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 Tor.com 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! 

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