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…
Although I love cyberpunk I was not familiar with Kishiro’s Battle Angel Alita series until I saw the film with a friend. I then picked up the comic books, and…well, thoughts below:
- The genial cybernetic surgeon who works for the poor (Dr. Ido) and still swings a mean atomic-powered hammer at night is not something I saw coming…
- The morphing of “battle” and “angel” feels like another look at the Molly from the Neuromancer series…Kishiro seems to roll seamlessly between having characters comment on how cute she is and then having her disembowel or decapitate them. Or both.
- The search for a backstory hints at the economic separatism and destroyed world that the film emphasized, and while the enemy (impossibly rich and obsessed with occupying the top rungs of the economic ladder) is sort of an easy one, the idea of a fall from the heaven of economic security only to be reinstated in a worthy body posits a world in which violence gets directed downwards over and over again…
- The image is fascinating to me, and I think speaks to how little I know of Japanese culture – why a tiny very young woman? Why does Kishiro invert the stereotype so broadly? Why do the “evil” cyborgs fall in love with her, and what are the implications of that?
- Because I’m comfortable with sci-fi and western culture, these questions feel appropriate (and they may not be) – I can endlessly talk about how using Molly as the bodyguard (with a cybernetically-enhanced body that is still captured constantly in all sorts of powerfully disruptive ways) and Case – and Bobby Newmark – as the emotional core shreds science fiction conventions. I have no idea if Kishiro is doing the same thing, but it sure feels like it…
- I am very glad she has some serious plasma weaponry – the film seemed to emphasize her fighting style in ways that felt too used to Hollywood mano-on-mano narratives…
- Finally, the pen-and-ink, sketched out art speaks to manga in my less-than-literate-in-Japanese culture mind…
This is my second time reading Lord Foul’s Bane – I read it as a much younger man, fairly soon after being introduced to fantasy through Tolkien. I remember being immensely frustrated with the novel at the time (not so much that I didn’t read the rest of them, however), and wondering with my mom how Thomas Covenant could be such a non-hero.
I picked it back up after reading the Malazan Book of the Fallen series a couple of times, mostly because Erikson talks about Donaldson’s influence on him. The re-read was interesting, and I thought I’d comment on it here…
- Part of my frustration the first time came because I wanted Covenant to be a hero – for Frodo’s sake, he was picked up and dropped into the middle of a Middle Earth of sorts, and he’s got magic powers…what fantasy fanboi wouldn’t have immediately picked up the mantle of hero and done great things?
- I’m guessing that’s partially Donaldson’s point – us fan boys cannot imagine our favorite genre as anything but a constant retelling of the hero cycle, the monomyth…and Donaldson toys with the idea that we would be heroes, dropping all of our current identity to play Aragorn or Frodo or Sam…in this novel, the shock of being transmitted is too great…
- In fact, *everyone* in this world is far more heroic than Covenant, including children and horses.
- Any heroic action he undertakes happens either because he’s forced to or because the action triggered an unexpectedly heroic consequence.
- The folks of the Land even *recognize* Covenant’s weaknesses – he is not looked upon as a potential savior but as someone who wears white gold (again, a wedding ring, picked out by his now ex-wife) and has no concept of the potential for destruction that lies in it.
- White gold is considered wild, uncontrollable magic in this world…and whatever Covenant does is not out of long study or intent but simply some immediate impulse.
- The Land is this insanely beautiful place threatened by those who can be legitimately be called evil – it’s set up as the ultimate insert-yourself-and-be-a-hero story, and Covenant can’t manage it.
- And I’m convinced that Donaldson is very intentional with all of this – when he brings Covenant back to the mundane world at the end, he has a doctor comment on how medieval leprosy is, and how rarely it’s seen – all Covenant gets from the fantasy infatuation with the middle ages is a wasting disease…
- There’s a lot more to do here, and I hope to pick this back up as I re-read the rest of the series…
Omar El Akkad’s American War might be one of the most relentlessly depressing (fiction) books I have ever read. That doesn’t make it untrue…
- El Akkad uses his experience as a war correspondent to imagine a future in the US in which the South secedes (over a fossil fuel ban fer crissakes), a southerner assassinates the American president, soldiers at an army base open fire on southerners protesting, and five years of war (followed after brief cease-fires by another long period of fighting) result.
- Hopes of peace are destroyed multiple times by hot heads on both sides. I’m both frightened this would happen and sure that it accurately recreates our ability to be dumb asses.
- The story is told by the nephew of a southern war hero, one who kills a northern general and who unleashes a plague at the reunification ceremony that kills tens of millions, on both sides. He recreates what happens by using his aunt’s diary as a source material, and he intersperses those entries with what are essentially news flashes, all from the northern side.
- Climate change has eliminated eastern cities, all of Florida and New Orleans, and much of the Gulf Coast. The fossil fuel ban was a late, futile response to the loss of land.
- The heat has driven people from much of the south, and rumors of other changes – the formation of Cascadia, the inability to grow oranges because of their high water requirements, the takeover of southern California and most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas by Mexico – make clear that these seem to have happened.
- His depictions of the volatility and unprofessionalism of militias was particularly profound. A northern militia attacks a refugee camp run by the Red Crescent, for instance, and the southern militias are essentially boys who like to play with guns and who do “raids” that a) rarely net anything of military use or have any military value and b) that up the intensity of the war at moments when it might have calmed down.
- In particular this feature of the story felt like it captured the hopelessness and surrealism of the Afghanistan and Syrian conflicts. Battle lines seemed to be elastic, and civilians got caught in the fighting all the time. The plasticity of the front lines is always – from what I gather – far more real than the very clear lines drawn on maps or in historical descriptions of battles, but in this novel they seem both frighteningly real (to civilians caught as they change or come into conflict, or when hidden snipers are rumored to shoot anyone who approaches the northern end of the refugee camp) and nearly non-existent.
- I was particularly struck by just how messed-up both sides are. The story is not told as a yay-go-team from either side, as both commit atrocities and kindnesses, and neither can lift itself out of the hell they have created and the destruction they have reaped upon the USA.
- Finally, I’m a little surprised by how much of a page-turner I found this to be. I had to intentionally slow down multiple times.
Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others was not an easy read. These stories made me work, albeit not in the ways I work when reading the Malazan or Song of Ice and Fire series (so. many. characters). Chiang’s stories (and they’re more like novellas) are dense with ideas and science and math, in ways that made me think about both the genre of science fiction and the ideas themselves…
More thoughts below:
- I thought that the first story – “Tower of Babylon” – sounded familiar, and I’m guessing that I read it in the late, lamented Omni many many years ago. I find it interesting that it still sounded fresh…
- His stories break generic expectations neatly – very little violence, not much in terms of space opera, and way more discussion of God than ever appears in science fiction.
- I will read some interviews to confirm, but I’m guessing this approach is intentional. In particular, the alien story is perfect – we never find out why they’re here, and they leave suddenly, without either offering us new technology or destroying our civilization. It’s not Independence Day.
- The fascination with math is pretty cool – his stories don’t speak down to us about the ways in which math is both foundational and dynamic. He has a character in his ubermensch story (“Understand”) rework our mathematical understandings of how the body works to make himself hyper-efficient, for instance, and fer crissakes this collection even features a story entitled “Division by Zero” in which a mathematician drives herself sort of crazy by working out permutations to prove almost anything through math.
- Heh – I just wish I was better at math…
- His emphasis on questions of identity in the future is fascinating as well. The last story in this collection – “Liking What You See: A Documentary” posits the creation of a type of gene therapy that invokes a form of the inability to recognize faces – prosopagnosia, for those keeping score at home – in children so that they grow up less concerned with physical beauty. The story takes the form of a documentary transcript, and it features all different kinds of viewpoints as folks try to understand the ramifications of doing this.
- Spoiler alert – I think Chiang himself comes out on the side of trying to make us less beauty-conscious.
- Finally, the idea of there being one god is omnipresent in this collection as well. The story that deals most directly with our religious connection to a supreme being is called “Hell is the Absence of God,” and it features angels as natural disasters who appear on earth for not-very-clear reasons and by doing so create fissures and storms and all kinds of destructive events.
- The story is particularly fascinating in that it never shows hell as being a bad place *except* for the absence of a supreme being – at one point we are told that you can look down into and see people just existing down there, with no fire or brimstone. As the title suggests, hell is simply a lack, and the implication is that heaven is a cipher, a construct of an imagined type of human happiness that actually may be just that, a creation of the cultural mind…
- The dilemmas the characters face then are all centered on what to do with this knowledge, exacerbated by the fact that the few people who have actually seen heaven’s light while on earth instantly went blind, and can now only talk about how transcendent that experience was.
- And living a devout life does not guarantee you getting into heaven…so there’s that…
- I’m glad I revisited these stories, and I look forward to reading his next collection.
The New Me feels like the ultimate gig economy novel, a The Devil Wears Prada without the pretension, redemption, or hope. I enjoyed it, from the manic narrator and her constant wild mood swings to the step-back chapters that featured how those who work with or know Millie look at her from a third-person perspective.
- My expectations of Millie actually shrunk as the novel progressed. I felt certain that this would progress like a McInerney or Jamowitz or Easton Ellis, with characters who are ultimately lovable and redeemable by the end of the novel despite the stuff they have done and big city settings that feature young people trying to figure stuff out.
- Butler doesn’t do that – I won’t spoil it, but the novel ends far less redemptively or with the narrator having some newfound sense of intentionality than those novels did. The narrative voice moves to third-person even for Millie, and the frantic, desperate, and hopeless tone becomes one of calm resignation. The sense of having given up struck me, hard.
- I’m struggling trying to reconcile the narrative voice with these usual narrative arcs, or with my idea that gig economy texts need to somehow be either redemptive (the protagonist reconciles their place in a messed-up system by doing some sort of relatively good work, like Rob Lowe’s character in About Last Night gentrifying Chicago (but in a good way), or they fight the power as happens in a Cory Doctorow novel. I much prefer Cory Doctorow, by the way.
- Instead, Butler’s novel lets the anger and despair seethe below the surface, never letting either Millie’s intelligence or self-loathing completely go away.
- Butler seems to be compared to Otessa Moshfegh, but that comparison does neither a lot of good. I’ve read a lot of Moshfegh, and this is the first novel of Butler’s that I’ve read, and Moshfegh is much less willing to take responsibility for her characters, much less likely to inhabit them and make them autobiographical. Both methods work, I hasten to add, but the comparison seems misplaced to me.
- I also admire the way that Butler has Millie absorb the idea of the new me, as she is completely enmeshed in the language of self-improvement, occasionally awakening from her spiral to berate herself for not following the new methods of making herself better that she has pulled from the Intertoobz.
- The socialization of women into this culture feels to me like a critical element of imbibing us all in the joys of the gig economy.
- Finally, in my mind both Butler and Moshfegh (as well as many others of course) offer valid strategies for trying to understand contemporary lived experience. We seem aeons away from James Wood’s critique of Pynchon, DeLillo, and mostly Zadie Smith (see Wikipedia’s page on hysterical realism for a primer), and closer to the Beats (who both lived and foresaw where we were going), the frantic energy of the eighties, and a zeitgeist that feels real to me, one in which we try to create filters that enable us to make a modicum of sense of the constant bombardment that we have created and now face.
I knew of Newitz from their (Newitz uses the pronouns they and their) non-fiction work at io9, and while Autonomy definitely shows connections to that stuff it’s also a cut above. More thoughts below:
- This novel is compared to Gibson (again), but I’m not sure that comparison works. Gibson’s prose is incandescent at times, so much so that it threatens to overwhelm the narrative. Autonomy, on the other hand, feels intensively and carefully crafted, more late-term, Pattern Recognition Gibson than the earlier author who coined terms like the consensual hallucination that is cyberspace and wrote of skies that were the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
- I appreciate Newitz’s care in crafting her world – at times Gibson’s Sprawl universe veered out of control with his attempts to depict the undepictable, while Autonomy takes care to tell its story convincingly and naturally. I think I understand what Gibson was trying to do – showing the connections between wetware and the cybernetic systems that are evolving around and in it had not been done yet in science fiction, and his prose explodes from the page in its attempts to look at intersections that were just starting to be imagined…
- I’m trying to use the word “naturally” intentionally here. One of the joys of this novel is the ways that in Newitz’s world ideas that are barely scifi in contemporary times are now (in the now of the universe of the story) commonplace. She populates her world with lots of tamed viruses and bacterium that create all sorts of products that we use (concrete, for instance, or drinking mugs) and that biodegrade as soon as they’re not needed.
- This universe is constantly full of amazing stuff, none of which is labelled as amazing. Because these magical creations have all become natural I’m all the more intrigued.
- More important for Newitz (as is evident from the title) is the idea of personal sovereignty and autonomy. They wind up the ideas of what autonomy means to specific individuals and let it go, and the results are interesting studies in class. This world features the idea that humans can be indentured servants to all kinds of forces (mostly the rich), and much like robots they strive to gain whatever independence they can.
- The emotional states needed to become autonomous are also a trope, and the military cyborg that helps the pharma cop (and that’s what he is, as very little interaction with actual law enforcement is required thank you very much) is given a human brain to help it with facial recognition and understanding emotional states.
- As a blow to our human egos, that’s all the brain does – it doesn’t provide any other cybernetic control. Software does the rest, even as that software practices its own form of machine learning.
- Newitz also doesn’t make anyone directly evil. The corporate cop who kills “terrorists” got his start trying to help those captured in the indentured servitude racket, and finally got out due to the burn out caused by trying to fight a corrupt system. He’s portrayed even by his enemies as a property zealot, not a fascist. Our Robin Hood, Jack, has decided to sell copies of drugs to make money to finance her more Robin Hood-worthy pursuits, but that selling out causes her to make a copy of a drug that kills people by addicting them to work.
- Newitz definitely has a fondness for hacker undergrounds that fight big corporate powers, but she also doesn’t romanticize them, and part of the critique offered by this novel lies in its willingness to test the depths of what selling out means.
- Finally, and there’s lots more going on here, the deadly addictive drug that the pirates release and then and try to reel in the damage on is deadly because it causes people to only want to do their jobs, relentlessly, obsessively, and until bad things inevitably happen.
- Newitz’s critique of the culture of work in the US seems spot-on…