I have been wanting to read Metro 2033 for a long time, and finally did it. It had a beautifully gloomy ending, being Russian of course…
- I am not an expert on Russian fiction – I have essentially read what I’m supposed to read from the canon of Russian lit according to the West, with the addition of the Arkady and Bulgakov. Still, I am struggling to imagine a more cataclysmic and typical Russian ending than this…
- Artyom discovers at the very end that the Dark Ones are actually mutated humans who can survive the hellscape, and who want to help the rest of humanity.
- The humans kill them anyway, and Artyom essentially commits suicide.
- In the Metro all different types of ideologies have recreated themselves – capitalists, fascists, communists. Glukhovsky treats each differently, although he I think demonstrates some nostalgia for the very first days of the Revolution as Red Army partisans rescue Artyom from the fascists.
- The novel takes no joy in being able to negotiate the dystopia, unlike lots of Western novels. The stalkers (those who go to the surface for supplies) are manly men, without a doubt, and represent idealized masculinity, but they mostly run from the creatures on the surface.
- The mutants are imaginative, with Librarians turned into frightening werewolves almost who still don’t like noise in the library.
- There are lots of attempts among the Metro residents to address their existential crises. Artyom meets all kinds of folks and has all kinds of dreams, most of which are nightmares. Some of the philosophers are barely disguised, and anyone who is not hyper-masculine and who meets Artyom dies.
- My guess is that Glukhovsky is less interested in philosophy than he is interested in understanding how humanity got here…
The Malazan Book of the Fallen readers on WordPress (you know who you are, and thanks!) recommended that I read this, and it was worth the wait. I realized as I was reading that I had read Cook’s short fiction in the 80s, but I hadn’t picked it up since.
- Writing about a mercenary company in a fantasy novel makes most of the folks who read LOTR because Aragorn is dreamy heads explode. This is a good thing.
- The mercenaries with a heart of gold is also an interesting twist.
- The fact that the company physician is also its annalist and someone who can fight again messes with fantasy conventions.
- Our narrator is the story-teller who has been charged with writing down this story. He also tells us spots that he did not record what happened, and makes several fourth wall breaking admissions to us as readers. These things all made me smile.
- The idea that mercenaries are the only truly honorable people because we know where they stand is a sort of trope that I have to admit I like.
- [SPOILER ALERT] Who didn’t see Darling as the new White Rose?
- The mages are clearly not Gandalf – One-Eye, Silent, Goblin…
I’m looking forward to the rest…
In my recent spate of fantasy novel reading I finished Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon. Some thoughts:
- Although the characters fit into some sort of configuration of what Western fantasy usually consists of, they were also pretty dramatically different. I got that Freudian sense of the uncanny as the novel helped the familiar be just strange enough.
- I would not quite call the space liminal, if by liminal we mean a space no longer familiar but for which we have no ready answers. In a good sense the novel sort of put me there, especially with the renegade Prince who seems to be far more in contact with the Khalif then seems possible…
- The reason, though, that the space isn’t completely without answers is because Ahmed neatly provides some answers, all of which feel appropriately set in this culture…
- There are no piles of corpses in this novel. The world saviors are the only ones we see at risk, and they have all taken the risk either willingly or through a sense of duty. That is definitely a change from recent fantasy like ASOIAF and MBOTF in which soldiers are asked to die in that most 20th century way, for objectives that even their commanders cannot articulate.
- The trio of heroes (helped by an alchemist couple) consists of the profane (in multiple ways, including his body and choice of mate), the pure (a dervish fighter, one sworn to purity), and the abject.
- Each is given enough point of view to enable me to take them seriously.
- The source of evil is also interesting – as much as the novel willingly invokes religion, the evil ones are humans who have sought to extend their natural life limits, and to transcend natural borders by entrapping natural, primal forces (wind, water, etc.) in service of their own needs.
- I enjoyed the Doctor (who is a combination of a wizard, a holy man, and a flawed individual) as a protagonist, but the most interesting characters are the dervish and the shapeshifter. Their sacrifices and sense of honor are interesting cross-currents in the genre, especially as someone like George RR Martin calls into question just who sacrifices really benefit, and how convoluted honor can be.
Aside from the fact that I spent the first 600 pages of this novel trying to figure out what it meant to toll the hounds, I finished book eight of this series with a couple of answers and a whole bunch more questions. I’ll try them here…
- I have managed to not notice it before, but the emphasis on journeying is big in this novel. A series of characters all journey to Darujhistan, with varying degrees of trial along the way. They all meet at the same time in this place at just the time when the Hounds of Shadow (and the Hounds of Light) start tearing up the city.
- The ultimate destination of this journeying is often a city, although in one of the series the journey was in pursuit of a rebel army. Erikson spends lots of time showing us life on the road with a moving army, or with refugees.
- any simplistic ideas/narratives that I want to make this series fit – like Martin’s obsession with science and a world out of balance – are hard to do here…
- multiple characters, multiple agendas, multiple agencies, and some of these involve chaos while others do not, and chaos is not necessarily bad…
- if the ur-template for fantasy is to return a centralized authority figure to the center of that figure’s universe, and to restore balance by putting the the Platonic ideal of philosopher-king back in power after a long time out of power (restoring the land through the body and blood of a king, the Arthur rewrite), then the multiple character/multiple agenda approach is outside of generic expectations (my own code for “I don’t know what the fuck is going on”)…
- for instance, Karsa Orlong wants to destroy civilization, but the Malazan empire brings order based on notions of law (sort of Roman, but early, noble Roman empire, and without the heavy use of slaves), there’s a freaking sword that contains a world of misery for those who die and whose souls are captured by it, the various races have their own ideas of civilization, based sort of on power and roles and duty to one’s people, and, well, the list is crazy long…
- Anomander Rake essentially seems to commit suicide in this novel, but it feels necessary somehow to combat the addiction to some god’s blood which drops from the sky or is gathered in crucified people and others drink and become addicted to and sort of waste away to nothing…
- Finally, the agendas of the various gods feel so human and (thus) petty that it makes me wonder why folks bother to ascend…oh yeah, power..
- and this power seems to come from an ability to wander (and maybe wonder?) through various planes of existence in ways that others can’t – i’m not sure if natural, physical laws are bent (those exist, I guess, but are subverted and tweaked all the time)
- the only true gods seem to be Mother Dark and some sort of Father of Shadows…but I use the term ‘true god’ at my own risk
- (added to this post on December 19, 2016) I’ve been thinking a bit as I consider the religious pantheons created in this series about the ways in which power is configured. The limits of power are not well defined – we don’t know, for instance, who would win a one-on-one combat between Karsa Orlong and Icarium, just as we don’t know how Icarium can destroy cities singlehandedly…we don’t know why Kellanved and Dancer ascended, and what that has to do with the power of the Malazan Empire.
- there are a gazillion competing powers in this world, some of which are enormously powerful, some of which don’t know their power, some of which develop intense power through a series of events humbling and traumatic, some of which lose key elements of themselves because of their power. Methinks there is something going on here…
- as I try to puzzle this all out, I read in the Malazan wiki that Cotillion (Dancer, Kellanved’s companion although we don’t know what that means) tells the demon Apt that the reason he ascended was “to escape the nightmares of feeling…Imagine my surprise that I now thank you for such chains,” the chains being now being able to feel again as awoken by the young boy who could see the destroyed Shadow Throne.
I assumed that the Malazan series was a direct descendent of Stephen Donaldson’s Unbeliever series, but having just re-read the Earthsea trilogy I’m starting to wonder. Consider this passage from The Farthest Shore:
[Ged talking with Arren near the end, as Arren tries to figure out why he is on this quest]”And then this: a false king ruling, the arts of man forgotten, the singer tongueless, the eye blind. This!…this blight and plague on the lands, this sore we seek to heal. There are two, Arren, two that make one: the world and the shadow, the light and the dark. The two poles of the Balance. Life rises out of death, death rises out of life; in being opposite they yearn to each other, they give birth to each other and are forever reborn. And with them all is born, the flower of the apple tree, the light of the stars. In life is death. In death is rebirth. What then is life without death? Life unchanging, everlasting, eternal? What is it but death-death without rebirth?”
Malazan is a very dark version of this, with agency given to entities that represent these primal forces.
It is also written at a different time. Erikson’s series is geared towards adults, those who are not as invested in having the world turn out balanced. LeGuin, I think, sticks relentlessly to her mission of providing a truly young adult trilogy, one that offers possibility and hope as well as sorrow and balance and equilibrium.
Still, Malazan is far more in conversation with this series, I think, then LOTR or even ASOIAF…
I guess my next task is to contrast these sorts of hero quests with our fetishization of superheroes…
I am cataloguing my books as I prepare for a book sale at my local library, and I remembered that I had wanted to re-read this in the context of the blood and guts move that fantasy has taken. So I did…and observations follow…
- LeGuin clearly feels that she wants to stay within the parameters of fantasy as young adult literature – there is no sex, very little violence, and not even any adult situations.
- I fell in love with these books as a teen, and with my subsequent love of water and boats and all that stuff I get why.
- LeGuin’s world is bound by language. It’s relentlessly good-natured – the folks who do bad things are simply power-hungry and not concerned with balance and equilibrium, as she makes clear we all should be at several points in the novel. Wizards use language to make the world right – they know multiple languages and and weave complicated verbal spells to fix equilibrium in the material world. They cannot create material, but they can interact with it.
- This binding the world through language feels pretty straightforward for a novelist, but it also emphasizes story-telling and discourse over solving problems with swords and violence, even righteous anger.
- She also has this fixation with true names, which I am guessing correspond to some sort of notion of essential identity. That may simply be her appealing to an adolescent surety that somewhere despite inside us is our true, heroic sense, the one that we want to get out if we can only figure out how. That would fit with LeGuin’s usual mode of operating – she wants to explore how we can be our best…
- The heroes are such because they work with others, and they avoid bloodshed (and hell even judgment) at all times. Still, the world is ruled by wise, benevolent elders – that’s a motif that she changes in her later fiction, but she probably sees it as appropriate for a series aimed at teenagers.
In my never-ending praise of disruptive movements (when that power is used for good) and desire to find examples of folks tweaking their corporate masters and doing good work, I picked up a text that might curb my enthusiasm a bit, Wolf’s Proust and the Squid. Wolf is a neuroscientist who uses this text to collate recent brain research about how we read and then use that collation to help us understand where we’re going with technological development, and it definitely served to correct my relentless search for a way out of the dystopic trends in our culture. Better summaries of the text are available on the open net that will no longer exist if certain alpha males get their way, so I’ll just add a few notes:
- Her argument is that despite how natural it feels to read, our brains were not designed for reading, despite our cultural privileging of that activity.
- She sees that as a feature, not a bug – “thus, the reading brain is part of highly successful two-way dynamics. Reading can be learned only because of the brain’s plastic design, and when reading takes place, that individual brain is forever changed, both physiologically and intellectually” (5).
- She combines Proust’s use of reading as an “intellectual ‘sanctuary'” with the idea of the squid, an animal that helped us understand how beings with long central axons transmit sensually-derived information in the body. The squid essentially serves to help her explain the biological components of reading, Proust the cultural.
- Her findings have a ton of implications for how we think about dyslexia (not some sort of defect but rather a brain that processes information differently) in particular.
- It has also been used by folks like Nicholas Carr to try to understand what the different types of reading we are asking people to do now affect the brain. There have been all kinds of studies on reading and its affective qualities (I’ll link to them in another post that I’m working on), and technoculture (and digital culture), and Wolf’s argument that we are losing some sort of “associate dimension” when we read on the web, losing our abilities to make truth out of the world for ourselves and instead relying on search engines (wow, The Circle reappears constantly) to identify truth for us.
- This argument is firmly in the dystopic, skynet-is-active vein of technological criticism. Wolf’s findings, I think, can certainly be seen in that light – we will get shallower, dumber, less capable of making associations, and our brains will be forever tweaked, incrementally, in that direction by our addiction to the net.
- I’m going to try to think about this in a different direction, however – those incremental changes, if we’re fast enough and smart enough, might well lead incrementally to a far different place, one in which we value the plasticity of our brains and look to ways to make those connections useful, empathetic, and driven by our needs for connection. Wolf devotes her entire final chapter to what she sees as ways to start this disruption.