In The Topeka School, Lerner uses the fractured narrative technique that he has used in his other novels, Leaving the Atocha Station and 10:04. His use of his own life experiences as a foundation for meditations on the intersections between fiction and fact is a technique that I’ve had to grow accustomed to, and the ways that he uses it to track cultural narrative threads feels more useful the deeper I get into his prose.
That depth might also be because he’s getting better at connecting the fiction he produces with larger cultural issues outside himself, connections that are very apparent in this novel. This novel doesn’t ever feel self-indulgent (and that’s a critique I’m too quick to attach to a text), and the social implications are part of the reason why.
The Topeka School actually exists, and formed a key part of Lerner’s childhood. The contrast between it – a center developed to help people recover from trauma and better understand themselves – could be played off in contrast to a Topeka that has bred the Westboro Baptist Church.
Lerner’s novel does not simply work the binary – thoughtful development of who we are = good, grifters posing as bomb-throwing religious fundamentalists = bad – though. He layers the two world-view together, showing how they combine to encompass all aspects of a specific cultural moment, and uses several points of view to illuminate how these worlds intersect.
The threads that this novel plucks speak clearly to some of our current cultural issues. In particular, the narrator who is a champion debater plays the debate game in the traditional way – in-depth knowledge of a subject used to produce compelling arguments while also crushing counter-arguments posed by the opposing side.
The new style is called The Spread (I’m guessing that Lerner adds the capitalization, if indeed this is a term in the debate world). In it, the debater spews as many arguments as they can, adopting a beats-per-minute approach in the hope that the opponent simply cannot address all the arguments proposed in the time allotted, thus losing by technicality.
Of course, this style aligns horribly efficiently with the way that argument works on social media, an argumentative style that I often see on Twitter – ‘research’ becomes finding a video by who-knows-who that supports your point, creating a hit-and-skip-off-the-surface style that keeps always adding new, barely-related points to a discussion rather than pursuing one specific train of thought until a satisfactory conclusion can be arrived at.
Yep, it’s the opposite of Platonic, which may or may not be the point. It’s clearly effective in a sense – expertise becomes completely devalued, and the idea of research-by-google gains value that is completely out of proportion to what that ‘research’ provides in addressing real problems.
Lerner makes clear what’s at stake by this shift to The Spread in his last narrative view, one in which a young couple participates in an anti-ICE protest in Brooklyn, and he finishes the novel with the narrator telling us how perhaps the only way to combat The Spread is with our bodies.
Lerner’s work is both subtle and not, sophisticated and graceful while being sledgehammer clear. I still have not read his poetry – so many poets to read, some of whom I should probably talk about on here – but his novels manage to be thoughtful, intellectual, and page-turning, with characters that even though (or perhaps because?) they are very close to life are ones that I care about. The fractured narrative – holding up a mirror so closely to reality that the reflection itself is distorting – allows me as a reader to see my own experiences and how they are distorted in ways that have impacts far beyond the fun house.
Peter Watts is one smart dude, and Maelstrom, the second novel in the Rifter series, shows off those chops. In it, a pissed-off Lenie Clarke emerges from the ocean floor after the company’s attempts to kill her and the rest of Beebe Station with a massive underwater earthquake, and she’s a viral weapon with the potential to kill off humanity. She doesn’t, at least not yet…
This novel is cyberpunk, in a lot of ways. It’s darker than dark, and it incorporates a lot of information science and network technology in ways that Gibson couldn’t dream about (as the legend has it, he wrote Neuromancer on a typewriter).
And, as the legend of Lenie Clarke spreads and she looks for the father she thought abused her (another tribute to corporate evil, since that memory was implanted in her and is completely false), a fashion meme takes hold that has lots of people dressing in rifter chic, all black and sleek and like something from the bottom of the ocean. Very Pattern Recognition.
This novel makes its bloodshed happen on a massive scale, with very little acknowledgment of individuals. What that approach buys for Watts is the ability to step out of the doomed-fallen-angel-stalking-the-wasteland genre and into more Bacigalupi territory, as the individual stories matter, but they are dwarfed by the impending apocalypse that we have brought on ourselves (through corporate greed and governmental obeisance, mainly).
Watts locates humans in the material world (and terrestrial ecosystem) that we in the industrialized world try to pretend we have stepped out of. For instance, a passage like
You’re like any other mammal, Doctor. Your sense of reality is anchored in the present. You’ll naturally inflate the near term and sell the long term short, tomorrow’s disaster will always feel less real than today’s inconvenience.
highlights his approach – as mammals, there is a certain amount of hard-wiring that we simply cannot avoid, at least without a lot of work. The inability to override our instincts has led us here…and here is not a fun place to be.
Watts also extrapolates what it will take for individuals to be able to do things like implement massive quarantines (especially since we no longer have access to the type of cultural horrors that enable folks to be genocidal), and he invents chemical emotion enhancers and soothers that enable individuals to do things like sic heavily-armored drones on humans trying to escape quarantine zones.
Two in particular are frightening – Guilt Trip makes people not go apeshit and simply order firebombing by drone of entire areas, while Absolution helps them get over the guilt they might feel by sinking ships full of refugees trying to land.
The Behemoth and Maelstrom of the titles are essentially biological entities that have combined to bring the worst of both viruses and computer surveillance to create the world-destroying weapon that Clarke carries the key to. They are cybernetic but organically-developed, and I think they represent Watts’s worst case scenario of where our tampering is leading.
I wish I could write Watts off as an alarmist, and perhaps this is not the best series to read during a pandemic, but I’ve thinking a lot lately about the need for hope or courage (and perhaps they’re not mutually exclusive). I think what Watts is doing is finding the courage to predict where we might be headed, and that may well be courage that we all need in the relatively near future.
Dr. Young’s thorough look at the intersections of race and texts in the fantasy genre takes head-on the threads of racism that go from Tolkien and Howard to contemporary fantasy in whatever its media form. She argues in Race and Popular Fantasy Literature: Habits of Whiteness that the sort of faux historicism and peculiarly nostalgic look at the medieval period in Europe becomes the template for all of fantasy. Her argument is fascinating, and it’s an important push-back on what is natural in fantasy.
She’s equally comfortable talking about Tolkien and games (and even 4chan forums). This approach makes sense, especially since fantasy is a foundational genre in a lot of different media.
Her argument about games was especially interesting, as she critiques games that consider themselves diverse because the world they feature is populated with lots of different characters. Her point is that unless a player can play someone who looks like them claims of diversity are useless. Providing agency to someone who doesn’t look like the standard northern European fantasy hero is to her the most important criteria.
She does note some games that do this.
She does smart reads of some of the folks like N.K. Jemisin, so she knows where the field can go. I wish she had talked more about Steve Erikson and Ian Esslemont, but that’s probably her next book.
I’m particularly interested in the ways in which she interrogates the sort of naturalization of a specific historical pattern in fantasy that has come to dominate.
This critique is timely and long-awaited. Young’s ability to move among genres is particularly useful, and her desire to question the faux naturalness of the standard fantasy narrative line is a welcome step in the scholarship of fantasy.
In A Memory Called Empire, Arkady Martine (@ArkadyMartine) channels the Byzantine empire in what in some ways is an old-fashioned space opera. I’m not being disparaging – this novel was intense and fun in a whole bunch of ways, and the world that Martine creates is fascinating.
Martine’s love of language fuels this novel’s world-building. Communications in the Teixcalaanli empire is built on poetry, with poetic forms and content serving both as a means of connecting between ministries of the government *and* as a way for rebels to pass coded messages.
Part of what makes ambassadors from Lsel Station want to become ambassadors to Teixcalaanli is that they fall in love with the poetry of the empire, identifying the sort of cross-cultural appeal of empire that leads to strengthening of imperial identities while simultaneously weakening it.
The power – and fundamental instability – of empire drives this novel as well. Th flowery language that she uses to describe folks within the Emperor’s circle (and the Emperor themselves, of course) serves as a camouflage for just how human even these amazingly brilliant people are.
And, despite all this imperial power, this story also describes a moment of rebellion that almost results in the collapse of this specific imperial reign.
Martine’s portrayal of the labyrinth of politics feels like all of my adolescent fascination with an empire barely in touch with all its far-flung parts. There are complicated deals that mark the empire’s borders, and the fact that this all happens in space obviously adds another layer of complexity.
The technological innovation that justifies the title is called an imago machine, a small device attached to the cerebellum that enables an construct version of a person to exist inside the living person’s head.
This device was created by the inhabitants of the space station, with its firm limits on the number of people it can support. It serves as a way to pass down institutional knowledge, and of course the psychological complications are intense.
A Memory of Empire does what makes good science fiction powerful – it extrapolates into the future while trying to understand current trends and even problems. Martine’s prose style is so different from the typical science fiction that at times I could have been reading a Jane Austen novel (that’s a huge compliment), and I found this approach offsetting enough to keep me just on the edge of the novel’s world. I hope that Martine writes another novel in this world…
Empire Ascendant is the second book in the Worldbreaker Saga by Kameron Hurley. Hurley is a unique talent, able to write meaningful fantasy and science fiction while breaking generic barriers and boundaries in both.
Empire Ascendant, like the first novel in the series Mirror Empire, moves at lightning speed as disintegrating worlds force their inhabitants to seek other, parallel universes to escape to. The paths between these worlds require lots of what we call magic, and, well, blood to make that magic work, and the links between them – including identically-named people who cannot exist on the same plane – are bound by a set of rules that seem almost like quantum mechanics in the degree to which they must be followed.
Hurley continues her gender-bending, but this isn’t Herland. In this saga women who are dominant and militant – driven by the fact that their world is crumbling – are as nasty, violent, and genocidal as men, with Hurley demonstrating I think that since gender is constructed it can be constructed in a lot of different ways.
Magic in this saga is strictly governed by the amount of discipline practiced by its wielders, and that discipline tracks along very specific lines, resulting in highly codified mages and warriors.
Magic is also governed by the waxing and waning of planetary bodies, so much so that the path of the heavenly entity that the mage aligns with determines that mage’s power. Skill is not as important as is alignment with the stars.
I’m tempted to call this destiny, but when you have a dozen different versions of yourself competing to get to the one planet that will survive the coming cataclysm, destiny seems a bit predictive.
This series has been fascinating so far, and I look forward to writing about the final novel in the series, Broken Heavens. It is as inventive and challenging as Jemisin’s work, and the fact that authors like these two can get published and develop fanships makes me confident in the genre’s future.
I learned of this book by following Plank (@feministabulous) on Twitter, and I’m happy I did. For the Love of Men is an excellent first step in reimagining how we construct masculinity, and Plank offers an empathetic view of the lives of men through a lens – feminism – that is often accused of doing just the opposite.
Plank’s book functions as a combination of journalism and feminist reflection.
One of her journalistic approaches features fleshed-out interviews with several men who do not fit into traditional gender constructions, ranging through a series of men who did not fit neatly in those roles.
I found particularly useful the interview with the trans-man, as he talked about the limitations he felt once he transitioned.
The reflection piece matches her own thoughts on masculinity with work done by academic researchers and a few pop culture references.
While the combination sometimes makes me wish for a bit more thorough, research-driven approach, I appreciate the readability of FTLOM.
Her argument is that while feminism has helped expand the possibilities for women, men have one possible role, and that role is incredibly limiting.
Particularly telling to me is the exercise she describes in which people are asked to describe first a good man and then a real man. The differences between the two are striking…
I made the mistake of reading a goodreads critique, and while most are very positive there are several from men who complain that Plank does not capture their reality. Hmmm. I think that’s exactly what she’s arguing is the problem…
Plank is friends with Michael Kimmel, and she finishes For the Love of Men with a conversation with him. In it they agree that toxic masculinity is a term that has outlived its usefulness, and they (and she in particular) advocate for using the term mindful masculinity. That advocacy, to me, seems like a way forward out of the morass, one that admittedly won’t be easy but will, hopefully, lead men to have options that better fit our cultural needs.
The Water Dancer features Hiram Walker, the bi-racial son of a slave owner, who becomes a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He navigates a landscape fraught with complicated family relationships and a declining (because of poor land management practices) Virginia, all dominated by the horror of slavery.
Coates portrays the idea of being conducted on the UR as one that involves transversing time and space through the power of memory and family. Hiram does not invoke the Africa that he doesn’t know (which I kept cringing at the thought of) but instead calls on the emotions he has worked through in moving from slave to free, and uses images of the people associated with those emotional traces in his memory to power his own ability to use water to create time/space bridges.
It’s hard for me to *not* read this novel in the light of Whitehead’s Underground Railroad. Whitehead’s depiction is far more grounded in engineering and materiality, even as the novel fits neatly into the magical realism genre, while Coates’s reading becomes a spiritual rendition that has the actual capacity to carry escaped slaves to salvation.
Coates also sees a place for heroic and effective (if fanatical – think John Brown) whites; in Whitehead’s version, blacks have to save themselves because depending upon white people in any way is probably foolhardy.
Slaves and owners are called The Tasking and The Quality in this novel, a nod of sorts to 19th c. language. At first this threw me off, but gradually I understood that this language emphasizes just how little actual labor the Quality does, and the ways that even trying to soften language does not absolve the original sin of slavery. The attempts at euphemism and defanging fail in this novel, as the constant sense of threat and the presence of violence are overwhelming.
Harriet Tubman also makes a guest appearance, which triggers my fan-boi mode…
Coates’s approach in this novel – using the idiom of other novels of the time, depicting the brutality of slavery all the way down to the labels we use to characterize each other (labels that are used as disguises), and the activist approach to helping those who are on the run – feels more historically-detailed and grounded than I perhaps expected. I hope that he and many other writers continue to examine the role this institution – driven by a “peculiar and powerful interest” – has in resulting in the trials of the present. They keep reminding us to pay the price that Lincoln describes in his second inaugural address:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
Cory Doctorow (@doctorow) keeps trying to give me hope for the future, and not in a blind or cheesy way. His latest novel, Walkway, is a sort-of utopia that looks at a possible future that Doctorow calls post-scarcity to see what shape our society might take. Even though it’s realistic – lots of brutal military oppression happens by the 1% – it has a happy ending of sorts that doesn’t feel entirely impossible.
That’s it – that’s about as hopeful as I get these days…
Walkway argues that the key to surviving in a way that doesn’t involve trying to scrape crumbs from the elite’s tables is to simply walk away – become attached to no material possessions.
An entire culture has formed based on this concept, and in true Doctorow fashion he pokes holes at it from all sides…
…including the far left as well as the far right…
His vision is such a beautiful one – he assumes that folks in walkaway culture will work to the best of their abilities, even if that means that some don’t work at all, and since we have all of our Maslowian needs met there is a significant segment of humanity who simply do not care about status, or seeking it.
Thus, walkaway culture can become a thing as a sort of response to what Doctorow calls default culture, because we are officially post-scarcity, and we don’t need an economic system to fulfill our basic needs.
Post-scarcity becomes evident by the ways in which the walkaways create the things they need – they’re all printed, even food – and the fact that these machines and the raw materials are always available.
I also enjoyed the tech resistance – people fighting back despite huge odds is something that you usually see in far less intelligent novels…
The idea that some people become so wealthy that they are ‘zotto’ (which I’m assuming means zillionaires) is a feature-not-bug that also prompted walkaways. Zottos are the ones who finance the military attacks on walkaways, because in the novel’s logic if there’s no one’s labor to exploit than zottos will disappear, and they know it.
I also enjoyed the characters in this novel. Doctorow paints with some pretty broad brushes, but he manages to represent all kinds of people without stereotypical.
Walkaway, like Ecotopia before it, is a place I could live. Thank you Cory Doctorow for seeing a way out of our current morass…
The Dark Defiles completes Morgan’s A Land for Heroes fantasy series. It continues his earlier themes of the hero as outcast/outsider/Other, and fittingly it wraps up in a not-at-all-wrapped-up way.
I think that the way this ends shows just how difficult what Morgan’s trying to do actually is. We don’t get resolutions, of any sort really, with both Ringil and Archeth not taking the path expected (in any sort of way). In fact, I’m not really sure *how* it ended…Gil walking down to meet a thousand angry dwenda seems certain to lead to his death, and Archeth wandering into a completely changed capital without taking charge somehow seem almost like betrayals of the rules of fantasy (which I’m guessing is part of Morgan’s point).
I’m assuming that we can read Gil in a couple of ways – he either goes to replace the Source (the creepy crossroads dude) or he finally controls his own fate, although there are other possibilities.
I’m still unclear about Archeth’s ending. I’m guessing she can be read as an anti-hero of sorts, because she refuses to take on the mantle of emperor that is offered her (especially by the machines created by her own race), but that seems a cop-out in ways that I don’t want to accuse Morgan of perpetrating.
The presence of both gods and aliens shows Morgan’s interest in the role that origin stories have in fantasy. Using the gods and the grey places is an easy approach – this is where we come from, duh – but bringing in the alien race adds another dimension. We suddenly aren’t sure of any of these origins – I found myself wondering if the gods were aliens too…
Ringil’s rejection of the world around him, one that despises him for his sexual identity, lends an interesting twist to the standard fantasy plot. I always wonder about the hero’s motivation (a curiosity completely satiated by the Adjunct in the MBOTF), and in this it’s pretty clear. Morgan spends a lot of time inside characters’ heads, and the payoff is that the anger and hatred that Gil feels (and his empathy with other oppressed people) is believable.
Morgan’s series was worth the read. Granting agency to LGBTQ characters is good – attributing realistic motives to them, and not making them into synecdoches of sweetness and light, is even better. There are other stories to tell in this world, and I hope that Morgan will do just that.
Kameron Hurley’s ability to create incredibly imaginative worlds is unmistakable. The Worldbreaker saga – of which The Mirror Empire is the first book – challenges the generic expectations of fantasy on multiple levels, and plays well with other current innovators in the genre, using its intensely-drawn world to invoke and challenge all kinds of ways that we usually think of fantasy. Like her science fiction novels, I found myself unable to put this down, mostly because I was so caught up in trying to understand this world.
Clearly one of Hurley’s big concerns is gender. She inserts these concerns into the novel in a pretty subtle way – one of the cultures that inhabits this world, the Dhai, are gender-fluid and have evolved a culture that values gender fluidity. Their interactions with other very cis-gendered cultures point out the differences, the benefits and costs, that this cultural evolution elicits.
Another component of this emphasis on gender is the intentionality of consent in Dhai culture. When we are in Dhai characters’ heads we often hear their inner monologue about being touched, as they steel themselves for what in their culture would be unasked-for (and thus impermissible) violations of their personal space.
Hurley portrays these differences without an obtrusive narrator or some sort of in-text, obvious discussion. Instead, she’s far too subtle an author for that approach, and we get these types of insights only occasionally, often after characters have been introduced and interacted.
Her use of relatively standard scifi tropes in fantasy also lends to both the intensity of the novel and its difficulty. There are aliens and time travel – neither of which happen in the canonical texts – and catastrophic world events over which the humanoids in the novel have no control.
In this sense, TME violates the generic expectation that characters are ultimately responsible for their fates, even if their part to play is a small one (shout-out to Sam Gamgee). In fantasy, if things go awry it’s often the fault of the gods, a supernatural force disrupting human society, and the presence of an absolute moral hierarchy based on northern European concepts of good and evil.
Instead, Hurley borrows from science fiction, and the resulting disruption is fascinating.
Another character who breaks generic expectations is Lillia. She’s a child who can at times feel like someone who is too passive, but that passivity only occurs in the context of tons of other series in which children somehow become worldbreakers on their own. I’m guessing that her passivity will change as we progress, but I appreciate the care and time that Hurley takes to show Lillia’s development.
The obvious contrast in my mind is ASOIAF, with its children taking on powers that portend what feel like unearned development. Martin is probably alluding to the power of necessity, but in particular John Snow’s ascension to the head of the Night’s Watch felt rushed to me.
There’s an element of trust between author and reader here that can be disconcerting but also promises huge rewards for those willing to soldier through. Hell, there’s a wiki in case you can’t stand to wait (I’m not too proud to admit that I’ve used it). In lots of ways Hurley holds off on big reveals (I’m expecting lots of those as we continue), and that trust shows as much faith in her audience as it does reliance on her audience’s patience. I’m looking forward to being trusted in the next segment.