I’ve read things by Fritz Leiber that I adore — both Conjure Wife and, more vehemently for me, Our Lady of Darkness are important ones — but The Big Time simply did not work for me.
Of late, I’ve been on a sort of kick where I want to read short books — books of fewer than 300 pages, in general, often even shorter. As I’ve been on this kick, I’ve run into pairs of writings that explore the same basic terrain at different lengths. I mentioned this when I reviewed Patricia Anthony’s Happy Policeman and I’m noting it again as I review this book by Emma Larkin, though in this case the comparable text is this short article from Time, published in 2002 (a few years before Larkin’s book).
In this case, I have to say, Larkin’s book better explores the Orwell/Burma connection: it makes more of the question of whether his time in Burma shaped more of his books — Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Animal Farm, but also his unfinished final work — and has a lot more to say about Burma. Steven Martin’s comment about his motivation for the article and the trip to Burma — “I wasn’t interested in modern politics. The purpose of my journey was to scare up the ghost of George Orwell” — somewhat boggles the mind: how can expect to scare up the ghost of Orwell in a place like Burma without running up against modern Burma’s politics? How can one, indeed, enter a police state where writers are distrusted without thinking of Winston Smith writing in his secret diary, of the appendix at the end of the novel where language itself is shown to have been murdered in the interests of INGSOC?
No, Martin’s article doesn’t hold a candle to Larkin’s book, despite the flaws I cannot help but mention. And there are flaws in Larkin’s text: for one, while I appreciated the little detours through Orwell’s work (and consider them necessary for an audience that, like me, hasn’t read all of the man’s work), I found that the structure of these detours had gotten somewhat predictable and familiar and as the book progressed, I hoped that Larkin might find a new way to segue off into Orwell’s writing. (Alas, this desire went unsatisfied.)
Likewise, by the end of the book I kind of felt like I was talking to one of those friends we all have who explains his or her jokes. Except Larkin was trying to hammer home not jokes, but rather observations about how bad the Myanmar government is, and I’m afraid that for me, it got tedious, in the way I find it tedious when people rant and rant about the North Korean government. Not because I don’t think people should talk about it, but because, I suppose, one feels like saying, “I get it, already!” much sooner when one already got it when starting to read the book.
These flaws, I realize, will not be flaws for all readers. They were for me.
But the positives in the book are worth note as well, and there are a number of them.
Well, a few days ago I finished tearing through Patricia Anthony’s Happy Policeman. I wanted to post a review then, but the Internet was pretty much ruined on campus and didn’t start up again till yesterday.
Reflecting on my feelings about the book, I am left once again wondering why she is one of those authors I feel like we don’t remember in SF, and I think this fact in itself indicates something problematic in SF circles. Authors who have impressed me less (or at least less consistently — Harlan Ellison and Norman Spinrad, among others) are far better-remembered, and I think there are perhaps a few reasons for this.
This book should be required reading for all who want to talk about Korea’s constant, deep-seated anxiety regarding the lack of a place in the Western imagination held by South Korea, and many Koreans’ jealousy of the place that Japan and China have in the Western mind, the foolish attempts to “brand” Korea and market the country onto the imaginative map of Westerners, and so on.
I was working on a revision of a story, and a character ended up needing to recommend a French author. Searching my memory, I came up with only a few names, including Camus and Sartre, but as I wanted something more recent, I tried to think of another French writer; Bernard Werber is popular in Korea, and so came to mind, but it was the wrong author to think of, so finally, perhaps because I’d recently mentioned him (here), Michel Houellebecq came to mind.
I recalled many of the things I’d read about him: the accusations of his racism, of sexism, of misanthropy. The one person who had actually recommended him to me was someone of the kind whose recommendation could be, for most who know him, understood quite straightforwardly as a damning indictment of the author. Yet I had run across a used copy of Houellebecq’s Platform in Japan recently, and bought it.
I dug in.
There are many bad things I could say about the book, though browsing around the net for reviews published at the time, I find most of them to have been said. I could wax theoretical, rehearsing a discussion of Medieval typological literary reading and how this book, despite having been written (just) before the climactic events of September and October 2001 (9-11 and the Bali night club bombing, the latter event quite eerily presaged by events in the novel), cannot now be read outside of the context of the so-called “War on Terror” and all the stupidity and horror (on both sides) tied to it. I could talk about the quality of the writing, for the book both repulsed me but also drew me along. I could even mention the silly lawsuit that was brought against him, though Salman Rushdie (other than his praises of the novel) was pretty much bang-on with his assessment of the case.
But finally, what I want to talk about is the claims that Houellebecq’s narrator make about the background of his ennui — because I suspect they connect to the very reasons why I was unsatisfied with the book, and puzzled by how Houellebecq managed to ride the text to fame.
Disclosure: I got an ARC of this book for free through the Librarything Early Readers program.
(Am I endorsing ABBA? No… but this is a book about the 70s, and mentions this performance specifically. It weirds me out that this performance was something like a month after I was born… so amateur, and yet, somehow it annoys me less than, say, Lady Gaga or whatever else young people listen to bob their heads to now. Yes, yes, I’m sure it’s just childhood exposure.)
You could say I’m catching up on stuff I’ve been meaning to read for a while. Much of that includes non-SF books, but there are also a lot of SF novels in the pile of books I’ve been meaning to read for ages. Among them number several by Charles Stross, but I was very curious to see what a Lovecraft/Spy-Thriller mashup would look like. (Especially since I have a specifically Lovecraft-meets-Chun-Doo-Hwan story brewing in the back of my mind now.) So, finally, I grabbed my copy of The Atrocity Archives and dived straight in!
Clawing at the Limits of Cool: Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and the Greatest Jazz Collaboration Ever by Salim Washington anmd Farah Jasmine Griffin. The University of Michigan Press (Ann Arbor, 1998.)
The collaboration between Miles Davis and John Coltrane is an interesting topic, and it’s especially interesting that it’s framed as such right from the title of this book. Coltrane, after all, started out as a “junior” to Davis, if not in age then certainly in credentials and in the establishment of a personal, individual style. It’d be difficult to argue otherwise, but Griffin and Washington acknowledge this. However, they quite correctly note, collaborations need not begin with two individuals as equals… nor, of course, do the credentials and skills of individuals exist in a fixed state.