New Old Friends

Books are old friends. Here is where I mention the new ones I've made.

Month: May, 2012

The Scar by China Miéville

Regular readers (both of you) know how much I like China Miéville.  His Kraken was the first book I reviewed here, and my reading of the collection The New Weird was prompted by the presence of his story “Jack”.  The Scar was the first of his books that I ever read, even before the better-known Perdido Street Station, and having since read all of his other novels I thought it would be educational to revisit this one and see how my perspective on it has changed.

On first glance, it didn’t feel like much had changed at all, as I found myself being pulled back into the oceanic world of Armada and its inhabitants just as easily as the first time.  The Scar is Miéville’s take on the sea epic.  The setting: Bellis Coldwine, academic and linguist, has fled the militia of New Crobuzon in the wake of the events of Perdido Street Station, bound for the colony of Nova Esperium where a new life awaits here with no questions asked.  She obtains passage in return for her services as translator in the cray city of Sakrikaltor, but things don’t exactly go as planned, and she finds herself press-ganged into the mongrel pirate citizenry of Armada, a floating city composed of countless captured ships and precariously ruled by two scarred Lovers.

In Perdido Street Station, Miéville showed what can happen when he lets his imagination run wild in an urban setting; the sentient constructs, all-powerful Weavers, and the Ambassador of Hell are just a few of his memorable creations.  In The Scar he is unconstrained by location and it shows.  In rapid-fire, almost dizzying succession we’re introduced to all manner of amazing and bizarre creatures, such as the cray (half human, half giant lobster, think aquatic centaurs), the anophelii (terrifying mosquito people whose females can drain a pig – or human – of all their bodily fluids in under a minute), and the three-mile-long whale-like avanc.  Miéville also excels in creating interesting secondary characters such as the twice-Remade Tanner Sack, the vampire Brucolac who openly rules one of Armada’s neighborhoods, the secret agent Silas Fennec, and above all the master swordsman Uther Doul and his Possible Sword, which uses Probability Energy to inflict all of hundreds of possible wounds at once.  Even the little touches, things mentioned only in passing, are fascinating, such as the sentient whirlpools and the beach whose red sands are entirely made of tiny gears, cogs and other bits of machinery.

A recent review of Perdido Street Station that I read commented that Miéville seems to have trouble creating memorable well-developed protagonists, and after some consideration I have to give hesitant, qualified agreement, with emphasis on the protagonist part of that sentence.  As I indicated above (and the other reviewer agrees), Miéville’s secondary characters are imaginative, interesting, and as well-developed as one would expect a secondary character to be.  His protagonists, on the other hand, don’t seem to stick as much in the mind as one might expect they should.  Miéville is too obviously-skilled of a writer for this to be completely accidental, and some of his other works such as Un Lun Dun or Embassytown do feature interesting and fully-fleshed-out protagonists; it could simply be that Perdido’s main POV character Isaac de Grimnebulin is simply a locus around which things happen, rather than an active driving force behind the plot, and the novel doesn’t have a true protagonist as such.  My own opinion is that the real protagonists of his novels (at least the New Crobuzon novels, although you could make the case for Kraken as well) are the worlds and people he creates and the ideas that they embody, and the POV characters through which he relates these worlds are more meant to be vessels for the reader to vicariously experience them.  Whether or not this is a beneficial device is open to question, but I personally don’t mind.  I would note that this is less the case in The Scar than in Perdido; Bellis seems at first to be a similar passive observer that things happen to, but as the story unfolds she takes a more active hand in events and her motivations are made very clear.  (The third novel, Iron Council, is similar to Perdido).

In my review of Kraken I made the statement that Miéville doesn’t know how to end a story, and this statement was primarily driven by my first readings of Perdido and The Scar.  Upon re-reading The Scar I must retract that statement; I believe that on my first time through, I either blasted through the subtle lead-up to the ending (and therefore missed the important bits) or simply didn’t understand what had happened.  Probably both.  This time I found the ending entirely satisfying even though certain (intentional) ambiguities that I, again, missed the first time through raised more questions than they answered.  I loved this book the first time I read it, and it led me to immediately go find the rest of his work and give it a place of honor on my bookshelf.  The second time, I liked it even better.  The Scar is certainly the best of his early works and possibly the best of his works, period (I’ll have to re-read the rest of them, particularly Embassytown, before I can make that judgment).  I can’t recommend it highly enough.

The Ice Schooner by Michael Moorcock

ImageI don’t think Michael Moorcock has ever really written anything purely conventional, which is part of what makes The Ice Schooner ultimately so frustrating.  There’s so much promise there, as you get a sense of what he’s trying to do and the expectations he’s subverting, that when the whole thing sputters to a close it feels like such a waste.  

Konrad Arflane is a man out of time, but just how far out of time is not immediately clear.  Arflane is a captain without a ship, in a frozen world with no water.  Ships sail on runners over the frozen ground between the eight cities occupying the frozen plateau of the Mato Grosso (western Brazil), competing for commerce and hunting the land whales that roam freely.  Arflane is out alone, looking for a place to die, when he stumbles across a dying man on the ice and, despite his better judgment, rescues him and returns him to his city.  Arflane allows himself to be dragged into fulfilling the dying man’s quest: a journey to the fabled, far-off city of New York, whose fabled towers are said to still jut out from the global ice pack.  Think Waterworld plus The Day After Tomorrow, only not stupid.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly: Moorcock is playing with Moby Dick here.  In case it wasn’t clear enough, Queequeg himself shows up early on (thinly disguised and renamed) with his harpoon and makes the comparison immediately obvious.  The subversion I mentioned is more subtle: there’s whales around, all right, but Arflane doesn’t care because he’s not a whaler.  He’s chasing something else: the Ice Mother, whose frozen court is supposed to be located in New York.  Arflane is a severely orthodox man: there is evidence, far away, that the ice is starting to melt and expose both soil and open water, but Arflane is positive that the Ice Mother would never allow such a thing.  The world is frozen, always as been, and always will be, forever amen, and if he has to find the Ice Mother himself to prove this, he will, to hell with such things as observation and deduction.  He doesn’t trust his senses, or anyone else’s, when they conflict with Holy Scripture, and he’s obnoxiously arrogant in his blind faith.  This, combined with his brooding introspection and hair-trigger temper, makes it very difficult to find him sympathetic, in much the same way as with Moorcock’s more famous Elric of Melnibone.

Moorcock also inserts a love interest, but where one might expect this to be a calming influence on Arflane, Moorcock intends just the opposite.  Everything seems to go wrong every time the two lovers are together, and indeed much of the friction between the major characters revolves around the doomed, forbidden relationship.

Unfortunately, and frustratingly, everything goes off the rails at the very end of the story.  I can’t describe exactly why without spoilers, but Moorcock is far too talented a writer to depend on a deus ex machina ending, and I have to wonder why he chose to resort to one here.  Ultimately, said ending takes what could have been an interesting counterpoint to Melville’s masterpiece and leaves it simply another bit of slightly-better-than-generic postapocalyptic storytelling, engaging in the moment, but ultimately forgettable in the end.

Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom by Cory Doctorow

Full disclosure: I’ve never been to Disneyland or Disney World.  Honestly, that’s fine with me, I don’t feel deprived or have any remote desire to rectify this.  It does, however, mean that I have one fewer way to connect with Cory Doctorow’s Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom.  Doctorow either loves him some Disney or he’s got some real stones, because setting a debut sci-fi novel in Disney World, even future Disney World, seems like an…um…interesting choice.

More power to him, because he mostly pulls it off.  In the world of tomorrow, death has been cured by means of complete mental backups and quick-grown clones, so as long as you back up frequently, death is little more than a mild inconvenience.  Despite sounding like a lecture from your wild-haired IT guy, Doctorow manages to spin this single technological advance into a number of creative plot points and background touches.  For example, some groups of people refuse to take advantage of humanity’s new immortality (the “Bitchun Society”), but nobody’s worried about them, because eventually they all die off and the problem solves itself.  Anyway, immortal humanity finds itself with a lot of time on its hands; many “deadhead”, or go into cryogenic fugue, with instructions to wake periodically to see if anything interesting is happening.  Others pursue multiple doctorates, and still others go to Disney World.

Again, I’ve never been there, so I can’t vouch for the fidelity of Doctorow’s descriptions.  I think we can take it as read, though, that the technology used in almost all attractions is far beyond even the Disney Corporation’s reach; the latest innovation is to push memories and experiences directly into the visitor’s mind to create a fully immersive experience.  This is pretty damn cool, but it doesn’t sit well with our narrator, who works in the Haunted Mansion and likes it the way it is, thank you very much.  I wouldn’t think that a novel about a hostile takeover of a theme park attraction could be interesting, but then I also didn’t think anybody could turn MMORPG gold-farming into a gripping read, and I was wrong.  It’s to Doctorow’s credit that he accomplishes this, mainly by getting the reader to identify with main character Julius’ overwhelming desire to keep just one thing free from the technological rat race, to not fix what ain’t broke.  It also helps that Doctorow doesn’t try to go into great depth with the motivations of any of the characters; the PDF version of this text clocks in at a brisk 115 pages or so, leaving little room for extraneous detail.  He does throw in little nuggets, almost as asides, to aid verisimilitude and keep the reader’s interest as well; characters casually smoke crack as others might smoke tobacco, for example, and doctors still exist but can’t do much outside of the “just die and restore from backup” paradigm.  It’s the little things, after all, that make the setting.

All in all, it’s a fun, light, and innocuous little read.  Certainly, after a steady, heavy diet of Herbert and Mieville, it’s kinda nice to flip leisurely through this kind of confection.  I see little subtext here; probably the most subversive thing about the book is that it was released under the Creative Commons license (like all of Doctorow’s works) and is therefore free to download and distribute.  (Obviously, if you want a paper copy, you need to buy it).  This was a very bold step for a new author to take, but it seems to have paid off for him since he’s released several more under the same license.  Anyway, bottom line is, Disneyphiles will probably adore it, but it stands up well for the rest of us too.  It’s good, light summer fun reading, so next time you’re sacked out in your hammock with your iPad or whatever in easy reach, you can do much worse than to WiFi this puppy over and give it a go.

The New Weird by Ann & Jeff VanderMeer (editors)

ImageConsidering that the overwhelming majority of what I read is genre fiction, I read surprisingly few short stories.  I seem to gravitate more toward novels, which allow me to immerse myself more fully in an author’s creation, but this tendency has two deleterious side effects.  First, I miss out on the concentrated punch that good short stories can deliver; they often will have as much background as a full novel, but due to the constraints of the form they will start the reader off running, in medias res, which can result in an exhilirating read.  This goes double for stories that take place in a setting established earlier in an author’s work, often in a novel, allowing the author to revisit some underdeveloped facet of his world without the commitment of building a long work or the temptation to rewrite an earlier work to fill space (I’m looking at you, Terry Brooks).  Second, I tend to miss out on lesser-known (to me) or younger authors whose long works are either still unwritten or haven’t made it onto my radar screen, or those who work best in the short story format; I live in the sticks, I have two children and a job, and my local library is small, so it takes real effort and a real commitment of my nonexistent free time to explore new authors in the numbers that I would like.

The New Weird scratches both of those itches very nicely, thank you very much.

What is the New Weird?  The introduction poses this very question and proceeds to trace the development of this new mini-genre from its roots in Lovecraft’s weird fiction, 60s New Wave fantasy and the horror renaissance of the 80s through the gestation period in the 90s and its explosion in 2000 with the publication of China Mieville’s Perdido Street Station, mentioning a number of seminal works along the way (of which I will be making careful note).  Basically, according to the VanderMeers,

New Weird is a type of urban, secondary-world fiction that subverts the romanticized ideas about place found in traditional fantasy, largely by choosing realistic, complex real-world models as the jumping off point for creation of settings that may combine elements of both science fiction and fantasy.  New Weird has a visceral, in-the-moment quality that often uses elements of surreal or transgressive horror for its tone, style and effects … New Weird relies for its visionary power on a “surrender to the weird” that isn’t, for example, hermetically sealed in a haunted house on the moors or in a cave in Antarctica.  The “surrender” (or “belief”) of the writer can take many forms, some of them even involving the use of postmodern techniques that do not undermine the surface reality of the text.

It’s an accurate and surprisingly precise definition for a slippery movement still alive and evolving.  Indeed, it effectively delineates the differences between these authors and others who, while capable of genre-blending with the best of them, don’t have that little frisson of, well, weirdness that sets these folks apart.  Dan Simmons, for example, can create serious fantasy/sci-fi/horror mashups (Ilium and its follow-up Olympos leap to mind) but lack the grittiness and Cronenbergian body-modification undertones that mark the New Weird.

The anthology itself is creatively set up.  The first section, “Stimuli”, is made up of a handful of older stories that can be seen to have influenced more modern New Weird works.  There is almost uniformly stellar work here, from Michael Moorcock’s Apocalypse Now-like WWIII story “Crossing into Cambodia” to Clive Barker’s Eastern European WTF-fest “In The Hills, The Cities”, to Simon D. Ings’ startlingly funny “The Braining of Mother Lamprey”. Thomas Ligotti’s “A Soft Voice Whispers Nothing” is more atmospherically creepy, while M. John Harrison’s “The Luck In The Head” manages to evoke both New Crobuzon and Videodrome.  I found only Kathe Koja’s “The Neglected Garden” disappointing; although the tale of a bound woman merging with the overgrown backyard was undeniably weird, I was unable to become invested in the characters and I found it, frankly, a little boring.

These were, however, simply appetizers for the second section, “Evidence”.  Here we have nine original works of pure New Weird deliciousness, leading off with China Mieville’s “Jack”, which is as far as I know his only short story set in the world of New Crobuzon (setting of his Perdido Street Station, The Scar, and Iron Council).  It’s not only a tight, muscular work that illuminates a bit more of the origins and fate of one of his more memorable bit characters, but a masterful piece of deceptive storytelling that makes you immediately want to go back and read it again with fresh eyes.  I’ve been a Mieville junkie since I was turned onto Perdido and The Scar by a good friend and fellow cross-genre fiction junkie, and I confess the presence of “Jack” was what pulled me into this book; had Mieville not been there, I may have missed it completely.  But the following works are nearly as gripping: Jeffrey Thomas’ “Immolation” follows a clone laborer who has escaped from the (figurative) plantation; Jay Lake’s “The Lizard of Ooze” weaves sly references to L. Frank Baum into his subterranean dystopia; Brian Evanson’s “Watson’s Boy” is a bizarre and disturbing portrait of childhood obsession.  There is a tonal shift into less grubby territory with “The Art of Dying”, K.J. Bishop’s study of melodramatic duel-artists, as well as Jeffrey Ford’s be-who-you-are fable “At Reparata” and the surprisingly-touching denouement of Leena Krohn’s insect-people travelogue “Letters from Tainaron” (translated, I believe, from the Finnish).  The section should have ended with “The Ride of the Gabbleratchet”, an excerpt from Steph Swainston’s Dangerous Offspring, but unfortunately it stumbles on the last selection, Alistair Rennie’s previously-unpublished “The Gutter Sees The Light That Never Shines”, which takes a promising premise and grinds it to a halt with clunky dialogue and imagery that is distractingly disgusting but not in an effective way; the whole thing reads like the first draft of what could, after much polishing, be a very effective and imaginative piece of work.

The collection closes with two unusual sections.  In “Symposium”, a number of editors and others hold forth on what New Weird is, where it’s been and where it’s going, sort of a response to the introduction (or, more likely, the introduction is a response to these essays).  It’s an interesting read but somewhat repetitive…it’s hard to say that many original things about a literary movement that had (at time of publication) only been really roaring for 8-9 years.  Every one, without fail, pays homage to the movement’s protector “Battleship Mieville,” name-checking China with reverence and near-awe.  The most interesting of these was a short piece by German editor Hannes Riffel who candidly admits that New Weird (and Fantasy in general) simply doesn’t sell well in Germany and they don’t really have any authors worthy of putting up there with the foreigners.  It’s a refreshing bit of candor in the midst of otherwise-uniform bright-future optimism and a little bit of self-congratulation.

Finally, the volume wraps up with “Laboratory”, a seven-part exercise in round-robin storytelling, with an initial setup story leading to six vignettes adding detail and color to the proceedings.  These are, uniformly, brilliant, although the conclusion (available on the publisher’s website, not in the book) feels rushed and somewhat incomplete.  It was an original and satisfying way to close the compilation.

I’m thankful that this collection crossed my path, especially with its recommended-reading section at the end (a hyperlinked version can be found here).  New Weird is not China Mieville and a bunch of hangers-on, mainstream appearances notwithstanding.  The near-uniformly high quality of the work in this volume gives me hope that there is plenty of good stuff out there, and that the creators of genre-crossing, creative, interesting fiction are numerous and determined enough to stand in the face of the continuous stream of cookie-cutter Tolkien clones that clutters up chain-bookstore Fantasy sections.  Battleship Mieville sails with an Armada, and it’s under full steam.  I can’t wait to tour the rest of the fleet.

Note: for another take on this collection, see here.