Tag Archives: Fantasy

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.  ↩

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.  ↩

The Clomping Foot of Orbis Tertius

(Edited to add: oddly, my RSS feed seems to be having trouble with the o-with-an-umlaut character that should go in Tlon. Please excuse the misspelling.)

So… as I said in my last post (oh so long ago now), recently I reread Jorge Luis Borges’s story “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” after it turned up on the shortlist for the Retro Hugo awards, juxtaposed with pulpy stories by Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and Leigh Brackett. Which, I grant, seems incongruous.

It’s possible to argue–I’ve seen arguments made, anyway–that salting a SF shortlist with classic literature is a dubious move. That such a list might simply be grabbing at cultural respectability, poaching a work that came from outside the SF tradition and therefore doesn’t really belong with it. What’s interesting about this argument is that it could just as easily come from people skeptical of genre fiction, or from genre fans who resent “literary” fiction and insist the beloved pulp of their childhoods is just as good as–no, better than–the books their ninth grade English teacher forced them to read. I would refuse to belong to these groups even if they were willing to have me as a member.

Genre is just a tool for describing what fiction is doing. Any interesting fiction does more than one thing, and might be grouped with any number of genres. The people of Tlon assume all books are the work of one all-encompassing author, whose mind they reconstruct by juxtaposing such wildly dissimilar volumes as the Tao Te Ching and the Arabian Nights; we probably shouldn’t go that far. But no laboratory test in existence can establish definitively how much of which genres any book contains. I’d argue that anyone who can come up with an argument (reasonable or not) for putting a particular work in a particular genre should feel free to do so. The only excuses you need are “Does this make for an enjoyable argument?” and “Could putting this story next to these others lead to interesting ideas?”[1]

For those who haven’t read “Tlon,” a summary: the narrator, a fictionalized Borges, hears of an imaginary world, Tlon, referenced only in an article on a nonexistent country appearing in a single bootleg copy of an encyclopedia. Later he discovers a volume from the Encyclopedia of Tlon which gives a more complete picture of Tlon’s radically different worldview.

SF still has a lot to learn for Borges. “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” like much of his work, is a story in the form of an essay. You don’t see this much in science fiction or fantasy. I mean, yeah, there aren’t massive quantities of fictional nonfiction in general. But it’s odd that essay-stories don’t turn up much more often in SF, because the format suits SF so well. Some strains of SF just want to build worlds, or speculate about new technologies’ effects on society, and these are too often the ones with clichéd plots and flat characters. Maybe these stories authors’ only cared about (and, incidentally, had the right sort of talents to deal with) the ideas that weren’t related to plot or character… but, not realizing that fiction didn’t have to be conventionally plotted and narrated, they bolted on perfunctory plots and characters about which they felt no real enthusiasm. A lot of golden-age-style engineering problem stories would benefit from being written as fake journal articles. A lot of epic fantasies would be better off as fictional travel writing in the vein of Leena Krohn’s Tainaron or Ursula K. Le Guin’s Changing Planes. Still, not many essay-stories turn up in Best SF collections; in genre the only writer I can think of who embraced the form enthusiastically was Stanislaw Lem, whose A Perfect Vacuum (which includes a nod to Borges) and Imaginary Magnitude collected reviews of, and prefaces to, nonexistent books.

“Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” uses its essay format to build a world in a small space. Worldbuilding is core to science fiction and fantasy, but it’s often seen as a distraction, an invitation for geeks to vanish down their own navels; M. John Harrison famously called it “the great clomping foot of nerdism”. (For the opposing view, see China Miéville.) “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” leans toward Harrison’s vision of worldbuilding as toxic labyrinth–but more on that later.

I sometimes agree with M. John Harrison, but I think there are different kinds of worldbuilding. One kind, the kind that can seduce a writer into compiling a thousand-page wannabe-Silmarillion recording the undistinguished deeds of indistinguishable gods and heroes, is boring. But I think other kinds are relevant to creating worlds with a sense of life, and characters who seem to live as citizens of those worlds instead of using them as sketchy backdrops for narcissistic protagonisting. One concerns itself with the material conditions of people’s lives–their food, their jobs and pastimes, their plumbing. Another, the kind of worldbuilding Borges is doing here, is concerned with how people in this imagined world think–not so much their surface opinions as the underlying philosophies and fundamental beliefs. What makes them tick.

The Tlonites tick differently. Their worldview resembles the “subjective idealism” proposed by the 18th century philosopher George Berkely: Tlon denies that material reality exists. Instead there are actions and perceptions. Tlon’s languages have no nouns; one is composed entirely of verbs, another of adjectives, which they use to describe objects, which exist only when perceived. Tlon’s geometry insists that a moving person modifies the forms that surround them, its mathematics claims that counting changes an indefinite number into a definite one. In Tlon, ideas make things: the desire to find a lost object, or even the hope to find something previously unknown, can create new objects called hronir. In Tlon science and philosophy are more games than searches for truth. The point is to construct arguments that come to interesting conclusions.

In the final section of “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius”, ostensibly written seven years later, we learn about the secret society that invented Tlon at the behest of a rich American who wanted to prove God wasn’t the only entity who could create worlds, dagnabbit. The Encyclopedia of Tlon, it turns out, exists in its entirety.

Which brings us back to M. John Harrison’s suspicion of worldbuilding. When I looked up that famous “clomping foot of nerdism” quotation I was struck by a passage that seemed to resonate with Borges’s story:

It is the attempt to exhaustively survey a place that isn’t there. A good writer would never try to do that, even with a place that is there. It isn’t possible, & if it was the results wouldn’t be readable: they would constitute not a book but the biggest library ever built, a hallowed place of dedication & lifelong study. This gives us a clue to the psychological type of the worldbuilder & the worldbuilder’s victim, & makes us very afraid.

The Orbis Tertius group releases the entire Encyclopedia of Tlon into the wild, along with a handful of artifacts apparently from Tlon. Now Tlon is everywhere, more inescapable than the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The public devours Tlon’s history, adopts Tlon’s culture. Schools teach Tlon’s languages. It’s what everyone on the internet is writing inane thinkpieces about. Everybody loves Tlon because Tlon is simple. Bizarre, yes. But Tlon is the product of human minds, so can be completely contained in and comprehended by human minds–unlike the infinite, complex, accidental, ultimately unknowable real universe that produced the minds that produced Tlon. In a few years, Borges speculates, the world will be Tlon.

So, worldbuilding. What’s it for? Potentially lots of things. I think a lot of them are good. Worldbuilding can create just the right environment to make a story work. Stories of other worlds can show readers other possibilities, good and bad; other ways of thinking or arranging societies. I’m even sympathetic to worldbuilding as consolation, providing imaginary places to daydream about. If occasional escapism helps someone exist in the world, I’m not one to sneer. (There’s a Lynda Barry quotation that turns up a lot on the internet: “We don’t create a fantasy world to escape reality, we create it to be able to stay.”)

But in these worlds some people find consolation of another, stupider kind. Science fiction and fantasy, the genres most concerned with worldbuilding, are beloved of geek culture, which in the 21st century is mainstream culture. (See: Marvel Cinematic Universe, inescapableness of.) See, geek culture has this pathology–well, geek culture has several pathologies, but this essay is concerned with just one. Geek culture has a habit of relating to its favorite fictions, especially franchises and expanded universes, through a kind of obsessive collector mentality. Not collecting things, collecting facts–fictional facts, at least. Memorizing every detail of the history of Middle Earth, knowing exactly which issue of X-Men each character was introduced in, remembering the name and personal history of every alien in the Star Wars cantina.

Which sounds harmless, but leads to so many annoyances. Like, any discussion involving a pop culture phenomenon, something like Star Trek or Sherlock Holmes, stands a nonzero chance of getting derailed by obsessives arguing over canon: which fictional facts fit with all the other fictional facts, and which have to be thrown out? I’m usually the first to argue that any critical approach can lead to an interesting conversation regardless of how generous you have to be to describe it as a “critical approach,” but even I must admit this stuff is tedious.

What’s worse are the geeks who form in-groups based on obsessive cataloguing, and resentfully police their boundaries with trivia. You’re not a proper fan unless you’ve read all the right science fiction novels,[2] or agree that the animated Star Trek series isn’t canon, or like the right version of Doctor Who. Women in particular seemingly can’t show interest in geek culture things without being quizzed on trivialities by tedious nerds hoping to expose “fake geek girls.”

And then there’s the way any remake, addition, or slight change to any media franchise brings man-children crawling out from under their rocks crying that their childhoods are being ruined.[3] And we have to put up with this nonsense constantly, because the studios that control 90% of American pop culture have run out of ideas and produce nothing but remakes, additions, and slight changes to franchises. As I write this the internet is up in arms because what appears to be a perfectly inoffensive remake of Ghostbusters happens to star women. It’s exactly as tiresome as turning on the radio and hearing the overplayed single you’re most sick of.

So why does this subset of geekdom treat exhaustive surveys of places that aren’t there with a seriousness normally reserved for nuclear nonproliferation treaties? Why the pathetic overreactions?

You might as well ask why everybody in Borges’s world is obsessed with Tlon. Exhaustively surveying a place that isn’t there is exactly the kind of worldbuilding Orbis Tertius does. As M. John Harrison notes, a literally exhaustive survey of the world would be too big for anyone to comprehend in its entirety. Reality contradicts itself, and it keeps changing–tripping people up with new facts. And, let’s face it, reality has terrible continuity. Like, the characters in the “United States” spinoff are supposed to be incredibly afraid of terrorism, but nobody does anything about the mass shootings happening every other day. What sense does that make? Something here isn’t canon! And then there’s that “quantum mechanics” business, which the writers are obviously making up as they go along. And don’t get me started on the way they keep randomly killing off major characters!

Tlon is orderly. Tlon can be catalogued, managed. Tlon can be mastered. The real world is confusing, but with Tlon the fans can feel like they’re in control… At least until Orbis Tertius decides to rewrite Tlon. Or add some new characters. Or remake it with a non-nerd-approved cast. That’s when the panic sets in.[4] The fans, tripped up by new facts, this formerly managable system out of their control, have to face the fact that they’re not masters of anything at all.

Borges identifies the impulse that drives people to Tlon–the desire to simplify and tame the universe–with the impulse that drove people to fascism and totalitarianism. When I look at the grimier edges of nerd culture I’m not sure he’s wrong. Note, again, how much of the behavior I’m describing is bound up with defining and expelling out-groups, and with sexism in particular–whining when the SF canon lets in authors from marginalized groups, refusing to accept the new, diverse characters added to their treasured franchises. There’s some irony in the fact that science fiction, a genre full of stories about opening minds, discovering new things, and accepting the alien, has fans terrified of the new and different in real life… but fictional difference and novelty are under control, and that’s how they like it. Imagine a nerd foot clomping on a human face–forever.

I have no solution for any of this. Neither does Borges in his story; he just does his best to take no notice. Maybe he has the right idea. There are styles of worldbuilding that don’t pander to obsessives and can handle glitches with grace; there are fictional worlds where two planets can have the same name and Atlantis can sink three times without falling apart.[5] Let the Tlonist geeks freak out whenever their authority over trivialities is challenged; I’ll be over here, actually enjoying myself. Only… maybe they could freak out where I don’t have to listen to them?


  1. Incidentally, the first place I read “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius” was in an anthology called The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I read when I was young and just recently interested in SF. Like many older anthologies it had a serious gender imbalance–there were more women it could have included, if the editors had worked harder to find them–but within its limits it was a great anthology. It had lots of translated stories, some by writers I’ve never read elsewhere, and brought writers like Sheckly, Le Guin, and Bradbury together with writers like Borges and Boris Vian.  ↩

  2. Some SF fans will tell you proper SF fans should be conversant with the works of Isaac Asimov and Robert Heinlein, which is like insisting that anyone interested in English literature absolutely must read Samuel Richardson.  ↩

  3. Invariably followed by a flood of superfluous online thinkpieces noting that, hey, man-children are crying, what’s up with that?  ↩

  4. Although continuity can be rewritten in the service of Tlonism, too. The last thirty years of DC Comics constitute an endless series of increasingly baroque and preposterous attempts to force their entire line into internal consistency.  ↩

  5. My favorite media franchise, Doctor Who, has over the years has gone off in any number of mutually contradictory directions. I might get annoyed when one particular strand of Doctor Who seems to be playing narrative Calvinball, but I don’t lose sleep over the fact that different strands of the series have featured two different versions of Human Nature with two different Doctors and two different political slants. This is a show that had an episode where the Doctor had to defeat somebody wanting to set Earth’s canon in stone to better catalogue it. And yet Doctor Who fans still have arguments about canon!  ↩

Recent Reading, Unfinished and Ambivalent

I’ve read a lot of books in recent months that I didn’t finish, or felt ambivalent about. I have notes on a few of them.

Will Elliott, The Pilgrims

This is a portal fantasy with a pair of protagonists. The first protagonist is a loser. He finds a door–a literal door–to another world, and it’s the greatest thing to happen to him in, like, ever; he fully expects that in this new world he’ll be a hero. Rather uniquely, the novel realizes he’s an idiot. He does end up touched by Mysterious Powers but his homeless friend, protagonist number two, is the one who’ll probably have something closer to a traditional hero role. This novel is trying to deconstruct stories about schlubs who travel to another world and discover their inner strength. I have a soft spot for this genre, but I still enthusiastically agree it needs deconstruction.

Unfortunately The Pilgrims never arrives where it’s going because it’s the first volume in another damn trilogy that ends on another damn cliffhanger. As usual for the first and second books of trilogies, it feels like mostly padding.

Actually, the padding is interesting to think about, if not to read. I’ve noticed some epic fantasies set lots of action in what you might call “Adventure Land.” Vague fields, forests, or mountains where nothing happens apart from bands of adventurers travelling through having what Dungeons and Dragons calls “encounters.” There’s no evidence that Adventure Land belongs to anyone, or is used for anything, unless it’s been set aside as a park. If so, fantasyland has a very extensive national park system; Teddy Roosevelt would be proud. There might be roads in Adventure Land but these novels rarely mention farms. (Civilizations need agriculture; I’d expect most cities to be surrounded by farms.) There might be a ruin, if the novel is especially D&D-ish. Usually the only inhabitants of Adventure Land are monsters. Or bandits. Or inexplicably self-sufficient cottages which if the protagonist is lucky are owned by helpful allies, and if unlucky by Tom Bombadil.

A lot of The Pilgrims takes place in Adventure Land. It’s specifically mentioned that farming is taking place under a dome. Beyond that, there’s a city, and a castle, and the rest of the land is… I dunno. I’ve got to admit, by the midpoint of the novel I was picturing the characters tramping across a giant lawn.

Graydon Saunders, The March North

Saunders writes SF like John M. Ford did: leaning heavily on incluing for explanations, feeding you only just enough context to deduce the world, the backstory, and the underlying meaning of what’s happening. I find that Ford stays just on the right side of gnomic. For me, Saunders crossed the line into obtuse. This may be partly because The March North is military fantasy, which is not usually my thing. There’s a lot of military jargon and maneuvering and it’s hard to tell how much is relevant, or in what way. The characters spend long passages exchanging technobabble about magic artillery. On the positive side of the ledger, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. On the negative side, all of it sounds like real technical discussion. It’s not particularly interesting, and it’s never clear why it’s relevant.

The characters are mostly ciphers; salient facts about the narrator’s identity and background aren’t made clear for a while, and the soldiers might as well be a formless mass labeled “soldiers.” When a good chunk of them die it’s about as affecting as seeing barrels get smashed in a video game.

There’s a second book set in the same world that doesn’t share the same setup or characters as this one. It might have been better if I’d read that first; maybe I’ll try it someday.

Marta Randall, Journey

Marta Randall’s prose is good so at first this seemed promising. I soon discovered this is a book where it’s considered acceptable for a guy to own an entire inhabited planet and treat the natives as servants. I checked some of the later chapters and didn’t see any suggestion that at any point the novel questioned this. 1978 seems late for something like this to be published.

There’s also some lack of acknowledgement of how big planets are. Like, 200 refugees come to this planet owned by a single family, and the wife wants to make it clear the refugees don’t own the land they’re living on. Because—setting aside the natives, which is, let us admit, a pretty massive thing to set aside—an entire planet inhabited by 200 people is facing a serious land shortage, right?

A. L. Kennedy, the Drosten’s Curse

The Drosten’s Curse is a Doctor Who tie-in starring the fourth Doctor. It’s an expansion of one of the Time Trips novella ebooks the BBC published a couple years ago.

At first the prose style seemed a little strange. The Drosten’s Curse uses a lot of ellipses and run-on sentences. But it felt right, somehow. Eventually it hit me: the prose is a pretty accurate replica of the way Tom Baker talked when he played the Doctor. The narrative voice of The Drosten’s Curse is the fourth Doctor as a Douglas Adames-esque third person omniscient narrator. That’s a smart choice, and appropriate: the novel takes the same whimsical tone as that one year during Tom Baker’s tenure that Adams worked on the program.

Unfortunately, after a while the novel starts to drag. There’s just too much happening, and too much of it feels random. And it may be that the fourth Doctor’s voice only works as prose in smaller doses.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is the book for anyone who’s interested in epic fantasy but put off by series that seem approximately the size of Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s got revolutions and religious wars and political scheming and cursed monsters and a warrior woman riding a giant bird, all in one volume.

(It’s set in the same world as her earlier A Stranger in Olondria. But you don’t have to have read that book to read this one. But you should!)

Cover of The Winged Histories

Olondria is in a bit of a state. Kestenya, one of the provinces, is rebelling. Believers in Olondria’s old religion are fighting the new official religion that tried to suppress them. The Winged Histories views Oldondria’s civil war through four narrators–Tavis, who flees her shabby-genteel family to become a soldier, Tialon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, Seren, Tavis’s nomadic lover, and Siski, Tavis’s more conventional sister. All four are given individual voices and storytelling styles and points of view. The writing is, as in Samatar’s earlier novel, beautiful; it doesn’t just tell us what her characters feel, it conveys what feeling those things feels like to them.

For me, The Winged Histories is likely to be the best fantasy novel of the year. The problem with reviewing a novel that good after a first reading is that it can be hard to explain what made it so good. It’s easier to step back and analyze the books I’m less caught up in. I’m reduced to waving at it and saying “look at that,” and I’m not sure what to wave at first. Although doesn’t it say something that there are multiple waving-targets to choose from? So many fantasy novels just tell a story and leave it at that; once you’ve closed the last volume there’s no reason to think about it again. The Winged Histories is full of ideas.

Maybe history? Because this is a book about history. I will acknowledge that in some fantasy novels historical exposition can be a bad sign. The Winged Histories isn’t that kind of book. The problems with fantasy history come up when novels infodump a load of ancient creation myths explaining where the generic Evil Forces came from and what Mighty Plot Coupon the hero needs to make them go away. The Winged Histories is about history, and brief passages from Olondria’s official history actually appear in the novel, but it’s the kind of history people feel things about. The Winged Histories is about history that affects its characters’ lives and material realities. It matters to Tavis and Siski that Kestenya, their home, is part of Olondria, and that once it wasn’t. It makes a difference in their lives that their family has ties to Olondria’s rulers–their cousin Dasya is an heir to the throne–that, correctly exploited, could make their family important again.

Tavis is not, at first, concerned with history. She joins the army just because she wants to be a soldier. We get her limited view of the border skirmishes that keep the army busy on the edge of Kestenya. Who is she fighting, and why? She’s not totally sure. She starts to think maybe it’s not good that she’s not sure. Maybe, if she’s going to risk her life, she should risk it for Kestenya. The history of Olondria is placed between the narrators’ sections, so we don’t get exposition until we’ve gotten to know Tavis, and she’s started caring about history, and so by that point we care about Olondria’s history, too.

The historical sections are titled “From Our Common History.” There’s an understanding here–often elided in fantasy–that history is told from a certain point of view, that histories choose certain facts to present, leaving others out. Even objective, honest histories–there’s a lot of information out there, too much for any one history to hold. That’s why there’s always room for new histories of events we’ve studied for centuries: there’s always more to tell.

Tavis, Seren, and Siski are family. Tialon seems the odd one out in this novel; she doesn’t personally know any of them, though she meets Dasya and she also has a connection to A Stranger in Olondria, having appeared in that book. Tialon has spent her life in a tower with her father, the Priest of the Stone. The Stone is literally a big rock, covered in criss-crossing carvings, that serves as his holy book. Tialon is an insider and an outsider: she’s watching a family she has no connection to from a center of power she’s never had the chance to leave.

The Stone, it turns out, has a lot more writing on it than the Priest wanted translated. A lot of people wrote a lot of different lines on this rock. Some of it sounds religious, some more mundane. The Priest calls the extra lines “Orphans” after a line he found on the Stone cursing “these orphans darkening my path.” He’s decided they’re just graffiti some punks scraped into his holy artifact although, as one scholar points out, some of the mundane lines might sound profound when taken metaphorically. The thing is, it’s entirely up to the Priest which lines are the voice of his god and which are Orphans. The Stone is a grab bag from which the Priest picked the lines that told the story he wanted to tell. Yet in his mind he isn’t that story’s author: it came from the Stone.

But by picking out the lines he wants and suppressing the others, he’s not getting the complete story. The texts on the stone are woven into and written through each other, all part of the same artifact. Tialon realizes that people, too, are “written into each other.” She doesn’t know Tavis, Siski, or Seren, but their choices affect her life, and, whether they ever realize it or not, choices Tialon makes affect theirs. Lives coexist and cross over; people are context for each other. Even people who don’t know or think anything about each other (that “orphans” line was, after all, probably referring to actual orphans).

Historical infodumps tend not to work in generic epic fantasy, but that isn’t because fantasy history is an inherently bad idea–it’s that less accomplished fantasies don’t understand history as The Winged Histories does. History isn’t important because it’s full of mysteriously accurate prophecies, or because it contains instructions for defeating the Sauron of the Month. It’s important because it’s the context for people’s lives.

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Autobiography of a Corpse

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s Memories of the Future and The Letter Killers Club, collections of fantastic tales by a once-forgotten Soviet writer, were two of my favorite books from the last few years. So it’s odd that I just last month finished the third volume, Autobiography of a Corpse. Or maybe not; it didn’t rock my world to the extent the last two volumes of Krzhizhanovsky did. Not that it wasn’t good. It just feels less new. I’ve now read enough of his stories to notice when he repeats himself. His themes and tics are familiar: loss of identity, negations, anthropomorphized ideas, the word “I” used as a noun. Most interesting writers circle back to the same wells, and that’s not a problem as long as they ring interesting changes on their preoccupations. It’s just not as revelatory.

Cover of Autobiography of a Corpse

Still, there are good stories here; all that’s lost for me is the element of surprise. “The Collector of Cracks” deals with a mad scientist who discovers that time is made of discrete moments separated by “cracks,” like the lines separating frames of a film. In “Yellow Coal” another scientist discovers a way to generate electricity from meanness and spite. In “The Unbitten Elbow” a man’s obsession with biting his own elbow becomes a media phenomenon and sparks serious philosophical debates. In “Bridge Over the Styx” a supernatural frog proposes “a bridge suspended between the eternal ‘no’ and the eternal ’yes,” allowing the dead to mingle with the living.

What struck me this time around was how Krzhizhanovsky uses anthropomorphism. He writes about objects and ideas like they’re characters: A scholar writing a dissertation on “The Letter ‘T’ in Turkic Languages” tells how “the bustling ‘T’ would go exhausted to bed, usually under a bookmark” at the end of a work day; the elbow-biter’s manager portrays the elbow as equal contestant in a wrestling match, at the end of every show declaring the elbow a winner.

At the same time, many of Krzhizhanovsky’s characters admit to feeling as though they’re ideas, human abstractions losing themselves in the cracks and seams of the world, like the “0.6th of a person” imagined by the narrator of “Autobiography of a Corpse.” The nameless narrator feels dead in life, and knows his disconnection from humanity is leading to his actual death, but he’s cheered by the thought that he’ll live on as an indelible ghostly image in the mind of the inheritor of his manuscript: the next tenant of his apartment. As a figment, he feels more alive than ever.

Fans call science fiction the “literature of ideas”–somewhat ridiculously, since you’d be hard-pressed to find interesting literature of any genre that doesn’t contain ideas, but we’ll let that pass. They mean that SF is writing in which the ideas are as important as the characters, or are even written about as though they are characters. Krzhizhanovsky takes this to the limit: in Krzhizhanovsky’s stories, ideas and people are interchangeable, and can go back and forth from one state to the other, like the living and the dead traveling the bridge over the Styx.

Elf Bureaucracy

When reading secondary world fantasy a question I rarely ask is: What language are these people speaking? Most fantasies assume (and there’s nothing wrong with either choice) that everybody in the other world speaks a language just like English, or that the story was translated from some imaginary language. Of the fantasy novels I’ve read, The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison–the pen name of Sarah Monette–is among the best at giving the impression that it’s a translation from some another language, and at giving some idea of what that other language is like.

Cover of The Goblin Emperor

The premise is that when the emperor of the elves started feeling embarrassed about his married-to-a-goblin phase he packed his half-goblin son Maia off to the hinterlands in the care of a resentful cousin. Thus, when the entire royal family dies in a blimp-related assassination Maia turns out to be a convenient backup. Maia, whose biggest concern heretofore has been getting through the day without pissing off cousin Setheris, spends the rest of the novel figuring out how this “emperor” business works.

Maia’s language is centered around manners and protocol. A complex system of titles indicates status. Maia uses different forms of address for intimates and acquaintances: The former is indicated by the use of “thee” and the latter by the first person plural, what’s (ironically) known as the “royal we.” You don’t need to understand any of this to follow the story[1]–if you have trouble at first keeping track of all these people and their different titles, that just means you and Maia have something in common. But how these people talk is a window into how they think, and how their society works.[2] It says a lot about Maia’s situation that he uses the intimate form of address hardly at all, and almost always when addressing himself in his head. As emperor, he literally has no intimates.

The fashion in SF is for lots of POV characters. TGE stays in Maia’s head all the way through, which makes him one of the better characters in recent SF: we’re not bouncing around a cast of thousands, so it feels like we have time to get to know him. And because Maia was kept out of the Emperor’s world until now, he knows almost as little of it as we do. We learn his environment with him and this eases us into the novel’s complex worldbuilding. The strict POV is also a structural cue to Maia’s introversion and intellectual bent: Maia lives in his head, and so does the novel. The story’s personality is Maia’s personality.

His personality is different from other contemporary genre heroes. Most pop culture protagonists right now are either face-punchy tough guys or geniuses with no social skills and an excess of snark.[3] Having had my fill of both, I’m now most interested in heroes who solve problems while being decent. Maia is one of those. You get a sense of who he is when he discovers he’s the emperor. He doesn’t ascend to the throne out of ambition, or because he has a Destiny to fulfill. This messenger shows up to take Maia to the capital, and he’s a little panicky but he goes along because he’s agreeable and conscientious. If this guy is telling Maia he’s the emperor now, he has to remember protocol and try his best to live up to his role, because trying his best is just what Maia does.

As Emperor Maia solves problems by building connections with other people. It’s his most vital skill. He has to rely on others often. He’s one of those Louis XIV on-constant-display emperors, so his position limits where he can go and what he can do. And he’s a constitutional monarch, not a dictator, so he can’t order his desires into reality at whim. Maia collects plenty of reliable allies because The Goblin Emperor, like other books I’ve reviewed recently, is optimistic fantasy. Maia’s world is unjust–women and people of Maia’s goblin ancestry are second class citizens, and economic inequality is bad enough to inspire revolutionary assassins. But most people mean well, and the world’s problems are fixable.

Maia is retiring by nature but conscientious enough to see when something needs to be done, and to do it, if it’s within his limits. He has moments of anger and resentment but is self-aware enough to recognize them and realize that anger in an emperor is dangerous. His mix of introversion and determination reminded me of another one of Sarah Monette’s characters–Kyle Murchison Booth, protagonist of the M. R. Jamesian stories in The Bone Key. Although fortunately for Maia he’s living in a fantasy novel, not a horror story.

But Maia’s story begins at the point where the standard epic fantasy clichés end. Fantasies starring would-be monarchs usually leave the coronation to the epilogue, spending their obligatory three volumes on travelogues interspersed with battles. Maia’s job isn’t to secure the throne. He has to figure out what to do once he’s on it. He spends the book negotiating, learning to navigate the bureaucracy, and figuring out the subtler details of elven politics. And it’s more absorbing and suspenseful than 99 percent of those multivolume quests. I wonder again, as I so often do, why so many SF novels lean so hard on action when thought and dialogue are what prose does best.

I’ve seen internet commenters argue that, despite being filled with elves and goblins and wizards and priests casting spells, The Goblin Emperor somehow isn’t actually fantasy. Apparently there’s not enough magic, or what magic exists in the book isn’t sufficiently plot-relevant. Which is stupid. I mean, first of all, The Goblin Emperor is not the kind of fantasy novel that explores every rule of a clockwork-perfect magic system, but that doesn’t mean that magic is absent. Anyone who thinks it doesn’t affect the plot isn’t paying attention, or maybe isn’t even reading carefully enough to recognize the plot. More importantly, as criteria for classifying a novel as fantasy “it’s gotta have wizard people” is asinine. Gormenghast does not have magic. Neither does Swordspoint. Magic is irrelevant to the plot of some Discworld novels–Monstrous Regiment, for instance, might as well take place in a world without it. Nobody questions their fantasy credentials. I’m not sure what’s different about The Goblin Emperor.[4]

Most importantly, The Goblin Emperor could not be set in the real world without burying its concerns under layers of real-world politics. It’s about a person of mixed background and ambiguous respectability thrown into an unexpectedly exalted position and learning to function in it and govern well. Now, you could, for instance, write an alternate history about an Anglo-Indian ruling the British empire instead of Queen Victoria. But that novel would be about India, and the British empire, and their cultures and history and politics. And the audience might have strong feelings about those issues that might overshadow other themes. The Goblin Emperor, by setting its story in an invented world, takes one step back from specific historical concerns. This allows it to focus on a question relevant to many times and places: in a flawed society, how can someone be a decent person in a position of power?

I mentioned that The Goblin Emperor starts where most epic fantasies end, with a new ruler coming to power. Science fiction and fantasy are especially political genres. Interestingly, fantasies about big political changes are more often concerned with what leads up to the change than the consequences, which maybe get a reassuring epilogue. Epic fantasies end in coronations; we never find out whether Aragorn is a competent administrator. Dystopian stories, if they allow their heroes to triumph over the repressive old order, don’t get into what those heroes plan to put in their place. Stories of revolution are about how the heroes get the upper hand, not how they rebuild. Snowpiercer smashes the train and doesn’t concern itself with how the survivors will get along in the freezing cold with the polar bears; Jupiter Ascending has no real idea what its heroine might do after securing her position among the Space Aristocrats.

Pop culture critics have spent gigabytes worrying over Hollywood’s ever-accelerating rebooting of its franchises. Most are fantasies of some kind–superheroes, super-spies, space operas. Every reboot is another chance to retell the hero’s origin. Hollywood loves origin stories, maybe because they match up with the Campbellian “hero’s journey” Hollywood still takes for a prescription. Expand the definition of “power” beyond the political into the personal–physical power, social power, economic power–and you can see how this connects to the last paragraph. Origin stories are about rising to power. We’ve all noticed superhero stories, our dominant film genre, can’t get away from origins. The comic books reboot themselves every couple of years now. Critics of literary SF speculate on why Young Adult novels are popular even among older readers. That fits the pattern, too: YA stories are about characters discovering their personal agency. By contrast, how many SF stories are about old people?

It’s not that no one writes SF about people trying to decently manage the power they have rather than leveling it up–in fact that describes Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword, one of The Goblin Emperor’s Hugo co-nominees. But pop culture seems more interested in the process of getting power than in handling it responsibly.

I think this reflects a larger trend. American politicians exist in permanent campaign mode, always looking to the next election, and when they’re on the job many have no clear idea what to do beyond obstructing their colleagues from doing their jobs. Business leaders extract short-term profits while ignoring the long-term health of their businesses, then walk away with generous severance packages. Silicon valley startups base their business models on “disruption,” by which they mean looking for excuses not to follow the rules that apply to their competitors without worrying about what those rules are for. Americans in the 21st century want money and status. They don’t want to think about what they’ll do with it, or the effects of what they do to get it. Our popular culture gives us what we want, or what it thinks we want. So it gives us fewer stories about everyday responsibility, or how we live and work outside of the crises depicted in a Hollywood blockbuster.

Standardized epic fantasies pretend their heroes’ only job is to plant the right asses on the right thrones. But replacing the head of state does not reboot society. Maia is a more thoughtful and just person than the last emperor, but that doesn’t automatically make the system he’s now complicit in less corrupt. He’s going to have to put in a lot of slow, patient work to change it. The lesson of The Goblin Emperor is that diplomacy and administration, the everyday societal maintenance that keeps civilization running and sometimes even improves it, can be just as dramatic as revolution. The Goblin Emperor keeps traditionally “exciting” plots running in the background–a murder investigation, attempted coup, and attempted assassination. But the real climax comes when Maia convinces the ruling council to make their citizens’ lives a bit more convenient by building a bridge. I can’t imagine a climactic battle scene as exciting.


  1. Although, if you care, everything is explained in an appendix. I’d recommend getting a paper copy to facilitate flipping back and forth if you want to consult it.  ↩

  2. This is not an endorsement of the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, that language constrains the way people think. Instead, the way people think shapes their language.  ↩

  3. This is why most of the detective novels I read are old. Hercule Poirot could be a fussbudget, but at least he didn’t need a minder to supervise all his interactions with other human beings.  ↩

  4. Well, beyond the fact that it was one of the few works to get a Hugo nomination on its own merits in a year dominated by incompetent pulp fiction nominated by resentful culture warriors.  ↩

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I haven’t posted to this blog in ages. I want to start writing again about the books I read: I don’t feel like I’ve been thinking about any of them as much as I should, and as a result I’ve increasingly gone for books with less in them to think about. Writing blog posts helps me get my thoughts in order.

I’m out of practice again and I expect for some time my writing will be terrible. One reason I haven’t blogged in a while is that everything I wrote seemed clumsy and pompous. Maybe before I can write well again I’ll just have to work through a clumsy pompous phase.

I’ll start by finishing book reviews I left half-written months ago. Like this one:


Coverof A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was the best fantasy novel I read in 2014, and maybe the best fantasy novel of 2013, period. It’s among a few books that restored my interest in SF and fantasy at a time when I’d nearly given up on the genres.

Stranger is a secondary-world fantasy about Jevick of Tyom, a young merchant who travels to a foreign country whose language and literature he loves. When the ghost of a fellow islander turns up to dictate her memoirs he’s caught between two religious factions with different ideas about people who can speak with ghosts, and discovers how little he knows the place.

I’ve seen reviews of Stranger complain the early chapters aren’t heavy on plot. This isn’t wrong, but it misses the point: Stranger just isn’t doing what these reviewers expected. The first couple of chapters are first-person immersive fantasy written as memoir, and you might expect that approach to continue through the end of the book, but this novel isn’t satisfied with a single genre or voice. Here’s a paragraph from the chapter when Jevick first sees the Olondrian city of Bain:

I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops. I loved the Old City also, which is called the “Quarter of Sighs,” with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.

This is literary travel writing about an imaginary place. Jevick builds an impressionistic portrait of Bain from the specific details a charmed foreign tourist would notice, “selling” Bain to the reader as in a travel article. Later Jevick wakes after a wild night and sees only Bain’s tawdry side, the opposite of the details he noticed before. When the haunting begins Stranger conveys Jevick’s confusion with fragmented present tense excerpts from his diary. Stranger is an anthology of different kinds of fantasy writing, slipping into whatever style suits the story in that moment.

At the time I read it this was just what I needed. See, SF fandom has this obsession with “transparent prose.” Prose, in this theory, is a clear, clean window through which the reader “sees” a story. The text disappears; the content flows pure and undistorted from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. Which makes no sense, because the prose is what the content is made of. I like good straightforward prose, but most “transparent prose” novels are devoid of personality or voice. They erase their narrators and points of view, posing as stories told by nobody. I’ve given up on popular, much-recommended SF and fantasy novels because they read like neutral Wikipedia summaries of themselves. A Stranger in Olondria restored my enthusiasm for the genres by moving through several styles of writing and doing them all brilliantly.

Those same reviews seemed to feel that Stranger picked up halfway through, and I think that’s because after Olondria’s religious squabbles ensnare Jevick his story enters more familiar territory, resembling the quest fantasies whose heroes learn their world (and teach it to the readers) by traveling it. Jevick gets one take on Olondria from its religious authorities, and another from the cultists interested in his newfound abilities as a medium, and the people and places he encounters as he travels deepen and complicate both sides of the argument. Stranger travels through other genres along the way–history, folktales, poetry. The climax of the novel is the story of Jissavet, Jevick’s ghost. Jevick and Jissavet both write memoirs but their voices are nothing alike. This is partly characterization but also partly structural: Jissavet speaks extemporaneously. She orders her story thematically as well as chronologically, letting one memory remind her of another as people do when recollecting aloud.

It’s a book about books that itself samples many kinds of books. And in saying that I may have just put some people off. Since the audience for novels inevitably consists of people who love books, it’s tempting for stories about books to get overly sentimental. Books change readers’ lives, dude; create worlds in which they escape their miseries. These stories ascribe near-magical powers and omniscient wisdom to our favorite pulped-wood products, sometimes flat-out declaring that books are better than people. I’ve felt this myself sometimes; that’s probably true of anybody who loves books.

A Stranger in Olondria is a novel, so you know it’s going to come down on the pro-book side. But the story it tells is more complicated. Jevick’s books haven’t fully prepared him for life and his story is partly about learning to love them wisely. I won’t get too far into this topic; there’s a review at Asking the Wrong Questions that goes deeper than I can manage. But Stranger’s argument for the value of literacy is more specific and more interesting than most “Books Rule!” stories.

One of the few books I managed to review in the last couple of years was Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties That Bound, a social history of medieval British peasant communities. Hanawalt resorted to combing through accident reports to reconstruct these peoples’ lives. There aren’t many primary sources on medieval peasants; they weren’t always literate and didn’t leave many letters or diaries. Their families knew their stories, and maybe passed them down for a few generations, but it’s hard to get the wider world to care about great-grandpa William’s misadventure with the haywain. So the pre-mass-literacy Europeans we know best are the upper classes, those famous and influential enough to be written about. The closer you get to the present the less true that is. The spread of mass literacy meant that more and more people, and more and more kinds of people, sent letters and kept diaries. Our view of 13th-century peasants is almost entirely from the outside, but we can learn more about the point of view of, for example, 19th-century mill workers.

What’s most relevant to Stranger is that literacy doesn’t just preserve the voices of people overlooked by history. It preserves the voices of people no one, even their peers, thought worth listening to in the first place. The stories that survive through oral tradition do so because a community actively chose to pass them along, and the criteria it uses to make those choices aren’t necessarily good. Every family has relatives they don’t talk about and every community has people they’ve decided don’t matter. Jissavet is desperate for Jevick to write her book because the illness she died of made her an outcast. In life no one would listen to her. And maybe no one wants to listen to her now, but writing, unlike speech, can survive without anyone actively paying attention. Barring accident or active censorship, the words will still be there if and when someone wants to listen.

When Jevick returns home, he decides to become a kind of teacher called a tchavi. Traditionally these teachers lived on mountains, making prospective students struggle to reach them like gurus out of New Yorker cartoons. Jevick instead comes into town, teaching anyone who wants to write.

Books are as close as we can get to long-distance mind-to-mind communication. They fulfill their potential when they give minds of all kinds the chance to connect. And writing can communicate across time: if no one wants to hear it now, it will (assuming at least one copy survives) still be waiting, unchanged, for a more receptive audience.

Your Best SF List is Terrible

I like fantasy and SF, as you can probably tell from this blog, but this article that recently appeared in the New Statesman is right: most “best” or “most important” SF/fantasy lists are terrible.

The biggest problem with the fantasy and SF genres is that their critical canon formed around what fans liked when they were twelve. And much of fandom’s tastes never matured beyond that. When someone curious about SF asks for recommendations I cringe, because I know I’m going to see fans jump in to push the Foundation trilogy, or Heinlein’s YA novels, as though any adult would want to read them. If the golden age of SF is twelve, that’s because hardcore fans keep pushing books that would appeal only to twelve-year-olds.

Not that there aren’t enough genuinely good SF novels to fill a real top 100 list… but in a lot of cases online fandom doesn’t seem to remember they exist. Earlier this year I read Dreamsnake by Vonda McIntyre. At the time it came out it won the Hugo and the Nebula awards. It’s a great book (once I get my blog going again–it’ll happen someday soon, I swear–I ought to review it) and obviously a major work. But it was out of print for years, and even now is only available as an ebook, and no one talks about it at all.

Lately SF circles have been having a recurring conversation about the improbable maleness of the SF canon. Lists of the best or most important SF often default to a few well-known mid–20th-century male writers–Asimov, Heinlein, Niven, etc.–many of whom were never worth reading in the first place, let alone fifty or sixty years after their time. (Yeah, Foundation was influential once, but there’s no reason for a SF fan to read it now any more than a student of English literature needs to read The Castle of Otranto.) These are the only writers the list-makers have heard of, so they’re the only writers who appear in these lists, so they’re the only writers later list-makers have heard of. It’s a vicious cycle.

But canons aren’t fixed. Ask anyone to name the greatest American novel and chances are they’ll nominate Moby Dick. But Moby Dick flopped when it was new and didn’t find its audience until the 1920s. The SF canon, after 50 years of critical reappraisals, is going to look different, too. I wish I had a time machine so I could see how it looks.