Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Steel Remains

The Steel Remains, Richard Morgan.

Morgan's latest novel, and his first fantasy. Resembles a lot the themes of Mieville's stuff (particularly Iron Council) and some of Morgan's own earlier stuff. The resemblance is a bit unfortunate, because The Steel Remains isn't nearly as strong, and might have been more enjoyable if I hadn't set really high sights on it. Ultimately I have mixed reactions. The book feels in some ways more like the middle volume in a trilogy than the first one it is, all the characters and the setting coming in with a lot of stuff already in action. Partly this makes it feel decently fleshed out, like a lived-in world with a lot of history, but it's also alienating to connect with the characters. There's a lot of anger in this book, against homophobia, against the selling and domination of people, against varied forms of militarism, exploitation, hypocrisy and fanaticism. Morgan's story is tight enough that this isn't just a case of the character or author stopping the narrative to lecture, or filling the world with strawman. It's a grim environment, but a complex one, with few easy moral decisions and an overall believability. I was reminded several times of Iran late under the shah--repressive, corrupt, and with the waiting forces in the wing preparing to launch the society into an even more repressive and homophobic theocracy. I'll be interested to see if the later volumes follow up this parallel at all. Clearly one of Morgan's main projects in this was to take the standard fantasy template and add a whole awareness of homosexuality, homophobia, slavery, sexual violence--common to human societies, and aren't going to change just because of magic.

One standout element in this work is the relation of the main character to violence. He's from a very violent context, and he inhabits this type of position to earn his living, as well as to assert his own way of living, but this isn't presented as a redemptive thing. It's a basically destructive force, even when used against all-slaughtering invaders or bigoted fanatics it doesn't make a hero, it produces an extremely dangerous man. The most notable moment of this is the flashback shown where
Ringil kills a child. About the most extreme provoking circumstances one could imagine--the child was throwing stones as part of the torture of Ringil's lover--but the act of violence was excessive, unhesitating and basically unthinking, and it brings home the problems with both the society and Ringil's own actions in relation to it.

Still, I find the project far less satisfying or interesting than Market Forces. Partly because the fantasy tropings and mystical invasion forces do give a tone of unreality that make the grim focus of the human environment appear too polemical. The biggest factor, though, is that the plot through this deconstruction isn't that engaging. While George R. R. Martin is good at anchoring his darkness to an interesting narrative and Mieville is fantastic at it, The Steel Remains doesn't work great as an actual plot. At least one too many eldritch menacing forces, and a bit too much circling the wagons in terms of political intrigue and resuce-the-slave. The character stuff is more engaging, and it's apparent that Morgan was really quite ambitious in setting up this kind of work, but there are significant areas where I don't think it fully delivers. I'll be interested in reading the rest of the series and in following Morgan's work, but this particular story isn't top tier fantasy for me.

Better than: Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon

Worse than: China Mieville's Iron Council

Monday, March 22, 2010

Good Omens

Good Omens, Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett.

Highly effective, an amusing, fast-past and very engaging book. Plays to both writers strengths, and offers a good deconstruction of basic Christian mythology. Deconstruction not just in the sense of taking apart, satirizing, reworking and altering, but also in putting them together again, so that in the story measures like a prophesied apocalypse and omniscient benevolent God are meaningful and interesting. All told that's quite an accomplishment, and the textual-bending nature of the work makes it even more fun.

All told it feels a lot more like Pratchett than Gaiman, but a Pratchett that's in top form of control over language and character detail, and Gaiman's influence in the reconceptualized norms of heavenly theology is pretty clear. Overall a productive collaboration, a good working of the wonderful premise: the Antichrist is raised wrong, and doesn't want to bring about the apocalypse. Shines through effectively because of strong characters, and a very good depiction of friendship across the isle.

Similar to and better than: Terry Pratchett's Small Gods

Similar to and worse than: Mike Carey's Lucifer

As well, in the two-for-the-price-of-one category, Gaiman's Coraline. Much of my thoughts on this have already been expressed--that Gaiman is incapable of writing a bad story, but at time he aims rather lower than he's capable of, particularly with his YA material. Coraline is better than most of this pack, being incredibly creative and highly creepy. Where much of the time he offers a kind of brilliant narrative midrash to existing mythologies, poly and monotheist alike, here he builds his own set of magics and supernatural forces, making an intimate exploration of one home and the whole world that folds into it. Certainly it's an accomplishment few authors would be capable of, but it also seems peculiarly pointless in some ways--after a certain point it's the pilling of weird and creepy details for their own sake. If characterization had been a bit more complex maybe that would have carried the distance, but as is this is a very talented work that still doesn't rank anywhere close to what the author is capable of.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Russia House

The Russia House, John Le Carre.

Largely effective, but in retrospect appears a bit under-performing. It's a novel about spies that's very aware of it's own moment in history as a transition point, the Cold War fading away yet institutions predicated on perceiving reality being unwilling to surrender cherished paradigms. It's useful on the level of social politics, both trying to get individuals to buy into the intelligence service and to configure the terms on which that entity is. As always, the upper elite of spycraft struggle for a sort of imagined community. Their presented ideal is problematic in itself--a state within a state, ruthless power justified by the exercise of style above all, conservative interests and justification, sacrificing individuals to long-term processes. But this isn't even the whole story, as Le Carre's spies are invariably more ineffective, self-deceiving and blinded than they assume, and their struggle with the fantasy of the trade is as much a hindrance as anything else.

The plot is tight, the pace good, the line-by-line writing as good as Le Carre's always been. Unfortunately the characters are much less memorable, and the book ultimately struggles to rise to new themes than articulated earlier in Le Carre's career. Arguably, his spies weren't the only ones struggling with obsolescence, and there's a worn-out feel to the narrative that I don't read as entirely intentional.

Better than: Iain Bank's The Business
Worse than: Le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

Travels in the Scriptorium

Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster.

Very strange work. A bit too full of its own importance, but ultimately succeeds more than it fails, and accordingly offers some very interesting reflections on meta-fiction, the nature of reality, the nature of identity. The actual story is meager to the point of non-existence---strange man wakes up in a strange room and encounters some stories before time repeats. As well, the main analogy of this device wears a bit thin--that is, it's never really believable as more than an analogy. Additionally, too many of the little details come about through references to Auster's own life and work, making the whole thing overly parasitic on the past writings.

Still, what does work well is the process by which "Mr. Blank" interacts with the main story he's given, the way that's revised and reworked. It's a compelling piece in its own right, and the process of seeing it modified is very effective. As well, the ending to the book proper is powerful. However there remain ways this novel is sadly underperforming, and I'd only give it my partial advocacy.

Better than: Philip K. Dick's VALIS
Worse than: Jonathan Lethem's Chronic City

As well, shortly after I reread City of Glass by the same author. A much more impressive effort by the same author, offering a much greater punch to the questioning of identity and reality. Above all, the story was able to inhabit the strangeness of psychology much better--showing several people that were glaringly and fascinatingly unhinged, and then building to the quieter but equally major disintegration of the main character. It commits fully to a breaking down of reality and sanity, and does so with a lot of lines that are alternatively hilarious [1] and chilling[2]. And I think the inclusion of the character Paul Auster within the story is just the right shade of bizarre, it sounds highly underwhelming in the abstract but actually plays well. The whole thing may stand as the perfect postmodern mystery: one is compelled into the role of detective without understanding even the name and role assigned, flails around trying to understand roles, never comes in sight of solving the mystery of securing anything, and in the end one also looses one's entire self.

[1] In particular, the scene where Auster is trying to identify a recently released convict as he gets off a train, so he can tail him and make sure he doesn't hurt his client. The man is watching the train, is sure for a bit he sees the guy getting off, then spots another one with similar features heading int the opposite direction. He dithers for a bit, decides to go after the second guy in punishment for intruding, then realizes that's absurd.
[2] The last two pages of the novel, in particular, are chilling, conveying a purely abstract and literary, but very real, type of horror.