God's War

Jul. 4th, 2011 10:27 am
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Round one. This is how it starts: "Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert": and then we're in the book. I think those fifteen words are a great first sentence primarily for their economy, for the terseness which is successfully challenging for at least one reader, and yet which manages to begin to sketch a world, a situation, a character, and most importantly, a tone. It's fair warning: God's War means it. God's War will make us think and feel. The straight-faced intensity does just occasionally become parodic, but is sustained well enough that the following two hundred and eighty-five pages feel like a promise fulfilled: they are invigorating. They are also complex, full of intersections, and tricky to decompose and retell in a review.

Round two. The world is Umayma, megayears away in light and time, and deeply lived in. A dry world, for the most part, with two suns but few stars in the night sky; home to a handful of nations of the People of the Book, each of which has drifted more or less from the Abrahamic faiths of our present, two of which are engaged in a longtime grinding conflict that has come to define them. Their lands are places of sand and gravel, big angry skies, bugs (see below) and melted ruins. In the blue corner, we have Nasheen, which is where we start with Nyx (see below), who is tracking a not-too-great boxer named Jaks to get to her brother, a deserter: "Boys either came home at forty or came home in a bag. No exceptions" (8). This is, we learn, her job as a bel dame, because Nasheen has been for 250 years a matriarchal monarchy that breeds its men for the eternal but never-seen (by us) front. We might already have noticed that the men in the first chapter of God's War are dead, sexual toys, or literally emasculated, and the women are everyone else, from Nyx's geneticist sister to the bouncers to the black-market dealer who sells Nyx out. Later in the novel we travel to the red corner, Chenja, whose oppressions are almost conventionally patriarchal, complete with polygamy; and in the second chapter we meet Rhys, a devout Chenjan runaway and would-be magician (see below) who falls into Nyx's orbit while experiencing extreme cognitive dissonance. (Hurley manages the tricky feat of making Rhys a man with provincial views but a good character, at least for my money.) Clustered around the ring are other nations, each with their own religious and political specificities: Tirhan, which may be the most egalitarian of the countries, but whose inhabitants profit from both sides of the Nasheenian-Chenjan war as arms dealers; Ras Tieg, which is water-rich but nearly heretical; Mhoria, which is unconventionally patriarchal, and home to many shifters (see below). Most of these have representatives in the book. The accretion of cultural detail is constant, and constantly nuanced by a series of distinctive viewpoints; the world as a whole is a marvel.

Round three. It shouldn't be a surprise that an interesting world breeds interesting people, but interesting people are always surprising. God's War is about a woman (see below) and about a world (see above), but the negotiations between those two things are mediated by a supporting cast whose variegated heritage allows them to tick just about every diversity box going without contrivance. Eight years and about forty pages after being sold out, Nyx has been into prison and out again, lost her bel dame license and put together a bounty hunter's team: Rhys; plus the pale gay half-breed Ras Tiegan comms expert Taite, nervous that he's about to be drafted to the front for Nasheen; plus the big Mhorian shapshifter Khos, who spends a lot of time in brothels; plus Anneke, the small wiry Nasheenian almost as dark-skinned as a Chenjan, who likes guns. (She's perhaps the least-developed character, but no less entertaining for that.) This team -- they feel like colleagues -- enrich the novel. Most of them get a meaningful number of pages as our viewpoint without feeling used up by the experience. Around them are others, of whom the most interesting is probably Taite's pregnant sister Inaya, who ends up with Nyx's team somewhat reluctantly, while the most significant may be Nasheen's Queen, who finds Nyx a useful player to put in the ring, setting her on the trail of a vanished offworlder who may (of course) hold the key to ending the war, and creating the conditions for Hurley's cast to bounce off each other in creative and entertaining ways.

Round four. Nyxnissa so Dasheem is God's War's alpha (see above) and omega (last line: "Nyx went on"). Farmer's daughter, dyslexic, veteran, bisexual, bounty hunter, force of nature, woman of Nasheen. What others think about her: "She was coarse and foul-mouthed and godless" (72, Rhys); "The world could burn around her [...] and she would get up after the fire and walk barefoot over the charred soil in search of clean water, a weapon, a purpose" (231, Khos); "She tended to believe that every conversation involving strong emotion was full of words and resolutions that were not meant, as if he were a raving drunk" (146, Rhys again). What she says about herself: "I believe in myself. That's enough" (60). What I say about her: clearly enough an entry into the tradition of self-made and self-reliant female heroes, in the mould of Alyx or Sarah Connor, say, or Monza Murcatto (from Joe Abercrombie's Best Served Cold, the hyper-cynical politics of which make an interesting contrast to those of God's War); inheritor of certain traits traditionally coded masculine (she's the strong silent type); not very emotionally useful; both supported and problematised by her context (see below) in a way that many of her ancestors are not. And an awful lot of fun to watch in action.

Round five. In a blog post for the British Library, Gwyneth Jones recently wrote: "Adventure fantasy may be the characteristic content of sf, but the project of imagining the ideal future is never far away." One way to describe God's War is to say that it's the best sort of supporting evidence for this argument. The "adventure" aspect of the novel is relatively straightforward, in that the plot is linear and has its share of thrills and spills and bad guys, albeit embedded in a more textured setting (see above) than is usually the case. Considering God's War as fantasy is more complex, and not just because of the magicians (see below). To single out one axis of fantasy, and one country, Nasheen is not a utopia (their reproductive practices, for instance, will challenge many), nor is it experienced as such by its inhabitants (it is a war economy, with plenty of poverty); but there are things it does well that our world does badly, in a way that puts God's War in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing. We are encouraged to take joy in the freedoms of the women of Nasheen, in their power and diversity. They "didn't grow up looking for husbands," we're told. "They grew up looking for honor and glory" (64). In fact it is, I think, hard to read God's War and not be confronted by the fact that Nasheen enables many thousands of women to live lives with an automatic belief in their identity and strength (of any kind) that our world would like to deny to as many as possible. (And the most radical move in the novel may be that Nyx, in all her radical confidence, is created in a context in which she is not exceptional.) But in Nasheen this has not come for free. Rhys is beaten when he walks the streets alone; his interaction with Nyx makes it quite clear both of them have been denied the tools to develop a healthy romantic relationship with a member of the opposite sex by their society; and he is justified, I think, in referring to Nasheen's conscription of its men as "the genocide of a gender" (207). None of this justifies his belief that "Nasheenian women had forgotten their place in the order of things" (19); but it suggests that the tragedy of Nasheen is that it aspires to be Omelas.

Round six. Fantasy again (see above), in the form of the ubiquitous bugs of Umayma -- seemingly adapted to every tool-like roll, from lights to engines to weapons to surgery -- and the magicians who control them (and may have had a hand in making the world, millennia ago), and shifters who can become animals; these things lend God's War a distinct and estranging flavour. Yet God's War is also science fiction, in that this paradigm is given a technological gloss, having to do with pheromones, apparently, and reprogramming insects "at the cellular level" (93), and who knows what quantum trickery when it comes to shapeshifters. (All we know is that they need to eat a lot of protein.) This may seem to risk overloading a novel already loaded with texture of other kinds (see above), but I'd argue the messy biotechnology is part of what gives coherence to the whole -- narratively, as it turns out, but also aesthetically. The playful weirdness of Umayma's technoculture goes hand in hand with the inventiveness of its political culture: the existence of the decades-long front, for instance, which remains off-stage except briefly in memory, becomes somehow mythic, rather than improbable. And the brashness of bugtech sits well with the brutal directness of the narrative voice. God's War is a book that wants to get in your face (see below).

Final round. In the end, it comes back to the ring, to Nyx and Jaks, and to boxing.
Most people who watch a fight think it's all about the muscle: hitting harder, moving faster. And, yeah, sometimes it looked that way. But telling somebody that you won a fight by hitting harder and more often was like telling somebody that the way you kept from drowning was by moving your arms and legs.

Once two fighters knew how to fight, they stood pretty even. What made one win and the other fall wasn't about blood or sinew or sweat. It was about will. (264)

As in the ring, so outside it. Umayman governments are entities for control more than they are entities for liberation, and they work because they are meant. They inspire belief, and believers -- and submission as part of that belief -- none more so than Nasheen and Chenja. None more so than Nyx, whose team believe in her (see above), who endures (see above). And as in the ring, so for God's War, whose characters argue with the beliefs around them (some of which I've barely touched on here), and which means to remind us to argue with the beliefs we breathe: which knows that the best adventure fantasies are about more than hitting harder and moving faster, that they have to mean every word. In the process of executing this notion God's War occasionally creaks -- if the novel has a weakness it's that the plot is a touch mechanical at times -- but it is never dull, because it is always passionate. And give me that over cool control, this day, to remind me it could be otherwise. Give me this fight.
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An extraordinary novel in many ways, one of which is the way in which I think this, from Rosemary Ashton's introduction to the current Penguin Classic edition, is dead wrong:
We have seen that Lydgate's own ideal of womanhood is damagingly limited and egotistical. So too is Casaubon's ... Yet there is some authorial ambivalence here. Just as, while criticizing Lydate's expectations of a wife, George Eliot seems also to blame Rosamond for not putting her husband's view and needs before her own, so with Dorothea she moves between sharp satire of Mr Casaubon's requirement of complete devotion in a wife and warm authorial endorsement of Dorothea's desire to serve her husband selflessly. (xvii)

I don't think there is any ambivalence here: all are being judged by the same criteria, which is the extent to which they are able to enter imaginatively into other's lives. Lydgate, Casaubon and Rosamond are criticized for (in different ways) failing to do so, or doing so only to a limited extent; Dorothea is praised because she does so, even though it is in many cases to excess.

The great strength of the book, of course, is the astonishingly generous omniscient voice in which it is told, which has time for every character's particular desires, and (though it chides) has sympathy with every one of its inhabitants. More people, I want to say, should write omniscient voice like this, and this well. The voice enables some of the things I enjoyed most about the novel -- its wit, and its social acuity -- things which, it strikes me, are what Jane Austen fans say they get from her writing, but which I have never been able to find there. For me, in fact, the voice was often the most compelling thing about the book; Ashton is right that
[Ladislaw] is the least successfully imagined character in the novel, partly because he is obliged by e plot to be rootless and have mysterious origins, and to function as a handsome, youthful foil to his fading older cousin Casaubon. (xv)

-- with the result that his relationship with Dorothea is supremely unconvincing (if entirely predictable; I'm a little astonished that Jo Walton can write "I defy anyone to guess what’s going to happen in Middlemarch, even from half way through", because it's blindingly obvious that Dorothea is going to end up in a suitable marriage at the end of the book, it being unthinkable that she might live happily as an independent; the only questions are ones of detail, exactly how the marriage is going to happen), although he's not the least interesting character: that would be Bulstrode, most of whose chapters nearly put me to sleep.

I wonder whether that voice isn't ultimately a vice disguised as a virtue, in some ways; its message is -- quite rightly -- that we can never know the full circumstances of anything, never know another person entirely, but its existence undermines that message. Makes it a bit too comfortable. Although this was never a book where I sank through the page. I think that was in part because for all the precise delineation of the various relationships -- Rosamond and Lydgate's marriage is the best, because it would have been so easy to make one or other of them unambiguously the villain; this is where the narrator's limitless sympathy and empathy are most admirable, and the hard edge to their ending feels right -- the geography of the setting was more than a little vague. Every time I thought I'd worked out where one place was in relation to another, I would be (it seemed) contradicted, and my inhabitance of the book disturbed. Yes, reader, I wanted a map!

But it's a book I will probably return to in five or ten years, nevertheless.
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Following on from a mutually surprising discussion last weekend:

[Poll #1229575]

Justification in the comments welcomed.
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Aside from this glowing review (key references, Ballard, Stephenson, DeLillo; key phrase, "reinvention of the past as though it were science fiction"; review titled 'Pattern Recognition'), on Simon Ings' website we find this disclosure:
And finally. Weight's mysterious, slightly farcical philosophical society exists: it’s called the Science Fiction Foundation, and it was founded by George Hay, a friend of Arthur Clarke, Fred Hoyle and Solly Zuckerman. I don’t think it’s too much to say that Hay – long dead, alas – was the last of a grand line of Fabian eccentrics, the greatest of whom, I suppose, was Zuckerman’s wartime collaborator J D Bernal (the model for Weight's J D Arven). Hay wanted to create an organisation along the lines of Isaac Asimov’s fictional ‘Foundation’ – a shadowy elite with a hotline to government, providing it with the sort of thought experiments and long-term technical and sociological perspectives that the best science fiction could provide. To this end, he allotted me – his last and least protege (Mike Moorcock and Christopher Priest had preceded me), a number of more or less absurd tasks. I set up a dial-a-poem service. I typed up a previously unpublished soft-porn novel by a renowned science fiction author who really should have known better.

Funnily enough, a couple of years ago the Whitehall Foresight team invited a bunch of science fiction writers and myself to a hotel in St Pancras to perform for them (I seem to remember their theme was ‘The Future of Crime’ – their ideas were much better than ours were) – so obviously either Hay has had his influence, or – incredibly – he knew what he was talking about.

Today, Foundation survives only as a library at the University of Liverpool, picked over by a handful of dubious PhDs. A pity.
In other news, somewhere in this flat is my mobile phone. It's just that I can't find it and it's switched off. Nobody expect a quick response to any text messages today.
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I was tagged by Chance. I'm not tagging anyone, but if you want to write fifteen things about books, I will only encourage you.

1. A partial list of writers I read while growing up: Arthur Ransome, Nicholas Fisk, Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Johanna Spyri, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Isaac Asimov, CS Lewis, Willard Price, John Wyndham.

2. A partial list of writers I have read this year: Kelly Link, Justina Robson, F Scott Fitzgerald, Umberto Eco, Kazuo Ishiguro, Kim Stanley Robinson, Margo Lanagan, Tricia Sullivan, Charles Stross, Mary Doria Russell, Ian McEwan, Chinua Achebe, Michael Chabon, Ken Macleod, Matt Ruff.

3. There is no iceberg. I do not read nine times as many books as I write about. What you see is more or less what you get.

4. Don't ask me why I mostly read science fiction, and mostly read contemporary books. Don't try to tell me, either. I can make guesses, but I don't really know.

5. 'Genre' is a loaded word because it means both 'marketing category' and 'content', and though books in the marketing category will have the content, the reverse is not true. When I say 'I like science fiction' I almost always mean the content (or, I should say, more accurately, the mode, until someone can define science fiction by content in a satisfactory way) rather than the marketing category.

6. I am increasingly aware of how small and how big the world is, how much of it is far away from and unfamiliar to me, and how many stories lack any sense of that perspective. I don't ask that all stories sprawl--although I tend to like ones that do--but increasingly I think I need some self-awareness. This is perhaps particularly true of sf stories.

7. I wrote upwards of 35,000 words about books this year. Writing reviews doesn't feel like an obligation; it's something I do because I enjoy it, because I want to be and enjoy being part of the conversation. This week, for the first time, I was paid for a review I wrote. I'm not complaining, but it felt weird.

8. When I write a review, I don't have a mental checklist of things that I look for in a good book. I start with 'did I like this?' and then try to work out 'why?'

9. A corollary of this is that I can't think of a single characteristic that all the books I like share. I do not, for example, think that a story has to have great characters to be a great story. It has to have decent characters, but there are other virtues--plot, perspective, style, setting, subject--that can raise a story to greatness. (Equally, of course, a story can be great by virtue of its characters.)

10. Characters are other people's guesses of how other people work. We judge whether a character is convincing by validating them against what we know--'does this portrayal of an internal experience match my own internal experiences, or seem plausible as a model for the experiences I have seen others go through?' If the answer is no, the character will seem unconvincing. If the answer is yes, the character will seem convincing. Note that creation of a good character is dependent on the writer and the reader; different people will therefore find different characters memorable. Very good writers may be able to make characters convincing even if they are outside our personal experience, and will likely make us think about the experiences they go through in a way we hadn't done before.

11. I have to go and collect a parcel that couldn't be delivered earlier this week. I hope it contains books. UPDATE: It did! Although for Strange Horizons rather than for me.

12. Getting free books in the post is never, ever going to get old.

13. Books are comforting. I have piles of books all over the place. I tell myself this is because I don't have enough shelves--and that's true, but I suspect that even when I do have enough shelves I'll still have piles of books all over the place.

14. I've been putting off and putting off starting Stephen Baxter's latest, Transcendent, until I've got a clear run at it. At this rate, that will be sometime in 2006.

15. I always wish I read more nonfiction, but almost every time, when I'm wondering what to read next, a story seems more tempting. Maybe it's that I get my nonfiction fill from individual essays, or from work. Having said that, the last book I read was The Periodic Table by Primo Levi, which was brilliant.
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OK, gang, here's the deal: I'm on holiday next week. I am looking forward to nine consecutive days filled with sleeping, reading, and writing (and maybe just a little bit of socialising). But there's a problem, which is that even my I-must-read-this-soon buffer is overflowing, never mind my actual to-be-read pile (or the to-be-read sprawl, as I more accurately like to think of it). I know that I'll be reading the new Stephen Baxter, Transcendent, because who can resist an opening line like "The girl from the future told me that the sky is full of dying worlds"? Not me. But I don't know what else to read. Consequently, a poll:

[Poll #605320]

I may read the three that receive the most votes, or I may ignore you all. But that shouldn't stop you exercising your democratic right.

(If it makes any difference to anyone, I've already been dipping into all the collections on that list--the Hill, Mieville, Phillips and Tiptree--it's just a question of which ones I try to actually finish. And I was planning to keep Camp Concentration to the end of the month--it's the [livejournal.com profile] instant_fanzine book choice for November, so I want to read it just before the discussion, and I know I've got a flight on which I'll have time to read it. And if anyone wants to justify their votes with a comment, that'd be cool too.)

UPDATE: Those write-in votes in full:

[livejournal.com profile] immortalradical suggests PASSAGE TO INDIA, YOU NUMPTY. It's true, I do have Passage to India around here somewhere, but it's second in the Literature pile. The Periodic Table comes first (third is Dubliners).

[livejournal.com profile] ajr votes for Damon Knight's In Search of Wonder, which I acquired from the [livejournal.com profile] fishlifters earlier this year. That, along with Clute's Look at the Evidence and Parietal Games, is one of the books that sits in the bathroom for me to read in those idle moments. So I'm getting through it, but slowly. Books of reviews are not one of those things I can just sit down and read straight through.

[livejournal.com profile] grahamsleight nominates Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys. Two pre-1995 books is enough for one week, Graham.

[livejournal.com profile] tefkas' entry is Judas Unchained by Peter F. Hamilton. Flaw in this plan: it's part 2 of 2, and I haven't read its predecessor, Pandora's Star (although I do have a copy).
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Kate Atkinson's Case Histories was the first selection of the litblog co-op. For those who might not be aware (I'm thinking [livejournal.com profile] white_hart might be interested):

Well don't say LBC doesn't keep its word - however late. Kate Atkinson will, indeed, be dropping by here next Monday, August 29th to discuss Case Histories. If you've got any questions you'd like forwarded to her in advance, please drop us a line and we'll make sure she gets them all.
In other words, today. And, indeed, she has already started blogging, although I imagine things won't fully kick off until America gets out of bed.
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Or, what I read on my holiday, by Niall Harrison (aged 25 and one day).

I hadn't planned to read Eco on my holiday; ok, so I prefer my fiction challenging, but my one previous encounter with Eco, The Name of the Rose, was sufficiently intellectually daunting that I wouldn't normally consider him for a relaxing read (especially since I was only going for a few days). I'd planned to re-read Kim Stanley Robinson's beautiful and moving novel of utopia, Pacific Edge, something I've been looking for an excuse to return to for months, and a perfect vacation novel if ever there was one. But as fate had it, my flight was delayed, and browsing the WH Smith's bookshop at Gatwick's North Terminal I discovered a two-for-twenty deal on trade paperback editions. I ended up coming away not just with The Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana, but also Ian McEwan's Saturday; I only had time on the trip for the former, but it was time well-spent.

The novel starts with confusion. With a man, waking in hospital after an unspecified incident, who remembers fragments of something, but not his own name. His doctor doesn't immediately tell him--he wants to test the man's memory, work out the limits of his remembering--but soon enough we learn that the man is Yambo, husband of Paola, a sixty-something antiquarian book dealer who lives in Milan. The nature of his problem becomes clear, too: he has lost his episodic memory--lost everything related to him, all knowledge of his family and friends, lost the story of his life. All he has left is his semantic memory, the things he has learnt; the things he has read in books. The stories of others.

And since he's lived in and around books for the biggest part of his life, that's a lot of stories. It affects his behaviour; he has vast knowledge, and no experience. Yambo remembers words, but not sensations. He knows what others have said about the feeling of sun on skin, but he can't remember what it's like for himself. Everything he sees triggers connections. Half the time he talks in quotations and cliches, from literature high and low, new and old. In the absence of his own identity he becomes an archetype of the Protagonist, speculating what his story is and how he fits into it. His young assistant at his bookshop, for instance--what is his relationship to her? Surely not just an employer. Is he a mentor? A father-figure? A lover?

Before the incident, Yambo was fascinated by fog, as a device in fiction; now he can't remember why, and now he is lost in it himself. He tells his wife that he feels like a stuck record. He can learn everything new, but has no sense of his past; and, he tells her, 'you can only anticipate the future if you can call the past to mind.' So to rediscover himself he travels back to the place he grew up, to relive his youth as much as possible, by revisiting the stories he consumed then in the hope that he can blur the mental boundary between those narratives and his own. And sometimes, it works, or almost does. This is what he calls the luminous flame: something inside, like a tremor, like a revelation, like something outside his experience touching him (like, he says, the 2D beings in Edwin Abbot's flatland being confronted with a third dimension). But Paola is worried when, to entertain his grandchildren, he starts telling the stories as though they'd happened to him:
"If you're doing that to entertain the kids," she said, "that's one thing, but if not, then you're identifying too much with what you're reading, which is to say you're borrowing other people's memory. Are you clear about the distance between you and these stories?"

"Come on," I said, "I may be an amnesiac, but I'm not crazy. I do it for the kids!"

"Let's hope so," she said. "But you came to Solara to rediscover yourself, because you felt oppressed by an encyclopaedia full of Homer, Manzoni and Flaubert, and now you've entered the encyclopaedia of pulp literature. It's not a step forward."

"Yes it is," I replied, "first of all because Stevenson isn't pulp literature, and second because it's not my fault if the guy I'm trying to rediscover devoured pulp literature, and, finally, you're the very one, with that business about Clarabelle's treasure, who sent me here."

It's hard not to see the long middle section of the book, which consists almost entirely of reminiscence, as somewhat self-indulgent. There's a strong suspicion that Eco is, as much as anything, taking the chance to relive more than a few childhood memories of his own. But it's forgiveable, as are the points at which the momentum sags slightly, because the exploration of Yambo's personal and Italy's cultural history, all mixed up together, whether congruous to Eco's or not, is so often fascinating and vivid. The book-dealer's quest to recapture his youth is familiar and yet new; he sits, reading old school reports and newspapers, listening to old songs, trying to recreate a time past through patching together pieces of a culture gone, and imagining how ten-year-old him might have reacted. That many of his formative experiences in narrative turn out to be from pulpy adventure stories, or comic books, or similar sources, is strangely appropriate (and the consideration of those in their historical context is at times slightly reminiscent of Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, albeit with a significant extra distance between the reader and the experience).

And this is where the book plays its trump card. The cover claims that this is an 'illustrated novel', and does so accurately. The text is decorated with pictures: book and album covers, magazine pictures, stamps, propaganda posters. Even a doodle of a melancholy-looking Napoleon, from the author's own hand. The cover gives some idea:

It is not in any sense a graphic novel; the pictures are not essential to the story, and they do not convey necessary information that is not in the text. But they do convey more information, enhancing the text, and bringing an extra level of richness to the proceedings that makes Yambo's quest more sympathetic and more comprehensible. Perhaps this is something Yambo himself instinctively understands--it's the idea that a picture can never be captured in words--and perhaps it's why he turns to images and sounds to help him understand the words cluttering his mind.

One image above all comes to obsess him, because it is more completely lost than any other: the image of his first love, Lila Saba, the girl who, it seems, dominated his thoughts and life for a good three of his teenage years, and possibly was a subconscious influence for far longer than that. The intensity of the search for a trace of Lila, and the revelations it brings, triggers a second, more serious incident, and in the final section of the book Yambo's situation reverses dramatically. No longer is he a mind trapped in the present, with no sense of the past. He becomes, fallen into a coma, or a dream, or maybe already dead, a mind with perfect recall, able to explore and understand the mysteries introduced by his earlier researches, one by one--including finally, he hopes, the memory of Lila.

Compared to The Name of the Rose, The Mysterious Flame of Queen Leona is easy going; as I said, good holiday material. Oh, there's still a strong vein of philosophical enquiry: questions about the interaction of high and low culture, about how memory informs our understanding of who we are. And about how children read and learn--how they distinguish between reality and fantasy; how they can internalise and deepen stories they are told, making them something more than they originally were. And there is still a sense of artifice to Eco's writing, a feeling that this story and these characters are no more than (in Yambo's term) paper memories, built specifically for this exploration of these ideas.

But there is also a stronger sense, even when Eco is at his most indulgent and digressive, that there is a story here that needs to be told (sometimes the digressions are stories unto themselves). It's the impetus that keeps you turning the pages in a good book, you want to find out what happens next, and it doesn't matter that here everything is out of order, fragmented and unclear. You want to find out how the pieces fit together. The style, too, is more transparent than that of Rose, because here Eco can let himself use a more relaxed tone, and he does so with considerable charm. It is, I suspect, even without having read any of his other novels, not Eco's best book. If nothing else, it does falter slightly towards the end, when Yambo's story turns out to be more familiar than we might have hoped. The obsession of first love is a well-trod path, and I don't know that this adds anything new; but if this book says anything about stories, it says that none of them are new. This is a case where you should let yourself enjoy the familiar.

Other reviews:
Robert Alter at Slate.
David Horspool in the Sunday Times.
Thomas Mallon in the New York Times.
Stephanie Merritt in The Observer.
Ian Sansom in the Guardian
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Trash Sex Magic is Jennifer Stevenson's first novel. I finished it earlier this week, and have been mulling it over since then. My opinion of it is taking time to settle. In part, that's because it's a tricky book to describe.

It's not long, but it's very busy, sometimes to the point of being crowded; the cast is large, and they do a lot. The central characters are Raedawn Somershoe and her mother, Gelia, living in a trailer on the banks of the Fox creek Around them are a constellation of relatives and neighbours. As the novel opens, a large tree has been felled by the property developers setting up shop across the road, initiating a conflict that for a while simmers, and towards the end of the novel boils over.

It's fantasy, of the sort where magic is wild and unexplained, yet accepted as part of everyday life. If it was a less brash and zesty book, it might be tempting to describe it as magic realism. The magic comes from nature, from changing seasons--there's an air of folklore about the book, of the stories in which an injustice is done to the land and must be set right--and also, per the title, from sex. Both Rae and her mother are powerful witches, and astonishingly beautiful, and they express their power through sex. There is almost nobody in their community that at least one of them, and possibly both of them, have not slept with at some point; and their couplings punctuate the book, sometimes intense, sometimes casual, often healthy or healing. Not surprisingly, it turns out that the sex magic and the nature magic are, in fact, the same thing: the tree that was cut down was lover to both Gelia and Rae, we learn, and in his absence something is out of balance.

Although there is a great deal of incident, there is little plot in the traditional sense. Events are driven by encounters and conversations. The community and the property developers are in conflict, but there's no sense that either side is really planning their next move. The situation evolves organically. Subplots proliferate, and not neatly, which suits the book but is often less than satisfying. A number of the characters feel thinly drawn, more pawns than players. At least as many, though, are vivid, particularly the ragged twins Mink and Ink, Alexander (a construction worker), and of course Rae and her mother. At one point towards the end of the novel Alexander muses of the Somershoes that "Both of these women were too big. Too big to hold in your mind at one time--how could they be friends, or live in the same house? His head hurt trying to imagine it." (291) It's an accurate description.

There are two aspects of the book in particular that I cannot make up my mind about. The first is Rae herself. She is a bold, alluring young woman by any standard, very much in charge of her life and her sexuality. But her sexuality also defines her. Everything she does, she does by choice, but what she chooses to do is often to heal men through sex. And if, as we come to suspect, her lover is to be replaced, and a new tree grows, by extension she will heal the world. This should feel huge, and triumphant, and sometimes it does; but sometimes it seems oddly passive (it just happens rather than being Rae's choice; I'm not sure I ever got a clear sense of what Rae wants for herself alone, or whether there is any such thing at all) and sometimes strangely limited, that the only way Rae can help the world is through sex. This could be a deliberate comment on Stevenson's part--for the most part she is admirably non-judgemental about her characters, but perhaps Rae is meant to be trapped by her sexual nature?--but I'm not sure it feels like it.

The second aspect is related to the somewhat haphazard feel the whole affair carries. Trash Sex Magic is an appealingly messy book, but the flipside of that is that at times it is patchy. Some chapters seemed dull or overly cliche (the property developers never become much more than bad guys), but then there will be paragraphs or pages of astonishing writing, full of original imagery and beautiful insights into human nature and relationships. More often than not, these sections are precipitated by some magical incident, and this is where my frustration comes in. On the Small Beer website there's an interview with Stevenson, one quote from which probably explains why:
I felt that in fiction, magic ought to be treated with more respect, and not as a game whose rules must have "internal consistency"--a fantasy lit-crit phrase that drove me nuts for years--but as an extension of the mysterious and marvelous and very real natural world.
I have an instant adverse reaction to this sort of statement; it is not how I think. Certainly the natural world is mysterious and marvelous, but I don't believe it is--as I think Stevenson is suggesting--fundamentally inexplicable. And more importantly, I'm not convinced that that god, or nature, moving in mysterious ways makes for good fiction. Asking the reader to infer meaning is one thing--a feeling of uncertainty, that there are things we don't or can't know, is compelling--but there needs to be (or I need) a sense that there is something to be inferred. Sometimes Trash Sex Magic achieves that, but sometimes it doesn't, and I think that's because it's ever so slightly on the wrong side of the fine line between careful deployment of strangeness, and arbitrary incident.

These reservations aside, there is a great deal to like. The material Stevenson deals with could easily have become fey or twee, but she tells it with passion and power; and though on some levels the central conflict is undeniably cliche, it is told in a raw and exciting manner. There are books it's almost as much fun to disagree with as it might be to agree with; and this is one of them.

Other reviews:
Jessa Crispin at Bookslut.
Sherwood Smith at the SF Site.
Wes Unruh at Green Man Review.
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So I read a bunch of books last year, and some of them were quite good.

You want more than that?

ok, here's more than that )
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The latest issue of Locus contains, apart from the usual reviews and interviews, lists of forthcoming UK and US books for most of next year. Because I'm desperately sad about this sort of thing, I actually started noting the books I'm going to want to read; perhaps not surprisingly, fairly quickly I had at least one book a month picked out, and I thought I'd share my pickings with the wider world. The caveats: I've tried to stick mostly to UK publication dates, although I know full well there will be some US books I'll want to get; and for several months, there was more than one book in contention (September was a hard choice, and for October I've outright cheated). But now, without further ado ...

Read more... )
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(Some spoilers)

This is something I chatted briefly with [livejournal.com profile] tinyjo about at the weekend, and I apologise for going on about the same book again, but: I'd been considering writing a response to this piece by Matthew Cheney, which is partly about the actual merits of Ian R Macleod's novel The Light Ages and partly about how it was received. Before I got around to it, however, Trent Walters said much of what I was going to say at s1ngularity.

For instance, I don't disagree that in-genre hype is a problem - I don't see that anyone credibly can - but there were a couple of things in Cheney's specific criticisms that I could take issue with. Some of them are, admittedly, entirely subjective. I found the writing to be both lucid and immersive, and I thought the characters were interesting, if in many cases not exactly likeable. And in one case, I even agree with him - it is a slow book, and arguably too slow. Still, I'd be very reluctant to ascribe grammatical errors to Macleod rather than to his (somewhat uneducated) first-person narrator; and although he does single the novel's ending out for praise, I think it's perhaps more significant than he gives it credit for. However, see also Cheney's response to Walters, in the comment on the s1ngularity post.

Actually, Cheney also followed up with this fresh post on his own blog, whose comments in turn inspired this discussion from Walters (you'll have to scroll down a bit) of Cheryl Morgan's review. Her style is almost the polar opposite of Cheney's - his concern is primarily with the technical merit of the writing, and whether or not it was unjustly lauded; hers is with the broader argument of the novel - and in considering it I agree with Walters less; where he finds her final assessment of The Light Ages 'intriguing and profound', I find it mistaken.

Leaving aside the (to me, somewhat tenuous) Mieville/Macleod/cover art/politics theory that opens the review, her central argument is this: 'Macleod's message that all political revolutions are dangerous is trite and insulting to anyone who bothers to think deeply about politics. You always have to weigh the costs and benefits. The further message that proponents of revolution are naive dreamers who end up selling out is also simplistic and unsubtle.'

To the first point, I say that I think the novel is offering a model of social progression based on evolution rather than revolution; it's suggesting not simply that revolutions are dangerous, but that they don't often succeed, and that progress more commonly comes only in the smallest of increments, and those hard-won. To the second, I say that it's presenting the dangers of a revolution headed by naive dreamers, rather than suggesting that all revolutionaries are such. That's the key, I think; I see The Light Ages as being about what happens when fantasy meets reality. I think it offers one possible honest answer to that question and I think that's why, for me, it's such a fascinating novel.

EDIT: Note to [livejournal.com profile] flyingsauce - the mumpsimus is the blog I was talking about this evening. The lj account is [livejournal.com profile] mumpsimus_feed.
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Here's an interesting interview with Cory Doctorow, author of the much feted Down And Out In The Magic Kingdom - reviewed by Paul Di Filipo here and discussed by Dave Green here.

I've been meaning to write a thing or two about this ever since I read it, because it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that Doctorow's book has had a significant impact in geek/tech/sf circles. The links above just scratch the surface. It's already well on its way to becoming one of the year's key sf works; the bitchun society, with its weakly utopian base and reputation economy overlay, seems to be have been pre-packaged ready for deconstruction and debate. If you haven't read it, you're going to miss out on some interesting conversations.

Clearly, the novelty of the book's release under a creative commons licence is one of the reasons for the story's propogation. By now, the number of downloaded copies outweighs the 8,500 print run by a factor of at least ten to one. Whuffie is a memorably elegant concept, and combined with the real-world effect on Doctorow's profile it makes an irresistable hook for commentary.

The fact that the novel is a fine piece of speculative fiction doesn't hurt, though. Down and Out... is a work in the tradition of 1984 and The Handmaid's Tale. Forget character, forget style, forget plot (although the story has plenty of all three): This is about world-building, about uploading into an irreverant exploration of a post-cyberpunk, post-singularity brave new world. Could a reputation economy work? Should it work? Would we want it to work?

Have we already started to move in that direction?

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