Sunday, November 15, 2015

September-October Reads

Patternmaster by Octavia Butler
The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe
The Claw of the Conciliator by Gene Wolfe
Friends with Boys by Faith Erin Hicks
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie
Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie

I missed posting this in September, so I just waited until the end of October the middle of November to post them all.

I finally finished Butler's Patternist series, ending with the book published first. Reading them in internal chronological order as opposed to publication date was an interesting project. Butler is, of course, an absolute master of science fiction, from what I've read. This last book wasn't the best out of the series (the second book, Mind of my Mind was the best one, I believe) but it certainly wasn't a bad experience. Rather, Patternmaster was just a bit awkward, both in execution and ideas. Her prose and dialogue (never her strongest suit, let's face it) are stilted and stumbling while her ideas lack the similar depth and care that she bestows on other ideas in other novels. That being said, I still enjoyed my time with Butler's world, enough that I'll keep reading her stuff. I still haven't encountered anything by her that was better than Kindred.

I've been meaning to read Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun since I was in high school. The first time I tried, I think I made it three pages before giving up. But I kept hearing about its ingenious metafiction construction and I want to try more fantasy (I generally loathe fantasy in the Tolkien mould (mold? I can never remember)). I read the first two books back-to-back—something I almost never do—because I like it well enough. I'm not sure if it's as brilliant as everybody says. The whole unreliable narrator only really has meaning if there's a metanarrative counter to the narrator's account, and I'm not really sensing one here, other than perhaps, these people, on a societal level, have deluded themselves into forgetting the past. There's one bit, I can't remember which book, in which the narrator gets a glimpse of the past/future (doesn't matter which really) when humans boarded a spaceship, an ark, to leave Urth when it was called Earth. This is a cool moment, but it's just kind of empty worldbuilding, I should think, as the idea doesn't really add much to the narrator's emotional or narrative journey. I would like to finish the series; I think I shall.

Friends With Boys was okay. I didn't really need the ghost aspect of the plot as I felt the protagonist's relation with her family, her new school, her new friends, was good enough to support my interest and the narrative. There's not much else to say about this.

Ernest Cline's Ready Player One was pure literary trash, the guiltiest of guilty pleasures if I had derived any pleasure from the experience. It's a quinessentially 21st century science fiction in that it's post-postmodern, an empty hall of mirrors in the form of references. It's not a good book, but there are some good elements to the novel. I like that the book considers the presence of women on the Internet and how precarious things are for them (in the form of sexism, misogyny, and even violence) and I like that the book considers the intersection of race and gender. However, the aggressive nostalgia for the 80s is oppressive and off-putting. Similarly, the climax, with its giant mech battles, is ludicrous and tedious. This is, on the whole, the book version of a Buzzfeed article. 

Both Sword and Mercy were terrific—when you consider the two of them halves of one long novel. Separately, they're not up to the same level as Justice (but what is really?); put together, the two novels make a stupendous finish to the trilogy. At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, this is the best space opera of the past twenty years and perhaps some of the best science fiction ever. The treatment of politics, technology, gender, nationalism, religion is always mature and nuanced. The future civilization at the heart of the novel is always depicted ambiguously, with positives and negatives alike. Even the protagonist, a masterful composition indeed, has shades to her. Breq's portrayal is asymptomatic of contemporary culture's infantilizing obsession with antiheroes; Breq isn't a white hat, a black hat, nor even a grey hat; she simply is and that's fucking terrific. 

Though, I must be honest with myself. Ancillary... isn't innovative or cutting edge; the major selling points of the trilogy (the gender neutral language, the ancillary bodies, the complicated quasi-Roman society) all come from New Wave science fictionsuch as my beloved Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Joanne Russ, and Ursula K. LeGuin. Again, I must stress that originality does not intrinsically equate to better quality; Western civilization has prostrated itself at the altar of originality for the longest time. Execution is far more important, I believe, something I've gone on record saying before. I just mention Leckie's antecedents as acknowledge rather than criticism.

My distinct lack of reading this year has depressed me in many ways. I own a lot of books that I haven't got around to, books that have been on my shelves for years without being touched. Yet, I use up my time with mindless Internet browsing and watching movies. In my defence, I've watched more films this year than in any other year of my life (as of November 15: 224) and not all of them trash cinema (a good chunk has been High Art cinema).

I find myself somewhat distant from reading for reasons I do not understand. Introspection and reflection is required; praxis is required.

In other news, I've written two long essays on Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (films I and II) and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. You can find the former here and the latter here. I've used the platform of Medium.com because I love the layout and design and UI (however I don't like that it doesn't read like a blog, but more like an online magazine). I don't really love Blogger anymore but I've had my writing here for so long I'm not sure what I would do without it.

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