Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Surface Detail

by Iain M. Banks

In short, I was very impressed. Excellent read, very engaging and with a lot of substance to say. It's a return to form for Banks, while not nearly at the level of his greatest Culture books, it was much, much better than Matter. The work felt like a meaningful addition to the Culture universe, offering very new areas and themes that felt like an expansion of previous books. In the process it offered a take on virtual reality, particularly the politics that might ensue, that managed to make a very well worn SFnal theme feel unique.

The plot was quite strong, juggling a lot of different elements into a cohesive hole. There were plenty of surprises and twists but they never felt gratuitous, it was almost always clear why people were acting in the manner they did, and the whole scenario held together quite well. The obnoxious political preaching that dragged down Transition so much was basically absent. While there was a clearly unfavorable representation of conservativism and a brutal satire on traditional values---we need our eternal Hells for social cohesion!--it's left implicit in the way the story unfolds rather than emerging through prolonged preaching. The characters were also much more engaging than I've seen from Banks for almost a decade. Yime was a bit too irrelevant in the way the story developed--an element which was noted in the epilogue--but apart from that it felt like a fully developed cast with a lot of interesting arcs, even in situations where they were mostly observers. Things didn't seemed to be forced, instead there was setting up a lot of people from different positions and then running through them to flesh out the story and the wider narrative. The way Chay became much more prominent than she initially seemed posed for was good, and her story developed in perhaps the most surprising direction.

Vepper was a much more interesting villain than has appeared for awhile. At first I wasn't very impressed--that first chapter with him as a corrupt rapist and killer gave me a rather unfavorable expectation beginning the book. Yet, as it developed his position proved quite an interesting one. Undoubtedly evil, he wasn't nearly as over the top as he seemed, and also featured as a lot smarter than first appearances suggested. The very ending where he's finally killed didn't completely work for me, but most of the stuff in the middle balanced out quite nicely, and provided a very effective pivot to hang the narrative on.

Above all, I loved that the Banksian tone was back, the excellent use of humor, control over these elements without getting lost in them. And all with a very prominent viscous edge, a level of dark humor that makes Banks' writing utterly distinctive. It showed up a bit in the mechanics of the Hell, but even more effectively in the Culture-centered portions, the way past and current violence is rendered. In this regard the Legdedje-Demeisen dynamic was probably the most engaging. Overall there's an energy and lightness of tone, even when coupled with some rather harrowing scenes, that made this perhaps the most enjoyable science fiction book from 2010 that I've yet read. The length of the piece never grates, and is used to build up some very interesting species, invented history and wider characteristics. The new insights into the Culture were also welcome, from an extended look at how the devastation of Orbitals in the Idiran war operated to a look (for the first time) at military and intel branches beyond Special Circumstances.

The ending epilogue was quite an interesting move. I'd have previously thought that tie ins to earlier books were best avoided, that Use of Weapons was best left a completed story in itself. Nevertheless, the final line and the tie in of what had previously been an isolated character was very interesting, and added a level of complexity and wider ambiguity to the preceding account.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

An Artificial Night

by Seanan McGuire

An unexpected pleasure, this. Certainly a lot better than Rosemary and Rue, Feed, or even A Local Habitation. There are problems--the overall thinness of the worldbuilding, emotional flatness of the not too bright protagonist, the book consistently snarking in a way that is about as tenth as amusing as the text seems to think it is. Nevertheless, it's a step up in quality in a number of ways. Unlike all her other novels up to this point, McGuire wrote a book that doesn't depend on any kind of mystery or conspiracy with a psychotic mortal. Instead it's a standoff with a creature of myth and terror, someone who makes no attempt to hide and who everyone knows immediately is the villain. That avoids the utter idiocy of the previous Toby Daye books as well as Feed, and settles into an overall momentum that's quite engaging. The book feels significantly better paced for the main part, with action sequences spread across the bulk of it organically, and some areas where things are really quite tense. There are also some very appealing supporting cast members, I'd like to have seen more of them but as was they brightened the book considerably. Tybalt is one of them, naturally, the other has to be May, Toby's harbringer of doom that just keeps hanging out. She's so cheerful and weirdly optimistic that there's a lot of pleasure in seeing her interact with people.

The book is far from perfect, and has some issues that should have been cut in the first draft. Blind Michael is rather anti-climatic when he finally appears, for one thing, and doubly so when he's killed off far too easily. It doesn't really make sense why Toby is being employed in this crucial matter, and she continues to not be smart enough to keep the work viable. And there was a reappearance of Julie that that was completely unnecessary, serving no plot or emotional point beyond dragging things out for another chapter. I also wish the worldbuilding made even a little sense, the whole practice of conservative xenophobic changelings routinely entering their children into public school with humans is rather silly. Plus for this book there's the notion of a group of immortals being surprised by Blind Michael's kidnapping, despite him doing this for ages every hundred years. Still it was fun, exciting and makes me interested in McGuire's next book, even if it's in the Newswatch series.

Similar to and better than: Dead Beat by Jim Butcher

Similar to and worse than: Daughter of Hounds of Caitlin Kiernan

Sunday, November 14, 2010


by Connie Willis

I read Blackout several months ago. Atrocious in quality, an incredibly dull experience that makes me even more puzzled over Connie Willis' high reputation.
Too much of the book revolves around coincidences and people not quite meeting each other, the future is thoroughly anachronistic (phones with cords in 2060 Oxford?) and the setup is exceptionally derivative. It's unfunny, unexciting and relentlessly dull. Exceptionally little happens, the characterization is thoroughly cliched, and as a take off time travel it's thoroughly flawed. Time travel has been done so many times, often quite creatively, that for Willis to come along in 2010 and simply recreate the experience of the Blitz is not enough, it's failing to offer anything like an appropriate amount of creativity. What's worse, Willis isn't a very good historian. Not in the context of the details of London as such, but in her writing historians in a credible manner, which given most of the protagonists are historians makes a rather large problem. For one thing, there's the notion that given timetravel a future Oxford can think of nothing better to do than send people into the most dangerous hot-spots of the past to observe what's going on. Second, the people that go back are exceptionally stupid, focused on a very narrow portion of the past and left floundering when the inevitable happens and they can't easily get back.

Another problem is the whole presentation of history that emerges here, where apparently the point is to witness heroics and accomplish them. In a rather clumsy update for modern conditions 9/11 is added to the list of great heroic exploits under crisis, to which is also included the Blitz and Pearl Harbor, among others. It's a thoroughly Eurocentric view, for one thing, it's also one that prioritizes individual exploits and flashy altruism above a real understanding of complex social conditions. There's one point where one of the historians fears that Churchill is dead, which would cause the loss of the war to the Germans. This is frankly a stupid viewpoint that shows the historian in question to be a moron, there's no credible reason to believe the Germans could have been able to land on British soil regardless of success in the bombing campaign. Furthermore to accept Churchill as the one bulwark is to buy into the worst kind of simplistic propaganda. It's fairly obvious the ways that this book fails as a novel, but it's also quite underwhelming taken as serious engagement to the past. As a corrective, Clive Ponting's 1940: Myth and Reality is a short read and an effective dismantling of the more simplistic nostalgic view.

I hated this book thoroughly and have zero interest in reading the concluding volume or really anything else Willis has written or will write. There is quite literally no point. I would be curious to hear from people who liked this book more though. What is the appeal? Obviously there's a lot of subjective impression involved but it's pretty blatant that as a piece of science fiction this book doesn't add that much, that the plot is by any standard exceptionally slow, and that the characters are not terribly complex.

Out of the Black

by Lee Doty

There's a scene early on in Out of the Black where Ping is being questioned by the FBI. He's introduced to two agents of differing personalities and promptly declares: "'You know Garvey, I already like and trust you, but Bad Cop here scares me. You know...' Ping paused, stroking his chin in a parody of deep thought, '...the weirdest part is that the two of you together make me want to cooperate fully.'" [120]

Ping subsequently continues to think of the two as Good Cop and Bad Cop, and the narrative follows this approach. That moment captures a lot of the sense of this novel, and is probably a guide into whether a given reader will enjoy this work or not. If you found this interlude and the direct self-awareness of the moment a clever point of energy and humor, then it's likely you will enjoy the larger book. There is after all a fair amount to recommend it, fast pace, decently twisting plot, an unfolding setting, and a work that balances overt humor with a fairly light tone throughout. This is a book where it's easy to see why many people have responded favorably, and if someone approaches the book and likes it on those terms fine for them.

I didn't like that early scene, however, and have to count myself as one of the people who were put off by the overly self-aware narrative and the wider tone it supported. The problem is that this writing fundamentally is a case of cliches, and having the characters be aware of and engaging with such cliches doesn't ultimately make it any more creative. This lack of creativity, the courting of low ambition made the story drag at just the points where it put the most emotional emphasis down. I can be accused of holding too high standards, perhaps, but at some level this remains a five hundred page piece of speculative fiction, and there is the potential for the author to do noteworthy things with that area. Instead what's provided is ultimately a thin narrative, working decently when it's trying to be frightening, working less effectively for my money when it's trying to be humorous, but in any case working for a fairly low bar of action. There's nothing that precludes a novel from being both an effective action-experience and delivering a something of substance, but in this incarnation the later seems to not have been on the table. It becomes most apparent near the end when truly cosmic horror emerges and the narrative would benefit from a sense of real collapse and menace. Instead, what emerges are specific scenes of tension framed by talk of ninja-zombies, in a way that shows the story ultimately failing to take itself seriously.

This all makes it sound like I'm harsher on the book than I really am. There were some good lines and inspired moments--"Most were wearing that evil gonna-get-to-cut0someone grin considered socially acceptable in pre-muder situations." [183] but the work as a whole suffers from over-statement, over-emphasis, forcing a measure of character response that suits a type of wry meta-commentary but is not credible in the situations depicted as such. Along with the story showing too little, ultimately, of real credibility and force there is too much of some of the characters, reveling in their thoughts and cultural comparisons, to an extent that it makes the whole venture appear as rather silly. I'd take Issak Kaspari picturing himself as a mad scientist [223] as a strong example of this, where his quirks and imagination are inflated to a point where any sense of his complexity or larger believability as a character get smothered. What people are saying and thinking is far too obviously in for the state of allowing the novel to position itself in the field.

With all this I'd still have considered it fairly passable, considering the relative effectiveness of the final story, but there's a final major factor that weakens the text. The worldbuilding is where the lack of creativity really becomes crippling, and the issue of taking the future seriously becomes much harder. In essence, this does not feel adequately like a believable extension beyond the present. While there are clear indications of technological change the political dynamic is overly conventional, and the cultural references are incredibly overt. The constant references by characters to Blade Runner are implausible but perhaps can be excused thematically, but the issues go beyond that, with people having a deep working familiarity with The Matrix, Cool as Ice and similar films of that era, but not anything beyond that, or really any cultural construct after the present. It would be as if the whole of our current literary references had no one latter than Henry James. It's incredibly implausible, and features as a real point where more authorial innovation and willingness to go become the conventional would have been effective.

Not a terrible book by any means, but an overly unambitious one, without strong enough humor or sentence-by-sentence writing to give the book enough substance.

Similar to and better than: Feed by Mira Grant

Similar to and worse than: Revelation Space by Alastair Reynolds

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Concerning Robert A. Heinlein and Stephenie Meyer

Thinking it through, I've decided that Heinlein and Meyer are largely similar as writers, in terms of underlying approach and why they have their popularity. This is a somewhat counter-intuitive judgement. After all, Heinlein was a foundational writer in 'Golden Age' science fiction, noted for contributing to the focus on sex and violence, and generally resistant to sentimentality. Myer writes young adult vampire fiction with a strong romantic focus. The way they're marketed is different, the direct subject matter is significantly different, and there doesn't appear much overlap between the two groups of fans. Most Heinlein enthusiasts I've seen snarl at the mentioned of Twilight, and I suspect the typical group of Twilight fans would dislike Heinlein's classics. What is the commonality then? Well, they're both popular authors that I find grotesquely overrated, but that's not sufficient grounds. I dislike Twilight and Hylozoic, but see very little similarity between the two. Heinlein and Meyer are ultimately more complementary.

It's somewhat revealing that the similarity is rejected so forcefully, I suspect most Heinlein fans would snarl at the prospect. Certainly it's not that Rico and Bella are identical in the main positions of their life, the external focus are very different. What's similar is the lack of a real personality, the way they are in fairly character-oriented books but are without much defining personal detail, larger interests or a sense of inhabiting a world beyond the pages. The main advantage to this is it enables the reader to construct their own position on the blank slate that is the protagonist. Like in some Role Playing Games, one is given a name, a set of skills and a larger story to follow through on, but the more direct aspects of who the person is remains undefined. The narratives are largely open-ended, ambiguous in a key presentation even while they're very insistent on key arguments elsewhere. Obviously there are major differences in the stories, genres and way the two are constructed, but someone that rails against Meyer's poor characterization while taking Heinlein as some kind of model for effective characterization is being inconsistent. This doesn't necessarily say that the two writers are on the same level of quality, and as written works Heinlein's are aesthetically better. Both authors are monumentally flawed on aesthetic grounds, and on the level of compelling well thought out ideas, which suggests there are other components behind the popularity.

The structure behind the two authors writing for this is obviously fairly different, but also complementary. I take both Heinlein and Meyer to be misogynist writers who presume and validate the primacy of men in their idealized narratives. Male drive is taken as the force behind events, masculinity is the basis of public action and power, and unstable male behavior is accepted as an acceptable price for adoration. Where the two authors differ markedly is what they take as the focus of their stories from that point. Meyer is all about femininity within this male-dominated structure that her stories accept: the female protagonist is passive, self-injuring, self-loathing, alienated from her body and in continual need of rescue. The rescuing male is highly creepy and intrusive, but that's accepted as a sign of love. Heinlein takes the standpoint from the perspective of men, showing the protagonist as rough, super-competent, generally a sex magnet, generally witty, whose success with women is justified by the sheer possession of machismo. Heinlein did a lot to introduce sexuality into science fiction narratives, and it increasingly became an obsession in his late writings, particularly through the form of incest. I'd say that for Heinlein particularly late in his career it's not about casual and nonconventional sex as leading to any type of societal shift, challenging norms in general. Sex is a matter for individual men to exercise and achieve, with the behavior of the masses not really a matter of concern for his stories. Nor does it even really seem fuelled by hedonism, in the way it's generally understood. I'd say it's about a man being able to get a woman any time he wants, a variety of women, up to and including blood relations. That marks him as the ultimate model of virility, power, superiority. It's tempting to read Heinlein's stories as directly sexualized and polygamous while Meyer's are non-physical and monogamous, but that contrast doesn't really hold with Heinlein. For all his exploring themes of group marriage and group sex, in an equal number of his stories he ends with pairing off a couple and settling things down rather conventionally.

In a strange way this brings it back to Twilight. That book took heterosexual monogamous love to blatantly idolatrous extremes, famously teaching that a woman should cherish a man's love even when it was accompanied by stalking and menace. Heinlein doesn't prioritize romance, or even sex, to anything like the same extent, but when he does it's not exactly free of dysfunction. His books teach that a woman can still have a stable and happy monogamous relation with a man, even if he belittles her, tries to kill her or rapes her. Ultimately Meyer and Heinlein's gender representations aren't as far off from each other as they may seem, and can actually be quite compatible. That's perhaps the best indication of how screwed up both standards truly are.

Mostly the discourse on Heinlein as against Meyer seems to emphasize the skill of the former more--since he was such an influential figure in the genre, since he ostensibly had such interesting thinking on politics and political systems. Meyer is seen as just a YA vampire romance writer, and particularly as a lot of the mass cultural critique of her turns on her belief system she's assumed to be more naive and thoughless in her writing. Looking at the two I find it just the opposite. Heinlein plainly puts himself on the page a lot more, and a lot of his main world systems are the expression of different contradictions that he seemed to be trying to work out. Meyer's main story seems the more controlled, the more calculated, the one focused on delivering a specific type of formula in a new and stronger fashion and appealing to a specific subset in the population.

One could say that Heinlein is the utopian spirit within capitalism, producing the narratives that sell an image of heroic individuals fighting for their right to market forces. Meyer's Twilight, in contrast, in the working of the capitalist process on the level of genre fiction more consciously, and without illusions as to what it's doing. As a book Twilight aims to produce a certain fantasy that will appeal, and provides as much plot and as little character as appeals to that end. In it's content it's precisely about living in unrewarding economic situations without the dream of libertarian betterment and heroic uber-masculine success. Instead it pivots on a fantasy of rescue through the technology of romantic infatuation. In a world coded for despair and psychological under-fulfillment, utopia comes from outside the self, outside the conventional economy, outside the natural. The Cullens are wealthy, aristocratic, but beyond that they exist outside the regular economy, offering a non-religious salvation that transcends physical boundaries. In that sense it's not surprising that Heinlein can't get enough of politics while Twilight is entirely void of it.

The anti-Twilight standpoint is interesting to look at in this light. There are certainly things worth criticizing in it, but I think a lot of that standpoint has been already outmaneuvered. There's no magic bullet of criticism that will convince a fan that the work is fundamentally wrong and twisted. There usuaully isn't, that's not how reviews usually impact, but it's particularly difficult in this case. Share with a Twilight fan the idea that Edward is a sick, dangerous puppy that should be avoided and that Bella is suicidally reckless for trusting him? That belief is already in the text, expressed within the narrative. It's quite extraordinary. If these viewpoints had showed up in later volumes, after Twilight became a huge phenomenon. It would seem then an obvious after the fact way to block against the dominant criticisms. But those are built into the template from the beginning, as if Meyer anticipated the amount of success it would gain, and the backlash, and so she went out of her way to build in the anti-Twilight story within Twilight.

There are a number of implications of this, perhaps the most pressing is suggesting a new approach to framing the anti-Twilight discourse. Much of the structure of this rhetoric uses transparently weak grounds: focusing on the Twilight readers as ignorant squeeing fans incapable of proper thought, or focusing a xenophobic distrust on Meyer's status as a Mormon. In alternative, it may be useful to understand Twilight not just as an uncountably popular failed book with a dysfunctional gender message, but as a well-calculated and successful book that is working to produce and replicate certain specific things. Analyzing the rebuking the flaws of Robert Heinlein, in aesthetic skill as well as representations of men and women, may be a productive approach to a fuller gender analysis, and to framing a more effective response to the appalling misogyny embedded in Twilight.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


A book review of Feed by Mira Grant aka Seanan McGuire

Takes as its premise a zombie rising that kills a sizable chunk of the population and a radically traumatic war of living against the dead. The book isn’t about that moment, however. It opens twenty years later, where zombies are still an ongoing daily threat but no longer an existential menace for all of humanity. Feed explores the conditions of the world under this point of departure, in the United States as people soldier on with regular zombie sensing devices. The story focuses on a political blog writer that’s following a presidential campaign.

The shift in emphasis to a post-Rising war rather than showing the conflict itself is a good one, and allows for a powerful range of creativity and exploration of the invented future. The most effective thing in the book is the redefinition of the zombies as a menace. The book focuses on them not as a mob of cannibals but as viral carriers. McGuire has done a lot of amateur epidemiology work and it shows, and the book delivers a coherent and comparatively plausible notion of how the zombie virus could work to deliver the familiar setup. In this setting everyone is infected, however people only turn into mindless flesh-eaters if bitten by another active or if they die for any reason. Much of the horror comes from the ubiquity of the threat, the notion of an elderly man suffering a heart attack and then turning to attack his wife before anyone can do anything, the notion that one might have to kill a monster with the face of a loved one but with all capacity for reasoning and restraint blotted out. Even more dangerous in a strategic sense is animals being bitten or otherwise dying and attacking people, as the change in behavior isn’t as noticeable, and as a result the legality of pet ownership is hotly debated.

There are other nice twists in the invented world. George Romero is considered a hero for helping spread knowledge of how to survive zombies in his movies, so George and Georgia are the most popular names for people born post-Rising. Traditional media has been largely discredited by their skepticism on the early stages of the zombie outbreaks, and blogging is the regular and accredited system, with different classes of bloggers. There's Newsies--those that sit back and report the news, Fictionals, that write made up things, and Irwins, that go out and poke zombies to see what happens. In another interesting notion widespread standards of gun violence have been applied as self-defense against the possibility of the undead, and it’s difficult to tell if someone shot in the face was killed because of being a zombie or because they had just been shot and then the attacker said they seemed zombieish.

However the setting that is the book’s main draw also ends as one of its biggest weaknesses. This is at the core of my issues with the book, and where I seem to most significantly part ways with most other reviews. I have issues with other aspects of the writing, but if the fleshing out of the Feedverse were as innovative and cool as the underlying concept I’d probably give vastly less attention to the mechanistic faults. I'd have regarded it as good book, and been engaged by the interesting idea of a human world not just menaced by but also reinvented in light of the zombie threat. However I didn't ultimately accept the coherence of the societal model given, and that made me more critical, to the extent that the review will have to take a rather harsh tact overall. Feed had entertaining and interesting elements, but the ultimate problems in conceptualizing the invented future makes for a deeply problematic text. It's not a small failure because this isn't a horror novel with some incidental future details, it puts a huge amount of stress and length on how the wider human environment works. And so, the fact that it doesn't ultimately make sense is a fatal one.

Beginning with the basics, the book suffered from having its setting at once too close to the zombies and not close enough to them. Too close insofar as everything about politics and daily life focuses on zombies, every point of analysis and overview relates directly to the zombies and not to wider elements of life. A question for the presidential candidate on the death penalty had the response that he was opposed to it, because there were enough dead already. Fine, that’s natural enough. A question on gay rights had the response that faced with onslaught of the dead differences between humans looked pretty insignificant. A question on health care brings up the issues with the zombie threat and quality of life. So does abortion, so does education. It could work as a form of satire on single-issue voting where a campaign zeros in on one minor element, but the book clearly has it that such is the normal state of affairs in the United States twenty years after the Rising, at a time when single digit thousands of people die years. It would be as if every single question of politics and much of the wider social interaction in the modern world involved focusing on handguns at every point, and it quickly feels rather unbelievable. There's a core failure in imagined diversity, in being able to conceive of significant things that happened between 2014 and 2020 that weren't all about zombies. Clearly it’s a case of the author trying to show off different ways of how zombies would alter life, but it does so with a single-minded focus that destroys any sense of plausibility or a complex future, and ultimately ruins the appeal of the book’s main premise. Simultaneously, the book is also actually too far away from zombies insofar as things haven’t really been transformed by the rising. Despite losing over 20% of the population the United States is still largely the same country. There’s a major point made of how media practices have shifted over to blogs as the faster, more ready to report zombie stories, but that emphasis on discontinuity only drives home how most other things are the same. Fashion hasn’t changed, the mention of consumer products and companies is the same, and the sundering of world trade and increase in instability has caused only incremental alterations in basic lifestyle. In a place that’s lost so much of its population so suddenly and has a continued ubiquitous danger of attack there should be an environment like after a civil war, with massive political and cultural shift. Instead it’s still the same layout for culture, the same two party political system, with at most perhaps one wing of the Republican party further into religious fundamentalism and paranoid militarism. Again there’s not a real effort here to write speculative fiction on how things would change, and so things alter only in very partial and stylistically driven ways. If one is going to take a basic horror element and hang a whole world on the wide-scale implications, it’s necessary to actually give some thought to the wide-scale implications. Had McGuire given the same amount of research and consistency to the political aspects as the viral ones it would have been great. In the end I didn’t believe the book’s representation of politics and society. The occasional minor detail was intriguing, but the larger picture of daily life that emerged was not believable, requiring a continual and increasingly problematic effort to suspend disbelief.

The book could perhaps slide on weak forethought of its main premise if it were otherwise effective. It would be weak on wider speculation and real contributions to the fantasy/horror/SF format, but could be an engaging and intriguing book. Certainly the idea of needing to navigate political intrigue in a zombified world seems to lend itself to a fairly fun and fast moving book. Unfortunately it ends up as anything but that, due in large part to numerous technical failings, ending up as quite awkward, dull and plodding. Most directly there’s the problem of writing, which is never more than competent and frequently becomes rather problematic. Looking at the prose specifically there are a number of issues demanding a basic level of editing, and others that show rather strained construction of description and cliche-anchored rhetoric, increasingly putting my teeth on edge as I read.

"Besides, I have a well-established--and well-deserved--reputation for being the sort of interviewee who walks away leaving you with nothing you can use as a front-page quote or saleable sound byte." (66)

"Whether we sank or swam, there was no going back; once you make alpha you can never be beta again." (82)

"My mother once told me that no woman is naked when she comes equipped with a bad mood and a steady glare." (391)

"Under the strict interpretation of the law, the CDC would have been within its rights to come into the valley, shoot us, sterilize the surrounding area, and deal with our remains. The fact that it took us alive for extensive testing was unusual--no one would have questioned it if the CDC had killed us." (400)

The plot hosts another and rather pivotal single point of failure. Ultimately things are revealed to be happening because a politically ambitious state governor wants to unleash zombies selectively to kill off political rivals and gain his way to the presidency, there to take America to "traditional" theocratic-fascist values. Three problems here. One, he’s far too stupid a figure to be really credible in this position, having an arbitrary and poorly developed plan. For all that he’s declared to be calculating and a dangerous adversary he fails in pretty much every discrete action he tries to do in the novel, and largely succeeds in tipping his hand enormously. Second, his underlying reasons for doing this are entirely vague, and rather contradictory. At best he’s an enormous hypocrite that doesn’t seem to have noticed he’s undermining the things he claims to want to protect, at worst he’s a completely psychopath that inconsistently does whatever the plot requires. Related to these issues is that he’s not even a unique or notable poor villain, but a stock caricature that’s used extremely often in thrillers of this type. Third, he’s all too readily identifiable as evil. From the moment he’s introduced as a political challenger the outline of his views make it clear he’s immoral and unworkable, and there’s never anything given that indicates enough of an appeal to attract political support. The later plot depends on Tate’s ability to have convinced another blogger to help him, but it’s left incredibly general what points of ideology are at work here. It’s even worse after we meet him, as the interview scene and every subsequent action just ooze menace and deception. Given that, when the characters figure out that some well connected figure is trying to kill people by proxy it’s immediately obvious that Tate is the only possible candidate, and the obviousness of this and the subsequent shenanigans drags down the last third of the book enormously.

As a result, the plot is effectively unbelievable and of fairly arbitrary meaning. There’s an attempt at a big message with the end in showing the free bloggers as against the evil power-hungry political forces that want to keep people afraid and thus controlled. However Feed shares issues with Cory Doctrow’s Little Brother in this whole regard. For one thing, having the antagonist political figure be so relentlessly, over the top evil destroys the chance for a real political statement, instead it allows the grinding down of strawman by having the fanatic figure be completely without morals and without any ability for long-term planning. Similarly, by making the well connected political figure so stupid that he’s defeated by several bloggers it undermines the real stakes involved here and delivers a petty wish-fulfillment political story in a bait and switch of a dystopia. Very much like the teenager bringing down the Department of Homeland Security in Little Brother. Overall it’s less egregious here than Doctrow’s writing, because it’s not as prominent, but insofar as the political elements fold into the plot it’s a pretty thorough failure, producing a situation at once hard to believe and not at all out of the ordinary. General Tate is the sort of power-hungry politico who regrets he has but one mustache to twirl for the sake of his country.

Characterization works somewhat better, but ultimately comes across as overly flat and unengaging. At points different people seemed believable, but in that moments they were rarely appealing to spend time with. One could easily imagine a setting with continual danger producing irreparably damaged characters that have basic issues of normal human relation, but the story veers away from such psychological darkness and complexity. What’s given instead is a one-note supporting cast and relatively petty forms of alienation at the core. The protagonist, Georgia Mason, is the worst in that regard. She’s bitter, judgement, hardened and world-weary. She’s also absurdly competent and the narratives takes a point of reminding the reader continually how careful and prepared she is, in a first person narrated that makes her come across as rather conceited and overly distant from everyone beyond her brother. The problem becomes worse as she fails to react sufficiently to people around her dying, reacting directly at the time but long term failing to express more than a minor riddance or at most slight regret. There could be an interesting setup to someone rendered sociopathic or at least very cold through growing up in such an unsettled world, but again the layout is far to conventional for this, not being willing to go out on a limb and expecting the reader to engage with its protagonist despite not making her interested, realistic or particularly nice. It’s a measure of the flatness of the story and the characters within it that Georgia’s needing to wear sunglasses all the time for medical reasons constitutes one of the strongest and most appealing aspects of her nature. Another major problem is how Georgia doesn’t act, talk or think remotely like someone that’s grown up her whole life in a post-zombie world. Rather, she functions like someone that’s just entered into it, so as to provide acres of well watered exposition for the reader on every basic aspect of her world. Some of that is to be accepted in a narrative of this kind, but having the character of Georgia show such a minimal inner life beyond the reflections of exposition make for a weakness at the core of the story.

In a good point, and one involving heavily spoilers, the book kills off Georgia Mason forty pages from the end of the book. She begins to turn into a zombie, makes a last blog transmission, and is shot by her brother who takes on the viewpoint perspective. It’s an effective dramatic climax, and brings forth the reality of the menace and the horror invoked with zombification centrally. It’s not just that I disliked Georgia by that point that I welcomed the development. Centrally, having the protagonist in a first person character die near the end of the first book in a trilogy isn’t something that’s commonly done, and this subversion gives real energy to the end. The switch to the brother, Shaun, and seeing how completely unhinged he is by having to kill his sister--to the point of hallucinating her presence--helps bring in some of the psychological edge that I missed from earlier on. Despite the stock show down with the villain that follows the ending is more engaging because it’s brought in the real instability of life in this novel and in relation to the zombies, and it suggests that the second book may be rather more interesting in showing such psychological and political fallout. However, that moment cannot in itself redeem Feed for its multitude of issues as a current text, and the larger staleness of writing and world building that went into it.

This book is a failed one on the terms of science fiction, horror, political thriller, or character drama. It does not effectively worldbuild based on its point of departure. It does not provide consistent tension or particularly dramatic encounters with monstrosity. It does not give a layout of political tension that’s remotely original or believable. It does not provide a complex or sympathetic personality for relating to the world. The main premise of the novel is fascinating, and some very intriguing setup is done, but the book does not deliver on that potential to any substantial degree. There needs to be more than a question of what happens after the zombies attack, a degree of interest, energy and complexity to the invented strategy that do more than toy with genre cliches or exposit about the surprisingly little that has changed in the world. From the book it’s become clear that the world after zombies could be interesting. Equally clearly McGuire isn’t the author to deliver that.

Better than: World War Z by Max Brooks
Worse than: Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Path of Empire:

Panama and the California Gold Rush by Aims McGuiness

Thoughtful, engaging and highly effective historical text. Traces the lines of encounter and transformation of Americans and Panama in the mid nineteenth century, with heavy focus on racial politics accompanying both colonialism and resistance. The scale is that of macro-level politics and continental tensions, the way Panama developed transit and in so doing was undermined as an autonomous society. Yet it also incorporates an effective presentation of individual lives, with the stark economic structures and tortured political choices invested in this period.


The Homecoming

Harold Pinter

Nobel laureate, a short play. Quite displeasing, featuring a long sequence of arbitrary and unpleasant action, revolving around characters that are even more simplistic and unappealing. The dialog fails to be very believable, and fails even more at being rhetorically appealing. I’m left baffled by Pinter’s fame and critical success, and am thoroughly uninterested in reading his other material.

Worse than: The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart by Jesse Bullington
Better than: Hylozoic by Rudy Rucker

Female Citizens, Patriarchs and the Law in Venezuela

Arlene Diaz

An history tracing the late eighteenth and nineteenth century political conditions in Venezuela, and the way this balance was highly gendered. Looks at different stages of the colonial and republic history to see how new legal rights were highly patriarchal in tone, focused on property rights, family unity, honour and maintaining female subordination. It also shows challenges to these conditions by women, and intense political involvement through the legal framework with individual petitions and communal associations.

Overall quite effective, and well structured. Almost too well structured, really. The clear layout of the main argument proved exhausting after a bit, the run through of gender detail and overall argument so effective that it proved predictable where the account would go next, making for an effective presentation of the main argument but not the most lively of accounts. Nevertheless, for the close detail of the topic and clarity of overall approach this work is recommended.


John Courtney Grimwood

Sequel to Pashazade, second volume in the Arabesque trilogy set in the alternate history Ottoman Empire. Started off a lot slower and less generally engaging, to the extent that a hundred pages in I was sharing some of the reservations I had on End of the World Blues, and was beginning to question Grimwood as a novelist. After that the story improved a lot, different elements of the backstory and unfolding action became stronger. For all that the initial glamor with entering this universe has worn out it proves itself to be a quite interesting and engaging story. Down plays the mystery format for a more thriller oriented setup, with lots of international intrigue that indicate not just the alternate Ottoman Empire but also how other powers impinge on it, making for an interesting layout. Has a better conventional climax than Pashazade, and by the end might be a bit more satisfying. I'm quite interested in the third volume.

At point I felt that Grimwood was leaning too heavy on the darker aspects of his invented setting, showing a society too violent, too corrupt, too dysfunctional to really be invested in. On the whole the picture works, but I feel it could benefit from down playing the classic cyberpunk angle a bit, and perhaps uncovering a type of hard-ridged uneasy optimism along the lines of Morgan’s Woken Furies. What we get in terms of an energetically violent and ruthless but not amoral protagonist is good, and the continued integration of past history into the course of events is good. The work lacks a bit of extra force that would make the polity really feel unique and plausible, and at times I grew a bit tired of the characters’ violence and struggles. Grimwood is still at least a major second tier science fiction writer, however, and he shows indications that he may attain real greatness.

Better than: Pashazade by John Courtney Grimwood
Worse than: Evolution’s Shore by Ian McDonald


by Dante Alighieri

Third volume of the Divine Comedy, focusing on the narrator’s ascent into the height of religious truth, mystery, beauty and goodness. This volume suffers from an interest issue compared to the previous ones in that there’s a direct absence of drama or real striking, and lends itself to a staleness that usually occurs in an attempt to intimately describe the ultimate good, whether it’s God, utopia or heaven. Surprisingly, that didn’t happen in this work, and the result proved itself actually quite engaging. It wasn’t flawless, and in the early sections particularly was rather slow in pace, seeming to drift somewhat and struggle to find the proper balance between description and speeches. Another persistent point of irritation was the stopping of the heavenly focus to have some character deliver a pointed Take That against a corrupt politician or pontiff of Dante’s time. Of course a large purpose of the Divine Comedy had been to threaten and torment people that Dante didn’t like. At least it was the main point in Inferno, here the drawn out condemnations feel redundant and jarring. Similarly, the views on politics don’t emerge as hugely productive, seeming at once over conventional and too dated by the context of the time.

Ultimately the volume works on the strength of its poetry and the way it’s able to energetically imagine what it insists is beyond imaginable. This structure builds up a surprisingly effective source of dramatic tension, between the format offered by aesthetics and the effort to explore religious summit. Ultimately while I’m thoroughly not a believer and found the whole Christian labeling rather irksome there are a lot of scenes of great emotional energy and literary talent. It scopes about explicitly eternity, and offers an attempt at working in ultimates that is quite powerful.

Better than: Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri
Worse than: Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France

World Histories

collection of articled edited by Marnie Hughes-Warrington

An excellent array of articles, offering a powerfully written overview of the field of world history. It’s an immense topic, but the work focuses in on specific thematic aspects and main historiographical issues, in a detailed, up to date and deeply intriguing account. The piece is interesting partly in terms of which earlier historians are continually references in their different attempts at a total perspective, most recurrent seem to be Wells, Toynbee and McNeil. The account generally offers a perspective on world history that emphasizes the immense challenges in it as well as the great potential. Also provides a compelling argument for attempting to move beyond Eurocentric paradigms, needing to better integrate earlier “prehistory” and the benefit of working in gender analysis to such accounts more effectively.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Forge of Heaven

C. J. Cherryh

Sequel to Hammerfall, and much more satisfying on about every level. Foremost is the better situating of the setting, with thirty pages of enclopediac detail explainingn the worldbuilding of the series, and putting the happengs of the first novel in a much more reasonable and better understood light. It’s a book that manages to redeem the earlier flawed work extensively, both through providing more context as well as moving the story on to a more interesting place,. Besides the invented future that we’re shown here being interesting in its own right--although it is--it fuels a good layout for the intrigue of the novel. In the bureaucratic-heavy setting there’s a complex interplay of station governor against Outsider world interest against central Earth control against unknown alien presence against immortal survivors from the first book. It’s a dance of factions in a highly complex and enjoyable manner, particularly in the extent to which different groups have overlaping interests and different timescales. The scenario benefits from taking the issue of "The Gene Wars" in a more extensive treatment than it usually gets in science fiction. Rather than show the initial struggle between self-modifying and the group opposed to genetic change the story explores some of the long term consequences of after the latter faction has won, and the way they have to continually work to keep political stability and social coherence going. There’s a sophisticated examination of the interplay of police, radicals and strategic competition, as well as the momentum carried by bureaucracies harmful and beneficial. As well, Cherryh continues to be one of the few speculative fiction authors that delivers a believable and thought out pattern of economics.

Some flaws occur. The beginning third of the novel lacks real urgency--a common issue with Cherryh’s novels--and there are a couple character arcs that feel excessive to the existing story. The bratty Freethinking-affiliated daughter for instance--her escapades later force a rather powerful character moment for her father, but as an actual story it runs on too much and doesn’t benefit from receiving a point of view. It’s also disapointing that the aliens remain basically ciphers here. The history of their interactions gives a fair bit more credibility, but the actual nature of the species, their goals, intentions, interest, politics remain a blank slate. It’s disapointing to not have them fleshed out to any great extent, to the degree that characters in-universe wonder without being able to answer what they’re after. Disapointing both because I know Cherryh could deliver a fascinating picture here, and because the current form leaves the underlying situation of human intrigue fueled by fairly arbitrary alien behavior.

Overall a well plotted and at times quite intense science fiction piece. The ending third, in particular, frames some of the most effective writing I’ve seen from Cherryh. It also makes good use of engaging the narrative with a complex future that’s very different from both the Foreigner setting and Alliance-Union.

Better than: The Warriors’ Apprentice by Lois McMaster Bujold
Worse than: Destroyer of World by C. J. Cherryh


James Joyce

A number of short stories focusing on different aspects of life in the city. I can’t speak as to it sociological value, but taken as literature almost all of the discrete pieces is very nicely done. The stories are very short--most under ten pages, and within the limited narrative scale Joyce provides a lot of punch to his depictions. There’s never the space in any single story to manifest the same scale or psychological complexity afforded by novels--and right here is the basis of my main reluctance with short stories--but there is some very good plotting and characterization on display. Best of all, the fact that all these stories in some degree make Dublin a central character in the drama allow them to be read in aggregate effectively, showing with skill a wide variant of scholars, merchants, priests, sensualists and politicians. Highly recommended.

Better than: Welcome to the Monkeyhouse by Kurt Vonnegut
Worse than: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

The Wayward Bus

John Steinbeck

Reading the story involved a continual type of experience-formed tension, a sort of race running within my enjoyment, involving a contest between all the characters being fascinatingly neurotic and all the characters being neurotically irksome. On the whole the former element won out and I enjoyed the book, but there were definitely some cracks and underwhelming sections. The novel looks at different aspects of ambition and frustrated ambition in the fulcrum of a single busride crossing from the United States to Mexico. It’s a pretty strong indictment of different aspects of class-bound prejudice, blindness and at points fundamental mental disconnect. The families in this novel cry out for qualified psychological help more than even most famous novels and the process of the book shows some rather amusing points linked to the main presentation. There’s no main central chracer or unifying plot beyond watching these people exchange with each other, so it sparkles when the encounters are believable and damning, and falls flat when it becomes too much. It does at times, but mostly functions effectively to intrigue with the vivid imagination of somewthing like realism.

There’s an enormous focus on sexuality in the book, traced from various sides and with a lot of depicted hang ups over it. That component shows the main success as well as disconnect in the story, as Steinbeck often made a quite arch narrative point but then moved on to some rather dated or essentialized claim regarding erotics that I found rather jarring. Not a bad book but neither is it exactly excellent, and for all the forthwhile elements and easy reading pattern it has some jarring elements. In a way reading this book immediately after Desolation Road and To the Lighthouse is approrpriate, as it contains elements of the main pattern from both books mixed together. It’s a weird mix, but better and more fun for reading than might be expected.

Worse than: In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck
Better than: The Pearl by John Steinbeck

To the Lighthouse

Virginia Woolf

There’s one point in the novel in which one of the characters reflects on the form of perceiving others. Looking at people from a distance, she thinks that this way of identifying and following others through their outlines is one workable approach. It can be taken, as I believe it’s meant to be, as an analogy for the whole form of the book. In a way it’s a book of intensely realized, complex, three dimensional characters each of whom encounters the other as if the outsider were a two dimensional sketch, lacking real substance. More than direct conflict, this aspect of the perception renders a deep insubstantiality in the social ties that people build, and the deep distance that they build more effectively. The isolation doesn’t emerge just from self-absorption, rather it’s a sense of lacking the language or real community for authentic relation. In this amazingly writen account that manifests not in the major dramatic disconnect we might expect but in quiet, subdued points of systemic, often unnoticed, rupture.

It’s a beautiful, heartfelt and deeply sophisticated novel. Says a lot about class, gender, family and the way such conditions shifted into the first world war, all in under two hundred pages. Deservedly classic, and indicates that Woolf applied a comparable level of talent to her fiction as to her essays.

Similar to and worse than: Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Similar to and better than: The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton

Desolation Road

Ian McDonald

Much quirkier than I had expected. It’s an inevented future that’s highly bizarre on many levels, with a weird array of characters in their phsical and psychological characterisics. It’s a thoroughly strange environment, from the traveling carnivale selling ’make a baby’ kits, to the near-random timetravel and the widely shifting rate of politics. It works because there are clear emotional journeys for the characters even among all the bizarre and at times grotesque detail. It feels at times like McDonald is being too playful for his own good, but on the whole the push of the main characters onto their various successes, tragedies and wacky hijinks works well.

In the representation of larger events it’s hit or miss. At the best moments the book functions like an intensely genre version of the series Deadwood, showing the growth in complexity, numbers and mechanisms of community into an elaborate hypermodenr civilization. In this vein, the arc with escalating conflict between labor and the corporate management is particularly effective, particularly in the hectic narrative pace set once a full revolution breaks out. It’s interesting, intense, tragic and defined with lots of unique little details that tie the events to this specific invented future. On the other hand, at points the big picture stuff simply gets too far out there, straining suspension of disbelief overly and making for an excessively arbitrary story universe.

It was McDonald’s first novel, and is very different from the larger direction he ended up going. Well, it’s good to see that he wasn’t locked into a single recurrent formula like a lot of authors. Moreo, though, I have to say that I’m quite glad he moved beyond the writing pattern of Desolation Road. Overall it was good and it had a lot of strong elements, but I was also a lot more disatisfied than I’ve been with any other McDonald and there’s something about the way the whole narrative is formed that was a bit alienating. It’s not incoherent in the sense of a Hylozoic, but at points there are indications that might go in that direction, and as a text it’s one that could have used a bit more restraint. We always read a book under the shadow of the book we were expecting to find, and I’d say that factor was particularly strong here. Beyond that there are problems in the basic story, and I wouldn’t consider this boo a classic in the way Evolution’s Shore was. It’s a fair distance from aesthetic ruin, in no small part because of a lot of engaging pieces of characterization.

Better than: Hammerfall by C. J. Cherryh
Worse than: Ubik by Philip K. Dick

Welcome to the Monkey House

Kurt Vonnegut

Collection of short stories, some within the science fictional mold, others more mainstream in content. A rather focused way for me to look at the strengths and weaknesses of Vonnegut as a writer, and assess my own ambivalence with him. I’ve enjoyed almost all his books yet have rarely made an effort to seek them out, generally picking them up when I’m around. I find him amusing but less insightful than he seems to think he is, creative but often too awkward in what he’s trying to do that the larger project falls apart. By fame and general influence he’s certainly a major figure in twentieth century writing, but on the strength of my own reading I wouldn’t place him in that category, as with Gunter Grass but to a greater extent I find him lacking some quality that would allow real excellence. Part of that has always been my dislike over his self-marketing and scampering away from genre lables ’yes my books have time travel and aliens but they’re literature, not that science fiction trash’. As with Margaret Atwood, there’s something about that basic attitude that I see as either very calculating or very ignorant and dislike in either case. Strictly speaking that’s not a valid issue to bring against their writing, which should be assessed for its basic effectiveness and not the labels attached to it.

The stories in Welcome to the Monkey House are a mix, and a lot of specific stories I’m deeply ambivalent about. They’re engaging, maintain a fast pace, and a very good talent in quickly establishing character and situation. At times they also provide some great creativity and imaginative use of some unconventional setups. At the same time I’ve got more than a little kickback to most of them. They often seem too impressed with their own cleverness, for one thing, playing up thier position as hilarious in a way that sets my teeth on edge. Additionally, in terms of actual stories the sequence of events is rather predictible, I was frequently able to predict the next step several pages in advance. Vonnegut has significant skills, but the way he uses them I don’t find altogether fitting, and after a number of stories in a row I grew rather alienated from the (consistent) tone of the narrative voice. I definitely prefer Vonnegut’s novels, and this reading has made me interested enough to try to finish reading his main corpus, but I retain some sizable reservations.

Worse than: A is for Alien by Caitlin Kiernan
Better than: The Deceitful Marriage and other exemplary novels by Miguel de Cervantes

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

James Joyce

My second Joyce, after Ulyssess some six months prior. This novel is a vastly more direct and comprehensible text, benefiting from a clarity of presentation that allows intense absorption in psychology. It’s a highly effective novel on multiple levels, excelling at showing an unconventional proccess of transition into adulthood and through it a biting analysis of society, modernity, religion and art. It works to the way it shows the protagonist with deep intimacy and emotional acuteness, but yet refuses to grant him any easy outs or transcendence. His status as a future artist doesn’t bring him enlightenment or greater intrinsic natural worth, and it doesn’t free him from the nusances and challenges of the society he inhabits. It’s a very intense account, never more so than when it engages with the protagonist’s struggle with his religion, his sexuality and their intersection. There’s an intricate and gorgeously vivid presentation of what the tenets of traditional Catholicism feel like to someone who believes in them yet doesn’t live up to their moral code. His absorption with intellect as well as sex, and the tortured guilt he derives from the later, make for a perspective that is so convincing it’s hard not to assume strong autobiographical motifs. It’s a level of intimacy combined with quality of writing that often feel more real than reality, and that turn a very sophisticated eye on questions of faith, politics and the modern world. The debates on Irish nationalism are particularly intense, and are of a specific content that I feel the need for more historical conext before I can really situate the literary incorporation here. The novel gives a strong sense of the basic appeal and tensions inherent in the desire for an autonomous society, in that respect functioning very similarly to the whole spirituality/sensuality axis, generalized to a more collective level. It’s indisputably potent stuff.

And yet the book in the end suffers by comparison with Ulysses, not having anywhere near that volume’s power or raw, disorienting literary expertise. It’s still a wonderful novel however, and points up the great things that can be done with well crafted writing.

Worse than: Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Better than: The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy

The Great Russian Invasion of India

A. Dekhnewallah

A nineteenth century British military account. Not travel, military, for fresh and compellingly unique primary history reviewed for your pleasure. The description is fairly basic but reasonably structured, and the minor details and substantive value judgements have their appeal. As an actual piece of entertainment the direct conflict give it a bit of more direct appeal. It’s still not the sort of thing I’d expect to find much general readership, and it retains a number of inhibiting quirks from its time.

The Mayor of Casterbridge

Thomas Hardy

Nineteenth century literary classic, details a man seeling his wife and daughter and the long term consequence. It’s a pretty powerful and deeply ambitious story, one that makes up for a couple feeble plot stimulators with a powerful psychological representation. What’s most interesting is the protagonist, the titular individual. A man so committed to drunk and evasion that he will sell off his own family. Also a man that works across the rest of the novel to redeem himself from this moment, but not without much backsliding and fresh egotistical mistakes. He’s also capable enough to claw his way up into a position of wealth and authority, but then later lose that fortune, and the book is quite effective in showing the degree to which his admuirable qualities are tied in with his core defects. He’s far from a monster, and for all the damage his pride and spiteful rejection cause to other lives there is much to admire about him, his strength of character, his general optimism and the way he’s able to come forth with strong ethical choice at the most surprising moments. He’s an intriguing, complex and overall plausible character, most notably in the way that none of his grand transcendetal moments lack, the way he continually reverts back partially to his earlier ways.

More generally, the work shows an engaging cynicism about the status of class, gender and hypocrisy in contemporary England. There are some very strong critiques in here against Victorian society, to the extent that I’m surprised it attained the popularity it did in its own time, and these are always coonected to an engaging novel. It makes me a lot more interested in reading the other nineteenth century literary classics I’ve so far neglected. And more Hardy, of course.

Worse than: Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
Better than: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Also better than: Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy


C. J. Cherryh

Somewhat disorienting and flat worldbuilding, wrapped in a decent and intriguingly twisty plot. The weakness of the setting was a major issue for me, though, partly because of where I thought the book would be entering onto, particularly because of some pivotal background stuff that isn’t very well situated. For instance we have the future human barbarians on an alien planet ruled by a technological immortal, with how that got established not being really explained. We also have other humans making contact with the world in an even more shadowy way, along with aliens that want to depopulate the planet but show a kind of strangely hesitant timeline in doing such. Given Cherryh’s usual dexterity in crafting complex, plausible future, this made the book rather underwhelming.

The book does have strong elements, however. While I wasn’t overly fond of the protagonist or main supporting cast--largely because, linked to the above, they seemed rather stock--but the things they do in the course of the novel are interesting. The protagonist sets off to destroy the immortal dictator Ila andliberate his people, but soon feels compelled to be her direct servant to work against a larger doom threatened against the planet. Given this isn’t stock epic fantasy they don’t succeed, and indeed it’s shown that the threat (aliens sling rocks on the planet, everyone dies--the titular Hammerfall) was never something that could be opposed. Rather the characters work to understand the danger and then preserve what little they can against the impending apocalypse. It makes for a fairly well laid out structure, and some strong creepy moments of high technology intruding on the lives of people with no context to understand it. In this vein appears both the planetary bombardment and a point where a nanotech-backed personality seizes control of an indigenous human. While there’s drama here and much that works precisely because of the juxtaposition of elements, the core of the invented future is a rather weak element in the book. Cherryh has certainly done a lot better.

Better than: Matter by Iain M. Banks
Worse than: Incandesence by Greg Egan


Vladimir Nabokov

A book I’ve tried to read several times, but didn’t get into. I’m not sure why, having sat down with it with some more focus I found it extremely readable, entertaining and fast paced. It’s also quite funny, and overall captures the lighter expression of life with a lot more substance and general engagement than Glory did. The book is all about the titular professor Pnin, with his odd manerisms and only partial successful adaptation to the United States, and the array of odd encounters he has. It’s clearly aiming for less ambitious and more surface story than Lolita or Pale Fire, and on that grounds it succeeds, making a fun, interesting and well written book. At the same time, by the end it doesn’t seem to have offered as much of insight or underlying meta-drama as I’ve come to expect with Nabokov. The degree to which it’s autobigoraphical may be debated, on the whole certainly less than Transparent Things, and it should be said that this factor doesn’t inhibit the presentation of deep intimacy with the subject. That’s what being a skilled writer means, one can convey more than just their own life with utter conviction.

Off and on in this novel I was reminded of an East European professor I know, not quite as quirky or generally off beat but having some similar issues in incomprehensibility with American youth, alienation from modern society and less than fully effective academia. At times this worked in favor of my pleasure in the account, making it easier to sympathize with him and his perspective. At other times it undercut it, in points where the story went for comedy and I was reminded of the professor, and the way I’ve generally found his situation rather sad.

Better than: Glory by Vladimir Nabokov
Worse than: Bend Sinister by Vladimir Nabokov

The Tin Drum

Gunter Grass

Nobel Laureate. I found this novel powerful and affecting, but not everything I had hoped for. In part I may be guilty of coming in with overly high expectations. Gunter Grass is someone I’ve heard a lot about, and heard a lot of endorsements concerning, for quite some time, on the level of personal reactions and academia. In the later I have seen a number of descriptions of Grass as one of the key German post-war writers, and as someone who brought a lot of necessary challengs to the general cultural climate with its specific national burdens and issues. After that, I found the novel strong and intriguing, but not great, and not something that establishes Grass as that unique an author. It abounds in intricate characterization, gifted situational description and basic mechanics of good writing. It lacks a certan measure of je ne sai quoi, though, a magnitude of literary quality or special insight into the character of human existene, a larger force to the plot, something.

The story focuses on the recollections of a rather quirky individual--quirky to the extent that he’s writing his backstory from a mental asylum. It shows the progress of his life through two world wars and socio-political unrest, with the consistent metaphor of music used for both underlying patterns and madness. It has a lot of funny and very striking scenes, and one thing the novel does do very well is tying such a weird and comical figure into very substantive reflections on the process of history. It’s a juxtaposition that makes the book at once utterly absurd and very serious, building a measure of seriousness in with comedy in a way that most authors couldn’t manage but that Grass pulls off as if it’s second nature. The insights provided in here are in no small amount about Nazism and the relation of the general populace to it. Two particular moments come to mind. The first is where the narrator reflects explicitly on the fact that he wasn’t in the resistance in the Nazi period, and that his petty acts of juvenile disruption shouldn’t legitimately be considered a political strike against the Third Reich. In this approach he offers a strong indictment of the conventional rationalizations prevalent in postwar Germany (see some of the history texts from a bit ago) and offers a strong contribution to arguing for a shift in general responsability and cultural self-awareness. The second moment is a description of the entry of Germany into savagery through "the gas man", in a few pages of powerful horror that represent the most effectively written part of the book.

Other themes that emerge forcefully include normality, sex, class and physicality, all delivered in some quirky and illuminating scenes. The family situation as elaborated was some of the most interesting material, but by the end I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it, what the author was driving at and how it connects to the central biazarre formula at the heart of the novel.

On the whole it’s funny, it’s meaningful, and I can see that it deserves to be widely read. I don’t quite see it as great literature though, and reserve judgement as to whether Grass is good enough to merit a Nobel prize. There’s nothing particularly wrong with The Tin Drum, but I do feel the potential for it to have gone further on character and story.

Worse than: The Revolt of the Angels by Anatole France
Better than: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Independent People

Haldor Laxness

Nobel Laureate. This time it’s an Icelandic farming epic. The switch in locales isn’t a great improvement, and the movement in authors is only a slight improvement. There is a fair bit more drama and basic quality of interst in the narrative. It also benefits from a more complex provision for the main characters. I even won’t deny the high quality of writing for the story and some considerable subtlety in showing the movement of modernity and politics onto an agricultural community. Nevertheless it shares the same basic aesthetic problem of Growth of the Soil; in binding the plot to the development of agriculture it makes for a pace much to slow to drive consistent interest. Under the stress of little happening beyond interaction with the characters, these individuals are forced under a level of depiction that doesn’t benefit them. It’s not that they’re overly simple, rather they are unpleasant, being too dysfunctional and strongly petty to have much interest in rooting for them. That makes the continued long term presence of them with little that they do to take the novel outside of them rather exhausting.

I’m ambivalent as to the effectiveness of the main and titular theme of the novel. A lot of the book is about putting forth notions of freedom, and the protagonist’s desire to live as a free man against all obstacles. To a large extent this ambition is contextualized and deconstructing, making some rather satisfying representations of it as petty and largely incapable, showing wider social complexities and government moving in beyond any sort of juvenile Heinlein-esque focus on the rugged autonomous individual. In the moments of showing contradiction, and the way this independence can be born on the subordination of others, the novel achieves some strong insights and real interest. Yet it seems at the end to come down on some level to admiration of this desire for total independence taken as a behavioral approach and ideal. I may be misreading it, and to an extent my frustrations with the aesthetic experience may have blunted my grasp of the subtlety of the ultimate message. Still, as I see it presently the story appears to side uncritically with the rather disjointed individualist view in a way that undermines itself. Not least due to how unplesant the protagonist is.

Better than: Growth of the Soil by Knut Hamsun
Worse than: The Forgotten by Elie Wiesel

The Revolt of the Angels

Antaole France

Nobel Laureate. Excellent, starts a bit slow but proves itself to be a tour de force of comic invention, emotional intensity and general creativity. The story appears for the first forty pages to be a setup for a rather dull society world with one Maurice the owner of a vast collection of books and discovering one of them to have gone missing. After a bit of by the numbers effort to see who might have taken it, Maurice is met by the being responsible. It’s his guardian angel, and as the result of reading the rationalist literary text the angel has decided that religion and the bonds of heaven are tyranny, and sets about to spread emancipatory consciousness among the order of angels. The title of the book wasn’t symbolic, it features the direct plot of the book, with lots of unexpected turns, good insights and general hilarity. The strength of the discordant relationship between Maurice and his ex-guardian angel could carry the book in themselves--there’s lots of hilarious and surreal scenes like where Maurice tries (unsuccessfully) to preach the virtues of religion, or when he challenges the angel into a duel over an issue of personal honor. Ultimately the book’s scale is a lot wider than just that aspect, and it benefits from it.

Much of the book is a direct satire. It’s from the early twentieth century and bits of this humor haven’t aged well, but a lot of it has. For instance there’s the effort by one angel to talk another into rebellion against the celestrial arrangement and the current social arrangement in France. The second angel protests, on the grounds that France needs no change and was already completely perfect. It then goes on a speech on how the main credit bank of Frane was particularly refined "as pure and chaste and the Holy Virgin."
The novel also has, late on, one of the most affecting inversions of Christian myth that I’ve seen. The text had previously established a gnostic worldview where the entity ruling by the name of God was a lying oppressor of less than ultimate power. It had also shown Satan and his followers to be free thinkers, who tried to defeat God from humanitarian altruist notions. Across the novel the new outbreak lead by Maurice’s ex-guardian angel linked up with the old resistance and formede plans for a new front, gathering strength to a march against the status quo. In the last chapter Satan has a dream, whereby his invasion is successful, the God-being is cast down and he takes on the celestial throne. The scenario plays out longer, with Satan becoming more cold, distant and egotistical, remote from and callous towards the human suffering that motivated his earlier fighting. He starts to shroud himself in mystery and hierarchy and govern as a tyrant. Simultaneously, cast down from the seat of power and command, God begins to observe the suffering of the small people and has a turn towards compassion and activity. Satan awakes from the dream, sees that a successful invasion of Heaen would just switch roles, and calls off the attack, resolving to maintain his spirit of compassion and work to help in smaller ways. There’s a basic attitude of decency built into this story that’s rather affecting, combined with the very strong and narratively surprising ending tone of anti-militarism. Such moments, of which the above is only the culmination, establish a writer of great sensitivity and complexity as well as humor.

The novel is enormously rewarding and entertaining. Proof that at least sometimes the Nobel Award for Literature wen into deserving hands. I’m definitely going to look up more of Anatole France’s writings.

Similar to and better than: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Similar to and also better than: The Hunchback of Notre Dama by Victor Hugo

So Forth: Poems

by Joseph Brodsky

Nobel laureate. Now, this one is more like it. The poems here have a crispness, intensity and basic clarity sadly lacking in Eliiot, and it gives them a great range in bringing to life specific situations. In the format most of the poems are attached to a definite situation or story, making them more like very short fiction that happens to be beautifully and strangely expressed, rather than a whole reflection of literature on literature that I found ultimately alienating about the Wasteland.

And that’s it. Not surprisingly I find it even more difficult to comment substantively about poetry that I like than to criticize it. I do think that Brodsky merits the Nobel Award he received,, and I could be interesting in seeing his other writing at some point. It also makes me interested in what other great literary poets are like, and the type of range that might be developed in mining this field more.

Better than: The Wasteland and Other Poems by T. S. Eliot
Worse than: Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

The Wasteland and Other Poems

by T. S. Eliot

Nobel Laureate. Very difficult to approach with a clear setup or even as a fair reader. One, I don’t generally read poetry, and I enjoy it even less. Two, Eliot’s work is really too famous to engage with, and has been alluded to or quoted in part so often that it’s difficult to factor through the connections to the actual writing. I was always going to be a hard sell on this particular text. And, unsurprisingly, I can’t count myself highly moved, enlightened or entertained. There are good elements in here, with the obvious control over language on display, and some striking imagery. On the whole, however, I found it dull, awkward, overly dense to follow and not delivering appreciable insights when parsed. In part this issue comes round to Eliot’s distasteful politics and simplistic religious endorsement that I find displeasing, and which it’s hard to disentangle my view. In either case, though, ther seems to be a fundamental limitation in the vision of what to say with the poems and how to say it, a type of writing that at points seems to purposely distance itself from ready access.

Above all what struck me was how upper bound it was, how insistent Eliot’s poems were in citing earlier classics as the ground for becoming classics themselves. It’s overwhelmingly elitist, increadibly focused on an education available to few and which was accessed by even fewer in Eliot’s time. That makes for a fitting, is aesthetically deflating, pattern in the fame and widespread literary allusion to which the poems, and especially the Wasteland, have been subject. Reading it felt often like a closed book, it was so heavily bound up in referring to previous literary classics, and had been so often alluded to in a similar fashion, that all the nicely craften literary quality seemed self-contained. It’s a well formed exercise, and one can easily see how it gives generations of scholars work in parsing and interpreting. Beyond that, though, it seems to be self-contained and purposefully detached from possible application for the world in a manner that I do not see with most literature.

Worse than: Purgatorio by Dante Alighieri
Better than: Effi Briest by Theodor Fontane

Remembrance of Things Past

Marcel Proust

Technically speaking this work should be "In Search of Lost Time", as that’s a closer translation of the original french. The above title is what’s in wider cirulation, though, plus I prefer it on it’s own sake, as connecting better to the sentiment of the novel, the way it focuses on bringing in the past is always tentative There may seem to be a contradiction in switching the author over wording for the title and then trusting the source enough to follow the narrative for three thousand pages. So it goes, and the above titular modification isn’t a criticism of the larger text, which I enjoyed a great deal. It’s awesome, complex and highly engaging literature that has a lot of substance to say about the modern world. It bears the impact of its time but it is by no means dated, and the chief insights it delivers are readily applicable to conemporary times. A lot of classics struggle to find a main relevance to later reading, seemingly either overly constrained to the factors that made them initially popular or such that it’s puzzling why they took on great success in the first place. Proust doesn’t have these issues, and it was apparent fairly early on in the reading what made it worth taking seriously as great literature and, even more pressingly, produced an engaging text.

As a novel it’s about a lot of things, bringing in attention and a lot of insight into class, sexuality, anti-Semitism, literature, death, politics, nationalism and modernity. Beyond all these, what drives the book is the exploration of memory, reflection on previous events and the way they are recalled. In a large sense the protagonist isn’t so much the main character as an individual but rather the memories of that person and the way they play themselves out. It’s here that the immense length of the account works as a virtue rather than a flaw, providing a real sense of scale in depicting the mental relation to externality. It’s a very wide ranging account and provides a real feeling into the experience of decades, offering a work highly condesnsed yet feeling solid enough in its arching over a whole lifetime. For lare segments this recollection seems to be hijacked by the biography of other people the protagonist encounters, giving substantive detail on their own ambitions, successes and failure. The extensive focus in on Swann in the first volume of the work is probably the most extensive embodiment of this theme, and by reports it’s this aspect and volume that often repulses interest in the book. Yet I don’t see this aspect as a main problem, and certainly don’t object to the use of the formula of absorbing others’ lives in the way I did recently with Auster’s Moon Palace. Partly it’s because the focus doesn’t get as thoroughly sidetracked away into other people and incidents. While a lot of attention gets devoted, especially early on, to following the lives of others it’s still the protagonist that’s following them, giving a central unity and level of nuance to the recollection that binds it together. Partly the format works better, seeming more natural in the way it intersects with what happens to others over an extended period. Finally it also works better for this specific protagonist as exprssed in the book. Ultimately he’s a pretty passive person, and it works that his attention moves from his own life for sizable periods. It doesn’t ultimately diminish the interest in seeing his memories play out over his own experiences,a dn the fact that the novel is not insular on just his private experiences works to build the main sense of scale. There’s a way that this book primarily focused on society meetings, refined parties and aristocratic conversations is epic, and in certain ways passes even a high fantasy, intricate piece of worldbuilding like Lord of the Rings. The novel gives, even relative to length, a very great feeling of range, pushing into the way that an array of different people form and contest community.

A main aspect of the depiction of memory is how awkward it is, the way it works amongst a certain necessary void in the core of most people. The mental representation of the past is never in full accurate relation to the events as they happened. This imbalance is a truism, but it’s expressed with great literary force and grace by Proust. It’s substantive in itself that the book centers on a subtle margins-bound essence of human consciousness. It’s doubly impressive that the narrative works this theme into the process of recollecting so effectively. There’s the basic element of showing rather than telling writ large here--while there are a number of direct passages reflecting on the nature of memory and the insubstantial descriptive quality of thinking about others, such musings are never autonomous assertions of definitive claims. They are always elements bound within the process of memory, reflections that by their very self-declared claims are rendered ambigious. Moreover the notion of the impossibility of fully relating to others because of the warping of the past through personal consciousness is fundamental to the course of events in the novel. If people can’t maintain firm lines of continuity along their own lives--and the novel shows graphically how they can’t--then understanding another person beyond the part of oneself that is projected into them becomes doubly problematic. Yet it’s a quest people are continually compelled towards, the ultimately hopeless effort to overocome the barriers placed by their own perception, recollection and intuitive reformation of events. It’s a tension that frames much of the internal disconnect within the people of Remembrance of Things Past. The most direct manifestation occurs in extended romantic relationships of which the other partner is revealed to have been a serial adulterer, which causes a tortured re-examination of the remembered incidents. The same general pattern occurs even more gradually in the movement from childhood to adulthood, and then eventually to old age, and the way this alters the whole pattern of relating to society and family. The genius of Proust isn’t just in using extraordinary literary skill in the depiction of remembered sentiment but in how he approaches that not as a static atmosphere to be depicted but as something fluid and continually reconstructed.

Sexuality develops as one of the leading ’secondary motifs’ of the novel, rendered variously with intensity, in general reflections, in personalized encounters, as humor and as tragedy. This element was one of the most famous and controversial things when the book first appeared, and even now there’s a frankness and honesty to the representation of bodies and their encounter that stands out. The appealing part of this representation lies largely in how varied it is, how its shown to have wide-ranging modes and facets among different individuals and within a single lifespan. Sex for pay, for romance, for sheer eroticization, sex proscribed by society and illicit, sex in a relationship, outside of it or in violation of it. There’s even an extended assessment of homosexuality both male and female, the later of which it is rather surprising to find acknowledged in a text of the early twentieth century. The way it’s rendered as something integral to consciousness and behavioral life but occuring in varied states builds up the complexity of the work. In single motifs, perhaps the most striking cases are those that show a pattern of awkwardness in relation of sexuality to larger life, from the faintly comical effort to transition into and out of an erotic interlude in the larger mundane day to the wider hypocrisy of society’s prurient gossip on mattters of sex. Most tragically it emerges as another angle of the central disconnect between people that develops in some degree or other for everyone in the novel. Here it functions as both metaphor and actuality, in the way bodies can be in the most direct contact possible yet the bounded selves are ineffable distances apart.

Class is a heavily mined and heavily featured element. A large part of the direct action involves the social life of the French aristocracy and upper bourgeoise, in the habitual actions by which it constitutes itself as a group. Lifecycle events of members, general parties, rampant gossip and petty intrigue and an effort to police its boundaries by admitting or excluding others. It’s not a pretty picture that emerges, and the slow playing out of snobbery, destructive obsession, judgement and tangled morals is more damning than any direct satire would have been. It’s consistently entertaining however, largely because the range of rhetoric on display is ultimately very amusing and often pretty to witness. As with The Picture of Dorian Gray, the way aristocratic judgements express themselves are generally appaling but still highly fun to watch, and not just in a context of rooting for the participants downfall.

Anti-semitism plays a major role in the book, far more than I had expecting. Given the context of its writing it wasn’t surprising to find the Dreyfus affair featured, but the larger social engagement with the situation are explored at great detail. Here the representations of the aristocracy dovetail closely with specific politics and general efforts to build nationalism. The spurious treason charges against one Jew becomes a general paranoia of the Jews as a definable element, and from there an effort to define French identity through racial categories and enforced sentiment of loyalty. The text is really scathing on the general anti-Dreffussard and anti-semitic views circulating in the aristocracy, about how petty murky judgements connect to grandiose assertion of patriotism on the backs of self-inflated ignorance.

Another major focus involves death, and the way it’s built up to and experienced after through morning. This motif isn’t as consistently focused on as some of the others, but it’s very prominent for some key sections. The main insight I take on this element is the juxtaposition between individual reactions and the standard soceital model that’s given as approrpriate, and how awkward it can be to contextualize the loss of a loved one in the long-term, after the point where the immediate scripts apply.

The novel doesn’t express its main elements through a plot, in the conventional sense of the word. The layout of the story all technically occurs as a flashback from a later time, and the links between main specific moments is provided by the momentum of time’s passage rather than a strict relation of drama and action. This overall format lends itself to a far more engrossing work than might be imagined, one that is almost never dull by sheer force of Proust’s skill at chracterization, subtlety of theme and raw writing ability. If there’s one issue I had it’s that the sheer size of the secondary cast becomes a bit unmanagable at points, some of the less consistently appearing characters being hard to distinguish when they pop up again. Nevertheless, on the whole it manages with manifest excellence in small issues and large. This is one three thousand page literary classic I’m glad I read, and I’d say it both merits the length and is not overrated. Highly recommended.

Better than: The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
Worse than: Nothing

Informal Empire: Mexico and Central America in Victorian Culture

Robert Aguirre

A simple but well presented look at how late nineteenth century Britain treated and represented Mexico in its culture patterns. There’s less focus on literature or formal texts as widespread public spectacle, specifically looking into the networks by which fairs were organized and how the relevant producers worked to give a consistent and racialized hegemonic message.

Wirtten in a direct and engaging style that gives direct presence to the historical associations contained within it. The type of work that more effectively engages with its aspects of both complex specific style and a general structure that should be welcoming to those outside academia.


C. J. Cherryh

There are elements that are the most engaging of the trilogy, and it benefits from having the magic and wider community come more clearly into focus. However the pre-existing series and Cherryh's general writing approach is ill-suited to the amount of teenage angst that is introduced in this book, and the centering on this element weakens the interest in the story. Again good, but the weakest volume in the series.

Worse than: Exile’s Gate by C. J. Cherryh
Better than: Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

Moon Palace

Paul Auster

Has its witty and insightful elements, but far too much of the book is the main character hearing stories from other people. The tales themselves go on to long, are frequently somewhat uninteresting, and ultimately don’t add up enough to enough to make the novel seem wortwhile. Small moments occasionally shine, but as a whole it’s shot through with an omniprescent, increasingly forceful flaw.

Worse than: City of Glass by Paul Auster
Better than: Solar by Ian McEan


C. J. Cherryh

Good but not great. Better than Rusalka, because it enters the story with the characters more fully defined and fleshes out the relevant backstory and cosmology more. It also begins with the characters is a higher state of stability and happiness and then brings them crashing down threatened with utter ruin, which works in a classic dramatic sense. This is the way to make this kind of scenario play out, and shows Jim Butcher to quite fully be a third rate hack by comparison. Nevertheless, as the series proceeds some of the appeal thorugh deconstruction of Western fairy tales and horror elements wears off somewhat, and the final arc somehow lacks the full urgency implicit to the scenario.

Worse than: Finity’s End by C. J. Cherryh
Better than: Rusalka by C. J. Cherryh

Cuban Counterpoint: Tobacco and Sugar

Fernando Ortiz

Extended early twentieth century analysis of the titular themes, tracking the comparative impact of Tobacco and Sugar on Cuba. Starts with the premise of a very dry subject matter, but quickly makes it fascinating, rolling off fascinating insights, neat connections, stunning juxtapositions and effective systemic analysis. The look into the philosophy and aesthetic behind each plant is entertaining, the argument for how each substance is gendered intriguing, but it’s in the overview of how the economics functioned that really make the book take of is the insight into economics. Ortiz argues persuasively that while it’s the most pleasant crop, sugar has also directly accompanied a process of standardization, mass production, mechanization and foreign exploitation of Cuba that connects a very destructive long term legacy. In contrast, he explores venues by which Tobacco has had the potential for autonomy and overall financial advantage.

The first half is a surprisingly engaging and fast moving chain of analysis that offers much of worth in asssessing colonial and postcolonial conditions generally. After that, the second half is far less satisfying, as it goes into listing and specifics to substantiate the main thesis, slowing the main pace down to a crawl and rendering large setions frankly boring. Still, taken as a whole this is an exciting and virtal work.

Veniss Underground

Jeff Vandermeer

His first novel. Interesting, fast moving, inventive, grotesque. Well worth reading, although lower in quality than both Finch and City of Saints and Madmen. It’s directly science fiction which doesn’t actually mean much sylistically. In principle things are more physically possible

This point is useful to demolish the whole assumptions of a separation between science fiction and fantasy, ’backward looking’ and ’forward looking’, possible and impossible. In some positions that type of binary makes sense, and if we’re talking about Tolkien or his endless clones it makes sense on some level to distinguish a type of wide-trend focused writing from the story of epic adventure with all its romanticized view of the aristocracy. But of course those lines aren’t at all clear or inrevitable in practice, and generally serve mostly as a kind of self-righteous attitude by science fiction only fans that live in ignorance of the strongest voice in modern fantasy. This description, I should add, applies to me up until about a year and a half ago.

In any case, knowing that this is a VanderMeer novel tells me vastly more it than knowing that it’s set in the future. There’s a similar type of grim creativity at work, and a directly comparable focus on portraying a whole wide-functioning culture. What we’re persented at here more than in City of Saints and Mademn is a social enviornment already in the process of disintegration, suffering from collapse of central authority and a general process of anarchy. The main plot concerns the protagonist (eventuallly revealed as such) working to stop a mad scientist crimelord from his effort to replace humanity in the successive battle of the city. He’s foiled, but the larger issues of the society remain beyond direct counteracting, in a state of technological fervent and communal erosion.

It’s not a weakly dying polity, and it doesn’t by any means make for a feeble narrative. Very well written, standout setup for characters and a very inventing backdrop. One surprising element in the story was that the mad scientist crimelord wasn’t shown as a campy or deliberately ironic figure. Instead he was written quite seriously, and by the end of the story he’s done enough damage and demonstrated enough sadistic combinations of art, slavery and living creatures to serve as a quite viable antagonist.

Worse than: City of Saints and Madmen by Jeff Vandermeer
Better than: Dune by Frank Herbert. Not a judgement most genre fans would share, I believe, but such is my view. Bettter characterization, certanly, and if one looks at the worldbuilding line by line I see it as having a lot more creativity and overall sense of credibility. In no small part because it’s not coded as sylistically fantasy like Herbert’s is. And of course one could make the case tht without Dune’s success there wouldn’t have been the pattern of elaborate worldbuilding in speculative fiction so that it enabled VanderMeer’s later creativity. Even if that’s true however it makes Herbert influential, not necesarily good.