by Christopher Barzak
Read as one of the Nebula shortlisted for 2010. Thoroughly pathetic--at this point I’m referring both to the characters and the author.
For much of this book I kept making comparisons with Valente's Palimpsest. Partly because while half of the Hugo and Nebula lists were the same--City, Windup Girl and Boneshaker--half weren't, and at some level I was approaching this as a substitute for Palimpsest. The novel invites that more specifically in parallels with its initial setup, it being a fantasy about lonely, dysfunctional people that seek each other out. It doesn't feature sex as predominately and of course goes in a rather different ultimate story but I saw a strong similarity. It’s not entirely a fair one, given this book predates Palimpsest and of course there are enough major differences to consider them different approaches, but I nevertheless had it in mind. This comparison didn't do Barzak's novel any favors, but even if I'd never read Valente I'd still think this was a very weak piece. It's a failure as fantasy, leaving the whole supernatural highly vague and underdeveloped for most of the book, and it's a failure in conventional narrative. Neither the characters nor their actions are really enough to sustain interest, the basic problems feels too generic, and the prose is merely functional. Confusing and dull simultaenously, and I'm very puzzled as to why it was ever nominated. It’s fundamentally a novel that works against engagement, that undermines the main potential for drama by weakening the characters, plot and setting beyond the breaking point. This book is what happens when an author invests in a gritty atmosphere too much and comes out the other side, the result of maudalin faux-poetic arrangement behind the different psychological portraits.
There was another way I kept thinking of Valente, and that was in the context of her rather harsh criticism against Yellow Blue Tibia, accusing it of poor research, Western bias and cultural appropriation in the context of its representations of Soviet Russia. I think ultimately the argument was misplaced in that context--but it made me think a lot more about cultural approrpriation in genre fiction than I might otherwise have done. And, in that light, I think there is a problem with Barzak, and the representation of Japan that appears in the novel. It's continually criticized by the characters, with a huge amount of sweeping statements viewing it as vanity and general problems in organization. More and more this aspect made me uncomfortable, especially since an American writer in regards to Japan does have the power dynamic that's lacking in Britain towards Russia, or the Soviet Union. My own knowledge of modern Japan is fairly limited (although what I've heard primarily through another gradstudent that's spent a lot of time in Japan is rather different than this novel) but the characterization of the society seems simplistic, overstated and far more negative than I'm comfortable with.
Worse than: Changes by Jim Butcher
Better than: King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard