This novel happens in a world torn apart by geological instability, with surface upheavals nearly wiping out all life at irregular intervals, and humanity desperately trying to find ways to survive. That doesn’t mean that this is a Star Trek prime directive type of world with all of us working together because we are human, goshdangit. Power gets incremented into social structures in familiar but horrifying ways.
- As is clear from the overview, this novel resonated with me mostly due to the way it describes how power becomes institutionalized. No one is obviously evil – instead, folks like the guardians are simply doing what they were trained to do. They might even believe that their actions are world-saving, although we seem far beyond that…
- It builds a world that had me looking for reference points that simply weren’t there. After I stopped looking the enormity of what Jemisin is doing became clearer – she’s interested in power, especially as it manifests itself socially, and she’s utilized the structures inherent in the world to look at how connections with the primal forces of our geology have the potential to shape how we relate with each other.
- The sell-by date on the planet also neatly contrasts with the Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park, life-will-find-a-way happy dance. Yeah, maybe, but only if the enormous power that resides in the molten rock that exists just below us as we hurtle through the deathly cold of space says sure, for a while…
- I also tagged this as ‘gestalt’ because of the ways that the oregenes function. They can essentially draw upon the energy inherent in rock (and the environment around them) to do all sorts of stuff, and their function in this novel is purportedly to prevent the types of geological upheaval that will wipe out life. The utilization of this kind of mind power functions differently than the obsession with magery and sorcery that becomes an easy out in a lot of fantasy, and Jemisin is doing some interesting stuff. I look forward to the rest of the series…
John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War pays homage to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers while also tweaking its basic premises. Because of some of the features of the novel I think that Scalzi is trying to make Heinlein safe for those who might have liked the premise but hated the fascism. Thoughts below:
- The surprise Scalzi’s characters feel at the body-swap felt a bit disingenuous, and I get a bit weary of the constant “all-people-are-smart-asses.” That being said, it’s an interesting take on finding foot soldiers for colonial wars, especially ones that are said to be absolutely necessary to fight (as Scalzi does in this novel)…
- He’s directly speaking to Starship Troopers, of course, but I think that he’s taking a science-based, almost liberal (in the U.S. sense) view, like a liberal hawk – the universe is a dangerous place, we need to fight wars, but our diversity is our strength, yadayadayadayada…
- In that sense then he returns to what feels like a WWII, Ernie Pyle-style GI stories. Scalzi’s combatants are cynical and hard-bitten, but always ready to make a joke even as they die (and uber-competent despite the casualty rates). They fit all the characteristics that folks wanted desperately to apply to American soldiers, marines, sailors, and airmen during WWII. By incorporating this persona, I think, Scalzi wants to invoke the spirit of the good war that many think WWII was.
- This war is Darwinian in a lot of ways – it occurs in a world in which races compete unless they have a direct reason not to, i.e., they do not need the same resources to survive. He doesn’t make the enemy evil, necessarily, and in fact humans come the closest to committing what we might think of as war crimes, but the feel is that survival-of-the-fittest trope that dominated early economic interpretations of Darwin. In that sense, the inevitability of the expansion of folks leads to constant war – if we humans don’t take these planets then other species will. Sounds more than vaguely capitalist.
- It also posits one line for technological development – there is a curve of known science/technology research, and species fit on it at some point. The balance is upset when one species gets knowledge it should not have yet, according to the laws of the inevitability of tech development I guess.
- In some ways this is the most frustrating part of this novel – rather than think about different ways in which tech can develop (there are dozens of examples, but the Expanse series is what comes to mind first), Scalzi simply has all of us moving in the same lines.
- I was also frustrated with the obvious characterizations – the loudmouth braggart dies immediately, the former senator who think that the Colonial Defense Force hasn’t tried diplomacy dies horribly while trying diplomacy, etc. Lots of folks die, actually, and we still get just one viewpoint, that of the protagonist, who affects that world-weary, cynical, I-do-this-not-because-I-have-to-but-from-a-sense-of-duty narrator.
- I kept thinking that some plot or characterization would tweak this novel’s direction, but the big twist (the ghost brigade) was just more of the same…
- I didn’t realize that there was such a market for throw-back 60s sci-fi novels with covers that featured humans eye-rolling at outlandish alien hijinks…
- Finally, the religion that Scalzi creates in the species that most directly competes with humans implied the sort of overwhelmingly anthropocentric view of the world that I think Scalzi is trying not to portray. He wants humans to be the good guys, but these folks aren’t evil (as I mentioned) – they think they’re doing us a favor by ‘redeeming’ us and helping us reincarnate as them. In my mind the connections to Western, Christian imperialism and colonialism are too close…
- I really wish this novel had been in conversation with Forever War and Battlestar Galactica as well as Starship Troopers. Scalzi approaches questions of identity in ways that could be interesting, but he ends them with simple declarations that despite enhancements all of these old men and women (in new, corporate-developed bodies) are actually, deeply human. Even the ghost brigades are human, so human in fact that the regrown DNA-imprinted soldier who our narrator runs into falls in love with him just like his wife (whose DNA it has used) did back on earth.
- The corporate control elements are interesting as well, and perhaps the rest of the series interrogates them…
If someone had described Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle to me I don’t think I would have read it. I picked it up blindly, mostly because I wanted to read more magical realism (I have pretty much only read Rushdie, Marquez, and Borges). Even so, the first hundred pages should have turned me off – Toru Okada, the protagonist, spends most of it emotionally detached, halfheartedly looking for a missing cat while flirting detachedly from a teenager who lives in the neighborhood, all the while hanging around his apartment all day. The narrative doesn’t exactly careen forward from this point, but events get increasingly weird and increasingly intense, until Okada starts flipping relatively easily between parallel universes. Even the wrap-up felt unsettling and odd, as it was unexpected but also unexpectedly not a denouement as I think of them.
- The wind-up bird is the link between a whole bunch of wild stories. I guess it’s mostly noted for its annoying screech.
- Everyone who Okada meets comes back to play a part in the novel. Everyone.
- His wife (Kumiko) leaves him but we’re never sure why, and she reappears at a couple of points, one of which convinces Okada that he must save her. Despite beating someone to death in her hotel room, he can’t.
- His brother-in-law gets beaten into a coma (a man who hates Okada and who Okada hates back), but he doesn’t really, at least in the plane of existence that we are all on.
- Wells figure prominently, as Okada spends several days in the bottom of one, and Lt. Miyami, who was captured by Soviets in Manchuria during WWII, was left in one to die (he escaped).
- Okada is marked with a blue stain on his cheek that marks him as someone who can relieve people of inner turmoil and anxiety by touching them. Nutmeg (a rich woman who befriends him) has the same mark, and has been performing this task. In trying to get Kumiko back, he somehow becomes unable to do this anymore. What they were doing felt a bit like what sin-eaters in the middle ages did, especially in Ireland.
- Okada and Nutmeg have a conversation about meta-fiction at one point that is fascinating and I think either shows Murakami’s sense of humor or his willingness to stare right at the fourth wall and say “I see you.”
- I know that folks often say that they read to learn about other cultures. I always feel that this is an impossible task – in my mind knowing other cultures intimately is impossible (hell, I don’t think I know my own), and assuming that we pick up a book and are immediately experts in Japan is sort of foolish.
- That said, this book seems determined to be as anti-stereotypical Japanese as possible. Big lumps of it describe Japanese war crimes in Manchuria, for instance. It talks specifically about the military codes of Japanese soldiers and how stupid they were. Okada is dreamy, unemployed, more worried about cats than people, and not all that worried about cats – all characteristics that go against stereotypes of the Japanese as hard-working sarariman who will die at their desks rather than disappoint their company (and thus their country). I enjoyed this defiance, but it also made me realize how completely I had bought into the stereotype.
- Everyone will be happy to know that the cat is okay.
Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones became one of those books that I read too fast. I wanted to know that Randall was able to go to basketball camp and get out of the poverty trap, that Skeetah kept the puppies to make some desperately-needed money, that Dad was able to break out of his grief-inspired alcoholism, that Esch discovered having sex would make her pregnant and that boys are at best stupid and at worst evil, and that Junior had a chance at some sort of childhood. Most of all, much to my shame, I wanted to keep going to see if China survived. Spoiler alert – Ward ends the novel before we know…
- Esch is a marvelous character. She’s trapped since the death of her mother, and has had to watch the family slink slowly into a kind of sloth fueled by the fact that their dad has become non-functioning since Mom died in childbirth.
- She clearly relates to the Greek plays that they are reading in her school, and she feels close to Medea in all her forms. The interplay between Esch’s reading of Medea and her own life features her trying out Medea in a bunch of different roles and possibilities, trying to make sense of her own pregnancy and relationship with her baby’s father in the light shed by Medea’s own struggle for autonomy.
- Skeetah and China’s relationship also did not play out how I expected it to. I have no experience with people who fight dogs outside of reading of the horror of Michael Vick’s slaughter pit, and to have this relationship so lovingly sketched out, with the care that Skeetah takes for China and her puppies going far beyond the money they’re worth. China and Skeetah are in a mutual protection society, with China simply doing what her hard-wiring tells her to do, and the relationship felt so loving *despite* the fact that she had been bred to fight.
- Despite all the blood, no dogs are killed in these fights, which makes sense since the dogs are worth so much money and are so close to their owners in a physical sense. This is not a portrayal of the bloodthirsty, cold-to-their-animals type of dog fighting that I see in the media – these are people who are simply allowing the dogs to do what they do.
- Finally, the portrayal of the hurricane’s impact is powerful but not dominating. I cared about the characters long before the hurricane hit, and the gradually creeping terror that they felt resonated with me. It also felt like an accurate portrayal of how the power of these storms is hard to imagine, especially with the elders in a community disabled or gone.
- And dammit, I hope China survived…I was hoping that Ward would at least let them keep a puppy…
Ah, Salman Rushdie, bringing back memories of fatwas and Scotland Yard protecting an Indian-born writer from folks trying to get to heaven by killing just one writer…makes me almost nostalgic.
- I read this novel in my quest to read as much magical realism as I can, but I hadn’t guessed that Rushdie uses magical realism to create an allegory of the struggles India has gone through since obtaining independence from the British. In that sense he follows Marquez beautifully.
- Saleem Sinai, his muslim protagonist gifted with an extreme sense of smell, experiences all the joys and horrors of elections, independence, post-colonialism, and the split of Pakistan and India. Indira Gandhi is a particularly loathsome figure in her use of power, and the viciousness of the various wars and ethnic cleansings are also powerfully evoked.
- Rushdie uses women as ciphers in ways that occasionally make me queasy. His narrator is telling the story to Padma, his latest partner, and her impatience feels sort of uncomfortably shrewish. The sacrifice of the witch who gives birth to Sinai’s son also felt sort of yeah, once again the woman dies for the man’s sins-type story. My guess is that I’m selling Rushdie very short here.
- The widespread ethnic diversity of India becomes a part of the story-telling context in MC, and while I struggled to keep up (so many ancestors of mercenaries and emperors) the overall effect made me hope that India can continue to maintain its identity, while fearing for its very ability to do so.
- The move from the naivete of a radio contest for the child born closest to midnight to civil war and totalitarianism and ethnic cleansing struck me upon reading as sort of beautiful in a pen-and-ink sketch type of way. In this rendition India feels both like a hopeful vision of a future multicultural world and a descent into the worst that we can do to each other.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, and, having read this, I am excited about the rest. This novel reads like a fever dream in a sense, with an emotionally repressed narrator who is a biologist, and who narrates the entire novel in the first person. We have no idea if she’s reliable or not, although the only details I question are who shot first in the murder she commits (in the novel it’s self-defense).
- The title speaks to annihilation of self that happens as the various expeditions of humans penetrate Area X, a location that felt both Pacific NW and Gulf Coast (it’s Gulf Coast, as Vandermeer demonstrates by thanking the folks at St. Mark’s National Seashore in Florida). This area that seems to be some sort of biological infestation (perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps not) is slowly expanding, and humans are trying to stop this expansion, but no group that enters the territory emerges unscathed.
- Several amazing passages – the first:
The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
While this is an interesting thought in and of itself, I found it particularly useful in the context of the novel. The maps are all drawn up from natural contours – narrative description serves as our way to understand Area X from a human perspective, one that grows increasingly confused as the narrator proceeds (her husband, for instance, might or might not have disappeared to an island north, an island that is outside the boundaries of Area X, or isn’t).
- The second focuses on the words written on the walls of what the narrator calls The Tower (it is called a Tunnel by the other members of her expedition, and that feels more like I what I think of when I think of tunnels based on the description). They are written by what she calls the Crawler, which is some sort of shimmery powerful being that has incorporated parts of much of this area, including the former lighthouse keeper. A sample:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner… The narrator posits that these words serve as some sort of “core,
irreplaceable substance” that creates The Tower, although – fittingly in this novel – she has no idea how that process works (passage on p. 159)
My guess here is that this indecipherable creature goes beyond some sort of scripter but serves as a means of coalescing all known grammar and languages in a larger sense in one structure that humans can recognize. The fact that the party has different names for it – tunnel and tower, two seemingly incompatible labels – argues for this view.
- Another set of words in The Tower:
That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing” – as close as this novel gets to invoking zombies…
- And the final set, reminding us of the title:
“Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” (306)
The annihilation is of self, of course, but it’s also of notions like identity, ethnocentrism, and perhaps human dominance of the natural world.
I re-read The Master and Margarita as a way to better understand the possibilities of KRZ, and wow…it brings back memories…
I first read it at the insistence of a guy I met working as a coder for EDS in Dayton. He had brought his family out of the Soviet Union, through a lot of risk and danger that I can barely comprehend, and he and I became friends, so much so that I learned how to drink pepper vodka (straight from the bottle, peel that foil cap off and enjoy!). He didn’t necessarily give me the keys to reading it, as there are so many layers that such a key would be as long as the book, but he gave me a firm sense of how important something like literature (and literary resistance) could be in a culture where the biggest lies were simply told as if they were truth.
This drawing is not of the cover, but it’s so gangster…
I’m sure there are no resemblances to the current moment.
And that brings me to the thoughts section of this post: Continue Reading