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Aerin

"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: Six Wakes, by Mur Lafferty

Six Wakes - Mur Lafferty
This book goes down very smooth and easy - like a fine liquor, I would say, if I were a fancy person. But it's really more like a diet soda: tastes sweet like candy, wakes up all the sluggish neurons, but has no nutritious qualities at all. Still, there really isn't enough fresh, light, and good science fiction like this.

The six-person crew of the generation ship Dormire awaken suddenly in cloning pods with no memory of how or why they are there. This is not an entirely unexpected development - in a future where cloning is a common way of extending life, most of the crew have already been duplicated several times as their previous bodies have died. However, they usually awaken with a relatively recent version of their mind downloaded from a backup. This time, the past 25 years are completely missing from their memories. The AI that runs the ship is also missing vast chunks of data and - oh yeah - their own dead bodies are still floating around the clone bay in a grisly murder scene that seems to defy explanation.

As the crew begins to pry into their own pasts, ever more strange secrets and connections are revealed which hint at their potential murderous motives and the deceitful origins of the Dormire mission itself. It's a rollicking ride.

I love the detail Lafferty confides in the post-novel interview, that this story basically started out as FTL fanfiction - FTL, the little strategy game about navigating a spaceship through various crises. In that game, when your starship crew dies they can be reawakened as clones - and thus, the idea for Six Wakes was born. Like the game, there's not a lot of depth here, but that doesn't mean it's not an enjoyable way to spend a few hours.

If it had wanted to be, this book could have been a really interesting meditation on identity and culpability, and how those concepts would warp with the introduction of cloning technology. Is a clone really a continuation of one's self, or just a convincing copy? Are life and death cheapened when everyone can just be brought back indefinitely? If a previous version of you committed a terrible act, is the new version of you to blame? What if you don't remember doing it?

For the most part, though, the book just kind of bounces off these questions. And I'm okay with that - sometimes it's fine to just say, "yeah, this is a mystery, and it involves clones, but let's not get too deep into the philosophical weeds here". The main focus is on the intrigue and the deceit and the stabbings.

I wish there had been a little more character development - for all of the shadowy backstories, they all still felt pretty one-note. The dialogue was somewhat clunky, and some of the plot developments were easy to see coming. But really, none of those complaints take away from how much fun I had reading this book. Highly recommended for anyone looking for a good sci-fi thriller beach read.
SPOILER ALERT!

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

We Have Always Lived in the Castle - Shirley Jackson
For a short novel, this was a bit of a slog. The narrator and everyone surrounding her were just so deeply unpleasant to spend time with, and there's barely any plot to keep things moving.

The Blackwoods had been a prominent, though not particularly well-liked family in the small New England town where the story is set. Several years ago, most of the family was killed via arsenic-laced sugar they had sprinkled on their fruit at dessert. The only survivors were Constance, the sweet-natured older daughter who never took sugar on her fruit, Uncle Julian, who only ingested very little and was incapacitated for life as a result, and Mary Katherine (or Merricat), the younger daughter, who had been sent to bed without dinner that night.

Constance was assumed to be the culprit, but she was acquitted after a lengthy trial. Since then, the sisters and Uncle Julian have remained barricaded in their isolated mansion, the object of the townfolk's scorn and derision.

The story is narrated by the now 18-year-old Merricat, who is CLEARLY the real murderer. This was obvious from the first paragraph, where she confesses to wishing she was a werewolf and having an affinity for poisonous mushrooms. She is an unpleasant, petulant, strange young woman who obsesses over the charms she has put on the property to keep everyone out. She ruminates about how cruel her family was to send her to bed without dinner that night, and has no remorse at all for her multiple murders.

Meanwhile, Constance spends much of her time trying to avoid goading Merricat in any way - coming across as alternatively devoted and terrified - and Uncle Julian is a doddering old man with an exceedingly tenuous grasp of reality. The book wallows in the day-to-day life of these three unlikeable characters until a visitor appears and throws everything into disarray. Cousin Charles is a slimeball who has designs on marrying Constance as a way of accessing the family fortune. Merricat does not appreciate this, and crossing Merricat is a very bad idea.

I don't know. I have never much liked gothic fiction - it makes me feel claustrophobic and misanthropic. The characters feel like exaggerated malformations, and reading these books feels unpleasantly like gawking at a freakshow. I wasn't charmed by Merricat's quirks, as I think the book wanted me to be? And I never once thought anyone but she murdered the family, so the big reveal late in the book was completely anticlimactic.

Still, there was something... memorable about this story. The creepy secluded mansion felt very real, and the sneering townspeople were, oddly, some of the few characters that actually rang true to me. I read that Shirley Jackson based this milieu on the provincial, anti-intellectual town where she lived and felt like a pariah, so perhaps that is why these are the only elements that felt really authentic to me. But there is an emotional truth buried deep there, under all the tedious gothic trappings, and when it showed through - it gleamed.

Review: Stories of Your Life, by Ted Chiang

Stories of Your Life and Others - Ted Chiang
Each story in this book broke my heart in its own specific way, and for that reason alone I will love Ted Chiang forever. The fact that these stories are also all technical masterpieces and paragons of the genre is really just icing. I can be dazzled by masterly writing, but it's poignance that will earn a slot on my "favorites" shelf.
 
I like to think that I read science fiction because it expands my mind. Exposes me to cutting-edge theories and unconventional ideas. Shows me the universe and all its possibilities in fascinating new lights. But while all of that is true, it isn't enough. I read science fiction because it shows me what it means to be human: by deforming and transforming the worlds and bodies and ideologies we inhabit today.
 
Ted Chiang is better than any other writer I’ve read at plumbing these dual possibilities of the genre, especially in the short-story format. In amazingly few pages, he crams more character development, intricate plotting, and whiz-bang Big Ideas than most authors manage to fit into an entire novel. And yet his stories never feel oversaturated. He has an incredible talent for making his point with devastating precision; every detail he reveals is illuminating and necessary. And so human.
 
 
Take Division by Zero, which is about a math professor, Renee, whose life loses all meaning when she stumbles upon a proof that nullifies essentially all of mathematical theory. As she sinks into a deep and deadly depression, her husband Carl discovers the foundations of his reality crumbling too. The story itself takes on the form of the ominous proof Renee writes, showing that one number is equivalent to all other numbers. Renee's and Carl's experiences are equivalent too, although their respective disillusionments can only break them further and further apart from each other.
”It’s a feeling I can’t convey to you. It was something that I believed deeply, implicitly, and it’s not true, and I’m the one who demonstrated it.”
It's a story for everyone who has ever lost faith in something they had once built their world upon, whether that be a religion, a career path, a self-concept, or a relationship.
 
Just eighteen pages long, and it devastated me.
 
 
Or take Story of Your Life, the title track of this book and the inspiration for the movie Arrival. Its involuted structure makes it difficult to summarize: past and future tucked up together, bleeding into each other, leaving all kinds of disoriented verb tenses in their wake. Learning an alien language, it turns out, can do that to your worldview. But it essentially asks the question: If you remembered your own inescapable future, with all of its heartbreak and all of its beauty, would there still be purpose in living it?
"Eventually, many years from now, I’ll be without your father, and without you… So I pay close attention, and note every detail.”
I read this one twice, and both times it left me a sore and sputtering wreck, broken up on the shoals of my terror of the future. But it is beautiful, and true, and it's the story I needed to read at this point in my life.
 
 
Or take Hell is the Absence of God, whose premise is that the Bible is literally, tangibly, and horrifyingly true. Angelic visitations are common "natural disasters", and tend to leave people dead, damaged, and/or devout. After Neil Fisk's wife is killed during an appearance of the angel Nathanael, Neil realizes that despite his rage and pain he must find a way to love God. Witnesses had seen Sarah's soul ascend to Heaven, so he knows that truly loving God is the only chance he has of getting to see her again.
"Sarah had been the greatest blessing of his life, and God had taken her away. Now he was expected to love Him for it? For Neil, it was like having a kidnapper demand love as ransom for his wife's return. Obedience he might have managed, but sincere, heartfelt love? That was a ransom he couldn't pay."
The premise of this one is sure to be questionable or offensive to many readers, but again, it was the kind of story I needed to read right now. And, like so many others in this book, it takes a basic idea (what would the world be like if Babylonian cosmology/18th-Century preformationism/Old-Testament theology were scientific fact?) and considers it in detailed depth and breadth, while still telling a compassionate, profound story at its core.
 
 
Or take Seventy-Two Letters, which isn't as emotional as the three I've just mentioned, but still left me completely gobsmacked by the end of it. This one is pure science fiction at its finest, weird and wonderful and unforgettable. It takes place in a world where the 18th-Century idea that sperm cells contain a tiny homunculus, while a mother's womb provides the "spark of life" necessary for human development, is scientifically accurate. As well, the mythical golems of Jewish folklore actually exist, and most automated tasks are completed using automatons programmed with 72-letter Hebrew phrases. When scientists discover that human spermatozoa contain only a few more generations of human life, they must rush to find a new way of propagating the species.
 
This story is completely bizarre, and I was riveted. I had never read anything quite like it, couldn't predict any of the directions it took, and each new idea it presented hit me like a revelation. It's just beautifully done.
 
 
This review is getting long, so I won't keep singling out each story. But they are all incredible. I have never agreed more with a back-cover blurb than Cory Doctorow's "Each of those stories is a goddamned jewel."
 
Yes. Multifaceted and shining. I can't stop thinking about them.

 

Review: The Grip of It, by Jac Jemc

The Grip of It: A Novel - Jac Jemc

The Grip of It is an intensely unnerving book about everyday horrors made manifest in a haunted-house fever dream.

 

James and Julie are young urbanites who move to an old house in a small town, hoping the change of scenery will save their crumbling marriage. Away from the city, they believe, James will overcome his gambling addiction, Julie will move past her resentment of him, and they will restore the connection that brought them together in the first place. In the process, they plan to become the type of people they assume are happy: those who move at a slower pace, who get to know their neighbors, who patronize the local mom & pop establishments, who ensconce themselves in the charms of small-town life.

 

This endeavor neither begins nor ends well.

 

~

 

The book opens with a realtor showing off the property that will become James and Julie's new home, constantly drawing their attention to - and then dismissing - the strange buzzing noise that permeates the structure: "That's just the house settling." But the sound (moaning... like an incantation, some sort of ritual snarl) follows James and Julie everywhere they go, as does the strange grimy waterstain on the basement wall, the ominous drawings and unreadable superimposed script that appear throughout the house, and the myriad secret rooms and passages that keep revealing themselves - and then vanishing.

 

Even outside their (clearly haunted) house, none of James and Julie's plans seem willing to materialize. The local businesses refuse to serve them. The townspeople gossip about their home's tragic (but conflicting) history. The elderly next-door neighbor stares menacingly at them through the windows. Their jobs fall apart. Their friendships sour.

 

Various explanations for the couple's troubles are offered throughout the book, from sterile medical diagnoses to gaslighting abusers to festering restless spirits. None of these really fits the evidence, which remains elusive and contradictory and totally inexplicable.  And yet there was always this sense of familiarity as I was reading this book, this prickly feeling of impending doom that I have experienced when suppressing destabilizing truths that I was not yet ready to accept.

 

~

 

The novel’s title hints at how ominous it is - to be trapped in the thrall of this thing that you are not willing to name or describe. You resolve to ignore it, hoping that by sheer will you'll be able to continue your ordinary life, maintain a job, a relationship, friends, and hobbies. But it doggedly manifests itself - on your body, in your dreams, on the walls, in the neighbors' faces, in the droning, moaning sound at the limit of your hearing.

 

The opening paragraph describes this feeling perfectly:

 

Maybe we move in and we don't hear the intonation for a few days. Maybe we hear it as soon as we unlock the door. Maybe we drag our friends and family into the house and ask them to hear it and they look into the distance and listen as we try to describe it and fail. "You don't hear it? It's like a mouth harp. Deep twang. Like throat singing. Ancient. Glottal. Resonant. Husky and rasping, but underwater." Alone in the house, though, we become less aware of it, like a persistent, dull headache. Deaf to the sound, until the silence of ownership settles over us. Maybe we decide we will try to like the noise. Maybe we find comfort in it. Maybe an idea insists itself more easily than an action.

 

This, of course, will never work. Choosing to ignore or embrace the warning bells clanging in the back of your mind will not make them go away. Will not stabilize a situation you know is untenable. Will not conquer an unacceptable reality. Pretty soon, you’ll start spiraling out of control the way Julie and James do in this book.

 

It's not the house settling. I promise you, it's something worse.

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: A Novel - Neil Gaiman
This is a short book and simple enough to summarize: A man, returning to visit his childhood home in rural England, finds that the scenery evokes strange and perilous memories that couldn't possibly be real - about a supernatural attack on the neighborhood when he was seven years old, and the little girl who saved his life.
 
It's a beautifully-told, magic-infused tale that I couldn't quite love.
 
~
 
The problem I always have with Neil Gaiman's books is that they remind me of other books that I liked better. Books by Clive Barker or China Miéville or, in this case, Peter S. Beagle. There is a lot in The Ocean at the End of the Lane that reminds me of Beagle's Tamsin, but I loved that book wholly and completely while I... appreciated The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
 
I'm still giving it four stars, because it is a lovely story. But I can never really immerse myself in Gaiman's books. There's something that feels artificial about them, like I can see the wires manipulating the marionettes. It's hard to describe, and I know this is a minority opinion.
 
I just wanted more from The Ocean at the End of the Lane, like I wanted more from American Gods and Neverwhere and Stardust. Not a longer book, but a deeper book. I wanted to feel something for Lettie Hempstock and her strange relatives. I wanted to be captivated by the narrator's ordeals, especially once the devil came out to play. I wanted to understand the villain and what its true goals were. I wanted a plot development that felt truly unexpected.
 
~
 
I don't mean for this review to skew so negative. There were many aspects of The Ocean at the End of the Lane that I enjoyed. It reads quickly, smoothly, and beautifully - Gaiman is a very talented wordsmith without ever being ostentatious about it. That's a rare enough skill, even among best-selling authors, that I always pause to appreciate it when I find it. For instance -
I had been here, hadn't I, a long time ago? I was sure I had. Childhood memories are sometimes covered and obscured beneath the things that come later, like childhood toys forgotten at the bottom of a crammed adult closet, but they are never lost for good.
And speaking of which, the way he describes those foggy childhood memories, pulled up from hidden depths by the thread of a sight or a smell, is incredibly resonant. It perfectly mirrored the way I feel whenever I return to my childhood home and suddenly start tripping over all kinds of memories and emotions that had been dormant for years.
 
At first, the narrator's recollection of his childhood is engaging and bittersweet. He had been a thoughtful, sentimental, bookish boy who often felt misunderstood and lonely. The very first memory that comes to mind when he returns to the neighborhood is: Nobody came to my seventh birthday party. His parents are distracted and aloof; his one companion, a kitten, is killed senselessly. It was in these mundane miniature tragedies that I really felt for this character.
 
But then, when the story started to get all magical... the magic left the story. For me, anyway. It started down well-trod fantasy paths: the maiden-mother-crone goddess, the evil entity that employs female sexuality as a weapon, the battling spells of protection and possession. All of it a metaphor for the protagonist's coming-of-age. It's all very technically well-done, an absorbing and appealing read. I can't find anything to complain about, but it just felt sort of flat to me.
 
My biggest disappointment, I think, is that Gaiman failed to make me love Lettie Hempstock the way he made me love the narrator. If he had, it would have affected me more, what happened to her. But she, like all of the other characters, felt paper-thin by the end.
 
~
 
But maybe I just couldn't love this tragic, supernatural, British coming-of-age story because that place in my heart is already occupied by Tamsin.
 
I'll probably keep reading Gaiman, hoping every time that this will be the one that wins me over.

Review: The Last Days of New Paris, by China MiƩville

The Last Days of New Paris - China MiƩville

It is 1950 in Nazi-occupied Paris. Clearly, we are in a reality alternate to our own.

 

If Germans were the only invading force, that would be bad enough. But Paris is also overrun with nightmare visions plucked from the imaginations of surrealist writers, painters, and sculptors who believed that art could conquer fascism. And there are infernal invaders too, strange demonic entities vomited up from the bowels of hell - it seems that they are allied with the Nazis, but only to a point. For the citizens trapped within the city limits, it is safest to avoid all three types of monster.

 

Our protagonist, Thibaut, is a member of La Main à Plume, a splinter group of Surrealists who stayed behind in Paris, while André Breton and many of the movement's leading lights fled to safety in America. Thibaut's group patrols the city streets, in wary coexistence with the manifested art, holding the Nazis just barely at bay.

 

After several of his friends are killed in a raid gone wrong, Thibaut teams up with an American woman, Sam, whose cover story (she says she is shooting photos of the strange manifestations in Paris for a book) seems a little thin, but whose cunning and street smarts are a valuable asset. Together, Thibaut and Sam seek the source of the surrealist manifs and the secret of the rumored German superweapon known as Fall Rot - desperate to turn the tide of their supernatural war before this new horror swallows art and humanity alike.

 

~

 

I went into this book fully expecting to not understand it. I had heard that it was essentially a love letter to the Surrealist art movement, and - aside from a vague mental image of Dalí's floppy clocks - I knew almost nothing about Surrealism. Given China Miéville's towering intellect and exhaustive knowledge about his many obsessions, I figured this book's insights and allusions would breeze right over my head.

 

Thankfully, I was only half right. Although I would have had no idea how to envision the manifs or interpret their significance from the novella's text alone, Miéville was kind enough to include an appendix of endnotes, giving philistine readers like myself the tools to track down images and background info on Paris's living oddities. There's a pretty decent compilation of them here.

 

So this rapidly became a very bumpy, stop-start reading experience, where I'd read a sentence, flip to the endnotes for a citation, spend 20 minutes falling down a google hole, and come sputtering back up for air having completely forgotten what was happening in the narrative. I read most of these chapters three times through or more, carefully knitting art and context to the characters' experiences. With many other authors, this would have exhausted me, taken me completely out of the story. I've never been particularly interested in art history, anyway.

 

But here, as usual, Miéville is a wizard. He never tells the reader why Surrealism is fascinating, and he never infodumps a bunch of names, titles, or doctrines. He just writes a gripping story that threads in hints of the movement's history and influence, and lets the reader do the rest on their own. This is my favorite way to learn - from watching somebody else love something, and being compelled to discover why they love it so much.

 

But I don't recommend The Last Days of New Paris just for this didactic aspect. If the thought of learning about Surrealism vaguely bores you (as it did me!), that's no reason to avoid this book. It's also a fast-paced urban fantasy, a fascinating alternate history of World War II, a gritty survivalist tale reminiscent of the best of the postapocalyptic genre. Its characters are believable, but have enough Miévillian weirdness to keep you guessing about their outlook and motives. Its horrors are beautiful and strange and terrifying. You could - maybe you should - plow through this in one satisfying sitting, and only tuck into the endnotes later.

 

It's an engrossing reading experience, either way.

 

~

 

Despite this novella's ultimate idealism, I'm too much of a cynic to believe that art will actually save the world. But I can't help agreeing with Miéville's avatar in the Afterword:

Perhaps some understanding of the nature of the manifs of New Paris, of the source and power of art and manifestation, may be of some help to us, in times to come.

Review: Red Clocks, by Leni Zumas

Red Clocks: A Novel - Leni Zumas

Red Clocks examines some of the ways women navigate the question of whether and how and with whom to have children - and the entitlement society feels to comment on, interfere with, and ultimately constrain these inherently private choices. Each of the book’s five protagonists are compelled to sacrifice pieces of their sanity and dignity in pursuit simple self-determination.

 

The novel is set in a near-future version of the United States, where the newly-ratified Personhood Amendment to the Constitution now grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every fertilized human egg. Not only is abortion now considered murder, but miscarriages can be manslaughter and in-vitro fertilization is banned (because the embryo cannot consent to be moved into the womb). As the book opens, the Every Child Needs Two Act is set to take effect in two months, legally mandating that all adoptive parents be married and obtain government approval before taking in a child.

 

In the small coastal Oregon town where Red Clocks is set, four women are affected by these developments in various ways:

 

* Ro teaches at the local high school. Forty-two and single, with no interest in romantic partnership, she desperately wants to be a mother. With in-vitro not an option, she has been trying to conceive via artificial insemination, but her age and health issues make conception unlikely. She is also pursuing adoption, but knows that if she does not match with a birth mother within two months, that road will be closed to her too.

 

* Mattie is Ro’s best student, who gets pregnant by her on-again but-mostly-off-again boyfriend. Terrified of ruining her reputation, squandering her academic future, and letting her parents down, she will do anything to get an abortion. Having witnessed the harrowing outcome of her best friend’s attempted abortion a year ago, she has no illusions about what this choice entails physically or legally. Still, as an adopted child herself, she struggles with the feeling that she should have the baby and surrender it to a deserving home.

 

* Gin is a practitioner of alternative medicine who lives in a cabin in the hills above town. Raised by her occultist aunt after her abusive mother abandoned her, Gin is now rumored to be a witch who can control the weather, the sea, and the townspeople’s individual fortunes. In reality, she merely assists local women with various gynecological issues, including providing herbal concoctions to induce abortions. When the school principal’s wife falls down the stairs and slips into a coma after drinking one of her potions, Gin is arrested and put on trial - for medical malpractice and conspiracy to murder the woman’s fetus.

 

* Susan is married to the high school French teacher. She had dropped out of law school to marry him and move back to her family’s old homestead in the tiny town. They now have two young children, and though she loves her kids, she increasingly resents her shiftless husband, who slouches his way through life, only managing to hold down a job because he could teach his native French in his sleep. With no local career opportunities, no time to herself, and seemingly no way to leave her marriage without scarring the kids forever, Susan feels trapped. She is alarmed by the destructive urges that ambush her more and more frequently - to just steer the car off the edge of the hillside road, plunging her and the children into the ocean below.

 

Interspersed with these four women’s stories are passages from the biography Ro is writing about Eivør Mínervudottír, a 19th-century polar explorer who had to hide her gender to gain passage on a scientific expedition, and was later obliged to publish her findings under a man’s name. Eivør’s tale emphasizes the difficulties non-conforming women have always faced, and her perseverance through adverse conditions is mirrored, in one way or another, by each of the novel’s other protagonists.

 

With the exception of Gin and Eivør, whom I found distant and somewhat flat, I loved immersing myself in these women’s stories. Ro and Susan were especially fascinating, each having reached the age where their youthful choices have solidified into the immobile foundations of their lives. Each resents the other for having what she does not - Ro has a career and independence, but Susan has two perfect children. And Mattie too is a poignant character, brave enough to risk capture crossing the Canadian border for an abortion, but too scared to look her parents in the eye and tell them she has gotten pregnant.

 

Despite how much I loved the characters, their struggles and their courage, Red Clocks didn’t quite work for me because its high-concept dystopian premise felt both unnecessary and toothless. The story could have been set in the modern day with few substantive revisions - and it would, I think, have had more resonance. It’s easy to accept that life would be awful under an oppressive fetus-worshipping regime, and so the premise itself carried too much of the emotional weight, I felt. It would be a harsher critique to show these issues in their real-world setting: There are plenty of women today who can’t conceive and aren’t able to adopt for various reasons. There are plenty of women today who feel suffocated in their marriages. There are plenty of women today who are shunned or falsely accused of horrors because they are seen as different. There are plenty of teenage girls today who face serious financial, logistical, and social/religious hurdles when seeking an abortion.

 

And so the reproductive restrictions imposed by the government in Red Clocks ultimately become just one more impediment these women must overcome. And in one way or another, each of them do overcome, so the book’s dystopian bite fails to puncture the skin. It sends a message that I’m a little uncomfortable with for this kind of book: “We can survive this,” instead of “We should never allow this to happen in the first place.”

 

That might honestly just be me, though. I like my dystopias bleak.

 

Oddly, the most chilling, the most traditionally dystopian story in all of this is barely told at all. What happened to Mattie’s best friend Yasmine hovers vaguely in the background of the narrative, but what we can see of it is truly horrific. Ambitious and bright, the daughter of Oregon’s first female Black senator, Yasmine had been determined not to let an unplanned pregnancy reduce her to a degrading stereotype. What she endures is truly appalling - a far darker, more heartbreaking story than Mattie’s, or any of the other women Red Clocks spotlights. I wish we had seen more stories like Yasmine’s, to make it crystal clear why policies like this reprehensible Personhood Amendment must never, ever be implemented.

We don't leave on our road trip for another week, but I'm already putting the essentials together...

Review: American War, by Omar El Akkad

American War - Omar El Akkad

I thought I knew what to expect from American War before I even cracked the first page. From the jacket blurb and from my experience with apocalyptic novels, I thought this would follow a familiar formula: The author would weave together threads from current social and political attitudes to compose a dark and terrifyingly plausible future. The next American civil war, though taking place decades from now, would surely break along the lines of today's significant divides: race, class, religion, lifestyle, or political ideology. Because the author is Muslim and the protagonist has an Arabic first name, I vaguely assumed the book would follow the experiences of a Muslim family caught in the conflict.

 

I was wrong about all of this. So wrong that for the first few hundred pages, I thought I was reading an entirely different - and much worse - book than the one I actually held in my hands.

 

My misconceptions about the protagonist's backstory were the simplest to correct: Sarat Chestnut is not Muslim, but Catholic. Her parents are Martina, who is Black, and Benjamin, who is Latino. Along with her twin sister Dana and brother Simon, the family lives in southern Louisiana, beside the swollen waterway now known as the Mississippi Sea. By today's standards they are quite poor, living in a shipping container, generating energy with solar panels, and filtering rainwater for drinking, but they get by. Sarat would have considered her childhood almost idyllic, had the war not arrived to cut it short with repeated and ever-escalating brutalities.

 

The details of the war itself were where the book started to ring false for me. After the American government banned the use of fossil fuels in 2074, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia seceded to form the Free Southern State. South Carolina would have joined them, but the entire state had been walled off and quarantined after a government-released calming agent turned its population to zombies. Florida might have joined them too, but it had long since disappeared under the rising ocean waters.

 

With all of the issues currently dividing us, it did not seem realistic or interesting to me that the next civil war would be driven by stale regional grudges dating back to the 1800's, or that it would be solely precipitated by the South's cussed devotion to a destructive and obsolete fuel source. It was especially jarring that all of those other issues I mentioned above - race, religion, class, politics - are never mentioned as relevant factors in the war. Or in American life at all. I guess by the 2070's we'd solved all of that - the only contentious issue was the gasoline.

 

This premise seemed so off and so odd to me that I couldn't take large portions of the book seriously. It seemed like such a glaring misunderstanding of modern America's internal strife. How could I be properly scared of a dystopia that wasn't populated by metastasized versions of today's bogeymen?

 

But this is where I didn't understand the book at all, or the story it was actually telling. It isn't intended to be a commentary on American culture. It isn't interested in realistically portraying the causes or methods of war. If I had been paying attention, I would have recognized this from the beginning. The narrator spells it out right in the prologue: "This isn't a story about war. It's about ruin."

 

~

 

This book is about what happens to Sarat and her family throughout the war's harrowing 21 years. She is 6 years old when it begins, not yet 30 when the reunification treaty is signed. When the war breaks out her family are civilians, uninterested in politics, not partisan to any particular side. They love each other; they love their home. They just want to get by.

 

There are millions of Sarats out there right now.

 

What we are inculcating in them now with our military operations could very well bear bitter, vengeful fruit for decades, for generations, to come. This isn't about war - its justifications, its high-minded ideologies, its dark utilitarian bargains. It's about ruin.

 

"Everyone fights an American war."

Review: The Wily Witch, by Godfried Bomans

The Wily Witch and All the Other Fairy Tales and Fables - Godfried Bomans, Patricia Crampton, Wouter Hoogendijk
It's a risky proposition to go back and reread books that meant a lot to you as a child. They often warp or shrink or mildew to mulch over time.
 
I first read The Wily Witch somewhat late in my sheltered childhood. I was in the sixth or seventh grade, and it had never occurred to me that fairy tales could be dark or subversive or lewd. Not that this book pushes any of those boundaries very far, but there are some twisted endings, some questionable morals, and a boob or a penis or two in the illustrations.
 
... I guess I should back up for a minute and describe what this book even is. Godfried Bomans was a beloved Dutch author, humorist, and TV personality who was active from the 50's to his death in 1971. Among other things, he was known for writing witty modern fairy tales (sprookjes). Though his work remains somewhat popular in the Netherlands, most of his books were never translated into English, and I don't think The Wily Witch ever made much of a splash in the English-speaking world.
 
I originally found it in my school library in Ohio - god knows why they had a copy. The book contains a few dozen fairy tales, none more than a couple of pages long, along with the original (and charmingly bizarre) illustrations by Wouter Hoogendijk.
 
There are two stories I distinctly remembered from reading it back then:
 
1) "The Innkeeper of Pidalgo", whose titular character is known throughout the land for his succulent roast. When a famine strikes, he is heartbroken - not because his family is starving (though they are), but because he can no longer enchant travelers with his cooking. When the king stops by and requests the famous roast, the innkeeper can't bring himself to refuse. In a few days' time, he manages to obtain and prepare the most amazing cut of meat for the king and his entourage. Everyone marvels over it until one of the courtiers notices that the sickly-looking Innkeeper has a wooden leg...
 
2) "The King in His Undershirt", which is about a king who, while frolicking through a cornfield for no apparent reason, realizes he has to take a shit. That's basically the entire story, but it's really the illustration that stuck in my memory:
 
 
 
So I mean, it's really pretty mild stuff. But at the time I thought this book was ridiculously cool.
 
Rereading it now, I realized that the reason I didn't remember most of the other stories is that they are fairly unmemorable, though some are quite funny and some are refreshingly bleak. It's really the illustrations that feel subversive to me now - it's one thing to read a story about a bunch of angry villagers murdering a poor blackberry picker (he convinced them he was rich, when really it was just nature that was his palace), it's another to see a full-page illustration of him hanging from a tree. And, in another story about a man who was despised for being too happy all the time, I could really do without the depiction of his gory decapitated head laughing manically on the scaffold.
 
So I can really only recommend this book as a curio. It's too graphic for young children, but it's not twisted or salacious enough to interest fans of more adult-oriented fairytale reimaginings. While many of the stories are sly and satirical, there are just as many that are cloyingly earnest. It's just as sexist as any medieval specimen of the genre, and it doesn't push the envelope compellingly far in any particular direction.
 
But it DOES have that bare-assed pooping king. So... at least there's that.

Review: Changing Planes, by Ursula K. Le Guin

Changing Planes - Eric Beddows, Ursula K. Le Guin

Changing Planes is a delightful book.  It delights me.

This anthropological tour through some of the stranger societies in the multiverse begins by explaining its basic premise: Airports are not only portals to other terrestrial cities, but also to other dimensions.  Interplanar travel requires no machine or vehicle, no magical incantations or special knowledge.  The remarkably simple method was developed by one Sita Dulip, who discovered it when her flight out of Chicago was delayed several times and finally canceled.  Trapped, exhausted, uncomfortable, and bored, she realized that:

By a mere kind of twist and a slipping bend, easier to do than to describe, she could go anywhere - be anywhere - because she was already between planes.



(Normally, I would have no truck with any book whose premise was based on such a ridiculous pun - but over the years I have made a few grudging exceptions to this policy.)

The rest of the book is divided into fifteen short stories - or really, ethnographies - about life on the different planes.  Some of them are moral allegories, some are social satires, some portray strange and unsettling alien philosophies.  None of the chapters have much plot to speak of, but they are all fascinating vignettes.  The formula is essentially: "Let me tell you a few things about the people of _____."

Despite this common approach, the stories are fairly diverse in style and theme.  Four of the standouts highlight some of the different tacks Le Guin takes:

Seasons of the Ansarac is an ethnographic description of the migratory people of Ansar.  On a plane where each season lasts for six of our years, the people spend spring and summer raising children in idyllic northern homesteads before heading south to the vibrant cities every fall and winter.  Le Guin's detailed description of Ansarac folkways is fascinating, but the story takes a darker turn when visitors from another plane (one similar to ours) arrive, convince the Ansarac that they are primitive, backward, and hormone-driven, and offer to help them adopt a modern lifestyle.

Great Joy satirizes the American obsession with meaningless holiday kitsch, describing a privately-owned plane where one island is always Christmas, one the 4th of July, one New Year's Eve, and so on.  This plane's sickly-sweet candy coating covers a horrifying system of slavery and exploitation - not that Christmas-loving midwestern Cousin Sulie and her fellow patrons give much of a shit about that.  "I just get right into the spirit just thinking about Christmas Island! Oh, it is just such a happy place!"

Wake Island is a cautionary dystopia about science gone awry.  Based on their theory that sleep is a vestigial trait that keeps most humans from accessing their latent genius, a group of scientists genetically design babies who need no sleep.  This is essentially the same premise as Nancy Kress's Beggars in Spain, but Le Guin's aftermath is much more disturbing.

The Island of the Immortals is in many ways a horror story, cloaked in the guise of classic science fiction.  It reminds me quite a bit of the better works of H.G. Wells, where a lone traveler encounters a society he at first cannot understand - and then later wishes he never tried.  In this story, the narrator has heard of an island on the Yendian plane which is populated by immortals.  Curious to learn the secret of their longevity, she visits - only to find the locals quiet, standoffish, and oddly somber.  There are immortals among them, yes, but they are not what the narrator expects.  This is the story that has remained in my mind most vividly since I first read this book almost a decade ago.  It is, in my opinion, one of Le Guin's most powerful and thoughtful pieces.

~

Ursula K. Le Guin died last month; I reread this book in part as a memorial (and in part because I just love it so much).  Given her recent passing, this excerpt in particular struck me:

When I was twelve or thirteen, I used to plan what I'd wish for if they gave me three wishes. I thought I'd wish, 'I wish that having lived well to the age of eighty-five and having written some very good books, I may die quietly, knowing that all the people I love are happy and in good health.'



She was 88 when she died, and she wrote a great number of incredible books.  I hope that the rest of her wish came true as well.

Review: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer
Annihilation is a beautiful mindfuck of a book. Told in evocative, meticulous prose, it describes an expedition into an uncharted and sinister terrain. Four women, referred to only by their titles - biologist, psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor - are recruited by the Southern Reach, a shadowy government agency, to venture into a region of south Florida known as Area X. Once a lightly-populated coastal wilderness adjoining a military base, an incomprehensible Event some thirty years ago transformed the landscape into an ominous grotesque, a deadly but ineffable biological menace. Like a cancer, the tainted biosphere seems to have arisen from its own rotted DNA. And, like a cancer, Area X is growing.
 
Theirs is the twelfth expedition. During their training, the members were not told much about the fate of their predecessors - only that the first expedition reported nothing unusual, "just pristine, empty wilderness". But the second expedition ended in mass suicide, and the third slaughtered each other. The Southern Reach no longer permits expedition members to bring weapons.
 
The biologist, our narrator, has a more personal connection to the program than her compatriots do: Her husband had been a member of the eleventh expedition. He returned, or his body did, but he had been reduced to some kind of shell or facsimile. He evinced a blank and dreamlike demeanor, and spoke seldom. Within six months of his return, he died from an aggressive, mysterious cancer. The seven other members of his expedition, she later learned, had all met the same fate.
 
The biologist's expertise in transitional environments qualifies her for the expedition, but her motives for joining are personal. It's not so much that she aches to learn what really happened to her husband, but that she covets the serenity he had apparently found on his journey: "At the time, I was seeking oblivion, and I sought in those blank, anonymous faces, even the most painfully familiar, a kind of benign escape. A death that would not mean being dead."
 
In this book, Vandermeer juxtaposes those heartbreakingly human desires against the unknowable, alien intelligence of Area X - this sinister, inexorable force that reads, remakes, infects, transforms. The region teems with tortured beings: turgid monsters with human eyes, crumbling villages full of strangely anthropoid vegetation, a distant moaning at twilight. And a tower buried in the ground, with walls that seem to sweat, and breathe, inscribed with ominous words made of insects and mold.
 
It is the tower that dominates the narrative from the very beginning. Annihilation has one of the best opening paragraphs I have ever read, which perfectly sets the tone:
The tower, which was not supposed to be there, plunges into the earth in a place just before the black pine forest begins to give way to swamp and then the reeds and wind-gnarled trees of the marsh flats. Beyond the marsh flats and the natural canals lies the ocean and, a little farther down the coast, a derelict lighthouse. All of this part of the country had been abandoned for decades, for reasons that are not easy to relate. Our expedition was the first to enter Area X for more than two years, and much of our predecessors' equipment had rusted, their tents and sheds little more than husks. Looking out over that untroubled landscape, I do not believe any of us could yet see the threat.
As the biologist descends into the tower, the words that spiral down its walls begin to infect her frame of mind. Formed of living mold, she inhales their spores, and she starts to grasp their terrible meaning: "Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead..."
 
Contaminated by the tissue and the mind of Area X, the biologist's consciousness starts to mutate and the boundaries between herself and the landscape begin to blur. Exploring further into the wilderness, toward the foreboding lighthouse at its center, the unraveling expedition strays farther and farther from its ostensible purpose, as one by one its members succumb to the terrifying reality warping the heart of Area X.
 
In some ways, this book is pure horror. In others, an exquisitely described biological dreamscape. It works as both hard science fiction and as philosophical fantasy. But what particularly fascinates and disturbs me about this incredible novel is how the biologist's transformation, though harrowing and unfathomable, is an utterly natural progression, a plausible, even inevitable evolution. We are all creatures of our environment, after all.

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. LeGuin

The Left Hand of Darkness - Ursula K. Le Guin

Though I last read The Left Hand of Darkness some fifteen years ago, it had been on my mind frequently as my first North Dakota winter got underway. As the temperature plummeted to -20°F (feeling even colder with the wind rushing down from the icy north), as the snow piled up in feet, as a simple walk from my car to the grocery store became a race against frostbitten fingers, all I could think about was Genly Ai and Lord Estraven, trekking across the glacier in LeGuin’s most famous novel.

 

I had already been planning to focus on rereads in 2017. As my nation, as the world, veers drunkenly into ominous and uncharted new dimensions, I’ve been craving the comfort of reading stories whose endings are known, whose dangers have been mapped and rendered tame. But I had forgotten how The Left Hand of Darkness actually ends.

 

It begins in the capital city Erhenrang, in the nation Karhide, on a planet called Gethen or, more descriptively, Winter. Genly Ai, originally from Earth, has been sent with a mission to invite the Gethenians to join the Ekumen, a galactic alliance of human societies. He comes alone, as Ekumenical Envoys always do, so as not to frighten or antagonize his hosts (“One alien is a curiosity, two are an invasion,” he explains.) But, as probably should be expected when inserting oneself into the political sphere of any human nation, Ai soon becomes a tool of multiple factions both within and without Karhide – and none, it seems, have much interest in prostrating themselves before some mythical League of Nations from beyond the stars.

 

When the Karhidish government, nominally a monarchy but actually a loose federation of diverse tribal groups, falls under the spell of a Trumpian demagogue with unity on his lips and war on his mind, Ai decides to leave Erhenrang and try his luck with Karhide’s major rival. The country of Orgoreyn runs a tight Soviet-style ship; their national motto is “papers please!”, and their secret police love nothing more than to send dissidents and deviants off to the Voluntary Farms, which aren’t exactly farms and certainly aren’t voluntary. It isn’t long before Ai finds himself on the wrong side of the wrong people, and throughout the second half of the book, must escape from a labor camp on foot, across a continent-wide glacier in the dead of winter on a planet so frigid it is named after the ice. His savior and only companion on this expedition is a person named Estraven, the disgraced former Prime Minister of Karhide, who had been exiled as a traitor. S/he is, perhaps, the only truly honorable person on Gethen – certainly the only one Ai ever meets (though, hanging around politicians, I suppose he’s lucky he met even one…)

 

The book, narrated primarily by Ai, refers to Estraven with male pronouns, but this is something I won’t do in my review. Because Estraven is neither man nor woman. Though “typical” humans in every other way, all Gethenians are androgynes, spending the majority of their lives in a sexless state. Once a month, they enter a period called “kemmer” (heat, rut, estrus), where they, upon finding a partner, take on the characteristics of one or the other sex. In this way, the same individual may be father to one child, mother to another. Genly’s permanent maleness is seen as a perversion by them – being always sexually responsive, how do his people ever get anything done?

 

It is the gender politics of Gethen – or, really, the lack thereof – that have made The Left Hand of Darkness a classic of feminist science fiction. To me, though, it feels odd to read a “feminist” book where every single character is referred to as “he”. One of things I remember about reading this the first time is how much this bothered me, the consistent use of masculine pronouns. The Ekumen’s (and LeGuin’s?) excuse for writing this way is as follows: “Lacking the Karhidish ‘human pronoun’ used for persons in somer [the sexually inactive state], I must say ‘he,’ for the same reasons as we used the masculine pronoun in referring to a transcendent god: it is less defined, less specific, than the neuter or the feminine.” And to this I say: bullshit. Masculine pronouns are certainly “defined”, in that if you refer to a person as “he”, I will picture a man. It’s incredibly difficult to train the brain not to. The narrator even acknowledges this, saying: “But the very use of the pronoun in my thoughts leads me continually to forget that the Karhider I am with is not a man, but a manwoman.”

 

I am not quite sure what to make of LeGuin’s intent here. Although inventing or appropriating a gender-neutral pronoun could potentially be jarring or break the flow of narration, I think it should be a bit jarring to read about a civilization of complete neuters, where we as readers can’t automatically slot any character into one of the two most basic categories we understand: man or woman. In fact, I don’t think it’s even necessary to use a gender-neutral pronoun to do this, as Ann Leckie demonstrated ingeniously in her Ancillary Justice series, where everyone is referred to as “she”. There, though the characters aren’t androgynes, gender is considered irrelevant in the narrator’s culture, and the use of “she” forced me every time it was used to consider that the character in question may identify as male, or female, or neither, and the lack of confirmation was both jarring and refreshing. (It also led to some humorous reviews, where careless readers scoffed at this “society full of lesbians”…)

 

The first time I read The Left Hand of Darkness, I wrote this all off as LeGuin being unintentionally sexist. I figured, this book was written in the 60’s; maybe just the idea of an androgynous culture was considered radical, and who cared whether they were all called “he” – it was just language, after all. But rereading the book now, I think LeGuin was being subtler than that. The entire novel is infused with Genly Ai’s point of view – even when Gethenians are narrating, Ai is translating. And Ai is a man from Earth, a very 1960’s-ish Earth from what we can tell. It no longer seems to me that LeGuin couldn’t handle gender-neutrality well; rather, Genly Ai can’t.

 

Ai’s sexism is subtle, but it is definitely there, and as I read through the book this time, examples started to jump out at me. The powerful political leaders that Ai spends most of his time with are referred to as men exclusively, with little thought or cognitive dissonance. It is only when Ai begins to meet downtrodden Gethenians, such as the other inmates at the labor camp, that they begin to seem feminine to him – and always in a negative way. “Among my fellowprisoners I had for the first time on Winter a certain feeling of being a man among women, or among eunuchs. The prisoners had that same flabbiness and coarseness. They were hard to tell apart; their emotional tone seemed always low, their talk trivial.” He speaks later of their “gross, bland fleshiness, a bovinity without point or edge.” When Gethenians lose power and prestige, when they lose their very freedom, suddenly they seem womanly to Ai. Later, when Estraven explains why, though s/he loves Karhide, s/he is not a patriot, Ai is again disgusted: “There was in this attitude something feminine, a refusal of the abstract, the ideal, a submissiveness to the given, which rather displeased me.” Again and again, when Ai encounters any traits in a Gethenian that are not associated with virility, aggressiveness, or authority, he is suddenly reminded that the person before him is not a man, but something lesser, something a bit vulgar. Something feminine.

 

Ai is not really an unreliable narrator, in the sense of being a liar or a madman, but his biases are insidious, threaded throughout the novel and rarely drawing attention to themselves. It is not that Ai hates women; like many men, he has just not thought much about gender politics. When asked by Estraven, who has never met a woman, whether they are inferior to men, Ai has trouble responding. “No. Yes. No, of course not, not really. But the difference is very important. I suppose the most important thing, the heaviest single factor in one’s life, is whether one’s born male or female.” He’s hardly a misogynist; it’s just that a gender studies class would probably do him good. As a character Ai is likable, but he is probably not the ideal individual to lead the reader on this anthropological journey through Gethen. And that is, I think, the point.

 

One of the themes in this book is cultural misunderstanding – how the same action or trait can be seen in contradictory ways by different civilizations. As this idea is a staple of virtually every first-contact or anthropological science fiction story, I tend to take it for granted by now, but I like how it’s handled here. On their trek across the ice, Estraven and Ai begin to understand each other in ways they never had before; they become friends, and even begin to love each other (in a strictly platonic way, Ai hastens to point out – sex with a Gethenian would just be too weird for him). But they also recognize the ways in which they are too different, too alien, to fully comprehend each other. And they leave it at that. I love Ai’s dawning understanding toward the end of the novel:

 

“I thought it was for your sake that I came alone, so obviously alone, so vulnerable, that I could in myself pose no threat, change no balance: not an invasion, but a mere messenger-boy. But there’s more to it than that. Alone, I cannot change your world. But I can be changed by it. Alone, I must listen, as well as speak. Alone, the relationship I finally make, if I make one, is not impersonal and not only political: it is individual, it is personal, it is both more and less than political. Not We and They; not I and It; but I and Thou.”

 

This duality, between I and Thou, relates to the title of the novel, which comes from a Gethenian poem: “Light is the left hand of darkness / and darkness the right hand of light. / Two are one...” Ai thinks that Gethenians are obsessed with the unity of all things because they are sexually undivided; other humans, separated into men and women, are therefore obsessed with duality. But Estraven disagrees: “Duality is an essential, isn’t it? So long as there is myself and the other.”

 

I’m not sure where to leave this review, other than at that. This book is a classic, and deservedly so. The ending broke my heart in a way I was completely not expecting – how could I remember so many specific plot points from reading this so long ago, but forget how shattering it is in the end? But I was a different person then, and the world was a different place.

 

Speaking of the world, maybe in the end I can take heart in the quick and absolute downfall of Tibe, the Karhidish Donald Trump. I can take heart in the prevention of total war between Karhide and Orgoreyn. I can take heart in people like Estraven, who love their homelands but are resolutely unpatriotic, who would be happy to serve a good government if they ever could identify one. Maybe there’s hope for us too. Maybe it won’t even require the intervention of a galactic civilization, to remind us how small we really are.

Outro: Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation - Jeff VanderMeer

This book has infected my brain.  Much the way strange spores disgorged from uncanny pulsing vegetation forming eerie words down a spiral staircase into the void beneath an alien jungle might infect your brain, if you inhaled them.

 

Which you probably shouldn't do.

Outro: Dark Eden, by Chris Beckett

Dark Eden - Chris Beckett

Haven't been this disappointed in a book in awhile.

Reading progress update: I've read 168 out of 441 pages.

Dark Eden - Chris Beckett

This is getting better!  The writing is still fairly awful, and the characters read like mannequins that the author is clumsily maneuvering through the narrative, but I'm no longer convinced it's heading toward a stupid twist ending.

 

Maybe just a moderately lame twist ending.  I don't know.

 

Worldbuilding is still pretty good.