’d have to call “promising”. On the one hand, there’s real writing talent, but on the other, there’s a slickness that threatens to smother the genuinely new and intriguing aspects of the book. A mixed bag, but it does push its story further than you might expect. On the whole, as I said, promising; but I find myself with not much to say.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Readings — The Forge of God and Anvil of Stars

The Forge of God
Anvil of Stars
by Greg Bear

Individually and collectively, I found these books to be quite odd. Superficially, they seem not unusual for science fiction; the first book is about a devastating atack on the Earth by a mysterious alien force, and the second book is about humanity’s revenge. But neither of them quite does what you’d expect them to do.

The reality is, the first book is primarily about the death of the Earth. That’s not really a spoiler; it becomes fairly clear about two-thirds of the way through the novel that the Earth is effectively doomed. The rest of the way Bear follows the characters he’s introduced as they prepare for doomsday, and as a very few lucky souls are saved from planetary disaster. I first read the book as a teenager, around the time it came out twenty years ago. I remember thinking that it was interesting, but didn’t quite work; that it needed to be deeper to be really effective. Coming back to the book, I wondered if that reaction was in part influenced by disappointment that the story didn’t have the usual easy solutions of much genre work. In the end, though, I think my teen self was right on.

I fel bad saying so; there’s considerable ambition in The Forge of God, and Bear tries very hard to give life to a diverse cast of characters. I don’t think it quite comes off, though. The inner life of the characters never really reaches the reader, they don't become quite varied enough as individuals, the internal contradictions of human existence ultimately never quite makes their way free of straight-ahead genre logic. Still, even if the book’s a failed experience, it’s worth reading. There’s a nice parallel, for example, between the death of the planet and the death of a single individual. And Bear’s hard-SF imagination is quite fine. The touch of human life is all that’s lacking, and even that is present enough for most books; except that Bear’s project here seems to me to require exactly what it doesn't have.

Anvil of Stars, the nominal sequel, is intriguing because it’s a completely different book in tone and approach. Here the last children of Earth are guided by one alien species on a kind of search-and-destroy mission against the species that destroyed their old home planet. This turns into a meditation on vengeance, justice, and the passage of time. Also on evolution; travel between the stars means relativistic speeds means that vast amounts of time have passed when the humans catch up with the race that destroyed the Earth (among many other planets). And the humans themselves have been changed by their experiences, by growing up in a radically new environment. That hard-SF imagination is fully on display here, with one fantastic wonder following another.

The second book in some ways is less ambitious than the first, in the sense that Bear’s more fully in his element. One might say that it partially redeems the flaws of the first book, but then one might also say that it’s so far distant from mundane concerns that the first book is at least an attempt at a necessary corrective. Different as the two novels are, they complement each other perfectly. Not only are their subjects different, not only are their approaches different, but the flaws and successes and why those things are flaws and successes are different. They’re two books that are better together than apart, and, in the end, well worth reading.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Readings — A Song For Lya

A Song For Lya
by George R.R. Martin

A collection of Martin’s early short fiction, including the Hugo-winning title novella, the ten stories here range from solid genre work to strong thought-provoking material. None of them seems to me to be at the level of his Song of Ice and Fire series, or of his fiction in the Wild Cards series, but they’re generally entertaining pieces. It’s intriguing to see Martin working in genre-standard forms — short-shorts with twist endings, humans cautiously coming to understand alien worlds, even a ghost story.

In some ways, in fact, the book reads like it could be a collection from the 1950s. That’s not a bad thing; what I mean is that it’s vaguely reminiscent tonally and to some extent structurally of work by writers like Theodore Sturgeon or Alfred Bester. You see some of the heritage of Campbell-era sf mixed with a more humanistic tone; you have square-jawed space heroes, but most often they’re undercut in some way, viewed more cynically. You see plotting that isn’t cliched, but does hew to well-worn traditions and points of view; little sign here of the New Wave of SF.

I don’t know that there really needs to be. In his book Engines of the Night, Barry Malzberg argues passionately that the 50s SF that I’m talking about is an often-overlooked treasure-trove of fiction. If Martin, at the start of his career, was writing out of that tradition, then this book goes some way to support Malzberg’s point. So perhaps it hints at an alternate history for SF, in which the genre didn’t go through the contortions of the New Wave, but evolved at a statelier pace. Consider Martin’s own career in the years since; Wild Cards wasn’t so much later than this book, about ten years or so, but there’s a huge leap in sensibility, more audacious and more radical in its dialogue with the traditional idea of the hero. These stories don’t really suggest that audacity, or the multilayered storytelling of A Song of Ice and Fire, but they’re a solid start for what has turned out to be an excellent career.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Readings — The Light Ages

The Light Ages
by Ian R. MacLeod

Steampunk’s an odd genre, infinitely promising both in its science-fictional and fantastic forms; but it’s relatively rare that actual steampunk works seem significant on more than a surface level. The form’s built up an intriguing visual vocabulary, indeed even an iconography, but it still seems to me that there’s territory yet to mine. The idea of a fantastic Victorian era, shaped by both the fantastic and the industrial, seems to hearken back both to the great Victorian social realists, who wrote of the mechanism of society and its effect on the individual, and to the great Victorian fantasists, who built the genres of fantasy and of ‘scientific romance’ that became sf. The potential seems to be there in steampunk for a fusion of these two approaches. But I don’t know how often that actually happens.

Consider The Light Ages, which fairly explicitly hearkens back to the preoccupation of the Victorian realists with the world around them. In MacLeod’s world, industry is at work mining a substance called aether, which is magic; his story unfolds through the life of a poor boy named Robert Borrows, who grows into a revolutionary and brings about a great change in his world. Which is where things diverge from the realists, of course. In fact, it’s where traditional genre plot structures creep in; a couple of significant individuals bring about significant societal change by uncovering the hidden secrets which drive their world. It’s difficult to see how that applies to the world around us.

But on a more profound scale, I think the project of the realists has fallen apart in this book long beforehand. Consider the language of the novel, for example. A number of people (such as John Clute) have praised MacLeod’s writing style and use of language. I don’t particularly see the greatness in it. MacLeod’s style is certainly fine enough, but seems exceptionally modern for a world that is pre-modern in many of its sensibilities. The language doesn’t fit the story, because it doesn’t fit the characters, because it doesn’t fit the mentalities of the characters. The structure of the sentences, the construction of the paragraphs, sound like a modern novel; and, while it is ostensibly a tale told from a perspective following a great change in the world, the character doing the telling grew up in the earlier world.

So that’s a problem: the mentality and structure of MacLeod’s fictional society aren’t really reflected in the language his characters use. Generally, the politics of the novel reflect the same flaw; they’re very simple, and the way MacLeod presents his society is very reductive. There’s right, there’s wrong, and that’s really that. As opposed to either Dickensian grotesques, or to the depiction of rounded characters capable of both good-hearted and cruel actions.

If realism is ultimately not the strength of the book, neither is its use of the fantastic. I find MacLeod’s attempt at capturing a sense of wonder fall flat. On the one hand, aether’s described as a magical substance, but rarely seems to provoke any sense of the numinous or create any truly magical effects; on the other, MacLeod’s writing never catches the true magic to be found in the Victorian fantasists like George Macdonald or William Morris. It’s true that the book is about the industrial exploitation of magic, but one would hope revolutionaries opposed to such exploitation would be able to articulate the wonder that’s being so drastically thinned. But that never really happens.

So in the end, the book’s an interesting attempt, with sporadically interesting prose. I can’t say I found it particularly memorable. But I still have hope for seeing something better, both from the steampunk from, and indeed from Macleod as a writer.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Readings — Solider of the Mist, Tyre, and Sidon

Soldier of the Mist
Soldier of Arete
Soldier of Sidon
by Gene Wolfe

It’s rare these days that I feel baffled by a novel. Usually, either I feel I grasp the theme of a book at a certain basic level, and understand what’s involved in its imagery; or else it escapes me completely, and flies over my head. This series of books, though, leaves me with the thorough and certain knowledge that I’ll have to re-read it to understand it.

It tells of the adventures of a soldier, a Roman or Italian who fought in the Persian army defeated by the Greeks at Plataea; this soldier, Latro, is a serial amnesiac, who each day loses his memories of the day before. This was caused either by a head wound in battle, or by the curse of a God; the story encourages readers to take it both ways. Latro’s wound, or curse, has opened him up to a range of visionary experiences, and he often sees Gods and apparitions that no-one else can.

The series is nominally about Latro’s attempt to find his way home and recover his faculties, but tends to lose itself in the picaresque adventures with which Latro becomes involved. This is not entirely surprising, perhaps, given the nature of Latro’s injury; lacking memory, he lacks a constant drive, and so lives each day in an improvisatory scramble in which he wakes up and must try to understand where he is and what’s happened to him before making progress toward any kind of goal. This means that he’s oddly passive as a protagonist; he has something that he wants, but he doesn’t always remember what it is.

Nevertheless, Wolfe keeps his story moving smoothly, keeps the prose flowing with an even feel that perfectly evokes the tone of a translated classical text, and above all, plays about with Latro’s handicap in a number of inventive ways. People lie to him, people forget that he forgets, important clues slip by him — but not by the attentive reader. This is where the book begins to become baffling, though. Far more than most stories I can think of, even the most experimental, things happen at multiple levels. What Latro understands makes for a solid adventure story. What is actually happening ... is trickier to grasp. Because he does see the signs of Gods; and those signs have patterns to their recurrence that he, lacking memory, does not see. Even more, perhaps, than with most of Wolfe’s writing, there are multiple narratives, multiple streams of meaning, and if you cannot follow them your understanding of the text will necessarily be limited. For me as a reader, I found it difficult to keep track of the various symbolisms of the different deities at work in the story. And this is why I feel I’ve missed a level of what’s going on; why I know I must reread the series at some point.

In part, the problem is that by the time you understand what’s going on in the book, its devices and symbols, you’re far enough in that much of that symbolism has already been thrown at you. Which I suppose means the book is much like life. But, like all books, it boasts this crucial advantage: you can go through it a second time, or several times, with greater understanding each go-round. That’s something I look forward to, in future.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Readings — Beauty

by Sheri S. Tepper

I’m of two minds about this book. Briefly, it’s the story of a fairy-tale princess who avoids the fate of Sleeping Beauty, and embarks on an adventure that takes her to the present day, the future, elfland, and realms beyond. There’s a remarkable level of invention in the book, and a lot of story, which unfolds smoothly through mostly above-average prose. So that’s all good.

The main character, though, is uninvolving. She’s not particularly intelligent (and is aware of it), and not particularly gifted in any way other than her eponymous beauty. Unfortunately, she’s also the narrator of the book. As a result, much of the elegance of the story and prose is undercut by the flatness of the main character, and her flat perception of the world around her.

The book is often engaging, but wildly uneven. When Beauty (for that is indeed her name) finds her way to a future dystopia, there are no redeeming features to it whatsoever, to the point where the credibility of the society in question is strained (particularly, the fact that society’s in that state and they use time travel for relatively trivial ends). On the other hand, structurally the book's intriguing in the way that Beauty’s tale ends up encompassing other well-known fairy tales, and in the way certain other characters get to provide commentary on Beauty’s own text.

It’s certainly an interesting book, and worth reading. That said, I admit I came away from it frustrated by Tepper’s handling of political issues; in points where I disagreed with her (when she comes out in favour of censorship, most notably) I felt her treatment of the ideas involved was shallow, and in fact this sense was notably present even in the areas where I did agree with her. There’s a sneaking suspicion at that point that Beauty’s own simplistic view of the world is actually meant to be taken at face value, and that suspicion becomes more pronounced the further into the novel we get (there’s a very good review here that makes much the same point). Ironically, Tepper’s paeans to the need to suppress imaginative work she finds personally offensive is itself one of the uglier things in the novel; the book, which aims to be about the gradual thinning of beauty in the world, can’t help but suffer as a result.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Readings — The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman

The difference between a good book and a bad one can be surprisingly subtle. Between a well-structured plot and a formulaic one; between a sympathetic character and a bland nonentity. Between limpid prose and pretension. Between suspenseful writing and melodrama. Between humour that sharpens a mood and hints at depths of personality, and humour that gets in the way of the emotional core of the book and kicks the reader out of the story with excessive self-awareness.

The Graveyard Book shows Neil Gaiman coming down on the right side of all these things. One reason why is his sense for the mythic; or, more precisely, the mythopoeic. The world opens up the further into the story you go; hints and throwaway lines blossom into plots and new vistas. His main character, Bod, reacts to these things ina credible way. If not necessarily flawed in a traditional sense, he’s at least capable of being petulant or frightened.

That’s only natural, all things considered; Bod’s parents are killed in the opening pages of the story, and he’s raised by the ghosts in a local cemetery. That’s the springboard for a story that unfolds in a set of linked short stories, roughly one per year of Bod’s life (the title and structure are a deliberate nod to Kipling's Jungle Book, and in fact the novel's understated, elegant prose has the feel of a classic children's fantasy from a hundred years ago). We get to know him quite well, and to know the ghosts around him, and their different eras. Gaiman, as is his way, works in a ton of references and links to the past, without being obvious about it. One of the pleasures of the book is the way the language used by the characters from different times sounds right in their mouths.

There’s a feel about the book of ‘Harry Potter done right,’ the young boy growing over the years and gaining magic powers, living in a place both part of conventional reality and also someplace totally other. But all the things one might find lacking in the Potter books are present here: the ear for language, as noted, the sense of the mythic, an awareness of depth. Present also are the things the Potter books do well, notably intricate mysteries and a complex plot.

The book won last year’s Hugo Award for Best Novel, which I mention in order to note that I saw a panel at Worldcon where a group of critics discussed the novels on the award shortlist; they felt that technically The Graveyard Book was the best-written book in the group, but expressed some reservation over the fact that the novel seemed episodic, and that it wasn’t particularly deep. I don’t think either of these criticisms is, in the long run, accurate. I think that the individual chapters are each fairly tightly bound into the fabric of the book, both in plot terms, in that they build up the true story of what’s going on with Nod and his world and the killers of his parents, and in thematic terms, in that they expand on what Nod learns in his life and how he grows and what he finds as he interacts with the world around him. Which brings me to point number two, and that is that I think in the end the book has a lot to say about identity. About time, and death, and how we construct ourselves in the shadows of the past. About learning to read, and how to read the history around us. I think a lot of Gaiman’s work plays with these themes, and to me The Graveyard Book is perhaps the most successful of his recent iterations of these tropes.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Readings — Zoe's Tale

Zoe’s Tale
by John Scalzi

This book, I should note off the top, is an installment in an ongoing series. I haven’t read any of the others. Although not strictly speaking necessary, I can’t help but think familiarity with the preceding books would help a reader immensely. As it is, the book suffers from the odd sense, common in novels in the middle of a series, of excessive backstory — characters begin with too much having happened to them. Zoe, the main character, isn’t only the daughter of retired military officers become the leaders of a new human colony on a far planet; she also has a pair of aliens tagging along with her as part of her extended family, her parents having taught the aliens to be conscious. There’s not much you can do about this sort of thing, I imagine; this is where previous books have left the character, and that’s all there is to that.

Still, there are things that might have been clearer if I understood the background of the world. For some reason, humans are opposed to an alien group called the Conclave; it’s not clear why humans aren’t a part of the Conclave. More gravely, in this universe, sixteen and seventeen-year-olds apparently do not have, think about, or talk about sex. So I have to presume that the book’s aimed at a very young audience. Even so, the character work seems to me extremely shoddy.

Zoe’s too intelligent, too articulate, too self-possessed, above all too self-aware, to be interesting. Or particularly believable. At sixteen, to say “Five is a bad age to lose a mother, and to hope to remember her for who she was” is unlikely; to follow it with “I think it could be a good age to lose yourself, if you’re not careful” isn’t making things better. Sure, there’s the right dollop of melodrama, but there’s also a bit too much awareness of the aging process and how it works. It’s not the right kind of way for a teenager to enunciate melodrama.

Looking at Scalzi’s blog, there’s far too much of a similarity between Zoe’s voice and Scalzi’s own voice. Not only in tone, but in pacing — in the rhythm of sentences and paragraphs. So it’s not surprising that Zoe’s voice doesn’t sound real. I can’t help but compare her to the narrator of Miriam Toews’ A Complicated Kindness, which was a book I didn’t care for at all — but which had exactly the opposite set of problems and virtues. It captured something believable in the voice of its main character, a teen girl from a rural community. The problem there was that no story could be found under the voice, meaning that character could not be built because there were no choices to be made, not even the choice not to make a choice. Here we have the opposite; character work fails because the language is flat and the plot overly-determined. Zoe tells us “I am a daughter and goddess and girl who sometimes just doesn’t know who she is or what she wants,” but we don’t believe her.

I’ve spoken so far about issues of voice, but the actions of both Zoe and her best friend Gretchen are just about as unnaturally self-possessed as their voices. About two-thirds of the way through the book, they set off after some unknown aliens who’ve stabbed Zoe’s mom; the scene that develops turns out to be an opportunity for Zoe to show off her enlightenment, communicating with the hostile natives of the planet. You’d think that would involve overcoming her hatred of the aliens for hurting her mother; actually, she seems to to forget all about her mom, and the several colonists the aliens have killed by that point.

Now, in fairness, I should say that it’s not as though those characters are the only two clever, sarcastic, wise, funny people in the book. In fact, so are Zoe’s parents. And her boyfriend. And her parents’ assistant. And every sympathetic character in the book. The not-sympathetic characters? Not clever, sarcastic, etcetera, etcetera. In fact, they tend to be violent and aggressive. Basically, there are two voices in the book, and each character gets one voice or another. Or is an alien lacking consciousness.

(In at least one case, Magdy, a character starts out aggressive and stupid, and then later becomes clever and sarcastic when he becomes friends with Zoe. But then the plot needs him to be stupid, and he is, and he is no longer clever or sarcastic. You remember those Saturday morning cartoons where one of the gang of plucky kids has to be an ass for no real reason other than to show the audience what not to do? That’s who Magdy is: Eric from Dungeons & Dragons. I suppose you could say Zoe’s telling of her tale naturally places her at the centre of the universe, and that she only allows other characters to be clever insofar as she likes them; but I can’t find anything in the text that supports this idea, and the writing is generally so clunky that this self-aware use of an unreliable narrator seems unlikely. I tend to think in this case that bad writing is just bad writing.)

To return to the comparison to the Miriam Toews book: I thought A Complicated Kindness was just the right sort of terrible to win literary awards; it in fact won the Governor General’s Award and the 2006 Canada Reads contest. Zoe’s Tale, by contrast, is evidently the right sort of terrible to get nominated for a major science-fiction award, last year’s Hugo. Now, Scalzi had a blog post, which appears to not be online but which was reprinted in his collection Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded, about his dislike for The Catcher in the Rye and Alienated Teen Literature (his caps) in general. As a contrast, he praises the active characters of Robert Heinlein’s juvenile novels. Personally, I mildly enjoyed Catcher, probably because I didn’t read it in high school, and can’t stand Heinlein’s writing. But granted Scalzi’s book is certainly more in the spirit of Heinlein, it’s still a tremendous failure. Specifically: If you’re going to write a plot-oriented novel, the plot should make sense.

The further the book goes on, the more incoherent it becomes. Zoe’s told that several attacks on her life were made on her old planet, of which she knew nothing; she reacts to this information not at all. Discovering that potentially dangerous animals lurk in the forests of Roanoke, Zoe and her friends decide not to tell anyone (even after somebody gets killed). Zoe’s alien companions tell her that she needs to know how to fight because she’s a very important girl to their whole civilization and enemies would like nothing more to kill her; but a) this was true before she went off to a new planet (you know, when those six assassination attempts were being made), and b) maybe somebody should have thought of this before allowing her to be brought along to a defenceless colony world (seriously, did the Earth diplomats really think having Zoe turn colonist was a great idea?).

Oh, and the aliens are going to teach Zoe to fight despite not actually being remotely humanoid in form. Oh, and also human spies can locate and plant bombs on hundreds of different spaceships and none of them get discovered. Oh, and at the climax of the book the hundreds-of-planets-strong alien commonwealth tries to take the human colony with a hundred soldiers led personally by the chief of a major political faction. Oh, and also at the end a super-evolved alien race decides to make a point by staging a combat of a hundred members of their race in barehanded combat with a hundred members of another alien race, as an ‘entertainment’ (because although they’re highly evolved, apparently they still have a thing for mixed martial arts). Which last sets up an extremely convenient ending to the book, in which a hundred aliens one by one tell Zoe how special she is. Which is, you know, nice for her.

(It’s at this point that the ‘unreliable narrator’ theory is almost irresistable. One imagines Zoe’s Tale as a complete fabrication, a book written by an unremarkable girl so frightened of sex she can’t even mention it, so lacking in allies she must invent a perfect best friend. She lives a life so terrible and dull she must invent a saga that takes her to faraway planets, with parents much more interesting than her own. And the aliens who line up to compliment her in this reading would be a heartbreaking touch — brutalised by abuse or neglect, Zoe compenstates by imagining herself a messiah to a species that only exists in her own imagination, who testify to her own innate greatness; she is a hero in her own mind. From this point of view, the book might actually be touching. The idea’s been done before, but at least it’d explain some of the incoherencies in the novel as it stands. Sadly, I can find no actual textual support for it. All I can say is that Scalzi’s written a book that would actually be better if it were the sort of book he doesn’t like.)

Structurally, the book’s very slow for a plot-oriented adventure. Scalzi opens the book with the colony ship in trouble, then flashes back to give us Zoe’s early life and the backstory of the colony mission. I’ve grown to dislike this sort of thing, which seems to me increasingly common in TV, movies, and (especially) mainstream comics; it seems to me like a cheat, dropping into the story in medias res just to establish some cheap suspense, before then giving the real beginning of the story which happens to be less dramatic and intriguing. Specifically, it seems like a cheat because the uininteresting bits still end up being told; the audience is just given the bait of the really cool bits. That’s a problem here, in that once the faux-beginning is out of the way, nothing particularly intriguing happens for a good long while — over a third of the book. For over a hundred pages we get nothing but Zoe and her friends being clever and sarcastic and ... well, you know. It’s stunningly dull. It could have been dropped very easily, and would not have been missed.

Conversely, the ending makes so sense at all, lurching through a series of anticlimaxes and under-reported battles in which Zoe has no personal interest and risks nothing. The day is saved because one politically important character says so (as opposed to, say, the signing of a treaty binding people to future behaviour). Zoe’s parents, threatened by the possibility of being arrested by authorities, set off for Earth to avoid them (?), to do what I don’t know.

For a story set in the far future, it’s pretty casual about its use of modern culture. It’s nice that Babar survives into the future, but I found it unlikely (... and was the name of sports team, the Slime Molds, a reference to the old computer game Rogue?). More annoying, the teens all have PDAs, which act almost exactly like iPhones. Sometimes Scalzi brings in references from earlier cultures, safely American (the colonists grow maize, of course). Zoe begins the book living on a planet named Huckleberry, later explicitly connected to the eponymous Mr. Finn, despite the fact that it’s largely populated by East Indians. The reference is almost exactly wrong; Tom Sawyer, maybe, with its adventurous kids exploring the place they live, but there’s nothing in this book to compare (in quality or any other way) with Huckleberry Finn, and its long river journey.

Or take another example (some spoilerish stuff follows): the name of the colony world is Roanoke, after the first colony in what is now the USA. The colony famously failed; as we find out, the people who named the book’s colony chose the name as a deliberate reference, since they were setting the colony up for failure. Which means that they sent Zoe, so important to that alien species, to be a part of a colony marked for death. And the authorities who came up with this plan chose a name for the project that would be a red flag for anybody who knew Earth history (do they not have Google in the future?). This is the worst kind of reference to make; it’s a smugly self-aware tip-off meant for clever readers, but which characters in the story should also pick up on. In other words, it erodes one’s suspension of disbelief.

Maybe you’re thinking: so, if these people are colonists ... and there are natives who’re at least semi-intelligent ... hell, they even named themselves after a European colony in North America ... clearly the book deals with issues of colonialism, right? Maybe that’d be why Zoe’s family, the leaders of the expeditions, are the Perrys, as some kind of reference to American exploitation of Japan? Well ... no. No, no thinking of that sort of icky political stuff. Humans plant colonies, humans are right to plant colonies, multi-racial alien commonwealths are evil insofar as they tamper with human Manifest Destiny. It’s the lack of awareness about colonialism that moves the book from “unintelligent” to “distasteful”.

Still, for all the many flaws in the book, what really sinks it is the main character. Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, also nominated for last year’s Hugo, begins with an annoying, unsympathetic teen lead; then subjects him to real hardship, which changes him and makes him into an interesting, motivated character that genuinely compels a reader’s sympathy. Zoe never suffers in any significant way, never grows, and never becomes interesting. Instead, all her tale offers is bad writing. A series of quips and the occasional homily, dialogue like “It’s a small chance. But right now it’s the only one we’ve got,” and an extended turgid eulogy of considerable triteness.

This book is quite, quite terrible.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Readings — Saturn's Children

Saturn’s Children
by Charles Stross

Although not actually formulaic, this book caused me an odd sense of deja vu. Or perhaps meme-temps vu; I could see why and what was happening in each part of the book as I read it, but felt curiously untouched even when abstractly I found myself appreciating the thematic concepts or plot structure. The main character, Freya, is a female robot in a future where humans are extinct and humaniform androids run the solar system; designed for human use, the robots have built their own society in our absence. Freya was originally designed as a sex toy. So were her sisters, derivatives from the same design; some of them, though, upgraded to become secret agents. When Freya finds herself in a threatening situation at the start of the book, she makes a series of choices leading her along the same path, ultimately finding a threat to the whole solar system.

The book’s aware of the gender issues it’s playing with. One of Freya’s first missions is to carry a secret cargo from one planet to another; said cargo is an egg, and the best way for her to transport it is inside her, in a hollow where a human woman would have a womb. It’s a clever notion, but somehow unconvincing; you feel that Stross doesn’t hit the mark he’s aiming for, that his ideas about gender and ideas of life and so on don’t reach the pitch of sophistication he needed in order to make them work (and the occasional Shakespearean reference doesn’t really help).

That absence of maturity is critical: lacking profundity, the gender theme becomes not merely ineffective, but actively troubling. Freya travels by spaceship early on, for example, which buffers her against the rigours of the journey in a very invasive way. Stross is consciously trying to use a quasi-rape scene; but I found his manipulation of this material to lack a real human connection, and thus to be unconvincing — troubling, as I said, in that it took me out of the story, and said very little.

There are a lot of nifty ideas in the book, a lot of imagination, and some clever sense-of-wonder-evoking uses of science. Stross plays about with sf adventure plots easily; but, again, to make the book work on the levels he seems to want it to requires a level of sophistication that just isn’t there. I’d say, for example, that in the use of language the book falls down — the writing’s not bad, but not consistently interesting. I’d also say that there’s a sense that his robots act too much like the humans who built them; their society seems entirely too human.

That’s not to say that Stross hasn’t thought about the robot society. In fact, one of the more engaging aspects of the book is its satire of corporatism. But, as with its take on gender, that satire isn’t sharp enough to really stand out. And the little details of how a society would function on its day-to-day levels given the ability of robots to swap out consciousness, to have bodies not even remotely close to human, is ultimately lacking.

Conversely, his gendered robots are oddly unconvincing in their sexuality. The book is full of weirdly adolescent sentences like: “Jeeves has a small pot-belly, and below that . . . hmm.” This ends a paragraph, and the next goes on to talk about something else entirely; the ‘hmm’ hangs there, a coyness that falls with a clunk. If Stross wanted to bring sex in as a major theme, I can’t help but think being prepared to write about it explicitly would have been an asset. But the problems are really deeper than that. It’s impossible to really work out how the robots are reacting in terms of their sexual emotions. Consistently through the book, one has the feeling that the hardware is in place to mimic human functionality, but the software still has a few bugs in it. The problem is that it’s not clear at all that this is deliberate. It reads too much like a traditional sf flaw — the subordination of human character to big ideas.

Robots are programmed to feel sexual desire, are manipulated by sex and rape; but these things start to seem self-contradictory or under-thought: how does rape affect a being programmed to feel sexual desire? And how does one make the question relevant to human experience? And how is it that robots can be so reliably shaped in certain ways by these things, when humans tend to exhibit a range of responses?

Further, while sex is a major element in the make-up of the robots, gender seems curiously irrelevant. On the one hand, that’s logical; if you have robots built in the shape of a hotel, for example (or, if you prefer, an AI that inhabits a hotel-shaped shell), then the physical differentiation of male and female bodies is essentially insignificant. But then, when that hotel self-identifies as male, the issue of gender re-enters the picture. In theory. In practice, there’s no discussion of the meaning of robot gender — no sexism, no societal roles, no transsexuality, no investigation of what gender does to identity.

So, while Stross has big thematic ideas based on sexuality, identity, and control, the application of them in the story comes off as the application of sf tropes, starting with the sexbot protagonist and moving on up to a plan to conquer the solar system. The book tries to use its sf conceits to explore themes of sex and power, but doesn’t manage the depth it would need to really do something new. And, in the end, the android nature of its protagonist, a key part of its attempt at building a metaphor, causes the enterprise to collapse. You can imagine Saturn’s Children being a good book, if you try. Unfortunately, the reality doesn’t quite pull it off.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Readings — Bridge of Birds

Bridge of Birds
by Barry Hughart

A clever fantasy set in a magic-drenched version of Tang dynasty China, Hughart’s book is an excellent and intricate romp through folklore, pseudo-myth, and history alongside two memorable characters: Number Ten Ox, who was given the number because he is a tenth-born son and the name because of his strength and wit, and Master Li, a scholar with a slight flaw in his character. Together, they find their way through an adventure filled with the supernatural, and narrow escapes, and beautiful noblewomen, and jealous husbands, and, importantly, a real sense of wonder.

The book works partly because of the intricacy of its plot, and partly because of that wonder, that ability to capture the true feel of a folk-tale. It is, precisely, folkloric rather than mythic. It has the coldness and occasional incidental brutality of a folk-jest, and makes scenes that might be difficult to take (Master Li, as noted, has that slight flaw in his character) somehow palatable by sheer tonal accuracy. And yet, intriguingly, for all that it captures that fokloric tone, it also has a highly-worked plot, a clever and complex structure which binds together the many tales Ox and Li encounter.

Oh, and it also has a sly deadpan voice. Ox presents himself as an intellectually humble man, and in comparison to the brilliant Master Li he may be; but this is exactly the Holmes/Watson relationship, where the narrator is cleverer than might at first appear. This is fine stuff, and I’ve already got one of the sequels. Kudos to Jen Eveleigh Lamond for recommending it to me.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Readings — Sailing to Byzantium/Seven American Nights

Sailing to Byzantium/Seven American Nights
by Robert Silverberg and by Gene Wolfe

One of the Tor double-novels from a few years back, these two novellas at first blush seem to make sense as a package — but, upon reading, present very different experiences. Silverberg’s story is a well-written, swiftly-paced tale that moves efficiently through several science-fiction tropes: in a far future where a small group of bored immortals play with the world on a scale we can barely imagine, a man is brought forward from our time and falls in love with one of the immortals who hides a dark secret. It’s all nice enough, with some cute nods to Michael Moorcock (whose Dancers at the End of Time books trod similar ground), and some interesting thoughts on cities (the immortals create fake cities, based on real cities in a specific era, mixed with myth and fiction, in which to spend their days). The Yeats quote feels forced, a grasping after symbolism, but then again it also points to some of the ambition the story at least intermittently displays. Overall, a solid piece of genre work, competently done.

Wolfe’s story, though ... ostensibly, it’s the diary of an Iranian prince coming to America in a future where the United States has been reduced to third-world status, and the many strange things he finds, and the terrors he comes across that sends him away from the decadent future city of Washington, D.C., and into the forests of the continent’s interior. Look closely, though, as the story invites you to, and it becomes something entirely different. Only what exactly it is, is difficult to make out.

Wolfe has two recurring tricks — or ‘techniques’ might be a better word, as he usually deploys them not merely with dexterity but with a depth that probably could not be reached any other way. Firstly, he plays with his character’s perceptions. Particularly in first-person stories, he has no hesitation at all in having his characters describe something about which they are completely mistaken, or having them assume things without even realising that they’re making an assumption. They think they see something, but then it turns out they don’t. What they presume to be concrete reality is actually a dreamscape or hallucination.

Secondly, Wolfe is a master at using narrative lacunae to enhance a story. He has an awful lot of things happen in gaps — gaps of consciousness, gaps of awareness, gaps torn in the fabric of story like (in this case literally) pages torn out of a journal. In other words, often the essence of a Wolfe story resides in what is not told. It is in what is implied; or, what the reader can tease out from the hints embedded in what seems a simpler or even superficial story. The introductory page to the WolfeWiki (a valuable resource to me as I thought about this story) sums things up quite well.

So in this story there is a hallucinatory drug, which may or may not be ingested during the course of the story. There’s a story-forging machine, which may or may not have written chunks, or a chunk, of the story. The story as a whole seems to collapse in on itself; nothing is certain. I think this is deliberate, but I’m not certain. The prose is well- and tightly-written, but the narrative seems to subvert itself so thoroughly that you end up questioning whether it hangs together at all.

Which may mean the title of this novella points back to its source, as well. Wolfe nods to the fabulation of the One Thousand and One Nights while trying to go in a different direction, and create something almost beyond narrative. I don’t know if he’s wholly successful. To say the story requires a close reading suggests that a close reading would clarify it in some way; it may be, in the end, a story about the gaps in stories.

But I’m not at all sure about that. So, like much of Wolfe’s work, it is a tale that invites cogitation. It’s something you have to think about, and successful insofar as it’s something worth thinking about. I’m not sure it’s a masterpiece in any way, or if it is, I suspect it’s a flawed masterpiece. But it is a useful example of Wolfe’s sensibility and techniques, an intelligent work in prose that twists in the reader’s mind.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Readings — The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell

The Doors of Perception/Heaven and Hell
by Aldous Huxley

I had of course heard of Huxley’s book long ago, though only vaguely. I knew nothing of what it was actually about. Which is why I was surprised to find that, above all else, it was a book of art criticism. Although there’s much in these essays about the psychedelic experience, the book’s most interesting insofar as it considers how this and other ways of seeing apply to the history of art.

To call Huxley’s writing ‘lucid’ is an ironic understatement. There’s a clarity of approach here which belies these essays’ status as underground, or at least counterculture, landmarks. Instead, there’s a sense of these writings as being in the tradition of the essayist as critic, the man of letters as scholar. They read like measured, thoughtful considerations of unusual experiences.

I’ve never taken psychedelic drugs, but the experiences Huxley describes in terms of the nature of vision and art are familiar, are things I can grasp. It’s a mistake, then, to imagine that these essays are solely of relevance to those interested in drugs. They’re about the attempt to capture a transcendent experience. Time having passed, one can now be sceptical about the nature of transcendence involved in the drug experience — surely such a mass enlightenment would have had more of an effect on the world by this time — but the way that Huxley approaches what was for him a new technology hinting at new realms of vision is intriguing.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Readings — London: City of Disappearances

London: City of Disappearances
edited by Iain Sinclair

I used to believe that the best writing, or at least the best novels, tended to the polyphonic: incorporating multiple voices, building a context out of the balance between perspectives. Lately, though, I’ve begun to wonder. Is it actually possible for any one person, however gifted, to actually create multiple different voices? The trite answer is simply to say that is in this gift that genius consists, but I’m not at all sure that’s enough. I am not speaking, here, of one person going beyond their personal experiences of gender or ethnicity or class; nor am I even speaking of the ability to create a character who thinks differently than oneself. I’m wondering about the possibility of creating in one’s head, or on the page, multiple different entities who use language in individual ways, who experience the world in physically different ways (one perhaps having a greater tense of the tactile world, another being visually oriented, another being wrapped up in their own skull), who have different talents and gifts and defects and who perceive the world through those lenses. Whose heads are put together in fundamentally distinct ways.

Of course that’s the sort of thing that can be simulated to some extent; that’s what character creation is. And if these simulations resonate enough with our own experiences, we can say that they seem real. But to fundamentally create characters, to bounce them off each other — of course the art of the novel lies in the structure of their interactions, as well, and so therefore derives from the novelist’s individual sensibility, and therefore the sense of polyphony the novelist creates is a myth. But is even the appearance of polyphony credible? Or are certain aspects of the novelist inherently embedded in whatever character they create? Again, genius would tend to have fewer of these limitations; but to what extent is even the greatest genius so limited?

(I might note that inherently collaborative forms, theatre and film and comics, don’t strike me as any more effective than prose. This may be because I instinctively respond to these forms less profoundly than I respond to pure use of language. But it also might be because, although there is a dialogue between artists in the creation of the work, the dialogue a) is between artists and not between characters, and/or b) operates on different levels, so that what the actor brings to the script is wholly different than what the writer brought. To the extent that different actors interact in character, they’re still interacting in the form of the single voice that wrote the script. Or so it seems to me.)

None of these thoughts or questions are particularly profound, and indeed are rather obvious. But the sense of multiple voices living within a text or narrative still seems to be a goal for writers and readers alike. And this is interesting to consider in the context of Iain Sinclair’s anthology London: City of Disappearances.

This mammoth anthology is stuffed with the matter of London; which, to Sinclair, means everything that’s not there. It’s a kind of paradox: one of the great cities of the world, notable for its variety and range, is defined (to Sinclair) by absences. He builds a convincing case, creating a literary London familiar and strange, violent and seedy and unknowable as well as lyrical and beautiful.

And when I say ‘he’, I do mean that there’s a sense that Sinclair himself is working through his collaborators to build his London. The volume has a whole has the sensibility of one of Sinclair’s own works, although it’s overall less elliptical and stylised in its prose. But given that, it is, still, the creation of multiple different individual perspectives. It is a true polyphony, which resolves into a harmony — and it happens to be a harmony stylistically familiar to those of us who know Sinclair’s other work.

Sinclair does have some small pieces in the book himself, as does his wife and some past collaborators like Rachel Lichtenstein and Alan Moore (who contributes one of the longest pieces in the book). But much of the book is by other hands, and it’s Sinclair’s cunning juxtaposition of text with text that gives them a sense or voice that they might not otherwise have had. His editorial creativity shows not only in terms of who he approached for pieces, but how he assembled their work. The book becomes a collage, and the texts seem to speak to each other, forming a network as any city does of landmarks and shared experiences.

(It’s interesting to me to compare this book to Humphry Jennings’ book Pandaemonium, another collage-like anthology which assembles disparate texts from across a couple centuries to create the sense of how England dealt with the Industrial Revolution. It’s unfinished, though, and the texts there were pre-existing writings chosen deliberately to fit Jennings’ theme. Not a perfect match, then, but worth considering.)

There’s a hardness to much of the prose here, a vigour and a swiftness. At the same time, there’s a mystery to much of the subject matter; this is a book of disappearances, of the unknown. Occasionally, as in Moore’s piece, that touches on the explicitly esoteric. Other times, it has to do with espionage, with the bohemian fringe, or with crime; it is a book of under-worlds and demi-mondes.

I remember reading a piece in a London literary paper not long before the book came out, cooing at Sinclair’s dismissal of Zadie Smith’s “essentially suburban” outlook. Reading Smith, I appreciated what Sinclair meant. Reading this book is a reaffirmation of something greater. A fool sees not the same city that a wise man sees; I’ve been to London, years ago, and it looked nothing like this. I wonder now if I were to return, wiser, what I would see; and whether the metropolis might come to resemble this book.

Does the unity of the book answer the question of whether an individual can create a polyphonous work? If the anthology has a feel so like Sinclair’s own writing, does it suggest that we are each of us in some way anthologists of ourselves? Do truly distinct voices emerge from within ourselves, or in some way speak through us when we write? Certainly some writers have spoken of feeling that to be the case; is that a psychological tic, or a symptom of some other truth?

Conversely, is the editor of the anthologist, in this case, functionally similar to that of the novelist? Is the rejection of the sensibility of Zadie Smith a limitation of polyphony? But then, is even the broadest diversity not in part shaped by what it excludes?

Or does it matter? Perhaps the point I’m coming around to is this: if the anthology is so close to Sinclair’s own work and voice, then does it mean that prose is a medium capable of synthesising voices? If the evidence suggests that multiple voices sound like the voice of one man, then does it follow that one man’s voice may contain within itself multiple voices? Or, at least, that one voice may mimic the sound of multiple voices within the medium of prose in a way that is indistinguishable from the reality of different voices?

I suppose I’d like to think so.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Readings, and other things

Well, that was an annoying delay.

I broke my modem a bit before Christmas, and only now am I back online. It says something odd about society, perhaps, that being able to access the internet is so very important, but (it seems) the only way to get a modem easily is through your ISP.

Anyway, the time off-line may have been useful. I completed the novel I was working on; it's a very rough draft, but is overall complete. It's 106 000 words, and I wrapped it up on Christmas Day a bit after 1 PM. Now I have to put in some heavy time revising it.

Between Christmas and Boxing Day, I added 12 books to the apartment. I read 10 through December, one of them from the library. So that's a total of 113 books read on the year, with absolutely no change in the number of unread books in the apartment overall. I still intend to write about the books I've read, so have added a general-purpose 'readings' tag. I think the exercise of keeping track of my reading was a good one, so I'll continue that for the future, and see how it goes.