Friday, December 29, 2017

December Reads Part Two

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt
Winterglass by Benjanun Sriduangkaew
Clickers by J.F. Gonzalez and Mark Williams
The Fell Sword by Miles Cameron

If I hadn't read other excellent novels in 2017, Winterglass would have clinched the top spot. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, I read some amazing things and Winterglass has competition for my favourite read of the year. It's stupendous; meticulous and beautiful prose scaffolds this dense and rewarding novella. Sriduangkaew has written some of the finest prose in contemporary SFF, with each sentence being its own reward. Like a bonus, after the wondrous form and aesthetics, the novel is also a complex political tale, one withholding of easy answers. Winterglass is simultaneously in conversation with the long history of Orientalism in SFF and still of its own making. I routinely kick myself for putting off purchasing her first novella, Scale-Bright, when I had the chance; it has since slipped out of print and fetches large prices. Hopefully it's either reprinted or picked up by another publisher.

See What I Have Done felt, at first, a bit of a forgettable experience. I read it quickly and thought it fine enough during the experience. But once I finished it and reflected on the entire experience, I can safely call the novel fantastic. The novel is historical fiction, about notorious axe-murderer Lizzie Borden. Where Schmidt strays from the usual historical fiction expectations is setting the novel in the days immediately after the murders, with brief flashbacks to before. Very little after the trial is depicted with the trial relegated to a couple paragraphs at the beginning of the third act. The unconventional structure of the novel, moving through time and through different focalizing characters, works in the novel's favour—crystallizing the plot around a central idea, that of women and agency... without ever coming across as moralizing. Rather, the novel's coy about its own stance on Lizzie: mentally incapacitated? bored? arrested development? This also works in its favour. A strong novel I worry will be forgotten because it's just so damn readable.

I had to keep reminding myself that Clickers was written in 1996, and thus, predates the rise of the New Weird. the novel feels like a throwback, but we have to remember that in 1996, throwbacks of this ilk weren't the norm like they are now. Clickers was probably novel in 1996, what with its use of Lovecraft and B-movie tropes. It's schlocky fun, eminently forgettable, but fun in the moment. A detail that makes me chuckle: whenever authors try to show off how cool or hip their characters are, a device often deployed by the middle age white guy writer, the character only comes off as being kind of dull or middle of the road in taste. The main character reaches for a CD while he's driving, and instead of leaving it at that, we're told it's an Alice Cooper CD. Which, in 1996, makes him seem a little old fashioned and out of touch. More often than not, these little details of verisimilitude give me the feeling writers have the taste of stereotypical dads.

After very much enjoying The Red Knight, I picked up the second novel in Cameron's "Traitor Son Cycle," called The Fell Sword. I should have expected the novel to open up for more worldbuilding but I guess I underestimated how many more subplots he meant to introduce. This second novel is less a standalone work and more the overture to a massive set of storylines. In the micro, The Fell Sword strains a bit because of the sheer amount of new and old characters. I regret not using a notebook to write down everybody's name because by 200 pages, I had forgotten a bunch of them. At first I chastised myself for my inability to hold it all in my head, and then moved to appreciation for making me work so hard. I suppose one could argue the novel's over-the-top launching of plots is a bug, not a feature, as at a certain point, it becomes untenable for a single novel. Where The Red Knight was pretty focused, The Fell Sword is everywhere. Thankfully, Cameron's plotting within each individual plotlines is superb and—one can step back and see a massive metanarrative being built out of the individual strands. It's the same good vs. evil nonsense that plagues these military fantasies but it's just done with such verve and entertainment that I can't help but be enamored.

So much of paradigmatic fantasy is about the restoration of patriarchal power structures, the fervent desire for order through control, centralized power, and the like. Kings are always crowned at the end, thrones are finally filled by the "correct" ruler, and foreign hordes are repelled to their own lands. Monarchist fantasies are politically queasy to say the least. Many modern day paradigmatic fantasies, especially the grimdark ones, try to diffuse the audience's pro-democracy anxieties about cheering for monarchies with hand-wringing about the "costs" of war etc etc. Many losses are felt—the rightful heir still gets the throne though. The increased focus on "realism" in medieval fantasy, and Cameron presses on this as hard as he possibly can, cloaks the insidious perpetuation of linear, hierarchical power structures. This is especially true of grimdark's obsession with rape. Rape functions as a marker of increased realism ("this is how it was for women back then!") and as a marker of the affected jejune nihilism which beats at the heart of grimdark ("nothing matters so may as well rape and kill everybody we meet").

The Game of Thrones fan wiki has an entire article on rape, "helpfully" delineating the differences between the source material and the television adaptation. Both cultural objects are rife with sexual violence; according to a statistical analysis by a fan of both, there have been 50 rape acts in the TV show, with 29 distinct victims, and 214 rape acts in the books, with 117 distinct victims. The fan's analysis breaks down each individual act, in an exhaustive and truly exhausting list, but their brief synopsis does not detail which rape is more detailed, or more impactful as an act of violence in a narrative. While the show has always been controversial, and the books figuring into the subgenre of "grimdark fantasy" (a more "realistic" and nihilistic version of paradigmatic fantasy in the Tolkien mode), it was Sansa's rape in Season 5 of the show which garnered the most amount of media attention. The showrunners, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, have come under fire for both inventing rape scenes (honouring the situation of the narrative, rather than the specific instances in the novels) and including graphic scenes for shock and possibly titillation. The rape of Sansa in season 5 was for many critics and watchers, the final straw. The Mary Sue, a feminist-oriented pop culture site, wrote eloquently of their editorial decision to stop covering the TV show in light of the exploitative and gratuitous Sansa rape sequence. They write:
rape is not necessary to Sansa’s character development (she’s already overcome abusive violence at the hands of men); it is not necessary to establish Ramsay as a bad guy (we already know he is); it is not necessary to prove “how bad things were for women” (Game of Thrones exists in a fictional universe, and we already know it’s exceptionally patriarchal). Rape here, like in all instances, is not a necessary story-driving device.
Games of Thrones and its source material fall under "grimdark," under the marketing aegis of fantasy (medieval settings, obsessive concern with monarchies and lineages, etc). In Get Started In: Writing Science Fiction and Fantasy (here), esteemed critic and author Adam Roberts suggests Grimdark is
standard way of referring to fantasies that turn their back on the more uplifting, Pre-Raphaelite visions of idealized medievaliana and instead stress how nasty, brutish, short and, er, dark life back then 'really' was. I put 'really' in inverted commas there, since Grimdark usually has very little to do with actual historical re-imagining and everything to do with a sense that our present world is a cynical, disillusioned ultraviolent place.
In other words, rather than just an aesthetic mode (though it has some shared stylistics, such as contemporary cursing), grimdark is a feeling, or put more concretely, a structure of feeling, from the critic Raymond Williams. He defines a structure of feeling as going beyond strict formal concepts such as a "world view" or an "ideology," though Williams is careful to include those within the definition of the structure. He writes (here):
We are talking about characteristic elements of impulse, restraint, and tone; specifically affective elements of consciousness and relationships: not feeling against thought, but thought as felt and feeling as thought: practical consciousness of a present kind, in a living and interrelating continuity. We are then defining these elements as a “structure”: as a set, with specific, internal relations, at once interlocking and in tension.
Pointing to formal aspects of grimdark's ideology might prove difficult, as writers from varying political backgrounds have tried their hand at the subgenre. Contrary to popular belief, there is little intrinsically conservative about grimdark fantasy, despite its superficial retrograde treatment of gender and race. Instead, as Williams helpfully guides us, the structure of feeling comprises "meanings and values as they are actively lived and felt, and the relations between these and formal or systematic beliefs are in practice variable" (my italics). Without the rigid aesthetics of a more corporeal mode of artistic expression, grimdark can be and is conveyed in terms of overall affect, using violence, shock, titillation, gore, and nihilism.

"The Traitor Son Cycle" is covered half by the small umbrella (but growing in size) of grimdark and half by regular old medieval fantasy in the Tolkien vein. Much of the two novels is fueled by Lord of the Rings: the invading horde, the mystical MacGuffin, the thrones in disarray, requiring union from the protagonist. But the feeling of grimdark pervades: rape is part of the texture of daily life, violence is hyperbolic, and there are dire consequences in war. There's a sense of futility about the Red Knight's missions; he runs a mercenary company so it doesn't really matter who he's backing as long as they're paying. Cameron has made some strides towards problematizing grimdark's nihilism by including the era's chivalric excesses. But yet, with two books in, the cynicism is pronounced and the ultraviolence quite ultra. The rape occurs in "The Traitor Son Cycle" but often off-screen, as if Cameron just can't quite commit to the true grimdark worldview. The novels feel torn between market trends (grimdark is practically the paradigm now) and Cameron's obvious affection for all facets of medieval society, including chivalry. It's a fascinating project and I'm still on board.

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