What to say about a writer who dares rework Homer? Madeline Miller does just that in The Song of Achilles, and, uh, she’s got huevos is all I can say. Thoughts below:
- She uses Patroclus as first-person narrator, even after he dies (!). That enables her to use the narrator’s tone (humble, self-effacing, insecure) to make what seems like a relationship that makes little sense – Achilles is the greatest warrior of his time, and Patroclus is a nobody who has been exiled from his home, so why exactly does Achilles for him?
- Their love becomes easily the best relationship in the story, with only Odysseus and Penelope coming close.
- Miller makes a point of noting that Odysseus’s love and respect for his wife was abnormal, so Achilles and Patroclus are even more revolutionary.
- I doubt I will ever get a good explanation of this, but ten years at ten casualties a day is a lot of dead Greeks and Trojans.
- I know, I know, we don’t read Homer for depictions of military conflicts.
- That said, the power of the hero in ancient Greek culture is fascinating, and Miller’s focus on the tragic part of heroism (we get a litany at one point that includes Herakles killing his wife and family as part of the typical fate of Greek heroes) – a bit different than the always-triumphant heroes of the US.
- I also found her depictions of the gods and goddesses compelling. Greek gods were best propitiated; calling attention to yourself was risking humiliation and worse, as the gods were certain to reinforce the hierarchy of mortal/immortal, and brutally.
- This conception of the supernatural always felt to me to be spot-on, and always made me realize what a radical Jesus and the Buddha are. In my mind, the capricious qualities of life favor a view of the divine that seems at best indifferent and at worst outright hostile. To be able to conceive the divine in terms of what now seems clearly to be the best of being human takes a special sort of disruption.
- Miller is a high school teacher, and I’m guessing she at least partially has that audience in mind as she writes, but I would have trouble assigning this to a high school class. She’s accurate in her portrayal, but the prevalence of sexual violence is very high in here, and would have multiple trigger warnings.
- Achilles and Patroclus have the most clearly loving and mutually satisfying sexual relationship, which would probably make some heads explode.
The Corpse Rat King is an interesting take on the hero’s journey. I have no idea whether Battersby has even heard of the hero’s journey or Joseph Campbell, but his hero mimics the journey that Campbell describes in interesting ways…
- The narrator is Marius don Hellespont, and his class standing enables Battersby to make this a story about class as much as it is anything else. I’m guessing that Hellespont’s journey to find the dead a new king invokes several class levelers (the narrator gets left on an island, made homeless, forced to pose as a eunuch and to become a prostitute, among a whole series of situations) because part of Hellespont’s world-building involves a medieval world that also, I think, provides a look at how structures of rich and poor develop.
- He’s not critiquing capitalism in this necessarily, but by depicting a rich man’s son who is so desperate for a world that feels more real than what he grew up in that he becomes a con man, Battersby satirizes the collection of wealth as a means in and of itself.
- The boon that he brings back to the world of the dead, then, is of course the king, but I don’t think that the dead necessarily felt the need to be ordered about. Instead, the king seems to a stand-in for the state of death itself, an ontological metaphor that grants them a sort of peace that they don’t otherwise seem to have.
- The granting of community status to the dead feels righteous somehow, in a vaguely non-threatening way. We all will be there after all…
Narratives voices in songs? Who would have guessed? Even as a highly-trained literary scholar (yes, my tongue is in my cheek), I remember first thinking seriously about this idea in pop music when Killer Mike identified the racism that makes folks think that his songs are autobiographical while Johnny Cash can sing about a killer and be celebrated as an artist. So I’m not surprised that it took me longer than the average bear to think seriously about how these things work.
In particular, I’ve often been troubled by what I thought was my misreading of a song. I thought that perhaps the songwriters were confused, or I was confused, or something odd was happening. The song – “Man of Constant Sorrow,” best known as being the “hit” song that spurs the Soggy Bottom Boys to pop music stardom in the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou?
As I was listening to the Mountain Stage (on NPR of course – all you heathens should check it out) while driving through Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia when I realized my mistake. “Man of Constant Sorrow” gently mocks the first-person narrator who tells the audience his story. It’s not some jaunty (man that word feels so 19th century), happy music used to describe a man’s life as he describes the problems – it’s more a tongue-in-cheek poke at a guy who doesn’t realize that his problems are of his own creation. Even as he sings that he has no friends, his friends in the chorus repeat the line, either proving him wrong or perhaps proving just why he, uh, has no friends. As he sings of his own constant sorrows and all the trouble he’s had, he merely complains, offering no evidence, again allowing the narrator to allow us as the audience to identify the true source of his troubles. The shame he feels (actually, he doesn’t) clues us into just how we are supposed to view the story that he’s telling and his own lack of self-awareness.
A crafty narrative voice? Identifying but not identifying with the first person who is telling the story? Well-played Soggy Bottom Boys, well-played…especially as we examine the ways in which the myths and legends of these United States get crafted, a post for another time.
This is book two of her Broken Earth series, and she’s not kidding about the title of the series – the earth is definitely broken. Unlike many of the fantasy series I’ve read recently this one takes place in a sort of identifiable earth from thousands of years in the future.
- This novel slowed down the action a bit from the first in the series (The Fifth Season, which I seem to have forgotten to review). Whereas the first one went dizzingly fast, not worrying about readerly comfort, this one took a second to allow us glimpses of the past in order to explain (ew) why the planet is so broken.
- It’s broken because of us, of course, but rather than make this series a dystopia Jemisin simply shows how she imagines humans (as well as the rest of the planet) evolving to meet these changed conditions.
- One of the ways that humans have evolved is that some of us (an important distinction) have developed another central nervous system stem, something she calls the sessinapae (it’s always italicized in the novels). This new organ is not exactly explained, but it has a mystical function – it enables those who have it to manipulate earth’s energies directly. The orogenes (the name for those who have this organ) can use these powers for good and protect human settlements from the earthquakes and other massive shakes of the earth’s crust that happen constantly.
- As with all human powers, of course, they’re also used for not-so-savory purposes – control, revenge, and so on.
- These unsavory uses are at the heart of the plotline, as characters try to focus their powers in ways to protect their kin.
- Jemisin neatly doesn’t focus much on the ways in which the planet was broken – this series is not a morality play. We do get the history in bits, though, and as one might expect it’s not pretty.
- It seems that climate change got increasingly more devastating (there are hints of gaia theory here, as the planet tries to shake off us human fleas), and we tried to mitigate its effects in increasingly more drastic ways. The final way we as humans tried to make the planet inhabitable despite these effects involved us somehow moving the moon (I guess in order to eliminate tides, which had probably grown into tsunami-sized events).
- This triggered the advent of the fifth season (the name of the book in the series), a devastatingly long disruption of the sun caused by volcanic ash and featuring toxic air being released from the earth’s crust.
- There are hints that all of this is intentional, but they are just hints, and the agent is the planet itself.
- The communities that survived did so barely, and often had to practice cannibalism to do so, so much so that while the characters talk about the practice with distaste it’s definitely not taboo.
- The orogenes come about because humans tried to adapt to the fifth season. Animal and plant species either died out or adapted in their own ways, and human evolution did the same thing. Our evolution, of course, is far less balanced.
- This is getting way too long, but there’s tons going on here, in addition to being a page-turning read. Jemisin is also offering us a look at how our lizard brains continue to want to divide us into tribes and constantly thwart our best, most idealistic impulses, and she posits a couple of different ways that humans can adapt (including beings called stone eaters that I don’t completely understand, as they seem almost god-like).
- There are also lots and lots of deadciv ruins that are often deadly and that current humans mostly leave untouched.
- I will be talking about this series more – it’s brilliant and fascinating.
I have already written on this novel once, but a re-read has been rewarding (an odd adjective I think), and I thought I’d add a few comments below…
- This re-read helped me realize just how little I took away the first time. I didn’t realize that Tavore didn’t know she killed her sister (the knowledge was hidden from her, and her sister was wearing full armor), that the Bridgeburners had been born in Raraku, that Onrack was the reason that Sha’ik came to be, that Leoman simply left, that Korbolo Doom was returned to the Empress, and that Karsa returned to camp to kill some of the bad mages. Yep, I missed a lot.
- It also helped me think about the amount of testing that goes on in these novels – no one is ever fully trustworthy except immediate comrades-in-arms, especially if they’re Malazan…
- The nobility is uniformly despised as being worthless – even Paran has to prove himself, as much by attitude as by prowess and strategical abilities…a lack of productivity seems to be the biggest sin for Erikson.
- only in Darujihistan do they get anything done, and that’s mostly to finance the Malazans and coalition who stop the genocide of the Pannion Dominion.
- The mysteries of the warrens are still mysteries – I am not much closer to figuring out their mechanics, but I do understand that they’re channels, and they seem to channel energies in ways that feel damn near cosmic…
- Finally, the earlier reasons I attributed to gods’ wanting to ascend are not complicated enough. Kellanved explains a bit about wanting to take the Shadowthrone – he wants to maintain the balance that he sees as a natural order, one that he thinks light and dark are always threatening. Balance (not harmony) and symmetry are two of the only virtues in this series. That and treating children well…
I finished this series two nights ago but haven’t blogged about it yet. I loved the first two episodes, got bogged down in the middle of the series, and then finished it when I had the realization that perhaps my expectations were a bit skewed by what I thought it was about. Some observations below…
- The world this series is set in is one in which people can live literally forever via the combination of cloned bodies and a disk that is set in their spine and that instantly downloads their entire experience into the cloud.
- As one might guess this arrangement causes problems. It also, however, raises some interesting questions, ones that folks like Ray Kurzweil and the Futurists might have skipped over. For instance, what does it mean to capture our experience? Where does that reside? Does whatever the ‘it’ is have to go through the brainstem? How does muscle memory work then? And how do white blood cells function (for instance)? Where is the lymph in all of this?
- The series focuses on class structure. Those who can afford to relentlessly recreate themselves, amassing vast amounts of wealth. The rest of us get poorly-suited “sleeves” (new bodies) if we get anything at all.
- The rich also live on mansions in the clouds, literally untouchable without an intense effort that requires a lot of specialization and hacking. The rest of us live on an earth that looks to have perhaps sort of stabilized into a world of unrelenting concrete, buildings, rain, and food grown in vats and on top of buildings.
- As I began the series I was excited by how fully it seemed to realize what I think of as William Gibson’s cyberpunk vision. Gibson’s world is full of death and destruction and the sort of cynicism about space opera scifi as well as the future that fit well with my life as a computer programmer in the early and mid 80s.
- Programming was becoming increasingly dumb, and ways to fight that dumbing down were not apparent – the DFHs had soured me on the ability to protest effectively, and I wasn’t sure my fellow nerds could agree not to eat sugary, food-industry-derived confections from their childhood for dinner let alone band together enough to fight the machine.
- As the series started to feature long expository speeches that filled in the background of the world of Altered Carbon my cyberpunk cynicism twitched – I didn’t want to have Envoys putting up an ideologically-pure resistance that attempted to embrace humanity – I wanted cynical detectives and high body counts.
- Interestingly the series offers both of those, but it goes beyond them. The main questions it asks are ones that I think the ancient Greeks asked, and that feel more relevant now with advances in technology, about what happens when mere humans have what are essentially godlike powers of life and death.
- It reminded me of one character in Neuromancer (Dixie Flatline) who, while completing a mission in which his simulation has been woken because Case needs his hacking expertise, tells Case that after this run is done to be sure to unplug him. Endless life in a construct might not be that great.
- It also had a hotel run by an AI named Poe that was pretty amazing. I will say no more…
- It also turns upside down the hard-boiled detective plot that Gibson used. The detectives don’t negotiate the dregs for us middle-class folks afraid to venture into the city; instead, they investigate for the rich, who are already comfortable walking into the dregs because they know they can’t die. The rich folk in question here like the monkey parts of our brains, doling out violence and sex in particularly nasty ways. These are certainly not beautiful utopic creatures of pure light.
- And Kovacs, as detective, essentially investigates for those of us who want to rebel. That’s sort of a refreshing change.
- The fact that it ended (SPOILER ALERT) with the detective simply making the case, and the police arresting the rich folks (all of them) is not the way these are supposed to end in a postmodern world. (END SPOILER ALERT) Instead, cynically, it probably should end like The Wire, with half-assed convictions and the deaths of anyone trying to do the right thing.
- The fact that it doesn’t feels right somehow, upon reflection.
- I will need to come back to this because this post is getting way too long, but the questions this series asks about identity are fascinating. It also questions how we think about ideas like emotional literacy and shame, and again I will have to come back to these. I look forward to it.
I wish I had more to offer on these Cornwell novels – I fly through them, and they’re enjoyable, but at this point I am pretty much on autopilot for the depictions of Dark Ages Britain and don’t have much new to say for each. That said, thoughts:
- The title comes from one of Uhtredd’s comrades in the shield wall who sees how terrifying a Danish warlord looks on his horse. Uhtredd then kills him by mortally wounding same horse.
- Alfred’s struggle to unite Britain is an interesting story, and one that shows Alfred’s a) leadership and b) monomaniacism. Alfred has to combine his piety and intellect with the need to be a strong leader in a time when strength equated to war strategy and military prowess, and it’s sort of cool to see how Cornwell has extrapolated Alfred’s strength as that of his mind and devotion to his god rather than the simple task of finding plunder for your soldiers.
- The sheer violence and constant thought of threat often makes me think that Cornwell wants us to realize how soft we are. He might not – his agenda might be instead to show how far we as a race have come, even if we still have that battle lust that Uhtredd describes and that Cornwell justifies by citing the epic poets of the time. In either case, the nasty, brutish, and short that Hobbes used to describe the state of nature seems to also fit the state of civilization here.
- Guthrum essentially loses the battle in the novel by being too cautious with the lives of his men. That is not an outcome I would have guessed at going in, although admittedly how these wars are fought is something I know little about.