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.
My re-read of Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series continues with The Illearth War. As a kid I blew through these fast, mostly because they did not feature Covenant as a combination Frodo-Aragorn-Gandalf. As an adult, I am finding these novels pretty amazing, and way ahead of their genre time…
- I think that I kept wanting these to be some sort of eco-criticism fantasy, and the first two books keep offering this – the Lords (who are high-powered mages) are kind, wise, brave, powerful, and empathetic, and obsessed with protecting The Land. The Land itself (and it always appears in Elegantly-Capitalized Glory) is constantly being described as being at-risk, prompting a war with those who would do it damage. There are even characters who live in the forest and serve humans sort of magically. Hell, there are Giants, and they are everything we want Giants to be: alien, lovers of stone and trees, funny, incredible warriors, and so on. And there are forms of Ents, although these Ents have a mean streak a mile wide, and enjoy hanging evil creatures (that the combined force of all the good characters cannot touch) on a gallows on a hill for all to see, sort of just for the grins.
- And yet at no point does this become a not-so-subtle treatise on the ravages of polluters or what humans are doing to the planet. Instead, Donaldson I think challenges the genre, and what it demands of its readers.
I have no idea why the half-griffin is fighting a wolf-bear-lion…
- In this vein, the Lords are fascinating – they are everything that fantasy fans could want from mortals who are more like Gandalf than Frodo, and scream at us to believe in them (and offer themselves as Donaldson’s contribution to the canon).
- Still, they cannot stop Lord Foul, nor can they convince Covenant to understand (believe) that he has a critical part to play (or that he will not wake up).
- As a hint at what he is playing at, my guess is that Donaldson knows his Tolkien – here’s a passage from Tolkien’s genre-defining essay “On Fairy-Stories”:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.
- My guess is that this passage holds a key for Donaldson – Covenant is definitely the unbeliever – not just in The Land but in the idea of fantasy. He has entered a fantasy novel and is every young nerdy boy’s dream – he has a source of power that he just has to figure out how to use, and he is being catered to by powerful figures because they are sure that he is the key to them expelling evil from their world.
- All Donaldson wants to do, though, is to end this nightmare and head home, a place where he even has a horrible, disfiguring, medieval disease that has caused him to lose nearly everything and to have go to obsessive lengths in his attempts to arrest its progress.
For those who are interested in dwarves and elves and humans battling some form of evil, whether in the form of orc or balrog or whatever, these novels will not be your cup of tea. If, though, you want to read a series that will ask you why you believe what you believe at every step of the way, why, dive right in – the water is ice cold but epiphany-producing.
Akwaeke Emezi’s Freshwater is like nothing I have ever read. It is not (even though I spent the first half of my reading experience trying to make it so) about the immigrant experience, the migrant experience, or even the African experience (directly anyway) – its narrators immerse themselves in the entire body and soul of a young woman who was sexually abused and beaten as a child, and who has evolved an elaborate set of defense mechanisms to cope.
- My quick overview limits – in an almost generic sense – the ways in which this novel might be perceived. It does not read like the haunted memories of a woman trying to keep her sanity. Instead, with only two exceptions chapters are told from the point of view of the gods and goddesses who ride her, and who enable her to survive, and they are living, breathing characters (often to their chagrin, as they sometimes endlessly lament)…
- Emezi in the essay at the end of the novel describes it as “metaphysical,” so they (their preferred pronouns are they, their, theirs) are asking us to treat these big questions from a religious and spiritual standpoint, in addition to the psychological one.
- The borders – between body and soul, between religious identities, between genders – that we usually imagine are solid (if not rigid) do not exist in this novel, and Emezi clearly wants to examine them. They describe their work as existing in a liminal space, and those types of spaces are rife with conflicts, power, and energy.
- The use of many different embodiments of human personas in the form of a pantheon of all kinds of gods had me engaged (and possibly even immersed). There are no hints until about two-thirds of the way through the novel just what these various forms are, but there is lots of conversation of how they mean to both protect and annihilate Ada, the main (human) character.
- And the two extremes are not that far apart…
- As Ada deals with her own trauma, and jousts with the spirits inhabiting her, I never wondered about what parts of her were human. I am curious about that now – why did I so easily buy that these were gods inhabiting her body, mostly Nigerian or Yoruban? Was I imagining this novel was simply one of possession? Admittedly, that alone would be pretty cool…
- Finally, Emezi’s willingness to experiment is frightening in its precocity. This could have gone very wrong, and the fact that they also work in video and other art forms, according to the Internet goddesses at Wikipedia made me wonder if Emezi was simply too full of ideas to execute any of them.
- Answer – nope. They’re definitely talented enough to pull this off – it is one of the rare novels that I couldn’t wait to finish but which also didn’t find me rushing through and having to re-read because I had become impatient.
The Mountain surprised me. We saw it recently at @nightlightakron, and on the surface I expected it to be an expose of the horrors of psychiatry in the 1940s and 50s, a worthy enough subject but one that has been done (and enables us to pretend that we are so much more civilized now). Instead, it was a bunch of films in one. I’ll try to characterize them here…
- Its color scheme invoked camouflage – characters tried to fit into horribly unnatural settings, hiding as much as possible despite the insane brightness of the often all-white interior.
- Spoiler alert – hiding is not possible, even for a once-renowned lobotomist who has now been proven to be a quack.
- The film abruptly transitions from interior to exterior spaces (and back), with almost no focus on the liminal space crossed. We see an inordinate number of doors opening and closing, but the transition happens with no muss or fuss.
- My guess is that the film argues that these spaces are really one and the same, and that the distinctions that we make are useless (until they’re not, when the young lovers see the mountain).
- The inability to communicate dominates. Tye Sheridan is almost mute, and Jeff Goldblum’s doctor is best when he’s drunk.
- Inarticulation is a theme – the one long rant we get is from a drunk Frenchman (who seems to make a living as a hypnotist, and we know that he knows that what he does is bullshit and his clients are morons) – and the rant is almost incoherent, as he tries to make a spit-flecked, alcohol-fueled argument for the uselessness of love.
- Typical of the film, after suffering through this rant Sheridan’s character then does the only act in the film that shows evidence of love, as he essentially gets himself diagnosed as needing a lobotomy – and gets one – in order to be one with the only person he has made a connection with (who gets lobotomized at the instance of her father, the drunk Frenchman).
- The fact that we are given a character to sympathize with, even if he doesn’t make sympathizing with him easy, works against our common notions of film viewership, and even, perhaps, what makes us sympathetic to each other.
- I kept hoping that he’s going to punch someone (anyone), but unfortunately he does not.
- It’s not an easy film in any sense of the word – but it has stuck with me for a long time…
Whitehead’s novel about his avatar Jonny Appleseed strikes me as a sorrow-filled yet full of resilience look at the issues of growing up gay on the reservation. More thoughts below…
- The heroes of this novel are the women. Men rarely provide support for Jonny, but the women in his life – ranging from his kokum to his mom – are there, even while they fight through their own issues.
- Whitehead’s use of the journey back to the reservation to attend a funeral provides another perspective on the path that Tommy Orange said he wanted to document in There There. Orange argues in There There that culturally in the US we prefer to imagine Native Americans on the reservation, away from those “polluting” influences of the big city, locking them in a nostalgic view of the American West that helps us atone for the sins of pursuing manifest destiny.
- Jonny Appleseed pretty straightforwardedly does the opposite of this, showing the narrator moving away from the reservation in order to find alliances as he struggles with the consequences of being gay in a society that hates gay people. He does not leave his ethnic identity behind – as the spoon boy in The Matrix says “that would be impossible” – but he finds some affirmation in the city (Winnipeg) that the men on the reservation cannot or will not give him.
- The narrator tells us through his grandmother of the concept of the second skin, which I guess is something that some Native American tribes acknowledge. There are issues with this, but my guess is that in some ways it makes members of the tribe who are LGBTQ+ feel less alien.
- I am gradually starting to become aware of just how many identification labels Native Americans have – in this book I was introduced to NDN and Nate. NDN makes a lot of sense, and my best guess about Nate is that is connected to Native Americans who live in the city.
- For a peak at the joyful space that is often found in Urban Dictionary, check out this entry for Nate.
- I love the buffalo on the cover – its red and white makes it look skinned, but it’s also embroidered, complicating a symbol that is often connected with masculinity (and hyper-masculinity1 at that).
- Finally, Whitehead’s appropriation of the Johnny Appleseed figure calls attention to just how problematic Appleseed is as a figure in US history, representing as he does a pastoral, uncomplicated, idealized version of the European settler, one goofy enough to wear an iron pot on his head and yet savvy enough to own property on the border.
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.
I’ve not read enough of McEwan’s work, something I’ll try to remedy after reading Machines Like Me. This is ostensibly a robot novel, and it has a lot to say about identity and the ways we look at our historical moment. More thoughts below:
- I’m currently reading Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism, and it’s making me rethink how I think of historical fiction, and history in texts in general. In Machines Like Me, McEwan creates a novel that I think might well be called ahistorical, as he intensely winds the narrative up in historical events that are actually sort of the opposite of what actually happened.
- I had to keep looking up events to make sure that I remembered history correctly. For instance, in this version of the Falklands War, The Exocet missiles do far more damage to British ships than they actually did, and the British navy turns around and heads home rather than risk more losses. Thatcher is weakened politically, and starts a long decline that results in her resignation, a wee bit different than actual human events.
- Even the artificial people are a result of this novelistic approach – a breakthrough happens because Alan Turing (yep, that one) refuses the chemical castration that he actually took to reduce his sentence in real life, does his jail time, and comes out on the other side to become an entrepreneur whose genius combines with the work of a couple of Stanford labs to produce actual robots that are marketed to the general public.
- I won’t talk about it here, but the alternative history that McEwan creates fits neatly with the arguments in Berlant’s book, ones I hope to address in this blog before too long.
- McEwan hints at his narrator’s approach to history in this passage (one that neatly , in which the narrator listens to his girlfriend complain about her graduate work in history:
It was no longer proper to assume that anything at all had ever happened in the past. There were only historical documents to consider, and changing scholarly approaches to them, and our own shifting relationship to those approaches, all of which were determined by ideological context, by relations to power and wealth, to race, class, gender and sexual orientation (35)
- McEwan’s narrator both shows a familiarity with the work of historians, especially academic ones, and rejects them as being too politicized, neatly lining up with his view early in the novel that our technology is apolitical and ahistorical. He will probably change that opinion by the end of the novel.