Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman.

This sees Gaimain in a more impressive mold. Strong characterization, great atmosphere, and a main plot that works to his strengths in exploring the invented world. For the most part the story is an excuse for wandering around and showing off the creativity of the environment, but the actual narrative makes a lot of sense and plays well in retrospect. But above all the book's success rests on the fact that the strange community living sideways to conventional reality is made so abosrbing, and that the mythological connections of this are so rich.

There's a great insight at the core here--basing notes of mythology off main monotheist strains, devils are often disturbing, but angels are simply terrifying. Anchoring the angel Islington to the account makes for a great contrasting presence--at first Islington is a cold ally, then shown as the larger villain, then becomes a very terrifying villain once the majestic self-control starts to slip and we see the ecstatic hatred boiling just below the surface.

This all feels better than most of Gaiman's YA output because it sustains its characters better, there's a sense of real danger for them accompanied by more significant growth. The range of the novel is simply wider than much of Gaiman's stuff, and it suits the construction of this work enormously. It also inhabits the conventional world more fulling, immersing itself in a number of scenes in aboveground London before the characters slip off the conventional straits. The effective hybridization of both make this urban fantasy at its best.

Similar to and better than: Gaiman's Coraline
Similar to and worse than: Mieville's Rat King

The Devil's Alphabet

The Devils Alphabet, Daryl Gregory, 2009. Considered for Hugo nominee reading, not good enough to be a Hugo nominee.

And now for a less effective horror novel. Nor that Gregory's book is entirely horror--and indeed my biggest criticism of this piece was it's struggle to define itself. It has definite elements of the bio-thriller, body horror, murder mystery and full-on science fiction, but ultimately doesn't deliver effectively on any of these. The premise: a very strange virus arrives in a small town, killing many people and transforming most of the rest into one of three significantly mutated human variants. The protagonist is one of the few people left unchanged by the virus, as the book opens he returns to the infected town after a decade, hearing of the suspicious death of an old friend.

As a start, it's unsatisfying in its murder investigation aspects because the plot is haphazard, the resolution ultimately unconvincing, and because the protagonist seems to loose interest in finding out the truth for long stretches. The confused apathy of the main character is one of the persistent issues with this account, and partly why it manages to be so unexciting despite so many wild elements. This largely accounts for its failures as a real thriller. On body horror, the description of what happens with the virus and long-term results of this are effective at points, making for the novel's strongest and most distinctive scenes, but the narrative seems to have little sense of how to work with this. Instead, it settles eventually into science fiction: people aren't mutated in this one town because of magic or a weird condition but because of an empirically verified fact--a virus that jumped from a parallel universe, and does it again in another town off-screen in the course of the book. In part where the story falls flat is in failing to recognize how ridiculous this explanation is. In a similar commitment to genre the book looks at both the situation of mundanes isolating and fearing the transformed, as well as how town society alters with three different species variants. There's some success in this (for instance, the betas now reproduce without sex, and only females)which delivers some unusual ideas, but the descriptions feel more odd than creative, and don't connect to any grand insights. Above all, the premise and main developments in this book that everything depends on are so hard to suspend disbelief for. I'd say this is a result of the Space Whale Aesop nature of the work undermining its autonomy and real narrative power.

Beyond that, this is a work of only adequate characterization and prose with awkward pace, dipping its toes in a lot of genres as a substitute for doing anything truly effective with any of them. Distinctly underwhelming.

Similar to and better than: Seanan McGuire's Rosemary and Rue

Similar to and worse than: Robert Reed's Black Milk

The Shining

The Shining, Stephen King, 1977.

I came to reading King pretty late, partly because of a general dislike for horror, partly because of elitist pretensions of him being overly trashy. December 2008 I picked up my first King novel, and since then have read eighteen of his novels and two short story collections, finding them generally effective and compelling narratives. However, I also saw a major quality drop across the late 90s and 0s, in short story quality, Insomnia and especially the last half of the Dark Tower series. So, after experiencing both King eagerness and burnout I turned recently to one of his earlier and well known books to see if it stands up.

And it does, pretty much. The plot unfolded exactly as expected, partly because of cultural osmosis, but also because it's foreshadowed and precognitively climpsed in the text pretty clearly. In short: a recovering alcoholic with writer's block takes his wife and young psychic song to an old hotel to guard it over the weekend, giving them complete isolation. It seems like a good idea at the time. But then he turns homicidal, because of ghosts. It's a testament to the effectiveness of the prose and above all pace that the narrative is thrilling despite the endpoints being so clearly foreshadowed. The description of the action is effectively harrowing, and the slow buildup to it even more so. The horror motif of a father turning violently against those closest to him is a powerful one, and King allows his narrative to resonate with the trauma this has. While in It the supernatural horror is jumping out at characters every other chapter, here's it's all buildup to one ghastly rampage. There's a respect for the weight in this situation that above all lets it be delivered well.

What also makes the story work is the depth given to characterization. Normally King's characters are pretty flat, but here some pretty intense and well rounded psychologies are pulled off. In particular Jack Torrence emerges as one of King's more effective protagonists/villains, a main of equal measure talent and frustration, deeply flawed but aware of this and trying to overcome his own propensity for alcohol and violence. And this allows the main conceit of the novel to work, perhaps better than it should. Making the violence occur not because of flaws in Jack's character but from ghosts could so easily have turned trite, or delivered what TV Tropes would call a Space Whale Aesop--a situation too rooted in the fantastic to really be relevant, and with murderous domestic violence that risks downplaying the significance of the reality in the premise. To an extent this occurs, particularly in the climax, but the major buildup makes it more complex. The final result is not Jack becoming psychotic purely on his own devices or him being bodyjacked by ghosts. Instead it's a process of corruption and seduction, at once metaphysical and deeply personal, which in itself builds up a lot of pathos on all sides.

I'm not sure if there's anything I could say that would recommend this book to someone uninterested in reading horror, including myself two years ago. This is certainly a dark story, with a darkness rooted in a certain type of fantastic. There's no deep theme or underlying rationale in why this particular hotel is haunted in this way, and to a large extent the premise depends on an authorial arbitrariness.
Still, the story is well formed, the characters complex and believable, and the way the supernatural premise infringes on each member of the cast feels human and affecting. Given King's evident ambitions in this story, I'd say he delivered on this effectively.

Similar to and better than: King's Insomnia
Similar to and worse than: King's It

Monday, February 15, 2010

Roadside Picnic

Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. 1971. Russian science fiction novel.

Interesting setup, but didn't deliver sufficiently. It's a problem when the most engaging, ambitious and exciting scenes are the characters speculating about the wider mechanism and purpose behind the setting, in moments unconnected to the actual plot. Which is a shame because the book's take on alien encounter is pretty neat--as suggested by the title, the brief alien presence might be completely uninterested in humanity, just a brief tour, and the ultra-advanced technology left behind is nothing more to the aliens than the equivalent for a few empty cans. There's some real meat to this premise, and probably even more when it was first published, as a corrective to the common portrayal of humanity's role.

Unfortunately, most of the novel is a type of espionage-heavy thriller in terms of different factions trying to gain access to the super-advanced alien garbage. It's engaging in theory--taking a cynical but not unrealistic, and not excessively bleak examination of short sighted reaction to a transformative situation--but it fell flat for me in execution. Events seemed overly dense, excessively focused on the flat main character, and the pacing is odd. Above all there's a sense that the story we're given isn't the most interesting one set in this universe. Certainly at times the book calls out for a larger scale, for it to consider wider humanity and their role in the cosmos for the plot rather than just in speculation within the story.

Similar to and better than: Robert Charles Wilson's Axis

Similar to and worse than: Strugatsky's Prisoner of Power

Recent History books

I'm rather behind in reporting on my reading. To that end, I've decided to streamline things a bit by offering much briefer and joined reviews of recent non-fiction books. Hopefully I'll be able to give the literature all a bit more due to catch up, but I figure with this category there's probably reduced interest in the finer nuances of my reaction.

Without further ado, all the post-Imperial Russia After 1861 history-oriented books I've read this year:

Through Russia, Katherine Guthrie.
A nineteenth century travel account by a British woman touring Russia. Used for my dissertation research. To that end, it's quite intriguing, taking a female author rather than most of her contemporaries, allowing a different type of gendered dynamic in engaging with Russian men and women. In particular the dealing with issues of costume and security have rather different stance, and I think the insights on wider social life will be worth tracking. If reading it purely for leisure I wouldn't be terribly interested--too much repetition and generalization--but for my area of research it's invaluable. Additionally, judged by the standard of nineteenth century travel accounts, Guthrie's is pretty good. It's fairly thorough in describing different environments and encounters, the level of detail feels deft and it's more restrained than a number of works in declaring what the essential Russian character is based on three days of tourism.
Similar to and better than: Oliphant's Russian Shores of the Black Sea
Similar to and worse than: Ralston's Songs of the Russian People

The Provisional Government, V. D. Nabokov.
A primary source, a hundred page account written by the father of Nabokov the author. Describes his sense of the challenges and failures of the post-tsar, pre-Bolshevik government that the author contributed to. Somewhat limited in its scope of examination and for the detail brought to verify it's main findings. Still, it's a pretty self-aware and quite interesting account, builds a lot of information on things going on in 1917 that aren't given much light in broader histories. In particular, it's interesting to note the struggles in organizing the bureaucracy and political elite faced by a revolutionary government that didn't have the coherent (possibly fanatic) ideology of the Bolshevik's to draw on. Instead their government was a series of compromises, reforms, accomodations with existing power structures, corruptions and mistakes, the case of a liberal reformist movement standing between autocracy and violent one-party rule. In that there are clearly a lot of wrong paths taken, but they were not completely inept, and it's interesting reading this to wonder what might have happened if they'd had more time. Also intriguing to see how harsh Nabokov is with Kerensky, calling him a narcissistic psychopath at one point. Intriguing for me, in any case.

Similar to and better than: Imperial Russia after 1861
Similar to and worse than: Isaiah Berlin's Four Russian Thinkers

Profit Over People: Neoliberalism and Global Order, Noam Chomsky.
From the 1990s. Has some devestating, well-argued and well-documented arguments against free market capitalism, and the level of violence, imperialism, poverty and exploitation that runs with this. Also good in articulating some of the grounds for confidence in challenging this, rather than merely casting doomsday scenarios. However, suffers from the classic structural problem of being a collection of shorter articles joined into one book, which causes a lot of redundnacy and a focus that's over-focused at points.
Similar to and better than: Iain Banks The Steep Approach to Garbadale
Similar to and worse than: Richard Morgan's Market Forces
Both novels, but in terms of arguments and overall tone they're closer than a lot of the relevant non-fiction.

Short Oxford History of Germany: Nazi Germany, edited by Jane Caplan.
Highly effective anthology, collects a lot of great specific insights and methodological approaches. There are two pieces that wander a bit and are weaker with credibility of their main arguments, but out of ten that leaves a strong ratio. Very effective as an intro to studying different facets of Nazi Germany, or as a primer on some of the more effective recent scholarship. Also contains very effective bibliography and references for further reading.
Similar to and better than: When Biology Became Destiny, ed. Renate Bridenthal
Similar to and worse than: Germany's Colonial Pasts, ed. Eric Ames

Facundo: Life in the Argentine Republic in the Days of the Tyrants, Domingo Sarmiento.
Nineteenth century Argentinean primary source. Some interesting detail and sense of energy, but highly peachy and both as a history in its own rights and in aesthetic value it gets pretty poor in the second half. For my purposes, it's most interesting and valuable in just how messed up it is, from the racist readings of indigenous barbarians, the odd connections drawn between a country's geography and morality and the extreme description he gives of some of the political disorder. So in ways this was a source that succeeded in being useful to me in the measure as it failed as an effective text by its own definition.
Similar to and Better Than: Livy's the Early Days of ROme
Similar to and Worse Than: Industrial Park by Patricia Galvao

The Nazi Seizure of Power, William Allen.
Examination of a specific German town to see the process of politics in the Weimar Republic and early Nazi Germany. Overall effective, but as an account left me somewhat dissatisfied. It's most interesting in describing the level of mid-range political activists in this town, both those that tried to oppose the National Socialists and those that facilitated them. This last explores a mixture of corruption, hatred and in some cases even idealism, pointing to how divergent and chaotic the political boundaries of this movement were. In its wider scale analysis, it feels less effective. There are some good points made on how a lot of elements traditionally seen as important in the Nazis rise didn't play a huge role here--in particular, Allen finds that party anti-Semitism was downplayed on the local level, since heavy anti-Semitic rhetoric was costing more votes than it gained--but the structural level feels unclear. Despite a fair bit of attention given to it, I don't see Allen as effectively addressing why the Depression benefited the Nazis more than any other groups, particularly the Communists, and the attitude of the middle class seems overdetermined in this account.
Similar to and better than: Gotz Aly's Hitler’s Beneficiaries
Similar to and worse than: Shelley Baranowski's Strength Through Joy

Food in History, Reay Tannahil.
Far too broad a period surveyed, amounting in many cases to little more than a laundry list of neat facts. Fundamentally deficient in its attempt at analysis, making for a throughly dated and not terribly helpful text.
Similar to and better than: Stephen Gundle's Between Hollywood and Moscow
Similar to and worse than: Daniel Roche's A History of Everyday Things

Colonial Masculinity: The 'manly Englishman' and the 'effeminate Bengali' in the late nineteenth century, Mrinalini Sinha.
Great on ideas. This traces a detailed, highly effective study of the role of gender in colonial power. Exploring four specific issues, Sinha traces ways that the representation of colonial women was crucial for the politics of self-justifying the exercise of white power over colonial men. The actual sentence to sentence writing was a bit grating for some reason, and the book was a bit hard to finish, but it's well worth the effort.
Similar to and better than: Manliness and Morality, ed. J.A. Mangan
Similar to and worse than: Judith Butler's Gender Trouble

A History of Russian Thought, Andrzei Walicki
Survey of nineteenth century Russian intellectual figures and movement. Thorough, effective in detail, good at tracing connections and discontinuities. Nice intro for this period.
Similar to and better than: Marshall Poe's The Russian Moment in World History
Similar to and worse than: Audra Yoder's Making Tea Russian