I’m becoming a huge Kameron Hurley fan, although The Stars Are Legion comes from a much different genre than The Light Brigade, my first foray into Hurley’s prose. TLB was recognizable as military sci-fi, a different but generically familiar take on the type of prose that was popularized by Heinlein, critiqued by Haldeman, and extended by Scalzi. The Stars Are Legion owes more to William F. Burroughs than to these.
- The idea of world ships isn’t new, of course. Hurley’s take is fascinating though, and as fresh as what Erickson and Esslemont are doing in the world of fantasy. These ships have been launched from the central core and are clinging to the extreme range of heat and light produced by the star around which they orbit, and we are plunged into the midst of their existential crises, as they are dying, slowly, providing the narrative impetus for the activity of the protagonists, Zan and Jaryd – they are trying to save their world.
- From an ideological standpoint, this novel fits with what I think Ibrahim X. Kendi argues is anti-sexist work. The world ships that make up Legion are populated entirely by biological females, but that doesn’t mean that the inhabitants aren’t capable of the full range of human behaviors.
- The only difference is that the world ship uses them – all of them – as ever-wombs, parthogenetically having them produce whatever the ship needs through their wombs. This difference is sex-based, not gender, and the difference helps to make these anti-sexist in my mind (although I’m guessing that lots of readers will not like this feature).
- We never find out why there are only women on this ship – the novel’s lack of interest in origin stories argues that perhaps our obsessive need to know these things is not all that useful…
- The most distressing of these behaviors is the inability to give up tribal behavior. Zan has a vision that will help the planets of Legion move on to another world, but she is continuously thwarted by those around her who can only think of saving their immediate surroundings.
- The world itself is fascinating – it has multiple layers, as these world ships have obviously been in existence for so long that whatever initial ties bound the crews together have been completely forgotten. While not all layers are inhabited, the ones that are have formed absolutely unique worlds-within-the-larger-world, and they only know of the other layers through legend and myth.
- The idea of sustainability on a world ship takes on its own life, moving past just sustaining the world and into how to regenerate it. Since the world’s brain functions as a massive (I’m assuming) distributed AI, it reacts to the increasing stratification of the world in a bunch of fascinating and often sort of disturbingly visceral ways.
- For instance, Zan is recycled (many times), and it becomes clear that the world needs the uniqueness of her vision for some reason, since most who get recycled retain nothing of their original selves – the ship uses their organic material to meet another need. The fact that her own family/tribe doesn’t help her remember her purpose speaks to the limits of humans (even in this far-departed form) and is Hurley’s comment on the near-impossibility of seeing beyond our noses.
Hurley’s take on hard science fiction is fascinating, and a welcome departure from the more mainstream approaches (I’m looking at you The Expanse). In my mind these novels are more than just what-ifs – they are active attempts to imagine the impossible and look thousands of years into the future. As dystopian as this novel sometimes feels (multiple worlds are dying, after all), Hurley wants to look at ways that we can move into the galaxy that don’t involve multiple years of cryogenic freezing or needlecasts or hyperspeed travel – she wants to think about what happens if we have to leave but travel at a pace that is far closer to what we know is possible according to the laws of physics. Lots of our core beliefs about ourselves will need to be rethought if we make it that far, and we will need thinkers like Hurley to help us do this.
Kameron Hurley’s The Light Brigade went far beyond what I expected from a genre standpoint. I like lots of the military sci-fi – John Scalzi is a good example, and Robert Heinlein wrote the ur-text – so I assumed that Hurley’s text would be similar: aliens to fight, valorization of the honest grunt who does the killing, etc.
I was wrong. Hurley is in conversation with folks China Mieville (politically) and Joe Haldeman (military weariness, ineffectiveness of military solutions), science fiction writers who look at war from a first principle rather than a just war perspective. She sees the world as one in which we constantly need to fight for our rights, and she also acknowledges how power is stacked against those without wealth.
More thoughts below:
- The novel makes the alternate vision – humans who settled on Mars and have created an egalitarian, holistic, ecologically-sustainable way of life – the Other.
- Hell, we’re not sure the Martians exist at all…
- The theme – corporations will tear our very bodies apart (and hopefully put them back together correctly) in order to assert their power – is genius.
- What’s also brilliant is how every time our narrator’s body is torn apart and she understands the time line she comes back better prepared to resist.
- The ways that the corporations at the end of the novel start to lose power, despite the promise of citizenship and the threat of constant surveillance, felt honestly hopeful, and not like some sort of tacked-on, yay-the-people-might-win-this-time bromide.
- I’m still in awe of the scenes with the interrogator and the captured revolutionary – Hurley channels Arthur Koestler in some ways, but gives agency to the captive in ways that make me smile.
- I’m looking forward to thinking more about the implications of time travel in here. The novel treats time travel as something fraught with both danger and possibility, and not of the go-back-in-time-and-kill-Hitler variety.
- It’s also an example of how corporate power cannot control some things – such as the laws of physics.
TLB is a powerful, powerful novel, and Hurley is talented. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work…
I try to read everything I can by Ted Chiang, and his latest collection of short stories and novellas – Exhalation – didn’t disappoint. More thoughts below:
- Man it feels good to read Chiang right now, I guess as sort of a Smart Stories in the Time of Pandemic (apologies to Marquez) piece of literature. His universe is one in which rational yet human actors work through the possibilities presented by current problems. Issues get resolved (for the most part; he doesn’t necessarily idealize us humans) through dialogue and trial and error, with no bloodshed involved.
- I don’t think a single human character was harmed in the making of Exhalation.
- His stories also feel carefully constructed to work in and of themselves. For instance, there are a couple that are only two or three pages long. There are two that are far longer.
- He doesn’t seem to write a story and think, yep, that’s the perfect length for a story in The New Yorker.
- Instead, the world of the story plays itself out in the situation at an almost perfect length.
- I could talk about all of these stories, probably forever, but the one that really sticks in my mind (maybe because I’ve read it twice) is “The Lifecycle of Software Objects.” In it, the protagonist (Ana) raises what starts as a digital pet over twenty years, as part of a community of both pets and their owners.
- It moves from having no body to being able to inhabit several different shells.
- In the story, Ana has trained as an animal care-taker but has to leave that job when her zoo goes under. She then works for a software company that produces digients, the digital pets. As such, she works with one of the prototypes and gets to raise it even after the company runs out of revenue.
- The assumption in the story is that it takes time to raise these AIs, and that we can’t train them as if they are drones or robots but that instead we need to understand that they are mostly rational actors who will learn as they learn.
- And yet we can influence how and what they learn.
- Finally, his last insight is that perhaps corporate profitability cycles are not the best environment to do serious, thoughtful software development.
- We go through an entire lifecycle of these pets in the story (thus the title), and we learn about ways that communities form, that software companies go bankrupt, that other companies emerge, that strange offshoots of human behavior evolve, and, well, and a lot…
Chiang is one of those authors who I feel a bit jealous of you if you haven’t read them already. What you are about to experience is a sense of someone totally comfortable with just how much he doesn’t know, and whose intense curiosity about the world and desire for hopefulness despite all of our flaws shines through. The first time reading Chiang is a marvelous experience, and I wish you well…
Queen of the Dark Things is the second in the Dreams and Shadows series by C. Robert Cargill, and the series is an interesting mix of elements of urban fantasy, bildungsroman, and teenage-sorcerer. More (hopefully) coherent thoughts below:
- As in Dreams and Shadows, Cargill neatly expands the boundaries that us Westerners (and probably more specifically us citizens of the U.S.) think of when we think of sorcery and fantasy novels. In QOTDT, Cargill brings in aborgines from Australia, and he uses them in a compelling fashion, calling them Clever Men and portraying them as integral to the story.
- In this case, the djinn who raised Colby (Yashar), is about to sleep for a long time – I guess this is something that djinn do – and he has to hand him off. He asks a friend from the outback, a Clever Man, to take responsibility for Colby, and the Clever Man then raises Colby and another young girl who has been stranded wandering in dreamtime.
- Even the Clever Man can’t completely protect them, however, from little demons that have resulted from some pirates who committed atrocities and were hung. Their spirits haunt many places in the world (and serve as the fodder in the final battle in this book), and Cargill’s portrayal of them is fun because they are so dark.
- They are forced to kowtow to the girl, who becomes the Queen of the Dark Things, until she fights her way free with the help of Colby.
- They’re so terrifying that they even scare the 77 demons from Hell, a group with whom Colby bargains in order to face down the Queen of Dark Things, who has an interesting backstory of her own, and, thankfully, does not truly become the source of all evil.
- Colby’s trips with the demons to secure the items he needs for the final battle are fun as hell, and he even cites a real book on demonology, Pseudomonarchia Daemonum.
- The idea of demons clearly affects us nerds, as early coders named some of the more willful elements of their prose daemons, and the connections here are clear.
- A key theme in these texts is the impulsiveness – which can be read as arrogance – of youth. Many of the trials that Colby faces come about because of his own arrogance, a trait he admits.
- As far as bildungsromans go, that is a tried-and-true trope, and folks like Rowling use it as well.
- I am really curious about the theological hierarchy (and belief system) displayed in here, but my guess is that that explanation will take yet another book.
- The configurations of power, especially when thinking of magic, and of the existence of alternate worlds is pretty fascinating, and Cargill’s linkage of all supernatural regions is both fun and makes some sort of odd sense.
Sadly, it looks like there will be no more books in this series, since Cargill’s latest, Sea of Rust, takes place in a completely different world, and he is spending most of his time working on films – he’s supposedly working on the adaptation of Deus Ex, to which I say yes! I can only hope that we haven’t seen the last of Colby Stevens and Austin, Texas.
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.
Dreams and Shadows is actually Cargill’s first novel, I guess. I’ve read Sea of Rust, which is darker than even this novel, one that features murderous dwarf fairies and an all-out battle in downtown Austin, Texas.
- Urban fantasy gets a bad rap, but I enjoyed this. Cargill weaves in several different traditions (we see djinns and Coyote, both of whom have major roles), and the idea that the entire supernatural world shares that realm felt natural.
- The novel intersperses an academic text (not really) explaining some of the features of fairy land with chapters that go back and forth between the two main characters, both of whom are human children who have interacted with the fairy world at a young age.
- The ascent of the human Colby doesn’t follow the usual patterns – he doesn’t have to follow some sort of elaborate ritual, and he doesn’t suddenly discover that he’s a wizard – instead, the djinn who gives him the power warns him that he will not be happy with the results.
- The setting in Austin is also cool – it’s not an ancient city, and the near-proximity of hill country makes the closeness of a wild area real.
Cargill’s novel, although far different than Sea of Rust, was an enjoyable read, tinged with far more sadness at the way that this sort of power divides people than joy at the power.
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…