All posts by Wesley

Shirley Jackson, The Sundial

1.

If you follow the news it’s hard not to spend time thinking about the end of civilization as we know it. An Australian think tank recently speculated that climate change might end it by 2050. I recently felt like reading Shirley Jackson and immediately thought of The Sundial.

The Hallorans are the wealthy patrons of a nearby village. They’ve just buried the heir. His mother, Mrs. Halloran, may or may not have pushed him downstairs. Mrs. Halloran is getting ready to rid the Halloran mansion of the family and their increasing collection of houseguests and hangers-on–everyone but Fancy, her only grandchild, who she’ll raise to be another Mr. Burns-esque tyrant like herself–when her sister-in-law Aunt Fanny receives a vision from Fanny’s dead father, the Halloran patriarch: in a few weeks the world will end. Only the people in the big house will be saved.

2.

People who’ve never read Shirley Jackson remember her as the author of that haunted house book and that story about the woman who’s stoned to death. They forget she’s funny. Shirley Jackson is one of the greatest comic writers of the twentieth century and The Sundial might be her funniest novel.

There’s a concept called “passage of disbelief.” I thought it was a common genre-criticism term, but I Googled it and the only reference I could find was on the website of a writer I’m not familiar with, so now I don’t know where I heard it. Anyway, the passage of disbelief is the part of a weird story where the characters go from disbelieving the weirdness (Aunt Fanny has lost her mind) to accepting it and dealing with the consequences (Okay, so the world is ending, what now?). As Aunt Fanny is prophesying, the uncanny appearance of a snake in the library gives the family a physical manifestation of weirdness to hang their faith on. And Mrs. Halloran is too proud not to go along: if the end is coming, she’s going to manage it. So The Sundial’s passage of disbelief is mercifully short.

This lets the book get on with things–it’s paced like a screwball comedy. And it lets Jackson milk plenty of humor from incongruity. The Hallorans receive a grand prophecy of doom and react as though the apocalypse is an momentous and inconvenient but basically normal event to plan around. The tone of their dialogue clashes with its subject. Like Arthur Dent, seeing Earth destroyed and asking if there’s any tea on this spaceship.

“Evil, and jealousy, and fear, are all going to be removed from us. I told you clearly this morning. Humanity, as an experiment, has failed.”
“Well, I’m sure I did the best I could,” Maryjane said.

The Sundial’s other comic strength is voice. Sometimes writers trying to be funny give every character interchangeable Whedonesque banter. That’s the wrong way to do it: great comedy is about individual voices and incompatible world views running into each other. Mrs. Halloran talks to everyone like she’s talking to a disappointing servant. Essex, the sycophantic young man hired to catalog the library, never misses a chance to show off his education. Miss Ogilvie, Fancy’s governess, is uncertain and timid, panicking at odd moments. Aunt Fanny switches between surface-polite cattiness to Mrs. Halloran and oracular profundities.

Any two characters are most likely talking past each other. Get everyone into the same room and you’ll be reading three overlapping conversations at the same time, not so much playing off each other as bouncing.

But The Sundial also has an air of menace. Shirley Jackson works in the liminal space between real and unreal and it keeps you constantly off-balance. It’s often unclear what’s possible in her stories, what’s metaphor and what’s literal. Even when they’re funny, they feel eerie. Didn’t we see some of these moments in earlier flashes of prophecy? As the climax approaches, isn’t the weather growing ominous? In Jackson’s world, prophecies of doom might come true.

3.

What is this world? what asketh men to have?
Now with his love, now in his colde grave
Allone, with-outen any companye.

The Hallorans’ sundial is inscribed “What is this world?” It’s a line from Chaucer’s “The Knight’s Tale,” and a good question. We use the word “world” in a couple of ways. There’s the literal world (the one that’s ending, everyone’s pretty sure) and then there’s my world, or your world, or Wayne’s or Christina’s world.

Mr. Halloran created a world of his own, self contained–when Julia, one of the guests, decides to leave she wanders through a fog only to end up back at the front gate, as though the outside world has already gone. Inside the Halloran house is a dollhouse Fancy rules with a grasp as tight as her grandmother’s. More ambitiously, Fanny has recreated the four-room apartment where her parents lived when she was a child, before her father struck it rich and built the walled estate near the village. Worlds nest in each other, each shutting out another layer of unwanted reality.

A Babbity businessman who had to be talked out of plastering his mansion with slogans like “You can’t take it with you,” Mr. Halloran wanted to be lord of the manor, philanthropic patron to the villeins. Fanny just wants her parents back. Recreating their apartment is as close as she can get. The Hallorans create worlds where they can imagine living the ideal versions of their lives, and shut out whatever reminds them of the suboptimal versions. Carving out your own smaller, more manageable world can be an act of self-definition. When you’re in charge of your world you’re in charge of your life.

4.

There are a lot of apocalypses in science fiction. Like, a lot. Everybody wants to blow up the world. Standing in the bookstore skimming the blurb of this year’s dozenth zombie nightmare, you may ask: what are all these apocalypses doing here? Good things, often. Some post-apocalyptic stories explore character in extremis. Some speculate on plausible if-this-goes-on disaster scenarios and ways to survive them. Some stories are about rebuilding society and finding new (hopefully more humane) ways to order it.

But some stories just sweep the world away to give their heroes a cleaner stage to act out their fantasies. A complex, uncontrollable, frustrating world is pared down and in the new, smaller, more manageable world the survivors’ true selves are free to blossom. Which may not be that different from their old selves: the stereotypical “cozy catastrophe” follows nice middle class people muddling through the collapse of civilization with middle class niceness. But sometimes the end of the world allows some previously ignored or undervalued person to express their true heroism. Unfortunately this is often a survivalist asshole who was previously ignored because he was an asshole.

Basically, these stories are fantastical echoes of J. M. Barrie’s The Admirable Crichton. So are many of their close cousins, portal fantasies and unexpectedly-tossed-into-space SF. The fantasy is that we’re not really the ordinary mediocre people we appear to be. Given the right environment–a desert island, a fantasy kingdom, a post-atomic wasteland–the flaws and virtues conventional society keeps repressed would manifest in everyone, and our own true, presumably better, selves would break free. That’s not necessarily an unhealthy fantasy! People’s environments do affect them. It can be fun to imagine finding one that fits you perfectly.

As long as you’re not a survivalist asshole. The failure mode for new-world stories is the hero who confuses being their best self with being better than everyone else, or being in charge. If your true excellence is only visible after some sizable chunk of the competition has vanished, how excellent can you truly be? Maybe there are limits to how radically a sudden change in environment can transform your character. Sometimes a confused man in a bathrobe, plopped down on a spaceship, is still a confused man in a bathrobe.

One of the Hallorans’ guests does some scrying with a mirror. Her first session isn’t reassuring, but the second time she sees people dancing in a garden, carefree. She’s seeing what everyone expects her to. Fancy isn’t impressed; she thinks the apocalypse won’t change anything, and after the Hallorans have their new world they’ll just start pining for the old one. After all, the Hallorans already have an oversized garden, and if they wanted they could dance in it: the villagers do when Mrs. Halloran throws them a goodbye barbecue. If the Hallorans aren’t dancing in this world, why would they in the next?

5.

The Hallorans don’t mix with the villagers. They’ll throw a festival, sure. They’ll fund the villagers’ schools and libraries and send the brighter ones to college; the lord has obligations to the villeins. But they don’t mix with them. That’s the root of Fanny’s split with Mrs. Halloran, who “came in through the servants’ entrance” to marry the heir.

In Mrs. Halloran’s dreams she lives alone in a cottage. That would be enough as long as no one intrudes to threaten her, like the obnoxious Hansel and Gretel who invade her nightmares. To stay in control of her own life Mrs. Halloran made herself into one of those people who control everyone else. She has it down perfectly; she condescends even to her oldest friends. By the end of the book she’s typing up rules for the new world. (“Mates will be assigned by Mrs. Halloran. Indiscriminate coupling will be subject to severe punishment.”) You’d think the Hallorans were the products of a feudal system going back as far as the land itself, that Mrs. Halloran hadn’t come in through the wrong door, and that Aunt Fanny hadn’t grown up in a four-room apartment. Mr. Halloran’s world insulates the Hallorans from any hint they might not be a superior class of people.

Although for superior people, the destined masters of the new world, the Hallorans seem singularly unprepared to survive. The supplies stockpiled in the library include such necessities as a gross of corncob pipes and a carton of tennis balls. They burned the books to make room; Fanny thinks they’ll be able to get by with a boy scout manual. She also picks up a random guy to help repopulate the earth:

“Captain Scarabombardon,” said Aunt Fanny unexpectedly.
“At your service,” said the stranger, who was clearly extremely bewildered.

See, Fanny has to name him because he needs a proper identity. The Hallorans can’t save just anybody. They’re also still keeping Essex (they probably don’t need him to catalogue the boy scout manual, but we never saw him working in any case) and Miss Ogilvie, but they’re sending the ordinary servants home the night before the event. Nobody thinks they’ll be needed.

6.

Douglas Rushkoff was once invited to talk to a half-dozen hedge fund executives about the future of technology. He was caught off guard by what kind of technology they were interested in:

Finally, the CEO of a brokerage house explained that he had nearly completed building his own underground bunker system and asked, “How do I maintain authority over my security force after the event?”… The billionaires considered using special combination locks on the food supply that only they knew. Or making guards wear disciplinary collars of some kind in return for their survival. Or maybe building robots to serve as guards and workers — if that technology could be developed in time.

For certain wealthy and powerful people, especially the libertarian, tech-savvy types, preparing for the future doesn’t mean making the future better or working to keep the worst possible futures from coming to pass. It means letting the disaster happen, surviving, and making sure they’re still the ones in charge.

Mr. Halloran was the beneficent lord only as long as his villagers played their roles, performing gratitude and staying in their places. If they dropped dead while building his house, he’d be angry about having to move the body. If he needed some farmer’s land for his grounds, he’d wall it off, and good luck finding a lawyer who didn’t work for him. He’d send the farmer’s son to college afterward. It wasn’t generosity. He needed to be the one who did the rescuing, the excellent one, the one who made the rules.

7.

If you’re ever feeling bored you might decide to sort apocalyptic stories into two groups. Or maybe you wouldn’t, I don’t know. Either way, one possible division is challenging and comforting stories. Comforting apocalypses are not all bad. Vonda N. McIntyre’s post-apocalypse Dreamsnake is comforting because it shows people trying to build a saner, kinder world. But other kinds of comforting apocalypse–cozy catastrophes, triumphalist survivalist stories–are about domesticating existential threats. They reassure the audience that the world can end without their personal worlds having to fundamentally change. Which is still not terrible if your personal world is modest. The problem comes when you need to be superior.

Mrs. Halloran can’t afford to ignore Fanny’s prophecy because she can’t imagine a world without Mrs. Halloran at the top.

“It is my house now, and it will be my house then. I will not relinquish one stone of it in this world or any other. Everyone must be made to remember that, and to remember that I will not relinquish, either, one fraction of my authority.”

If it were merely the end of the world, Mrs. Halloran could call Fanny crazy and put it out of her mind. But she can’t risk the possibility that the world might stop being about Mrs. Halloran.

Which it will, inevitably. She’s the center of her own world, because that’s everyone’s world looks from inside. But everybody dies, and eventually Mrs. Halloran’s world will just… stop existing. It’s the inevitable existential threat and it’s impossible to imagine. What is it like not to exist? It’s not like anything. But Mrs. Halloran also can’t imagine a world where she exists, and isn’t in charge.

Douglas Rushkoff ended his visit with the hedge fund executives by giving them some advice:

I suggested that their best bet would be to treat those people really well, right now. They should be engaging with their security staffs as if they were members of their own family. And the more they can expand this ethos of inclusivity to the rest of their business practices, supply chain management, sustainability efforts, and wealth distribution, the less chance there will be of an “event” in the first place.

They weren’t buying it. Which is odd, because in reality most people respond to disasters by coming together to help each other–pooling resources, rescuing neighbors, working together to clean up. That is, in fact, the surest way to survive. By contrast, an underground Bond-villain bunker patrolled by shock-collared security guards is absolutely the most harebrained fantasy in the world. But for Rushkoff’s hedge fund managers, it’s at least imaginable. The end of the world is one thing, but Rushkoff’s inclusive and less unequal world would be the end of their world.

Hallorans and hedge fund managers have something in common with the people who like survivalist aspirational apocalypses: they have more fun imagining the apocalypse than imagining how to prevent it, or recover from it. It’s easier to give up the world we all have to live in than to give up their own superiority.

The wealthiest people in the 21st century–the Jeff Bezoses and Mark Zuckerbergs–have a lot of money. Like, a lot. So much money it’s hard to conceptualize exactly how much money they have. They have social capital, too; everybody listens to them, even when they’re Elon Musk. A few billionaires, if they were willing[1], could fully fund a moon-landing level plan to mitigate the effects of climate change. Unfortunately there’s a small but non-zero chance this would result in a world where, instead of basically owning everything, they were merely very rich. So instead of doing necessary maintenance on the world our billionaires spend their resources on stuff that won’t rock the boat. Or, at most, come up with goofball comic book survival schemes like seasteading, private mars colonies, and underground bunkers in New Zealand.

Good books have many possible interpretations. As time passes they take on new, unintended interpretations in new cultural contexts, sort of like the way those Admirable Crichton-story characters show new sides to their personalities in different worlds. From a 21st century perspective, The Sundial looks like a takedown of billionaire disaster-prep fantasies. If we do come to the end of our civilization–from climate change, pandemics, rising fascism, whatever–it will be at least in part because our real-life Hallorans were more frightened by the end of their world than the end of ours.


  1. Even if they were unwilling, if we just made them, y’know, pay enough taxes to pull their weight.  ↩

Sherlock Holmes vs. Dirk Gently

“We have in our police reports realism pushed to its extreme limits, and yet the result is, it must be confessed, neither fascinating nor artistic.”
– “A Case of Identity”

I might be laughed out of Sherlock Holmes fandom for this, but I think Inspector Lestrade is a good detective when we’re not looking.

I mean, he must be. He’s reached the rank of Inspector without getting fired. Most of the time, when Holmes isn’t around, he’s probably not getting the wrong guy. My theory is that Lestrade is a perfectly good detective as long as he’s investigating crimes that make some kind of sense.

Lestrade’s mistaken arrests are based on sensible assumptions. Take “The Norwood Builder.” Holmes’ client, the unhappy John Hector McFarlane, is a lawyer. The Norwood builder of the title hired McFarlane to make out a will leaving his fortune to McFarlane himself. So when the builder turns up dead of course Lestrade is going to arrest McFarlane. I mean, who else would it be?

What Lestrade doesn’t realize is that he is in a Sherlock Holmes story. Sherlock Holmes stories aren’t police procedurals. They’re melodramas with improbable plots and feverishly heightened emotions. Realistically no ethical lawyer would make out a will to himself; in “The Norwood Builder” it’s unusual, but not unprofessional. Realistically a creep wanting revenge on the woman who turned him down is unlikely to wait twenty years, then fake his own death to pin the murder on her son. In “The Norwood Builder” it’s just one of those things that happen. Procedural detective stories follow the laws of realism. Holmes’ cases follows the laws of melodrama. These are the times Lestrade needs Sherlock Holmes to swoop in and point out the trifling incongruities that reveal something weird.

“How often have I said to you,” says Holmes in The Sign of the Four, “that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?”

Douglas Adams wrote a couple of novels about a “holistic detective” named Dirk Gently. Dirk has a fundamental disagreement with Holmes. As he explains in The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul: “The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it which the merely improbable lacks. How often have you been presented with an apparently rational explanation of something that works in all respects other than one, which is just that it is hopelessly improbable? Your instinct is to say, ‘Yes, but he or she simply wouldn’t do that.’”

They’re both right.

Sherlock Holmes lives in a world where improbable things happen: seriously, that kid is a terrible lawyer. But never impossible things: no ghosts need apply. In Dirk Gently’s world, apparently impossible things turn out to be true: why yes, that elderly professor does have a time machine in his rooms. But never improbable things: even in the face of deep weirdness, people have everyday motivations and emotional reactions (a lot of Adams’ comedy is based in bathos).

Sherlock Holmes and Dirk Gently are great detectives because they firmly grasp the true range of what is possible in their respective worlds. This is often not true of detectives in real life. In a different way it’s also not true of Inspector Lestrade, whose down to earth detecting style might work reasonably well in the real world but fails in the world as written by Arthur Conan Doyle. If Lestrade has a fault, it’s that he doesn’t always know his own genre.

Josephine Tey, To Love and Be Wise (With a Guest Appearance by Michael Innes)

1.

Okay. So I hadn’t planned on blog posts being an annual event, but since 2016 I’ve been… distractible. Attention span, (and constant free-floating anxiety) aside, much of my reading has been comfort fiction about which I haven’t often had interesting thoughts. This may be the first of a new run of blogging. Or not, in which case, hey, see you in 2020.

2.

I’ve been reading a lot of mystery novels. Old ones, because they have more problem-solving than angst. I like watching characters make lists and exchange theories.

To Love and Be Wise is the last Josephine Tey mystery I hadn’t yet read. I sort of enjoy Josephine Tey and sort of don’t. She’s the crime-novel equivalent of Robert Heinlein: her prose is compulsively readable, but the whole time you’re thinking Christ, what an asshole. Her narrative voice (usually inhabiting the thoughts of Alan Grant, her detective, or whoever else her main character is) sorts every character into “liked” and “disliked” and when it decides to dislike someone it sticks the knife in constantly and mercilessly. Even Grant’s kind, patient girlfriend can’t catch a break:

‘Cooney was one of the best-known press photographers in the States. He was killed while photographing one of those Balkan flare-ups a year or two ago.’
‘You know everything, don’t you.’
It was on the tip of Grant’s tongue to say: ‘Anyone but an actress would have known that,’ but he liked Marta.

Golden Age mysteries pay a lot of attention to class. You’re constantly aware of how every character is placed. Tey, though, is incredibly classist. Her novels take place in a world where you can reliably read a person’s deep and fundamental character from their class markers–their appearance, their voice, their clothes. Good people are classy. They know their place, high or low, and inhabit it gracefully, effortlessly. Bad people are awkward, out of place, resentful; they try too hard. Bad people are inelegant.

Nothing Tey wrote is as snobbish as The Franchise Affair, but chapter four of To Love and Be Wise includes a passage that sums up her novels’ worldview as neatly as anything she wrote. It is absolutely, stereotypically characteristic of Tey that she thinks “bounder” is a serious insult:

Sitting watching the charm at work, Walter thought how ineradicable was the ‘bounder’ in a man’s personality…. What made a man a bounder was a quality of mind. A crassness. A lack of sensitivity. It was something that was quite incurable; a spiritual astigmatism. And Toby Tullis, after all those years, stayed unmistakably a bounder.

Etymologically, a “bounder” is someone whose behavior is out of bounds. In practice, a bounder doesn’t just stray outside the bounds of proper behavior, but of class. Toby Tullis is a playwright who’s risen to the point where he “was dressed by the world’s best tailors and had acquired the social tricks of the world’s best people” but he’s always “off key” because they’re not in his nature, his “essence.” He doesn’t have the breeding. This is the response he gets from the actually classy:

Looking sideways to see how Searle was taking this odd wooing, Walter was delighted to observe a sort of absentmindedness in Searle as he consumed his beer. The degree of absentmindedness was beautifully graded, Walter noticed; any more would have laid him open to the charge of rudeness and so put him in the wrong, any less might not have been obvious enough to sting Tullis. As it was, Toby was baffled into trying far too hard and making a fool of himself.

Which seems a crass and insensitive thing to find delightful. Still, Tey is often actually amusing, sometimes even when she’s cruel. And her prose is elegant in just the way her narrative voice seems to value: perfectly pitched, graceful, effortless, always saying exactly what it means. I love her books, and feel awful when I read them.

3.

My favorite part of To Love and Be Wise is awkward to write about, because the first time you read the book it ought to be a surprise. It’s something this book has in common with There Came Both Mist and Snow, a novel by Michael Innes, and you ought to be surprised by it there, too. Angst about “spoiler culture” on the internet recently led to a backlash with some people suggesting that caring about spoilers is always bad. And, yeah, a lot of media fans define “spoilers” too broadly and police them too avidly. But a feeling of surprise and discovery can be fun. And when reading a book for the first time surprise is often crucial to the effect the book is trying to deliver. It feels great when a book arrives somewhere you hadn’t expected.

What I’m saying is, if you’re planning to read these books, fair warning.

4.

To Love and Be Wise is about an American photographer, Leslie Searle, who vanishes during a visit to a British family who met him once and were instantly charmed, Searle being instantly charming. (Absent yet compellingly charismatic characters are a recurring theme in Tey. There’s also the murdered passenger in The Singing Sands and Richard III in The Daughter of Time.) There Came Both Mist and Snow, part of Michael Innes’ Inspector Appleby series, is about a shooting which may graduate to murder if the victim doesn’t pull out of his coma.

Both books are full of the stuff of the traditional British mystery. There are miniature worlds, subcultures or microcosms, broken by crime–in these books, ultra-traditional country houses (part of an artists’ colony in the Tey, an isolated priory in the Innes). There are large casts with contentious relationships to tease out. There are sensitive police detectives with liberal-arts educations, who restore order. That’s the comforting part of the detective story: detectives have the power to restore order by identifying the culprit who destroyed it.

And there has to be a culprit. You can’t restore order without a crime to disarrange it in the first place, and there’s no crime without guilt. And everyone is somehow guilty, because what’s a mystery without red herrings? The detective dredges up every secret, forces everyone to face whatever repressed ugliness they ignore to get through the day. And it all starts with a death. For whatever reason, detective novels long ago decided murder was the only crime worth writing novels about. (A mistake, I think; you could get perfectly interesting novels out of scams, impossible heists, and complicated embezzlement schemes.) At least two people, criminal and victim, will never step back into their places in society no matter how well you re-order it.

Once broken, you can’t entirely fix the world. Even the coziest mystery is a little sad.

5.

J. R. R. Tolkien, who should have followed up The Lord of the Rings with a series of gently comic Hobbit detective novels (it would have been way more fun than the Silmarillion), once coined the word eucatastrophe. A eucatastrophe is a “good catastrophe.” If a catastrophe is a sudden unexpected disaster, a eucatastrophe is a sudden unexpected deliverance. Take The Lord of the Rings: Frodo fails, our heroes are screwed, but somehow the ring still ends up destroyed.

Tolkein emphasizes that the eucatastrophe is a sudden “turn”–not just a happy ending, an unexpectedly happy ending. In retrospect it all makes sense (Tolkein starts setting up the resolution of The Lord of the Rings in the first book). But until this moment, given the story you’ve been reading, an ending this redemptive hadn’t occurred to you as a possibility.

6.

At the end of To Love and Be Wise, after chapters spent dragging the river, sure a body will turn up any moment, Alan Grant has a revelation: Leslie Searle never existed. He was a male persona created by a woman he’d claimed as his only living relative. She’d used it to investigate some friends of friends, dropped it when they turned out to be not to be the people she’d assumed, and later was too embarrassed to come forward. There was never any crime worse than inadvertently wasting the police’s time.

At the end of There Came Both Mist and Snow Inspector Appleby runs through a succession of plausible theories on who shot the victim and why, finally pressuring everyone into confessing the apparently damning facts that, together, prove no one is damned. The gun went off by itself because a piece of metal contracted in the extreme cold, and, incidentally, the victim is going to pull through. There was never any crime at all.

These are detective novels that end in eucatastrophe. Not just a restoration of order following a crime, but the revelation that there was no crime, or at least the crime wasn’t serious, and wasn’t committed out of malice. No one is culpable. The world was never really broken.

Crime novels almost never end like this. These two are the only ones I have read and can remember that do. There’s an obvious reason for that: if crime novels used this ending too often it would stop feeling pleasantly surprising and start feeling unintentionally funny. It’s more common in short stories. Arthur Conan Doyle used it a few times–there’s no crime in “The Missing Three Quarter”, for instance. “The Man With the Twisted Lip”, like To Love and Be Wise, is about a situation mistaken for murder because straightening things out would require the “victim” to admit to a more trivial crime. The Sherlock Holmes stories have plenty of leeway to be weird. They were written before the Detective Story was a codified genre, before things that rarely happened–eucatastrophic crime stories, murder-free detective stories–became things that weren’t even supposed to happen.

Imagine a novel with the opposite emotional affect: a detective novel where order is not straightforwardly restored and we’re left with an even bigger mystery than we started with. There are plenty of novels like this outside the strict published-as-mystery category. But every so often I’d like to read an honest-to-god formulaic detective novel that ends with deeper enigmas, just like every so often I like reading detective novels that play tricks with narration, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd-style. (I’m not saying exactly what trick that book plays, but the fact that it plays a trick is well enough known that it’s not a spoiler.)[1]

It’s interesting to go to Goodreads or Amazon and read one-star reviews of Roger Ackroyd, or the other books discussed here. Some readers don’t like Christie’s writing, or Tey’s or Innes’, which is fair enough, but some are annoyed by the endings: “I can’t imagine a less satisfying ending,” is one reader’s verdict on Innes.[2] For some readers, a eucatastrophe or an unreliable narrator is a cop-out; for a few, maybe even genuinely upsetting in its upending of their expectations.

I can’t agree with them, but it’s not because I never have expectations to fulfill. Some formulas push my buttons. The detective-story formula is one.[3] That To Love and Be Wise’s eucatastrophe is a rare ending for a detective novel is exactly what makes it feel like such a relief. But I love the departures from formula as much as the formulas themselves. It’s the fact that detective novels can be twisted, distorted, and warped without breaking them, that any given detective novel might turn out to be one of the odd ones, that keeps them interesting.


  1. I’ve read two translated detective novels predating Christie’s novel that play the exact same narrative trick. I’m not sure Christie would have had a chance to read either book.  ↩

  2. “I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that another of her books features a denouement in which it is revealed that it was actually the reader whodunnit,” grumps one Roger Ackroyd reviewer on Goodreads, and all I can think is that sounds awesome.  ↩

  3. I also love Jamesian ghost stories and those episodes of Star Trek where they solve problems by talking about them over a conference table.  ↩

Adolfo Bioy Casares, The Invention of Morel

1.

We think of spoilers as a recent concern. That’s not necessarily the case. Witness the preface to Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel. None other than Jorge Luis Borges explains why he wants readers to discover the novella’s plot for themselves: “To classify it as perfect,” says Borges, “is neither an imprecision nor a hyperbole.” Spoilers aren’t the only concept this book anticipates. Morel, first published in 1940 (though not translated until 1964) plays with ideas science fiction wouldn’t pick up on for decades: transhumanism, virtual reality, audiences’ relationships with media. To explain, I’ll have to reveal everything. Sorry, Jorge!

Seriously, though, maybe you should read this book before reading my reaction. That feeling of discovery is one of the best things about it.

2.

The Invention of Morel is efficient, packing a novel’s worth of ideas into 100 pages. The first line is already laying clues to what’s coming: “Today, on the island, a miracle happened: summer came ahead of time.” Morel’s nameless and disreputable narrator is a fugitive. He’s fled to a deserted island with a hotel (called, for reasons he doesn’t yet understand, a “museum”) and a lot of diseased trees. He insists he’s wrongly accused–of what, he refuses to say. Footnotes from a puzzled editor suggest we shouldn’t entirely trust him. Among other things, the narrator is obsessed with Thomas Malthus’s ideas on overpopulation. You get the sense that, for all his intellectual pretensions, he just doesn’t like people much and wishes there weren’t so many.

Rumor has it the island’s last visitors died of plague. Still, as the story opens our antihero is hiding from a sudden materialization of tourists. As sometimes happens in old novels the narrator falls in Love at First Sight with a vacationer named Faustine. As does not happen often enough in old novels, it occurs to him a strange man popping out of the wilderness to declare undying love may disconcert the object of his affection. He starts a garden to attract her attention. When she seems to ignore him he doesn’t immediately approach. So it takes a while to dawn on the narrator that she can’t see or hear him at all.

The tourists are simulations. The island runs on hydroelectric engines. When they’re working a week-long recording of the tourists runs in loops. These aren’t images, they’re physical. So are recordings of the museum, the trees, and even the weather. (Summer came early when recorded sunshine superimposed itself on reality.) Somebody’s invented a holodeck, like on Star Trek: The Next Generation.

That somebody is Morel, the mad scientist whose island and whose party this is. His guests are all friends, but as the loops repeat it becomes clear Morel just invited them as a pretext to get close to Faustine. A few iterations later the narrator is in the right place at the right time to watch Morel calmly explain to his friends how he murdered them.

Morel has invented a new kind of camera. Like film, it records and plays back images. Like a gramophone, it records and plays back sound. Unlike either, it records and plays back everything else–temperature, odor, physical matter. In fact, insists Morel, his invention records everything so exactly it captures thoughts. The recordings played back by the invention of Morel are conscious, but it’s consciousness without free will or memory. Morel and his friends can’t think new thoughts. With each playback they relive the same thoughts and experiences, as though for the first time. But they are real experiences. A pity that the process destroys any living thing it records! Trees or people, all waste away as though diseased. Morel has, nonetheless, spent the last week recording himself and his closest friends. They’ll die, but Morel’s invention guarantees him an afterlife eternally reliving a perfect vacation with his friends. Especially Faustine, whether she likes it or not.

Morel is scary. He’s a mild, unspectacular character. But he’s mildly and unspectacularly an utter sociopath. I thought Dr. Moreau was bad but, as island-owning mad scientists whose names start with “More” go, Morel has him beat.

He’s also a transhumanist uploading his brain into a personal Matrix, which is impressive for 1940.

3.

Early in 2018 the internet paused to gawk at a startup company called Nectome. Nectome offers to record your mind. They’ll store your consciousness–at least, if you believe the optimistic view. Someday, maybe, someone will be both able and willing to run it in a computer, granting you new life as an artificial intelligence in a simulated world. The catch is that Nectome stores, like, your brain. As a cofounder quoted in the MIT Technology Review puts it:

The product is “100 percent fatal,” says McIntyre. “That is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies.”

(A line that cries out to be followed up with “Beep Boop. I am a robot.”)

Fatal or not, mind uploading is a popular idea in science fiction and among Transhumanists. Morel sees no problem in trading lives for digital afterlives, though Morel’s simulation runs in the real world instead of on a computer. The narrator considers the implications: what if there’s a way to find and gather “vibrations” long since dispersed? Everyone who ever existed could return to replay their lives. The narrator imagines simulated afterlives crowding out living humans. (At this point the weary editor claims to have removed a long, incoherent rant on Malthus.)

This is basically physicist Frank Tipler’s Omega Point. Tipler imagines a future society with near-infinite computational resources simulating every possible universe containing everyone who ever lived. Less cosmically, yet even less convincingly, some think we could recreate people by combining conscious software with biographical and psychological profiles. To be fair to Tipler and friends, at least they’re imagining an afterlife for everybody. When transhumanists talk about “life extension,” I often get the sense they’re really talking about “life extension for me, the silicon valley billionaire!” without caring how accessible those extended lives will be to the rest of us peons.

4.

This raises questions. Obvious questions, asked many times, without dampening transhumanist interest in mind uploading at all.

  1. Assuming you can copy your mind onto a hard drive, and it’s conscious, is it really you? Is there continuity between you and the you in the computer? Most people (myself included) would say no. You’ve created a parallel version of yourself, a mental twin whose identity immediately diverges from yours. Although from the twin’s point of view it may feel like you. It has all your memories up to the point of upload, and if you had your brain freeze-dried the original you isn’t hanging around to raise awkward questions. Maybe for some people that’s close enough.

  2. Maybe it’s okay your upload is someone else–maybe you just want to leave behind a digitally conscious offspring. The next question: Is it conscious? I’m assuming you made the decision after some due diligence. Presumably whoever sold you on the process let you talk to an AI who assured you everything was great. But were you talking to a conscious mind, or an extraordinarily sophisticated Eliza? Not being inside a computer yourself, how can you be sure?

  3. What kind of afterlife is this? Do you have an interface to the real world? Can a computer run more than one mind? Can you network with those other minds? If you’re one of the first uploads, will you be spending decades by yourself in a low-polygon-count video game?

These are questions The Invention of Morel doesn’t ask, except implicitly: the narrator doesn’t ask, but we’re not meant to trust his judgement. The nature of uploading in Morel makes these questions especially important. The recordings can’t do or think anything new. But they’re (at least theoretically) conscious within those limits. And they don’t know they’re limited: each run feels like it’s happening for the first time.

If they can’t think new thoughts, are they alive? If they don’t know it, from their own point of view does it matter? Morel doesn’t stop to ask. What kind of person would take this deal?

5.

In Morel’s case, the answer is obvious. He’s a type of sociopath we’re all too familiar with, fueled by toxic masculinity and a bloated sense of entitlement. Other people are supporting characters in the movie of his life. If Faustine won’t play the role he’s laid out for her he’ll cancel production. Morel sacrifices his whole cast to replace uncooperative reality with a perfect eternal image.

There have been a lot of debates over the years about how media influence audiences, for good or bad. I’m increasingly convinced the most pernicious influences in popular culture are stories that value protagonists’ self-actualization, emotional fulfillment, or personal goals over the supporting cast’s safety or emotional health. I’m thinking, for instance, of all the action movies where the plot puts the lives of innumerable extras at stake but the emotional through-line is about nothing more than the hero’s conflict with a father-figure.

Our culture needs more heroes who care about other people’s self-actualization and fulfillment.

6.

What’s more interesting is the fate of the narrator. He never knew these people. They no longer exist in his world. They’re characters in a television series or a giant video game. It’s media–a documentary, but it might as well be fiction for all the narrator can affect anything. Still, he turns on Morel’s invention and records himself walking among the tourists. He inserts himself into their conversations, choreographs his actions so they seem to interact. An outside observer would never know he wasn’t part of the original group. The narrator will waste away; his copy will spend eternity pretending to have friends.

At this point it’s worth noting Bioy Casares based Faustine on the actress Louise Brooks–that’s her on the cover of the NYRB Classics edition of the novel. As a young man Bioy Casares had a crush on Brooks. The Invention of Morel is in part dissecting his adolescent self’s attraction to a woman he knew he’d never meet.

What Bioy Casares felt for Brooks is an example of a parasocial relationship. That’s the technical term for the one-sided relationship people have with fictional characters who feels like “old friends.” People can have parasocial relationships with media figures or celebrities, too. But as with explicitly fictional characters they’re only mental simulations of those people. A real relationship goes two ways; both sides engage with the other person’s point of view. In a parasocial relationship the feelings are all on one side. The second party isn’t aware of the first, and can’t be. The second party is fictional.

A horror movie’s audience feels fear they know is nothing like real fear. A tragedy’s audience feels sadness distinct from the sadness they feel when sad things happen in real life. Parasocial relationships are like that, with friendship; they’re not necessarily unhealthy. The devoted fans who check in with their favorite TV show every week have feelings analogous to the emotions associated with real friendships while understanding they aren’t the same.

If they’re healthy. If not, you get the proverbial soap opera fan accosting the villain’s actor on the street. Or a celebrity stalker. Or Reg Barclay, the character on Star Trek: The Next Generation who got so lost in his holodeck sessions he couldn’t deal with reality. Or the narrator, who has the same problem, except Counselor Troi isn’t around to stage an intervention.

The narrator can’t deal with people. I don’t mean he’s an introvert, drained by social interaction. That, I could sympathize with–no one’s more introverted than me! No, the narrator can’t deal with people because he’s a self-absorbed misanthrope. Instead, he’ll spend time with phantoms who can’t surprise him because they’re completely predictable, and ask nothing of him because they don’t know he’s there. For him, that’s close enough.

7.

In the social media age it’s become common for creators (they’re usually women) to get death threats when some cartoon or video game or movie franchise takes a turn its “fans” don’t like. As far as these guys (they’re always men) are concerned, their parasocial relationships with fictional characters are more important than real people’s emotional health and feelings of safety.

I sometimes wonder how many people have, without admitting it to themselves, on some subconscious level convinced themselves other people aren’t real.

8.

Compared to Morel, the narrator may seem merely pathetic. But the novel draws a direct parallel between them! Even the narrator notices, and he’s not especially self-aware. Both claim to be in love with Faustine, but neither know anything about her. They’re not thinking of her as another human with interiority like their own. They look at her and see fictional characters they invented to support stories in which they’re the protagonists.

For the narrator a simulated person is close enough to a real person that a parasocial relationship and a real relationship are almost interchangeable. He’s willing to murder himself for an afterlife surrounded by images. At this point, remember the narrator is a fugitive, and still hasn’t told us what he was accused of. Who is he, really? What’s he capable of? Given the chance, could he have been another Morel? Bioy Casares seems to think the narrator and Morel are different more in degree than kind.

If there’s any hope for the narrator, it’s that at the end he hopes for some future gatherer of vibrations to unite him with Faustine’s consciousness. Maybe he’s starting to realize other people have their own stories, and it might be a good idea to listen.

9.

The official history of science fiction looks like a list of books that aged badly–who can read Asimov anymore without occasionally laughing? Or Heinlein? It’s easy to assume aging badly is an inherent property of the genre, that very little SF more than a generation old is worth reading.

In forgotten corners of the shelves is an alternate history of SF. There are books less celebrated (sometimes forgotten) by dedicated SF readers that still have something to say to us today. The Invention of Morel is one of those. Transhumanism, virtual reality, the merging of real life with media, and destructive, entitled misogyny? This is all very current, if not always current in the way we’d want.

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester

Sometimes a book clearly does not belong to a genre, but works so much like that genre it seems to belong in spirit. Take John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester. It has the story-shape and uncanny affect of weird fiction despite not, in the end, containing anything weird. And though it draws from the horror-fiction end of the genre more than the Borgesian, there’s nothing horrific about it; it is, instead, gentle and compassionate. It’s weird-fiction adjacent.

(I almost don’t want to say that much… I don’t usually worry about spoilers here; I’m writing responses to books, not the kind of book reviews you’d read beforehand to gauge your interest. But I so rarely go into a novel not even knowing what kind of story it’s telling, and that feeling of discovery is amazing, so if this novel sounds interesting just go read it. This essay will still be here when you’re done.)

Universal Harvester starts with Jeremy Heidt, a video rental clerk in Nevada, Iowa, in the 1990s. Customers are coming in perturbed; they report uncomfortably strange scenes spliced into their copies of Targets and She’s All That. Jeremy, his boss Sarah Jane, and their customer and enthusiastic investigator Stephanie (a teacher who maybe finds small-town Iowa a little boring after the University of Chicago) play back the tapes and see short, inexplicable flashes: the inside of a shed, people wearing canvas sacks over their heads, a woman fleeing a farm. Sarah thinks she recognizes the farmhouse.

Universal Harvester tells its story with the tools of found footage. Appropriately for a book about a video store, it’s a cinematic genre.[1] The point of found footage is that it’s incomplete. Most movies assume the camera is omniscient; it knows the whole story and can show the audience any part. The found footage camera narrates from inside the story. It asks us to reconstruct the story from incomplete data and a limited point of view. It’s often said of horror movies that what the audience doesn’t see is scarier than what it does: the images in the viewer’s imagination are wilder (and more specific to that viewer!) than anything the filmmakers could come up with. A good found footage movie extends this principle to the narrative logic. The story in the gaps is more uncanny than what’s on screen.[2]

Universal Harvester’s narrator seems omniscient. It tells us about Jeremy’s job and home life, how he’s considering a new job in Des Moines. About how his mother died, and his father’s tentative new relationship. It tells us what’s going through his head at times. Oddly, it also tells us things that could have happened prefaced by phrases like “in some versions of this story.” Did Jeremy have an argument with his father? Did he get a job at a soil-testing lab, or stay longer at the Video Hut? When a personal pronoun slips out it confirms what we already suspected: the narrator is inside the story. The narrator knows Jeremy pretty well but what we’re reading is, in places, just a version of his story, reconstructed from available information.

Adding to Universal Harvester‘s aura of found footage is a documentary feel helped by its strong sense of place. Nevada, Iowa is a real town, not far from where I grew up. Contrary to popular belief Iowa isn’t all rural; I’ve spent my entire life in university towns, so Jeremy’s culture isn’t mine. But I know enough to tell Universal Harvester has the atmosphere right. I recognize the characters’ affect, their reticence, the way the favorite topic at family gatherings is who’s moved where. The geography’s right, too; Darnielle seems to know the area from more than Google maps.

There’s a second horror influence contributing to Universal Harvester’s aura of the uncanny: folk horror, or whatever the American equivalent of folk horror might be (I’ve seen good arguments that it exists). This is a novel of rural landscapes, odd rituals, and new religions born from old, in this case not a European pagan revival but a Christian cult. The cult figures into the middle of the novel, which jumps back a couple of decades to tell the story of a woman who joins a seedy strip-mall church and disappears with it when it flees town, leaving behind a confused husband and daughter. They hire a detective. The daughter grows up following the cult from town to town, scanning the ever-increasing piles of surveillance tapes for some sign of a mother who, even after the cult leader is arrested and the last few members deprogrammed, never turns up again.

What happened to her? Well, there are different versions of that story.

Nobody knows you the way you know yourself. They see the pieces of your life that happen to occur in front of them. The you they know is a story they reconstruct from the fragments. The story your close friends and family know is probably pretty accurate! But the only person who knows your true, entire story is you.[3]

Universal Harvester’s narrator is reconstructing other people’s lives from the information available to her limited point of view. She’s piecing together fragments of video to find the story of a mother who disappeared. If she’s created strange rituals for herself they’re not so much attempting to reach back as out, to make connections. (Even for the mother, the cult was about connecting with something she was missing.) Universal Harvester is using weird fiction strategies to talk about the unknowability of other people’s lives, and how people reach out anyway in whatever way they know, however odd.

Most work in any genre is a bland mass of repetitious received ideas that blend into each other like gray soup. There are lots of reasons why a story might fail to rise above the general mass of forgettable oatmeal. One of the big ones is when creators never move past their first automatic assumptions about what genres, their tools, or their tropes, are for. Or what kinds of stories they could tell, whether they could be used for something new. Or whether they could bring in different tools altogether to serve the same purpose. Which is as good an argument as any for reading widely, and having a flexible concept of genre.


  1. Though I’ve read horror stories formatted as collections of documents or, especially since found footage movies took off, descriptions of in-story videos.  ↩

  2. There are a lot of terrible found footage movies out there; they fail mostly because they failed to understand this. Most of them actually have two layers of thoughtless tropes. You can tell the filmmakers copied the style without thinking about what it’s doing because they’re using it to tell utterly rote, generic horror-movie stories: clearly defined character and thematic arcs, action climaxes, downbeat endings. There’s usually a point in these movies–maybe while the characters are running for their lives; maybe, alternately, while they’re having an argument that includes some important exposition but the characters themselves wouldn’t bother recording for posterity–when the audience asks why are these people filming this? The answer being because the filmmakers couldn’t conceive of a movie without the kind of scenes only an omniscient narrator would film.  ↩

  3. Even a well-documented historical figure is, to some extent, a mystery. Like, there’s enough on Lyndon Johnson for a multi-volume biography totaling thousands of pages. But there were still unwitnessed and unrecorded moments in his life. In most of them he was probably brushing his teeth or making a cheese sandwich or something. But could some moment have revealed him to be a completely different man? Who knows?  ↩

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.

Shirley Jackson, The Bird’s Nest

Considering how fond I am of The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, it’s embarrassing that I was unaware until a few years back that Shirley Jackson had written other novels. She did, though, and I’ve been saving a couple for special occasions. Recently I’ve had a short attention span for books, and working on my concentration seemed a special enough occasion, so I picked up The Bird’s Nest.

Cover of The Bird's Nest

The Bird’s Nest turned out to be Jackson’s entry in the tiny genre of mid-twentieth century psychiatric melodramas also including the movies Spellbound and The Three Faces of Eve[1], as well as a comics-code-era comic book series from the same publisher that brought you Vault of Horror. These stories hang their plots on an oversimplified model of psychoanalysis that works like a detective novel. The patient is a mystery, their psychiatrist is a detective, the climax is the revelation of the buried trauma which caused all their problems. The Bird’s Nest doesn’t stray far from this template: Elizabeth Richmond develops multiple personalities;[2] after months of treatment a Dramatic Climax is reached and a Trauma confessed; Elizabeth is, if not entirely well, at least much better.

So the plot is, for Jackson, trite. On the other hand, as anyone who’s ever summarized Moby Dick knows, sometimes the important thing about a book isn’t the premise but how it’s executed. Even before her most famous novels, Jackson was good. The Bird’s Nest starts with a dryly comic portrait of the museum where Elizabeth works–sinking on its foundations, a hole running through the wall of her office–before pulling in to her point of view. There are three characters of any importance–Elizabeth’s psychiatrist, her aunt, and Elizabeth, subdivided into four distinct selves (Elizabeth, Beth, Betsy, and Bess). They all get chapters from their points of view (first-person case studies from the psychiatrist, the others in close third) and they’re not smoothed over into a stylistic monolith; every point of view comes with a distinct narrative voice. It helps that when Jackson opts for close third person she really gets into her characters’ heads, describing their thought processes with scrupulous precision. At the same time, she describes what they’re reacting to in enough detail for the reader to understand more than the narration; in the middle of the novel Betsy takes a long side trip to New York that comes off completely differently to the reader even in the absence of information outside Betsy’s perceptions.

For a writer who can be, at times, mercilessly sardonic, Shirley Jackson also sometimes shows a lot of empathy. The aunt and the doctor are both, at first glance, ridiculous–him pompous, swinging between self-congratulation and false humility; her overly satisfied with her own eccentricity and prone to drink slightly too much. Some novels would leave them at that. In a lot of fiction the point of including a buffoon is to provide the audience with a convenient outlet for their bottled-up contempt. Someone whose faults we can dissect with uncomplicated disapproval. But by the end of The Bird’s Nest Elizabeth’s aunt and doctor have filled out, revealed hidden parts of their histories and characters, without ever actually ceasing to be the people they originally seemed. This is one of my favorite effects in fiction: when a previously limited character reveals unsuspected depths, or someone who came off as a walking joke turns out to be surprisingly compassionate or heroic.

Stories centered on psychiatry often treat the subject way too glibly. If The Bird’s Nest falls mostly on the right side of the line between glibness and sensitivity, it’s probably Jackson’s empathy for her characters doing most of the work. Given the history of fictional treatments of multiple personalities this may be a low bar, but of all the stories with The Bird’s Nest’s premise, The Bird’s Nest is probably the best of the lot.


  1. The Bird’s Nest was filmed too, as Lizzie; I haven’t seen it.  ↩

  2. The proper term is dissociative identity disorder.  ↩

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.  ↩