I have been in awe of Louise Erdrich’s fiction since I read The Plague of Doves. Future Home of the Living God confirms in my mind that she’s one of the greatest novelists in the United States. She of course doesn’t need my approval, but the variety of voices she brings to the task of novel writing is astounding, and helps us I think better understand who we are as our society grows increasingly diverse.
- This novel starts in an almost slapstick fashion, with our narrator energetically and sort of chaotically seeking out her “real” mom. It quickly changes tone, as the environment starts to go more quickly into collapse and evolution starts running backwards. As the cool kids say, shit gets real.
- Cedar (the narrator) might want to find out her roots, but as the novel reveals those roots are more complicated than she has imagined, and the reservation is not some sort of pristine Dances with Wolves prelapsarian wilderness but is instead as multicultural as the rest of the country.
- Hell, several of the tribe members have converted to Catholicism (albeit in a very interesting way, complete with a vengeful saint who feels as much product of the material world as more typical Catholic saint). Like much of the rest of the United States in this novel they are becoming increasingly fundamentalist as the world falls apart.
- Double hell, her step-father is a version of Proust, only way better.
- Their definition of fundamentalism, however, is pretty different, and definitely not totalitarian.
- The ways in which clearly no one fully understands what’s going on with the world is a smart feature. Too often dystopian novels try to explain to us what happened, setting up a sort of narrator-explaining vibe that makes the novel feel more like a rant and less like an exercise in building a world of hellish consequences.
- The movement back and forth between Minneapolis and the reservation in North Dakota also neatly sets up a whole bunch of unexpected turns. This definitely was not a sort of Thunderheart, run-to-the-reservation-for-safety scenario. Despite the fact that they are more fully developed as humans than the rest of the nation, the members of the Ojibwe nation can no better protect the pregnant protagonist than can her erstwhile boyfriend (who admittedly is tortured to reveal her location).
- The fact that so much of the background in this novel is set by rumor is a beautiful thing. The assumption that dystopia means complete oppression, with romantic midnight runs through barbed wire and lots of neo-Nazi punching, seems a tad overdone, and Erdrich does not fall into that trap.
- Erdrich always lots of heartbreaking vignettes to her novels, and in this one the scene that made me gasp described a bunch of tribe members as they saw what they realized might be their last snowfall. It wasn’t their last snowfall because they were dying – it was the last snowfall to ever be recorded in North Dakota. Yikes.
More Erdrich novels please…
Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther invokes a steampunk, alternative history version of 1942 Khazar (full disclosure – I didn’t know that Khazar was a real place). This is the first novel of Barton’s that I’ve read, but it won’t be the last.
- Barton’s world is intense – the people of Khazar (we mostly see them through Esther’s eyes) have long known that the Germans are coming, mostly because of the streams of refugees that keep appearing, and have tried to prepare, but they are a buffer between the Germans and the Rus, and have tried to balance their relations for centuries.
- The state is Jewish, and rabbis are persons of great respect and political power. Nonetheless, this alternative version of WWII is causing upheaval in their society, and the religious leaders are losing that power.
- She calls forth all sorts of mythical and non-mythical creatures – werewolves, golems, kabbalists, heretics, steppe horseman warriors, and other fantastical folks.
- Creating golems helps them keep the initial German push from their walls, although the novel ends with the Germans about to try again.
- The polyglot nature of the nation seems like a direct extrapolation from the region’s medieval origins.
- The clash of a culture marked by intense religious fundamentalist with modern (in a steampunk way at least) military might causes the rise of Esther, who defies the restrictions against her and with a little luck and a lot of chutzpah takes her own place in line to become queen.
Tade Thompson’s first novel in this trilogy features an alien psychic/cellular invasion, sensitives, healing domes, the Nigerian secret service, the zenosphere, and dreams that invade the biological world. Yep, that’s a lot, and it’s pretty amazing.
- I won’t spoil this for you, but the alien invasion is unlike any I’ve read about. In that sense the novel feels almost Dhalgrenesque, as the narrative goes through multiple entry points, and loops back in on itself. Unlike in Delany’s novel, however, Thompson also provides readers with locators, often chronological. I never felt lost, like I constantly did (intentionally I’m guessing) in Dhalgren.
- The other obvious reference is Pat Cadigan, and I was pleasantly surprised to see that she served as a reader (or in some other capacity) in Thompson’s acknowledgments. This novel moves in that same mindsphere that Cadigan explores, although it expands far beyond where she went.
- Kaaro, our protagonist, is an interesting cat – he was recruited by the Nigerian secret service to help them better understand the alien invader, one that we find out has landed three times already, with catastrophic results. He can use his powers to disrupt and even cause other people to hurt themselves, so in a sense they serve as a superpower.
- They don’t really feel like that, however,
- Thompson’s use/creation of the zenosphere is compelling. The alien presence (one that has its own backstory, which we learn bits about later in the novel) opens new potential for humanity in ways that are often thought of in cyberspace as digitally-based. This one is completely biological, and thus both far different (it requires special brain capabilities that might or might not be centered in the redone structure of the brain itself) and very similar (most humans who travel in the zenosphere use avatars, which can have sex) to those now-standard mindscapes popularized by The Matrix.
Needless to say I am greatly looking forward to the rest of the series. Novels like this posit alternatives to the way we live now (with apologies to Evelyn Waugh) that hopefully can lead us to better futures.
I’ve been thinking a lot about narrative voice as a ghost (or awakening ghosts, or impersonating ghosts, or whatever) and so I re-watched Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell animated film in order to see how it approaches memory and identity through the lens of a type of ghost. Originally written and illustrated by Masimune Shirow, as a film it’s awkward – the animated characters barely move, and the dialogue is pretty wooden (perhaps it’s better in the original Japanese). Still, it’s a fascinating take on what now has become a ubiquitous concern – when we are living in the machine what will happen to our bodies?
- The plot focuses on an elite terrorist-fighting police squad located in a fictional Japanese city, roughly translated as New Port City.
- As far as scenery goes, that’s pretty much all we see – endless city. The last scene in particular links the city directly to a data core, as its indistinct lines in the artwork make it appear to look like a series of databases. The scenery constantly changes and exposes us to new parts of the city, but we see so little green that the world’s constant rain seems like a comment on our own desires to wash the world clean.
- Cyberpunk as relentless urbanity invokes what feel like modernist anxieties in this film.
- This world is relentlessly crowded, and the city has had to adapt to global warming, all key elements in the cyberpunk world.
- My guess is that part of the lack of movement among the animated characters can be attributed to the fact that they are cyborgs. The humans in the squad move a little more – still, the lack of blinking or breathing is unnerving, and helps me realize why avatars in games like the World of Warcraft appear to breathe heavily – they look more alive.
- The questions the film raises are fascinating – Shirow invokes Arthur Koestler (who I know far better as the author of a truly terrifying novel, Darkness at Noon) and his arguments about the core of identity. Koestler’s work deserves a much longer treatment, but broadly he argues that we are not simply souls inhabiting bodies but that our connections are much more complicated.
- Shirow calls the cybernetic soul a ghost, and the term becomes increasingly more complicated as the film (and manga) proceed. The protagonist, Major Kusanagi, struggles to figure out who she is, and the connection she finds at the end of the film to the Puppet Master (a rogue AI that to me is the kissing cousin of Wintermute in the Sprawl series) speaks to Koestler’s ideas of how we (whoever the ‘we’ is) are connected.
- The violence in the film is fascinating. The cyborgs are the only bodies we see destroyed, with wires and tubes hanging out of decapitated limbs. Still, those bodies (and they’re gendered very specifically as female) are not only alive but able to function – and the ghosts can be transferred.
- As one can imagine, the idea of sentience becomes up for grabs by the end.
Although I’m not exactly sure how the themes in this text connect to the ones that I’m trying to identify, I’m glad I re-watched the film. It clearly hits a cultural sweet spot, and as we find ourselves ever more immersed in screens we can probably learn a thing or two from it. The artwork is damn near hallucinatory at points, and I found myself glad that the film moved so slowly, as I could spend time drinking in the arcane and stuffed world that the artwork spends time developing.
Black Leopard Red Wolf is the second novel I’ve read by Marlon James, and in it he crosses genres into fantasy, a land that I often think of as being inhabited by the sorts of true believers who resent those not approved by the Tolkien groupies. That’s not so true, as writers like Samuel R. Delany and Stephen Donaldson attacked the generic boundaries early in its incarnation as popular fiction, and BLRW continues the exploration that those two began.
- It took me longer than I expected to get into this novel. I’ve been excited to read it since I finished A Brief History of Seven Killings, but the sort of casual way that James introduces us to his characters felt haphazard, and the various plot threads felt way too spread apart.
- By the end, for what it’s worth, I couldn’t put it down.
- The narrative point of view is fairly amazing. We spend much of the novel inside Black Wolf’s head, a pretty unusual point-of-view from a fantasy novel perspective. At times he becomes so embroiled in his own rage and lust for revenge (his mantra is “fuck the gods”, if you are curious about his motivations) that he acts in ways that we could consider not all that heroic, especially if your definition of heroism includes piety.
- Curiously, James never apologizes for Tracker’s bloody ways, even in the ways that the novel ends. He doesn’t magically transform (although his motivations for revenge, the vampire killing a bunch of children whom the Tracker was a father-figure too, feel pretty primal and in some ways justified) into some sort of redemptive figure.
- In fact, Tracker does not even get the kill (you knew the evil folks were gonna die, right?).
- Black Wolf is a tracker (and he’s known in the novel as Tracker, not Black Wolf, in case Black Panther fans get too worked up), an archetype that does not constitute any previous fantasy hero’s identity as far as I can recall. For instance, Aragorn was often called the best tracker of his age, but that characteristic simply helped us understand how different he was from previous kings, establishing his worthiness.
- The general ways that James uses archetypes from African mythology is fascinating and really cool, and I am working on another project that attempts to map these figures onto to the deeply nordic base of most fantasy fiction.
- The setting is also intense – deep forests, ancient cities, sort of standard in interesting ways.
- I will need to figure out the boy who would have been king at some other time. Suffice it to say that patrilineage, matrilineage, and the increasingly chaotic nature of government by nobility is a backdrop to what is coming next.
- The novel also sets the next stage, with the appearance of the inhuman white scientists, and the god-killer figure warning Tracker that an entirely different threat is coming, soon. The threat looks suspiciously like colonialism.
I am looking forward to the rest of the series…
The Power that Preserves is the last novel in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever trilogy. Donaldson completes, sort of, Covenant’s travels in the Land, and allows him to rescue it, although not in the ways that fantasy novels ordinarily approve of.
Re-reading this trilogy after forty years makes me thankful for Donaldson. I’ve spoken of this in the reviews I did of the first two novels, but as a teenager I was so frustrated with Covenant – we know what fantasy heroes are supposed to do (hell, Joseph Campbell knew what they were supposed to do, as he chronicled in work he was doing while Tolkien is publishing the series that starts it all). Looking back on Donaldson’s trilogy makes me think that it is a necessary corrective, one that when viewed with Samuel R. Delaney’s Neveryon series starts to move fantasy away from its potentially fascist, northern European worlds to ones that reflect the world as it is.
Donaldson’s series is far different than Delaney’s, both less and more subtle, but the direction it moves fantasy is no less important I think. The reason adolescent me knows how Donaldson should act – the reluctant Gandalf who gathers allies to confront Sauron, or Aragorn not pronouncing himself king before the ruined gates of Minas Tirith until the people force him to – is because I had hungrily devoured those series multiple times, looking for some sort of understanding of the world that corresponded with my own. Donaldson forcibly refuses to let us indulge in this part of the fantasy, only letting Covenant act the hero after much destruction, some of which he is responsible for, and even in acting the hero he doesn’t, you know, act the hero.
- I’m still shocked about the rape, and I’m perhaps even more shocked that Donaldson never lets Covenant forget about it and even makes him pay in ways that are cruel – he actually gets to feel like a father for the daughter who is the product of the rape, only to see her die, and he chooses to travel with the woman he raped, much later, who as an old woman is obsessed with him and actually dies trying to protect him. This is not the behavior of an epic hero as we think of them.
- The Land is portrayed as this pristine agrarian, craft-oriented utopia – look, they’re like elves with the ways that they keep warm by magically heating rocks and live in trees without damaging wood. And yet Covenant never fully believes in it – even as he defeats Lord Foul at the end he finds power as much in his disbelief as in any of the emotions we agree are part of the generic conventions of fantasy.
- That lack of belief may come from his identity as a writer, but at the very least it never lets us as readers immerse ourselves completely in the world of the Land, no matter how brave and cool they are, how much we want to be like them.
- There’s much more to be said, but I’m pleased that the re-read was worth the time I invested. The series doesn’t necessarily feel modern or contemporary – instead, it feels inspirational, driving those who have pushed the genre even further – Martin, Erikson, Esslemont – to push these boundaries even further.
The continued re-envisioning of fantasy has been eye-opening. I had given up on the genre by the 1980s, as writers milked Tolkien’s formula in ways that I found not that interesting. As often happens, the genre itself was simply going through the types of changes that happen when young readers rethink the generic expectations that they grew up with, and then become writers. Beautiful stories often are the result.
That said, Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass hints at that kind of rethink. Several African authors have created some amazing texts (I’m currently working my way through this list), N.K. Jemisin has won a Hugo and written a fantasy series that I still think about a lot, and even the white guys (Erikson & Esslemont, Martin, Abercrombie, et al.) have pushed fantasy far beyond its previous incarnations, making it both more and less based in real-world laws. Beyond the genre, authors like Susannah Clarke, Karen Lord, Jo Walton, and Akwaeke Emezi incorporate elements of fantasy in texts that fit into a variety of categories, all of which look far different for having accepted this straying.
Maas’s exploration of generic boundaries is a bit more restrained, at least in this first novel, but still Throne of Glass defied my expectations, often. I’ve catalogued some of these thoughts below:
- The female protagonist and heroine has been done, of course, but Maas adds a couple of interesting elements of choice to her portrayal, (this is sort of a spoiler, but not really) including who she chooses to end up with. There are elements of romance in this novel in ways that I do not often see.
- Bringing in chaos and the Wyrd (and the land of faerie) is a touch that I wish more authors did (Clarke is brilliant at it, and Martin’s children of the forest owe a lot to this concept as well), and these features add depth to this novel.
- This is a long series, so I am assuming that these elements get explained more thoroughly in future texts, but there is a lot of potential in that world…
- These characters are also developed differently, in a way that hints at what Lauren Berlant saw as ways to deal with the constant trauma that many people in our world experience. The main character, for instance, is rescued from a slave mine, albeit for a competition that she might not survive (although we know she will). At first I was frustrated, because the slave mine experience seemed to be one that was offered as a isn’t-she-amazingly-tough backstory. As the novel develops, though, the horrors of that place become more apparent, and we start to get glimpses of how the experience has both traumatized and molded her.
- It’s an interesting approach to character development, and I wonder if Maas does this as an element of her craft, mimicking the gradual reveal of trauma that might happen in intensive therapy.
Throne of Glass helps expand the generic boundaries, and I am curious to see how that expansion continues. Fantasy has moved far from the hide-bound genre it was in the 1970s (with apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson, of course), and here’s hoping its influence lives long…