Nov 262018
 

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

Synopsis: Two landed British gentlemen of the Napoleonic era flounce about being prissy, ineffectual twits. Also there are fairies.

Lately I’ve finally been picking up books that I’ve heard great things about for a long time, to great success! To continue this trend, I moved on to “Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell” next. I’ve heard from many sources that it’s an astounding novel.

Holy crap were those sources wrong. This is the most tedious, plodding, overhyped exercise in fiction I’ve come across in a while. I began to dread returning to it.

The basic conceit is that the landed gentry of Britain don’t have much to do, and so spend all of their time in frivolous pursuits like reading about old magics, and talking about old magics, and holding sessions about magics and writing great essays about the history of magic, but never actually doing any magic themselves. Until Mr Norrell comes in and changes all that by, I dunno, actually doing some of things they all read and discuss at length. But Norrell is just as ineffectual as everyone else, and the focus of all the action is not about the magic, or the Napoleonic wars, or the machinations of the fairies, or anything of the slightest bit of actual INTEREST. Rather, it focuses on how prissy and shallow and pompous everyone is.

I get that this is supposed to be a comedy. It’s just a type of comedy I find boring to the highest degree. A bunch of befuddled idiots faffing about because they’ve got way too much time and money? I realize this is a popular British thing, a sort of Comedy of Manners or something, and I’ve always found it stupid. This was just like all those. The only thing it did was convince me that all landed gentry need to be rounded up and executed for extracting the wealth of the working class to chase their own worthless follies. We (in the US) didn’t revolt hard enough, dammit. There’s still nobles left!

I read for several hundred pages. Nothing happened. In a book with fairies and the Napoleonic wars! And I didn’t even get halfway through this brick.

The worst part was the teasing. The novel is always right on the edge of interesting. I was always sure that on the next page, or maybe just in the next chapter, something really cool was going to happen. All these neat things are shown just enough to get our attention, and then quickly buried under more tomfoolery with manners and courtesies and being stymied by someone’s utter lack of proper decorum! Until eventually I lost all hope, I realized nothing would ever be fulfilled and I was just being strung along, and I gave up in disgust.

I realize some people find this sort of thing delightful. Some insane reviewer said ‘How can a book of over 800 pages still be too short?’ (paraphrased), because I guess if you love nothing happen it can very well keep not happening forever. But I’m not one of those people. Yeesh.

Nov 162018
 

This is the spoiler post for Circe, which talks about everything, but specifically the ending.

If you don’t want spoilers, don’t continue.

 

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As I said in my review, I viewed the gods within Circe as a metaphor for The Patriarchy. Circe explores just about every method a woman can use to deal with a Patriarchal society.

She starts out fawning and eager to please. Seeking approval from her father, as if this would provide some sort of protection and security. She sees first hand that this does nothing. A powerless person has nothing to offer and nothing to bargain with. Scylla, the beloved, is mocked with delight by her family when she’s turned into a monster. Circe’s mother is cast aside without a thought when her coupling with Helios proves politically troublesome. Being someone’s pet is terribly insecure, and pretty shitty anyhow.

She tries to be the good wife for her fisherman. She makes him happy, supports him, and eventually elevates him to godhood. And the instant he doesn’t need her anymore, she’s tossed aside as well. Without even the recognition that she’s done anything.

She tries to check out of the system entirely. Exile to an isolated island, just leave her alone. Nope, no can do. The system comes for you, and it will use you how it sees fit.

Then we have a wonderful dialog with her cruel half-sister. The sister points out that she makes poisons and monsters because if she didn’t she would be kept in a cage and bred to death. The system wants to use her up and discard her, and the only way she can live a decent life is to take power. To bend the world to her will through force and cruelty. It’s a wonderful revelation, and it shows just how shitty the Patriarchy is for everyone, even those on top.

We have a similar revelation about Odysseus much later. Where we see first his charming, warm side. And later the cold, violent side, which he was shaped into via this shit-ass system. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

For a while she rages against men, and it’s very emotionally satisfying for the reader, but it leaves her bitter and unhappy with life. Then she finds Odysseus, one of the few good ones, and for a year she’s happy. But eventually the gods catch up with her and ruin that, too. (Also, he wasn’t that great after all… just better than most). She goes into full defensive mode, putting up a wall between herself and the rest of society. And that actually works, for quite a while! But it’s constant effort, and it drains her strength year after year, and if she ever slips for even a second it’ll all come crashing down. This is not sustainable.

So she decides this has to end. She has the most powerful magic in the world on her side. She’s smart as fuck, and she’s had more than enough of this shit. She calls her father down and has the most epic verbal show down with him. She dares him to test her power. She states she would rather ignite a war between the gods and see the world burn than be at their mercy any longer. She renounces her heritage, thinks of gods as “them” rather than “us”, declares that “I’m finished here, one way or another.”

The novel’s inciting incident was the chaining & torture of Prometheus. His rebellion against the gods and compassion for the downtrodden have been a recurring element during the narration. Now, in the final chapters, Circe is armed with a weapon even the gods fear, and she goes on a quest to retrieve the most powerful magical components in existence. I am so fucking happy at this time, because we are about to see some amazing shit. The world will be sundered, and the gods cast down. The Patriarchy will be smashed, and it sounds like Circe may very well die in the process, but fuck them all, it’ll be worth it! The heavens themselves will shake!

To step back just a bit, I didn’t actually expect all that to happen. It was pretty clear that the system is just too big for one person to destroy, even with the world’s most powerful magic. Much like the Patriarchy can’t actually be smashed. But there were hints throughout, hints that the world could be split somehow, and Circe could leave this world behind and enter a better one.

It turns out, Circe does leave this world behind. By committing suicide.

After all that, all her rage and learning and growth and fighting, she ultimately decides to just give up and kill herself.

WHAT. THE. EVER. LIVING. FUCK.

After all the compassion she’s shown for humans (or “everyone else trapped in the Patriarchy” if we’re extending the metaphor), after all her admiration of Prometheus for sacrificing himself so completely to make their lives less awful, she decides everyone else can fend for their fucking selves and she’s just going to nope the fuck out. After all her words about how she won’t put up with the gods’ abuse anymore, she surrenders so utterly that she kills herself for them so they don’t even have to inconvenience themselves with the effort. When she said “I’m finished here, one way or another,” I thought she meant that either this system would end, or she would die fighting it, not that she was abandoning everything. How are we supposed to sympathize with this? How is any of this OK?

To those saying that gods are inhumane because they are inhuman, and becoming humane means one must become human – bullshit. We have proof in the forms of both Prometheus and Circe that one can be a god and be compassionate and humane. To those saying “becoming mortal isn’t suicide” – bullshit. For a god it’s as much suicide as a human deciding to drink themselves to death over the course of years. And in both cases it’s cowardly. And the flash-forward dream-sequence final chapter lingers quite a bit on her eventual death anyway, like that’s the best part of being human. It is a suicide, and it is cowardice. I would have preferred no final chapter at all, an abrupt ending would at least have let me continue believing Circe was a good, courageous person.

Bleh.

Nov 152018
 

Circe, by Madeline Miller

Synopsis: Like Wicked, except for the witch who turned Odysseus’s men into pigs.

Book Review: One of the best things I’ve read this year, right up until the final chapter, which face-plants so hard I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

The novel starts out somewhat slow and a little clunky, IMO, so I wasn’t really sold at first. The story starts with a confused young geek with a good heart constantly being rebuffed and rejected by a world obsessed with superficiality and pettiness, which I’ve seen many times before. But Circe continues to try new and varied techniques to deal with her social situation and her world, growing with each one. So what starts out as a flat character blossoms before our eyes into someone ever more complicated and interesting. She gains knowledge, insight, and awesome magic powers, and yet constantly fails in new, increasingly awful ways. Her occasional victories are all the more sweet for it.

The scene with Odysseus himself is particularly delicious. The characters in conflict have meta-knowledge of each others’ knowledge and destructive powers which they can’t acknowledge, which results in a riveting verbal dance of wit and power dynamics that thrilled me. And far later in the book, when one comes to learn more of Odysseus and his motivations, everything is recast in a new light that still leaves one with admiration, but now tinged with a deep distaste that leaves a complex swirl of emotions in your mind.

What I’m saying is, this is a good book.

By the time we get to the end we have a deep world of screwed up incentives and abusive power structures. And somewhere along the way, I came to realize that the gods and their dynamics are basically a reflection on The Patriarchy. How it scars and abuses both men and women, and flattens all sexual relationships into ugly exchanges. Or at least, that was my take. And rising up through it all is Circe, the outcast, refusing to play that fucked-up game. Right up until the last chapter I was sure this was going to be the best and most memorable thing I’ve read in years.

And then the last chapter was such an unspeakable disappointment that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. How could something this good throw it all away in the end, and turn into such crap? I haven’t been this upset by squandered potential since the Phantom Menace.

Obviously I can’t get into details without massive spoilers. So later today or tomorrow I’ll post a spoiler post discussing why the ending failed so terribly.

But all that said… the entire journey up until the last chapter was worth it. Recommended!

Book Club Review: This book has a lot going for it. It’s relatively short, and quick to read. It’s a dang good book in its own right. And it is likely to spark quite a bit of discussion among a group. Conversation on the nature of gods and archetypes, and the interplay between the inhumane and becoming human. A member of my book club had a very different interpretation of what the gods represent, and what the overall arch of the story was, which led him to find the ending entirely acceptable. We got a lot out of this one, and there wasn’t a single person who didn’t find the novel immersive and enjoyable. Highly Recommended.

Oct 312018
 

Pandora’s Star, by Peter Hamilton

Synopsis: When an enormous force field envelopes a nearby star, humanity send an exploration ship to investigate.

Book Review: This was an interesting exercise for me, as I first read this book near its original publishing date, so 2004/2005. Rereading it now put into focus many of the ways my tastes have changed, as well ways that the world has changed.

For example, in the first chapter we follow an astronaut participating humanity’s first manned flight to Mars. In my first reading, all I could see was the glory and grandeur of this feat! The event itself is what held my attention. In my re-read, I noticed for the first time that the astronaut is written to be a bit of a prick. He’s arrogant and self-centered. I was reading him for the first time as a person of his own, rather than as an insert for me as I was experiencing the awesomeness of landing on Mars.

In the second chapter, a professor basically puts his entire life on hold in a long-con-style escapade to be the first to publish on the force field event. I was amazed at how long he delayed, how many years of his life were diverted into this effort. I would have just gone public with my observation looooong before reaching that goal. Except when I reread it, it turns out that super-long delay was only eight months. Eight months! Nowadays I fart and eight months blow by, how could it have seemed like such a long time when I was younger?

Anyway, young-me loved this book. I’ve kept my physical copy all these years, through a dozen-ish moves. It takes the idea of human-created wormholes and develops it to a fantastic extent. Hamilton has thought through what it would mean for transportation (everything travels everywhere by rail now!), exploration, government, colonization, etc. It finds all the ways that humans would use, abuse, and break this technology, and touches on all of them.

Hamilton is also very good with his physics. The science is hard, the speed of light is never forgotten, and so forth. This makes for some extremely satisfying competence-porn in several occasions, as characters in crisis situations use tech and science we’re familiar with in new and innovative ways to solve problems. It feels fair every time, and ingenious, and gives one the thrill of seeing that sort of smart problem-solving.

Also, the aliens are really, truly alien. The book is probably worth it for their chapters alone.

On the other hand, present-me had several problems with the book.

For starters, it’s really over-written. There are entire subplots and characters which simply don’t do anything, and could probably be taken out entirely. There are scenes that feel like they could’ve been wrapped up in a few paragraphs rather than taking many pages. The physical descriptions of locations and actions is at times exhaustive, without great reason, and I found myself skipping a lot of it. Yes, it’s worldbuilding. But often was worldbuilding for it’s own sake, rather than in service of another goal, and while many people love worldbuilding by itself, I am not one of those people.

Secondly, basically none of the characters are sympathetic. Ozzie starts out that way, and is the most relatable, but even he loses his luster after a time. Myo starts out cold, but slowly grows on you, to an extent. Most everyone else is unpleasant, and I found myself disliking them.

Thirdly, while the implications of a technology are extrapolated greatly, this does not happen with society, or with people in general. This is a tech & plot story, rather than a character story. It made everything feel somewhat… distant. Impersonal?

Finally, the sexual stuff in this novel is just weird. It feels like it came out of golden-age SF. The men use their power/information to get sex. The women use sex to get power/information. Most jarringly, at one point Ozzie and his young tagalong kid are mistaken for lovers. The intense awkwardness that this sparks is due to the fact that someone thought they were gay. Ozzie coulda just dropped “No homo!” for how quickly he skittered away from that. But neither Ozzie nor the lady who mistook him for gay seem to have the slightest problem with the fact that Ozzie’s supposed-lover is a 15 year old boy. Like, no one seemed to notice or care that he’d just been called a pedophile. WTF?

All in all, I was far more into this novel as a younger man. I think I read books differently now, more like I’m reading about other people rather than as self-insert stories. And I’m far less interested in world-building. It was mentioned in the book club that this felt similar to “Rendezvous at Rama” or “Ringworld,” neither of which I have read. This is probably a great book for people who love those sorts of books. Yet I still have fond memories of how much I loved this, and it does have quite a few cool parts, and an interesting world! I guess, ultimately, this would have been significantly more interesting if I was reading it for the first time, rather than rereading and already knowing what was coming. I can’t say with certainty that I’d recommend it to a present-day-me who hasn’t read it… but I might. So… Mildly Recommended?

Book Club Review: This thing is huge. It’s nearly 1000 pages, which is why we split it in two to ready over two sessions. And it’s still only half the story, because the story continues on to be concluded in Judas Unchained. I know there are people that like super-long fiction for its own sake, but having something this long does suppress turnout somewhat.

Aside from that, it was fairly interesting to talk about. It’s a real mixed bag of things that kinda rub one the wrong way, and things that are really fun and interesting. There’s something for everyone to like, and something for everyone to dislike, and the discussion of where those coincide and where they differ was cool. And because the book is so damn big, you probably won’t run out of material. On the other hand (again), none of the things brought up were deeply thought-provoking or personality-exploring. Which, of course, not every book can be, or even wants to be. So it was fun, but not exceptionally so. I’m not sure how my past memories are coloring my judgement, but I guess, Mildly Recommended as well.

Oct 242018
 

tl;dr – I’m publishing a novel at www.WhatLiesDreaming.com. It’s Lovecraftian fantasy in 2nd century Rome, updating weekly on Sundays. Chapter 1 drops on 11/11/18. There are 44 chapters in total. I based it on a story I wrote a few years ago, but I would NOT recommend reading that story now, as it contains huge spoilers.

 

I wrote the short story “Of All Possible Worlds” in early 2015. I wrote it hoping to win a spot in an anthology looking for Lovecraftian fiction in pre-gunpowder settings, called “Swords v Cthulhu.” Inspired by Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast, specifically his “Fall of the Roman Republic” arc, and Sister Y’s hypothesized Transdimensional Justice Monster, I wrote a story set in Imperial Rome.

“Swords v Cthulhu” capped all stories at 5,000 words. When I was about 3,000 words in, I realized that I was barely 1/3rd of the way into my story. I cut entire scenes, including a sub-plot and an entire character, because I really wanted into this anthology. My final draft was still nearly 1000 words over, so I cut worldbuilding and condensed detail, and finally squeaked in at just a couple words under 5000.

This was well worth the effort. Not only did I get into the anthology, but one of the editors gushed about how fantastic this story was. The book came out in August of 2016, and I was contacted a few months after that by the editor of Wilde Stories–the annual anthology of the Year’s Best Gay Speculative Fiction. The story was reprinted in Wilde Stories 2017.

I was elated, and not only due to the great reception. I had so much more I wanted to say in that story, and so much more I could do with it. The most terrifying thing for me, as a new writer, was the idea of writing a novel that no one wanted. A novel is a huge project for a part-time writer, over a year of concentrated effort, and no way to know ahead of time if it was worth all that pain. This validation was like a giant green light. “People like this story! Write the rest of it now!”

And so I did. I labored over this manuscript for a year and a half. I submitted all of to my writing group and spent several more months revising and rewriting. Our group’s head, Nebula-award winning author Ed Bryant, at one point called it “Bravara writing!”, which helped more than words can say.

It’s been well over a year since I finished this novel. I have a lot of faith in it. I wrestled for quite a while with the publishing options available. In the end, I’m going to go with the time-honored Rationalist tradition of serially publishing fiction online, a chapter at a time. My reading experience of HPMoR and Unsong was drastically improved by reading along with everyone else as chapters came out, and I really enjoy that format. I’d like to do it with something of mine a well. :)

The novel is titled “What Lies Dreaming.” Chapter 1 will drop on November 11th, at www.WhatLiesDreaming.com. Every Sunday another chapter comes out, until all forty-four are up. The novel is broken up into eight sections, each corresponding to one day in-story. Around the time we reach the last “day”, I’ll release the full book for purchase, both in ebook and paper options, should one wish to purchase it.

I’ll also have a Patreon up. There’s no need to support via Patreon, but anyone who does gets chapters one week early at the $1/month tier, and access to the Discord server. At higher tiers people can get access to Author’s Notes, some non-canon deleted content (including one full chapter that was cut), getting to read an entire “day” when the first chapter of that day releases, signed physical copies of the book when it becomes available, etc. None of these are needed to enjoy the story, but I want to offer them as extra thanks to anyone willing to support the arts.

A note about the story that served as the jumping off point for What Lies Dreaming: I would recommend NOT going back to re-read or re-listen to it. While the main storyline has been somewhat altered, and expanded upon greatly, the short story does include massive spoilers for the novel. If you have read the short story, please don’t drop spoilers for those who haven’t.

 

Oct 152018
 

Hyperion, by Dan Simmons

Synopsis: Seven pilgrims journey to a distant world, to visit a mysterious murder-alien who is rumored to grant wishes… or kill you.

Another book I’d been hearing about for forever. Turns out that yeah, this is a damn masterpiece of science fiction.

The novel has a primary storyline, concerning the pilgrimage. However the bulk of the text is the pilgrims tell their life-stories to each other in self-contained novelettes. Each of these novelettes is written in a different style, with a different theme. This allows Simmons to show off his range and versatility, and gives us a rich sampler platter of story-types to read. There’s xeno-exploration, military fic, Poe-style poetic tragedy, family drama, etc. All of them strongly SF-flavored. Each of these novelettes (with one exception) is a deeply engrossing story in its own right, with great character and world building, and engrossing plots. But the really masterful part is the way that all these individual novelettes build up the wider universe that the primary story takes place in. You quickly begin to see hidden actions and associations between the novelettes that isn’t very significant within a single novelette, but that are obviously connected and draw a much larger picture of what’s happening in the world when taken together. It’s telling a meta-story behind/within all the smaller human-scale stories the pilgrims are relating.

Taken together like this, we readers see an epic storyline unfolding from the various pieces we’re given. The feeling that comes with slowly realizing what’s happening is fantastic, and very rare. The only book I can easily recall pulling off something similar was Vellum, though the revelation in Use of Weapons was similar, if smaller scale. This is a hell of a feat for an author, and an absolute delight for a reader. I don’t want to over-hype the book, but it is really good, and you should read it if you haven’t yet.

A couple notes: The book is named for an abandoned epic-poem by Keats, and both Keats and the poem are referenced several times within the novel. I looked up the poem, and while I didn’t read it (cuz I suck at poetry), I did read about it, and seeing the deliberate parallels between the two works made the reading process even more enjoyable. Simmons is mirroring the themes in Keats’ poem in an SF setting, and it works.

Also, the reason I read this when I did was because I’ve started listening to the Doofcast, and this was their September Book Club book. They do a long dive into it in their episode, with many cool insights, and I think it makes a great companion. However it is full of spoilers, so wait until after you’ve finished the book. Shout-out and thanks to them for pushing me to do this, or it might have been several more years before I got around to it.

Absolutely Recommended.

Oct 022018
 

Any synopsis would be spoilery. These are books 2 and 3 of Terra Ignota. If you liked Too Like The Lightning (book 1 of Terra Ignota), you will continue to like these. They’re really good. If you haven’t read any yet, see my post on Too Like The Lightning, or my interview with Ada Palmer.

This review kinda contains some spoilers, in a general sense, but nothing that isn’t already strongly telegraphed in the first book.

The more I read about today’s Culture Wars, the more I see Terra Ignota in everything around me. When I started Too Like The Lightning, I thought this was a wonderfully built future world. Fabulously imagined, meticulously built up in many layers across wide domains, and incredibly imaginative. Now I read it and I think “Holy fucking shit, this is the world we are living in right now, with the skin changed so that observations on the current day can be made through metaphor.” And yes, I know that all fiction is contemporary. I know that SF/F has been used since its very first works to actually be conversations about pressing current-day issues that pretends to be fanciful so it can say things one couldn’t say otherwise. But it still startled me just how insightful these works are when I woke up to what was happening around me.

The hives are our cultural tribes taken to their fullest extreme. One of our great problems today is that our geographic nations rule greatly disparate cultural tribes under a single government, binding them all with laws that are morally unacceptable to every one of them (although which laws it is are that are morally unacceptable differs from group to group, so everyone despises some thing, but never the same thing, and often what one group considers morally abominable is a moral requirement of others!). This leads to constant struggle to seize power and rewrite the laws (and norms) binding everyone, and thus The Culture Wars. This is exactly the situation in the Terra Ignota series, except they’ve found a way to prevent anyone from having to live under laws they find morally abhorrent. Problem solved!

Except not really, because all this did was paper over the problem and tell everyone it’s fixed, so we should all ignore it. The root cause, the incompatibility of the cultures, is still present. It continues to cause social strife and conflict, so that it can only be averted by a global regime of full surveillance and preventative assassination.

Let’s also take a moment to admire how Palmer included the parallel social construct of suppressing all gender expression. She says on more than one occasion, both within the books themselves, and in interviews, that she is portraying a society that went post-gender badly. Instead of resolving the sex divide, everyone simply agreed to remove any acknowledgement of gender and pretend this fixed the problem. It leads to deep pathologies within society, as well as individual defenselessness to sexual desires and sexual predators. This is the exact same tactic that was used to “resolve” the culture wars. I didn’t realize it while reading the novels, but in retrospect it’s so obvious it’s blinding. Palmer is yelling “Hey, society! Stop burying problems and pretending they don’t exist! Actually solve this shit!!”

She seems to be less than hopeful as to what will happen to us if we don’t. The society of Terra Ignota is descending into full civil war. A vicious, terrible war, because there are no borders, and thus there is no place that is safe. Every combatant lives interspersed with the enemy at all times. There’s a lot of people in the US worried that we’re heading for a Civil War II. We would find ourselves in the same situation. Sharing our grocery stores, our subways, and our neighborhoods with filthy Alt-Righters, Social Justice Activists, Rationalists, etc.

I also want to take a moment to highlight how damned prophetic Palmer is. She started writing this series in 2008. 2008!!! When I heard that I asked “Waitaminit… you were already writing the post-gender They/Them world in 2008? I know I haven’t been on college campuses in quite a while, but that seems really freakin’ early! I’m not totally out of touch, and this has only been a thing for a few years now. Was this already a thing where you were in 2008?” She replied, with some exasperation, “No! It came out in 2016 and people were all ‘oh, she’s jumping on this gender bandwagon’ but I totally want credit for coming up with it way before that!” And first of all – mad props to her for just that. But think about what she’s done. Combining historical insights and the subtle interactions she saw building in the world around her in 2008, she created a world that reflected the most pressing cultural issues of ten years in the future before any of us were even near that stage. Back when we were still freaking out about the worldwide financial collapse and catching Bin Laden. I know it’s partly luck, but even so, it’s damned prescient. I am honestly shocked.

And as frustrating as it must be to have your book in limbo for years before it finally makes it to print, I think it may have been a boon in this case. Five years ago, we didn’t know this was the world we were living in. It may not have made this same impact, and drawn this much attention.

Or who knows, maybe it would have. Maybe we could have more clearly seen what was coming, and been better able deal with its unpleasant surprises. I don’t think most people are quite that insightful. I certainly wouldn’t have been. Hell, I didn’t even fully realize what was happening when I read these two books a few months ago.

If you are at all interested in the world around you, or how truly exceptional SF can be more historically relevant than anything in the New York Times: Highly Recommended.

(added: a few hours after I wrote this, I discovered Ada has launched a Kickstarter to fund a lecture & discussion series on Censorship & Information Control In Information Revolutions, should you be interested in that as well)


Sep 252018
 

The last few months I’ve had some time to read a few books outside of book club (*gasp!*), and I’ve decided I might as well post a few thoughts about them. They aren’t full book club reviews, but they’re something.

Walkaway, by Cory Doctorow

Synopsis: A society on the edge of breaking into both post-scarcity and transhumanism suffers intense adjustment shocks.

This is an intensely interesting look at the border state of a capitalist society turning into a post-scarcity one, and the potential conflict that could engender as people struggle to make the switch. One might not think it’d be that hard to switch to not laboring for anything once machines can do it, but the values of the work ethic and earning one’s keep can be really hard to transmute into something that doesn’t judge people for not working. The portrayal of a society struggling between such fundamentally opposed ideologies is very compelling, and that alone would be enough to entice me. But on top of all that, the human race starts dipping its toes into transhumanism here, struggling to create/stabilize the first uploaded humans, and that parallel storyline is fascinating as well, if perhaps not as integral to the plot.

Ultimately, this is an idea-novel. It has a lot of big ideas it wants to talk about, and it wraps those within an interesting storyline about rebellion and growth. The story works well enough, but it’s not the main attraction, and I could tell that in the reading. There are many occasions where characters monologue or dialog about ethics or economics (and usually both). It’s basically transhumanist punk message fic. Which is fine with me, I enjoy message fic! :) I really enjoyed Atlas Shrugged, and The Golden Compass, and several of John C Wright works, and so on. I consider message fic to be both fun, inspiring, and motivational, even when I disagree with the message! Assuming that it’s well done message fic. Walkaway isn’t as well done as the ones I’ve named, but it’s still pretty darn good. Recommended.

As a note, this book is heavily inspired by the post-scarcity community at Burning Man. Doctorow attends at least sometimes (I got the book from him there in 2017, when he gave me an audio version on USB), and if you’ve been before you’ll recognize a lot of the ethos, as well as great heaps of the jargon! It provided me with a sense of familiarity. Although it also meant I was constantly visualizing everyone in the Nevada desert rather than the Canada wilds. At least, up until the blizzards became a plot point.

Sep 212018
 

This post has spoilers that go right up to the last few chapters of Downbelow Station.

 

So don’t read it if you don’t want spoilers! Big ones!

 

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Now that that’s out of the way, also a content warning – this post talks about rape. Although that itself isn’t a spoiler, since the alluded-to rape happens in the first few chapters. But it’s another possible reason not to read this.

 

Early in the book, a character (Josh) is taken as prisoner of war by a warship captain (Mallory) and used as a sex slave during his captivity. He is clearly raped by her, seemingly multiple times, before being left at Downbelow Station. He’s damaged by this, and later in the novel when Mallory returns, makes an attempt to murder her in revenge.

Later on, Mallory begins a redemption arc. She’s shown to be one of the least bad captains, given the situation. In the end, she breaks from the fleet admiral and turns on her former comrades in order to save the station and save the lives of tens of thousands of civilians that were to be slaughtered. It’s a great emotional moment, which builds for chapters as we see more and more injustice through Mallory’s eyes, and feel her silently raging against it, until she realizes the holocaust that’s about to take place and simply cannot stomach to accept orders anymore. We readers are very glad she switches sides and comes to the rescue. However it occurred to me as I was reading it that if this had been a male captain who had raped a female sex slave in the early chapters of the book, I wouldn’t be even a fraction as accepting of this redemption arc. I might accept it grudgingly, because preventing holocausts is a good thing. But I’d be angry with the author and wondering what the hell they are trying to pull. As it was, I was only really uncomfortable and struggling with this dissonance.

Then, in the last chapters, Josh returns to Mallory and volunteers to join her crew. And is accepted. He is now part of a family, content to be a crew member of the captain who raped him repeatedly. If this was a male captain and a female character going back to him in kinship, I would have thrown the book across the fucking room and cursed the fucking author. Disgusting, and unbelievable, and infuriating. As it was, I was again only uncomfortable… and now REALLY struggling with the fact that I feel that I should be outraged, but I’m just kinda fucked up instead.

Why the hell are the two situations so different? I did, of course, turn to rationalization right away. Men are less likely to contract STIs from women. Men can’t get pregnant, the most horrific STI of all. Men raped by women are far less likely to by physically damaged by the act. Men do not suffer the stigma and (depending on the society) loss of status of being “impure” or “dirtied” by the act.

However the violation of bodily autonomy is just as present. The helplessness of being an object used by someone else is just as damaging. It was still rape, after all. Shouldn’t I be just as outraged? I should be enraged that this character could be portrayed as forgiving and living with (and under the command of) his rapist.

I’m still not sure what to make of all this. I don’t have any statements or conclusions to make. I’m just expressing my own discomfort with my non-equal emotional reactions in this post. I think that Cherryh was wise to choose the sexes of Josh/Mallory as she did, because this would have been unacceptable to most audiences if written with their sexes swapped. But, OTOH, it probably would have also been written very differently if their sexes were swapped, and likely would have resolved in a completely different way. So the fact that we are more willing to accept it written this way says something about us. With this subplot, Cherryh has held up a mirror to me, and shown me an aspect of myself I was unaware of. And done that to our society as a whole, I venture. That’s good writing.

Still weirded out by myself, though.

Sep 192018
 

Downbelow Station, by C.J. Cherryh

Synopsis: A neutral outpost is drawn into a war between two vastly more powerful adversaries, threatening everything they believe and ultimately their existence.

Book Review: For a book published in 1981, this is still a surprisingly relevant story! It starts with a refugee crisis, one infinitely more interesting and well-represented than whatever Exit West was trying to do. It shows the moral difficulty of the situation, displaying both the injustice and despair of the abused refugees, and the societal problems and resource constraints experienced by the pre-existing population. One of our heroes even begins to fantasize of atrocity to solve this problem.

This deep understanding and unguarded presentation of all sides continues through-out the book. Cherryh presents real people with compelling views among all sides, which I greatly admire in fiction. While there are some villains, the biggest true villain is the specter of war itself, and the horrors it brings. When an antagonist looks poised to take control of the station, all I could think was “Yes! Please let him do a good job of this! I don’t care who controls the station just so long as we can avoid the ravages of warfare.” This is good writing.

The station itself reminded me of Renaissance-era city-states. Geographically small, dependent upon the laborers of the lands around them to survive, with politics ruled by strong families that often have bitter rivalries among them. Betrayal and intrigue is the order of the day, but in the end it is the city that is the most important thing, rather than any individual person or family. I loved it.

Maybe it’s not a perfect book… the protagonists are slightly too Paladin-like for my tastes. The innocent pre-civilization aliens that work with the humans are just over-the-top innocent and sweet and helpful, going beyond even the caricature of the Noble Savage. But nonetheless, this is a fantastic novel. It was never slow, never anything but supremely written, and I cared for the station and what was happening on the next page. The structure of the novel, written in many places as a series of vignettes that show how major political decisions affect the day-to-day lives of the small people on the ground, as well as the outcomes of flashy space-battles, was exquisite. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

I’m reading Hyperion in my free time right now as well, and these two books together are making me reconsider my reading strategy. Rather than chasing the shiny new thing, which often disappoints, I am beginning to think I really should focus on reading through all the books that I hear many times, from multiple sources, are amazing. Seminal works, things considered classics of the genre, and so forth.

Recommended!

Book Club Review: Also a great book club book. There is much to talk about, and everyone will find something to love. In addition to asking if ideals can survive the necessities of a callous world, the book raises several moral questions that will likely get people talking. I’ll be writing about one tomorrow, but it’s hell of a spoiler, so I’m not including it in this review. If your book club is willing to have conversations on difficult issues without good resolutions, this is a great starting point. And even if they aren’t, it’s still a good book which will be enjoyed and bring discussion with it. Recommended.