Sunday, February 18, 2018

February Reads Part Two

Dune by Frank Herbert
Cock and Bull by Will Self


Ah, so I finally conquered Dune. And I liked it! A lot! I saw the film at the local theatre for a repertory screening, which inspired me to get around to the novel, of which I've owned three different copies (including, pictured above, a hardcover edition in the Penguin Galaxy series). The last time I tried reading this, years ago, I was bored to tearstoo much talking, too much nonsense exposition about nonsense religion. The film version (which I reviewed here) is great, not despite in of its flaws, but because of its flaws (its relentless ugliness, its relentless exposition, its turgid voiceover narration). Mostly, I love Lynch's adaptation because it's weird. Just downright weird: squids floating in giant aquariums, explosive guns charged by sounds, dreams upon dreams upon dreams, etc. While the novel isn't quite as weird as Lynch's version (the Guild Navigators are never onstage in the text), there's still that persistent element from which Lynch drew for the film.

There are admirable elements to each version, such as the film's aforementioned weirdness, and the novel's strident commitment to ambivalence. After reading this mammoth thing, I can totally understand the appeal, why the novel is lauded so much, why it has fans to this day and has never been out of print. It's a unique beast, unlike anything else I've ever read from that era (though, I've yet to read Asimov's Foundation series, which I'm guessing is similar in its depiction of futurity and its futurity's aesthetics, a symptom of the era's collective imagination). Dune isn't simply a weird space adventure with a lone hero defeating all his enemies with laser beams, though that is an element to the novel. Rather, it's a deeply ambivalent examination of the nature of heroism and the exercise of power. For the first half, when Paul Atreides, our protagonist, is shuffled from one stilted conversation setpiece to the next, the text explores how power is focused, how it's applied. The Duke Leto uses charm, loyalty, the lawfurnished by the State, in this case, the Emperor—to cajole, command, and lead. Many flashbacks and bits of internal narration provide clues to the endless lessons Paul has received in how to be a leader. The State isn't perfect, the characters shrug, but at least power is lawful and valid.

In the second half, after the Baron Harkonnen has manipulated the State (or has been manipulated by the State, or both), the lawfulness of power is in question. Paul must actualize power through extralegal means, such as rallying a guerilla army, a venture replete with logistical problems. The text explores how Paul's lineage, his nontraditional training from his mother (as opposed to the traditional masculine mode of leadership, detailed in the first half), and his destiny as Messiah provides the opportunity to seize power from the Fremen, to lead them to glorious revolution. However, the revolution against the Empire isn't nakedly liberatory as class revolutions would normally be. Instead, Paul's chain of decisions is meant to draw the Fremen away from jihad, away from genocidal war. Thus, the Fremen lack the free will and agency revolution would provide, replacing such with determined manipulation. It is through religious dogma that Paul controls the Fremen. Their whole religion is based on manipulation. Hence, the text's deep-seeded ambivalence, not simply about the nature of heroism, but even about the actualizing of power. The text subtly suggests that there can be no exercising of power without somebody to exercise upon. There is no freedom but an illusion of freedom under the guise of either a religious power or a state power—or both, as the novel concludes with Paul reconciling his religious cult leadership with lawful State power (a suitable marriage). 

For a chunk of the novel, I was irritated by how many secondary and tertiary names things have. No utterance, no movement, no person was without a host of names, ritualistic and liturgical. Everything was laden, burdened, with religious significance. After the halfway point, once Paul joins the Fremen, I saw the text's strategy. The Fremen, like the Atreides, like the Harkonnens, are prisoners of discourse just as much as anybody else, whether that discourse be religious dogma or judiciary dogma. Their lives only have meaning through litanies (such as the "fear is the mind-killer" refrain) and through ritual. Their meaning is made through discursive utterances. 

I loved it.

Cock and Bull wasn't great. Self's first major work, two novellas about people growing genitals opposite to their assigned gender, must have been edgy and refreshing in the 90s, but in 2018, it comes off as the longest stand-up routine from the hackiest comedian about biological essentialism. Self might be progressive in many ways, and could be even more progressive since this came out, but there's still a mean streak of misanthropy and transphobia running through this. The result of these miraculous transformations is always negative, always emotionally traumatizing. Any switch in body leads to heartbreak, the novellas seem to say. Our whole identity is produced by our body and not by the intricately meshed discourses of social conditioning and cultural norms. Which isn't to say the entire novel is worthless. Self's prose is still the highlight and pretty much the only reason why I read this. I knew I wasn't going to be on board with his edgy humour. I wonder how different these novellas would be if he wrote them now, or if even he would write them in the first place.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

February Reads Part One

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander
Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Pushing Ice by Alastair Reynolds
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan

I know I read Altered Carbon in university, so let's say between 2004 and '06? I remembered a bit since then, the sleeves, the cyberpunk, the hardboiled detective stuff, and the solution to the mystery being really complicated. I had an overall favourable impression of the novel. Enough that I always meant to get around to reading more Morgan stuff (and I still will... eventually). I gave this a reread thanks to the recent Netflix adaptation as well as just a general hunger for science fiction. What strikes me reading this for a second time (a rare occurrence) is how much my interests in science fiction have changed. My overall opinion this time around is decidedly negative—partly because of some issues with the novel and partly due to my shifting tastes.

I suppose I'm no longer interested in the macho posturing that Altered Carbon is so keen on trafficking in. The hardboiled stuff, with the constant persistence on cigarettes, sex, seaminess, didn't really grab me this time around. In fact, I was very much put off by the machismo of the novel. Within 50 pages, the protagonist has referred to, more than once, his arousal and another character's breasts. It's like that famous tweet about a man writing a woman ("she breasted boobily down the stairs"); Morgan really needs us to know about how horny his protagonist is. Sex is an integral part of the plot if only because hardboiled detective fiction seems to require the unsavoury. Chandler's Marlowe was motivated not simply by money but by a chivalry, to right the wrongs committed against women (though women were just as often perpetrators as they were victims in Chandler's novels). The detective lifting the rock to see the insects crawling underneath is a necessary element to the hardboiled genre. Which gives us Morgan's loathsome world, a cynical bitter worldview which assumes almost all people are ruthlessly self-motivated. Sex is yet another weapon the rich use to dehumanize, humiliate, and control the poor, in Altered Carbon. A generous feminist reading of it might opine the novel is anti-capitalist but that would have to reconcile the book's fetishizing of guns and gun brands.

Likewise, a feminist reading would have to acknowledge that much of the plot hinges on prostitution and the possibilities of sex thanks to sleeving technology and virtual reality. It's not much of a surprise to reveal that its depiction of sex work is simplistic and moralizing. Prostitutes in this novel are either victims of violence or victims of circumstances, but more likely, both. The sexual violence in this novel is extreme. Most of it occurs offstage, thank heavens, but there is one significant scene in which the protagonist is sleeved into a woman's body for the sake of torture. We are regaled with brief, but still palpable, descriptions of torture against a woman's body, and it's the apex of gratuitous.

Altered Carbon just didn't interest me in the way it used to, I'm afraid. About halfway through the novel, I made a guess on the solution to the mystery (I had 100% forgotten the solution) and I'm very much convinced my solution is more clever than the one presented in the book. I found myself disappointed reaching the end of the novel when the reveal turned out to be much more prosaic than expected. Sure, it's thematically supported (sex weaponized against the poor and marginalized) but mine was a better use of the sleeving conceit. One wonders what kind of excruciatingly clever fix Adam Roberts could have conceived.

I should try more from Morgan though. While I didn't like Altered Carbon, I didn't hate it, and I can definitely see the author's potential. He lists "feminist" as an attribute in his Twitter bio and I can see the seeds of that awareness in the themes of this novel. I'll give another one of his novels I try, I think.

 Children of Time by Adrian Tchaikovsky was a goddamn delight. I hadn't read any major work of science fiction in months (some novellas, including the superb Winterglass) and I felt the jones for it. Tchaikovsky is an author I knew the name of (and we follow each other on Twitter) but I hadn't read anything by him. I should have long ago because this was terrific. Not perfect but such a blast. Some reviews have mentioned the flatness of the human half of the novel and their preference for the generations-long history of the intelligent spiders, and sure, the spiders are the more compelling story, but I still found the human half worked for me. The arc of the humans in the novel is messy, such as their history, full of violence and deadends and frustrations, which juxtaposes quick neatly against the linearity of the spiders.

Pushing Ice was my first Alastair Reynolds since finishing his Revelation trilogy all those months ago. For about two thirds of Pushing Ice, I kept asking myself, "why don't I read every single word he's ever written? He's soooo gooood" but then I reached the final third and remembered why. After four novels, I get the sense Reynolds is a big fan of out-weirding himself. "Oh, the sentient weapons weren't weird enough? How about a whole cathedral on wheels that follows an elliptical orbit?" It's the same thing here. Once he's introduced his first alien species, he can't help but introduce a bunch more that feel weird for the sake of being weird. The last third of the novel is far too space opera-y when it should have stayed being the "engineers and scientists solve logistical problems" story that it was. I really liked this until I didn't.

The Only Harmless Great Thing by Brooke Bolander was a neat novella about intelligent elephants and radiation.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Call Me By Your Name


No I don't think this is the sublime masterpiece everybody is calling it but I did like it quite a bit. I've read the novel (years ago) and its combination of yearning and exquisitely painful beauty and loss (specifically queer loss) always stuck with me.

Brandon Taylor, (@brandonlgtaylor on twitter, go follow him) writing for them., talks about the intrinsic connection between gay men and sadness:
There was always something so pure about the sadness of queer men, as if in the face of reduced conditions, they at least had their sadness, which seemed also to represent a clarity of understanding, emerging as it did from bigotry, from illness, from grief. It’s no wonder to me that so much of queer art is sad — we’ve always been composing in a key of loss, the key of longing, which inherently describes a situation of lack or removal.
(here) Call Me By Your Name, one of the novels mentioned in his essay, is one of the prime examples of this type of queer sadness. Set in 1983, the novel and the film are shy about the very much looming AIDS crisis (here) and a bit blase about the closet. One could naively argue that Call Me By Your Name is less about queer love and more about first love, but that would ignore the text's context, its position in the discourse of queer literature, in which loss and sadness are the primary feeling tones.

Male queerness is more often than not rooted in the absence, in the lack: for much of Western history, gay men were ostracized, scorned, vilified, and criminalized. Any act of love was radical. In many ways, gay love is still radical today, but the risk isn't quite as high. Thus, the hesitant touch, the furtive glance, the expression of love were often in the dark, always rooted in the melancholy for that which gay men could not have—open socially-approved love. Gay love operated on the assumption of loss and thus loss was always there in a relationship from the very beginning. Not just the lack of the stable relationship, but the lack of safety, lack of continuity, lack of monogamy. The absence beats at the heart of gay love, which provides depictions of this love an extra dimension of sadness, an exquisite pain of melancholy so alluring and delicious as to be unavoidable.

The best parts of Call Me By Your Name are the partings, when Elio and Oliver are separated, either by circumstances (the end of Oliver's time with the Perlman family) or by their inability/unwillingness to voice their mutual desire. Their time together is as inane and quotidian as any other first love, which is to say that it's unbearably happy for the couple and unintelligible for outside observers. Yet, the parting is what propels the film; it is there from the very moment Elio and Oliver meet; the parting looms over them, shadows their every step, the parting that is intrinsic to queer love. The loss that is queer love.

Which is why the end of their relationship is the best part of the film. It's what we've been waiting for. It's what we expect. Gay viewers of this film will know this pain from the very first moment and it's a comforting embrace to be faced with it again. It's a sadness that's been aestheticized for the queer gaze. We ache for the aching, we yearn for those that yearn but through the most beautiful lens possible, that of idyllic summers in Northern Italy, surrounded by beautiful people and beautiful locations and beautiful food. The beauty of the location is tied up with this queer sadness. This sad beauty allows gay audiences to sublimate their own melancholy into a palatable form. We yearn for the beautiful sadness and Call Me By Your Name gives up the goods excellently.

Monday, January 22, 2018

January Reads

The Dread Wyrm by Miles Cameron
A Plague of Swords by Miles Cameron

There's a moment in Tarantino's Django Unchained that pivots the narrative irrevocably and it comes with 40 minutes of running time left. I'm speaking of the moment Christoph Waltz shoots Leonard DiCaprio in the chest, resulting in an orgy of cathartic violence, with Django trying his damnedest to stay alive while hordes of racist white men shoot at him. When seeing the film for the first time, I gasped and wondered where else could the narrative go with so much running time left? The Dread Wyrm features a sequence at the halfway point performing the same sort of irrevocable shift. I held my breath and wheezed and gasped and sighed during this bit, leading my partner to make fun of me while they worked and I pored over this bit. Where The Fell Sword introduced a million plotlines and cut between them with short sharp scenes, The Dread Wyrm capitalizes on these introductions with, for lack of a better word, punchlines ("resolution" doesn't quite work as this third book of five still opens plotlines). The tournament held in Harndon organized by the Queen (introduced skillfully in the previous volume) is the central point, around which the various plots revolve, and I expected this event to unfold with bits of court drama, whispers in corridors, spies and lies, but Cameron doesn't really bother with any of that. Instead, he burns everything to the ground, narratively speaking. The whole sequence is an incredible moment of narrative coagulation, if I might coin a phrase. All the moving parts clang together in an orgy of violence which never feels unnecessary or superlative. The rest of the novel runs down these new avenues of plot, and ends in a second harrowing excess of violence. This series, while offering little novel in the way of fantasy, is running at peak efficiency. I'm starting the fourth volume immediately.

[later]

Miles Cameron has succeeded in one very specific area where literally no author has ever done: I like this series so much that I have read three entries in a row. Never before have I ever gone straight through a series. My usual MO has me taking breaks between entries. Even my beloved Gene Wolfe didn't excite my interest enough to warrant three back-to-back volumes. This can only be a testament to Cameron's magisterial skills in plotting.

Some might call the fourth (of five) novel a bit of a disappointment, or even the worst of the series. It abandons the format of the previous three books (long chapters with scenes introduced by headers indicating location and POV character) and—very curiously—the spelling of "boglin" for "bogglin" with two g's. Not much can be said to happen in comparison with The Dread Wyrm, which fulfilled the promise of the incredibly complicated second novel, The Fell Sword. Rather, A Plague of Swords is better viewed not as a discrete entry in a series but rather as a 465 page prologue to the finale. I'm guessing that's how this started out: Cameron originally planned this series to be one or two books shorter but found the story got away from him. Thus, an artificial beginning, middle, and end surround this prologue. Characters are moved across the map, some fortunes change, a handful of established characters are killed (either almost off-screen or entirely off-screen). Mostly, this volume does setup. I find it changes how one appraises an object when one considers the context more broadly.

I'm also tagging this as "LGBT" because there is one explicitly gay character, one implicitly lesbian, and one intersex character who, thanks to magic, can change gender. Other people of the cast regard this latter character not as divergent or bizarre, but as implying, "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy," if you catch my meaning. Really, one of the major thematic interests of this series has been to expand, in world-shaking ways, the provincial views of its major cast.

Anyway, this was great, even if fantasy of this ilk isn't normally my cup of tea.

I'm posting these two reviews before the end of the month because I'm currently almost halfway through The Water Margin, or in the edition I'm reading, Outlaws of the Marsh. I read the first volume (of four) back in April or something and I was inspired to continue it, resolving to read longer, meatier books than reaching an arbitrary number of books to complete in a year. So I won't finish The Water Margin in 9 days (it's 2,000 pages long); hence, the early publication date. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

2017's best reads

I managed to read 76 books in 2017, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 6 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 69. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Shark by Will Self
Umbrella by Will Self
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
Home by Nnedi Okorafor
Moby-Dick by Herman Melville
Uzumaki by Junji Ito
The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park
Splinter by Adam Roberts
Human Acts by Han Kang
The Folding Star by Alan Hollinghurst

I did not hit gender parity this year, I'm afraid. I read 43% women, and 2.66% non-cis folks. As always, it's not challenging for me to read "more women!" as if it's something I'm required to do. Rather, I like reading everything and women have made significant contributions to the types of genre fiction I like reading, such as Benjanun Sriduangkaew, Ann Leckie, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Nnedi Okorafor, and others. Unlike film, I never have problems accessing women authors and some of my favourite authors are women. As per usual, I'd like to increase my ratio, and incorporate more non-binary and trans writers into my reading. Luckily, one of my all time fav writers of short stories, Casey Plett, has a novel coming out (she is trans) and I very much look forward to reading it.

Not as many perfect scores as last year. Still, the ones that were amazing reads were life-changing, such as Plath and finally finishing Moby-Dick, which was way easier than I was expecting. In terms of goals I set for myself last year (finish the handful of series I had started in years past), I did end up reading more Wolfe and more Adam Roberts, but I did not read any Paul McAuley or M. John Harrison. I now own full series from McAuley (two series!), Harrison, Paul Park, and a handful of other dudes I haven't begun yet. Another year and I accumulated, by an absurd ratio, more books than I could ever hope to read.

If I had to diagnose some trends with my reading in 2017, I would happily point to my dissatisfaction with traditional modes of realism (not a surprise) and aesthetics. Two of my favourite reads this year were the first two in Will Self's modernist trilogy. Aliya Whiteley, Nina Allan, and Ali Smith were trying new things out and I followed them happily; either they were playing with narrative or playing with aesthetics or both, and I was right there with them. The more difficult or inaccessible, the more I seemed to like it (with the exception of Lisa L. Hannett's Lament for the Afterlife, which I had been hoping was even more difficult).

Something I've been thinking about in terms of goals for 2018, a fool's errand as always, as my years of blogging wishful thinking can attest, is perhaps I need to focus more on quality than quantity. In years past, I've tried reading as much as I can, which meant piling on novellas and pulp novels. There's nothing wrong with pulp or shorter works, but I tend to prioritize these over longer, more difficult works. So perhaps in 2018, I might try tackling longer works without worrying about hitting an arbitrary number of novels. Maybe I only finish 35 novels in 2018? Or even 25? What if I finally finish Infinite Jest or Les Miz or any of the mammoth Victorian novels I have kicking around? What an accomplishment. I have a short list of Big Fat Novels I'd like to read, but I fear posting the list might jinx me.

Friday, December 29, 2017

December Reads Part Two

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Clickers by J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams
The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

If I hadn't read other excellent novels in 2017, Winterglass would have clinched the top spot. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, I read some amazing things and Winterglass has competition for my favourite read of the year. It's stupendous; meticulous and beautiful prose scaffolds this dense and rewarding novella. Sriduangkaew has written some of the finest prose in contemporary SFF, with each sentence being its own reward. Like a bonus, after the wondrous form and aesthetics, the novel is also a complex political tale, one withholding of easy answers. Winterglass is simultaneously in conversation with the long history of Orientalism in SFF and still of its own making. I routinely kick myself for putting off purchasing her first novella, Scale-Bright, when I had the chance; it has since slipped out of print and fetches large prices. Hopefully it's either reprinted or picked up by another publisher.

See What I Have Done felt, at first, a bit of a forgettable experience. I read it quickly and thought it fine enough during the experience. But once I finished it and reflected on the entire experience, I can safely call the novel fantastic. The novel is historical fiction, about notorious axe-murderer Lizzie Borden. Where Schmidt strays from the usual historical fiction expectations is setting the novel in the days immediately after the murders, with brief flashbacks to before. Very little after the trial is depicted with the trial relegated to a couple paragraphs at the beginning of the third act. The unconventional structure of the novel, moving through time and through different focalizing characters, works in the novel's favour—crystallizing the plot around a central idea, that of women and agency... without ever coming across as moralizing. Rather, the novel's coy about its own stance on Lizzie: mentally incapacitated? bored? arrested development? This also works in its favour. A strong novel I worry will be forgotten because it's just so damn readable.

I had to keep reminding myself that Clickers was written in 1996, and thus, predates the rise of the New Weird. the novel feels like a throwback, but we have to remember that in 1996, throwbacks of this ilk weren't the norm like they are now. Clickers was probably novel in 1996, what with its use of Lovecraft and B-movie tropes. It's schlocky fun, eminently forgettable, but fun in the moment. A detail that makes me chuckle: whenever authors try to show off how cool or hip their characters are, a device often deployed by the middle age white guy writer, the character only comes off as being kind of dull or middle of the road in taste. The main character reaches for a CD while he's driving, and instead of leaving it at that, we're told it's an Alice Cooper CD. Which, in 1996, makes him seem a little old fashioned and out of touch. More often than not, these little details of verisimilitude give me the feeling writers have the taste of stereotypical dads.

After very much enjoying The Red Knight, I picked up the second novel in Cameron's "Traitor Son Cycle," called The Fell Sword. I should have expected the novel to open up for more worldbuilding but I guess I underestimated how many more subplots he meant to introduce. This second novel is less a standalone work and more the overture to a massive set of storylines. In the micro, The Fell Sword strains a bit because of the sheer amount of new and old characters. I regret not using a notebook to write down everybody's name because by 200 pages, I had forgotten a bunch of them. At first I chastised myself for my inability to hold it all in my head, and then moved to appreciation for making me work so hard. I suppose one could argue the novel's over-the-top launching of plots is a bug, not a feature, as at a certain point, it becomes untenable for a single novel. Where The Red Knight was pretty focused, The Fell Sword is everywhere. Thankfully, Cameron's plotting within each individual plotlines is superb and—one can step back and see a massive metanarrative being built out of the individual strands. It's the same good vs. evil nonsense that plagues these military fantasies but it's just done with such verve and entertainment that I can't help but be enamored.

So much of paradigmatic fantasy is about the restoration of patriarchal power structures, the fervent desire for order through control, centralized power, and the like. Kings are always crowned at the end, thrones are finally filled by the "correct" ruler, and foreign hordes are repelled to their own lands. Monarchist fantasies are politically queasy to say the least. Many modern day paradigmatic fantasies, especially the grimdark ones, try to diffuse the audience's pro-democracy anxieties about cheering for monarchies with hand-wringing about the "costs" of war etc etc. Many losses are felt—the rightful heir still gets the throne though. The increased focus on "realism" in medieval fantasy, and Cameron presses on this as hard as he possibly can, cloaks the insidious perpetuation of linear, hierarchical power structures. This is especially true of grimdark's obsession with rape. Rape functions as a marker of increased realism ("this is how it was for women back then!") and as a marker of the affected jejune nihilism which beats at the heart of grimdark ("nothing matters so may as well rape and kill everybody we meet").

The Game of Thrones fan wiki has an entire article on rape, "helpfully" delineating the differences between the source material and the television adaptation. Both cultural objects are rife with sexual violence; according to a statistical analysis by a fan of both, there have been 50 rape acts in the TV show, with 29 distinct victims, and 214 rape acts in the books, with 117 distinct victims. The fan's analysis breaks down each individual act, in an exhaustive and truly exhausting list, but their brief synopsis does not detail which rape is more detailed, or more impactful as an act of violence in a narrative. While the show has always been controversial, and the books figuring into the subgenre of "grimdark fantasy" (a more "realistic" and nihilistic version of paradigmatic fantasy in the Tolkien mode), it was Sansa's rape in Season 5 of the show which garnered the most amount of media attention. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have come under fire for both inventing rape scenes (honouring the situation of the narrative, rather than the specific instances in the novels) and including graphic scenes for shock and possibly titillation. The rape of Sansa in season 5 was for many critics and watchers, the final straw. The Mary Sue, a feminist-oriented pop culture site, wrote eloquently of their editorial decision to stop covering the TV show in light of the exploitative and gratuitous Sansa rape sequence. They write:
rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Games of Thrones and its source material fall under "grimdark," under the marketing aegis of fantasy (medieval settings, obsessive concern with monarchies and lineages, etc). In Get Started In: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (here), esteemed critic and author Adam Roberts suggests Grimdark is
standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their back on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was. I put 'really' in inverted commas there, since Grimdark usually has very little to do with actual historical re-imagining and everything to do with a sense that our present world is a cynical, disillusioned ultraviolent place.
In other words, rather than just an aesthetic mode (though it has some shared stylistics, such as contemporary cursing), grimdark is a feeling, or put more concretely, a structure of feeling, from the critic Raymond Williams. He defines a structure of feeling as going beyond strict formal concepts such as a "world view" or an "ideology," though Williams is careful to include those within the definition of the structure. He writes (here):
We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.
Pointing to formal aspects of grimdark's ideology might prove difficult, as writers from varying political backgrounds have tried their hand at the subgenre. Contrary to popular belief, there is little intrinsically conservative about grimdark fantasy, despite its superficial retrograde treatment of gender and race. Instead, as Williams helpfully guides us, the structure of feeling comprises "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable" (my italics). Without the rigid aesthetics of a more corporeal mode of artistic expression, grimdark can be and is conveyed in terms of overall affect, using violence, shock, titillation, gore, and nihilism.

"The Traitor Son Cycle" is covered half by the small umbrella (but growing in size) of grimdark and half by regular old medieval fantasy in the Tolkien vein. Much of the two novels is fueled by Lord of the Rings: the invading horde, the mystical MacGuffin, the thrones in disarray, requiring union from the protagonist. But the feeling of grimdark pervades: rape is part of the texture of daily life, violence is hyperbolic, and there are dire consequences in war. There's a sense of futility about the Red Knight's missions; he runs a mercenary company so it doesn't really matter who he's backing as long as they're paying. Cameron has made some strides towards problematizing grimdark's nihilism by including the era's chivalric excesses. But yet, with two books in, the cynicism is pronounced and the ultraviolence quite ultra. The rape occurs in "The Traitor Son Cycle" but often off-screen, as if Cameron just can't quite commit to the true grimdark worldview. The novels feel torn between market trends (grimdark is practically the paradigm now) and Cameron's obvious affection for all facets of medieval society, including chivalry. It's a fascinating project and I'm still on board.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

December Reads Part One

Smiley's People by John le Carré
Shark by Will Self

A project almost a decade in the making, I have finally finished the Karla Trilogy, still in the same old hardcover omnibus I bought all those years ago, though it's yellower and stuck with more cat hairs.

What drew me to le Carré in the first place was the elliptical, opaque style, with baroque, ornate dialogue, and a labyrinthine plot. But what drew me back time and again was not just these surface elements, but the morose end-of-empire malaise that weighs upon the shoulders of every character. George Smiley is such an impeccably drawn central metaphor for the collapse of the Empire: downtrodden, frumpy, weathered, ineffectual, in an old wrinkled overcoat. Smiley's People gives the eponymous character his first major victory in the trilogy, but it's, of course, a Pyrrhic victory, in the way the best spy fiction is. I keep coming back to spy fiction not just for the cleverness of the plotting but what these novels end up saying about the intelligence community; I'm understandably more drawn to those of its ilk which are far more cynical than celebratory, such as Len Deighton and le Carré.

Smiley's People wasn't quite the masterpiece of the two previous Karla novels. Very little can come close to the practical perfection of the first entry, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In terms of its difficulty, this third volume is perhaps the most accessible: the plotting is more linear and the narrator seems more willing to give up the exposition goods, as it were. It's less opaque. Neither the first nor the third come close to the intricacy of The Honourable Schoolboy, which took hundreds of pages before Smiley's plan became clear to the reader (a close comparison could be Robert Towne's screenplay for Mission: Impossible, which withholds motivation from the audience, to great effect). I quite liked Smiley's People even if it doubles down on the kind of soft sexism bubbling throughout le Carré's Smiley novels.

For about half of Shark, I was convinced it was a lesser shadow of its older sibling, Umbrella. I wasn't sold on the threading of the multiple themes Self had set up for himself. Where Umbrella kept reminding the reader, kept finding novel ways of examining his themes, Shark felt a bit directionless, jumping from narrative thread to narrative thread, with little thematic connective tissue. I should have trusted Self because once the final third revved into action (if the word "action" can be called appropriate for a modernist novel about psychological trauma), the larger picture emerges, and I was left a bit stunned by how well Self pulls it all off. I still think I liked Umbrella more, if only because of its stylistic rawness, its novelty—the shock of the new and all that, even though the stream-of-consciousness style is definitely not new. Umbrella surprised me, and I think Self anticipated that the reader would be left a bit underwhelmed if he simply repeated himself; hence the dazzling structure of Shark, which, when I think of it holistically, replicates the circling of water down the drain, or more aptly, the circling of the shark around its prey. The strands of the novel I felt weren't connected enough? Self sews it all up with aplomb. He compares the shark's voracious appetite and inability to stop swimming to the hunger and ache of the drug addict, the self-medicating walking maw, constantly stuffing themselves but never feeling satiated. The teeth, chewing over and over, but never digesting. Self brings up multiple times the scene in which Richard Dreyfuss and Roy Scheider cut open the tiger shark to reveal the fish's stomach contains a license plate (from Louisiana), indicating the characters' inability to pass the trauma they all carry.

The two authors I thought most of during my read of Shark was Alan Moore and Thomas Pynchon. I'm not sure how Self would feel about this comparison. Moore's gargantuan novel Jerusalem (of which I'm more than halfway through) concerns the decay and rot of Northhampton via the force of a psychic wound through time, localized on a garbage processing plant, a metaphor for the rapacious and insatiable jaws of capitalism. Self's thesis, or rather, the novel's thesis, reminded me of Moore's seething anger towards the decline of his hometown by the uncaring grasp for profit. I was also inclined to compare the two thanks to their sheer Englishness: there's a strong strand of English colloquialism and affection for the idiosyncrasies of the English. I read more of Jerusalem after finishing Umbrella and I've been jonesing to take back up again the mammoth novel after completing Shark.

I felt the desire to read Pynchon afterwards, too. The American soldier around which the novel drains (haha), Claude Evenrude, feels like he walked out of Gravity's Rainbow or V. and onto Self's stage without a pause. He has that same rolling speech pattern, that same ironic racism, that same looseness, as if a good shake would bring all his words crashing down. Part of it is that he's a soldier and Gravity's Rainbow was chock full of them, stumbling around, falling into toilets, saying absolutely bananas things. But again, it wasn't just the superficial connections, but something more. Though Self is reaching back to modernism for his style, he is not writing in a vacuum, and has clearly internalized decades of contemporary realism and postmodern literature. It's almost as if he can't not write in that rolling breathless hypnotic way Pynchon does, the way his characters speak in rhythmic song, almost in meter. Self's characters, or rather their consciousnesses make constant references to popular songs, pop hits, famous lines. For every two references I would pick up, another one would slip by me, with only the context telling me the phrase was a reference to something at least.

Shark was a stupendous read. If I wasn't already sold on Self's brand of dazzle and wonder, then this would have pushed me over the edge.