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.