I just finished Newton’s Cannon,the first novel in a trilogy that Keyes calls his “Age of Unreason” trilogy. It was published in 1998, so once again I’m a bit behind the times. The narrative perspective shifts between France and the colonies (and London, after a young Ben Franklin escapes there), and posits a universe in which Newton invents something called philosopher’s mercury after identifying the math behind the forces of physics that are Newton’s other (/s) accomplishments…
- This felt like a really odd universe, and the novel spends a lot of time introducing characters who don’t know about some specific piece (the aetherscreiber – with the italics in the text – for instance) in order to have another character explain the device or concept.
- That said, the attempts to mate science and magic are interesting, even if it feels like the attempts are stretched. I haven’t read anything about Keyes, but he works hard narratively to try to justify all of the magic he places in this world with discussions of the basic math behind the magic he peppers this world with.
- He works hard to create female characters that have agency, even creating what I think is an imaginary society of female warriors/magicians/assassins that drive attempts to stop Louis XIV (?) from commissioning the redirection of a comet to hit London. And he definitely does not have a Puritan attitude towards sex.
- Finally, (SPOILER ALERT) he actually goes through with the death of one or two important characters *and* he wipes out London. Props.
- I struggled with this novel even though I read it quickly and wanted to turn pages. It felt shallow, with characters who are too clearly in tune with authorial values and too obvious evil folks. That said, he has point of view sections that feature someone (Louis) (SPOILER ALERT) who will be responsible for genocide, sections that although they clearly established Louis’s motives also made me rethink Keyes’s (or his narrator’s) sympathies. That’s an accomplishment, I think.
Ah, Salman Rushdie, bringing back memories of fatwas and Scotland Yard protecting an Indian-born writer from folks trying to get to heaven by killing just one writer…makes me almost nostalgic.
- I read this novel in my quest to read as much magical realism as I can, but I hadn’t guessed that Rushdie uses magical realism to create an allegory of the struggles India has gone through since obtaining independence from the British. In that sense he follows Marquez beautifully.
- Saleem Sinai, his muslim protagonist gifted with an extreme sense of smell, experiences all the joys and horrors of elections, independence, post-colonialism, and the split of Pakistan and India. Indira Gandhi is a particularly loathsome figure in her use of power, and the viciousness of the various wars and ethnic cleansings are also powerfully evoked.
- Rushdie uses women as ciphers in ways that occasionally make me queasy. His narrator is telling the story to Padma, his latest partner, and her impatience feels sort of uncomfortably shrewish. The sacrifice of the witch who gives birth to Sinai’s son also felt sort of yeah, once again the woman dies for the man’s sins-type story. My guess is that I’m selling Rushdie very short here.
- The widespread ethnic diversity of India becomes a part of the story-telling context in MC, and while I struggled to keep up (so many ancestors of mercenaries and emperors) the overall effect made me hope that India can continue to maintain its identity, while fearing for its very ability to do so.
- The move from the naivete of a radio contest for the child born closest to midnight to civil war and totalitarianism and ethnic cleansing struck me upon reading as sort of beautiful in a pen-and-ink sketch type of way. In this rendition India feels both like a hopeful vision of a future multicultural world and a descent into the worst that we can do to each other.
Jeff Vandermeer’s Annihilation is the first novel in the Southern Reach trilogy, and, having read this, I am excited about the rest. This novel reads like a fever dream in a sense, with an emotionally repressed narrator who is a biologist, and who narrates the entire novel in the first person. We have no idea if she’s reliable or not, although the only details I question are who shot first in the murder she commits (in the novel it’s self-defense).
- The title speaks to annihilation of self that happens as the various expeditions of humans penetrate Area X, a location that felt both Pacific NW and Gulf Coast (it’s Gulf Coast, as Vandermeer demonstrates by thanking the folks at St. Mark’s National Seashore in Florida). This area that seems to be some sort of biological infestation (perhaps extraterrestrial, perhaps not) is slowly expanding, and humans are trying to stop this expansion, but no group that enters the territory emerges unscathed.
- Several amazing passages – the first:
The map had been the first form of misdirection, for what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible?
While this is an interesting thought in and of itself, I found it particularly useful in the context of the novel. The maps are all drawn up from natural contours – narrative description serves as our way to understand Area X from a human perspective, one that grows increasingly confused as the narrator proceeds (her husband, for instance, might or might not have disappeared to an island north, an island that is outside the boundaries of Area X, or isn’t).
- The second focuses on the words written on the walls of what the narrator calls The Tower (it is called a Tunnel by the other members of her expedition, and that feels more like I what I think of when I think of tunnels based on the description). They are written by what she calls the Crawler, which is some sort of shimmery powerful being that has incorporated parts of much of this area, including the former lighthouse keeper. A sample:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner… The narrator posits that these words serve as some sort of “core,
irreplaceable substance” that creates The Tower, although – fittingly in this novel – she has no idea how that process works (passage on p. 159)
My guess here is that this indecipherable creature goes beyond some sort of scripter but serves as a means of coalescing all known grammar and languages in a larger sense in one structure that humans can recognize. The fact that the party has different names for it – tunnel and tower, two seemingly incompatible labels – argues for this view.
- Another set of words in The Tower:
That which dies shall still know life in death for all that decays is not forgotten and reanimated shall walk the world in a bliss of not-knowing” – as close as this novel gets to invoking zombies…
- And the final set, reminding us of the title:
“Was I in the end stages of some prolonged form of annihilation?” (306)
The annihilation is of self, of course, but it’s also of notions like identity, ethnocentrism, and perhaps human dominance of the natural world.
I re-read The Master and Margarita as a way to better understand the possibilities of KRZ, and wow…it brings back memories…
I first read it at the insistence of a guy I met working as a coder for EDS in Dayton. He had brought his family out of the Soviet Union, through a lot of risk and danger that I can barely comprehend, and he and I became friends, so much so that I learned how to drink pepper vodka (straight from the bottle, peel that foil cap off and enjoy!). He didn’t necessarily give me the keys to reading it, as there are so many layers that such a key would be as long as the book, but he gave me a firm sense of how important something like literature (and literary resistance) could be in a culture where the biggest lies were simply told as if they were truth.
This drawing is not of the cover, but it’s so gangster…
I’m sure there are no resemblances to the current moment.
And that brings me to the thoughts section of this post: Continue Reading
Thoughts on Paul Beatty’s latest, The Sellout:
- Beatty’s book feels a bit like George Saunders’s work – funny in a biting, oh-shit-that’s-so-fucked-up-but-so-true kind of way. The landscape he creates – a sort of agrarian, pastoral inner suburb that is almost entirely African-American – hints at the larger dysfunction surrounding it without revealing much.
- Yes, this is about race, and I’m still puzzling out several pieces. It also reminds me a bit of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the way it ends, with the narrator returning home after a landmark court case. It concerns itself with how minorities function in an absurdly racist society, and this narrator tries to turn contemporary cultural mores on their head by having a slave (not really, but the guy calls himself that and won’t let the narrator alone) and forcing a school to be segregated.
- There’s some complicated psychological stuff going on here – by forcing the school to keep out whites, whites want to go (resulting partially in the narrator ending up in the Supreme Court as a defendant). Hominy Jenkins, the guy who wants to go back to slavery, does so because he feels that he has a place and a role.
- Both, I think, show Beatty taking standard right-wing talking points and putting them in a petri dish…neither does what those folks think it would.
- I’m guessing RBG asks the question that this novel plays with – “what do we mean by ‘black’?” This isn’t what does it mean to be black, or how does being black affect one’s identity – Beatty’s question is more fundamental (and the narrator approves) – we pay lip service to the idea that race is a construction, but how does that improve the lives of people? Our narrator, who grew up as a social experiment in race, is a farmer who produces delicious fruit, is a surfer who loves surfing enough to consider making his farm a huge wave pool, challenges all kinds of status quos by turning buses back into vehicles of segregation, by convincing a middle school principal to segregate her school, and by having the aforementioned slave.
- Finally, the onslaught of pop culture references I think speak to the impossibility of knowing the origin of anything, especially since the strings that Beatty places them in can be wildly various.
- I have a feeling that this book is one I will return to…
I probably will not have time to finish Quadrilateral Cowboy, which makes me a bit sad, so I decided to post on it before my memories of the game fade. It was released in 2016 by Blendo Games, and feels like a beautiful blend of an alternate cyberpunk universe, the one that Gibson might have written post Pattern Recognition.
My thoughts on it follow:
- The game is 2D, sort of, and these screen shots show, and I have not played a game where my avatar looks so unusual. Blendo Games, which is really just Brendan Chung, has developed some off-the-wall shtuff, but this one has an aesthetic that is about as close to what I imagine the dataverse looked like to those of us who survived cyberpunk in the 1980s as is possible. The game goes out of his way to show the player-character when at least I was least suspecting it, through blocky shadows and sudden reflections in mirrors.
- The game’s landscape also felt very dataversian in its complete lack of other people, except for those in your hacker hangout. I robbed houses, stole courier packets from trains, and entered ventilation ducts, and all the time I saw no one. When I died, I was killed by a stationary sentry gun set in the ceiling, or by running out of air on one mission in space.
- Even the houses of the folks whose stuff I took were clean, corporately-sterile, with no sign of habitation aside from furniture that looked as if it could still be in its plastic wrap.
- Even though the player can die, there is no other violence. I was excited to get a gun, even if I couldn’t pick it up and shoot it like a hand cannon, only to find out that it shot bean bags that could be used to trip levers. Damn – no body count here.
- Chung has said in interviews (consult the wikipedia page for direct sources) that he wanted to make a game that helped people understand what it takes to be a hacker without having to code. I picked up on that, and I found that I had to think about the puzzles in very different ways than other games required me to think. I don’t usually enjoy puzzle solving games, but this one had me hooked because the puzzles were ingenious but somehow useful.
- Perhaps they felt useful because we as hackers got paid. By who was never made clear.
- I did feel a bit off put by the linearity of the narrative. The game is absolutely not a sandbox – there’s no place to go, a function I am guessing of both the lack of programmers to add more space and an adherence to the dataverse, full of heavily protected data in the cyberpunk ecosystem.
- This linearity reminded me a bit of the game I’m trying to finish now, What Remains of Edith Finch, which is just as linear from a narrative standpoint but restricted in different ways.
- At some point I will need to think about what these sorts of borderless boundaries mean for game worlds…
- As a fan of the Sprawl trilogy, I enjoyed how this game invoked the Gibsonian conception of cyberspace. It felt intensively machine-drawn, with clean shadows and no dirt whatsoever (even in the air ducts the player crawls around in).
- Again, it felt all very intentionally machine-drawn, a beautiful contrast to the nastiness of the outside world in Gibson’s Sprawl. It almost felt as if the machines that drew it were trying to either make humans feel comfortable or ignoring them completely.
- The only messy spaces were ones players share with their fellow hackers, all of whom look vaguely Japanese and none of whom really interacted with the player-character.
- And the player-character is definitely in the machine – you simply appear and disappear as if you hooked a ride in a Star Trek transporter.
- Unfortunately, there were no malevolent AIs. Even the corporations we rob didn’t seem evil, just sort of negligent for leaving all these holes in their security. I’m not sure what styles of security the game is designed to present for circumvention – it’s clearly set in 1980, as a banner tells us early on, but there are space stations that we have to hack as well.
- The aesthetic also felt vaguely as if I was an analog remnant of an increasingly digital world, but that might be other work of mine bleeding into this one.
Musings on the prevalence of dystopia in young adult fiction…
- Obvious thought #1: dystopias offer readers a chance to remake their world, even if the ways in which this happens are not all that pleasant or even desirable. From my subject position the stakes seem higher: connections with the natural world are harder to come by, the destruction of the planet looms, older folks keep threatening (and succeeding) with getting them into an ever-increasingly vague and confused series of wars from which they may or may not come back whole, things that seem clear to the majority of their generation (race and gender are constructs, capitalism has limits, consumerism is destructive, the poor are just like those who are not) are sources of anger and bad arguments by those older.
- The problem with dystopias, though, is that there are still residues from the old world. That may not be a problem, especially if dystopias are canvases that we can draw our own desires on. What are those desires?
- Fewer other people, perhaps, and a world where everyone is joined in a common purpose *because* of the dystopic threat that all simultaneously face…
- Complications about good and evil disappear, as with the vast majority of folks gone sides are easily determined.
There are many more, of course…