Jemisin’s fiction (@nkjemisin) constantly amazes me – it can be incredibly subtle and also inexorably direct and clear; it can be wildly imaginative and yet also pay homage to its sources straightforwardly; it can be maddeningly obtuse and frighteningly transparent. The Kingdom of Gods, the third and final novel in the Inheritance trilogy, lives up to all of these prosal characteristics, and like every other novel of hers that I’ve read I had trouble putting it down.
- This series (much like the other series of hers that I have read, the Broken Earth series) is chock full of discussions of identity and essential natures. Jemisin is way too smart to offer us easy answers to these questions, and her usage of Sieh as a first-person narrator in this novel fits that pattern.
- Sieh is a trickster god, an honored tradition in many pantheons. In the first novel of the series we see a lot of Sieh, and he’s pretty repellent, a childish purely libidinal creature with the powers of a god.
- That changes in this book, mostly because of the love he has for two mortals. Sieh talks about being true to his own nature, but he is able to transform by the end of the novel (no spoiler alert because I won’t say how).
- Jemisin doesn’t make that change an easy one. In fact, it requires enormous sacrifices on Sieh’s part, and because we are in a first-person narration we get Sieh’s not always completely self-aware understanding of how and why he is changing.
- From my perspective this approach to the essential nature of identity is a compelling one, especially in a fictional genre that tends to deal in often overblown archetypes. Jemisin’s insistence that we have no essential nature makes more sense when presented in this context, I think, because rather than assume that there are unchangeable parts of ourselves what we see are the ways in which cultural training in combination with our own reactions, strategies, and hard-wiring make certain combinations of actions seem inevitable, and thus natural.
- This approach is an incredibly complicated one to pull off, and I found myself looking constantly for markers that helped me locate my own reading experience. I wanted desperately to make the gods Greek, a fallback based upon my own training in the canon and the fluid sexuality of many of her characters. That approach is limited, but I think it sort of helped.
- I then kept thinking of trickster characters, especially the ones that I know from southwestern religious structures. Jemisin’s focusing this novel on Sieh as trickster nicely sets up this discussion of essential natures, especially since it follows other novels in which she has a mortal become a founding god because the essence of a founding god has been located in her.
- Yien, that god, transforms the one who was hidden in her, a comment perhaps upon Harry Potter and embedded wizards and such.
- Sieh, though, is forced to grow up, and that process changes him utterly in ways that trickster gods should not adhere to – he becomes interested more in stability than chaos, and becomes an actual change agent in ways fit neatly with these ideas of how identity changes.
- All of this is done while simultaneously exploiting the generic obsession with stable characters. Wow…
Acceptance is the third novel of Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, and if the reviews on Goodreads are any clue reaction to it was decidedly mixed. I loved what it does, even if the ways in which I was occasionally confused left me scratching my head a bit.
- This novel is a naturalist’s dream. Vandermeer clearly knows the Southern Reach area (somewhere on the Gulf coast at the crook of Florida) well, and he evokes its wildness in ways that are metaphorically immersive (if that’s a thing). It’s not the sort of area that evokes the type of rugged men in the wilderness stories that lots of naturalists love, but it is the type of natural area that screams wilderness that doesn’t need humans.
- My guess is that’s part of the reason that Vandermeer sets the trilogy here. In an interview that I can’t find again Vandermeer says that he sets the trilogy in the Southern Reach because he knows it intimately, having lived there for a number of years, but I’m guessing that he was inspired by the landscape as well.
- No plot spoilers here – as I think we expected, the island becomes the focus of the planet’s resistance. The twist this time is the lightkeeper’s story, which makes the novel more contemporary (the description of the blue collar life of the area is sympathetic and engaging) and to integrate humans into what happens in Area X.
- The remolding of individuals as animals feels hopeful to me, which is probably sort of goofy and points to my general curmudgeonliness. The fact that our molecules get absorbed into the ecosystem is just part of the natural order (if we’ll let it function), and the ways in which Vandermeer bases this third novel on that acceptance with a slight reward for those who get it feels like a beautiful thing.
- I enjoy this sub-genre of scifi alot, even if I’m not sure what to call it. It’s sort of eco-criticism, it’s sort of dystopic, it’s definitely hard science fiction but it’s also definitely not set in space. The ending is ambiguous, but I’m pretty sure that the novel posits that Area X is the planet’s most dramatic response to humans trashing it, rather than an alien invasion of some sort, and in my more pessimistic moments I can’t help but wonder if it’s not some sort of cosmic retribution.
This is book two of her Broken Earth series, and she’s not kidding about the title of the series – the earth is definitely broken. Unlike many of the fantasy series I’ve read recently this one takes place in a sort of identifiable earth from thousands of years in the future.
- This novel slowed down the action a bit from the first in the series (The Fifth Season, which I seem to have forgotten to review). Whereas the first one went dizzingly fast, not worrying about readerly comfort, this one took a second to allow us glimpses of the past in order to explain (ew) why the planet is so broken.
- It’s broken because of us, of course, but rather than make this series a dystopia Jemisin simply shows how she imagines humans (as well as the rest of the planet) evolving to meet these changed conditions.
- One of the ways that humans have evolved is that some of us (an important distinction) have developed another central nervous system stem, something she calls the sessinapae (it’s always italicized in the novels). This new organ is not exactly explained, but it has a mystical function – it enables those who have it to manipulate earth’s energies directly. The orogenes (the name for those who have this organ) can use these powers for good and protect human settlements from the earthquakes and other massive shakes of the earth’s crust that happen constantly.
- As with all human powers, of course, they’re also used for not-so-savory purposes – control, revenge, and so on.
- These unsavory uses are at the heart of the plotline, as characters try to focus their powers in ways to protect their kin.
- Jemisin neatly doesn’t focus much on the ways in which the planet was broken – this series is not a morality play. We do get the history in bits, though, and as one might expect it’s not pretty.
- It seems that climate change got increasingly more devastating (there are hints of gaia theory here, as the planet tries to shake off us human fleas), and we tried to mitigate its effects in increasingly more drastic ways. The final way we as humans tried to make the planet inhabitable despite these effects involved us somehow moving the moon (I guess in order to eliminate tides, which had probably grown into tsunami-sized events).
- This triggered the advent of the fifth season (the name of the book in the series), a devastatingly long disruption of the sun caused by volcanic ash and featuring toxic air being released from the earth’s crust.
- There are hints that all of this is intentional, but they are just hints, and the agent is the planet itself.
- The communities that survived did so barely, and often had to practice cannibalism to do so, so much so that while the characters talk about the practice with distaste it’s definitely not taboo.
- The orogenes come about because humans tried to adapt to the fifth season. Animal and plant species either died out or adapted in their own ways, and human evolution did the same thing. Our evolution, of course, is far less balanced.
- This is getting way too long, but there’s tons going on here, in addition to being a page-turning read. Jemisin is also offering us a look at how our lizard brains continue to want to divide us into tribes and constantly thwart our best, most idealistic impulses, and she posits a couple of different ways that humans can adapt (including beings called stone eaters that I don’t completely understand, as they seem almost god-like).
- There are also lots and lots of deadciv ruins that are often deadly and that current humans mostly leave untouched.
- I will be talking about this series more – it’s brilliant and fascinating.
This will be quick, because Ready Player One is a particularly Spielsbergian piece of fluff that (SPOILER ALERT, BUT NOT IF YOU READ THE BOOK) ends with the good guys winning and all of us ready to forsake the machines and only live in OASIS part-time. YAY (and END SPOILERS)
- The tweaks on the book were interesting – they use The Shining to stand in for a whole bunch of 80s trivia. The book tended to drown in that, so I was okay with those decisions.
- The visuals were amazing, especially with the ways in which the OASIS is portrayed. They even carry the story a bunch, as is best evidenced by the ode to GTA that is the first part of the movie.
- The nods to various pieces of software felt great until they weren’t – it’s weird to see anachronistic product placement that probably works (I’m thinking Minecraft).
- As seems to happen with these films, the reasons why we now live in dystopias are simple and we own them. In this case, we simply stopped living outside of OASIS (I guess because it’s so good), for entirely predictable reasons.
- Thus the solution – we have log out on Tuesdays and Saturdays – will fix what ails us.
- I know Cline has a writing credit, but I can’t believe he’s completely okay with this. The evil corporation in the book is pretty evil, and the crazy inventive genius who manages to set up the ultimate game but still almost gives everything away to the evil corporation comes across as much crazier than he appears here, in which he essentially knew how things were going to end all along, in an EFF-for-the-win way.
I finished this series two nights ago but haven’t blogged about it yet. I loved the first two episodes, got bogged down in the middle of the series, and then finished it when I had the realization that perhaps my expectations were a bit skewed by what I thought it was about. Some observations below…
- The world this series is set in is one in which people can live literally forever via the combination of cloned bodies and a disk that is set in their spine and that instantly downloads their entire experience into the cloud.
- As one might guess this arrangement causes problems. It also, however, raises some interesting questions, ones that folks like Ray Kurzweil and the Futurists might have skipped over. For instance, what does it mean to capture our experience? Where does that reside? Does whatever the ‘it’ is have to go through the brainstem? How does muscle memory work then? And how do white blood cells function (for instance)? Where is the lymph in all of this?
- The series focuses on class structure. Those who can afford to relentlessly recreate themselves, amassing vast amounts of wealth. The rest of us get poorly-suited “sleeves” (new bodies) if we get anything at all.
- The rich also live on mansions in the clouds, literally untouchable without an intense effort that requires a lot of specialization and hacking. The rest of us live on an earth that looks to have perhaps sort of stabilized into a world of unrelenting concrete, buildings, rain, and food grown in vats and on top of buildings.
- As I began the series I was excited by how fully it seemed to realize what I think of as William Gibson’s cyberpunk vision. Gibson’s world is full of death and destruction and the sort of cynicism about space opera scifi as well as the future that fit well with my life as a computer programmer in the early and mid 80s.
- Programming was becoming increasingly dumb, and ways to fight that dumbing down were not apparent – the DFHs had soured me on the ability to protest effectively, and I wasn’t sure my fellow nerds could agree not to eat sugary, food-industry-derived confections from their childhood for dinner let alone band together enough to fight the machine.
- As the series started to feature long expository speeches that filled in the background of the world of Altered Carbon my cyberpunk cynicism twitched – I didn’t want to have Envoys putting up an ideologically-pure resistance that attempted to embrace humanity – I wanted cynical detectives and high body counts.
- Interestingly the series offers both of those, but it goes beyond them. The main questions it asks are ones that I think the ancient Greeks asked, and that feel more relevant now with advances in technology, about what happens when mere humans have what are essentially godlike powers of life and death.
- It reminded me of one character in Neuromancer (Dixie Flatline) who, while completing a mission in which his simulation has been woken because Case needs his hacking expertise, tells Case that after this run is done to be sure to unplug him. Endless life in a construct might not be that great.
- It also had a hotel run by an AI named Poe that was pretty amazing. I will say no more…
- It also turns upside down the hard-boiled detective plot that Gibson used. The detectives don’t negotiate the dregs for us middle-class folks afraid to venture into the city; instead, they investigate for the rich, who are already comfortable walking into the dregs because they know they can’t die. The rich folk in question here like the monkey parts of our brains, doling out violence and sex in particularly nasty ways. These are certainly not beautiful utopic creatures of pure light.
- And Kovacs, as detective, essentially investigates for those of us who want to rebel. That’s sort of a refreshing change.
- The fact that it ended (SPOILER ALERT) with the detective simply making the case, and the police arresting the rich folks (all of them) is not the way these are supposed to end in a postmodern world. (END SPOILER ALERT) Instead, cynically, it probably should end like The Wire, with half-assed convictions and the deaths of anyone trying to do the right thing.
- The fact that it doesn’t feels right somehow, upon reflection.
- I will need to come back to this because this post is getting way too long, but the questions this series asks about identity are fascinating. It also questions how we think about ideas like emotional literacy and shame, and again I will have to come back to these. I look forward to it.
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…
In addition to the deep diving I’m doing for my second read of the Malazan Book of the Fallen series, I read the second novel in the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Authority. I’m enjoying this series a lot…and, as always, thoughts:
- The gradual dissolution of government authority, with the increased anxiety felt by Control, is a nice subversion of the scientists losing control of the project trope that often runs through science fiction. There is no control, at all, and the fact that the government tries to impose it even though the scientists there (who are trying to be team players) are telling them that there is no such thing neatly tweaks a tired theme.
- I’m glad to see the biologist back, and particularly glad that she escaped. Here’s hoping that the dive into the portal at the end is as cool as it sounds.
- The idea that an ecological disaster is underplayed by authority fits the standard sort of pr by crisis approach, I think. It’s the sort of vague, tepid, ultimately ridiculous response that stands in for our own response to climate change. When our kids are underwater we will probably grow very concerned and write stern letters to the people in charge.