So, here’s some stuff I’ve read lately… It’s a lot of what I’ve read so far in 2006, at least since my last book post. Since I typically are working my way slowly through any five books at once, these posts tend to come slowly, and to have a lot in them when they do come, so I’m including just fiction here. I’ll put up a second post, a bit later, with the nonfiction stuff in it.
Agents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan
I picked up this book in Los Angeles, and I’m very glad I did.
A creepy “new weird” novella, this was pretty impressive. Kiernan clearly is working in the Lovecraftian vein, but—in a way that reminded me of Paul Meloy’s weird short stories—she clearly goes beyond it, stewing those tentacles alongside American conspiracy theory kookery, Cold War-era spy fiction, and even glimpses of a worldwide Yuggoth postapocalypse.
The one thing it doesn’t have is Dreamlands stuff, which the title led me to expect: this novella’s “Dreamland” is not in fact Lovecraft’s The Dreamlands, but something else entirely. (Though it may be that I missed something and Dreamland has agents in the Dreamlands?) Among the things I liked best about it was the character Immacolata Sexton, whose employers are “the Barbican” (which I guess means Mi6, by way of recent James Bond films?) but who is definitely not entirely human. She’s the oddest and most interesting character by far, and Kiernan uses her creepy, er, “powers” to great effect, while leaving the horror of what it means to look into her eyes up to our individual imaginations. Also fun is the (apocryphal) film Kiernan invents for meta-commentary about foreshadowing while foreshadowing a fate we only glimpse through Sexton’s inhuman, inexplicable eyes.
I’ve read other things by Kiernan, but this novella stood out to me, and makes me want to be a bit more systematic about tracking her work down.
The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
Another Tor.com novella, I searched for this during my trip to the States, but couldn’t find it in any of the bookstores I visited… and then suddenly found it on the shelf at my local library when I got back to Korea. Like Kiernan’s novella, it’s a critical re-engagement with the legacy of Lovecraft and with Lovecraft’s own work. “Black Tom” is Tommy Tester, a guitar-toting con man living in Harlem who gets mixed up in some, well, weird—as in occult—business and ends up emboiled in unspeakable events over a series of nights.
The story is clearly metafictional, running parallel to the events of Lovecraft’s own 1927 story “The Horror at Red Hook” (a story that even most Lovecraft fans find repugnant, though for reasons that run throughout Lovecraft’s other work, if we’re being fair) and involves both of the major characters in that tale, a warlock named Robert Suydam and an Irish cop Thomas Malone. LaValle’s trick is showing us New York through the eyes a member of the “teeming” cosmopolitan locals whom Lovecraft so reviled. As with other recent revisitations of Lovecraft, LaValle tactically deflates Lovecraft’s racism as the histrionic, offensive nonsense it is but also recognizes that the horror in Lovecraft is partly—but importantly—rooted in this same racism, and that the racism is on some level the engine that makes the horror go. Clearly, a substitute is necessary, and like other recent authors reexamining Lovecraft, LaValle chooses to substitute the historical racism itself for the racist bugbears of Lovecraft’s imagination, a tactic that is especially effective when applied contrapuntally to one of Lovecraft’s own stories.
I was most curious to see how the “ballad” part of the title paid off, and was pleased to find blues and “conjure music” playing a role in the tale. Being that the story is set in the 1920s, jazz isn’t really a big thing yet in Harlem, but blues music, as a perennial folk music of Black America, makes a lot of sense, and the notion of “conjure music” is especially compelling.
Doomsday Morning by C.L. Moore
In Las Vegas, my friend Joe Milan brought me to a used bookstore where I found a bunch of old paperback SF novels, and though it was a struggle in the end to figure out which to buy and which to put off till another time, I couldn’t resist this novel, mainly due to the back cover copy:
Things had changed in America. A vast, powerful, and complex political machine known as Comus (Communications U.S.) now held the country in its merciless and suffocating grip.
COMUS knew what every man, woman, and child was thinking, feeling, desiring.
COMUS knew exactly how to shape, guide, bully and seduce its reluctant citizens into final submission.
And then came the day of reckoning.
It sounds eerily prophetic, huh? Not that Comus actually ends up being that much like Facebook, but it’s prophetic in that way you see in a lot of old SF novels, where someone had the right idea, but jammed it into the future at a different angle than it finally manifested. (Comus is the tool of an overtly authoritarian state, fueled directly by state power; Facebook is driven by capitalism, social fragmentation, and state inaction.) In some senses, this recalls a passage in Neal Stepheson’s Wired piece “In the Kingdom of Mao Bell”:
I went to China expecting to see that process in action. I looked everywhere for hardy electronic frontierfolk, using their modems and fax machines to push the Communists back into their holes, and I asked dang near everyone I met about how communications technology was changing Chinese culture.
None of them knew what the fuck I was talking about.
I was carrying an issue of WIRED so that I wouldn’t have to explain it to everyone. It happened to be the issue with Bill Gibson on the cover. In one corner were three characters in Hanzi (the script of the Han Chinese). Before I’d left the States, I’d heard that they formed the Chinese word for “network.”
Whenever I showed the magazine to a Chinese person they were baffled. “It means network, doesn’t it?” I said, thinking all the warm and fuzzy thoughts that we think about networks.
“Yes,” they said, “this is the term used by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution for the network of spies and informers that they spread across every village and neighborhood to snare enemies of the regime.”
Stephenson mentions this because it seems so weird and foreign to a North American; and yet, reading Doomsday Morning, it feels like it wouldn’t seem so weird to C.L. Moore, whose vision of a network—one that is used to power bespoke, instant surveillance, passive propagandization, interrogation, and mental manipulation, and even guides self-driving cars—encompasses both an authoritarian government’s social control agents, including spies and informers, and the mass entertainment (especially TV and movies) that even in 1958 were clearly becoming among the most prominent forms of American global power. While there’s plenty in Moore’s novel that feels somewhat dated, there’s also a lot that seems bewilderingly prescient of how, today, we’re sliding toward a world where the phrase “social network” also has an unambiguously negative connotation… or, perhaps, these problems are just timeless, and people just take their eye off the ball in moments of misspent optimism, I don’t know.
Beyond that, the story is much more concerned with stage performers and what they do, and specifically stage drama—one could say the story is an excuse for writing about that, but that’d sound like a complaint whereas I think Moore handles the subject well, and also does a good job exploring the interior life of her washed-up, alcoholic, broken protagonist Howard Rohan’s struggle to find purpose after giving up on life in the wake of a complex and heartbreaking personal tragedy and then being sucked back into show business, into old habits and patterns of thought and feeling… but whose discoveries as he works through all of that are hard-won and meaningful.
The Legend of Hong Gildong, translated by Minsoo Kang
Hong Gildong is famous enough in South Korea that I knew the name within a year of coming here: his was one of the names students used to trot out when I asked them to make up a name for an imaginary or fictional character. (That, or celebrity names.) That said, all I managed to gather beyond that was that he was kind of a Robin Hood figure, as well as the bastard son of a nobleman. I knew there was an early cartoon (Korea’s first full-length animation, as it turns out), and that the character turned up in a lot of kids’ comics, but I also got the sense that few of my students knew all that much about Hong beyond the basic concept.
When I met up with Minsoo Kang earlier this year, he generously gave me a signed copy of his translation. I was excited, because I’d heard good things about it, though I hadn’t yet gotten around to picking up a copy. I mean, it got published by Penguin Books, after all!
Good things were warranted! While I can’t compare the translation to the original text—I know about ten hanja characters—the text is very enjoyably readable and meticulously footnoted. Kang’s introduction places the narrative in its social context—and talks about why it’s so resonant to Koreans—while helpfully dismantling some of the questionable scholarship surrounding the story, which unfortunately has dominated the average person’s beliefs about it.
As for the story itself, well… the accounts I’d heard emphasized the least interesting elements of the story, as far as I’m concerned. Sure, Hong’s life story is sad: the son of his father’s concubine, he’s barred from official position and even from referring to family members by their proper titles. (More than once he bemoans the fact that he cannot call his father “Father,” nor his elder brother “Brother.”) I knew he became a bandit chief, and robbed from the rich and corrupt, as bandit folk-heroes often do.
But you know what I didn’t know? That he used Taoist magic every chance he got. Seriously, by the age of eight, he’s already powerful with magic, and able to reorient the geometry of rooms by quickly inscribing trigrams, or that he fled his home before the age of ten. Nor had anyone mentioned that he had super-strength (or magically faked it): he becomes the bandit leader by lifting a stone that weighs more than a ton, and planning a successful raid on the very famous Haein Temple. (I don’t know if I’m reading it correctly that he becomes a bandit leader as a small child, though he does say something about how the bandits should ignore his small size and see the man he his, so it does seem to be the case.) There’s fictional islands, there’s magical doppelgangers of the hero (made out of strawmen) marauding the countryside, there’s even a wild surprise ending. This is a short, folk-fantasy epic, folks.
(And, if I’m being honest, I was totally cribbing notes for how some of those spells could be worked into a D&D game set in Joseon-era Korea, such as maybe the soon-forthcoming “Koryo Hall of Adventures” setting that recently funded on Kickstarter.)
Anyway, the book is well worth reading. When I talked to him about it, the translator Minsoo Kang mentioned he was working on an academic study of the text, and now I really can’t wait to see what lies deeper inside the onion of this very odd tale.
The Stars are Legion by Kameron Hurley
Yet another happy find at the local library, and then—wonders never cease!—I learned I could actually get it through the library at work, which meant less of a time-crush in terms of getting around to it.
This one is wonderfully dark, and grim, and biotech-crammed, with a journey if you want to see the weird, freakish interior realms of a bizarre future-biotech world, and a… well, I can’t really call it a “love story” so much as a story in which love is a weapon and curse, and in it’s discovered what happened to a kind of love that… well, maybe wasn’t love to begin with. In any case, there’s a dual-plot—one involving political intrigue, war, and a vitally important “pregnancy,” and the other involving a trek up and out from the guts of a world’s interior trashpile.
In her afterword, Hurley comments about how she expected people to be a hard sell, because people would say, “WHAT IS THIS, 1968?!” about the fact the novel has only women and no men in it. the quip is spot on, but it did surprise me slightly: it’s not completely wrong in terms of political backsliding in our world. Or something. But still, it seems sad to me that in the second decade of the 21st century, one might object to a book where no men appear. That doesn’t seem particularly radical to me, anyway, so count me in as one person with no complaints about a fictional narrative populated exclusively by interesting, rather scary, and slightly insane future-women. (They seem human, but as the reader discovers, they’re not exactly like us. Apparently a long time has passed since they self-modified. And no, unless I really missed something, we don’t come close to finding out what happened to all the men… and no, I don’t think that’s a problem at all.)
Anyway, it’s one of those novels that’s wonderfully crammed with perfectly icky weirdness—you’re constantly feeling like you should be wiping biomechanical goo away from your eyes, and as if the gunk of a million recycled biowaste materials are clinging to your legs, or at least I was—and my favorite parts were all in the journey from the core of a dying “world” back to the surface, which happily makes up most of the book. That’s not because I didn’t dig the intrigue and all, it’s just that Hurley does great worldbuilding in that “interior world” section, and it’s especially great because she also has the sense to describe it rather than laboriously explain it, which makes the voyage through that world really puzzling and fascinating.
I will pause, though, to note that while the journey-from-the-center-of-the-world plotline is the one that interested me more, I think Hurley’s treatment of the concept of pregnancy in the novel is really, really interesting when you look at it for the metaphor it surely is: most women native to the worlds of this novel seem to get pregnant on schedule beyond their control—which feels like Hurley’s riffing on the whole ongoing battle over women’s right to have control over their reproductive lives. But it goes deeper than that, to something more universal even for women whose politics or belief system precludes things like using birth control, and that is, the social instrumentalization of pregnancy. Women on these worlds get pregnant, yes, but what they birth isn’t just for them: it’s for the world they inhabit. Sometimes it’s spare parts needed to keep the world going; sometimes it’s creatures the world needs. The world can be quite merciless in snatching these birth-products from the women… and yet the women retain that vestige of human attachment to their offspring: some of them birth things that are roughly equivalent to machine cogs, but then still coddle them like children, and still weep when the cogs are stolen from them.
The infanticide (and subsequent cannibalism) that one character engages in is horrifying, but it’s horrifying in a context where birth is horrifying, and where pregnancy itself feels somehow cannibalistic: where the world feeds on the reproductive capacity of its women. This is all really, really fascinating, and I think it really does say a lot about how women’s reproductive capacity is—deep down, and sometimes even on the surface—viewed by a lot of human societies. Not just the way governments try to control it—it was only this year that the highest court in South Korea ruled that the ban on abortion was unconstitutional, for example—but also the way pregnant women’s bodies so often seem to be perceived as having become public property. (There’s a link there to how the sexuality of non-pregnant women is regarded as private property by many men, but also as a public good to be “protected” from “spoilage” and “theft” by outsiders in many groups—racial, community, political, religious, and so on.)
I will have to check out her earlier trilogy (The Bel Dame Apocrypha, which apparently has similar biotech weirdness and tough-as-nails characters) when I get a chance.
The Languages of Pao by Jack Vance
This is an odd little book that purports to explore the effects of language on thinking, and to speculate on what artificial changes to language (or artificial language) can do to a culture or even a world’s worth of people—an early (1958) exploration of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, in other words. As a language learner, I appreciate the sentiment and the fun of the idea, and appreciate also how Vance provide just enough basic linguistics for a veneer of seriousness, but not enough to show just how questionable the idea is.
And it is pretty questionable. Not in the sense that language shapes how we think—that’s obvious—but that language can shape fundamental capacity for perception itself? That’s dubious: learning that Koreans often conflate blue and green, and learning to do it when speaking Korean, didn’t blur the colors in my mind, for example, and doesn’t make it impossible for Koreans to tell blue and green apart even if they never learn a foreign language.
But it’s really the political claims tied to Sapir-Whorf that I find the most questionable. In grad school, I read a book by Monique Wittig (Les Guerilles, though I read a translation) which posited that the heavily gendered structure of French grammar was tied to sexism in French culture. I wasn’t convinced then, and I’m even less convinced after living in Korea, where the local language often skews toward speaking about people in the third person with gender neutral pronouns (“that person” rather than “she” or “he”) and yet sexism is both profound an unapologetic in many corners of society.
Speaking of sexism, Vance’s story does feature it: harems, sexual slavery, forced breeding programs, and a character who commits suicide to avoid bearing the child of the novel’s villain. It’s a product of its time—the late 50s—and even the apparent sympathy with the victims of this incredible sexism doesn’t completely offset my uneasiness with the idea that sexism could be so rampant in an interstellar, spacefaring society, even if humans do have a nasty tendency of regressing. I’d be curious in looking at statistical data about the occurrence of onscreen and offscreen sexual violence and oppression in speculative fiction works, graphed against things like the pay rates for working women, number of women working outside the home, number of mentions of feminist ideals in mainstream magazines and news, and so on.
(Which is to say, I am sort of wondering aloud whether the incidences increased as a response to shifts in mainstream attitudes toward gender, I guess in a way sort of like the anxious “remasculinization” urge that a lot of men engaged in activities or work traditionally seen as “feminine” seem to exhibit. Hidden Brain did a great episode on that subject back in October that I recently listened to, and have been thinking about.)
In any case, Vance doesn’t outright link the sexual oppressions of the novel to the linguistics of Pao or Breakness (the otherworldly oppressors who’re engaged in the oppressing and forced breeding), beyond the fact that Breakness’ language is super-individualistic to the point where even offspring seem to have limited feeling for their parent. It feels very 1970s for that: sexual enslavement could be a source of horror, but maybe not quite the overt moral revulsion—or, more crucially, the kind of sympathetic awareness of the trauma it would entail for its victims—that we’d expect from an author today. One might argue a suicide communictes trauma loud and clear, but it communicates it implicitly, and I think a modern writer would be likelier to give her a voice, and maybe a weapon (literal or metaphorical) to join the fight against her oppressors… an opportunity to be more than just a sad memory that motivates and pulls at the heartstrings of the male protagonist.
In any case, Vance is more focused on how a world unified by one language (which has made that world’s culture simultaneously stable, peaceable, but also hidebound and relatively defenseless) can be socially reordered through specific changes in the linguistic base of the culture—specifically, that one could reorder a society by warping its language, or by compelling parts of society to speak different languages. As I read it, I couldn’t help but think of how we do this, don’t we? Part of schooling is about learning to speak dialects that the average person cannot, after all. Overstating Sapir-Whorf is one thing—as a language teacher and language learner, I have to admit that I’m tired of sweeping overstatements of this model—but Vance’s take is kind of interesting, and does kind of align with things I’ve seen in different languages I’ve encountered. Consciously changing a language can and does have specific social consequences. That said, as a result the plotting and the characterization is passable, but not spectacular… though it conforms to the impression I get that a lot of Vance (especially in his SF work) is about revenge plots.
This novel feels like an early-career work, and while I’m not sufficiently widely read in Vance’s later work to say why I think that, I have read the first few pieces in my Dying World omnibus and can say that the latter text has a sort of shimmer and crackle to the prose and characterization that is harder to find in the pages of The Languages of Pao. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder whether Samuel Delany had read it before writing Babel-17… that is, wondering how much it was a response to Vance’s speculation on the same theme of language shaping cognition. (I wasn’t crazy about Babel-17 when I originally read it, but I suspect I’d find it more interesting returning to it now.)
Scurry Book 1: The Doomed Colony and Scurry Book 2: The Drowned Forest by Mac Smith
These two graphic novels are the first two parts of a trilogy. I actually backed the Kickstarter for the second volume, at a time when my wife was thinking about creating a webtoon, as I thought it might be inspirational to her. She’s set that plan aside for the moment when she started a job last year… and hasn’t yet given these books a look, in fact.
Both volumes feature the story of a colony of mice attempting to survive a postapocalyptic situation in which all of the humans in their area seem to have suddenly disappeared, leaving them with no readily available food sourced once the cupboards of the houses in their area are bare. It’s reminiscent of Watership Down and The Rats of NIMH, with both the threat of predators and political problems plaguing the mouse colony’s central heroes, a pair of mice who’re a couple: Wix, the best scavenger in the colony, and Pict, the mouse who’s supposed to be handed the torch of leadership by her aging father.
I really like the art and the characters. The dialog occasionally spins a little weak, but Smith more than makes up for it with a compelling story and with a world in which he manages to explore the importance and influence of human beings without actually having any human beings present… at least, so far. (Much as I enjoyed it, Y: The Last Man purported to do the same with male humans, but put a male human front and center in the narrative.) The struggle of the mice to survive without humans producing trash and scraps for them, their collective reluctance to return to life in the wilderness despite the fact they’re facing starvation, the bleak terribleness of the postapocalyptic landscape, and a compelling set of threats including natural ones and predators, but also political conflicts within the mouse colony, make for a great story.
I mentioned that these two books are the first two parts of a three-book series, so I guess it’s worth noting that part three was on Kickstarter recently… and yes, I backed it. If you didn’t know, I think you’ve missed it, but Smith also has a Patreon, if that’s how you prefer to support creators these days. (I’m sure there’ll be a way of preordering it so you can get all three volumes at once, if you like.) So if postapoocalytic mouse adventures turn your crank, you should consider checking out the Patreon (or Smith’s website, linked from there) and see if Scurry is for you.
Not for Me
I don’t what every review I post here to be praising books… but I also don’t want to slam books I didn’t like to hard. Rather, I think it’s sometimes useful to speak about why one didn’t enjoy a book, without running full force over into recriminations or condemnations. One can react negatively to something but remain constructive and open-minded about it.
I’m trying to conserve time and energy for reading by following a policy of setting books aside after 100 pages if they don’t hold my interest, or if I find myself skimming. The books below fall into that category.
The Alchemists of Loom by Elise Kova
This book just didn’t hold my interest, despite having a number of virtues—it’s a weird world with its own mysteries and bizarre “fantasy races” and bewildering politics, and I feel like it would almost certainly make a cool RPG setting for an single-season (8–10 session) story arc or something like that.
It could’ve used with better copy-editing—some of the sentences are convoluted in a way that I usually expect to see in first drafts of fiction—and even then, the voice felt pitched to an audience for whom the sparkle of carefully-crafted prose takes a backseat to a driving adventure story and starkly archetypal characters who could be straight out of a television YA series. That’s a popular preference even among adults, let alone the YA audience this book is aimed at, and you’re not a bad person for sharing such a preference, but I don’t share it, so the book left me a bit cold.
That said, were I a faster reader, or less short on time, I’d probably have finished it just to see the shape of the storyline and see a little more of the setting. Alas…
It Devours: A Welcome to Night Vale Novel by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
If I’d known more about the Welcome to Night Vale podcast, I’d have skipped the book. I can deal with a little whimsy, a little nostalgic cheesiness, but beyond a certain point it just ends up being the opposite of what I come to speculative fiction for: it feels too safe, to me, and the weirdness feels laced with too much of the familiar for me to really enjoy it. And I guess maybe because I’m not American, the smalltown America nostalgia doesn’t register in an enjoyable way.
I didn’t know any of that about the book when I picked this up at the local library, and when I hit page 100, I shrugged and let it drop.
I’m comfortable saying it’s probably just an issue of me being far outside the target audience for the book. Though I do wish I could understand what the target audience gets out of it, I suspect it’s a bit like anything: if someone has to explain it to you, it’s not going to help you dig a thing.