Tuesday, May 22, 2018

May Reads Part Two

Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas by William H. Gass
The Yips by Nicola Barker
The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe

Nicola Barker is a genius. And, I suppose, I'm a contrarian. Why is it that I'm drawn to the novels with the lowest scores on Goodreads? Right now, The Yips is rocking a 3.12 out of 5 on that venerable book-rating website. The most popular review, by 20 likes, is fairly balanced; written by an obvious fan of Barker, the review mourns for the darkness and moodiness of her earlier novels (here). The writer ends his 3 star review with the recommendation of starting with Darkmans first. The second-most popular review, stamping The Yips with a singular and weighty one star, calls the novel "the biggest pile of horseshit I have read in many years" (here), complaining about the characters, calling them wooden and "arbitrary." The writer calls the dialogue, in which the novel is mostly composed, is "insufferable" and "offers very little guide to character or nuance." Yet, these are all reasons why I like the novel so much! I should start reading novels with low scores all the time, especially by women who are doing different and/or interesting things with the form of the novel. Ali Smith, the century greatest writer of puns, is frequently scored 3.5 or less on Goodreads, and she's one of my favourite writers. Perhaps it's the lexical dexterity in pursuit of the pun that vexes Goodreads writers so much. They all seem to hate Adam Roberts too (whom we adore around these parts) and he's the king of groan-worthy wordplay.

The Yips repeats much of Darkmans, in terms of aesthetics, formal play, and plotting: a gaggle of quirky hyper-verbal characters cross orbits in a snarl of paths with little in the way of high stakes plotting. Where Darkmans is obsessed with the long shadow of history, The Yips concerns itself with pain. This means the tiny (but very much welcome) history lessons of the former aren't nearly as present in the latter, though they make their appearance. Where The Yips improves upon its older sibling is in the intricacy of the plotting, what plot there is. Barker leans less and less on incident and more and more on the illusion of random interactions. Nothing is arbitrary in a Barker novel, not even the ways the characters' paths converge. In some ways, this has the effect of making each novel's universe small, in the same way, the Star Wars universe often feels small (there seem to be only Solos and Skywalkers in the entire galaxy), but her situating of the events within the smaller communities dotting the English country makes this shrinkage work in her favour.

The novel is funny, but then again, I find wordplay the funniest of all humour, so one's mileage may vary, comedy-wise. Humour is tricky and subjective. The construction of a joke feels infinitely more difficult to me than all the tragedies. Jokes have this incredible intricacy, requiring precision and care, exquisite timing, modulation of voice and pitch, all to elicit a simple laugh. I'm probably overthinking this.

All of Monty Python's available works have been uploaded to Netflix recently, and I've been thinking a lot about the appeal of the Pythons and British humour in general. My partner, watching me bray like a donkey at their antics, observed that they didn't really understand the appeal. I tried to explain: for Monty Python, it's the combination of high and low humour and a generous helping of absurdity. The Pythons were extraordinarily well educated, almost too educated (Graham Chapman was a non-practising physician). Their dialogue consisted of wordplay, of heaping words upon words upon words, all articulate and refined.

Barker isn't entirely in the vein of Monty Python, yet she and Ali Smith probably owe a bit to them: the wordplay, the mountains of words piled on each other, the fascination with etymology and the intrinsic comedy of funny-sounding words. These two sketches I've linked to here, while they're still available on YouTube, are the History of the Joke sketch, in which Graham Chapman explains simple slapstick in academic jargon, and the Travel Agent sketch, in which Michael Palin attempts to sell a travel adventure to Eric Idle, who cannot arrest his monologue about the tiny indignities and inconveniences of modern travel. Both are taken from Live at the Hollywood Bowl. Both sketches help illustrate Pythonesque humour: the absurdity, the surrealism, the endless waves of words, the high and low mixed together quite happily. Barker's much the same: neverending shovelfuls of words, with puns and trickiness.

Though, Barker's bag of tricks seem to wear on Goodreads readers. They find her tiresome, repetitive, with quirks instead of characters and an absence of incident masquerading as narrative. None of these things bother me, I suppose. My desire for realism and relatable character dwindles with every passing year and the 21st century's obsession with intricately plotted stories with nonstop incidents wears on me. Barker feels like an oasis, not one of nostalgia for another aesthetic period, but instead a different space where different authorial muscles are flexed and practiced. Innovation and experimentation aren't out of vogue; the much feted Rachel Cusk proves that; Nicola Barker makes this type of exercise fun and playful. It's what makes Monty Python so alluring: the mixture of high and low. 

Tom Wolfe passed away last week and though I've tried to read two of his books multiple times, his idiosyncratic prose style thwarted me again and again. As I'm a different reader than I was last time I tried reading The Bonfire of the Vanities, and with his death, I tried gamely again to plow through. And I did, but with little success. My initial instincts were right, no matter where I'm at as a reader: Tom Wolfe might have had a huge contribution to journalism but as a novelist, he stinks. The plotting of this novel is engaging, but it's nothing readers haven't encountered with the pulps in an earlier time. What makes this novel so famous is its satirical bent and its aforementioned prose style. Wolfe brought his journalistic eye to bear down on every level of New York society, from its high ranking attorneys and politicians to its lowly dumb criminals. Inspired partly by the "city novels" of Dickens, The Bonfire of the Vanities uses a sledgehammer in the form of prose to make its point that New Yorkers are greedy and selfish.

You've never read an author use so many exclamation marks in their fiction before! Every sentence! Ends with one! It's like reading Jack Kirby's dialogue from his Fourth World stuff. Wolfe is also a big fan of sound effects, typing them out in painstaking verisimilitude. Instead of replicating a yokel's braying laugh with three "haw"s, Wolfe gives us eight or nine in a row. The eye glazes and slides across the page, protecting itself from the noise: laughs and coughs and shouts and gasps. Every possible vocal utterance is captured in this novel. It's exhaustive in its cataloging of all the different things American accents can do. Words and phrases are constantly repeated, first by the narrator without flourish, then again spelled out phonetically. Everybody speaks with an accent, a fact which should be obvious, but Wolfe wants to make sure. Accents have a class dimension, no argument, and they're part of the fabric of Wolfe's satire; without them, the joke might feel incomplete—and incomplete is anathema to Wolfe. The Bonfire of the Vanities must encompass the entire range of New York, a microcosm for ᴀᴍᴇʀɪᴄᴀ (also, Wolfe loves to use small caps to denote a volume of voice even louder than italics or regular all caps. They're the alpha male of yelling in this novel). In order to be so encompassing, every single character, no matter how small, gets a vocal tic or an accent. Even up to the very last scene, when the protagonist and his lawyer are being driven to an arraignment, the chauffeur gets to enjoy his moment in the spotlight, with exaggerated "yeahs" drawn out with copious vowels. 

I'm a sucker for satire about 80s Wall Street doofuses: American Psycho is one of my favourite novels and The Wolf of Wall Street is my favourite Scorsese movie (even beating out Raging Bull and Goodfellas!). For the first 300 pages of this novel, I was having a grand ole time. Wolfe's eye for detail is fantastic, if exhaustive. The protagonist's first scene has him take the dog out for a walk, in the pouring rain, as subterfuge for making an illicit phonecall to his mistress. Wolfe perfectly captures the sodden trenchcoat, the sweat, the overheating from exerting one's self against a dog, even during the cold rain. It's all sharply drawn. But the problem is that there's too much of it. Every scene, no matter how inconsequential, gets this torrent of detail. Around page 300 or so, once Sherman McCoy is in deep shit, my interest began to wane. Wane! Extremely fast! Waning terribly! The denouement, the self satisfaction, grated on me. The smugness! Wolfe is so smug! In his satire! 

I finished this thanks to the sunk cost fallacy. I took out the book from the library (third edition hardcover from 1987!) the day he died, along with The Right Stuff, which I hear is his masterwork, but I don't think I'll continue with him. There are too many better prose stylists than this clunky noise machine.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas

I once wrote a review of Edward Yang's superlatively good film Yi Yi which suggested sometimes works of art are so excellent as to resist even a compliment. The same can almost be said of Gass's collection of 4 novellas. Gass is a name I've been familiar with for years (the Penguin edition of The Recognitions begins with a loquacious and energetic effusion by Gass) but I had never felt the burning desire to read his work. Part of my hesitation was due to his reputation; some of these great postmodern writers have a bibliography the length of the phonebook—where does one even begin? Though it turns out, Gass wasn't terribly prolific. I was also under the impression his work was metafictional tomfoolery and I've rarely been in the mood for that in recent years. I was finally given the push I needed, after his death in 2017 at the impressive age of 93—certainly a morbid and almost cliche reason to start reading a writer's work. 1998's Cartesian Sonata And Other Novellas is probably not the best place to start with Gass but I still muddled through the first two stories with conviction and determination. Because, yes, Gass is difficult. He's a writer of a lot of words, to put it in an unsophisticated manner. Seth Colter Walls, writing for the Guardian (here), observes in Gass's fiction that:
Characters tend to develop strangely (or not at all); settings are sometimes created from a fusillade of petty-seeming details that can collectively avoid a straightforward accounting of the basic proscenium stage of action...
Gass was a lover of lists (going so far as to compose an ode in essay form to the list, in "I've Got a Little List") and his fiction reflects this. One sequence in "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," the third of four novellas, categorizes the folksy names of flowers and plants, taking a page and a half, sans paragraph breaks, to catalogue all the fun names. Here is sampling of this inventory:
...or were simply borrowed from their fruiting season like the Mayapple, or taken from root or stem or stalk or fruit or bloom or leaf, like Arrowhead, Spiderwort, Seven-angled Pipewort, Foamflower, Liverleaf, Shrubby Fivefinger, Bloodroot; while sometimes they gained their name principally through their growth habit such as the Staggerbush did, the Sidesaddle Flower, Prostrate Tick Trefoil, Loosestrife, Spatter-dock, Steeplebush, Jacob's Ladder; alother often the names served as warning about a plant's hostility or shyness the way Poison Ivy or Touch-me-not did, Wild Sensitive Pea, Lambkill, Adder's Tongue, Poison Flagroot, Tearthumb, King Devil, Needlegrass, Skunk Cabbage, Chokeberry, Scorpion Grass, Viper's Buglos, Bitter Nightshade and Lance-leaved Tickseed...
Never do these lists feel exhausting or a waste of paper, such as, for example, Douglas Coupland using 41 pages to list digits of pi in JPod. Rather, like Colter Walls says above, the accumulation of details, the petty-seeming details, produces the texture of the story, if story can be called what Gass is creating. Instead, the story is the details, the wealth of material and emotional things that build up around a person, almost, as it were, producing the person. The aforementioned Emma lives and breathes nature but through the details gleaned from poetry, her escape from banal torturous life in rural Iowa. Her blankness as a character isn't so much a deficiency in Gass's skills but instead a reflection of her absence from her own life. She is a blank space, a void, a white emptiness sharply human-shaped, surrounded by the incessant noise of nature, flora, fauna, sky, sun, father, mother, farm, shed.

Even if the story and characters were inconsequential or forgettable, Gass's prose is like no other's that I've read recently. There's a careful precision to every sentence, but without ever feeling exhausted of beauty or magic; Gass's novellas have the energy of a first draft and the meticulous exactness of a tenth draft, a musicality and liveliness. Here is Gass, in the second novella, on books:
But inside that misplaced secretary there were all those books, each compressing hundreds of pages into something simple as a brick, while upon those pages lines of words were layered the way beneath a quilt there was a blanket, an embroidered sheet; and the words were several sounds as leaves and blooms and maybe a boat upon a pond were threaded together, making better environments for one another; thus with the cabinet shut, book covers closed, you couldn't hear any talking going on, the shouting and the singing, yes, quiet as a reading room, though in each reading head there'd be a booming world: that was why his empire was so wide and full, both few and many, near and far.
The bounce, the rhythm of the prose, the endless similes, they all call attention to themselves without ever seeming drawn out or overworked. Gass's use of polysyndeton, the replacement of commas with "and" spaces items in a list out, gives them their ultimate equivalency, because, after all, that's what a simile is, the serendipitous comparison between unlike objects to produce a satisfying and estranging novel view of the two objects. In "Emma Enters a Sentence of Elizabeth Bishop's," Emma observes that while film can produce beautiful imagery like a fog, that fog on the screen is missing its simile companion, its lambswool, the secondary object Elizabeth Bishop used to create her miraculous comparison. Gass finally puts into words what it is about prose and narrative which draws me like no other, why it is I'm always coming back to words even if imagery is more efficient. The assembly of words into astonishing patterns, hitherto never heard, is always my favourite magic trick.

Monday, May 7, 2018

May Reads Part One

Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks
Tales of Nevèrÿon by Samuel R. Delany

My last Banks read was 2 years ago (here) and I loved it. Though, Player of Games was the second book, and I'm guessing the first handful of The Culture novels can be read out of order. Consider Phlebas is the first Culture novel and from what I've heard, the worst. If that's the case, even if this one is worst, then it stands heads and shoulders above most space opera I've read, which shouldn't surprise me, considering my affection for Player of Games and Banks' almost hagiographic reputation.

Consider Phlebas has many things going for it: daring escapes, rousing adventure, bananas high concept ideas seemingly tossed out with abandon, as if Banks only had one novel to his name and wanted it to contain everything. It's painfully obvious Banks had a surfeit of imagination; the novel is chock full of all sorts of neato SF ideas and ships and names and planets and civilizations. And true to form, most of the novel considers these ideas thoughtfully, rather than including them for the sake of them, or because of market demands.

The novel depicts a mere moment in a long war between the Culture and the Idirans. Instead of the usual lone hero changes the outcome of the war by his personal intervention, Consider Phlebas suggests, quite wisely, that individuals, on their own, make very little impact on something so vast. Bora Horza Gobuchul, our protagonist, is an enemy of the Culture, for ideological reasons, and thus allies himself with the Idirans, though the Idirans want little to do with him. He's on a mission to capture a rogue artificial intelligence, a Mind, designed by the Culture for the purpose of piloting the gargantuan starships which play such a crucial role in the hostilities. The capture of this Mind could very well lead to a defeat. In order to make his way to the planet where the Mind is hiding out, Horza finds passage on a mercenary ship. Though the route is not straight, and there are many detours, including a failed assault on a Temple made of glass and a failed salvage mission on an abandoned starship. There's also a shipcrash on a beach populated by religious cannibals and a high risk card game with literal life-or-death stakes.

Ultimately, the recovery of the Mind is practically meaningless in the grand scheme of the war, something Banks is at pains to point out in the end. What interests the novel more than the usual space opera individualism is a tight focus on the choreography of the action, the novel's main strength and main flaw. Banks's narrator details the movements and consequences of everything during a scene of action, to an almost absurd degree. Sometimes this is hugely alluring, such as the ice drift crushing the abandoned spaceship, all detailed in loving specificity and almost slow motion awe. And other times, it's tedious, as it can be pages and pages of lasers and ducking and cover and shooting and smoke and destruction. The last 100 pages are a bit like that: endless action with little forward momentum. Some might find this an asset, because, as I've said before, action is not something prose is particularly suited for. Perhaps it's a case of "your mileage might vary" as I found it a bit of a mixed bag. The novel worked best, for me, when it was considering its ideas and when it depicted its colourful characters interacting (which is, no surprise, exactly what made Players of Games so stupendous).

Again, even if this is the worst of the Culture novels, it's still miles ahead of what most writers could even hope to do. I was reminded a lot of M. John Harrison's The Centauri Device (read in November of 2016): this must have been mind-blowing when it first came out. People were just not prepared for what Harrison and Banks did to science fiction.

I last read Samuel R. Delany in November of 2016, with his superlatively good metafiction Phallos. Before that, going back more than two years ago, was Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand in April of 2014. Every time I read a Delany, I'm almost literally in awe. How can one person be so good at what he does? A Delany novel makes you feel smarter for having read it; he teaches you critical theory through prose that's closer to poetry; he challenges your preconceived notions of society, gender, race, economics, myth, but without judging you. Delany's corpus feels arranged around the Deleuzian strategy of deterritorialization, a sort of sibling to the classic strategy of estrangement. Darko Suvin's exclusionary definition of science fiction includes the "novum" or the technology or concept which forces the reader to reimagine their own world with this new possibility. I say "exclusionary" because, as Jameson points out in Archaeologies of the Future, this definition perpetuates the false binary nodes of "science fiction | rational" and "fantasy | irrational." Tales of Nevèrÿon is particularly instructive for disassembling this binary thinking, as the novum in this story-cycle isn't technology in the layman's sense, but instead the fantasy civilization's shift from a barter economy to a currency economy. The novum, in other words, is coin (I wonder if Foucault would consider "money" to be a technology, which is why I said "layman's" because I didn't want to imply, without researching it, that money is indeed a Foucauldian technology). Thus, Tales of Nevèrÿon deploys cognitive estrangement in multiple vectors: the coming of a currency-based economy is heralded in the text by the coming of the "red ships," ie the culture bringing rubber to the land of Neveryóna for the first time. The complex flow of goods and money isn't presented fait accompli in the text, but rather, is suggested and implied, leaving the reader to connect the red ships, the bouncing balls—not named as rubber until the halfway point of the novel, mirroring the development of the new language required for new forms of trade and exchange—the coins and the vellum with special inks.

A key section in the fourth story provides illumination. The protagonist of the second story is now a secretary to a businesswoman, both new professions created by the emergence of currency and international trade. She is enjoying a cider in a public house with her employer. They're discussing the role of money and in turn, provide a clear definition for deterritorialization:
Nevertheless, I still wonder. Each of us, with money, gets further and further away from those moments where the hand pulls the beet root from the soil, hakes the fish from the net into the basket—not to mention the way it separates from one another, so that when enough money comes between people, they lie apart like parts of a chicken hacked up for stewing (161)
The alienation of the consumer from the product, the labourer from their labour, the civilized from the uncivilized, all considered in Tales of Nevèrÿon. Not surprising, but I loved it dearly. How could you not when Delany's prose is the best there is and his ideas glitter and shine. I tend not to read his novels consecutively, not only because each volume is dense enough, but because I want to savour it. There are only so many works by him to read and I never want to run out! I am, though, looking forward to three more volumes of tale set in Nevèrÿona.

Wednesday, April 25, 2018

April Reads Part Two

Blood of the Mantis by Adrian Tchaikovsky
The Damned Utd by David Peace
and a bunch of comics

I'm so ridiculous: I complain about my collecting habits, so I go to the library and take out a bunch of comic books... then I think about buying them and start planning all my purchases. Lol. In my defense, I'm re-reading Jonathan Hickman's run on The Avengers, which comes after his spectacular run on Fantastic Four. I own both the omnibuses for that run, and it's something I go back to every so often. It stands to reason that I'll enjoy Hickman's Avengers for years to come....

With Blood of the Mantis, Tchaikovsky fixes some minor issues I've had with the two previous books (the lack of physical description, the breathless pace) but makes no major strides forward. I thought often of television while reading this, how this particular entry feels exactly like an episode in the middle of a season: all the plots have started, the characters have been scattered, obstacles subordinate to the major conflict are presented. Characterization has slowed down, considerably, as I don't think the narrative is ready to start major changes or kill anybody off until the emotional stakes have been properly established. It's not necessarily a negative attribute to me that this third book feels like an episode of a television series; I did, after all, elect to read a serialized narrative over 10 books; but one wonders if what the series would look like if there were only five books or even four. With other series, I've read, such as Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, Cameron's Traitor Son Cycle, each entry changed the stakes as there were little room for breath. Even Erikson's mammoth Mazalan Book of the Fallen, the two volumes I've completed have felt... indispensable. Which isn't to say that Blood of the Mantis wasn't thoroughly enjoyable. In the micro, Tchaikovsky's handle on plot is fun. It's the macro that worries me. What does the fifth book look like? Or the sixth? Will they operate like comic books, resetting the status quo with the illusion of change?

I haven't read a David Peace novel since December 25, 2010. After reading a lovely piece in the Guardian, with David Mitchell interviewing Peace and vice versa, and another piece, a retrospective of the Red Riding Quartet, I thought it's high time I went back to Peace. Though I have little interest in sports, Peace's aesthetics and style were enough to engage me with his well-received The Damned Utd. It's not quite a novel and it's not quite a biography and it's not quite... like anything else. The book tracks each of the 44 days Brian Clough was the manager of Leeds United, with flashbacks detailing the circumstances all the way up to the first day on the job. Not all 44 days are full of incident. and you can tell the structure was more of a hindrance than an inspiration, but Peace still managed to write a sports novel engaging enough for me to finish. I didn't love it, not because of Peace, but because I really couldn't give a shit about football. I'm alienated from the subject of this novel in countless ways: most readers would already be familiar with Clough and Leeds (I had to ask a friend on Twitter how to pronounce his name; it's Cluff) and the tumultuous history. I had to consult Wikipedia a couple of times. Many readers would also be familiar with the culture depicted herein. I don't know much about footie culture in the UK other than what I've gleaned from pop culture and media. Which made the book a bit of a slog in certain areas, and again, through no fault of the text. Rather, my ignorance and lack of interest in the subject made the going rough. I still enjoyed it on the whole; I adore Peace's choppy terse style, his genius use of repetition and motif. I wish Peace would write more crime, but you can tell that "crime" is not his interest. Instead he seems energized by the past and how to build it up, brick by brick, piece by piece.

I bought his mammoth Red or Dead which clocks in at 800 densely packed pages (lots of stats, little paragraph breaks) so if I thought The Damned Utd. was difficult, his novel about Bill Shankly and Liverpool FC is going to challenge me even more.

Friday, April 13, 2018

April Reads Part One

Alien: Earth Hive by Steve Perry
Darkmans by Nicola Barker
Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

I bought the UK edition of Darkmans about a million years ago—never read it, of course, and sold it long ago. I shouldn't have but I'm also glad I didn't read it when it was originally released; I don't think I would have appreciated it at that point in my life, not so much because of my relative lack of life experience, but because of my tastes at the time. My interest in literature was only forming then. I was a baby, blinking into the stark bright light of the possibility of prose. The publication of Darkmans predates my blog by only 8 months. If you read my first few months of posts, you'll understand what I mean by this. I mean, after all, I did name my blog after a Richard Ford novel for god's sake. Darkmans is somewhat the antithesis of Ford's stuffy myopic self-centered fiction.

Darkmans is 800+ pages of almost nothing. Little happens in the novel beyond innumerable conversations and a dog that pisses on things. And yet I read this as fast as the cheapest paperback thriller. Part of the novel's appeal lies in Barker's seemingly effortless prose, her ability to describe things in wonderful, novel ways. Her lexical explorations and endless charm reminded me a lot of Ali Smith, the great Ali Smith, and it comes as no surprise that Smith herself has a blurb on the cover of the edition I read (the American Harper Collins edition, which didn't have the usual stiff British paper stock and wasn't UK-B sized). Similarly to Smith's work, Darkmans concerns itself with the myriad ways in which we're connected—not in the treacly "we're all the same, dude" sense that Hollywood only ever depicts—but rather, in a more complicated, inclusive manner, with history's long reach pulling us backwards into the grooves formed by our predecessors, but also forwards, allowing us to unshackle ourselves from repeating things. History isn't depicted as this rigid framework that gives us a blueprint for the future, but instead, as this fluid network, changing and shifting, mirroring the English language's evolution. Darkmans, playing with language and etyomologies, is funny as hell, a great comic work that never punches down.

I don't think I would have liked it, as I said, when I was younger. Its lack of interest in traditional plotting or the usual psychological drama of literary fiction (the kind peddled by Franzen, formerly a darling of this blog) would have confounded me. I don't want to say that I have better taste now (I still think Franzen's The Corrections will hold up but I'll never risk having my memories ruined by a reread) but I do think I'm a better reader, in that I pay more attention. My interests have shifted, for better or for worse. Thankfully, I can always discover old things new to me, like this. I loved Darkmans. Can't wait to read more of her work.

Two years. It took me two years to finish Deadhouse Gates. I finished Gardens of the Moon in March of 2016. I started the second book shortly thereafter, did about half of it, then took a break. Months (or possibly the next year) I read another few hundred pages. More time went by, until this week, when I powered through the final 200 pages, with the help of the Mazalan fan wiki. Thank god for fan wikis.

In the past two years, any time I picked up a fantasy novel, I found myself comparing it to Erikson's work, and usually, not favorably. While I quite liked the first two Shadows of the Apt novels from Tchaikovsky, they're aesthetically and narratively much less ambitious. Miles Cameron's Red Knight quintet (the fifth of which I haven't read yet) cites Erikson as a major influence, which feels obvious in Cameron's use of scope, obfuscation, and its cast of hundreds, though at their most difficult, the Red Knight novels are still nowhere near the impenetrability of Deadhouse Gates. Which is, perhaps, why it took me so long. Gardens of the Moon was relatively straightforward in comparison. I observed that Erikson was allergic to exposition in the linked review for the first book and boy was I in for a rude awakening with Deadhouse Gates.

Erikson's obscurantist style doesn't always work in his favour. Instead of hinting at something larger, more complex than the surface, a thematic interest woven throughout the text, the foreshadowing and secrecy often feels repetitive or even redundant. Character A will say something and Character B will reply, heavily implying that A has implied something they aren't saying. Or B will be interrupted by A just before revealing something crucial or helpful. Repeat ad nauseum. I distinctly remember giving up around the halfway point because I was tired of internal narration informing me that Character C wasn't telling the whole truth. We're told time and again people are withholding information, more so than any other bit of characterization. I understand that the second novel has the major task of opening up the world and introducing more to the overarching plot but a smidge of exposition can go a long way.

Though, when I was jiving with Deadhouse Gates, I jived with it well. Erikson's bleak worldview never feels oppressively or absolutely nihilistic. His world is a hard one, with little room for forgiveness, and grudges seem to last hundreds of thousands of years. Yet, his eye for detail, his desire to humanize even the refugees making a hundreds-league long journey across the land with little hope of succor and shelter, makes the horror all the more horrifying.

In the final hundred pages, once I got back in the swing of things, I kept asking myself what is the book about. Does Erikson have something to say other than a complicated plot and a ludicrous labyrinthine backstory? Is it just violence for the sake of it? Because for sure there is violence aplenty; the finale has ten thousand soldiers crucified, including the focal character we've been following for 900 pages. Is the theme of the novel "life's a bitch"? If that's the case, then why am I bothering? No technical bravura with plotting can cover up for a lack of something to say. I'm not sure, days after finishing it, and a hundred pages into the third book, that I can really answer this question. Maybe that's the crucial weakness of fantasy: it has little to say.

(A hundred pages into Memories of Ice and I can already detect an improvement in writing, not just the sentence-by-sentence prose, which was quite gorgeous already, but in Erikson's deft balancing of withholding and revealing. We'll see how long I last in this even-longer book)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Aliens: Earth Hive

In my last post, I spoke of collecting and my problem with it. Pictured above are the three different versions of Steve Perry's Earth Hive that I've owned over the years. I have the two omnibus editions still but the original Spectra paperback is long gone, I'm afraid. Sold or lost. The omnibus on the left, the one collecting only the first two of the trilogy, was one of my first purchases on eBay, if not my very first. This was over a decade ago when buying used books online wasn't the smooth operating machine it is now. The book arrived from the UK and I still haven't read it! However, I got the jones to read some Aliens stuff after spending an hour on the fan Wiki, looking up random things. I love the franchise. Love it dearly. I've memorized the movies, devoured the comics, played a handful of the video games (which are, unsurprisingly, uniformly awful), and have read some of the books.

Titan Books has the publishing rights to the tie-in novels and have been reissuing them in omnibus editions, with the inaugural volume being composed of the initial trilogy and subsequent books having only two novels per. I don't plan on collecting them all, especially since many of the novels are actually novelizations of the Dark Horse comics, including the aforementioned initial omnibus. I am intrigued by some of the later novels, including one written mercenary-style by a certain B. K. Evenson(!). Something's got to pay the bills, I guess.

I picked up the first omnibus for cheap as it was beaten up, but I don't really care. This isn't a book I'm going to keep forever. I read the first novel, Earth Hive, in a matter of hours. What draws me to the Aliens franchise outside of the films isn't the same as what draws me to the films. The movies are visceral, thematically deep, coursing with stunning and beautiful imagery. The comics and the books on the other hand make the mistake of explaining too much, but therein lies the appeal. Dark Horse started publishing the comics in the late 80s, and the novels stand as an intriguing historical document, what some might now call retrofuturism: the past's conception of the future and all its ideological consequences. What interested the past about the future, what issues they thought would continue, what problems and topics bothered these writers to the point where they used allegory and metaphor set in the future in the hope of grappling with them.

Thanks to a mixture of historical factors, not all of which I'm familiar with, the Dark Horse comics have a certain aesthetic and thematic and allegorical point of view. Mostly, the 80s "British Invasion" cast a looming shadow over Dark Horse. After Alan Moore, Steve Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and a host of other British talents were imported from 2000 AD and other British magazines, many independent comic publishers stateside wanted a piece of the pie enjoyed by DC and to a lesser extent, Marvel. Dark Horse, founded in 1986, started with Dark Horse Presents, an anthology series similar to 2000 AD in that it was designed to give creators a chance to test out and refine original creations. Bolstered by licensed properties such as Aliens and Predator (which famously were pitted against each other a bit later), Dark Horse Presents provided opportunities for creators like Frank Miller (Sin City) and John Byrne (Next Men), among others. Aliens, as it was simply titled, was released bi-monthly as a limited series with a short story published concurrently in Dark Horse Presents.

Conceived as a metaseries of self-contained miniseries, the Aliens comic series were inspired, aesthetically and thematically, by the films and the British Invasion in equal measures: dark, misanthropic, morally ambiguous, decompressed and relaxed in pacing, and often with extreme violence. Rather than a near-constant Sisyphean war between obvious good guys and obvious bad guys, the comics focused on morally compromised protagonists attempting to survive the ill-advised and dubiously concocted scheme of greedy villains, all of whom suffer the consequences at the hands of the titular aliens. The comics were both a literal sequel to James Cameron's film and a self-conscious and purposeful repetition of the film, using the same structure and same characters and same characterization. The comics were plagued with analogues of Paul Reiser's amoral company man Burke, to the point of exhaustion. Corporate drones, darkly ambitious, manipulated hapless protagonists into confrontations with the aliens, only to meet their demise in gruesome, violent, and sometimes weakly ironic fashion.

The initial miniseries, variously titled Outbreak and Volume One and Book One, follows Hicks and Newt from the film as they're forced into a new confrontation with the aliens, this time on the aliens' homeworld. Or at least, what military intelligence believes to be the homeworld (watch for this detail to be retconned numerous times!) Meanwhile on Earth, the company (Weyland-Yutani) has a handful of alien eggs to be profited from (in some way that's often barely described: military? weapons? human genome interference?) but this goes awry when a cult leader and his acolytes abscond with the infant form growing in their bodies, causing planetary-wide mayhem, inevitably, inexorably. Hicks and Newt return from the homeworld, which they nuked into oblivion (just as in the film), only to find Earth a wasteland, from which they must escape—again! And so ends the first comic series and subsequent novelization by Steve Perry.

Where the films wisely stay away from depicting Earth, the comics plunge headfirst into this reality, giving us all the retrofuturist science fiction claptrap a fan of 90s SF would hunger for: compact discs, headsets, CRT computers, irritating slang, drug addicts using a patois that could only exist in American science fiction of the 90s, the most post-post-postcyberpunk ideas possible. It's all imaginatively bankrupt, of course, a Xerox of a Xerox of a Xerox, a ghost of the universe created by the first two films and shored up by everything these competent-but-not-visionary writers could crib from better thinkers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.

One of my least slash most favourite parts of the original comic, for some bizarre reason replicated in prose form in the novelization, is the reveal that the two squash players breaking a sweat are really just avatars in a video game, controlled by two men in business suits. The subtext of the scene, of course, is that the businessmen won't sully themselves with doing the actual work and will go to great lengths to employ proxies. Its inclusion in the comic works as a visual gag, because in the 80s, the fidelity of digital avatars wasn't to the point of perfectly replicating a human form (they still aren't, frankly). Thus, the 80s reader would not expect for these two "people" to be video game avatars, creating a lovely switcheroo, a subversion of the expectations of the reader. However, the whole gag rests on the visual depiction of the avatars as being perfectly human! The gag doesn't work at all in prose! The novelization's use of the gag is so headscratchingly weird. Why not simply adapt the gag to suit the media?

The lack of imagination in this adaptation speaks to the overall dearth of worldbuilding. The characters use "credits" as currency, which is canon from the films, but is also the laziest form of science fictional currency possible. Characters use slang such as "soypro" to refer to soy based food, "brain strainers" for psychiatrists, "olfactories" for scent-based transmission of data (another bonkers bargain-basement-Gibson thing), and probably my personal favourite (as in the one that annoys me the most), "'jector" for television, a groan-worthy bit of future-patois, if not the most.

Even similes are cribbed from other sources, or at least, inspired by. Compare the following: the famous opening line of Neuromancer—"The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel"—and this line from Chapter Three—"the building was... a dull gray material that blended in against a sky the color of melted lead."

It's the paucity of imagination that truly damns the entire Aliens franchise: the aesthetic repetitions, the bland SF concepts lifted from second- or third-generation cyberpunk, and perhaps most damning of all, the reductive moral simplicity of the premise.

Alien is the great working-class science fiction movie of the 20th century: a sympathetic portrait of the ways by which the kleptocracy exploits the labour of and consumes the bodies of the proletariat. The biomechanical alien is meant to blend into the ship. The alien and the ship are the same thing: methods by which the Company can exhaust the workers of their sweat, blood, and lives.

The cleverness of the alien's design, in that it melds with the ship, is discarded in James Cameron's sequel, when the aliens colonize the colonizers' space, replacing the industrial aesthetics with the loathsome Lovecraftian biospace reminiscent of ribs and organic interiors. A nice synecdoche for the franchise's direction, I'm afraid, as the insidiously anti-corporate message of the first film is replaced with the on-the-nose cartoon of Burke in the second film. From there, the franchise dispenses with any and all subversive anti-corporate messaging. Instead, we have pablum such as the two businessmen playing a video game to represent their manipulation of labourers. Which the novel and the comic barely explore anyway. The organization which sends Hicks to the alien homeworld is the government! Way to miss the point, fellas.

The question then remains, why did I read this in the first place? Did I even like it? Are these books worth reading at all? The answer is complicated. As I said above, the books function more as historical document of a certain era, what interested these writers, what social topics they deemed important enough to represent symbolically, etc. The estrangement intrinsic to science fiction is almost wholly absent thanks to a) the corporate saturation of the alien antagonists themselves and b) the retrofuturism of the setting. Which isn't to say there isn't idle pleasure to be had in the appearance of the aliens themselves or in the comfort of knowing a premise so deeply in one's bones. They're comfort reads, without a doubt.

The books divert from the films' continuity quite quickly. By the time the third volume of the Dark Horse comics were being published, Alien³ was released, revealing Hicks and Newt were killed. The comics were reprinted with the names changed, Hicks to Wilkes, Newt to Billie, and references to the Hadley's Hope (the colony on LV-426)(things I didn't even need to google) were shifted so that Wilkes and Billie's adventure occurred on another, different colony. Of course, the inclusion of Ripley herself in the third volume is insurmountable. I've never been picky about continuity being perfectly clean so this doesn't bother me in the slightest. Surely, there are some nerds out there who have worked tirelessly to reconcile Ripley's appearance in Female War with her death in Alien³. But that's not our concern.

I am indebted to the work of nerds at the Alien wiki called Xenopedia for some of the history contained herein. I would be remiss in not acknowledging them.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

March Reads

Empire in Black and Gold by Adrian Tchaikovsky
Dragonfly Falling by Adrian Tchaikovsky

After liking Children of Time immensely, I decided to invest—quite heavily—into his 10 book fantasy series. Well, it wouldn't be me if I didn't collect the entire series. This is a behavioural pattern I have been battling with myself since I was a child: I discover something I like and then I irresponsibly invest in everything I can around that thing. It's how I read most of Iain Banks, Chuck Palahniuk, Richard Yates, Stephen King, Michael Crichton, and how I owned, on CD, the complete discography of many artists, including their less acclaimed albums. For years, I resisted this behaviour... sort of... allowing myself to collect without collecting all at once. For example, the Doctor Who New Adventures. I managed to read about 12 or so before I had even made the switch to physical copies. I still have large gaps in my collection and have only purchased one online in the long years since I started the project (I just had to check but yes, I've read 30 of those things!). This, to me, is a significant victory over my collecting habits. Since I started working at a bookstore, I have been collecting books at a much higher rate, a dangerous rate; books are cheaper for me and free copies are easy enough to acquire. But I still haven't collected an entire series in one go like I did with Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series. I hang my head in shame. I invested heavily, quickly, before I had even finished the first book.

Thank heavens the book is good. This review on Goodreads makes some excellent points and one point I'd like to address. The main critique I'd agree with is Tchaikovsky's reticence in description. The reviewer writes, "The writing itself is sometimes a bit cumbersome with at times a frustrating lack of detail" and I agree 100%. Admittedly, I'm reading an early Tchaikovsky novel, and thus I have to temper my expectations that the writer isn't the accomplished and professional hand he has become. Still, I kept wondering why the narration wouldn't take a moment to describe the surroundings or the weather or anything that might increase verisimilitude, might increase immersion. While I've railed against realism in fiction before, I'm not naive enough to expect or demand the breaking of realism within what is obviously commercial fantasy fiction, albeit better-than-average commercial fiction. Sometimes I felt adrift in the character interactions and politicking without any sense of the physical world they inhabit. The narration's reserve with detail isn't a dealbreaker, especially when I found the worldbuilding intriguing enough without being the slog other fantasy novels usually are.

The other point the Goodreads reviewer makes is one I'm scratching my head at. He writes, "After that great opening chapter the middle of book was a bit slow." This is absolute bananas to me. If anything, I wish Empire in Black and Gold had slowed down. The middle third bounces its quintet of protagonists from incident to incident, never stopping to breathe. There are whole novels inside this one 600 page book, such as one character's infiltration of a local crime gang and her ascent to the position of right-hand goon. The whole sequence feels like it takes up 30 pages (it's probably more in reality) and this isn't the only blip that should have been expanded. There are kidnappings and enslaving, and prison escapes, and showdowns on airships, and more. The novel is jampacked with incident. While in the macro, most of the plot points feel motivated by the characterization rather than artificial plotting, which is to say it feels as organic as it can, in the micro, the novel often feels breathless and without any interiority. The reader is hustled along from one stage to the next. I can't imagine complaining any part of this novel "was a bit slow." (I'm about halfway through the second novel and its pacing has improved on its predecessor immensely but I'm sure I'll write about that when the time comes.)

The world itself is quite intriguing: humans have, in some way, inherited insectile attributes, distributed across races, not surprisingly named after those species. Thus, for example, we have the villainous Wasp empire, with humans inhabiting the aggressive and violent nature of their namesake; or there are the Moth kinden (the noun the novel adopts for the word race) who can see in the dark and keep to themselves. I'm interested in continuing with the series to determine if the author problematizes his own premise—as it stands, the concept of the series feels a bit... race realist, as they call it. Ascribing personality traits to race is horrifying comportment and what is the Shadows of the Apt series but the literalization of racial profiling? Skin tones in the novel vary from humanoid to blue to gray, with the author probably intentionally avoiding any non-white skin tones for fear of inadvertently saying something horribly racist. Hence my desire to see this through. Will later entries reveal the origin of these insectile gifts? Will there be the suggestion of a counter-narrative, such as in Gene Wolfe's fiction, that might suggest a science-fictional explanation or world? I'd like to find out.


No surprise, but I liked the second book a bit more. Feels like Tchaikovsky's plotting, while already good, is moving into the territory of great. He's got a lot of things on the go, but never did I feel lost. He manages just enough friendly reminders to keep me in the loop without ever annoyingly repeating himself, a rare and impressive gift, I should think. His characterization is quite good, too, pushing the cast in organic ways, having the drama come from the conflicts between character's desires and not artificially introducing conflict.

One area where he has yet to improve is description. I always get a good sense of how people feel and somewhat how they look, but where they are, what it feels like, always escapes me. It's especially frustrating during the long sequences of war that the novel is heavily invested in. And war is the name of the game in this one. There are long sequences of battle, almost enough to try my patience. I've never been one for action scenes in prose—action is prose's weakest element. Thankfully the whole novel isn't just war. Or else I'd probably tap out.

Two books in and I'm quite pleased with my decision. This is a professional and manageable fantasy series, an odd compliment for sure, but one meant wholly sincere. As much as I like Steven Erikson's dense and impenetrable fantasy, I never did finish the second book.

My copy of the third book hasn't arrived or I would have started it immediately! Alas!