Sunday, November 25, 2018

November Reads Part Two

The Fortress at the End of Time by J. M. McDermott
Rosewater by Tade Thompson
Europe at Dawn by Dave Hutchinson

I last read Tade Thompson a year ago, with his novella (here). I didn't love it; I complained it was overly workshopped and much more action movie-y than I preferred. Thompson must have heard my complaints backwards through time because Rosewater, while still very action movie-y, is much more abstruse and interior-focused. Thompson is clearly gifted with concepts; he throws out enough weird shit in this novel for three other novels, and most of these concepts aren't throwaway "cool shit" which plague many other contemporary science fiction novels. Even just the glowing biodome at the literal centre of the city would sustain a whole novel, but Thompson isn't content to let it steal the spotlight. The closest comparison I can make, and I mean this in the most complimentary way, is Alfred Bester. There's just so much wacky shit but Thompson never seems to lose control of it, the way Philip K. Dick sometimes did with similar premises and gonzo stuff. Rosewater even starts like a Dick/Bester novel: the protagonist is a psychic whose job at a bank is to read classic works of literature as static against psychic infiltration from robbers.

Where Rosewater loses me in in the very in vogue structure of intercutting the main timeline with flashbacks. I'm struggling to remember where I read it, but I read a review recently (here) which took issue with how flashbacks have been structured in recent novels. Flashbacks in today's market work toward a reveal, a specific piece of trauma which sheds light on the current timeline's plot and the protagonist's present psychological status. The present timeline alludes to past trauma; the flashbacks build towards the unveiling of that trauma. It's very in vogue right now. Mark Harris writes:
But today, trauma as a universal motivator has worked its way so deeply into the architecture of many novels that it threatens to become mundane. No matter how many skeletons are unearthed, if the sole purpose of revealing them is to vanquish the darkness with explanatory lucidity, the result is distinctly unthrilling.
He's right. And Rosewater has this problem. The flashbacks aren't entirely motivated by this grim relentless plod towards revelation—they provide some much needed texture to protagonist Kaaro's unsavory background as thief and womanizer—but they consistently derail the forward momentum of the present timeline's plot. Every chapter alternates with the past, sometimes with a third set of flashbacks dubbed "Interlude" as if the flashbacks themselves aren't interludes at all. Rosewater wonderfully represents the apex of the fashionable split timeline: the flashbacks aren't considered interludes but a secondary, still as important, plot. 

Thompson is a great idea person and he's crafted (and I use that verb purposefully) a successful thriller which will be a sales juggernaut, if there is any justice in the world. The more books Thompson writes, hopefully he abandons the structures made strict by the pressures of the market. 

As an aside, a certain character in the novel is introduced near the end. I don't want to give too much away, but his physical description made me think it was a sly nod to Samuel R. Delany:
A man stands about a yard away, hands by his sides, a benign look on his face. He is black, but the shade of his skin seems artificial, like a person who has been bleaching his skin with low-quality products. His skin is light brown, but it seems painted on. He wears dungarees, and they appear to be cast-off because they are too large. They are baggy on him, and the long trouser legs are rolled up. He wears no shirt, shoes, or other clothing or jewellery of any kind. His nails are bitten to the quick. (322)
This sounded, to me, like many of Delany's protagonists, especially the nails and the shirtlessness. I asked Tade on Twitter (full disclosure: we follow each other) and he was good enough to reply that no, it was not a reference to Delany (here). 

 A final aside, probably of more interest to myself than of any real readers I have. I first bought Rosewater in trade paperback form from Apex Publications, who originally owned the rights. Later, they were sold to Orbit (purveyor of much fine and not-so-fine science fiction & fantasy). I picked up the advanced reading copy of Rosewater and that's how I read it. Quite a backwards progression. Turns out the Apex edition goes for a decent amount on the secondary market. Not that I would sell my copy. I'm too much a hoarder for that. 

Because I'm a fickle reader, with a short attention span for series, I have a bad habit of not finishing completed series. I read the first two books, often with a long gap of time in between installments, and then never do I get around to completing the cycle. Not always though. In this case, I completed the Fractured Europe sequence, as it's known, with Europe at Dawn. Unquestionably this is one of the finest SF series of the 21st century. I cannot overstate how good these books are, how completely engrossing and captivating, how masterfully the intricacies of plot are woven. Each of these books, but especially this finale, have such a wonderful strain of humanity. Often the narrative will introduce a minor, never-to-be-seen-again person to provide the POV for the scene, and no matter how minor the character Hutchinson gives them as much of an internal world as he can, sketching them with a deftness which puts so many other authors to shame. I could have happily enjoy a new book in this series every year for the rest of my life, but Hutchinson knows to keep the audience wanting. The stakes for the fourth novel are pitched more at the emotional wavelength than the vagaries of plot and so, a fifth or continuous novel featuring Rudi isn't necessary. I want more, but I don't need more. I look forward to rereading these so I can understand more. Even when it's explained explicitly, I found myself lost, and I always mean that as a compliment! 

Monday, November 12, 2018

The Fortress at the End of Time

McDermott's novels were recommended to me by writer and friend Benjanun Sriduangkaew on the basis that they were beautifully written and nothing happens, two of my favourite things. The older I get, the more I'm pushed onwards by aesthetics rather than the strict pull of narrative which spurned me on before. Not that narrative is bad, per se, but the less plot I get, the better, it seems to me. Perhaps my subjective rejection of over-plotting is in reaction to mainstream cinema's obsession with plot above all else; these films operate under the assumption that if there isn't copious, overflowing amounts of plot, audiences will feel cheated. I gather this comes after the extreme success of Nolan's The Dark Knight (which, despite my grumbling and my paeans, I still kind of like). Hence, detractors of Mad Max: Fury Road pointed to its simple plot as a negative; they complained "they drive from one point to another and then back! That's it! Nothing happens!" as if a super-abundance of plot makes a movie.

The Fortress at the End of Time does not have a super-abundance of plot, thankfully. The stakes are extremely low: this is a character study of a clone living in a decaying, rotting watch station at the far edge of the known universe where the military stands ready, ostensibly, for the return of a mysterious enemy (who will no doubt never return). The decomposition of the actual space station is mirrored in the deterioration of the military's standards. The narrator has his ideals and tries to stand firm against this rot, but he is arrogant, naive, almost simpleminded in the execution of his duties. He's moralizing, fervent in his beliefs of military conduct. All of it works against him. The entire novel depicts the frustrating tension between what this character wants and everybody else's wants. Often, when giving narrative advice, writers suggest the plot should derive from the disjunction between the cast's desires; the desires are at odds and thus there is conflict. Most narratives can be boiled down to this: a superhero desires saving the city while a supervillain desires to destroy it. However, most audiences would find these narratives boring if there aren't complicating factors, such as the complexity or uniqueness of the plans used by the characters to thwart each other. The Fortress at the End of Time isn't bereft of these complicating factors; it's just that they are pared down to the roughest of surfaces.

On Goodreads (oh boy, here he goes again about Goodreads), most popular review for this novel reads simply: "What if a guy went to a remote space station on the outskirts of the galaxy and nothing happened?" (here). It's one of the few reviews I've clicked "like" on. Other reviews, more negative reviews, suggest readers were expecting something completely different. No review says this better (or more explicitly) than the poor soul would thought this would be like Scalzi's Old Man's War (ie the Platonic ideal of inoffensive, forgettable military science fiction with an incommensurately rapturous reputation). Other negative reviews make mention of the lack of plot ("nothing happens!") or they persevere on the dialogue, which is somewhat stilted, purposefully so. Not all dialogue needs to be realistic! Just as not all characterization needs to be realistic! Break the chains of realism holding back narrative! Release your desperate grip on the life-preserver of realism! Or whatever metaphor you'd like me to use. However, some of the reviews seem to get it... in fact one says it almost perfectly: "I'm calling this military SF because I suspect it's truer to a lot of people's military experience (being bored a lot in far away places) than zap-pow laser marines fighting alien hordes" (here).

This character study gives enough room for a mild but effective denunciation of how labour without aim, with alienation, can be dehumanizing and soul-destroying. I don't think it's an accident how religious this society is, without all the succor religion can actually provide. The monastery in this novel is as corrupt and conniving as their ostensible allies, the military. Religion, in this tiny place, is as soul-crushing and withering as labour because it is greedy and myopic. We should not take this as the novel's disdain for religion in general—this book is far too clever to be straightforward. We should not generalize from the minimal data (this space station, this monastery) that religion in the entire universe is as predatory. The Fortress holds its cards close to its chest, an ambition we should applaud.

I'm definitely going to read more of McDermott's works now. I'm suitably impressed.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

November Reads Part One

Europe in Winter by Dave Hutchinson
Exhalation and other Stories by Ted Chiang

The pleasure of reading these Fractured Europe novels is in becoming hopelessly lost, both geographically (the point) and narratively (the fun!). For much of this third of four volumes, I was wonderfully confused, adrift among seemingly unrelated plot points and characters hitherto never seen. The finale does do a bit of explaining, thankfully, but I spent much of my time with the final 40 or so pages shaking my head and smirking, impressed with Hutchinson's masterful mashup of Len Deighton and parallel world narratives. We've spoken before on Twitter, sharing our mutual admiration for Deighton's early stuff, and though Le Carre gets the explicit name drop in Europe in Winter, it's to Deighton the novel gives its heart and soul. Though I haven't finished the series, I can confidently state the Fractured Europe sequence might be one of the all-time great SFF series of the 2010s... maybe even of the 21st century. I can't think of any other series of speculative fiction which is as insightful, sharp, clever, and politically necessary. There are bigger thematic goals for the series than a unique or fresh take on the parallel universe narrative, an ambition to be applauded. I find it frustrating Hutchinson hasn't received any major award attention for these novels. It's wholly deserving.

I read Ted Chiang's first collection of stories before this blog, when I was in university the first time, and I found it a mind-blowing experience: poignant, intriguing, beautiful, delicate, thoughtful. My memory must have gilded the rough edges, because how else to explain how disappointing I found Chiang's second collection? The most cutting edge SF concepts are still present, but I don't remember the older stories being so clumsy with the execution of said concepts, or even worse, the stentorious "philosophizing" around them. Imagine, if you can, a first year philosophy seminar, run by a teacher's assistant and attended entirely by 18 year olds. That's the kind of earnest, wide-eyed navel-gazing you can expect from the stories and their rooting around in the dirt for some nugget of wisdom at the level of "having a child changes your perception."

Hold up. I sound much grumpier about these stories than I actually am. I found the exposition clumsy, the characterization clumsy, the reaches toward poignancy clumsy, but clumsy isn't necessarily a failure. That Chiang doesn't have the grace or lightness of touch other (moralizing) science fiction writers have doesn't mean these stories aren't worth your time. There are positive aspects. Firstly, they're all immediately readable. I ploughed through all nine stories in two days, never once finding myself impatient or restless. Even the less plot-focused of stories, such as the title story, about a mechanical man performing brain surgery on himself to discover the secrets of the universe, were alluring and compelling. Chiang is probably the most readable of the "hard" science fiction writers (Greg Egan I've found completely unreadable) thanks to his general storytelling skills. He spins a good yarn, overall. It's just the smaller things pricked at me, a frustration built of a thousand tiny cuts. Clumsy, as I've repeated, is the most appropriate descriptor.

The final story is about prisms which allow communication between parallel universes, and in true Heisenberg principle fashion, the act of communication itself causes the divergence. This is perhaps the best story in the entire collection, or maybe second best to the multiple award-winning "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate." Both feature Chiang at his emotional best, using the science fictional concept for emotional truth instead of whiz bang theatrics. The final story, "Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom," is anchored by an emotionally complex focal character, and by grounded ethical stakes. Take away all the science fictional aspects and the story still functions as a narrative: the lead character must face her own past ethical choices and forge ahead to make new choices, in an effort to be a better person. The integration of the fantastical isn't quite as smooth as in the aforementioned "Merchant" story (presented à la Arabian Nights-style nested stories), but it's emotional genuine, which makes it all the better for it. 

"The Lifecycle of Software Objects" might be the worst story in this collection and I'm truly baffled it won so much praise and so many awards. It's a completely inert, cold, lifeless tale of raising AI as if children. It's classic hard science fiction: emotionless, suffused with technical writing, and human characters functioning only as mouthpieces for oration. Only a parent, smug with the delusion that parenthood is the only meaningful pursuit in life, could come up with something so teeth-rottingly sweet and pablum-like. I find reading about the quiet nobility of child-rearing especially difficult in the years after reading James' What Maisie Knew (here), a face-melting excoriation of the selfishness of parents. 

The collection, Exhalation, comes out in May 2019, and I'm grateful to the publisher for an advanced reading copy (especially so far in advance of publication!!)

Sunday, November 4, 2018

October Reads Part Two

Perfect Recall by Ann Beattie
Dancing After Hours by Andre Dubus
The Snow by Adam Roberts 

Dancing After Hours is as close to perfect as short story collections go. From "All the Time in the World," about a young woman yearning for a connection beyond the physical:
The other men she loved talked about marriage as a young and untried soldier might talk of war: sometimes they believed they could do it, and survive as well; sometimes they were afraid they could not; but it remained an abstraction that would only become concrete with the call to arms, the sound of drums and horns and marching feet. She knew with each man that the drumroll of pregnancy would terrify him; that even the gentlestthe vegetarian math teacher who would not kill the mice that shared his apartmentwould gratefully drive her to an abortion clinic and tenderly hold her hand while she opened her legs. (89)
This quote, excavated from a longer paragraph gives examples of what makes Dubus' stories and prose work so well. His sentences are long (this isn't even close to the longest sentence in this collection) but never lose focus or clarity; his use of the polysyndeton ("and" instead of commas) generating a beautiful rhythm; the sensitivity and honesty; the love he has for these characters even when they frustrate. Most of the stories in this collection are harrowing little pieces of drama, the kind of short stories which use random catastrophes and tragedies to probe about how people will react, how they'll cope, how they live. Which is to say, my favourite type of short story. I can't wait to read more of his work.

Perfect Recall is more of the same from Beattie, but with a bit more stylistic and formal experimentation than in previous collections, I've gathered. The first story even features a rare appearance (in a Beattie story) of a Joycean epiphany! Some of these were ok and some contained the brilliance which keeps me coming back for more. "See the Pyramids," about two models and their flaky boyfriends, tickled me, as did "In Irons." Two of the best stories featured men taking care of other men, either as a job or as friends. "The Big-Breasted Pilgrim" (not a great title) follows a chef's personal assistant and the surrounding friends and lovers as he attempts to organize a private dinner for the then-President Bill Clinton. This is mirrored quite in a lovely way with the final story, "The Famous Poet, Amid Bougainvillea" in which two personal assistants to two famous artists have been disabled and are hiring their replacements. In each case, the characters are confronted with the assumption of gay romance, but all of them resist this easy speculation; instead, the relationships are complicated in different ways, not cluttered by eroticism, but cluttered by professional responsibilities and idiosyncrasies. All in all, not the most even collection—I can now understand why people claim her star dimmed in the late 1990s—but still a terrific read. 

Reading a high concept work of science fiction from Adam Roberts is often deflating. He zigs where other authors might zag, leaving readers potentially disappointed that the narrative didn't do what was promised on the tin, as it were. The Snow suggests an end of the world cozy catastrophe (yes, the Aldiss refrain about Wyndham) but instead, like Splinter and Gradisil, opts for emotional exploration using the structure of a speculative fiction novel. The snow does indeed fall, though this takes up only about 40 pages of a 300 page novel. The rest is an emotional journey, following the narrator (through a series of false documents) as she reacts, mostly passively, to the insanity of a government forming itself from the ruins of society. I suspect that, like many of his other novels, The Snow is self-consciously inspired by Wyndham's 1950s cozy catastrophes. The society Roberts imagines to form feels conservative and bourgeois, in a decidedly pointed way. It's no accident that the narrator is a woman of colour; this allows Roberts to bounce her off of Wyndham's small-minded science fiction. But like I say, it can be a bit deflating. There's a long section from another narrator which details his drug abuse problem as a Hollywood TV writer, and while it's funny and well-written, I can't help but wonder why Roberts loves his digressions so. Especially since the crucial piece of information in this section is purposefully and explicitly omitted, only to be revealed much later. He does love his puzzles that Adam. Still, as always, a pleasure to read.