Tag Archives: Nebula Awards

Links to Things

I haven’t posted one of these in a while.

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

Cover Art

I’ve been letting my blog slide again. This is mostly due to general tiredness. I get the impression that the periods when I don’t write much are also the periods when I don’t think as deeply or concentrate as well, so I’m trying to restart my brain. I think it could use the exercise.

A while back I read this year’s Nebula nominees. (All but the one that actually won, Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, which, having read Bacigalupi’s short stories, I felt I’d practically already read.) I was going to write something about all of them but I stopped before getting to The Love We Share Without Knowing and Boneshaker. They seemed like a good place to restart these reviews.

I liked Christopher Barzak’s The Love We Share Without Knowing–this was the book I’d hoped would get the Nebula–and yet I’m not sure how much I have to say about it that can’t be distilled to a banal “Hey, this is really good.” Which is why this review is short.

TLWSWK is the kind of novel built from short stories whose characters weave in and out of each others’ lives. The stories are set in the area of an English-language school in Japan staffed partly by young American expatriates who moved abroad to find their lives are pretty much the same wherever they go. There’s no single overarching plot, and most stories could stand on their own, but the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

The problem with this kind of thing is that some readers might miss the whole if they don’t like the parts. Here, the first story is the weakest; it hinges on a plot twist that anyone who’s read more than a couple of ghost stories will see coming from a thousand miles away, and when it’s over its narrator entirely disappears from the book. If anyone read the first story and put the book down, and is now reading this review, then give it another chance, okay?

The title is taken from an incident that crops up in two stories, told from two perspectives. Two people who’ve checked into a Japanese “love hotel” find a note in the guest book from someone who didn’t come with a partner–someone who just comes for the atmosphere, who feels a connection with the unseen strangers in the other rooms and “the love we share without knowing.” For one of the point-of-view characters in that doubled scene, finding the message is a perspective-changing moment; the other doesn’t get it. Not that it’s likely that everything that goes on in that hotel is love, but Guest Book Guy is at least trying to make connections.

The structure of TLWSWK is also its theme. It’s about what it is–about its characters’ inadvertent assumption of bit parts in other characters’ stories, how they unintentionally, like random pool balls, knock friends and strangers onto new trajectories. In this book’s world, karma isn’t something that comes back to you but something that rubs off on other people. One person’s decision, years later, nudges a friend in the same direction; relationships that don’t mean much to one character change others’ lives; a character is saved by another’s decision to ignore an instruction. It’s slightly scary to think we may never know the best and worst things we’ve done in our lives because the consequences played out years later, or miles away, and maybe among strangers.

The City and the City

Cover Art

China Miéville’s The City and the City is another Nebula nominee. It’s a police procedural set in two imaginary cities. If you haven’t read it, it might be best to stop reading this review now. The City and the City doesn’t dump its premise on you all at once; odd details pile up, and one or two chapters in the true premise hits you and remaps your entire perception of the story.

On the other hand, if you’ve heard of The City and the City at all, you probably know the concept. Some stories have twists that will never surprise anyone again, because they’re part of our common mental furniture. Everyone who sees Psycho knows not to get too attached to Marion Crane. Among SF fans the premise of The City and the City is already just as well known. So I won’t be spoiling anything for most people when I explain that The City and the City is set in two imaginary cities that occupy the same space.

The citizens of Beszel walk the same streets as the citizens of Ul Quoma. No one remembers how, or why, the cities split, but over the centuries the divergent cultures maintained separate identities with complicated mental defenses. The cities learned to unsee each other. Tyador Borlú, the Beszel police detective at the center of the story, walks among Ul Quomans and is effectively alone. All his life he’s been trained in selective attention. He doesn’t acknowledge that Ul Quoma is there. If he did, he’d be in trouble; no one wants to come to the attention of Breach, the group that polices the imaginary boundary between the two cities.

This sounds like fantasy, and maybe it is… but only just barely. We “unsee” things all the time. Things we don’t want to acknowledge… or people we don’t want to acknowledge. When I Googled The City and the City to check the spelling of names and places, I found a review that mentioned the secret cartography of London gangs:

These political alignments and the ground they contest are unknown to most of the inhabitants of the city, but mean life and death to others. A fascinating but depressing report released by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation last year explored this territoriality. It included maps drawn by teenagers that revealed their neighbourhoods as patchworks of “safe” and “no-go” areas, an exquisitely complex secret topography.

That sounds just like the “crosshatched” maps of Beszel and Ul Quoma.

Unseeing isn’t always a bad thing. The human brain can only process so many things at once; if we consciously acknowledged everything we perceived, all the time, it would be hard to sort out which details were immediately important. You don’t want anyone stopping in the middle of a crosswalk, distracted by the ants and the weeds and the cracks in the asphalt, while a car hurtles towards the intersection! And when you’re traveling home on a crowded bus, politely “unseeing” the other passengers lets everyone read or talk to friends or just unwind in the pretense of privacy.

But sometimes people take selective attention too far. One of the clichés that get thrown around a lot when people talk about the United States is the “melting pot.” This isn’t a great metaphor—it raises images of people rendered down into homogenous goo, being assimilated but not assimilating anything themselves. But it does at least approach something true: put cultures next to each other, and they mix. They trade. They fall in love. Which is scary for the people who’ve built their identities around belonging to the culture on the top of the pyramid. So they build walls, and patrol the deserts. Certain neighborhoods become anathema. Certain people are not “real” citizens. They squint suspiciously at anyone who looks like they don’t belong, and refuse to acknowledge that sometimes the people who “don’t belong” have actually been around longer than they have…

Beszel and Ul Quoma can only maintain their purity as totalitarian states. No one in either city has a choice in what to see or unsee—no one gets to decide what’s important to them. The division between the cities takes precedence over everything, even life and death. If Borlú came upon an Ul Quoman dying on the street, he’d have to unsee and walk away, or face Breach.

This is a problem for a man investigating a murder that crosses between cities. I could predict Borlú would have to choose between catching a killer and throwing away a lifetime of mental training. What surprised me was that Borlú steps outside the barrier between Beszel and Ul Quoma but doesn’t permanently disrupt it. Order is maintained, the status quo continues. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised—Miéville’s never seemed optimistic about the possibility that things might change for the better. (Iron Council ended with the image of a revolution that perpetually approaches but never arrives.) You can climb over the walls, but you can’t tear them down. Borlú can refuse to look away from the unseen, but once he does he can never return to ordinary life.

A Nebula Nominee

I’ve had a hard time writing much of anything lately, though I’m working on reviewing some books. I read this year’s Nebula nominees recently–or most of them, since from what I’ve heard about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, it’s pretty much the same kind of deal as his short stories. I’m not sure I can deal with his trademark ecologically collapsed dystopias right now. I’ve written about Finch here before. I’m writing about Laura Anne Gilman’s Flesh and Fire now because what I have to say is short enough that I can actually finish the post.

This review is short because I bailed on Flesh and Fire a third of the way in. I’m not sure why this got a Nebula nomination–it’s a standard volume one of an Extruded Fantasy Product trilogy. (I’m not convinced that any series should be nominated for anything until it’s finished, unless each volume stands alone.) Judging from the first few chapters and a quick skim through the rest of the book the plot doesn’t go anywhere particularly unusual for the breed. But the details are off-puttingly weird.

In Flesh and Fire’s world, wizards own slaves. The protagonist is taken from slavery to become his master’s apprentice–it appears wizards all begin life as slaves as well as owning them. What’s strange is that the book seems to think we should like, or at least not detest, the wizards, and based on my skim-read there is so far no sign that this series is building to a takedown of the whole rotten system. This creeped me out.

The other oddity is the magic. Flesh and Fire features a wine-based magic system. The wizards (or “vinearts”) grow magic grapes–this is where the slave labor comes in–and produce “spellwine” which they have to drink to use. Presumably there are only so many spells they can cast in a certain period before they pass out in a pool of their own vomit. The book spends a lot of time setting up the mechanics of the system and if you’re not a big wine fan it makes for odd reading. Eventually I realized what this reminded me of: those mystery novels whose protagonists are slightly too focused on cooking or crossword puzzles or weirdly intelligent cats. They’re the cozy version of the men’s adventure novels that spend way the hell too much time on the technical details of submarines and submachine guns.

Flesh and Fire is an epic fantasy for people who really, really like wine. I have no idea what this says about the Nebula judges.