Sunday, February 5, 2017

January Reads Part Two

Splinter by Adam Roberts
Human Acts by Han Kang
Life Class by Pat Barker
The Arrival of Missives by Aliya Whiteley
Land of the Headless by Adam Roberts

For Splinter, I think I'll just copy and paste the paragraph I wrote for Goodreads. I gave the book 5 stars though this was strategic, an attempt to offset the multitude of one and two star reviews. If I were to be honest, this is a 4 star or even 4 and a half star novel. Reading the reviews gave me a headache; people don't seem to understand what they're getting into with Roberts. Here's my paragraph:
I'm definitely the target audience for this book: exceedingly clever and imaginative thinking combined with the author's trademark gorgeous prose. His cleverness is sometimes stultifying as it can be too much at once. But his sensitivity to his characters and their emotional plight always tempers the cleverness. Case in point, SPLINTER features two major flashbacks, both of which appear more thematically relevant than narratively relevant. In the first, the protagonist remembers thinking nothing is original and then becoming irritated because he isn't even the first to come up with that idea. Secondly, the emotional climax of the novel reveals in flashback a bike collision between the protagonist and a girl he was crushing on. Written more like Will Self than Roberts, this final flashback ties together many of the themes of the novel: collision, separation, maturity by violent and destructive means. It ends with no answers (how I like em) and offers a gentle suggestion that perhaps the protagonist has finally or will finally reach adulthood.
Much of the same can be said for his Land of the Headless in terms of its cleverness, but the execution is remarkably different than in Splinter. The closest comparison I can make to Land of the Headless is Gene Wolfe, both in terms of prose and in theme. Headless is concerned with religiosity, memory, women as objects (though satirically instead of straight ahead, as with Wolfe), unreliable narrators, and formal, archaic-sounding prose, much to my delight. I read Headless in one day, finding it a fascinating exploration of shame and the disciplinary discourses which structure, compel, and produce among other verbs emotions related to shame.

The Arrival of Missives was a text greatly admired by critics on Twitter whom I admire. A young girl in a small village just after the first World War has a crush on her teacher; though when she confronts him about her love, he inadvertently reveals he is receiving messages from the future in the form of warnings and he must alter the timeline to prevent this future from coming to be. A short novel, closer to a novella I guess, but stuffed to the brim with incident and theme. I quite liked it.

Life Class was heartbreaking, but not Barker's best.

Human Acts was tremendous. I loved it.

Sunday, January 29, 2017


I've been hesitant to provide my own commentary on Scorsese's recent film as I'm coming from such an atheist background that I can't, for the life of me, comprehend the unwillingness to apostatize unless this refusal is meant to represent a Shakespearean fatal flaw, the sin of pride. This is, after all, the crux of the film, the hinge upon which the plot turns. In which case, I'm trying to be careful in how I approach the theology and politics of the film. On the whole, I disliked Silence.

I am, for the most part, a big enough fan of Scorsese to have gone to the theatre on the power of his name alone. I had seen no trailer nor read any review; that is the appeal of his brand. Still, not every Scorsese film is a masterpiece (*cough* Shutter Island *cough*). It's possible for the master to stumble. 

The film's crucial misstep is not pursuing a pointed enough critique of the Jesuits peddling their version of Christianity, which of course they insist is the only true faith. Andrew Garfield's priest is the film's protagonist, practically never straying away from his point of view. Likewise, Garfield's emotional and religious journey represents the film's central moral dilemma. In this way, Garfield's position as protagonist in a moral dilemma suggests he is the moral centre of the film. Maneuvering Garfield into the moral centre of the film is troubles me the most about the film. (I appreciate this is a contentious assertion; perhaps reading Garfield's Jesuit as the moral centre imbalances my reading. I'm 100% willing to read critiques of the film in which Garfield is not the moral centre. For now, my reading of the film is predicated on this fact.) Firstly, Silence doesn't lean heavily enough on his pride, his desire for followers, his willingness to sacrifice people to "strengthen" the faith for this critique to be successful. There is some, of course; the pessimism of the Jesuit project is represented through the classic Scorsese manner, which is to depict the subject and slowly chip away at the character and his ideology until the audience, bedazzled by cinematic pyrotechnics, is confused by the ambiguity of the presentation (Wolf of Wall Street is probably the ultimate representation of this vacillation he so carefully enacts). Despite this, no matter how many people die because he refuses to apostatize, he maintains his faith; no matter how silent is his God, he maintains his faith. The final shot, of his immolating hands holding a crucifix, frustrated me the most. It undermines almost completely the critique by suggesting his faith is something wondrous to behold: "wow even after all that, he still managed to keep the faith!" That the film positions him as protagonist, keeping the faith in spite of the barbaric repressive Japanese government boils my blood.

The film plays such lip service to the plight of the Japanese Christians, even going so far as to dedicate the film to them (the second most frustrating thing about the film) but still, no matter what, Silence maneuvers Garfield into the position of righteous in his quiet apostasy, his *eyeroll* supreme sacrifice of staying silent in order to save the lives of Japanese Christians. The Japanese in this film appear to fall under two camps: naive fools worshiping idols instead of "real" Christianity or barbarians, bloodthirsty and wholly deaf to the word of God. This is some grotesque optics: the primitivism suggested by this portrayal really whiffs the whole thing for me. Frankly I'm amazed more people haven't really talked about the classic colonialist attitude to the Japanese, especially in the film's odd dismissal of their faith.

That the Japanese interpreter makes the most reasonable points in the film in arguments with Garfield's priest did not bode well for me. Perhaps, as an atheist, my distrust for Christianity's "one true faith" dogma and doctrine of proselytizing/conversion rankled considering Buddhism asks for inner journeys, inner quests, inner peace, not the rapacious almost capitalistic arms of the octopus known as Christianity. Likewise, the film barely depicts Buddhism at all, though I felt the lack very much. That Buddhism is always a viable option for the Japanese (and the Jesuits really) looms over the proceedings, almost trivializing the crises of the Jesuit program, as it always feels simple enough to abandon Jesus for Buddha without much trouble.

Thus, for me, the film reveals an accidental inner conflict: is this a film about faith, strength, God, and pride or about the political ramifications of colonialism? Is this a film interested in questions of theology? If so, it doesn't do enough to show why apostasy/conversion/martyrdom work the way they did in the unfolding of the narrative as perhaps there is too much back and forth with Japanese bureaucrats. Is this a film interested in the politics of this period of Japan? If so, it doesn't do enough to understand those ramifications, especially not by grounding it in such hushed reverential tones of religiosity. It's a film that wants to say plenty about all these subjects but can't find a way to do so without stumbling over itself accidentally. I'm not convinced the contradictions presented in the film are purposeful enough to accomplish what I think the film wants to do.

Friday, January 27, 2017

January Reads Part One

Gradisil by Adam Roberts
We Who Are About To by Joanna Russ
Super-Cannes by J. G. Ballard
Lament for the Afterlife by Laura L. Hannett
All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park
Carthage by Joyce Carol Oates
The Burning by Jane Chambers

I keep coming back to Roberts because, even if I never love reading his books, his prose is wonderful, full of wordplay, beautiful imagery, economical but never terse. Of the four or so novels I've read by him, Gradisil might be the least narratively satisfying or even alluring. The high concept, for which he's often praised, of this novel is a novum in the form of electromagnetic planes which "climb" the invisible branches of Earth's atmosphere, imagined as a Yggdrasil. The plot follows a family through different iterations and generations of revenge. The cleverness of Roberts comes in his exploration of tree metaphors: family trees, space trees, time trees, etc etc etc. Gradisil's plot rarely held my attention and did not propel me, though his prose certainly kept my attention. Likewise, Roberts' keen critical eye elbowed its way to the forefront, with seemingly tossed off asides and tangents which betray the author as one of the finest observers of culture. He mentionsagain, almost as an aside—the dramatics of aerial combat which conclude, as any conflict does, with explosions, substituting for orgasms. What's a terribly clever observation to me is a witticism made for flavour and not much else. Roberts is a writer who makes me despair of ever being a writer, either of fiction or of criticism: he's just far too clever. 

Though the plot wasn't the novel's main attraction, I can't dismiss it wholly: the second section, the longest section, aimed a lazy laser of satire at the law and its labyrinthine complexities, a target I'm predisposed to find worthy of ridicule. Probably the funniest novel I've ever read was William Gaddis's A Frolic of His Own, which mired itself in suits, countersuits, torts, briefs, and all other legal escapades. The law and its study attracts me because what else is law but wordplay with stakes? Roberts seems to understand this and spends a great relaxed time mocking the law while still, like all good satire, making an important point: wars are fought in the courtroom, after the fact, not on the ground. It's a particularly postmodern position to take; the war's establishment in courtroom only makes the previous skirmishes "war" by definition by defining it through legalese. 

Gradisil was definitely enjoyable, though my "imposter syndrome" feelings leave me a bit paranoid. Am I just not well-read enough or critically astute enough to pick up on what Roberts is doing? Could I be missing an obvious "clue" or "clues" to unlock his writing? Over at his blog, fellow amateur (in a non-pejorative sense) critic Tomcat writes:
I don’t have the breadth (or depth) of reading in such areas as the history of Science Fiction or Western Philosophy that’s probably required to truly “get” his work. Indeed, I often have to read other people’s reviews in order to appreciate what he’s doing. I do, however, very much love his work for its characterisation, humour, and hell just the sentence-by-sentence writing.
I feel the same, Tomcat. He also mentions he wishes more people would focus on Roberts' skills in prose and characterization. Luckily, the only science fiction/genre criticism venue I respect wrote an unbelievably good bit of work on Roberts. Strange Horizons published Kevin Power's "review" (I use the scare quotes because I think Power's work goes beyond a simple consumer oriented opinion piece into the realm of damn fine criticism) of The Thing Itself (a recent Roberts publication I'm waiting to get to, as it feels like the culmination of everything the author has been working towards). In it, Power starts out by highlighting Roberts' clever, beautiful wordsmithing: 
How good is Adam Roberts? If good writing is in one sense about embodying perceptions—about capturing in careful prose the little inspirations that make up how a writer sees the world—then Adam Roberts is a very good writer indeed. All of the phrases I've quoted here pass what Martin Amis calls "the memorability test"—that is, they stick around in your memory of their own accord.
I wish I had preserved some choice quotes from Gradisil because I'm very convinced the novel contains some of his finest sentences.

We Who Are About To was a frustrating read. Absolutely brilliant in places but absurdly tedious in many other places. One of those "I appreciate what the novel's doing and its place in aesthetic/political/generic history, but oy this is boring" type situations, I'm afraid. Some crackling prose and a very circa-Moorcock and New Wave-style disposition towards the genre welcomed into the experience, but the second half, during which the completely alone protagonist hallucinates, lost me entirely. Russ' project is fascinating (the dissolution of polite society, a violent re-establishment of patriarchy in times of stress) but I just can't with a character starving to death for 70 pages without a single person to interact with. Personal taste and all that.

Ballard, a novelist I've grown to love through sheer perseverance (and careful calibration of what I, as a reader, expect from a novel), might be the 20th century's greatest prognosticator, not in terms of specifics, but in terms of "feeling tones" if I might borrow from Raymond Williams. Super-Cannes, a excoriation of the work/leisure dichotomy, purports to be a thriller, a mystery, but really suggests to the reader how sinister is pleasure. Like his earlier Crash, the aesthetics choices are not mistakes or accidents: Ballard's instrumentalizing of generic signifiers works towards a thesis, as each novel in his oeuvre works towards a grander thesis, a macrocosmic interrogation of how subjects relate to leisure, leisure in the most bourgeois form possible, the novel. Super-Cannes goes down smooth thanks to its structure and pacing and violence, though its careful manipulation of conflict present to the reader a dilemma: do I reject the antagonist's theory that violence and psychopathy is necessary for the continuance of work (rejection in the form of positioning the events in the novel as ethically abhorrent)? or do I recognize that my desire for prurience and titillation in the form of a novel mirrors, in a way, the violent acts spurned on by the villains? Surely not the first to work such territory, but certainly one of the most stylish, Super-Cannes might repel the experienced Ballard reader, as it's not nearly as insidiously clever as, say, Crash, but it's such a great sharp tool in the kit Ballard assembled in his career.

Speaking of careful calibration of novelistic expectations, Paul Park's All Those Vanished Engines will no doubt be the text which best represents, in 2017, my aesthetic and philosophical desires from novels. Three novellas, one alt-history, two pseudo-memoirs (of which one is set in the future) which trouble the waters of what constitutes "fact" and "fiction," "history" and "truth," and "genre," all as semantic categories. To put this in perspective, the first novella, that of the alternative history, is both backwards looking and forwards looking. By which I mean, the protagonist of the novella, in an alternate 1865, writes a novel set in the future, 1965. In this future, a protagonist writes an alternate 1865 with a protagonist who writes a novel set in the future of 1965 (and so on so forth: in which a protagonist writes a novel set in 1865 etc etc). The primary image connecting the two strands is a bracelet, made of two interwoven braids, running over top and under each other. This first novella, both exciting and confusing as the two literary worlds bleed back and forth, teaches the audience how to read the next two novellas, which are far trickier and much more obscurantist. In the middle section, Paul Park the character fabricates an interview with an engineer who help designed a vast engine powered by and producing sound. Simultaneously, Park reminisces about a friend writing a roman-a-clef about Park (and so on and so forth). Park the narrator admits to confabulation, characters made up wholecloth despite the signalling of truth and authenticity in the guise of a memoir. The third novella jumps ahead to a future when Park is an older novelist unable to let go of his passion for his family history. Composed of excerpts from the original documents he finds, the third novella demands much of the audience's memory, as seemingly countless relatives are introduced with their links to others briefly detailed.

I've written much on my growing disinterest in realism (here is a fine summary of my thoughts) and my appreciation of confabulation grows with each novel I read which challenges or at least troubles the stability of realism, or the illusion of stability. Park's novel is the farthest I've gone with metafiction in a long time (with characters even addressing the audience). The major problem with realism is the insistence on realism without any acknowledgement of the artificiality of the genre. Realism is just as fake as speculation. At least with speculative fiction, fantasy, science fiction, etc, the artifice glimmers, drawing attention to itself. The tricky part of explaining my distaste for realism comes in divesting realism the genre from realism the aesthetic mode. Realism as an aesthetic, which is to say an agreement between text and audience that which is in the realm of possibility can only occur within the text unless otherwise signalled or specified, either through generic signifiers or  isn't a problem (as Park's middle section shows); rather, the genre of realism pretends it's mimesis, the mimicry of reality. The genre purports to represent the world as it is but we know from our good buddy Plato it's not possible to do so. Poetry, Plato argued, will not and can never attain ultimate truth. So why bother pretending?

Carthage was Oates at her most "LIBERAL" and probably a bit more irritating in her open self-aggrandizing moralizing. Yet, the novel remains readable and affecting, functioning more efficiently as a portrait of depression and alienation than as a treatise against disciplinary structures such as prisons and the military. Oates' pseudo-stream of consciousness writing is always readable, almost addictive in some ways, propelling the reader along. Of what I've read, Oates' novels are rarely about "plot" in the way the synopses seem to promise; instead, the pulp fiction headlines disguise a lede of characterization and promised heaps of interiority. I find myself drawn more to Oates' experiments with the Gothic and the unreal than with her interest in the mundane banality of American life (as the previous priggish paragraph can attest) but she is still a fascinating writer, no matter the subject.

The Burning I purchased by sheer luck. I heard of the novel through Will Erickson's Too Much Horror blog and never expected to see it in the wild. However, a trip to a used bookstore in another part of the city (owned by an incredibly irritating woman who insists on chitchatting while people browse) turned up this rare novel. (The above isn't my picture, so excuse the Crichton in the background.) A slim volume, lasting only 160-ish pages, The Burning does much of what I hope to receive from horror. One reason why I try to read fiction by women is that more often than not, men can't seem to fathom the experiences and internal lives of women. Case in point, The Burning is positively aflame with irritation towards nettlesome and oblivious men. The protagonist's husband, a well meaning but ultimately doltish man, vexes his wife with his uselessness: she feeds the children, watches the children, does the cooking, cleans the house etc etc while he bumbles his way through life, failing upwards seemingly, despite being an idiot. The husband isn't a general moron in the sense of being stupid. Instead, he's self-centered and oblivious. A moment which really captures the wife's—and the novel's—exasperation details the husband never being able to find anything, forcing the protagonist to stop whatever she's doing and locate the "missing" item which was obviously exactly where it should have been. The novel puts in so much effort to convey the small ways in which men are just fucking annoying, including their constant prodding, either literal or metaphorical with their members, their narcissism, their disregard for the inner lives of the women in their lives. The plot, a backseat to the novel's thesis on how women are always and have always been violated at the hands of men in the form of social mores and laws, concerns two lesbian ghosts who possess the protagonist and her babysitter to live out the elder women's lives, up to and including their eventual burning at the stake for "witchery" AKA their queerness and purposeful living away from the clutches of men. In other words, what I took to be a simple novel about witches ended up being a righteously blazing excoriation of patriarchy and a sensitive (maybe too idealistic) portrayal of lesbians. 

I struggled with Lament for the Afterlife: some beautiful prose, some stunning worldbuilding, but unfortunately, just not enough of anything I'm interested in to maintain my appetite for her abstract, difficult writing. Perhaps the issue was that I expected something more difficult, based on other reviews. Perhaps I just wasn't in the right mood. But the novel, though I finished it, slips through my fingers, bores me, numbs me. I was perhaps more fascinated by the concepts than by the execution, which admittedly was skilled, but just wasn't for me. A case of "not my cup of tea" more so than "I thought this was bad."  

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

December Reads

Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales
Light by M. John Harrison
The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself by Ian Sales
Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above by Ian Sales
Lake of the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe
The Race by Nina Allan
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe

As with lots of science fiction I've read over the past few years, The Race was a recommendation from Jonathan McCalmont. And as usual, he was bang on; The Race is an incredibly tricky mosaic novel, one that suggests far more than explains, which is how I'm liking it. I can imagine a fan of David Mitchell enjoying very much Allan's d├ębut novel. Composed of 4 subtly connected novellas, The Race is quick to suggest some possibilities for how everything connects, but these possibilities are sometimes at odds with each other. Two of the novellas, the bookends, concern themselves with a near future in the midst of ecological and economic collapse in which genetically modified dogs perform in illegal races. The middle two novellas suggest they are not in the same "universe" as the other two novellas, though the connections, as I mentioned are more devious than assumed. McCalmont speaks of the novel's ambiguity as its biggest allure. He writes:
Nina Allan’s The Race is one of the finest science fiction novels of 2014 precisely because it encourages you to ask difficult questions of the novel, its plot, its characters, and its themes. Great novels don’t just give you a single well-crafted story; they give you the space to come up with messy ones of your own.
McCalmont's enthusiasm for the novel probably derives from Allan's interrogation of genre, an enthusiasm I share. The Race picks up and plays with traditional realist structures (the English country novel, for example) without sliding into a petulant abandonment of that genre which characterizes much "literary" science fiction. Ian Sales, another critic I'm a fan of (and an accomplished and effective genre writer himself) is a bit more withholding of his praise when he writes:
The end result is, I think, one of 2014’s more interesting genre novels, and certainly proves Allan is a writer to watch. I’m not convinced The Race is wholly successful, but it’s definitely a worthy attempt.
What makes Sales's criticism so interesting to me is that his Apollo Quartet, which I read this month, does similar work with genre. The Apollo Quartet, a series of thematically connected novellas, plays with hard sci-fi and historical fiction, using classic postmodernist strategies such as appendices and false documents to blur lines between fact and fiction, to blur history and fiction. It's pure coincidence I'm reading these two works together in December, but there's a sweet synchronicity to it. Both are prominent critics and both publish less commercial science fiction than say, even Alastair Reynolds or the execrable James S. A. Corey. Based on the little I've read of them, especially Ian Sales, I'm very impressed and excited about their future work.

The Apollo Quartet, as aforementioned, uses 3 novellas and 1 novel to demand difficult questions of genre borders. Each part builds on the other—not in terms of plot, but rather in methodology and thematic interests. The first novella, a hard science alternate history keeps the postmodernism in the appendices, while still offering an exciting sci-fi adventure. The Eye With Which The Universe Beholds Itself, the second novella, might have a not-so-great title, but it pushes further with the careful game Sales plays; instead of offering simply an alternative history/future, Sales poses a riddle, the solution to which requires work from the reader. I confess I don't fully understand the solution (which is provided in the author's afterword in the second edition), but I do understand the thematic implication of the solution. The quantum uncertainty, a similar principle driving Allan's The Race, supposes a simultaneous binary in which one thing is both at the same time. This echoes Sales's and Allan's forceful critique of and play with genre borders. Instead of slipping back and forth, The Race and The Apollo Quartet are both genre and "not-genre" at the same time—again, without the aggression of, say, M. John Harrison (not that Harrison's grumpiness isn't welcome! it definitely is!).

The third novella, Then Will The Great Ocean Wash Deep Above, I wasn't as keen on. It didn't feel as ambitious as the second and it certainly wasn't as wide in scope as the fourth, All That Outer Space Allows, which I absolutely adored. The fourth part, a full length novel, (according the arbitrary rules of science fiction publishing, determined by word count) stars perhaps my favourite protagonist I met all year. Ginny Eckhardt is both an astronaut's wife in the 1960s and a science fiction writer of some repute. The novel follows her point of view as her husband is selected for NASA's Apollo program and as her science fiction writing deepens and matures. In possibly one of the finest sci-fi novels I've read in a couple years, Sales manages to successfully balance an array of complicated themes and goals, all through textured characterization and clever false documents. The crux of All That Outer Space Allows (with its title's obvious but not eyerolling reference to Douglas Sirk) is the parallel made between the gendered supporting duties of an astronaut's wife and the invisibility of a female science fiction writer in the 1960s-70s. Both identities require—or produce—a measure of invisibility, something the novel calls attention to explicitly, not only through a fourth wall breaking narrator but also through the novel's brilliant centrepiece, a full short story written in the voice of Ginny and presented as if published in a 1960s sci-fi magazine. The short story details an accidental solution to a military research project on the nature of invisibility: only the presence of women will turn this military vessel invisible, thus implying the necessity of women in the field. This necessity echoes outwards, from the short story to the novel (the necessity of women as astronauts, who are objectively better suited for the rigours of space) and from there to the rest of the quartet: the homosocial spaces of novellas 1 and 2 are implicitly critiqued by dint of an absence of women (though, "homosocial" is an imperfect word for the rigidly delineated labour space designated for men). My summary of the novel might make All That Outer Space Allows sound dry or academic, but the experience is far from that; instead, Ginny's plight for visibility in both her life of letters and her life with her husband is heartbreaking and... immediate, necessary.

Similarly, Nina Allan's The Race poses some important genre questions as well as the visibility of women's science fiction labour. While laureates such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Margaret Atwood get heavy attention (not coincidentally, both of them produced early work which slots comfortably into a now outdated eco-feminist outlook), women writers in the trenches, as it were, are invisible. The Race's second novella suggests, quite coyly, the necessity of women to science fiction: their ability to see what is not seen by the hegemony of sci-fi writers. Allan's writer character is praised for her ability to see the world and present it slightly askew, slightly tilted, familiar enough to be recognizable, but altered enough to produce a feeling of unease. Without explicitly naming it, Allan's character is lauded for her skill in producing the uncanny. Yet, the uncanny isn't instrumentalized for the sake of it; rather, tilting the world on its axis (figuratively, of course; the Earth is already tilted, hence the seasons) allows for new sight, new ways of seeing, new ways of apprehending information and even, in the case of the third novella, apprehending new information.

Still, that new information isn't concretized by either generic signifiers or narrative. Instead, like  The Apollo Quartet's relationship to genre, truth is much more ambiguous, hence, I think, a lot of positive accolades for Allan's work. Both Sales and Allan are writers to watch. The latter has a new novel coming out in June I think and the former maintains a blog.

M. John Harrison's Light is certainly not revolutionary in terms of plot, as it's the same bog standard "aliens meddle in humanity's grasp for the stars." What makes Light so arresting is Harrison's prose and attitude. Here's a science fiction author not terribly interested in perpetuating the same aesthetic status quo which clutters the sci-fi bestseller lists. So much of this novel coasts on its style, its wondrous contortions of words and phrases, to defamiliarize the words we understand, the generic signifiers we're used to, and to present them in fresh and alienating ways. The novum in Harrison's fiction so far appears to be aesthetic instead of conceptual, though he liberally tosses great ideas into the mix, ideas better than most paradigmatic space opera feature. I've been a bit wary of the phrase "all style, no substance" as I think style is in of itself substantial, especially when it's as aggressively anti-genre as this, so I hesitate to levy it against Harrison. Light was aesthetically pleasing, difficult, demanding, funny, and maturely petulant, if that makes sense.

I felt very intelligent to reach the natural conclusion of the implications in The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe. I patted myself on the back for finally grasping how I should disentangle the intricate threads of his obfuscation. Alas, the middle novella of this "collection" (really, a novel in three parts) was plodding and full of that shit Neil Gaiman fake fable nonsense I'm deathly allergic to. Still, the first section was fun (the novella always makes you feel smart when you pick up the breadcrumbs) and the third section, a sort of collection of false documents, like John Fowles' A Maggot, which ask the reader to generate their own conclusion, was gripping. The afterword, by another author, spells out the plot for those that didn't figure it out, and it was gratifying for my own deductions to be validated.

I'll say some more about The Book of the Long Sun once I've finished it, but for sure the first half was utterly gripping. Perhaps not as intricate or as impenetrable as his earlier works, but still wholly entertaining.

Monday, January 2, 2017

2016's best reads

I managed to read 89 books in 2016, according to Goodreads. I would estimate, let's say, 8 or so are graphic novels or collections of comics, so let's put novels and novellas read at 80. What follows after this paragraph is a list of books to which I deemed worthy of applying 5 stars on Goodreads. As I've stated repeatedly, the system of equivalence wrought by Goodreads' scoring arrangement is yet another manifestation of capitalism's desire to impose a price upon everything, up to and including works of art. Though even without this organization via score, I would still consider these objects deserving of consideration for best-of. Every year I perform a pantomime of hand-wringing over year-end lists. This year, I shan't bore my reader with such dissembling. Instead, here are some thoughts on the year's reading.

Ecology of Fear: Los Angeles and the Imagination of Disaster by Mike Davis
Silver Screen by Justina Robson
Software by Rudy Rucker
Deception Well by Linda Nagata
Daughter of Elysium by Joan Slonczewski
253 by Geoff Ryman
The Sailor on the Seas of Fate by Michael Moorcock
The Queen of the Swords by Michael Moorcock
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson
Last Days by Brian Evenson
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The Warren by Brian Evenson
Gateways to Abomination by Matthew M. Bartlett
Floating Dragon by Peter Straub
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
All That Outer Space Allows by Ian Sales

As per usual, science fiction possesses my heart, or at least, the bulk of it. There is room, scant but still room, for horror and a touch of fantasy. This year, as in recent years, I've branched out from my usual comfortable hovel of science fiction, and it was to my surprise, worth the excursion. Both Michael Moorcock and Kai Ashante Wilson were exquisite discoveries and with only two novellas, Wilson rocketed to the top of my "writers to watch" list for the next few years. Similarly, Moocock's giant oeuvre whispered to me and I ended up picking up a good chunk of his works. Expect to see more Moorcock in 2017. I discovered writers new to me, such as Matthew M. Bartlett and Brian Evenson, and kept working at writers I'd thought worth keeping with, such as Joan Slonczewski and Linda Nagata. In each of those cases, I thought the first book in the series was okay but the second was a shocking improvement. The Slonczewski was a fantastic slow read which worked thanks to its steady accumulation of details. The Nagata was stupendous for its abandonment of accessibility: the plot is exceedingly intricate and I had problems following it, a positive in my books.

If I were to pick a single work or author to highlight for the year, I would have to go with Gene Wolfe, the author I read the most in 2016. I wish I could say it was Ali Smith or Octavia Butler or a writer who isn't a conservative Catholic, but alas, once I "got" Wolfe's specific style of obfuscation and intricacy, I was sold. I finished The Book of the New Sun in March, read the fifth volume in December, and then barrelled through the first half of The Book of the Long Sun before the end of the year. I also managed to squeeze in his novel of three parts, The Fifth Head of Cerberus just under the wire before New Year's, thus putting my total Wolfe books for the year at 6.

The allure of Wolfe comes from intersecting vectors of interest for me: science fiction, postmodernism, beautiful allusive writing, and a density of narrative which rewards rereading. His work with genre fascinates me. The Book of the New Sun presents itself as fantasy but past the surface, the superficial signifiers of the fantasy genre, the quintet is really far future science fiction, a dying Earth story a la Jack Vance. Wolfe's skill is the slow, achingly slow unfolding of an "objective" reality counter to the protagonist's belief. Normally, especially in genre fiction, this would take the form of revealing to the protagonist a secret history, a real history. For example, revealing to Luke Skywalker or any other chosen one, that they are indeed, the chosen one and that they were placed in their meager circumstances on purpose. The Book of the New Sun looks backwards: the protagonist is chronicling the adventures from a position in the future, so instead of the reveal having shocking implications, he takes it for granted the audience is already on board. For example, Severian remarks very casually, in an offhand comment, that the Moon is green. It's dropped into the narrative without any ceremony and could be easily missed by a reader without patience. It's not until a second time when Severian asks a character from another planet if their "Lune" is also green that the detail persisted with me. I guessed then, the Moon had been terraformed in the time when Severian's and Earth's ancestors fled the planet in their starships, leaving behind a population sinking backwards into a pre-industrial era. Now that spaceflight is out of everybody's grasp, the Moon has gone completely wild, becoming a satellite green enough to be seen from Earth.

To me, this detail represents everything I love about Wolfe's writing. Some might roll their eyes at my naivety, but to find science fiction so demanding of careful attention, such excellent economical prose, and an obvious intelligence is rare. I will happily read his greatest hits and even minor hits just to be rewarded with intelligent and demanding fare. Wolfe is not perfect, though; I wish Wolfe's gender politics weren't so infuriatingly retrograde and his political imagination so conservative. No matter how artful or so clever his tapestries of genre, at the heart of the Solar Cycle is a concern for power and men, with women being either pawns or villains (often both at the same time).

For 2017, I would like to return to a sort of gender parity I'd balanced in the beginning of the year. I would like to continue with  Slonczewski, Nagata, and Katherine Ann Goonan (did I mention I reviewed her book for the SF Mistress blog?) and hopefully, I'll review them for the aforementioned blog. I'd also like to continue with Octavia Butler; I've been reading them slowly as I don't want to finish them all too fast. I'd like to finally tackle some N. K. Jemisin, some more Pat Cadigan, more Justina Robson, more Melissa Scott, and definitely more Elfriede Jelinek (I still can't get over The Piano Teacher). I'd also like to finish off some series I've started, such as The Solar Cycle, Ken MacLeod's Engines of Light, Lumley's Necroscope, M. John Harrison's Light trilogy. I also have a boatload of Paul McAuley and Adam Roberts to read. 2017 looks to be promising for science fiction for me. Who needs new releases from James S. A. Corey when I have so many good books to get around to.

Friday, December 2, 2016

November Reads

The Hour of the Oxrun Dead by Charles L. Grant
The Influence by Ramsey Campbell
The Elementals by Michael McDowell
The Dream Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
The King of Swords by Michael Moorcock
Bellefleur by Joyce Carol Oates
Ancient Images by Ramsey Campbell
Cold Print by Ramsey Campbell
The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison
The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall
Phallos by Samuel R. Delany
A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
The Urth of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe

Maybe because it's been so long since I've read The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, if I've read it at all, but Kij Johnson's pastiche left me wholly cold. Going in, I thought the novella used Lovecraft as thematic inspiration, not literally precursor to this obvious sequel. The twists by Johnson on the Lovecraft formula were compelling (a middle aged woman is our hero; there's no racism!) but reading this novella left me wondering what was the point? Why read this when Lovecraft's version is perfectly acceptable? Johnson obviously has the skills of prose and characterization and a professional grasp of pacing and plot—yet I wonder what could have been if those energies had been directed towards something less literal or loyal to Lovecraft. I respect the project of rewriting the master to remove his racism and sexism, but erasing his bigotry does a disservice to the intrinsic qualities of what makes Lovecraft's visions so horrifying. Ultimately, I'm left cold by Johnson, though not full of respect for her craft, and I'm scrambling to pinpoint exactly what it was. It could be that my tastes for Lovecraftian fiction verge more towards the ruthless pillaging of his work than that which is inspired.

The Elementals is my third McDowell and at this stage, I can happily assert he was a true master of horror, at the level of King or Lovecraft. What makes him so interesting as a writer is his willingness to invest so much energy in his characters and their interactions. While The Amulet was impressive for its ruthless dispatching of characters, Cold Moon Over Babylon and The Elementals take their time building towards a crescendo of pure terror which works thanks to McDowell's characterization and astute eye for detail, either geographic or interpersonal. The Elementals represents, to me, horror fiction at its absolute finest: lean, intriguing, compelling, horrifying, frightening, and awe-inspiring. Throughout my read of this novel, which I parcelled out carefully as to savour the gorgeous prose, I kept experiencing frissons of excitement, giddiness, the kind that comes when you realize you're reading something so masterful and exquisite. It was pure pleasure to read The Elementals from its Southern Gothic miasma to its folksy charm. During the magnificent setpieces of terror, it dawned on me I was sweating, I was tense, a rarity for the jaded reader of horror. On top of this magisterial performance of fright, McDowell does productive work with the Southern Gothic discourse so finely tuned by masters such as Flannery O'Connor.

A major character in this novel is simultaneously a reinforcement of the "Magical N***o" and a repudiation of that trope. The white characters look to this domestic employee for information on the nature of the evil and though Odessa knows much, she keeps repeating she doesn't know everything. In fact, she insists the spirits do not abide by rational logic at all, making it literally impossible to ascertain their motives or even the rules by which they haunt. Odessa is "closer" to the spiritual world by dint of her blackness, an unfortunate reinscribing of the aforementioned trope, but she is not presented as all-knowing or a keeper of arcane knowledge out of reach from whiteness. A scene of Odessa performing a ritual to protect her white charges is shown later to be a failure—either because the titular elementals do not observe the common rules of haunting or because, it's implied, Odessa isn't armed with the correct command of the spirit world. As with much of McDowell's work, class and race in the South is never simplistic monochromatic concerns but nuanced and on a gradient of understanding. The Elementals isn't as engrossed in matters of class as The Amulet (which positively dripped with scorn for the illusion of class) though it does touch on these concerns with the usual charm and wit McDowell carries. 

Even writing these short paragraphs on The Elementals infused me with excitement to read more of his works. His other novels are a bit hard to come by (such as Katie and Toplin) but I own two hardcover omnibuses of his Blackwater series. 

Ramsey Campbell is a name I've heard much about, but didn't know where to start. I picked up his collection of Lovecraftian short fiction Cold Print as my tome of entry into his significant bibliography. I had heard about his gorgeous, hypnotic prose, and interest in "quiet horror." Cold Print offered some delights, none of which blew me away until 1964's "The Horror From the Bridge" (which you can read here). The story's strong effect (affect) came from Campbell's seemingly innate understanding of how Lovecraftian fiction as well as a very strong, almost lordly command of the rhythm and possibilities of prose. This story was enough for me to dive into one of his novels. I chose The Influence for its garish 1980s cover and its promise of "quiet horror" (obviously not promised by the cover blurbs or publisher's feverish shrieks of advertisement, but promised by reviewers and the writer himself).

I read the entire volume in one day. Though The Influence provided no surprises (and indeed, followed a pattern seemingly wrought in ancient stone), it was Campbell's prose and characterization that had me reading so quickly. Rarely do the horror paperbacks of the 1980s offer such delightful turns of phrase as found in The Influence. And if Campbell didn't stack his novel with singular setpieces of terror, he at least found time for one tense sequence on a train, a sequence carefully tuned for maximum Hitchcockian anxiety. I'm so pleased with Campbell's work that I must devour more of his oeuvre. Expect more reviews of Campbell in the future.

Charles L. Grant is a name one sees enough when pilfering through piles of paperbacks in used bookstores. He sits underneath many "Edited By" credits on covers of anthologies and his Oxrun novels can be easily found. Here is yet another author I read on the promise of "quiet horror." The Hour of the Oxrun Dead is the first in a loosely organized 12 book series about a fictional city/town/village (depending on the author's need) called Oxrun. The first novel, with its back cover unspooling its secrets too easily, concerns a young widow stumbling across a conspiracy in Oxrun, with machinations from the highest of political/economic positions. The plot isn't noteworthy, but Grant's characterization is aces. His protagonist and her romantic possibility are charming as all hell, a Nick and Nora without the booze, and every scene is livened by Grant's semi-ironic awareness of how horror operates. This isn't horror for those who like King's realism thrust against the countenance of the terrifying unknown, but rather horror for those who appreciate personality and a carefree attitude towards the strict adherence to seriousness. Not that Grant is a humorist or wilfully detached from the importance of horror; rather, Grant knows we're all here for a good yarn and not much else. The Hour of the Oxrun Dead was a splendid confection. I'm going to happily read more of his stuff, but let's not pretend that this novel is an intellectual giant towering over everybody else. I feel his reputation as this Grandmaster of Horror might have coloured other people's generous readings of this novel. Still, it was imminently professional and excellently written.

I felt like I had been reading Bellefleur for a month, despite enjoying almost every moment of it. I purchased my copy at Myopic Books in Chicago (a fabulous bookstore, by the way) way back in 2014, but only got around to it this year. I read The Falls by Oates back then, as well, and enjoyed it.

I should really stop reading Goodreads reviews of books. They set up these expectations in my mind and more often than not, the reviewers on Goodreads are unimaginative, myopic, inelegant, and sometimes utterly wrong. Consider this poor schmuck on Bellefleur: "the narrative jumped around chronologically from chapter to chapter, which also adds to the cognitive confusion." Yes, those non-linear structures sure are the worst. Or this asshole: "If I have to edit the book myself, by removing unnecessary clauses and descriptors to tease out the meaning of the sentence, then the writing is too flamboyant for me." God help you if you're forced to witness some style, you cretin. Or this guy and his incorrect adverb: "Because it's literally impossible to keep things straight from one page to the next, sometimes even one paragraph to the next." Really? It's literally impossible? I understand the reviewer is being hyperbolic and deploying "literally" in its newest form (an intensifier)—this reviewer did give the book four stars, so at this point, I'm just being a judgey dick. Still, the pile of 1 and 2 star reviews, only a handful of which are well reasoned, are depressing. One downside to the democratization of art is the sheer buffoonery masquerading as criticism on sites like Goodreads.

As for Bellefleur, my opinion vacillates between "love" and "very much like." Certainly, I prefer this text over The Falls, which isn't to say the latter was a failure. Rather, Bellefleur scratched multiple itches for me: Gothic family saga, some unobtrusive magical realism (an aesthetic mode I generally struggle with), an endless brood of cats, and violence, heaps upon heaps of violence, without falling into the realm of exploitative horror. Instead, the violence, the death, the non-linear structure (which is deceivingly non-linear, as there is a supra-narrative which still runs forwards in time), all come together in a passage around the halfway point: "The living and the dead. Braided together. Woven together. An immense tapestry taking in centuries." Death is an integral part of living, the Bellefleur family find themselves reminding each other, and living is an integral part of death. The clever chronology of the novel serves the thematic structure: by juxtaposing the past against the present, the narrative finds a timelessness, not in the sense of "outside of time" but rather in the sense that all things happen at the same time. One of the younger members of the family, a surviving member, publishes a long scientific treatise on the nature of, the liquidity of time, further underlining Oates' aims with Bellefleur. Instead of a complex chronology in which the reader must remember who sires whom, Bellefleur asks the reader to imagine intersecting planes, planes of characters with similar names, planes of feeling, of death, of life, all co-existing at the same moment, but stretched out for the reader to comprehend the tale/tales in its totality. All the while, Oates' glorious, loose, attention-seeking prose cluttering the dense pages. Oates might never be mistaken for a prose stylist on the level of Nabokov but certainly her work here stresses the malleability, the limits of the word.

I had been meaning to read M. John Harrison for eons, especially after the positively glowing reception Jonathan McCalmont gave Light. Published much earlier, The Centauri Device is an essential text in science fiction for multiple factors: firstly, it's an example of New Wave science fiction, a fountain from whence sprung the New Space Opera and secondly, it's an example of proto-cyberpunk, a genre I've written ample about before, not necessarily in subject (as there is no hacking or Orientalism) but in overall outlook: bleak, cold, empty, a universe devoid of warmth or light. However, Harrison's novel doesn't wallow in darkness—at least not in the cartoonish way some late-era cyberpunk does. Instead, like the above Charles L. Grant novel, the characters bounce off the page with wit and liveliness, snarky and hilarious, without falling into the quippy Joss Whedon trap (a style I'm religiously allergic to). More than anything, the prose was utterly divine. Again, another book I hesitate to over-praise, but this was revelatory. I had little inkling prior to this that prose could do such beautifully twisting and magnificent things. Pure poetry. I loved this book. A strong contender for best of the year, easily.

Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun was a terrific coda to the original quartet: thematically deep, full of rich allusions to the previous books, while simultaneously forging ahead in terms of plot. As usual, Wolfe's writing is gorgeous. I find one pleasure to be had in his fiction is his ability to open and then close off thoughts with only a sentence; Wolfe has very little need for semicolons or em dashes. It's an efficiency in descriptive power more authors should strive for. The concluding adventure of Severian offers as many questions as it does answers. A cursory Google search will exhume countless theories and speculations on the part of the series' fans, demonstrating the lasting appeal of Wolfe's multifaceted enigma. I waver on pronouncing the books, especially this final volume, perfect or masterpieces: I suspect Wolfe's strategy was more of obfuscation than artistic exploration. I don't believe there are any concrete answers to be had, neither in critical analysis nor in the following 7 (!) books. Even recognizing the deffering stratagem at its heart, Wolfe's novel bears pleasurable fruit: the enjoyment of the prose, the complexity of the plot, the Catholic handwringing which seems to be a quality of some of my favourite art (Ulysses, Scorsese, etc). After all, what is Severian's trial at the centre of this novel but the individual's wrestle with guilt over sin? Perhaps the greatest accolade I can pay Wolfe's quartet and coda is while reading The Urth of the New Sun, I felt exhilarated and compelled to return to the first novel and relive it all anew. Though not perfect—Wolfe's treatment of women probably never improves, no matter how many tomes he produces—I'm still excited about diving deeper into the waters of the New Sun.

I read Phallos and A Taste of Honey the same day, pure coincidence, though they both resonated with each other. Both were fabulous, especially the Delany (rare is a work by Delany that isn't goddamn brilliant), and I eagerly appoint Wilson my writer to watch from now on.

I'm working on a longer essay for Zoe Whittall's The Best Kind of People. For now, let me say I enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, November 10, 2016


As I write this at 3 am, November 10th, 2016, I wonder if the Internet really needs another #hottake about President-Elect Trump. But, like many things on this blog, I write for myself, I write for my mental health, my intellectual exercise, my desperate need to put into words the feelings I have about the world as I see it. 8 years ago, I wrote of Obama's win of the election: the promise of 4 years of change, the inspiration of the nation's first black President, the optimism of leaving behind the legacy of Bush. 8 years later, America reacted against this tide by electing a vile grotesque mockery of a statesman.

Thinking about blame: maybe we can lay some blame at the feet of liberals who needed to express the election in terms of Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and other famous works of fantasy. Memes were shared comparing Trump to Sauron, Voldemort, Jabba the Hutt, and Emperor Palpatine, memes that dangerously reduced the complex mire of politics to the level of escapist fantasy. Maybe if political discourse had been expressed in real terms with context, social/historical/etc, and not fantasy, the import of this election would have been internalized by the populace. In other words, liberals infantilized by the culture industry who hold dear their nostalgia might have been coaxed into considering the repercussions of their actions, either their participation in the democratic system or their complicity in the media's softballing of Trump during this entire election. Adorno's culture industry has never been more relevant than this election: a reality tv figure, cushioned by preposterous amounts of privilege, elected to a powerful position, on the narrative of "outsider" and "anti-elitism" by dint of noisy distractions. SNL and Jimmy Fallon should be taking hard looks in the mirror for the next while. I exhort them to consider their part in the creation of this Frankenstein's Monster.

Perhaps even more blame can be imparted to liberals: in recent years, the Left has made itself inhospitable—to anybody. I've been repeating, as a mantra, as a salve for my mental health, the idea that "perfect is the enemy of good." We in the Left have been so busy eating each other alive, leaving not even the bones behind, of our allies, our friends, our leaders. Instead of learning together, we have been holding each other to these impossible standards where no perfect media figure exists and any misstep results in radical denunciation and ostracism. Recently, figures such as Lena Dunham, Matt McGorry, Amy Schumer, etc, have been excoriated for mistakes, either rightfully or wrongly. Schumer's transphobia is awful, yes, but is it irrevocable? McGorry's childlike optimism and enthusiasm has been met with eyerolling and scorn. Why? Why would we push away a straight white male with a platform when he can do some good? We vilify these media personalities for not reaching a bar that's all but impossible to meet though, I stress, they should be educated. We should be working together.

I've become alienated from the Left in recent years. The Left at the political level has been moving towards the centre for decades while, on the ground, the Left has been myopically enamoured of identity politics to the point of forgetting that even straight white men can oppressed on the axis of class. I've seen many politically moderate white men completely ignored or abused by the Left ("you can't have an opinion, your opinion doesn't matter, your presence here is unwelcome"); already feeling unmoored from any group, these are probably the young white men who ended up voting for Trump: "well, if the Left won't have me, it sounds like Trump will at least."

While I believe strenuously identity politics are vitally important, often life-saving (eg. Black Lives Matter, trans rights), I also believe we in the Left haven't been appreciative of how class oppresses us all. Disenfranchised straight white men need to be folded into the movement and made a part, not completely avoided or rejected. I cannot believe I'm writing in defence of straight white men; I practically choke on the idea; but this is more important than infighting amongst the Left. Feminism, we're instructed, is for everybody. We need to organize together. I'm not arguing for centring the movement on the desires and needs of white people; instead, I hope we can enfold white people's liberation into the goals of the Left.

I can predict a reaction to this piece: "another white dude, proclaiming the importance of white dudes" yet it is this very attitude that pushed moderates into the arms of Trump. It is this dismissive attitude, in part, that led to widespread feelings of alienation.

Though, not all blame can be levelled at liberals or the mainstream media. I would be needlessly repeating the good analysis and astute observation of countless pundits, so I'll skip that. In place of that, I might try expressing how scary this Trump win is. It's not so much the individual who won the mantle of President but rather the assemblage of a Republican House, a Republican Senate, and a robust infrastructure of thinkers and policy-makers with access to unfettered Executive powers. Trump is an easily bored blowhard but he will surround himself with like-minded politicians, lobbyists, associates, and others who understand the subtleties of bureaucracy and lawmaking. It's all of them combined that make this frightening, not the figurehead on his own. On top of all this, even if Trump is impeached, Mike Pence, an even more terrifying proposition, would ascend to the throne. In other words, this is scarier than we thought. It took over two hundred years to attain the meagre freedoms enjoyed today by marginalized people; it will take the Trump administration but a scant four years to dismantle all that hard work: Roe v Wade, LGBT rights, Obamacare, etc etc etc.

I'm frightened. And I'm resistant to the narrative that this is a "nightmare" or a "dream" or "Earth-2" or "the darkest timeline." I'm resistant to this narrative because if you were shocked that America could make such a disastrous move, then you weren't paying attention. This is the world that marginalized people live in every day and now we all see it. I'm additionally resistant to this "darkest timeline" nonsense for the same reasons why I vehemently reject comparisons to fantasy such as Harry Potter: if your understanding of politics hinges on reductive analogies to escapist fantasies, then I fear for your skills of analysis and observation and critical thinking. If your solutions to the problems posed by this political process make reference to superheroes such as Superman and Batman, then you are part of the problem. Solutions won't come from simplistic crypto-fascist fables of "might makes right." Instead, results can only come from hard work, political participation, education, and organization. This isn't a dream; this is the hand we are dealt. Now we must work together.