Category Archives: Speculative Fiction

Science fiction and/or fantasy.

Short Complaints About Several Books

This summer hasn’t been great for reading or writing. My concentration and attention span are low; I read the first chapters of a book only to get distracted by another. Still, I have a few longer posts in the works about books I liked enough (or in one case disliked enough) to inspire substantial thoughts. Meanwhile, here are shorter notes on some books that inspired insubstantial thoughts. Most of them I wasn’t impressed with.

Steve Aylett, Lint

I can’t decide how I feel about Lint. It took me weeks to read. Not that it’s bad–far from it. But it only works in small doses.

Lint is a biography of Jeff Lint, a 20th century science fiction writer distantly based on Philip K. Dick. It’s comedy in a style that mostly doesn’t depend on obvious punch lines, which I like. (Only a few pieces of this novel feel like conventional jokes and they’re the bits least likely to work well.) Lint has some genuinely incisive lines: “Truth is unpopular because it doesn’t have a dependent need to be liked or believed–its independence seems like unfriendliness.”) Occasionally descriptions of Lint’s novels aspire to the satire found in Stanislaw Lem’s fake book reviews: “In the novel Jelly Result, half of Eterani city is exactly the same as the other half, because the authorities don’t have enough ideas to cover the whole area.”

But the dominant style of humor here is randomness: “On one occasion Lint fired forty pounds of chili from a turn-of-the-century baseball gun mounted on the roof of a 23rd Street apartment block, and eagerly told a baffled Kerouac about it.” Most of the text is a succession of sentences like this. Parts of the book seem written with a text-processing program like JanusNode: “They behave like rain upon travelers,’ he thought, seeing those spirits. ‘We are a circus of ourselves. We make the sleeve. We the alteration.’” This is amusing more often than not, but after a while the rhythm feels overwhelmingly samey, like a stuck nozzle relentlessly pumping out infinite quantities of cake frosting. After every chapter I had to put it down and read something else for a while.

One chapter, though, stood out: the account of Lint’s short-lived animated TV series, Catty and the Major, is genuinely disturbing. It reads like a half-remembered urban legend, suggesting this nightmarish cartoon show hides some deeper mystery we don’t have enough clues to solve. Should you give Lint a try and find the style hard going, it might be worth pushing on to the Catty and the Major chapter. It’s nothing like the rest of the book.

Fran Wilde, The Jewel and Her Lapidary

I got interested in this one because I’d heard it was written at least partly as a travel guide (the blurb begins “Buried beneath the layers of a traveler’s guide is a hidden history”), and then it got a Hugo nomination. It turns out the travel guide entries are just chapter-heading epigraphs. The bulk of the book is a decent but not unusual epic fantasy, with maybe slightly better than average prose.

Unusually in a genre inclined to bloat, this fantasy may not be long enough. It’s plot, plot, plot all the way, with little room to pry into the oddities and philosophical underpinnings of its world. (And there is some odd stuff here, which might have been interesting if unpacked; the power relationships inherent in most feudal fantasy are heightened, with the constant presence of literal physical chains as a metaphor.)

Someday, someone needs to write that epic fantasy in the form of a travel guide. (Diana Wynne Jones’s The Tough Guide to Fantasyland isn’t quite the same thing.)

Marie Brennan, Cold-Forged Flame

For me, the single interesting aspect of Cold-Forged Flame is how stripped-down it is, almost experimentally so. It’s pure action, lacking any of the context that makes action meaningful–character, setting, philosophy. The protagonist is an amnesiac born at the moment the novel begins. Most of the story is set in a mutable otherworld, the magic-island equivalent of Star Trek’s holodeck–the kind of setting SF series use when they want to be Symbolic. The novel’s only serious engagement with ideas is a brief conversation about ethics.

As a blank slate, the protagonist knows only as much as the reader, and in experiencing the story she initially works as a proxy for the reader. Like, at first what little we see of this world looks like Celtic Britain, but then the protagonist sees a gun and instantly understands guns are a thing in her world: “I’m just wondering how I recognize that thing… How can I know all that, when I don’t remember anything from before I opened my eyes on that slab?” She knows about guns because the readers of Cold-Forged Flame know about guns, and they deduced what the gun meant in the same moment she did. The protagonist learns her world like a typical fantasy reader, with the same background knowledge and skill in deducing the nature of the world from the cues her author gave her. She is in effect a fantasy fan dumped into a random fantasy story.

Like I said, we don’t learn much about this world before the protagonist reaches Holodeck Island. SF stories don’t usually resort to holodecks (or Lands of Fiction, or insanity pepper hallucinations, or other mutable surrealist dreamscapes) until we’ve gotten to know the characters in their normal context; watching them navigate symbolic landscapes is less revealing when, as in Cold-Forged Flame, we don’t understand who they are or how their world works in the first place. As the protagonist of Cold-Forged Flame learns about herself, it’s less and less apparent what the facts she learns mean. At the climax we learn she’s something called an “Archon,” and we’re given some idea of what an Archon is, but having spent so little time in her world we don’t know what being an Archon means: how should she feel about being an Archon? What do other people think of them? What’s their place in the world? It’s not clear, so the scene meant to deliver the novels’ biggest emotional punch falls flat.

Brian Evanson, The Warren

The Warren is the story of X, an artificial being living in an underground bunker. He’s the latest in a long line of constructs, but the first to be alone instead of part of a pair; his past selves live within himself, perceived as a collection of eyes that open when the personality wakes.

X’s selves trade off the first-person narration as they trade off his body, unaware of any of the others’ actions beyond what they might have written. The prose is perfectly controlled, always clear except where it’s intentionally not, with a strong personality. It’s one of those stories that manage to imply far more about its world than they explain, a landscape packed into a small space. It’s apocalyptic, but it’s apocalyptic surrealism. For me, literary surrealism is one of the main attractions of SF.

So it’s odd I didn’t like The Warren more than I did. Like the last two books, the problem is that it feels insubstantial. There are fewer layers here than there ought to be. Expectations are the problem: SF has literary status anxiety, and fans and marketing copy both have a habit of selling SF books as deeper than they are. (It’s telling how often fan-written reviews say a novel is about certain issues but don’t dig into how it’s about those issues, or what it’s actually saying about them.) The marketing surrounding The Warren is best summed up by Charles Yu’s blurb: “What is a human? What is a person? The Warren is a truly original exploration of these questions―the kind of work that causes one to re-examine long-held certainties. Profound and deeply unsettling, in the best way possible.” And, yeah, the questions What is a human? and What is a person? come up in The Warren. But I honestly don’t think it has much to say about them except that, in a science fictional world, maybe our definition of “person” ought to be as expansive as possible. Which is true, but not any more profound than your average quarter-century old episode of Star Trek.

Two Blake’s 7 Tie-Ins

On the other hand, sometimes my expectations are modest but still aren’t met. The Forgotten and Archangel are tie-in novels based on the TV series Blake’s 7, published by Big Finish, a company that mostly produces audio dramas. There’s one in this series I haven’t yet read that I expect I’ll enjoy–it’s by Kate Orman and Jonathan Blum, who have a good track record with Doctor Who novels.

These first two, though… they’re competent, but I can’t call them good even by tie-in standards. They read like bald descriptions of a couple of hypothetical TV stories. They don’t feel like real novels and I get the impression the possibility they could have been real novels wasn’t even on the authors’ sensors. The one memorable incident in either is a strange moment in Archangel when we learn Jenna hates going down to the Liberator’s power section because it “always seemed to have the same effect on her. It affected her fingers first, making them ache until it was difficult for her to grip things, then it would slowly seep down her body until her stomach felt bloated and she needed to use the bathroom.” This is more than I wanted to know about the Liberator’s power section.

Agatha Christie, Towards Zero

Towards Zero is a perfectly cromulent Agatha Christie novel. If you’re into Agatha Christie it will pass the time adequately; if not, then not. The only noteworthy moment is when Superintendent Battle notices a clue because it’s something Hercule Poirot would have noticed. This unfortunately just emphasizes that the entirely charisma-free Battle is the detective instead of Poirot.

D. M. Devine, The Sleeping Tiger

D. M. Devine’s The Sleeping Tiger is one of a half-dozen paperback “Crime Classics” I bought off a remainder table. How it’s a “Classic” I have no idea. This is a stupid book.

Some of the problem is values dissonance; a lot of old mysteries have moments that didn’t age well, but The Sleeping Tiger is way out of touch. When protagonist John Prescott declines to cover for a doctor who had an accident driving drunk, we’re meant to think he’s a stick-in-the-mud. When he slaps his unfaithful wife, we’re meant to think he’s standing up for himself. His love interest by the end of the book is a woman he meets in the first chapters, five years earlier, when he’s in his twenties and she’s fifteen. Oh, and John takes antibiotics for flu. I hate this guy.

This is the 1960s, by the way: circa 1962–1967. The novel was published in 1961. One thing that’s not at all interesting about The Sleeping Tiger, but could have been, is that it could have qualified as near-future science fiction if it had occurred to Devine to wonder how the world might change over the next five years. As it is, the novel takes place in the indeterminate 20th century England of your average Agatha Christie adaptation.

Beyond that, John is one of the dumbest mystery-novel heroes I have ever come across. Never mind that he’s willing to get into a car with a drunk. This is a person who upon finding a dead body moves it, gets himself covered in blood, pulls the freaking knife out of its back, and tells the police an easily-disproved lie about when he arrived. Worst of all for a detective novel, John doesn’t clear his name through brilliant deduction–the villain finally just outright tries to kill him. Give this one a pass.

Adam Roberts, The Thing Itself

I’ve again collected several half-written reviews that have been sitting on my hard drive for weeks. I’m planning to make an effort to finish a few.


Adam Roberts’s The Thing Itself is philosophical speculative fiction riffing on Kant’s idea of the ding an sich, or thing in itself. I’m not as smart as Kant, so I’ll summarize his argument simplistically: according to Kant we only know reality, the world outside our minds, through our senses and perceptions. The way our minds work dictates our experience of the universe. We perceive reality through certain mental structures, or categories: cause and effect, distance, space and time, quantity. We can’t think outside of the structures that shape our thoughts because they’re what we think with. We don’t know how relevant those structures are outside the human mind. Yes, there’s something real that our minds perceive as space and time, but is that what it, like, is? There’s the human experience of the thing, and then there’s the thing itself, which might be a cardboard box full of mechanical bees, or a four-dimensional version of New Jersey, or some kind of vast Jello casserole.

Cover of The Thing Itself

The Thing Itself asks: what if this were true? Literally? In the same way a typical science fiction story might ask “What if we filled a moon base with libertarians?” Speculative Philosophy is among the smaller fantastical subgenres, Adam Roberts being one of the few current practitioners. The speculative humanities are in general neglected. There’s plenty of speculative social science, but in the absence of either sci-fi gadgets or magic it’s often dismissed as “not SF.” The range of speculation SF allows itself sometimes feels oddly narrow.

Anyway, to answer the question: you’ve got a solution to the Fermi Paradox. At least according to Roy Curtius, the oddball technician sharing an antarctic research facility with our narrator, Charles. Aliens are by definition not like us; if we can’t access their frame of reference, their categories, maybe we can’t perceive them any more than we perceive the ding an sich. Roy has a plan to find them. It doesn’t end well for Charles.

At this point The Thing Itself jumps back to 1900 to follow a gay couple touring Germany in the company of a Baedeker guide and a copy of The War of the Worlds. (Not that anyone knows Harold and Albert are more than friends: the strangers around them don’t notice a relationship they’re not expecting.) Between trips to galleries and restaurants Harold keeps noticing, and immediately forgetting, incomprehensible amoeboid creatures. So apparently Roy is right. As another tourist tells Harold, “to tour a town with a guidebook in hand is to see only what the guidebook permits.”

The Thing Itself alternates chapters in Charles’s story with short stories that eventually connect to the main plot but could stand on their own. (Some have been published independently, including the first chapter, although in that version of the story “Charles” appears to be “Anthony.”) The interpolated stories are set everywhere from the 17th century to a far-future utopia, following different characters with different perspectives. It’s a crucial addition to a novel which is partly about world views and how they interact, or fail to.

Kant’s structures are, among other things, a metaphor for our everyday habits of thought. Characters in The Thing Itself repeatedly fail to perceive what their thought-structures don’t encompass: People who can’t imagine an apparently respectable 17th century magistrate is an abuser; a utopia founded on “scratching your itch” that doesn’t realize a woman who wants to experience psychopathy is pursuing something more ambitious than passing curiosity. (Incidentally, the utopian chapter is yet more evidence that, contra decades of received wisdom, utopias are not necessarily boring. Humans are weird; however perfect their society, their behavior is not perfectible. People can introduce drama anywhere. Drama is only absent from paradise if it’s defined solely as exaggerated suffering.)

In the main plot Charles is contacted by Irma, an employee of an institute trying to pull off what Roy only imperfectly managed: building an artificial intelligence to interact with the ding an sich. The AI, created by humans but not having human categories of thought, could mediate between us and the Thing Itself. More than that, Irma explains: her group thinks they can use the AI to manipulate the Thing Itself, maneuvering around the categories we call space and time. Travel through time, step straight from England to Antarctica.

Which is a cool concept. So it’s weird that at this point I put The Thing Itself down and didn’t pick it up for a week. Or maybe not so weird, because as soon as Irma shows up Charles propositions her. And propositions her again after it’s clear she’s uninterested. And spends most of the next chapter thinking less about the astonishing information being revealed to him than about how to persuade Irma into bed. To be clear, both the narrative and Charles acknowledge his behavior as bad. It’s a deliberate tactic to establish Charles as more heel than hero, and a contrast with Charles’s later glimpse of a more empathetic vision of human connection, and another restatement of a theme: Charles’s obsession is a thought-structure causing him to ignore the actually interesting things going on around him.

On the other hand… this means Charles, our narrator, is ignoring the actually interesting things going on around him. It only lasts for a chapter or two, but for that chapter or two The Thing Itself just drags. As I complained when I reviewed Anna Seghers’s Transit, what’s unique about this book is pushed aside to deal with a much-repeated and tiresome plot element. Protagonists pursuing uninterested women can and do show up in stories of all kinds; it’s a generic off-the-shelf plot element. Even done with full awareness of its problems it has nothing new to show me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate a story about a character who learns better. But it’s tedious when they’re learning a really basic lesson, like “don’t be a stalker.” I want characters to start with their basic life skills down so they can spend the story learning something interesting.

Fortunately this lasts a couple of chapters at most. Once it gets back on track The Thing Itself is brilliant. The main plot is a traditional Hitchcockian average-guy-on-the-run thriller, but it’s also not afraid to stop the action so Charles and an AI can have expository philosophical debates formatted as Socratic dialogs. I’ve said before genre writing is sometimes too much in love with “show, don’t tell.” Novels hesitant to acknowledge their themes aloud, leaving them entirely in the subtext, may risk suggesting a theme without ever actually working out a coherent argument about it. Sometimes the best way to talk about an idea is just to come out and talk.

There’s a lot going on in this novel. I’m going to end by focusing on one small idea because it’s a lovely redemption of a normally cringe-inducing pop-culture cliché: at one point Charles’s AI pal asserts one of the fundamental forces of The Thing Itself’s Kantian universe is Love. “A tad sentimental, isn’t it?” complains Charles. But it isn’t. (Or maybe it is, but in a good way. Is “sentimental” really always bad?)

I mean, yes, in a totally different story this could have been corny. What I mean are those sci-fi and fantasy stories (usually, but not exclusively, movies or TV shows) that resolve themselves through the Power of Love. Emotion, here, works like whatever comes out of a Green Lantern ring: the hero feels really hard and the ancient alien artifact lights up, or the love interest shakes off their brainwashing, or the villain just sort of evaporates in the face of love, man. The Fifth Element is an obvious example; this has also become a regular plot resolution on Doctor Who. It’s an easy–lazy, even–way to wind up the plot and the hero’s character arc in a single climactic moment. The hero doesn’t achieve something great and have an emotional epiphany. Feeling something is the achievement. Mind you, the general level of emotional intelligence among pop culture protagonists is such that maybe just recognizing and articulating their own feelings is an accomplishment.

This is all usually hand-wavy. So it’s neat that The Thing Itself successfully justifies love-as-law-of-nature by carefully arguing its way there step by step. (Another common trope in science fiction is the idea that rationality and emotion are necessarily separate; that the climax of this book’s logical, philosophical game-playing is a genuine emotional epiphany gives the lie to that idea.) In The Thing Itself’s literally Kantian universe, the world as humans experience it is shaped by human consciousness; for human beings, reality isn’t just the ding an sich, it’s that plus human thought. So if affection is a fundamental part of human thought–and the AI classes it as one of several categories of thought Kant missed–it’s a fundamental force in the human world. As the AI asks Charles, “you’re going to tell me that the Affect has no place in human consciousness?”

Of course, in reality the universes of all SF stories are constructs of human thought, aren’t they? I mean, humans thought them up. I often find science fiction and fantasy oddly cynical. (The SF actually marketed as SF, at least; SF as a whole is more complicated.) I mean, the books the word “grimdark” was invented to describe were fantasy epics, not noir thrillers or gothics. (I watch a lot of noir movies. Maybe it’s just the Production Code, but in most of them people are kinder to each other than they are in Westeros.) Science fiction and fantasy are the genres most likely to causally slaughter extras to motivate a hero or just establish a story as Serious. This may say more about my perceptions than the genre, but I feel like more SF universes than not share a basic structural assumption that most people are out to get each other and the universe itself is out to get everybody. If so, does that mean we (as fans, critics, creators, whoever) have categorized SF as being primarily about disaster and disconnection?

I’m still thinking about The Thing Itself weeks after reading it. It combines several things I’d like to read more of in SF: speculation on ideas beyond new technology or complicated magic systems; dialogue that digs into the themes for entire conversations instead of just moving the plot along. But it’s also lovely that Adam Roberts suggests compassion and human connection are part of the deep structure of The Thing Itself’s story-world, regardless of the risk that the SF audience (many of whom value ass-kicking over affect) might (unfairly) think it mawkish. It’s neat to see a wonky, intellectual SF novel unapologetically go for a bit sentimental, and pull it off.

Verity Holloway, Pseudotooth

I bought Pseudotooth not so much because I was interested in this specific book as because I was curious about its publisher. I might look into their other books because this was a good buy; Pseudotooth is one of the better books I’ve read this year. It’s a portal fantasy of a sort, but weird fiction, not epic fantasy–if I had to play the game of comparisons to more famous novels, I’d say there’s some Shirley Jackson and China Miéville here.

Cover of Pseudotooth

Pseudotooth had me from its first sentence. It’s one of those that in a few words tell a lot about the novel to follow: “And of course, the weather turned Dickensian.” That immediate “and of course” tells us we’re in the middle of something, and it’s gone on long enough to grow tiresome, and now on top of it we have this weather and it is the last straw. The word “Dickensian” evokes Dickens’s association (fair or not) with pathetic-fallacy weather, of the Bleak House variety. Longer-term, it prepares us for a story filled with characters who’ve lost or been rejected by parents, and an other-world Dickensian in its technological level and general aesthetic. The novel that follows is gorgeously written. Take the second sentence, with its Dickensian weather: “The East Anglian horizon was crowded with low, goitrous clouds, ballooning out like new bruises,” which at once freshly visualizes a particular type of cloud and resonates with a specific emotional feel.

The real literary influence here isn’t Dickens but William Blake, who’s quoted throughout the novel. Blake is the favorite poet of Pseudotooth’s protagonist, Aisling Selkirk, who turns to his poems in times of stress, of which she’s having a lot. In the wake of a traumatic experience with her mother’s latest boyfriend, Aisling has been suffering from pseudoseizures–seizures with no neurological cause–alongside the occasional blackout or hallucination. Aisling is a few months away from legal adulthood but is treated like an inconvenient child; as an alternative to an institution her mother sends her into the countryside and the care of a sneering aunt. There Aisling spends her time writing fiction in her journal about Feodor, the delinquent son of a Russian immigrant, and exploring her aunt’s old vicarage. There’s little to read except Within Reason: Treatment and Protection of the Defective Classes, a mouldering eugenics manual made especially awful by the pathetic marginal notes (“Whitewash is extremely moral”) of someone who judged himself “defective” and was desperate to cast out, like a rotten tooth, whatever “degeneracy” caused his illness.

The other world reveals itself slowly; not so much magical as ghostly, or perhaps–appropriately for a novel so preoccupied with Blake–visionary. There’s a gradual bleeding-over of the other world instead of a crossing-into. It starts with apparitions: a young man in the garden, an older, balder one on the stairs. When Aisling eventually wakes up to a deserted house she assumes she’s broken with reality altogether; outside is a nameless place ruled by “Our Friend” according to the precepts in the manual–whitewash the walls, cultivate “inner cleanness,” disappear the “defectives.” Aisling is taken in by an ad-hoc family of outcasts, and meets Feodor in the flesh, and uncovers the connected histories of Feodor and Our Friend and her aunt’s vicarage.

What Aisling doesn’t do is what a by-the-numbers portal fantasy might expect her to do: get involved in a revolution. Portal fantasy heroes aren’t “chosen ones” as often as the subgenre’s stereotype might lead you to believe, but it’s true they are with numbing regularity caught up in Big Events. It’s the default template, which sometimes obscures the fact that it isn’t an essential characteristic. (I would read the hell out of a portal fantasy set in Dungeons & Dragons land that was simply about finding a job and an apartment in a world where Adventurer is a career option and your roommate could be a Beholder.) Feodor, once he learned about Our Friend, thought he could be a hero; instead he caused a disaster. He warns Aisling off: “Look, I know what it’s like to think you’re the molten centre of the universe, but there’s history here, and people moulded by it.” (Another example of good writing, typical of Pseudotooth: you’d expect just “center of the universe,” but Holloway sidesteps the cliché by adding molten, segueing into the “moulded by” image.) Aisling still isn’t sure the other world isn’t in her head. Feodor thinks that will lead to her repeating his mistakes. The other world doesn’t revolve around Aisling, it’s more than a backdrop for her story; that’s a sign of its reality. Although the status quo shifts, Aisling isn’t an instigator but a witness. Her story isn’t about changing the world, it’s about understanding her own life.

Given the subjects it deals with, Pseudotooth is in constant danger of becoming one of those stories valorizing mental illness, connecting it to creativity or suggesting it’s actually some sort of unique and valuable insight. (As someone who’s experienced depression, I hate those things; it’s like telling people with thyroid problems or fibromyalgia they ought to accept and appreciate them.) Ultimately, though, Pseudotooth comes down on the right side of the line, even if it teeters precariously and has to windmill its arms around the point Aisling flushes her meds. (Not recommended, even with the suggestion her doctors gave her a half-assed diagnosis.)

A book review feels incomplete without some kind of thematic summing-up, so I’ll say Pseudotooth is less about mental or psychosomatic illnesses than about how people define and categorize the people who have them. Aisling’s mother thinks she’s weak, or faking it. Aisling’s aunt thinks she’s morally deficient. The head of the family who adopt Aisling thinks she needs to be protected from the world; Our Friend would lock Aisling away to protect the world from her. Within Reason’s annotator suffered from psychosomatic illnesses and believed everything his book told him about himself. Aisling’s story is about coming to understand she doesn’t have to accept any definitions. Her pseudoseizures aren’t part of her identity; they may affect her but don’t define her, and whether or not she gets over them she can still move forward with her life.

The main reason to recommend Pseudotooth is the writing, which is, as I said, great. (It’s coming from distinctly literary direction, without the TV or Hollywood or Video Game influences I detect in a lot of modern SF; that’s something I look for and appreciate.) As a small press release with no unusually vast or unrelenting marketing push behind it, it’s a book I’m afraid might slip under the radar of fantasy fans. That would be too bad–it deserves some attention.

Ben Aaronovitch, The Hanging Tree

Among my least favorite trends in contemporary pop culture–I have several–is the serialization of everything. This thought was inspired by The Hanging Tree, the most recent of Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant novels, the better of the two novel series by former Doctor Who writers about London magic police.[1] Peter Grant is an officer and apprentice wizard in the Folly, a department dealing with magical crimes. At first Peter and his old-fashioned but open-minded wizardly mentor are the whole staff; the series hook is that Peter is almost by himself figuring out how modern fantasy police ought to work.

Sometimes all you need to make an adventure compelling is a strong voice. Peter is a distinct, likable first person narrator: he’s amused more than he’s disgusted and unlike most contemporary heroes he actually seems to like people. The narration doesn’t just report action as though novelizing a TV series–Peter’s point of view is apparent in every description, and he offers frequent asides on police procedure and magic to explain what he’s doing and why. I have a hard time finding light SF that’s both intelligent and genuinely good-natured; Aaronovitch’s books fit the bill.

Cover of The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree’s voice is as likable as the earlier volumes… but what struck me was its weird structure. Here’s the plot promised by the blurb: at a party of wealthy and privileged teenagers one kid drops dead of a drug overdose. A guest’s mother asks Peter to keep her daughter out of trouble. Inasmuch as the mother is not only Peter’s girlfriend’s aunt but also a powerful river goddess, he has some incentive to cooperate. This is not a bad premise. Magic is privilege; wizards are powerful and, lacking oversight, often aren’t held to account for their actions, much as in reality the very wealthy often aren’t. At the intersection of money, privilege, impulsive teenage recklessness, and literally reality-warping power is a novel’s worth of theme to dig into. On top of that, the choice between bending the rules or pissing off a goddess is an interesting dilemma.

The Hanging Tree, though, gradually becomes a different story. As you reach the last quarter of the book you realize the drug overdose was a red herring, Peter’s professional ethics won’t have consequences in his personal life, and the imperiled god-offspring has dropped out of the novel. Her mother sticks around, but doesn’t seem to belong anymore: she’s just visiting from the first unfinished story. The new The Hanging Tree is about small-time crooks stealing magical artifacts and, in a lovely bit of bathos, selling them on eBay.

Now, this is also a potentially great story, the urban fantasy equivalent of a Donald Westlake caper or a Coen brothers comedy. But The Hanging Tree doesn’t finish this story either! The eBay plot becomes instantly irrelevant as soon as it leads Peter to the artifacts’ owner: the Faceless Man. Which will mean nothing to you unless you’ve read other books in the series.

The Faceless Man is a wizardly crime lord who’s been lurking far in the background of Peter’s investigations without being actually immediately relevant to the resolution of any of them. The climax of The Hanging Tree is the moment we discover, after seven volumes of buildup, the Faceless Man is… a character just introduced in this book! And not even one of the important ones! To be fair, using the climax of a novel to unmask your mysterious multi-book villain is a no-win situation. If the villain is a character we thought we’d gotten to know, it’s a cheap O. Henry twist. If the villain is some guy we never saw before, it’s meaningless. And, honestly, these books never convinced me I should care whether Peter identified or caught the Faceless Man at all: see again, lurking far in the background and not actually immediately relevant.

Which makes me wonder why this big reveal didn’t come at the beginning of a book: get the underwhelming part out of the way first and you have an entire novel to explore the consequences. (It’s surprising how often the most interesting parts of a story happen after it ends.) And there would have been plenty to explore–behind the Faceless Man are hints of personality and theme. He has a library full of J. R. R. Tolkien and Alan Garner and other writers at the intersection of epic fantasy and British folk horror, and in a previous book he left a magic booby-trap inscribed with Elven runes. He’s a toxic nerd. From what little we see of him, he’s also a rich xenophobe, an England-for-the-English type. I know Aaronovitch probably came up with this character years ago, but this all feels very relevant.

Series were not always like this. My shelves are full of series in which books build on each other and characters evolve over time, but individual volumes work by themselves–Steven Brust’s Taltos series[2] and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld books are examples, as are any mystery series in which the characters develop. The exceptions are often single stories split for convenience, like The Lord of the Rings. One reason for the difference might be availability: maybe pre-Amazon, authors were more likely to assume some readers wouldn’t be able to get their hands on the whole series? I would guess that another may be the influence of other media on contemporary written SF–especially television.

Over the last couple of decades TV storytelling has shifted. The overarching story dominates to the point that individual TV episodes often work more like chapters in a novel than stories in themselves. (Streaming services now release entire seasons at once in the assumption the audience will watch 12 hours in one go!) As these series go on it gets harder for any one episode to get a complete story out from under the ever-accumulating baggage.

TV series can be renewed for years if they make money, or cancelled on short notice. This encourages arc plots busy enough to drag out interminably with twists, counter-twists, unexpected betrayals, and the revelation of increasingly convoluted background mythology… but simple enough to wrap up on short notice in a jury-rigged series finale. Basically, stories with more room than actual content; lots of ostensible action but little real movement in the underlying plot, character, or thematic arcs. The fantasy genre is still home to an improbable number of three-volume novels; now genre television is reinventing the penny dreadful.

It’s this style of storytelling The Hanging Tree reminds me of. The Faceless Man story arc played out past its natural length. Now The Hanging Tree brings it to a climax so fast it interrupts itself.[3] Weirdly structured novels are not a problem for me. In fact, it’s often a selling point–I like novels that meander, take detours, eschew traditional plot, and just generally don’t go where I expect. It has to be a good weird structure, though, and this time it wasn’t: The Hanging Tree crams three stories together so tightly none have room to dig into their themes. This is the point where the gravitational pull of the arc so deforms the individual installment it’s no longer coherent or satisfying in and of itself.


  1. The other is a rather grumpier series by Paul Cornell.  ↩

  2. Still current, but it started in the 1980s.  ↩

  3. Twice. No, three times–I haven’t even mentioned the mother/daughter wizards looking for a Very Important Manuscript, who are major characters for a while but eventually, anticlimactically, just pick up the manuscript and walk offstage in what’s almost an aside. They’re not part of this novel; they’re being set up to be important in some other novel.  ↩

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar

I read Angélica Gorodischer’s Trafalgar because I’d enjoyed her earlier Kalpa Imperial–earlier in English translation, I mean; I think Kalpa Imperial is a later work. Trafalgar isn’t as good. I enjoyed it, but the premise–an Argentine traveling salesman who, over coffee, regales his friends (including a thinly-disguised Gorodischer) with his fabulous (in the “fable-like” sense) adventures on alien worlds–is up my particular alley. I can’t guarantee the same experience to anyone else.

Cover of Trafalgar

Trafalgar is a series of club stories, stories told by a character within a frame story (often, in older work, guys gossiping at their club; hence the name). Gorodischer uses a structure I haven’t often come across. Club stories often begin with the frame, then launch into straight first person narration. Most of the stories in Trafalgar are conversations straight through, punctuated by questions and interjections from Trafalgar’s friends, notes on what’s happening around him, and regular reports on the state of his coffee.

Here’s my problem. Trafalgar was first published in 1979 and Trafalgar is a very 1979 kind of dude. In his original 1979 context Trafalgar was probably lovably roguish but now he just comes off as thoughtless. What I’m saying is, he’ll fall into bed with any interested woman, and because his author looks after him someone is interested wherever he goes, and that wouldn’t be so bad except he won’t shut up about it. I mean, show him a planet and his second thought, after “what can I sell here,” is “am I going to get lucky?” Also, in the first story a woman who Trafalgar believes is seducing him, due to circumstances too complicated to explain, actually thinks he’s a holographic Mandrake the Magician. Which, whatever Angélica Gorodischer thought 35 years ago, is not funny. Also, there’s a story where Trafalgar finds a planet where it’s 1492 and he thinks giving Columbus a ride to the New World would be cool.[1] So, 1979, then.

(To be fair to Trafalgar, in the last story we learn he’s started traveling with his daughter, and she takes the lead and rescues him when he gets into trouble, and I think we’re meant to take it as a sign that he’s maturing. You could also take it as a sign that he needs a babysitter.)

But! When Trafalgar is not thinking about sex Trafalgar can be interesting. One planet exists in a different random year every day. On another planet undead ancestors nag their descendants into halting scary, unfamiliar progress. On another the locals, having come to understand the universe completely, decided they were ready to drop out and stop using their conscious minds.

I’ll cut a certain amount of slack for a book if it does a thing I like, even when it does the thing with indifferent success. I found myself cutting Trafalgar a certain amount of slack. I thought it might be worth considering what it was doing to earn it. The answer, I think, is that the part of the genre Trafalgar is working in is home to some better books I’ve loved, including Stanislaw Lem’s The Star Diaries and The Cyberiad and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. It’s also a staple of Doctor Who (as in “The Happiness Patrol” or “The Sun Makers”).

Trafalgar, in short, is one of those space operas that have a lot in common with Gulliver’s Travels. Obviously compared to Swift Trafalgar is superficial–the big problem with the Columbus story is that it doesn’t actually think about its central idea! But there’s a certain distant similarity in approach. The biggest hint is how the planets Trafalgar visits read as islands, with small populations, modest economies, and a single major city. A lot of space opera planets work like this. Sometimes you can chalk this up to the writers’ lack of imagination, or failure to appreciate scale–but not always. I’d argue more space opera stories share DNA with Gulliver’s Travels than most SF fans assume, and they share an approach that’s interestingly opposite to much of that genre.

For such a fanciful genre, so much space opera is so serious: either military SF, or grimly earnest thrillers. Look at Star Wars, our iconic space opera, which we also think of as the quintessential light, fun space opera: for all the cute robots and cool spaceships, the dominant recurring image is a genocide machine the size of a moon. Space opera aspires to be not just serious but epic, which usually translates into galaxy-spanning conspiracies, planetary disasters and mass death.

What’s different about Trafalgar, The Star Diaries, et cetera, is a sense of play. Gorodischer’s universe incorporates anything, no matter how fantastic, that will accept a handwavy science fictional veneer: an exact duplicate of Earth, a planet of ghosts. Other books in the same vein incorporate literalized metaphors and wordplay, social satire, and reducto ad absurdum.

These stories avoid high stakes, epic scale, and operatic emotions. Take the not-uncommon SF trope of the time warp that lets the heroes meet themselves. Some of these stories might be after Sense of Wonder (TM), or existential angst, or an excuse to show off the author’s grasp of technobabble. In The Star Diaries, it’s a story about how Ijon Tichy can’t get along with himself for the five minutes it takes to tighten a bolt. As the Tichies multiply they form a dysfunctional government that immediately loses itself in bureaucratic minutae. This is small-stakes comedy with a domesticity unusual in space opera: Tichy wakes himself in the middle of the night, squabbles with himself over breakfast. The fantastic, here, is not mind-blowing sense-of-wonder stuff: it’s everyday–maybe even disappointing.

The comic style is different, too. The fashion in humorous SF is snarky banter, or overt comedy in the vein of (but rarely as successful as) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Gorodischer, Lem, and company are more wry, taking a straight-faced, matter-of-fact tone. Tichy is a poker-faced narrator; Trafalgar is, if a bit more flippant, also sincere about his crazy stories. This subgenre shades into a less comic, more Borgesian kind of SF; Le Guin’s Changing Planes is an example.[2] I’d argue this style is a close relative of more satirical stories. The satirical and philosophical strands tend to mix–even Trafalgar alternates between slapstick and grasping at profundity.

An occasional weakness of Swiftian space opera is that, in the interest of satire, futuristic or alien societies might be their authors’ own cultures wearing a hat. For a lot of SF that’s the wrong approach: different and challenging futures can challenge default assumptions, suggest different possibilities, even just create interesting environments for adventure stories[3]. Also, as Trafalgar demonstrates, cultural assumptions date fast.

On the other hand, the science fiction genre could use a little more playfulness and a little less self-conscious earnestness. I suppose as long as that’s true, I’ll be forgiving towards books like Trafalgar.


  1. Trafalgar emphasizes he brought the Spanish over as “settlers,” not “conquistadors,” but the story doesn’t think to ask whether this makes any difference at all and it barely mentions Native Americans.  ↩

  2. I’d also give an honorable mention to Leena Krohn’s Tainaron; it’s off topic inasmuch as there’s no reason to believe the city of Tainaron is on another planet, or in another dimension, or anywhere else space opera usually takes us, but it has the same feel.  ↩

  3. Despite how I might sound sometimes, I’m not totally down on those!  ↩

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, The Return of Munchausen

I’ve written before about the Russian fantasist Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. Due to Soviet censorship, he went unpublished in his lifetime only to be rediscovered and translated in the new century. He took his place among my favorite writers on the basis of Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club. Autobiography of a Corpse and the latest release, The Return of Munchausen, are slightly lesser works but still good.

Cover of The Return of Munchausen

Baron Munchausen is as perfect a hero for Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky as he was for Terry Gilliam. Krzhizhanovsky writes philosophical fiction with the tools of the tall tale: literalized metaphors, wordplay, and so much anthropomorphism that his inanimate objects and abstract ideas can be livelier than his people. (Typical of Krzhizhanovsky’s technique is one character’s descent of a staircase: “Stairs scurried under Unding’s feet and then, damply through his worn-out soles, sidewalk asphalt.”)

Munchausen, for the uninitiated, is a fictional character loosely based on an actual German aristocrat. He’s a serial exaggerator. He rides cannonballs, vacations on the moon, and pulls himself out of swamps by his own hair–or claims to.[1]

Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen isn’t just a teller of tall tales, but a defender of fiction, an advocate for fantasy: “I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy.” His motto is “truth in lies.” He has a “theory of improbability”: where probability theory studies things that happen many times, improbability theory studies things that have happened less than once. A scholar protests that Munchausen’s theory is all metaphor, but that’s the point: “People are fractions passing themselves off as ones… and the acts of a fraction are all fractional,” he argues. Probability alone isn’t a reliable guide to anything as unpredictably irrational as human beings.

So when Munchausen is asked to tour and report on the new Soviet Union, he returns with a lecture full of the usual impossible adventures. Here we see why Krzhizhanovsky had no luck getting published. The Russian sequence is a long, caustic vent about Krzhizhanovsky’s every frustration with his country. Secret police and famines get a look in, but Krzhizhanovsky aims most of his satire at the government’s control of ideas and its treatment of artists and intellectuals–understandably, maybe, in Krzhizhanovsky’s circumstances. Trains are fueled by burning books; Munchausen’s train crawls by inches because the engineer is an ex-professor who keeps stopping to read. Munchausen can see Soviet science is advancing because the scientists, lacking blackboards, are running after the trucks on which they’ve scrawled their equations. For modern readers some of Krzhizhanovsky’s less broad and more specific jokes are obscure enough to warrant endnotes: at one point Munchausen is sentenced to a “conditional execution,” which the notes tell us was a real punishment handed down on one occasion to an engineer whose skills the government couldn’t actually afford to lose. But even without the context there’s still plenty of wit here.

Krzhizhanovsky knows this is satire but Munchausen doesn’t share his latest author’s awareness: he thinks he’s created a flight of fancy, unmoored from reality. When he learns his lecture was nothing more than a comic exaggeration of the truth, Munchausen is stricken.

While this review was half-finished, I came across a weirdly appropriate line in one of the blogs I follow. Adam Roberts, in a review of a different book, quoted this bit from Martin Amis’s book Koba the Dread: “Amis says ‘it was a symmetrical convenience—for Stalin—that a true description of the Soviet Union exactly resembled a demented slander of the Soviet Union.’”

Munchausen is an intellectual anarchist. For him, tall tales represent freedom; absurdity opens up new imaginative possibilities. So it’s important to Munchausen that his tall tales actually are absurd–that they put some distance between themselves and the reality they depart from. If the world isn’t reasonable, Munchausen’s refusal to conform to reason is nothing special. Now reality itself is absurd enough to overtake Munchausen’s ability to reimagine it, and the jokes don’t seem so Pythonesquely anarchic anymore. Just bitter.


  1. The Baron is often misremembered as pulling himself up by his bootstraps. Next time you hear that figure of speech, remember that it describes an impossibility.  ↩

Catherynne M. Valente, Radiance

I read Radiance last year and took some notes towards a blog post but never wrote it. I came across the file and decided to correct that. This post will be vaguer it might have been if I’d come to it while the book was fresh in my mind, but this was one of the best books I read in 2016 and I wanted to register my approval. (It’s an expansion of Catherynne M. Valente’s short story “The Radiant Car Thy Sparrows Drew,” which is online if you want to see whether Radiance is your kind of thing.)

Cover of Radiance

Radiance views common SF tropes–multiverses, transhumanism, alien ecology–through the lens of the planetary romances written back when people still thought Mars might have canals. In the early 20th century humans, with help from the milk of the alien Callowhales, are living and making movies on Venus and Mars and the Moon. Black and white and silent movies, mostly, because the Edison company has the patent on color and sound.

Percival Unck directs fantasies and melodramas. His daughter Severin directs documentaries. Up until she disappears mysteriously while investigating the mysterious disappearance of a small colonial town on Venus. Percival can think of no better way to deal with his grief and uncertainty than to plan a movie about his daughter’s vanishing, one that might find a solution.

Catherynne M. Valente writes some of the best prose in contemporary SF. Radiance really lets her show off. It’s a documentary/assemblage novel, which is both a great worldbuilding device and an excuse to play with voice. There are scripts, and transcripts, and letters, and diaries, and news articles. And Percival Unck’s movie treatment, which changes style as he revises its genre from film noir to pulp space opera to a musical comedy gather-the-suspects-in-the-drawing-room finale. I knew this would be one of my favorite novels of the year when the mind-blowing, space-and-time bending answer to its central mystery was revealed by a vaudeville tune sung by a Callowhale.

Radiance is full of detectives, real and fictional. Sometimes both at once. At one point an actress famous for playing a sleuth finds herself doing real detective work, and the investigations of Anchises St. John, sole survivor of the lost colony, are fictionalized in Unck’s film treatment. It’s not always clear what’s real and what’s filtered through someone’s story.

People often make sense of their lives using narrative as an organizing principle. They turn life into stories. Which sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, because reality is different from stories in crucial ways. For one thing, stories end. Most important questions have final, settled answers. Stories tie off all the loose ends in a way that’s emotionally satisfying; reality keeps unraveling more.

Moving from fact to fiction and back is how Percival ties up loose ends. He keeps a filmed diary and has no compunctions about re-staging his life to best effect. When Severin’s mother left her on his doorstep as a baby, Percival had his assistant carry her back out into the rain so he could dramatically restage her unexpected arrival. For Percival, that Severin is missing is in some ways worse than if she had died: it’s open-ended, questions forever unanswered. His film treatment changes styles because for Percival the key to solving Severin’s disappearance is figuring out its genre.

Severin turned to documentaries in reaction to Percival’s fictions, but she arranges her storylines, too, in her own way. She doesn’t restage her life… but when her expedition arrives on Venus and finds Anchises dazed and wandering the empty village, she puts off trying to talk to him until her crew has set up the lighting. As Severin’s former lover puts it, Percival “lived through things first and then reshot them to get them right, while she hung back until everything was perfect, then called action. Couldn’t live through a thing until the camera was rolling.” Documentaries aspire to objectivity, but it’s important to remember they’re also narratives, arguments building to possibly illusory conclusions.

Unlike a story, reality, barring the actual heat death of the universe, doesn’t actually end. That’s the anxiety-inducing thing about real life. But in the end I think Radiance suggests that maybe it’s also the good part.


On another, disconnected note… In a recent post on Philip K. Dick I wrote that my favorite thing about his writing is the prolifgacy of his imagination, the way he would just throw stuff into his novels. Radiance doesn’t resemble Dick’s work at all, but it’s equally generous with wild ideas. Valente gives us a nineteenth-century solar system, and an alternate history of the movies, and a spooky cosmic mystery, and the next step in human evolution, and the many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, and a glorious patchwork of styles, formates, and genres, and… and I’m sure some people–

And yes, I know I’m setting up a straw man here, but it’s a straw man I’ve observed in the wild–

I’m sure there are people who would ask why we need all of this. Could you have a novel that explored endings, and disappearances, and filmmaking, and storytelling as a straightforward narrative? Or a conventional space opera? Or without the SF angle at all, setting it in the days of silent film?

Of course, the answer is, yes, you could, but it wouldn’t be this novel, one that explores those themes in this specific, individual way. And this novel is excellent. And it’s excellent partly because so many big concepts were generously, and confidently, stuffed into one novel. In that it reminds me of another favorite from the last couple of years, Jo Walton’s The Just City and its sequels, which combine Greek gods and social SF and time travel and robots and philosophical tangents and constantly refuse to take their plots in the direction you’d expect.

Sometimes I pick up a SF novel that’s had good buzz centered on a couple of high-concept ideas. Then I discover those ideas are all they have, the rest of the novel being filled in with default tropes, stock plots, and a voice that doesn’t distinguish itself from its neighbors on the shelf. It can be a little frustrating. It’s not that I don’t understand the comfort to be found in a slightly new but still familiar story. I often need comfort reading myself. (Especially lately!) But I already know how to find those books; it’s harder to find SF that surprises me. I need more novels like Radiance that are not cautious variations on other stories, but instead have the self-confidence to be inimitably themselves.

Philip K. Dick, Ubik

There are writers I count among my favorites even though if I made a list of my favorite books nothing they wrote would be on it. Philip K. Dick is one of those writers. I like his tone, the off-kilter feel of his writing, like he’s not bothering to smooth over the points where his world doesn’t join up properly. It matches the bemusement I’ve always felt when reality itself seemed too random or silly to believe. The real world doesn’t always join up properly, either.

The idea of Dick’s writing was a big influence on me even though I can’t honestly say he ever wrote a book I particularly loved. On my scale none of his novels rise past very good to great, unless it’s the imaginary Platonic ideal Dick novel he never quite wrote. Then again, a hypothetical perfectly artful Dick novel it might not have had what attracted me to his work in the first place: his “let’s just throw stuff in there, why not” attitude.

Cover of Ubik

Take Ubik. Joe Chip lives in the far-off world of 1992. Everything is coin-operated including Joe’s front door, which argues like one of the doors from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Ensembles like “a cowboy hat, black lace mantilla, and bermuda shorts” or “a floral mumu and Spandex bloomers” are the height of fashion–Ubik introduces everybody by describing their ridiculous clothes. Joe’s employed by an agency for “inertials,” psychically powered people who counteract other people’s psychic powers. Joe hires a new inertial who counters precognition by traveling back in time to change the present. Meanwhile Joe’s boss Glen Runciter is losing touch with his dead wife, who helps run the company from cryogenic “half-life,” because the teenager a few crypts down keeps breaking into their conferences. Joe and Runciter travel to the moon with some inertials for a job but their contact turns out to be a talking robot bomb; Runciter dies. So Joe carts him back to Earth to be put in half-life. But Joe’s coins spontaneously acquire Glen Runciter portraits, food and cigarettes decay, gadgets turn into worn-out obsolete equivalents, and eventually the world around him becomes Des Moines in the 1940s. More worryingly, his intertial pals are spontaneously mummifying. Then Joe starts getting messages from Runciter directing him to look for something called Ubik that will solve all his problems…

Ubik is full of weird little side details that didn’t have to be there. Like, one character has a nightmare that’s invaded by a couple of psychics, and it’s genuinely disquieting but could just as easily have been cut. And there’s no reason at all for those weird clothes. But Dick must not have felt everything needed a reason. He had so many weird ideas he could just toss them around like glitter.

Dick is not among the great prose stylists of science fiction. He’s abupt, shambolic, and pulpy. Not that he can’t deliver moments of beauty or grab you with whatever emotion he wants you to feel; at times you can tell he put in the work. But the bulk of most Dick novels have this “just bang it out and send it off, I’m on a deadline here” vibe.

There’s the aforementioned scene in Ubik where Stanton Mick, who wants to hire the inertials, suddenly inflates, floats, and explodes. Ubik just says “Stanton Mick floated to the ceiling of the room, his arms protruding distendedly and rigidly” in the same tone it might use to describe Stanton walking across the room. The bomb is just there. And without much in the way of context: “‘I’ve heard of this,’ Runciter said to Joe. ‘It’s a self-destruct humanoid bomb. Help me get everybody out of here. They just now put it on auto; that’s why it floated upward.’” This is astonishingly casual. Runciter doesn’t sound shocked; neither he nor the narrative react like he’s in immediate danger. This casualness is typical of Ubik. When Joe discovers his pocket is full of Glen Runciter money it is at first just another aggravation at the end of a long and trying day. I mean, yeah, he knows it’s weird. But it’s the same kind of weird as ordering coffee and getting it already cold. Joe’s not immediately questioning everything he knows about reality, is what I’m saying.

Standards for what’s considered well-crafted in genre fiction are always changing. Today, a respectable SF novel builds up to the scenes on which the plot hinges. Forshadows the big reveals. Changes the prose style and pacing to suit sudden bursts of action. Artfully slips all the explanations the reader needs into the background as it goes.

Ubik… uh, doesn’t. Ubik is more like the pulp stories Raymond Chandler ruefully looks back on in “The Simple Art of Murder”:

…the demand was for constant action and if you stopped to think you were lost. When in doubt have a man come through a door with a gun in his hand. This could get to be pretty silly but somehow it didn’t seem to matter. A writer who is afraid to over-reach himself is as useless as a general who is afraid to be wrong.

Philip K. Dick is one of those “have a man come through a door with a gun” writers, only the guy he sends through the door has psychic powers and takes a bite out of the hero’s arm. Dick’s main virtue as a writer is that he’s not afraid to over-reach himself.

And, weirdly, his stylistic awkwardness helps. That humanoid bomb scene I described above is, technically, not well written. But Dick brilliantly captures the feel of dreams. Not the bluntly metaphorical dreams you often get in fiction, like writers use when they can’t think of a good way to work in a theme. I mean actual dreams with their arbitrariness and disjointed shifts. (Dick has a lot in common with David Lynch, here.)

Like… you’re in a meeting, and a guy floats up to the ceiling. And you suddenly know, the way dreamers suddenly know things, that the guy is a bomb. And all of this–the meeting, the floating man, the sudden knowledge–feels normal. Dreams don’t divide the banal from the unreal. You’re in one situation, then you’re in another. That’s how Dick writes in his pulpy “just get things down” mode. Moments other novels would build up to, make a big deal of, Dick describes matter-of-factly. Like the way Magritte undramatically, naturalistically painted a man with an apple for a face. So much of the hallucinatory quality of Dick’s novels comes from the contrast between his wild, prolifgate imagination and his straightforward delivery.

Dick’s style joins hands with his love of surrealism, and his flaws become virtues. I have no idea whether this was intentional on Philip K. Dick’s part. Whether it was or not, I think it’s brilliant.

This is not to criticize craft. As Chandler goes on to say of his years in the pulps: “As I look back on my own stories it would be absurd if I did not wish they had been better.” A well-crafted novel, all else being equal, beats a poorly-crafted one. It’s just that Dick’s writing, because of his particular, peculiar, circumstances, breaks the rule. When bad writing successfully creates an effect, intentionally or not, it’s no longer bad. It follows that any prose can be good prose–if only it’s used for the right job.

Mosaic Novels: Datura

One of my favorite authors in the last couple of years has been Leena Krohn. I haven’t yet written about her work here. This post is an excuse to correct that. It’s another in my series on mosaic novels–again, I’m defining this as novels made of vignettes that build up to a cumulative theme instead of a single plot. The last two posts covered The Book of Disquiet and Speedboat which, at least on the surface, aren’t structured much like Krohn’s novels. She writes full-length chapters, with titles, usually chronologically ordered. But the chapters in Krohn’s novels work like those novels’ vignettes. Every chapter could stand as an individual unit of writing. But they aren’t stories as such; again, they read more like essays or descriptions of situations.

Krohn’s novels pick a theme and approach it from different angles, with different strategies. So Tainaron: Mail From Another City, a novel composed of letters from a human living in a city of insects, includes chapters centered on metaphors for life in human cities, others anthropomorphizing actual insect behavior, and others just focusing on the strangeness of Tainaron to convey the feeling of living as an expatriate.

Cover of Datura

Tainaron is Krohn’s best novel, but my favorite is Datura (or a Delusion We All See). Datura’s narrator is the editor and entire staff of The New Anomalist, a low-rent Fortean Times knockoff, the seriousness of which is indicated by the fact that its owner wants its gift shop to sell Big Mouth Billy Bass. As she runs around interviewing cranks and crackpots, the datura she’s taking for her asthma is making her hallucinate. Some chapters describe her research. Some are interviews with people who believe in strange things–plant intelligence, trepanation, the face of Jesus manifested in cheese–which are gently mocking but not scornful. Datura is compassionately interested in these people’s conceptions of reality. Other chapters describe the narrator’s hallucinations: an old woman who’s always ahead of her, a candy shop that seems out of its time. Sometimes it’s not clear what kind of chapter we’re reading. At one point the narrator is passed by a column of empty cars which she later learns were a convoy of real driverless vehicles.

There’s not much plot. The narrator starts taking datura and then stops. We know where this rudimentary story is going from the first chapter. But all of her experiences together–character studies of crackpots, different views of reality, musings about how human beings see patterns and create meaning, datura-induced breaks with reality–all these self-contained scenes, equally important, build to a larger theme. It’s an interesting one, because although Datura’s themes–science, skepticism, anomalies, the nature of reality–are familiar in SF, especially since the heyday of The X-Files, Datura approaches them from a different direction than usual. On the questions of whether plants can think or angels exist, Datura comes down on the side of skepticism, but it’s pro-rationality for a reason that in a lot of SF doesn’t get much play: it’s important to understand the world because we live in it with other people, together. To connect with others we need some common frame of reference, however tenuous. “The truth is always shared. A reality that belongs to only one person isn’t real.” Datura has empathy for its cranks because reality connects us even to people who don’t believe in it.

A traditional plot would not have suited Datura. A strong plot would need an active protagonist with a defined goal, and an antagonist to stop her getting it. A plot would turn Datura’s focus inward onto the protagonist instead of outward to the world around her. There’s nothing wrong with that–obviously, lots of strongly plotted novels are great! But it wouldn’t be this novel.

Leena Krohn’s novels have narrators instead of protagonists; they watch, listen, and think more than they act. Her chapters build on each other and develop ideas and characters. But they work more through accumulation and association, less through the cause and effect of traditional plotting. Her books combine the best parts of essays–a focus on ideas, looking out from the self instead of in at a protagonist–with the novel’s ability to explore character and approach themes through metaphor.

Jacqueline Koyanagi, Ascension (and Starship SF)

I haven’t accomplished much in the last month because the news has had me genuinely stressed out. 2016 has had far too much news, most of it alarming, and I’m trying to back away from following it obsessively. In part that means getting back to writing and drawing, as a distraction. So I finished roughly two thirds of this review in early June and the rest just now; if it seems disjointed, there’s your reason.


Jacqueline Koyanagi’s Ascension, a space opera novel, came out a few years ago. I read it recently, having chosen it at random. It’s not bad. It’s not perfect, either, but it meets and exceeds my baseline criteria for “good.” For about half this post I’ll explain further; then, as is my habit, I’ll use this book review as an excuse to wander off on a tangent: What is starship-crew space opera (of which this is an example) usually doing? Why is it more common in media SF than in print? And what do fans get out of it?

Ascension is narrated in first person by its protagonist, Alana Quick. The prose is good; it’s clear this book has paid some attention to word choice. Like, in this world starship mechanics are called “sky surgeons,” and Alana describes her work as “stitching together humanity’s lifeline.” Which tells you Alana sees ships as living organisms, and thinks of her work less as engineering than as lifesaving medicine. Alana’s complex enough that when she did something crazy impulsive–as she does more than once, because that’s her personality–I never lost patience.

Her first impulsive decision is to stow away on the starship Tangled Axon. She wants a job. More importantly, she wants to know why the crew were hired to deliver her sister to the big Wal-Mart-meets-Google corporation that literally travelled from a parallel universe to dominate the run-down local economy. The Tangled Axon’s crew is not thrilled to find Alana in their hold, but for now they’re stuck with her because shortly thereafter everyone’s framed for blowing up a planet.

Ascension is about a starship crew accepting a new member and might appeal to the same audience that liked the similarly themed The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. I don’t think Ascension is as successful a novel because its world doesn’t feel as complete or lived in as The Long Way’s. The Tangled Axon’s crew rarely interact with anyone outside the main cast. Granted, they are fugitives, and their isolation adds extra complications since Alana is chronically ill and running out of medication. But it feels like the characters live in a bubble, or a movie with a limited budget for speaking parts. The one person they seek out for help tidies herself away by dying as soon as she’s told them what they need to know. Even the big villain is, in a sense, part of the family.

Ascension’s universe is a backdrop in front of which the characters work out their relationships. Despite the presence of generic cargo crates I’m not sure I understand how the Tangled Axon earns a living when it’s not having an Adventure. And although Koyanagi tries, the crew don’t seem to react to the destruction of an entire planet with the warranted level of blue-screen-of-death horror. On the other hand, another story with this flaw is the 1977 film Star Wars, which I’ve heard has done well for itself. On the other other hand, having only recently finished Ascension I already cannot recall how destroying a planet fit into the villain’s master plan.

Anyway, that one thematic parallel to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet started me thinking about Starship SF, and the kinds of stories it tells. Starship SF is the space opera subgenre that brings together a disparate bunch of characters and watches them mess about in a starship. Starship SF novels exist, including Ascension and The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, but the best known examples are TV series–Farscape, Firefly, Red Dwarf, Blake’s 7, Star Trek. These shows like to tell different kinds of stories in their individual episodes. But it’s arguable that their overall series-long stories are, at least in part, about found families or families of choice.

Starships are central to space opera TV shows in a way they usually aren’t in novels; they have a budgetary incentive to set as many scenes as possible on their standing set. (One redemptive reading of Ascension’s lack of interest in the universe beyond the Tangled Axon is that its insularity mirrors Starship SF’s affection for the bottle episode.) A spaceship is a terrarium floating in a void, by necessity an enclosed, self-sufficient world. The crew can’t leave because beyond the walls is airless vacuum–literally nothing. Stick some random people in this situation and it can go one of two ways. One is horror, the breakdown of a miniature society under pressure, as in the movies Alien or Sunshine. The other, more suited to a series, is for the crew to come together as a community. Or a family. Starship crews can be metaphors for either, or both, which is where the consolatory element comes in. These communities, like families of choice, at least aspire to work out their problems and make a safe space for all their members.

I spent the last year re-watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, which I hadn’t seen in ages. Coincidentally the blog Vaka Rangi by Josh Marsfelder reviewed the series episode-by-episode at around the same time, so I followed that as well. Gene Roddenberry thought of ST: TNG as utopian SF: the Federation is a post-scarcity society where nobody’s poor because anyone can get whatever they need from a replicator; everyone values self-improvement over money and status. In his reviews Marsfelder repeatedly suggests that, yeah, ST: TNG is utopian, but it’s not the Federation that’s the utopia–we don’t know how the Federation works[1], and the Enterprise often has to fix situations the Federation’s screwed up. The Next Generation’s utopia is the Enterprise itself, because the crew models better ways to resolve conflicts than the truculent posturing passing for drama in grittier SF. The crew, and whatever guest stars have shown up this week, are stuck with each other. If they can’t keep the Enterprise community functional while they’re between planets… well, leaving is more complicated than opening an airlock and walking away. The characters have their differences but The Next Generation’s focus is on how they work them out and come to understand each other.

In written science fiction space opera and military SF are so closely linked they’re often conflated, but that’s not the path The Next Generation took. Yeah, Starfleet looks like a military organization–they have ranks and uniforms–but it’s unlike any military we know. The characters rarely relate to each other like soldiers in a disciplined chain of command. (The episodes where The Next Generation modeled itself on military drama were usually the ones where the show went off the rails.) The Enterprise feels like an office staffed by close and supportive employees. More than that: the bridge crew relate to each other in a way that feels as close as a family. And they really do appear to be each others’ primary family: Star Trek did not have an unlimited recurring cast, so most of the crew have just one or two literal relatives. The only one with an American-style nuclear family is Chief O’Brien.

Most televised Starship SF resembles ST:TNG in that their long-term emotional arcs are about disparate people forming family-style emotional bonds. Firefly is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Farscape is about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Red Dwarf is, despite Arnold Rimmer’s best efforts, about people who initially don’t understand each other becoming a family. Even the Blake’s 7 crew feels a bit like a family, though they’re a dysfunctional one and the series ends in a messy divorce.

You might, if inclined, divide ensemble TV series into two broad groups: the edgy ones, spectacles of people ingeniously betraying and undercutting each other (A Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, House of Cards), and the consolatory ones whose characters support each other and come together to solve problems. Whether these ensembles are SF like ST:TNG, crime dramas like Leverage, or even sitcoms like The Simpsons or Community, the ways the characters relate to each other feel similar. Their emotional arcs take familiar routes regardless of genre. Either a character is emotionally tied up in the A plot (Worf’s family is caught up in Klingon politics, Starfleet wants to disassemble Data), or the B plot is about someone working through emotional issues that tie into the A plot thematically (Data wants to understand some human foible, Barclay is working on his psychological issues). The rest of the cast help them through their problem to an emotional epiphany.[2] Scenes where Geordi explains humanity to Data or Picard works through an ethical dilemma with Guinan aren’t all that different in function from the part of a Simpsons episode where Marge Simpson inspires Homer to briefly locate his better side. You could drop the characters from another ensemble show (maybe not The Simpsons, but certainly Community or Leverage) into a Star Trek show and the usual styles of Star Trek stories would still make sense in a way they would not make sense with, say, the characters from A Game of Thrones.

It’s significant that which plot is the A plot and which is the B plot is not always clear. On Star Trek shows–Voyager in particular–it isn’t unusual for an episode’s external threat to be a vague pseudoscientific problem resolved through perfunctory technobabble, with more running time spent on the character interactions that, structurally, might be some other show’s B plot.

Literary space opera usually doesn’t work like Starship SF TV shows; most starship-heavy novels are Military SF, or thrillers. Maybe that’s because a novel is, like a movie, a one-off event; even if it’s part of a series you’ll probably have to wait a year for the next volume. Starship SF audiences aren’t into plot so much as regular contact with their favorite characters. They want to see what the gang is up to this week.

Not that space opera fans don’t enjoy suspenseful action, special effects spectacle, and clever problem-solving, but in these series the chance to watch allies or co-workers becoming friends and friends becoming family is an important attraction. Starship SF is consolatory and aspirational, and I mean that in a positive sense. There’s a certain escapist pleasure in just watching a bunch of friends hang out.[3] To that extent, most of SF fandom’s favorite shows push the same emotional buttons for their fans as a show like Friends does for its audience. Mind you, I’m not saying Star Trek and Friends are interchangeable. The stories and themes they explore in addition to the weekly dose of camaraderie are different, and have different functions; if that weren’t true, they wouldn’t have different audiences. But they do both have that weekly dose of camaraderie, and it’s a point where their audiences have something in common. SF fans who write fan fiction love having their favorite characters just plotlessly hang out together; there’s even an entire subgenre transplanting characters from different settings into 21st century coffee shops.

I’ve wandered far from my original point here. But I think Ascension would appeal to the audience I’ve just described, who might find the characters’ non-involvement in the outside world to be as much a feature as a bug. Sometimes insularity is privilege or self-absorption. But sometimes it’s just that the outside world is the B plot.


  1. This vagueness makes the Federation more convincingly utopian–the more details you give about a utopia, the more likely it is that the audience will decide some of those details don’t sound all that great.  ↩

  2. On ST:TNG helping resolve emotional arcs was literally Troi’s job, which just makes it weirder that the writers so often had no idea what to do with her.  ↩

  3. Or even just watching the extras: when I rewatched ST:TNG one of my favorite parts was watching the people in the background, who were more visible now that I wasn’t watching on a 19-inch screen with bad reception.  ↩