Tuesday, February 9, 2016

February Reads Part One

The Bohr Maker by Linda Nagata
Silver Screen by Justina Robson
Elric of Melniboné by Michael Moorcock
Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin

Elric of Melniboné was quite good. I am not a reader of fantasy. I generally loathe high fantasy, especially works from the Tolkien paradigm. I find the obsession over kings and swords and armies to be weird and off-putting. Fantasy seems oddly myopic and provincial; there's an infinity of possibilities and yet all we can manage to imagine is the same group of white people warring over a throne. Perhaps there exists a better example of white nerd culture's lack of imagination but I can't think of anything better than high fantasy. Moorcock's longrunning series Elric starts with some novellas or novellettes (or whatever cutesy term marketing comes up with) but I have opted to begin with the first novel, Elric of Melniboné. As I am not a connoisseur of fantasy, I did need some acclimatization. Especially since Moorcock's acknowledgements includes a nod to Brecht.

Moorcock seems to understand my hesitation and provides some intermittently gorgeous prose to bring the reader into the world he has built. This is all subterfuge of course, as the Brechtian influences impress upon the attentive reader almost immediately. Moorcock is working within the classic "cognitive estrangement" mode of fantastic writing. The reader is faced with a world not unlike a medieval past we are familiar with, but slowly Moorcock strips away the meaningfulness, heading closer to an abstraction. Todorov writes of the "fantastic marvelous" in which the laws that govern our reality must be reorganized to fit the novum (if I might mix up my theorists a smidge). As Elric quests further and further for revenge, the laws of reality he encounter abstract more and more, until he is armed with a sentient sword, fighting an uncanny double armed with the sword's twin. The sentience of the sword is never in doubt, as Elric must fight for control over it. The figure of the sword, we might agree, is a representation of the will of the character. It is the steely literalization of their instincts etc. In other words, the sword is the id, Elric's moralizing non-Melniboné nature is the super-ego, and this battle between the two is Elric's ego.

Elric is an anti-Conan in that he is governed by his ego, he is effeminate yet powerful, brooding, self-reflective, concerned by morality and ethics, and fears his own power. He is not the embodiment of power, like Conan or other heroic fantasies. His power is of a different nature. Moorcock, cognizant of storytelling structures, models Elric partly on the Trickster figure, partly on the doomed hero. The overall feeling tone of the adventure is thus of melancholia. Moorcock's Elric mourns for an unarticulated futurity, a structure of feeling different from that which Melniboné declines.

Moorcock has a strong command of storytelling meaning that even when the book descends into abstraction, the stakes and narrative are clear enough to maintain the reader's interest and participation. On the other hand, and perhaps this is because I'm reading it 30 years after the fact, the novel does feel somewhat perfunctory. For example, once the author introduces this mystical swords, it feels inevitable the protagonist will come to possess one. As if the trappings of the fantasy genre are constricting Moorcock's prodigious talents. I've been thinking a lot about how narrative seems to be a form of imprisonment, enough that I won't say too much about Robson's or Nagata's novel here as I'll save those thoughts for a longer more scholarly piece.

Giovanni's Room was my selection for our Queer Bookclub. I read the novel in one sitting, which is, as usual, a high compliment for the book, but I struggled with it. Certainly, the novel is very old-fashioned, mostly in its construction. Baldwin takes around 30 pages or so to even introduce the main thrust of the story. Scenes are languidly paced, filled with writerly affectations and asides. Additionally, Baldwin really struggles to depict genuine human emotion, beyond misogyny, which this book has in spades. The culture of gay men seems to be often steeped in misogyny; consider how gay men speak of vaginas as "gross" or "disgusting." In the same vein, Baldwin's cast in this novel is composed of awful people behaving in awful ways, and not in a particularly entertaining way (like Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street). Rather, it's depressing and tedious, but effectively, of course, as Baldwin is trying to depict awful people who treat each other like dirt. However, Giovanni's Room is not without its positives: his treatment of the fluidity of sexuality (and gender) is progressive considering its conditions of production. As well, the limited first person perspective forces the reader to do a little bit more work than usual, as David, the protagonist, is not as perceptive as he might believe he is.

Silver Screen was an absolute delight. Here we have something we might call post-post-cyberpunk, a genre that has internalized both the original subgenre's failings (misogyny, racism, white dudebro fantasies) and the derivatives' missteps (overbearing whiteness, a lack of political imagination, techno-optimism). Robson's novel, get this, stars an Indian-British engineer with a non-normative body shape (ie not Hollywood thin) who is neither fetishized nor Orientalized by the narrative. She struggles with food, not in a "I need to be thin" kind of way but in the healthy self-reflective manner, aware that her indulgence in food is a counterproductive coping mechanism. And really, these details are organic, produced from the character in an unobtrusive manner. The protagonist also has female friends that she does not compete with, who have a mutually supportive network. That is to say, the novel hits the Bechdel Test quite a few times.

Of course, none of these elements indicate quality. Luckily, Robson's novel is superb both in plotting and in themes; the diverse formation of the cast is simply a cherry on a fantastic dessert. Silver Screen is focused on artificial intelligence, personhood, and the body... in other words, this is catnip for me. This is Robson's debut, I believe, and it does suffer a bit from first-novel-itis: there is too much happening, an attempt to accomplish everything possible. There's a courtroom drama, a military style action scene, a mystery, comprehensive worldbuilding, a critique of capitalism, etc etc etc. Not all of what Robson throws at the wall sticks, but I have admiration for her valiant attempts nonetheless.

Normally, hard science fiction, a marketing term if ever there was one, is characterized by, well, a lack of characterization and clunky prose. The writers of hard scifi traffic in ideas, not narrative or affect. Robson, categorized as hard scifi, is blessed with a gift for excellent prose and better-than-average characterization. Often, I would be struck by a passage, a choice in phrasing, or an image. For example, the protagonist wakes up from a nightmare "bored with fear" which I thought was a lovely way to indicate the banality of bad dreams.

Her plotting was almost irreverent, which was a nice change in pace from the exceedingly self-serious narratives that plague important scifi or cyberpunk. While Robson's overall feeling tone was one of grief and frustration, her deft handling of the plot was light and almost inconsequential. Silver Screen is not imprisoned by the trappings of the genre, as Robson gleefully picks up and drops that which no longer interests her. The plotting's lightness expresses itself in a rapidity, a desire to get to the "good stuff" of concepts and how they intersect/interact with personhood. The mystery angle of the plot is simply a going through the motions, an acknowledgement of the necessity of a narrative upon which the author can hang some brilliant ideas and some (mostly) welldrawn characters. I thought Silver Screen was terrific and I eagerly await more of Robson's work.

I hesitate to say much about Nagata's The Bohr Maker as I'm working on a longer, more scholarly piece about the novel. Suffice it to say that I enjoyed the book more as a collection of ideas than as a narrative. I worry that the prison of narrative is what holds Nagata back, as I believe she has loftier ambitions than what modern science fiction can allow, by dint of the market and by the possibilities of thought allowed by the genre. Science fiction's obsession with the generic forms of realism have turned the overall genre into a game of "magical instruments as a backdrop to working out the problems of human subjects." This sounds dismissive, and as somebody who loves narrative, I feel hypocritical. But the scifi that I've read seems completely hindered by the rote tropes. As scifi is inherently epistemologically oriented, the genre finds convenient bedfellows with similar interests like the detective story. Nagata's "nanopunk" subgenre takes some of what makes cyberpunk so boring (the narrative) and adds some of what makes science fiction so compelling (the nova). I still liked the novel quite a bit, but The Bohr Maker escapes me, slips through my fingers.

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