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.

January Reading Summary

For January, 2010, I completed six books; and added four to the apartment. Not a great start, but all things considered, not so bad. Even if I am only up by two when all's said and done.