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!

Friday, March 2, 2018

February Reads Part Three

Jerusalem by Alan Moore
The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities by Matthew M. Bartlett
Mystery by Peter Straub

My word I had a productive February: 9 books—two of which are "novella" length, and one of which was 447 pages of densely packed, tiny type; I did not read all of Jerusalem in one month lol. I read some long novels (Children of Time was over 600 pages; Mystery, Pushing Ice, and Dune were each over 500 pages). The grant total, if I might boast, is 3,716 pages of fiction in one month! My goal of reading longer novels for 2018 has so far been a success, especially since I completed Jerusalem, of which I won't say too much, as I'm hoping to write something a bit substantial (fingers crossed I find the energy).

It should be no surprise that I loved Bartlett's collection, The Stay-Awake Men and Other Unstable Entities. I purchased it from a small press in the US, and including shipping, the 93 page hardcover cost me over 50 dollars. Before purchasing this, I hemmed and hawed, wondering if it would be worth the steep price. The ratio of page to dollar was higher than I like to spend, he said only half facetiously. What finally pushed me was my memory of reading Gateways to Abomination (reviewed here, at the end of the post)(I didn't realize that was more than a year ago! It felt only like last year!). I adored that collection so much, and a smattering of Bartlett stories I had read throughout 2017 (including one that felt strangely out-of-character in this collection) so of course, I rationalized the expense and went for it. I wasn't disappointed. While not every story had the same zing and zap as others I had read, the collection on the whole is terrific, frightening, and beautiful. Bartlett's skills aren't simply in finding new spins on old horror tropes, nor his admirable skill in describing violence and gore, but in his unparalleled ability to sustain an atmosphere of unease and weirdness throughout the entire piece. The worlds in Bartlett's stories are recognizable as our own, but slightly askew, slightly off, providing a tremendous and horrifying potentiality—anything can happen in Bartlett's stories. His pieces do not seem to care about the traditional pathways of narrative in horror fiction—he zags where everybody else zigs. I know Mark Fisher would adore Bartlett had he read this obvious master of horror.

Mystery was an improvement over Koko (reviewed here) but not by much. This is my second Straub in a row where I wasn't disappointed, per se, but not overjoyed the way I was reading Floating Dragon or Ghost Story. I complained that Koko was missing the baroque prose and intricacy I was used to, and at least Mystery provides those two in spades. Reading this was often a pleasurable experience simply for Straub's delicate and tender description. You can tell that Straub likes to write and he likes to push himself. Here's an author trying something new every time, not repeating himself. Mystery improves on Koko thanks to its more myopic focus, on the emotional development of a single character, rather than the sprawling cast of the latter. Tom Pasmore, our precocious protagonist, is sometimes an emotional blank slate, a bit of a robot at times, but the overall arc, his disillusionment with the status quo, is more often than not compelling. The central mystery at the heart isn't as compelling, but one of the characters provides an explicit reason for this: mystery novels are often more about the psychological journey of the detective than the solution to the plot. We're asked, more than once, to consider how it feels to detect, to solve. I wish the novel had been a bit shorter; there's an affliction plaguing these authors from the 80s and 90s and that's bloat. Not all novels have to be 500+ pages, Mr. Straub. I'll continue with the Blue Rose Trilogy, as I hear the metafiction games get more complicated in the third volume.

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.