I finished the second book in the Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, The Broken Kingdoms. I’ll try to sort out my reactions below…
- Jemisin has created a world that feels absolutely alien and inhuman, despite all the characters being either human or divine in human form. This world feels like it should be recognizable, but the powers that all of these characters have are so dramatic and always in conflict, with mortals stealing from gods and gods trying to contain mortal power.
- She borrows characters, or archetypes, from all sorts of mythological traditions, but nothing feels immediately recognizable. I find that sort of uncanniness compelling, because the sort of approach where a character appears and I as the reader can immediately say, of course, that’s Thor, feels lazy and uninspired to me.
- It’s more than just compelling, somehow, and that’s why I’m struggling so much with analyzing a novel that I enjoyed, a lot.
- I can’t find a typical lens to read it through – it’s clearly about power, and energy, and identity, but those are not the typical fantasy lenses, and thus my struggle.
- I get a bit of a feel of the Malazan series, but without the endless deaths and cannon fodder. This book only has one major character die, but there are no minor characters – everyone in here is dangerous in some way that they might not even comprehend.
- I can’t wait for the third book to come up in rotation.
I’ve been hearing about Salzi for a while, and I hadn’t picked anything up by him, but since there are no more Expanse novels to read and I need a hard sci-fi fix I figured what the heck…
I enjoyed The Collapsing Empire, especially since it had a Wolfe/Silverberg feel with the late reveal of the reasons why the political and economic system exists the way it does. As always, thoughts:
- Scalzi is in love in this novel at least with smart ass characters, and he has a couple of good ones in a couple of the houses.
- Speaking of which, at first I was frustrated by the feudalistic system this seems to represent, and then the explanation of the interdependency that has arisen from the the discovery of how to travel in the Flow hit, and I got it. This isn’t some sort of Frank Herbert thing, with an inability to imagine space as anything but a continuation of humanity’s (supposed) search for empires – there are reasons of survival that have created this system, at least originally, as each of the planets was forced to become dependent on the others in order to ensure that humans got along.
- It’s not surprising, perhaps, that this all went wrong…
I read Parable of the Sower a long time ago, and reading a ton of dystopic fiction made me remember to pick up Butler again, who was one of the first. Parable of the Talents had me reading too quickly.
- The narrative device she used was cool, even if it took me some time to figure out. The story is being told by Lauren Olamina, the protagonist of the first novel, but in this one we get a preface to begin each chapter by her daughter, who survives the destruction of Earthseed and has a strained relationship with her mother. We essentially know that Lauren will survive, since the daughter’s passages talk about meeting her again in the future, and the look from the future gave a sense of the cost to her own humanity that Lauren goes through in order to create Earthseed.
- “God is change” is the constant refrain in this novel, the basis of the religion of Earthseed. I admire Butler’s relentless optimism, even though she writes a dystopic novel set in a California that is rapidly becoming too hot to live in and in a USA that briefly falls sway to religious zealot as President. God is change is Butler’s attempt to show a way we can live with religion and science, a way to essentially think of earth through a sort of gaia theory (without all the sentience) and to understand how we can fit into the planet.
- Of course, Butler’s work isn’t easy, so Lauren – despite offering us a way to live on earth – is convinced that we have destroyed it too badly and wants humanity to head to the stars.
- As often happens in her novels, Butler shows how horrible people can be to each other. This novel is full of slavery – called indentured servitude or prison sentences – that has arisen in a USA that is rapidly sliding into meaninglessness. Shock collars are used to keep people subdued, and they are incredibly effective.
- I was often disturbed by how close to reality this often felt. People in towns that were still intact were intentionally ignorant of the nastiness happening around them, except when they had to defend themselves from it. Parts of the country still work – they’re able to hold a presidential vote – and other parts are sheer chaos. All of this is caused by the dislocation and disruption of declining natural resources matched with climate change. Who could have seen any of that?
My latest attempt to understand Philip Roth’s work is reading American Pastoral. It is set in a changing Newark, and features Seymour ‘Swede’ Levov as its protagonist, struggling keeping his factory open and his American dream alive through the 1960s.
- There is a novel-within-a-novel here, as we are unsure if the Swede actually exists or is merely the figment of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination (Zuckerman is Roth’s narrator and feels a lot like Roth). We find out that the Swede is a person based on other people’s memories of him as Zuckerman talks to folks at his 45th high school reunion, but the recreation that we get does not include parts of the Swede’s life (a second marriage with sons).
- I was shocked to see how many bombings the Weathermen had done over the years. I don’t remember them as a reign of terror, which confuses me in the age of amber alerts, when we are supposed to be afraid all the time. Maybe my parents just kept us out of the fear, and of course I couldn’t read all the Twitter posts debating the bombers so I couldn’t, perhaps, get worked up about it.
- The novel feels Proustian in its intense immersion into characters’ heads, ranging from Swede to his first wife Dawn. Zuckerman as narrator invokes Proust, so I’m guessing the model is deliberate.
- The Swede is as caucasian as a Jew can get – nordic looks, blonde hair, factory owner, star athlete, married to an Irish-Catholic beauty queen, the works. Roth uses that juxtaposition neatly to talk about some of the contradictions at the heart of American Judaism – political progressivism with belief in capitalism, marginalized ethnicity vs. desire to be a part of the US mainstream, a need to be patriots (Levov is Marine vet) vs. an understanding of some of the basic contradictions of American society (and the resulting desire to tear that society apart).
- Roth’s American Pastoral is distinctly east coast and suburban. The Swede moves with his family to the farm country of New Jersey, and they go so far as to become almost gentlemen farmers, with the Swede driving in to his factory everyday in Newark (at least until he has to close up shop).
- The horror seems to come from the fact that the product of the perfect Jewish family can become an American-bred terrorist who bombs post offices as part of the Weathermen. That’s the question I can’t figure out – it feels as if Roth is looking to identify the sources of Merry’s radicalisation, and if so then he seems to identify them as equally part being a Jew in America and the United States’s bloody history of conquest. I’m not sure that blame is what Roth is trying to apportion – I’m reminded of an admonition that I heard lots of times in grad school and that I take to heart, that the best novels feature really smart people wrestling with nearly intractable problems – but some sort of trying to understand is definitely happening here.
- I’m tempted to see this novel as indictment of parents who try to understand their kids, but that might be too easy on my part…
- I struggle though with thinking of this novel as a study of why folks become radicals .Merry’s stuttering, her inability to live up to the glamour of her parents, her exposure to radical politics in NYC, these all felt too easy to me as a sort of psychological understanding of why people become radicalized.
I am seemingly determined to work my way through all of these novels. Sharpe’s Trafalgar gives Sharpe an excuse to write about the Battle of Trafalgar and to paint a heroic portrait of Admiral Nelson that had me wondering about how historically accurate it was (in a good way!). Cornwell admits that he contrives to get Sharpe there, but as all of this series is an attempt to add reality and grit to portraits of European colonialism and the continental wars of Napoleon’s time then I’m not sure the manipulations matter all that much.
- The descriptions of ship life are pretty stark and brutal and I’m guessing honest. I sort of wonder if there’s a bit of a gross-out factor happening here, but I appreciate them much as I liked how Battlestar Galactica made Star Trek seem insanely clean and sterile.
- The casualties in these battles are horrific, and the fact that bodies are dumped overboard feels insanely irreverent to a twenty-first century denizen…
- Masculinity is also under examination in this series, and the construction that Cornwell does justifies my like of the fake combat of mosh pits and rugby. Every utopia that I try to imagine has to deal with human, often masculine aggression wired into our lizard brains, and utopias that pretend that that doesn’t exist make no sense to me.
- Sharpe at one point feels guilty about his love of combat, but there is clearly some sort of emotion (perhaps it’s joy, as Cornwell describes it) in the physical contest between humans. And there is clearly something to combat…
- In the short story that follows Sharpe’s Trafalgar in this edition Cornwell has a Spanish partisan who is a woman. Unfortunately, she’s also Sharpe’s lover, but he is attempting, I guess, to include women in these types of histories…
After reading Lord’s Redemption in Indigo I felt the need to look up more of her novels, and downloaded The Best of All Possible Worlds from my local library. It’s completely different in setting although sort of similar in its intense concentration on relationships and what an earlier time might have called domesticity.
- Somehow, Lord writes a novel that describes both the plight and the courage of refugees that feels both grounded in realistic human behaviors and feels apolitical. I’m not saying it is apolitical, but…
- The ways in which the home planet of Terrans accepts their near-cousins (the Sadiri) neatly emphasizes how racial identity is a social construct. Terrans are capable of the same mental capabilities, but cultural differences and emphases have produced one race that relies on the powers of meditation and control and other that is more grounded in emotions and the qualities of resilience.
- Lord’s desire to add how partnerships and relationships are developed in different cultures to the scifi oeuvre would probably have made my teenage self go ewww, but reading these now makes perfect sense. I found the novel to be the sort that I trouble putting down despite the biggest risk to the protagonist being a former lover who controls people telepathically (but who is put in jail by those who set the standards for telepathic behavior) and losing her career over a move to get a slavery ring into the public eye. Not exactly riveting-type The Expanse-style stuff, but not romance fodder either.
- Her desire to make space not just human but also factor in what feel like genetic mutations of humans that did not originate on Earth is pretty cool. The novel does not make this connection explicit, but I get the feeling that the origin point of humanoid species is not Terra…
- Her questions about what constitues ideal masculinity are also pretty interesting, and helped me think about the ways in which scifi continuously constructs masculinity in what often feels like a retro fashion even with a generic history that includes Thomas Disch and Samuel R. Delaney.
Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo features a protagonist, Paama, who goes toe-to-toe with Chance in order to retain the Chaos Stick. That she [SPOILER ALERT] willfully gives it back to him, and that both she and Chance learn something along the way is just one of the ways in which Lord’s novel messes with generic expectations. She ends up happily married to a younger man, after burying her first husband who ate himself to death.
- My synopsis does not do this novel justice. Paama is the antithesis of those sorts of supposedly genre-bending young female heroines that are featured in much current YA lit – she is married to a man she does not love but cannot hate, she is a great cook, she has no desire to learn how to wield the power she has been given, and she acts with compassion and empathy even when the results are not what she would like.
- Lord’s narrator is lively, self-aware, and interested in engaging us in a conversation, even if it constantly defends itself from charges of defying what it feels our expectations will be. The narrator is far different than Paama, and often asks us not to judge her or other characters at surprising points in the novel – the one that struck me most was when Paama goes back to nurse Ansige, her first husband, as he dies from the consequences of over-eating. Ansige is set up as entirely unsympathetic, and yet Paama knows that her duty is to be with him until he passes. This is territory not often covered in this genre.
- In that sense this novel comes directly from the land of folk tales, written with a postmodern sensibility and an eye towards redeeming our relationships with each other and with the forces in the world that causes things to happen that we do not understand. The narrative voice helps with this redemption with its energy and desire to always keep us looking outside the text.
- The natural forces in this novel are definitely not supernatural, and are also not aligned along a good-evil binary. Again, it is very unlike lots of YA fiction that’s out now, with barely-disguised good and evil aligned along metaphoric lines. I admire the effort that some of that fiction makes, but killing off characters does not necessarily make a novel complex, even when that plot-level action defies generic expectations. What makes ASOIAF complex is not the fact that Ned Stark dies early on, but that GRRM (at least I though he was, before the teevee series) is looking at issues of planetary balance and the appearance of science in the Enlightement. Defying generic expectations does not necessarily equal complexity.
- Part of the joy of Gaiman’s Sandman series was the ways in which entities simply operated in their own best interests, with complex understandings of how those interests meshed with those of other entities. Lord’s novel adds the idea of duty to that mix.
- This binary allows her to comment on humans and their needs through her narrator (which isn’t exactly human, but not exactly a djombi):
Humans did not hold such power within themselves easily; they had a deep-seated need for symbols, talismans, and representations. (61)
- Her epilogue continues the feisty narrator theme. I cannot tell if she’s chastising academics or those who read for escape – I think it’s the latter, but I’m not completely sure. Representative of this trope from the many pieces of advice we get from the narrator is this one:
For others a tale is a way of living vicariously, enjoying the adventures of others without having to go one step beyond their sphere of comfort. To them I say, what’s stopping you from getting on a ship and sailing halfway around the world? Tales are meant to be an inspiration, not a substitute. (157)