Tag Archives: Books

Not Less Than Gods

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Not Less Than Gods is one of the last couple of novels Kage Baker finished before her death, and the final novel in her Company series. For anybody familiar with the series, this is the backstory on Edward Bell-Fairfax, and how he grew into a strange fusion of Victorian idealist and sociopath. For anybody else, it’s a 300 page chunk of steampunk espionage that stands perfectly well on its own.

Of course, between a reader coming to a book cold, and one who’s already read the author’s other work, I think the fan is getting a better deal. You often hear of avid readers who find an interesting writer and obsessively track down everything that writer ever wrote. You might assume they’re just after more of the same. Nah–there’s more to it than that.

Most writers–and artists in general; painters, directors, whatever–have styles they prefer, tricks and techniques they reuse, thoughts and questions they return to. A few artists are stylistic chameleons, never the same from work to work. I actually find these artists less interesting! The best thing about having read many of a writer’s books is that you start to see patterns, and then you’re reading with a whole extra set of tools. Reading one book is like standing in a landscape; read more and you catch a glimpse of the map.

So, yeah, Not Less Than Gods is fun. But it holds an extra meta-interest for me because it demonstrates three techniques Kage Baker turned to often, and was very good at.

(Spoiler note: Later in this post, I discuss the ending of Not Less Than Gods. Also, there’s a somewhat vaguer spoiler for her fantasy novel The Anvil of the World.) Continue reading Not Less Than Gods

Links to Things

I haven’t done many of these links posts lately, so I have a bunch of links saved up. I’ll try to get caught up over the next few weeks.

  • First, Aaron Diaz of Dresden Codak has started a new blog on which he writes perceptively about the craft of comics. It’s very new, but he’s already written several posts that have clarified things I’ve been doing haphazardly and inconsistently because I hadn’t thought about them consciously. Example: body language. Sometimes I manage to express my characters’ personalities through my drawings—through Bob’s frequently hunched-over posture, or Buck’s disregard for other people’s personal space—but sometimes they’re more or less talking heads.

    Also useful: Comic Tools has been on hiatus for a while, but there’s lots of helpful stuff in the archives. New Construction is Kevin Huizenga’s new blog about “cartooning practices and concerns.” And Temple of the Seven Golden Camels is written from the point of view of an animator, but has lots of good advice about draftsmanship and composition.

  • Laura Miller, at Salon, writes about the brave new world, anticipated by many aspiring authors, in which anybody can get their books “published” without going through the filter of an actual publisher. Self-publishing enthusiasts like to talk about what this means for writers; Miller focuses on on what this would mean for readers:

    A diamond encased in a mountain of solid granite may be truly valuable, but at a certain point the cost of extracting it exceeds the value of the jewel. With slush, the cost is not only financial (many publishers can no longer afford to assign junior editors to read unsolicited manuscripts) but also — as is less often admitted — emotional and even moral.

    It seriously messes with your head to read slush. Being bombarded with inept prose, shoddy ideas, incoherent grammar, boring plots and insubstantial characters — not to mention ton after metric ton of clichés — for hours on end induces a state of existential despair that’s almost impossible to communicate to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves: Call it slush fatigue.

  • On a related note, have you ever tried to search for something on Amazon.com, and found your search results littered with generic-looking print-on-demand books? If you actually were to order one of those things, this is what you’d get. If Amazon were to scour these things from their catalog they’d be doing their customers a favor… but that’s not likely to happen; as long as there are people unwary enough to buy the things, Amazon will turn a profit from them.

  • Sarah Monette, on why craft trumps inspiration:

    It occurred to me today that one of the places from which the idea that craftsmanship and devotion to craftsmanship are unworthy of artists might be coming is the Renaissance idea of sprezzatura, the art of making the difficult look easy. Sprezzatura is all about disclaiming effort, about presenting the appearance of not working hard to achieve perfection, and it seems to me like there’s a point of slippage between sprezzatura as a pose, equally understood as such by author and audience, and the devaluation of craft.

  • Kit Whitfield on why it’s a mistake to assume too much about a writer’s mental state from their work:

    Well, ask yourself this: if an inept draftsman creates a picture of a man whose head is too small and whose right hand is half the length it should be, does that mean the draftsman actually believes we live in a world full of tiny-headed, bob-handed people? No; all it means is that the draftsman isn’t very good at reproducing the reality he or she sees. And the same attains to writing. Writing is pretty difficult, reality is massively complicated, and even a moderately accurate reproduction of it is hard to manage. Get it wrong, and you’ve created a weird facsimile of reality that sounds, well, crazy.

    And on “metaphorisation”:

    Fiction creates situations where the strong feelings are tied to events dramatic enough to justify them. It’s one of the great escapist satisfactions of reading: not escaping into a more comfortable world, but escaping into a world where you have good, unchallengeable reasons for feeling the way you do.

  • SF blogs in the past year or so have periodically been writing about representations of different cultures, and cultural appropriation. Hal Duncan has written an essay thinking about appropriation, abjection, and related topics. I’m not certain what to excerpt; just go read it, if the subject interests you.

Cherie Priest, Boneshaker

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Last year, the SF blogosphere was so excited about Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker you would have thought it had caused actual bones to be shaken. I suspect massive name recognition was a major reason this novel ended up on both the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, because Boneshaker does not aspire or pretend to be anything more than a light, breezy adventure novel–the kind of book that meets the baseline standard of “entertaining” but isn’t meant to step beyond into “exciting” or “compelling.” This is a good and worthwhile thing for a book to be… but it’s not unusual.

From the Nebula or Hugo shortlist, I expect something ambitious, or moving, or thoughtful, or beautiful. Something significant, memorable, and mind-blowing. A book that a reasonably well-read person might honestly judge to be among the five or six best SF novels published in the past year. I am, in other words, in Adam Roberts’s camp on the whole Hugo Awards deal.

Yes, I know. The fact that Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi were nominated for Little Brother and Zoe’s Tale, neither of which rose to Boneshaker’s level of craft–or that Robert J. Sawyer and Jack McDevitt have ever been nominated at all, for anything–should have squashed my illusions. Still, I cannot extinguish the small ember of hope that whispers maybe, this year, the nominators followed some criteria more stringent than “What are people talking about on the internet?”

The problem with this, I’d argue, is not so much that it’s unfair to other, more ambitious SF novels that go unrecognized. They’re big books and can take care of themselves. What’s worse is the vast disservice it does to books like Boneshaker.

A reader’s experience of a book depends partly on the assumptions they bring to it. It’s like James Thurber’s story “The Macbeth Murder Mystery”: Pick up Macbeth thinking it’s a detective story, and you’ll read it wrong. Anyone who reads Moby-Dick like a C. S. Forester novel will be bored and annoyed and will miss all the really good bits, and you can say the same for a reader who comes across the Horatio Hornblower stories while looking for another book like Moby-Dick. Or a reader who reads a light adventure novel expecting an award nominee. I read Boneshaker because it made the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, and was left without much patience for a book I might otherwise have enjoyed. When the Nebula judges saddled Boneshaker with a nomination, they guaranteed that a large chunk of its potential audience would come to it with the wrong expectations.

So, ignoring the nominations… how good is Boneshaker at being what it actually tries to be? Here I have to admit that, with different expectations, I would still have been… not necessarily the wrong reader for this book, but not the ideal reader. I’ll overlook a lot if a book pushes my buttons; I cut Boneshaker less slack because the buttons it pushes belong to other people. One reason Boneshaker got so much attention was that it managed to incorporate two current internet fads: it’s a steampunk novel about a city overrun by zombies. Steampunk I can take or leave. Zombies are boring, and I absolutely cannot wait for SF fans to get over their fascination with the things. The zombies are not Boneshaker’s main focus, so I can’t say they bothered me, but I wasn’t excited to see them, either.

So when I say I thought Boneshaker wasn’t as fast-paced and breezy as I’d like, that it in fact seemed drawn out far too long… well, it’s a relative judgement. One of Kage Baker’s Company novels, Mendoza in Hollywood, is a couple hundred pages of time travelers just sort of hanging out in 19th-century California, followed by a slight trace of plot. I couldn’t put it down. I like spending time with Baker’s characters and her world, even when her characters have so much downtime they spend an entire chapter watching a movie. If you like spending time with zombies and steampunk gadgets, maybe you’ll want as much Boneshaker as you can get.

Me, though… I thought the novel would have been stronger if it had been cut in half. And there’s a specific half that’s disposable. Boneshaker is split between the points of view of Briar Wilkes, the widow of the man whose pulp-villain-style drilling machine loosed a plague of zombies on Seattle, and her son Zeke, who kicks things off by sneaking into the now-walled city to find traces of his dad. Of the two leads, only Briar is interesting.

Zeke’s only function in this story is to be rescued, and his rescue would have been more suspenseful if we’d had no more idea than Briar of what had become of him. Instead, we spend every other chapter watching Zeke bounce from character to character and fail to accomplish anything. Whenever Boneshaker switches to Zeke’s point of view, the story starts running in place. Typical of Zeke’s half of the book is a chapter in which he’s put on a dirigible leaving the city; it turns out to have been stolen, the original owners show up to retrieve it, and Zeke runs away. Neither dirigible crew appears in the novel again, and the incident has absolutely no effect on anything. It’s just a teaser for another novel in the same universe.

Briar is smart and resourceful and drives the plot. Boneshaker is really entirely her story–it’s about getting her life unstuck and into a place where she can talk about her past and move on. The escaping-from-zombies bits might go on a bit too long for my taste, but Briar’s chapters have all the excitement missing from Zeke’s. A sign of the skill and craft behind this book, and the thing that most impressed me, was one of the climactic revelations–without saying too much, one of Boneshaker’s central mysteries is a question of identity; Cherie Priest’s answer seems superficially anticlimactic but is actually far more interesting than the alternative, and it sets up a bigger revelation at the end of the book.

So am I recommending Boneshaker, or not? I guess I’d recommend half of it, to steampunk fans. Fortunately, it’s easy to read just Briar’s half: the chapters are prefaced with engravings of a pair of steampunk goggles or a dirigible, depending on whether they’re Zeke’s chapters or Briar’s–and Zeke’s chapters don’t drive the plot, so the novel is perfectly comprehensible without them!

Christopher Barzak, The Love We Share Without Knowing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links to Things

  • Lev Grossman on the connections between modernist literature and fantasy, an the difference between fantasy (the genre) and fantasy (the mental state), with added background on Leonard Woolf (husband of the more famous Virginia) and his odd housemate from his days in the Ceylon Civil Service:

    Magical thinking isn’t fantasy in the literary sense. It is a fantasy, in the psychoanalytic sense: a dream of a world where actions don’t have consequences, where loss is an impossibility, where wishing makes it so, where one doesn’t have to make choices, because all possible good things arrive at once, unbidden, with none of those nasty trade-offs that are so characteristic of real life. There is no either/or in a fantasy, it’s all both/and. This is the world that Dutton’s fairies evoked for Woolf, and that he was struggling so mightily to put behind him.

    But fantasies aren’t literature, and fantasies aren’t fantasy. This isn’t a distinction that Woolf would have made, but Dutton might have made it. Granted, fantasy literature, broadly speaking, tends to be set in worlds where magic is real. But that doesn’t mean anything is possible. Magic doesn’t permeate those worlds completely. Magic exists, but only as a flash of vital light in a universe that is otherwise as dark and mechanical as our own—its presence casts the tragic, non-magical parts of life in higher relief. Magic tantalizes with the possibility that it might quicken the world back into life, restore the lost paradise of magical thinking, but ultimately it cannot.

  • Because I want to be able to find them again, here are links to SFSignal’s lists of the most underrated science fiction series and the most underrated fantasy series.

  • Jacob Lambert on Tetris as an aesthetic experience:

    Floating through Tetris’ cranial hyperspace forces a natural introspection. Often, sort of insanely, I’ll dwell upon what my playing method can tell me about myself. My technique isn’t to plow through rows or shatter a score; I play Tetris for the tetris: the four-row clear that comes with the vertically-nestled “I” block. Self-denial is necessary for the maneuver, as all must be laid aside for the blessed piece’s arrival. Meanwhile, the pile mounts dangerously. When the block finally appears, this mild daring and asceticism are handsomely repaid: there’s a flash of light, a scream of sound, and the pile’s heavy fall.

  • Paul Bloom, “The Pleasures of Imagination”:

    The emotions triggered by fiction are very real. When Charles Dickens wrote about the death of Little Nell in the 1840s, people wept—and I’m sure that the death of characters in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series led to similar tears. (After her final book was published, Rowling appeared in interviews and told about the letters she got, not all of them from children, begging her to spare the lives of beloved characters such as Hagrid, Hermione, Ron, and, of course, Harry Potter himself.) A friend of mine told me that he can’t remember hating anyone the way he hated one of the characters in the movie Trainspotting, and there are many people who can’t bear to experience certain fictions because the emotions are too intense. I have my own difficulty with movies in which the suffering of the characters is too real, and many find it difficult to watch comedies that rely too heavily on embarrassment; the vicarious reaction to this is too unpleasant.

    These emotional responses are typically muted compared with the real thing. Watching a movie in which someone is eaten by a shark is less intense than watching someone really being eaten by a shark. But at every level—physiological, neurological, psychological—the emotions are real, not pretend.

  • On a less pleasant note, a truly depressing article by Tim Dickinson, from Rolling Stone, on the oil spill in the gulf and the political dysfunctions that helped to bring it about.

    The tale of the Deepwater Horizon disaster is, at its core, the tale of two blowout preventers: one mechanical, one regulatory. The regulatory blowout preventer failed long before BP ever started to drill — precisely because Salazar kept in place the crooked environmental guidelines the Bush administration implemented to favor the oil industry.

Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night

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It sounds like Alberto Manguel has a hell of a library. He rebuilt an old barn just to house his 30,000 books. It’s where he begins his book The Library at Night. The title refers to the change he experiences at the end of his reading day: “But at night, when the library lamps are lit, the outside world disappears and nothing but this space of books remains in existence.”

The Library at Night is a book of essays about libraries. Manguel constructed most of them from a generous handful of anecdotes clustered around one or two topics on which he goes deeper. Every essay looks at one of the functions of libraries.

What do libraries do? Judging from libraries’ websites the most popular answer is the kind of banally lofty statement of purpose normally written by committee (“The UC Berkeley Library connects students and scholars to the world of information and ideas”). This is also the boring answer. Manguel isn’t writing about the day-to-day business of libraries but about their purpose.

The essays fall roughly into three categories. Sometimes Manguel writes about how libraries order information: not only how the books are ordered, but how the space works. Sometimes a library’s architecture leans over your shoulder and tells you how to feel about its books. An 18th-century concept for a library drawn by Étienne-Louis Boullée looked like a cavernous train station. A place like that would pressure you to flip through a book, scribble a couple of notes, and move on.

Boulle's library.

The other categories are about libraries as cultural institutions and libraries as expressions of individual minds. Mostly, Manguel is examining libraries as physical embodiments of ideas—public libraries reflect the aspirations and ideals of a group, a private library is an expression of a single person’s mind. It’s common to jokingly refer to modern technology as an “outboard brain.” In reality, we’ve had outboard brains as long as we’ve had books.

Manguel ends the book with “The Library as Home.” That third category of essay, about the library as a home for the mind, got me thinking about my own library. It’s a haphazard, unsystematic collection, actually. There are books I like, or want to read, that I’ve never bothered to acquire. On the other hand, I’ve bought a lot of books because they were sitting on remainder tables, looking interesting and flaunting seductively cheap price labels. (Let’s not mention used bookstores. I’ve had to stop going. I can find anything online these days, and it’s guaranteed to be what I actually wanted, and not an impulse buy…) Often these purchases turn out surprisingly well; sometimes they’re just books I might as well have borrowed from the library. I wonder, having read Manguel’s book, just what my half-random collection says about my mind.

Memories of the Future

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The best science fiction/fantasy collection of 2009 was a book of 80-year old stories: Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. If anyone out there knows how to pronounce “Krzhizhanovsky,” leave a comment. I’m really curious.

Memories collects seven stories written in the Soviet Union during the late 1920s. (It might also have been published in 2006 as Seven Stories, which I haven’t seen. On the other hand, maybe those were seven different stories. Another story, “Yellow Coal,” is available on the web.)

Most of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories are fantasies of the kind filed under “magic realism.” “Memories of the Future” is flat-out science fiction, written in reaction to H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. All of them are way the hell better than anything American SF writers–I guess at the time they would have been “scientifiction writers”–came up with in the 1930s. Project Gutenberg has been digitizing early out-of-copyright issues of Astounding, and, let me tell you, trees should not have been reduced to pulp for that dreck. I can’t help but wonder what would have happened to the SF genre if Krzhizhanovsky had slipped past the censors, if he’d been translated into English, if his stories had reached western SF writers and shook it awake a little. Could the New Wave have hit the shore thirty years early?

When SF fans talk about writing, someone usually shows up to promote “transparent prose.” “Transparent prose” is writing notable for its unwillingness to impinge on the readers consciousness. It’s a “window” onto the story; you read through it. I think this kind of prose is okay, if not exciting. It’s a good minimum standard.

But for readers who hate “literary” writing transparent prose is the only way to go. Writing is about communication, they say. And they’re right. Good writing communicates clearly. But prose that communicates clearly and beautifully communicates more than plain transparent-as-glass prose. It encodes more information. Here’s a small nonstandard use of a verb, from Krzhizhanovsky’s “The Branch Line”: “Under the conductor’s canting a red beard bubbled.” Can’t you just see that beard? In more detail than you might have seen “a curly red beard?”

One sign of great writing is the unexpected but perfect image: when it would never have occurred to you to describe something that way, but it’s exactly right. Great writing renews familiar things with surprise and estrangement. It kicks down your door and shouts “Hey, you think you’ve seen this before, but look again!” That’s Krzhizhanovsky’s specialty. On every page you’ll find at least one striking image, from the small to the significant (“We’re still immured in our old space, like the stumps in a felled forest. But our lives have long been stacked in piles, and not for us but for others.”)

Great writing is always doing at least two things at once. On the surface Krzhizhanovsky tells stories; subconsciously, his style tells us how he felt living in the Soviet Union. Krzhizhanovsky frequently uses synecdoche when referring to people–“briefcases,” “the earflaps,” “a five-digit number that had promised to put in a word to the right people.” People seem reduced to objects, functions; we’re also reminded of fairy tales and parables of inanimate objects that act out human failings. Some stories progress through the abrupt shifts and transitions of dream logic. Krzhizhanovsky’s world, like Stalin’s, is ruled not by sense but by arbitrary fiat.

Krzhizhanovsky’s stories weren’t published until 1989. He couldn’t get them past the censors. He had to content himself by holding readings while working a day job as an encyclopedia editor. So it’s not surprising that Krzhizhanovsky is preoccupied with the difficulties of being a writer in the Soviet Union. The star of “The Bookmark” is a frustrated writer, a “theme-catcher” who spins stories from the smallest hints–a cat on a ledge, a wood shaving blowing by in the wind–but has no outlet for his stories beyond telling them to acquaintances and passers-by.

The theme-catcher goes to a Soviet publisher with a book called Stories for the Crossed-Out. “Are you one of the crossed-out or one of the crossers-out?” asks the editor. Someone “able to cross things out” would be more in line with the times. Another editor invites the theme-catcher to write something safe: a biographical sketch on “Bacon.” The theme-catcher asks which one. The editor, surprised, tells the theme-catcher to write about “The Brothers Bacon.” The theme-catcher points out that Roger and Francis Bacon lived three hundred years apart. The editor screams “You’re all of you alike!” and storms out of the office. I think this is autobiography. The way the editor covers his embarrassment with sudden, wild hostility has the ring of truth. In the Soviet Union, good Party members were rewarded with jobs they were totally unqualified for. It was a nation of Heckuvajob Brownies. I’ll bet Krzhizhanovsky dealt with these guys all the time.

The narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” meets another down-on-his-luck writer named Saul Straight who’s come up with a “theory of separation.” Lovers, says Saul, should be forcibly separated: weak, imitation love will fizzle; true love will grow stronger with distance. Saul has a lot of ideas like this. He’s provisioned with philosophical ramblings and not much else. When the narrator meets him, he’s trading aphorisms for food.

Saul also has theories about art. Art is our way of giving back to the world which provides us with so much: “the painter pays for the colors of things with the paints on his palette, the musician pays for the chaos of sounds produced by the organ of Corti with harmonies, the philosopher pays for the world with his worldview.” And it’s got to be good: “talent… is not a privilege and not a gift from on high, but the direct responsibility of anyone warmed and lighted by the sun, and only metaphysically dishonorable people–of which the earth is full–shirk their duty to be talented.”

The narrator is a writer himself. He’s probably been dealing with the same crap as the theme-catcher. He can’t pay what he owes to the world because politics is everything, the Soviets scrutinize every word, and his only option is to take the metaphysically dishonorable path and play along. He’s separated from himself: “And when your “I” is missing, when you’re just the binding from which the book has been ripped out…”

But the narrator of “Someone Else’s Theme” isn’t the author. The narrator passed his story to another writer–presumably Krzhizhanovsky himself–who’s told the narrator’s story in the narrator’s voice. Now Krzhizhanovsky is faced with a problem: how can he gracefully transition back to his own voice? And writing within the limits imposed by authority, buried in someone else’s themes, how can he hold on to his own “I”?

These stories aren’t all about writers. “Red Snow” is about coming home to find a light in your apartment window. That might sound reassuringly homey. In the Soviet Union it was bad news. “Red Snow” is the most nightmarish and disorienting story in the collection.

“Quadraturin” is about the apartments themselves. In the early days of the Soviet Union masses of population moved from the country to the cities. Housing was scarce. The government turned people’s homes into communal apartments; people who’d lived in a place for years found themselves living in a couple of rooms while strangers were installed in other parts of the apartment. Sometimes entire families lived and slept in one room. According to the introduction, Krzhizhanovsky himself thought it worth noting in a letter when he discovered a way to stretch his legs while sitting at his desk. “Quadraturin” is a Moscow apartment-dweller’s fantasy–more room!–that goes horribly wrong.

“Quadraturin” is about space; “Memories of the Future” is about time. The USSR was a jam-tomorrow kind of place. Comfort, abundance, and luxury goods were waiting at the end of the five-year plan–all it would take was a little shock work. And then a little more. Somehow the good times remained out of reach. Soviet citizens lived in, and for, a purely theoretical future.

So, in a way, does Max Shterer, the mad scientist at the heart of “Memories”–which really is one of the great time travel stories, one that would have influenced the genre if life were fair. Max’s big ambition is to build a time machine. He’s born into a comfortable family around the end of the 19th century, sent away to school, drafted into the Great War, stuck in a German POW camp, and disinherited by the Revolution. Max barely registers any of this. He’s thinking about his time machine.

Eventually Max builds his machine, leaps forward, and finds… something. The climax of “Memories” is stunning, not despite but because we’re not entirely sure what Max sees. This is a time travel story written like a ghost story: what’s implied, what we imagine, is scarier than anything Krzhizhanovsky could have described outright. No wonder this story didn’t get the Soviet stamp of approval: the future feels less like a time and place than a Lovecraftian monster waiting to swallow the Russians who lived for it.

When Memories of the Future was reviewed in the New York Times the reviewer complained that Krzhizhanovsky’s “refusal to wake to the reality of his times can fog the clarity of his visions.” This is dumb. Krzhizhanovsky is engaged with the reality of his times; he engages it slantwise, through metaphor. And the times Krzhizhanovsky lived through were in many ways unreal. I can’t blame him for turning to the literary equivalent of lobster telephones and melting clocks. If he wanted to keep his grip on reality, surrealism might have been his best option.

Alternate Histories

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I haven’t written much lately. I’ve felt used up and exhausted and, honestly, I feel like I haven’t been thinking much lately. Writing is thought set down and recorded, so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I haven’t come up with much in the way of text.

Also, the random, unmoored weirdness of the news I’m reading overwhelms me. I have never spent so much time staring at my newsfeeds with the same expression as Krusty the Clown after a viewing of “Worker and Parasite.” American politics is deranged. Sometimes it’s goofy deranged, like a Muppet. Sometimes it’s scary deranged. Either way, the election coming this November, like a black hole in the center of the galaxy, looks set to pull American politics further and further into outer space.

I’d been thinking of jump-starting the blog with occasional posts, in the style of the “Links to Things” posts, documenting the stories that made me sit up and say “Huh?” So I decided on the ground rules–every story would be about an actual politician, current or aspiring, rather than some talk radio host or blogger–and collected stories. These were the first three I remembered:

It occurred to me that these stories had something in common.

There’s a science fiction subgenre called alternate history. It is what it sounds like: stories set in worlds where history happened differently. Alternate history bores the hell out of me. This is maybe a little strange given how interested I am in real history, but there it is.

I have to assume that Sue Lowden, Robert F. McDonnell, and the Republican Governors Association are more interested in alternate histories than I am. They’re living in them.

Governor McDonnell lives in a world where the Confederacy was untainted by slavery, where romantically doomed rebels fought for the lofty abstraction of “states’ rights.” The Republican Governors Association hails from a timeline where Guy Fawkes was not a terrorist but an anti-authoritarian V-For-Vendetta superhero. Sue Lowden remembers the good old days when country doctors made housecalls on poor-but-honest folk in little Norman Rockwell towns and would treat the concussion little Timmy got falling out of the apple tree in exchange for a basket of fresh zucchini.

None of these timelines much resemble the universe most of us live in. How did Governor McDonnell get there? How did Ms. Lowden pierce the barrier between the worlds? I think it has something to do with how we teach history. (Maybe. As with anything I write, this could be crazy.) Continue reading Alternate Histories

Links to Things

A sad wombat-related moment.

I’ve been unable to write much recently. I’m even behind on the comics. Exhaustion seems to be the problem; I come home in the evenings and can’t focus on anything much.

It’s been a while since I even did one of these links posts… but I do have a few links, so just to keep the blog going, here they are:

  • Apparently the Pre-Raphaelites were really into wombats. I recently read some doggerrel Dante Gabriel Rossetti had written about his wombat, and assumed it was some kind of parody. But no—Rossetti loved wombats. Here, from the website of the National Library of Australia, is a history of Pre-Raphaelite wombats:

    Much later, in 1857, by which time he was a national celebrity, Rossetti was commissioned to decorate the vaulted ceiling, upper walls and windows of the library of the Oxford Union. He mustered a large group of helpers, including his new Oxford undergraduate friends, the future artists Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, as well as the artists Roddam Spencer Stanhope, Arthur Hughes and John Hungerford Pollen. Recalling the hugely enjoyable experience of working in the Oxford Union, another artist—helper Val Prinsep—recalled: ”˜Rossetti was the planet around which we revolved, we copied his way of speaking. All beautiful women were “stunners” with us. Wombats were the most beautiful of God’s creatures.’

  • Dante Gabriel Rossetti liked wombats; Honoré de Balzac liked coffee. A lot. He described its effects in a delightfully crazy essay called “The Pleasures and Pains of Coffee”:

    Finally, I have discovered a horrible, rather brutal method that I recommend only to men of excessive vigor, men with thick black hair and skin covered with liver spots, men with big square hands and legs shaped like bowling pins. It is a question of using finely pulverized, dense coffee, cold and anhydrous, consumed on an empty stomach. This coffee falls into your stomach, a sack whose velvety interior is lined with tapestries of suckers and papillae. The coffee finds nothing else in the sack, and so it attacks these delicate and voluptuous linings; it acts like a food and demands digestive juices; it wrings and twists the stomach for these juices, appealing as a pythoness appeals to her god; it brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies; the plexus becomes inflamed; sparks shoot all the way up to the brain.

    He also observes:

    Many people claim coffee inspires them, but, as everybody knows, coffee only makes boring people even more boring.

    I think Starbucks should put that on their cups.

    Apparently Balzac died of caffiene poisoning; until I read the introduction to the essay I hadn’t realized that was possible.

  • At The Hooded Utilitarian, Ng Suat Tong reviews one of the saddest comics I’ve ever read: Tony Millionaire’s Sock Monkey Volume 3 Number 2.

  • Finally here’s a review of Farmville, an online game which I had never previously heard of, mostly because I don’t spend any time on Facebook but also because I really am completely out of it. Farmville sounds completely appalling:

    We are obligated to examine what we are doing, whether we are updating our Facebook status or playing Call of Duty, because the results of those actions will ultimately be our burden, for better or for worse. We must learn above all to distinguish between the better and the worse. Citizens must educate themselves in the use of sociable applications, such as Wikipedia, Skype, and Facebook, and learn how they can better use them to forward their best interests. And we must learn to differentiate sociable applications from sociopathic applications: applications that use people’s sociability to control those people, and to satisfy their owners’ needs.

    “Sociopathic application” sounds ridiculously melodramatic, but the author makes a good case for the term.

The City and the City

Cover Art

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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