Feb 132018
 

John Dies At The End, by David Wong

Synopsis: Two small-town slackers trip into combating universe-devouring elder beings, with plenty of jaded humor along the way. Kinda a cross between Clerks and Buffy.

Book Review: An odd duck, in that this was originally a web-serial rather than a novel, much like Wool and The Martian. As such, it doesn’t really feel like a cohesive whole. It’s not a single grand arc, inasmuch as it’s a series of related short stories that follow the same characters. This causes it to sag in a few places, but the strength of the individual stories is strong enough to overcome this artifact of its production.

I really liked this novel, and that might be because it’s aimed squarely at my generation. It’s a horror novel that points out the horror of our existence in a universe that is ultimately and inalienably built upon the application of violence. It made me viscerally feel why a greater being would want to destroy this reality, filled with suffering and predation and horrible tiny things tearing at each other for their entire existence. In real life I basically ignore my non-veganism as much as possible, but Wong reminded me how disgusted it would make something better than us when it sees humans digesting the flesh of other sentients.

The novel reacts to this awful state of affairs the way many of us have been for a while now–absurdist acceptance. Because we have no other choice. We embrace jaded humor, acknowledge this sucks, and get on with things anyway. Wubbalubba dub dub. It’s not the soaring transhuman defiance I prefer, nor even the rage-filled lashing out against the unacceptable that also excites me, but it’s not an uncommon reaction. Many readers will probably know David Wong from his stint at Cracked, where he wrote (among other things) one of the first the highly insightful explanation of what Trump provides to the half of the electorate that voted for him. This novel gives the reader a strong emotional taste of what living in Desolate America feels like. The small-town poverty. The grinding hopelessness. The fact that no one cares. What else can you do in the face of that? What difference does an extra World-Eating Horror or two make? It’s a novel of despair, and enduring through it is the only victory you get, even if it’s a shitty one.

It’s also well-written, really neat in several places, and makes you think in several others. Near the end it really threw a wrench in my view of my own sub-culture, in a way that I didn’t expect. It did it in a way that only good speculative fiction can do, by reframing everything you know in an alien context. And it was enjoyable to read throughout, even with some terminology that dates it (and makes me wonder what term we use casually now will become a slur in ten years? “Insane”, maybe?) Recommended!

Book Club Review: A good book for discussion. The social commentary is more buried than I like it, with most of the focus on action and humor, so you gotta dig for the morsels. But that also makes it more readable for people less like me. :) But they are still there. And the overall theme of the novel can get you talking about culture in small-town America, which is interesting, especially if some members of your book club hail from there. You get to learn several new things. Also opinions tended to be a bit scattered, with some people liking this significantly less than others, which leads to multiple views being explored. The biggest drawback is the occasional sagging sections I mentioned above, which can lose some readers. But overall, this went over well. Recommended.

Jan 252018
 

This is still not a proper review like I usually do, because I couldn’t make it to our book club meeting again. A close friend got in a car accident not an hour before book club was to start, and I rushed over to help them and get them to the hospital and all that. They are fine physically, although the financial blow is going to suck. :/ And of course I didn’t get to discuss all the beauty and wonder that is Borne with my homies!

But here’s a few quick things anyway.

Synopsis – in a post-apocalyptic world were humanity is slowly dying out, our protagonist finds a new form of life (“Borne”) that she raises from infancy into adulthood.

Review – Gorgeous. Just fantastic. First, Borne is a Data-type character (overly literal and doesn’t understand how humans work. See also Spock, Anya (from Buffy), Castiel (from Supernatural), etc. I love these sorts of characters, and so this had my heart very quickly.

Secondly, the whole novel was so beautifully written that it was almost a book of poetry. This is what master-class word-smithing looks like. Polished, precise, perfect. And the emotion throughout was heart-breaking. As the humans died out and saw themselves being replaced by the things that come next, the ones that are suited for this world, the bug-eye children and bears and foxes and Bornes… it felt like a story of the old generation dying, and seeing the new generation coming up to take their place. An old woman passing the torch to her young granddaughter. Whose values she can barely recognize as her own. But what can you do? The world isn’t for you anymore. Sooooo pretty.

As usual, VanderMeer doesn’t quite hit the ending. Most (all?) of his novels don’t end in so much as they peter out and kinda grind to a halt. This was no exception. Still, totally worth it. Recommended.

Notes from others – I did briefly chat with a couple members from my book club later on. Not a full-fledged meeting, but there was an interesting counterpoint brought up: The world doesn’t make sense. There was no world-building done, and it shows. To quote:

“We’re told they’re mostly scavengers, but what are they looking for? Nobody hunts or finds canned goods or grows anything; what do they eat? …VanderMeer never even tries to convince me anyone would ever have thought it was a good idea to create a giant man-eating flying bear and a zillion regular-sized poisonous bears, he just wants to have them roaming about.”

etc.

This is all true, but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the novel. I think there’s a couple reasons why.

First, I’ve come to expect it from VanderMeer. All his novels are equally incoherent, just with various levels of hand-waving, which has gotten progressively thinner. He basically eschewed the handwaving entirely for his latest, and he led me down the path to accepting this via reading his works in published order. Oops. Also, by starting right off with something as ridiculous as a giant, flying bear, and simply having us accept it or not, he smashed through the “this is supposed to make sense” barrier right at the front. So afterwards I was willing to go with basically whatever.

Secondly, this is one of those lyrical works that doesn’t try to build a coherent or realistic world, it just tries to evoke a particular sentiment in the reader. Many of Cat Valente’s works do the same thing, and I love those just as much. Heck, I even enjoyed the most recent Star Wars, and that has so much buffoonery that you have to actively repress your brain in order to not sprain something. I appreciate works that do put in the work of making a coherent universe much more. Perdido Street Station is in my Top 5 books, and Borne is not, and this is part of why. But I guess I don’t always require it to still enjoy the story. You can get away with a lot, for me, by being pretty.

But this may not appeal to rationalists due to the non-care for world building, so use your best judgement there. :)

I can’t give it a book club yay/nay, as I wasn’t there and don’t know how conversation went.

 

Dec 302017
 

I actually had some time to read a few books outside of book club in the past couple months. So here’s a quick review of each. They aren’t the full reviews I normally do, because it just doesn’t feel the same without the book club chiming in. Plus, I don’t know if they’d turn out to be good/bad book club books (I’ve been surprised before, in both directions. Heck, see The Emperor’s Blades most recently for one such example). But here’s a few thoughts!

Europe In Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson

It’s been a really long time since I read ugly prose. So long, in fact, that I forgot what it was like. Then I picked up Europe In Autumn. Regardless of it’s other strengths of flaws, the prose in this really is just plain ugly. I don’t need everything to be Cat Valente-style gorgeous, but man, put in some effort to make the words not gross! Everything sentence is flat and just flops there. Descriptions are more often lists of things/characteristics than anything that evokes a visual or an emotion. Maybe it makes me shallow to be turned off by ugly prose, but… ugh.

Also, I couldn’t give two shits about the character or the plot. At first it was neat to see things in my native Polish, and the novelty of that carried me for a while. But by the time we get to the third boring description of a smuggling/infiltration going wrong we still have no reason to care about whether it goes wrong or not. There’s no stakes for the protagonist, it seems like he fell into this line of work because he was bored with his old job, but finds this one just as dreary. If he fails, what does he lose? What does he gain? Are there any consequences for anyone? For the world? Even if there were, do we care? The answer to all of these is “no.” Or it was for me, anyway.

I guess there’s some sort of alternate reality/hidden world thing going on once you get 3/4ths of the way through the book, but I barely made it 25% of the way through. I have no faith that it would be interesting enough to slog through this. Not Recommended.

The Causal Angel, by Hannu Rajaniemi

The final novel in the Quantum Thief trilogy, and a fantastic finish!

I’ve raved about the previous two books in the trilogy, and Causal Angel doesn’t disappoint. The books just keep getting more and more epic, with Quantum Thief being somewhat local, mostly confined to one city, Fractal Prince expanding to cover the fate of the inner system, and Causal Angel tackling the ultimate fate of humanity and the observable universe.

Things keep getting more bombastic too, with ever-larger things exploding ever more frequently, more harrowing escapes, and more personal sacrifices in every book. By the time I was in the last quarter of the book I couldn’t stop reading, and stayed up waaaaay too late.

Also, I know I mentioned this before, but Rajaniemi is our people. The books are transhuman from the very beginning, fully embracing emulated minds and their consequences from page 1, and reference many well-known shibboleths and thought-experiments in the rationalist-sphere. But it’s really hammered home in the third book, where not only does Coherent Extrapolate Volition enter the plot, but much of the conflict (and problem-solving) revolves around the technologically-mediated CEVs of disparate groups competing against or reinforcing each other to drive toward the final conflict/resolution. It’s awesome.

Of course the writing is dense and sometimes I had to go back and reread a page (or two or three) to grasp what was being put down. I don’t think that’s too big a strike against the book, sometimes it’s good to be challenged. :) And it didn’t happen often.

I fully expected to love this, based on the previous two books, and I’m really glad I wasn’t disappointed. Highly Recommended.

Dec 192017
 

The Emperor’s Blades, by Brian Staveley

Synopsis: A triple-Chosen One narrative about an assassinated Emperor’s three far-flung children reuniting to save the empire and avenge their father’s death.

Book Review: You know how everyone has a friend that’s writing a fantasy novel that’s just kinda there, but doesn’t do anything? It has characters, they do things, events happen, but ultimately you’re not sure what the point is? This book is that sort of story taken to the absolutely highest limit of quality.

Which is to say, it’s basic as fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck. If you’ve read a lot of fantasy, you know from the very beginning pretty much what’ll happen, and more or less how every scene will end, and what the ultimate character arcs will be.

Which isn’t a necessarily a bad thing. This felt very much like comfort reading to me. It was like rewatching an old favorite episode, and at any time that I was reading it I really enjoyed it. Good times! But whenever I had put it down, I had no desire to pick it up again. There’s just… nothing there to interest me in re-opening it. I did a few times, because it is a book club book, but eventually I stopped. If I had infinite time I’d enjoying finishing this, and the whole series, but I don’t.

At Burning Man, there are a lot of sound camps that play non-stop House. It’s basic as fuck. Straight-up Boots-And-Pants for hours. There’s a place for this, because it’s very easy to dance to. You don’t have to stretch yourself, you can just fall into a groove of movement around energetic people and enjoy sensations.

But you’ll never be challenged by it.

Emperor’s Blades is similar. It’s what you expect, and it’s pleasant. And as I said, it really is among the best possible executions of this type of novel. It does exactly what it wants to do extremely well. The writing is good, the characterization works well, and so forth. It’s just what it wants to do isn’t something I have interest in. Its aspirations aren’t high, and it doesn’t have anything to say, as far as I can tell.

There’s definitely a lot of people who’d like this sort of thing. But for myself – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: We had a super-high turn-out for this, and everyone had strong opinions that they were excited to share. And importantly – they were all over the place! There were people who thought this was trashy but lovable. Those who thought it was well-written and compelling. Those who thought it was bad writing of someone’s D&D campaign. Everyone agreed the giant eagles were awesome. Everyone had some sort of analogy to describe the book.

Since our book club is a Science Fiction And Fantasy book club, some of our readers come for a background that heavily favors one or the other. Those who have not read much Fantasy actually enjoyed this quite a bit, because it was fairly new to them. Only one person really hated it, and everyone else agreed it was easy to read for however long they read it.

Before I went into to the book club meeting, I fully expected to give a ‘not recommended’ rating. There’s nothing being said in here, so what is there to talk about?

Turns out, our reaction to a paragon example of a novel-type that we have differing feelings about. It was an intensely interesting discussion, and quite energetic! You don’t even have to read all that much of it, if you don’t want to. So, surprisingly – Recommended!

Oct 312017
 

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Synopsis: The goddess Athena yanks the 400 most rabid Plato-fans from human history and gets them to try to create the utopian city he described in “The Republic.”

Book Review: This is the longest, most boring example of Pretending to be Wise I’ve seen so far. As an example of “humans are bad at creating utopias” it’s revoltingly shoddy. First of all, anyone alive could have skimmed The Republic and told you “Oh yeah, this is ludicrous, there’s no way it would work.” If that’s Walton’s thesis, it’s about 2,500 years too late. Maybe the ancient Greeks would’ve found this interesting, but I suspect even they knew it, and Plato had some other point to make rather than “Hey, this is a great blueprint for society.”

I like message fiction. I’m a fan of Ayn Rand’s works, and John C. Wright’s works, even though I find their ideologies atrocious. That’s because they know how to write good message fiction. They stir up one’s sense of injustice at a crazy, broken world, and offer extravagant, soaring solutions. Walton doesn’t do that. She briefly mentions the sexism of pre-modern societies, and then drops us into a toy-city that runs on god-granted post-scarcity and a shocking lack of realistic humans. And all they do is bloviate about Plato and what “excellence” meant to him, without actually saying anything.

For example, in a discussion of whether it is permissible to allow children to look at replicas of art rather than the originals (yes, really) a character claims that even a perfect replica wouldn’t work… even though a child couldn’t tell the difference, “their souls could.” And it’s left at that. Now, this is something that could have led to an interesting exploration on the matter by Walton. As a modern human, she is aware of recorded music, and the richness it brings to our lives. Perhaps she could argue about the overwhelming value of live music over recorded if she wants to give Plato some help. But she never did. Just the ridiculous claim that something touched by the hands of the artist is intrinsically better without even the hint of a figleaf of explanation as to why. Furthermore, as an author, she works in a medium were the audience never sees the original document! In the vast majority of cases, an “original document” is just a Word file anyway. Her art medium is the one where this replica-vs-original argument is most salient. And yet, nothing is explored. Plato’s words are spoken, the author refuses to say anything of interest or cast any judgement, and we continue on without ever revisiting the issue.

An intense red flag popped up when Christianity is discussed, and one says: “Christianity is harmful…because it offers a different and incorrect truth,” as opposed to “the real Truth that a philosopher can glimpse.” Holy shit, those are the words of someone who has no idea what the word “truth” even means, and who seems to be regurgitating mystical BS rather than actually investigating the idea. You can’t offer a “different truth,” dammit, only falsehoods! “Differing truth” is the woo that those who want to spread lies hide behind. This would be OK if it was just a character mouthing crazy, and this issue was then explored. But, again, the wise course that’s displayed is simply to present the statement and not make any claims as to its value or validity.

Almost all the book is like this. It’s insufferable. Also this sort of thing is most of the action, and it’s boring. Nothing else really happens, and the couple times it does, the events don’t change anything!

The humans are one-dimensional cargo-cultists, which I guess they’d have to be to think this Republic experiment has any worth to it, but it makes them stupid and bleh to read. The one bright spot of the book is Apollo, who incarnates in human form to explore what it’s like to be mortal. He actually is a fun character, and discovers some touching things about what it means to be human. But sadly, his chapters are very few and far between.

Oh, also, the worst handling of AI awakening I’ve seen since WWW:Wake. The Just City’s philosophy might be two millennia out of date, but the understanding of AI is at least five decades behind, and I’m not sure which is more disappointing.

Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Unfortunately, a convergence of disparate events resulted in a low turn-out for this meeting, so it’s harder for me to judge. The vast tornadoes of faux-philosophical hot air that our characters subject us to would suggest that there’s quite a bit here to spark discussion. But none of it is terribly interesting discussion. As mentioned, perhaps the ancient Greeks would have found something intriguing here. But the state of thought has moved on from then. The discussion nowadays would just be rife with frustration, like when you’re trying to talk with a fundy Christian about what advances in CRISPR mean for the future of humanity, and they’re hung up about whether this will piss off god or not and can this alter one’s soul? This is not the sort of conversation it’s worth having with anyone. So I’m going to go with Not Recommended.

Oct 162017
 

The Jennifer Morgue, by Charles Stross

Synopsis: A modern, snarky take on the Lovecraft mythos that combines IT geekery, eldritch horrors, and James Bond.

Book Review: Most of my readers are likely already familiar with the Laundry Files series, because it’s basically aimed directly at us. Modern humor, lots of tech-culture feel and computer geek in-jokes (due to magic being a branch of applied mathematics), all the Lovecraft references you can shake a stick at, etc. It’s like if the Buffy TV series was written by someone even nerdier and very well read in Lovecraft. Also Stross wrote “Accelerando,” which is a staple of the rationalist fiction reader’s diet.

But hey, maybe like me, you haven’t had a chance to get to The Jennifer Morgue yet. So here we go!

If you like the things I mentioned above (Buffy, snark, Lovecraft, tech culture humor), you’ll likely enjoy this. Charles Stross writes well, and he’s obviously having a lot of fun while putting in solid work!

The most frustrating part of The Jennifer Morgue is that it’s written in the style of a James Bond novel. I’m not sure why exactly Stross decided to do this, maybe just as an exercise for himself? At times it’s fun, but more often than not it gets in the way. It’s introduced via a clunky “invoking narrative magic” way, which immediately reminded me of placebomancy from Unsung. But in Unsong, Alvarez used the fact that the universe runs on narrative magic to exploit the fuck out of the universe! It was rationalist-fiction style reality-hacking, and it was hilarious and beautiful. In Jennifer Morgue the protagonist is not allowed to know about it (that’s part of the magic…) and so we don’t get any cool exploits. Instead we get a hand-wave whenever anything dumb happens as “This is because James Bond novels have dumb things like this happening, and the story is required by magic to follow a similar plot arc.” It’s specifically called out a few times, such as when the villain begins monologueing. Which is just lazy. There’s better ways to do that. It feels very much like Stross simply couldn’t take the Bond novel seriously, and kept apologizing for it. IMHO, if you’re gonna write a Bond novel, write a Bond novel! Commit to it. :)

The Bond novel also doesn’t fit the characters very well. The protagonist has to be involved with a femme fatal, but he’s a monogamist in a committed relationship, so we get the kind of sex stuff you see in romance aimed at Puritanical Americans – the protagonist is forced into a hot relationship against their will while secretly enjoying all of it, so the audience can read the salacious bits but still feel like they are chaste and pure in the end because it was out of the protagonist’s control (ala 50 Shades of Grey).

I also both love and hate the ending. I love that there is a really cool twist at the end which makes everything about the book much cooler and better in retrospect. :) But on the other hand, the protagonist passes out as we’re getting to the climax, and then the story jumps to the epilogue.

That’s right, Stross skipped over the climax. He simply didn’t write it. It’s like someone ripped out the last ten pages. W.T.F??

I’m not unhappy that I read this. It really is enjoyable, I laughed several times, and was enraptured in wonder a few times too. I think, however, that other books in the Laundry Files series are probably better than this one. I assume they’ll all have the similar snarky humor, geek culture, and Lovecraft, sown together by a deft writer, but without the hampering James Bond frame. And hopefully including a climax. Slightly Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: In terms of enjoyability, this is a pretty good book for groups. It’s solid fun. But in terms of things to talk about, there really isn’t too much to spark conversation, and that’s how I rate these things. We chatted about the book for a while, shared some high points and some complaints, and then moved on to other topics. The reading is good, but there isn’t all that much to really dig into, discussion-wise. Unless your entire reading group is The Target Audience and you feel you’d all love this thing, probably Not Recommended.

Sep 282017
 

Dangerous Visions, editted by Harlan Ellison

Synopsis: One of the best-known and most-praised anthologies in Science Fiction.

Book Review: Well now. This was interesting.

Every anthology is a wide variety of hits and misses, and what hits and what misses will vary from reader to reader. Also, it’s been nearly 50 years since this was first published, and the world has changed significantly. But all in all, reading this, I had no idea why this anthology was a big deal. Every single story was either a Tomato Surprise – a short setup with a Gotcha Twist at the end, ala Twilight Zone; or else a story that went nowhere and did nothing and honestly isn’t really a story at all, it’s just an interesting world-building idea without any legs.

Which is weird, because it won so many awards. Stories from this collection won Hugos for Best Novella and Best Novelette, and a Nebula for Best Short Story. So I’ll touch on those three.

Best Short Story winner was “Aye, and Gomorrah…” is written with a lot of soul, as one would expect from Delany. The prose is elegant, and it leaves you with a melancholy feeling of loneliness. But the plot can be summarized as “Some people are asexual, and some other people fetishize asexuals.” I guess that saying this 50 years ago was a big deal, but… it’s not anymore. I kept expecting some sort of character development or plot movement, but there was none.

Best Novelette was “Gonna Roll the Bones.” It had very compelling visual descriptions, and great emotional action, centering around a gambler with amazing skills going up against Death (or possibly the Devil). But, again, nothing happens. It’s exciting while you read it, but there’s no there there. Also, it turns out in the end that It Was All A Dream. So why did I even bother reading it?

Best Novella was “Riders of the Purple Wage,” and BOY do I have mixed feelings about this one. The prose is lurid and beautiful and really just to die for. OMG so pretty. It’s got the borderline schizophrenic quality that puts the whole world out of tilt, which I loved so much when I read Vellum. It is like James Joyce, except with a purpose and drive, instead of just literary masturbation. I was in love with this for the first half.

And it portrays a post-scarcity society where yeah, OK, most people just sit around and watch TV, but there are some bright parts to it, some people working to improve the human race. Except… the further you read, the less that looks to be the case. EVERYONE is a jerk-off doing nothing except squandering their lives. Everyone is incompetent, immature, and nasty. It’s humanity at its most petty and distasteful. Our protagonist is supposed to be one of the exceptions, actually pursuing something of value. But then a girl he barely knows refuses to be his personal baby-incubator, and he gets so pissed off that he sexually assaults her with a spermicide container. This sexual assault goes on for PAGES, and it’s played for laughs. She says later that she was unable to walk without pain for over a week, and the whole assault is written as a nearly slap-stick comedy. I guess back in that era most people still thought that a husband threatening to pummel his wife was hilarious, so why should this be different? Damn it left me with such a sick taste in my mouth. THIS is the best of humanity? We, the reader, were being invited to view all humans as the worst sort of Jerry Springer guests, and to laugh at their lower-class mouth-breathing idiocy. Even just talking about it infuriates me.

Anyway, not all stories were that bad, but many of them were. Either just plain bad as stories, or grossly misogynistic or misanthropic. So what’s the deal?

The SF historian of our group let us know what the deal was. Before this, there was only one type of SF. The straight Golden Age narrative. Great Men do Great Things. Whether via Science or Integrity or some other High Virtue, the straight-laced protagonist advances through adversity and rescues humanity. There wasn’t much literary artistry, the plots were fairly simple, the morality was fairly simple, and the whole genre was viewed as inferior tripe by the literati. Very much the way most people roll their eyes and snicker nowadays when they talk about Fan Fiction.

In the 60s this had started to change. Borders were being pushed. Exciting new ideas were being explored. The prose was moving from “functional” to “beautiful”, at least among those writers who were into that sort of thing.

But the Old Guard were unhappy with this sort of change. And the outside world still held their noses. The stimga of simplistic Flash Gordon-style fiction was hard to shake.

So Harlan Ellison put out “Dangerous Visions” partly as a big “Fuck You” to everyone who thought SF couldn’t do experimental, beautiful, and uncomfortable things. It had prose to rival anything Lit Fic had on tap. It had stories that didn’t do much, except show off what COULD be done. It was a display of literary showmanship. Whenever someone was confronted with “Ugh, you read that childish tripe? Why don’t you read real literature?” they could point to this anthology and say “Read this you sonovabitch, and update your decrepit old opinions!”

It serves that purpose well. But it’s also a weapon that was used in a fight that’s half a century in our past. It’s not very relevant to the present day, and the world has moved on to such a point that much of it is unpalatable. As a foundation of the growth of my genre, a herald of what SF can do, I have tons of respect for this anthology. I acknowledge and appreciate the work my elders have done to get us to were we are. “The Shoulders of Giants,” etc. I’m thankful for this anthology, and the battles it fought.

That being said, if you are into SF history and retracing our progression – sure, Recommended. For any other purpose (general reading, etc) – Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Every year after we finish reading the Hugo shorts, we say “This was really fun, and quite different! We should do it more often!” And this year we finally did! It was great to switch things up with short stories, rather than a novel. We’re glad we did this, and the shake up to the format was welcome.

The anthology itself led to a fair bit of conversation. Everyone liked different things, and recommended different stories. I’m going to go back and read several that I had skipped in the interest of time (and due to being kinda disgusted and disinterested in the anthology as a whole). There was a fair bit of comparison of notes (“You liked X? WTF, pls explain why, that’s crazy!”), as well as the excitement of bringing something cool you found to the attention of others. And we got to talk about both the growth of SF, and the changes in society overall.

Still, I’m not sure this anthology really fits an SF reading group, unless everyone there is OK with horror. I would’ve been more prepared for some of this crap if it had been marketed as a horror anthology. Seriously, lots of sexual violence. And in almost every case, no real pay off for it. :/ Unless your group is really sure – Not Recommended.

Sep 182017
 

I.

I know I’m not the first person to say this, but Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” series was, from the very beginning, almost a parody of the traditional High Fantasy Epic. Most of the main characters were the distilled essence of very well-worn tropes. Arya was the feisty tomboy. Sansa was the dainty princess. Ned Stark was the Honorable Paladin.

Hell, Ned was such a pure archetype of the Honorable Paladin that I laughed out loud several times while reading Game of Thrones. If this was any other book I would have put it down, because I’m not 14 anymore and I’ve read more than enough Honorable Paladin High Fantasy stories. But Martin was also tired of those stories, so he wasn’t just writing another Honorable Paladin Saves The Kingdom story. He was lampooning them, by taking the old heroic archetype and throwing him into a more realistic world. Martin was asking “What happens to the Honorable Paladin when there is no longer a Heroic Narrative protecting him? When there isn’t all the conveniences and providences of a righteous author and romantic audience that creates a plot designed to showcase how great Honor is? If there was no High Fantasy narrative protecting him, how would he fare?”

And the answer was, he’d get his head lopped off before the book was 2/3rds over.

What would happen if the White Savior narrative was dropped into the real world? They’d find that destabilizing a region to save the downtrodden requires a lot of atrocities both along the way, and to hold on to power afterwards. The trope doesn’t survive contact with the complexities of actual power structures.

Somewhere along the way, it grew into more than just parody of old tropes. When a character made a mistake, they paid a steep price. The worst offenders died, and the survivors adapted. They became more nuanced and grey. Villains were shown to have deeper lives, sometimes making the best of a shitty world. The characters were complex because the world was merciless.

II.

The TV show has lost all sight of that. They’ve degenerated into the story that Martin was lampooning when he started out.

The first time this really became clear was when Jamie charged Daenerys. This was a great scene, probably the most memorable of this season. Two characters we both care for are drawn into combat, and only one of them will survive.

Except both of them survive. Without any consequence. A fade-to-black followed by a week’s delay somehow excused Jamie resurfacing miles away, unharmed, and Daenerys losing interest in him. We, as the audience, got our surge of emotion in the charge, without anyone in the story paying any price for it. The characters are unchanged. The storyline is unchanged. The event might as well simply never have happened, for all the difference it made. It was nothing more than a cheap thrill for us. We were fed narrative candy.

Did you not feel empty, afterward? If I wanted narrative candy I’d go back to reading the High Fantasy Epics of my adolescence, full of Honorable Paladins and White Saviors, where the villain is Evil and the protagonist is Good, and in the end Good will win precisely because it IS Good. The narrative demands it.

Further examples of this:

Daenerys, our parody of the White Savior that manages to fuck up everything and become a committer of atrocities, is now just a plain old White Savior again. She left behind her smashed society so we don’t have to see it anymore, and instead she just rides in to save the people of Westeros. Without destroying their society. Without committing atrocities. Without any moral compromise at all, just good ol’ Saving The World. Narrative candy.

Jon Snow has replaced Ned Stark as the Honorable Paladin. Unlike Ned Stark, he doesn’t suffer any repercussions for this. He sticks to his code of honor, is murdered, and is resurrected. He sticks to his code of honor, and continues to draw more and more followers, of ever greater loyalty. He sticks to his code of honor, loses a major battle, but is saved in the end. He runs around north of the wall like an idiot, NOT getting on the damn dragon when they’re trying to evacuate, and is saved in the end. He sticks to his code of honor, doesn’t lie to gain political advantage, and in the end gets EVEN MORE political advantage for doing so! He is rewarded for being the biggest stereotype of Honorable Paladin ever. Narrative candy.

One of my favorite scenes this season was Sansa and Arya uniting. It’s a crowning Moment of Triumph, and it feels fantastic. I almost shouted “You tried to break them up, but you can’t split the Wolf Pack, motherfucker! Aaaaaooooooooooooooo!!!!” And then an hour later I felt empty again. It was more narrative candy. I got my emotion sugar-high. But this is the standard “Family Loyalty Overcomes All Obstacles!” trope. We’ve seen it a million times.

Yes it does feel good, in the moment. That’s why we’ve seen it a million times. It’s the same reason people eat candy. Cheap sugar-highs sell. They’re also boring. Sugar isn’t complex. It’s simple, and tasty, and unmemorable. I still have candy from time to time too! But that’s not why I watch GoT. It’s not why GoT won all those awards. Awards are given for things that are complex, and hard, and different. Not more sugar.

III.

I imagine Martin started writing this series as a reaction against all the High Fantasy narrative candy he was presumably tired of. He’s not Fantasy Jesus or anything, there were problems with his work, and the HBO team did a lot to smooth those out and make a great product. But in the last few seasons, GoT has degenerated into the type of story that Martin had been lampooning.

It’s even happened the same way it had previously been built up. Characters that were too nuanced or complex couldn’t survive in the new, Hollywood-simple world. The ones that could be killed off, were. Bye High Sparrow, bye Queen of Thorns.

The survivors adapted by becoming simpler and reverting to stock tropes. They face no consequences for being stupid fantasy stereotypes, and are often reward for it. A fantasy narrative of honor and loyalty protects them.

The villains are just dumb evil, for the sake of evil. Cersei’s only remaining emotion is spite (and I feel bad for Lena Headey, that must get boring). The Night King has no motivation at all.

We are fed emotional highs without substance or consequence.

The central conflict is no longer jostling among complex characters for advantage and survival. The two sides are now plain old Good vs Evil. That Cersei is on the side of Evil doesn’t change that.

And that’s why Season Seven sucked. It is the culmination of taking something complex and made for adults, and returning it back to the High Fantasy that doesn’t challenge anyone. It just feeds us candy.

That’s why Season Eight will probably suck too. It took a lot of narrative work to create the world and characters we had. Now all that has been destroyed, and there isn’t enough time to rebuild it (nor do I think anyone calling the shots has the desire to). Even if Good doesn’t win at the end of the series, we still will have sat through a standard Good Knights vs Evil Demons story, and a twist like “But the good guys lose!” doesn’t change why it’s boring. It doesn’t return to us what could have been. That destiny has been amputated.

All the characters we cared about are dead already, replaced with Hollywood narrative candy pod-people. Now we just get to watch the shells fight it out. At least the CGI will be pretty.

 

Sep 152017
 

Bridge of Birds, by Barry Hughart

Synopsis: A comedic fable-style story wherein a smart-ass Holmes-type character and his burly sidekick (our narrator) have crazy adventures while incidentally freeing a fairytale China from a bloodthirsty tyrant.

Book Review: I’m like the 1000th person to review this novel, so y’all have probably heard this before. But I’ll add my opinions to the mix, in case that tips the scales for anyone. After all, I don’t recall who finally tipped me into the “well, guess I gotta read this” camp, but it certainly wasn’t anyone well known, it was just an acquaintance whose opinion I respect.

This is an utterly delightful tale. It’s a black comedy, full of random murder and awfulness, but played with a slapstick sensibility that honestly makes you laugh. Everything in it is drawn with the super-saturated colors and jovial emotions of a fairy tale. Fun characters, over-the-top plot and coincidences, and really beautiful writing combine to make this a really fun read.

A lot of the fun comes from the somewhat absurd gambits that our Sherlock character engineers. If you like the clever little traps that Sherlock sets up, or deductions he waltz through, you’ll really enjoy the schemes Master Li cooks up. Tons of supporting characters keep reappearing in the most hilarious ways, and by the end of the book a number of things click together in this neat puzzle-resolution that’s really beautiful to read.

As it is written in fable-style, though, it’s not for everyone. It is over the top. It has the cyclical structure that fairytales love, repeating certain actions a number of times (well, three times, because fairytales love threes) with minor variations. But you know going into the same scene the 2nd or 3rd time basically how it’ll work out. This relieves the tension and lets you jaunt through the scene, but it also means there isn’t really much tension in much of the novel. This sort of story is read for the sparkle, rather than the immersion.

Two things kinda bothered me too. The first is that basically every problem humanity faces (aside from the evil tyrant himself) boils down to “Women Are The Root Of All Our Woes.” Either mean women who exploit men’s weakness for the opposite gender to dominate them, or pretty-but-vapid women who unknowingly drive men to do crazy things due to their inability to make rational decisions in the face of boobs. Most of the world’s problems would be gone if there just weren’t all these darn women around! I realize the whole story is a silly comedy, but “Men are dumb cuz of penis, and women all manipulate this whether knowingly or not” is a plot/joke that irks me personally.

The second thing is that it’s very deathist in the end. The tyrant is evil because he wants immortality. Many of the supporting characters have tragic deaths in their backstory, and at the end of the book quite a few of them are finally “reunited” with their dead loved ones. By dying. And we’re shown that it’s so great and wonderful that these nice people are dead now! They’re so much better off dead! Wouldn’t it be great if everyone was dead? And yeah, ok, it’s a fantasy novel that has a real afterlife, so death really is just going on to a cooler, better life. But A – why the hell were our protagonists going to such lengths to STOP people from dying if death is so great, (the primary quest is finding a cure to a plague that’s killing their village’s children); and B – I just personally really hate deathist themes, even in fantasy works with real afterlives, because fuck death, Death Is Bad.

Still, the novel really IS fantastic. It’s whimsical and fun and well-written, and it’s worth reading it anyway, despite the low-level misogyny/misandry (misanthropy?) and deathism. I know I made it sound bad in those last two paragraphs, but this is delightful throughout much of the story, and it is both a quick and easy read. You’ll laugh, and now and then you’ll be touched. Highly Recommended.

Book Club Review: In addition to all the fun that can be had in reading this book, and in sharing things that people really loved, there can be a lot of good conversation about this books flaws too. The misanthropy/deathism can spark  conversation. Two people in our book club did not care for the fairytale stylings at all, and that sparked discussion on the difference between fairytale stories and modern story telling, and the pros and cons of each, and so forth. There’s no wrong opinion here, just varying tastes, and the exploration of them. The conversation was interesting.

Aaaaaaand of course there was the cultural appropriation conversation as well. Bridge of Birds draws from a lot of traditional Chinese tales and cultural background. Enough so that I’ve heard someone say that as much as one likes the story, that enjoyment is significantly leveled up by having deep Chinese cultural knowledge. It’d be like reading a dark comedy based on western fairytales without having ever heard of Cinderella or Goldilocks or Little Red Riding Hood or King Arthur. It can still be a lot of fun if done well, but you’ll get so much more out of it if you are familiar with the background material.

But Barry Hughart is a white American, and for a couple readers in our group this brought up questions of authenticity immediately. Is this well-researched storytelling by someone who’s really dedicated themselves to getting this right? Or is it just someone grabbing stuff from Chinese culture they think is cool and throwing it in the book? And sadly, all any of us have to go on is what it vaguely “feels like” to us.

I remember hearing that Chinese readers/critics thought it was well done, but spending 15 minutes googling after the book club meeting didn’t return any results. I don’t  remember where I heard the “it’s well done” claim from, so I don’t have any source to give. :/ This is doubly confounded by the fact that it’s a dark comedy which treats most things irreverently, and could be said to be lampooning certain common tropes. So…. how do we know if it’s “authentic” and “respectful” enough? And if it wasn’t very authentic, does that ruin it, despite it being a well-written comedy and a good story?

I obviously have my own opinion, which I figure is pretty clear by the way I slanted that last paragraph. But to clarify, I think most claims of cultural appropriation are self-important bullshit. Yet this is something I can respectfully discuss with my fellow book-clubbers, and that was also an interesting discussion to have.

So, in addition to being a fun and easy read, lots of good conversation. Recommended!

Sep 052017
 

Hunger Makes the Wolf, by Alex Wells

Synopsis: A space western wherein impoverished miners are horribly exploited until a group of magic-using outlaws on bikes finally stand up for the small community and fight back against the robber-barons.

Disclaimer: I know Alex Wells personally, and really like them. While I try to remain objective in my reviews, I’m not a robot and I may fail to some extent.

Book Review: I should add a second disclaimer here, which is that I dislike Space Westerns. I didn’t bother watching Firefly at first because, even though it was Joss Whedon and I love his work, I couldn’t image even he would make me like a Space Western. Of course I was proven wrong, and soon I was swept up in the adoration of that fantastic show as well. But any Space Western has a tough barrier to entry for me.

This might be a good story, if one likes Space Westerns. There are some very powerful scenes that show what it means to be completely at the mercy of an uncaring corporate entity, and the vile types of humans that take advantage of such power. The villain is extremely creepy, and is probably the best physical/dynamic depiction of a vampire I’ve ever seen. All vampire writers should take note! Also the speech and overall feel was VERY western. I really enjoyed reading what felt like a Sci-Fi book written for/by Applejack. (and yes, I absolutely mean that as a complement.)

But to me, this felt much like Dune Lite. The same desert world, exploitative powers, and magic abilities, but with more motorcycle gangs and less religion. And somewhere along the way, Wells lost my emotional attention. I’m not sure exactly when it happened. This is by no means a bad book. There is no place I can point to and say “This is where it went wrong.” But slowly, over the course of many chapters, I came to lose interest in what I was reading, to the point that it start to feel like a chore.

Perhaps it was the feeling of disconnect due to never being let into the protag’s life in a biker gang, despite it being both her primary social group and her family. Or my own personal quibbles with what felt like an inexpertly handled critique of old school industrialism that doesn’t apply to the modern day. Whatever the case, once I started to wish I didn’t have to keep reading, I stopped reading. Not Recommended.

Book Club Review: Again, I wish to stress that this isn’t a bad book. It just isn’t a great one. While many of our readers finished the book, most of them agreed that at some point it went off the rails, and no one was quite sure what happened. Someone suggested that there was too much old-west flavor, and that started to drown out things. Someone else thought the protag’s dark secret was overplayed and a bit of a let down. A few people were annoyed that the story didn’t really answer the questions it brought up, which is good for drawing interest into a series, but is irritating for those of us who prefer novel-length stories and aren’t looking to read series.

One reader commented that the story has a very traditional old-west or golden-age-SF feel, wherein the masculine hero acts like a white knight and rides in to right wrongs and save the damsel in distress. And simply making the masculine hero a woman doesn’t really change anything about that type of narrative of the masculine-hero. Maybe this was what threw me too? I’m not really a golden age reader.

At any rate, there was some discussion, and so the novel does OK by the book club metric… but it’s not quite enough to make me really want to go out and recommend this enthusiastically to book clubs. So, also, Not Recommended.