book reviews


Oh, they have a Grue...

Oh, they have a Grue…

My friend gave me a copy of Ready Player One to read on the plane back to Japan, but my airline tricked me into flying a 777 without reclining seats or accessible reading lights or wi-fi, so I didn’t get to finish it till today nor did I realize how enormously popular it is until I randomly googled it. It’s a really good book, but has some really irritating flaws, so here is my review.

The basic idea of the story is simple and powerful, and I’m surprised it took so long to be written. It’s set in a dystopian near future (where, for once, the effect of climate change is stated and assumed throughout the story), where the world economy is slowly falling apart but there is a new virtual reality internet called the OASIS, where people can spend basically their whole lives escaping the boredom and horrors of everyday life. This world is fully interactive using haptic gloves and suits, so a kind of addictive experience (fortunately the author doesn’t use this silly idea of internet addiction), but it is also huge, a kind of galaxy of many worlds where almost anything can happen. The designer of the OASIS has died, but instead of leaving a will he has left behind his fortune, plus the title to control the company that designed the OASIS, as a prize in a complex game that, when the book starts, no one has won. This idea is patently ludicrous: the OASIS is the most important technological development in human history (as an example, our lead character receives his education through the OASIS and it is clearly a superior education to any physical school) but its developer has left the deed to the thing for any random gamer dickhead to take possession of. We’ve all seen what gamers are like – would you want the world’s biggest and most important company to be controlled by them?

And it is clear from the book that it is gamers who will take the prize, since the prize is a complex series of challenges based entirely on computer games. In order to crack the puzzles one needs to be an exceptional gamer; but worse still, all the clues to the puzzles are drawn from 1980s nerd and teen pop culture, so in order to find the clues one needs to be deeply invested in such execrable crap as The Breakfast Club and Highlander. One also needs to be a genius with 1980s arcade games, possibly the worst games ever invented.

As a result of this plot device, the book is a constant pastiche of 80s references, and the characters are the kind of losers you hated in first year university, who quote Monty Python in place of social interaction, and think going to see the Rocky Horror Picture Show is the height of cool. Worse still, the characters in this story are the worst kind of computer game winners: they may not be able to get laid or interact with actual human beings, but in the OASIS they’re unbelievably, perfectly good at everything. Worst of all is our hero Wade, who when challenged is able without any appreciable effort to get a perfect score in pacman, and wins a contest (based on a computer game) that the next best competitor took five weeks of constant striving to win. He’s also capable of hacking international corporations, quickly hacking the system to create a new identity for himself, and making leaps of intuitive faith about obscure 1980s game and video references even though he was never part of the 1980s culture and only understands these things from studying his hero. He is, of course, also stunningly good at PvP first person combat games.

In short, he (and his three colleagues) are at a Harry Potter level of unrealistic character development. Mixed with all the worst traits of the nerd world, and an urgent need to prove how smart they are. Reading about these kinds of people is annoying!

However, the challenge is also intoxicating, and the growth of the relationships between the main characters – and the challenges they face in solving the puzzle – is really compelling. Although I didn’t like any of the characters, I soon found myself really wanting them to survive and really engaged with the story. It’s a tense, tight, well-told tale with several unexpected twists and turns, and much of the setting is a range of magical or technological fantasy worlds that make it a fairly unique mix of real world and fantastic tales. The magical world much of it is set in (the OASIS) seems very unrealistic, but it’s also a stimulating and interesting vision of how the future could unfold if the technology were available. If you can put aside the constant, mostly lame, references to the 80s, and the really boring and annoying way in which the characters are almost perfect in every way relevant to their quest, it’s an exciting and enjoyable romp through a very well realized  image of the future of society’s relationship with the internet. I strongly recomend this book for gamers and those interested in visions of the future in which communication and internet technology trumps manufacturing and off-world exploration – it’s a fascinating and exciting story with an excellent ending! If you have any interest in virtual worlds, and enjoy watching ordinary people get it wrong and then somehow struggling through to get it right, then I strongly recommend this book!

 

The science fiction magazine Strange Horizons has published an interview with Iain M. Banks, apparently part of someone’s PhD project (what a cool PhD!) in which he gives a scathing and in my opinion brilliantly accurate critique of Foucault:

The little I’ve read I mostly didn’t understand, and the little I understood of the little I’ve read seemed to consist either of rather banal points made difficult to understand by deliberately opaque and obstructive language (this might have been the translation, though I doubt it), or just plain nonsense. Or it could be I’m just not up to the mark intellectually, of course.

This is exactly what I’ve thought of the little Foucault I’ve read: a few interesting points, hammered home over and over again in incredibly pretentious and overbearing language. I would add that I have partially the same criticism of Chomsky’s political works: in my view Manufacturing Consent is a brilliant book if you read just the first 3 or 4 chapters, and after that it’s just repetition of the same point. The difference of course is that Chomsky’s writing is not incomprehensible and deliberately opaque. In my view, the value of Foucault’s ideas is significantly undermined by the pretentiousness of his presentation, and Banks summarizes it perfectly here.

Banks also nails Freud:

I suspect Freud’s theories tell you a great deal about Freud, quite a lot about the monied middle-class in Vienna a hundred-plus years ago, and only a little about people in general

In my opinion, psychology as a discipline is limited by its subject matter, which is the inner life of middle class women a hundred years ago (and more broadly, middle class people now, and mostly Americans at that). A friend of mine observed about a psychologist at his work that “she has never said anything that wasn’t self-evidently obvious basic stuff, dressed up in psychobabble,” and in my experience in drug and alcohol research psychologists were too busy looking for individual causes to notice the very obvious fact that drugs are addictive, and society is fucked up. The limitations of psychology, in my opinion, can be best summarized by this simple fact I have observed over many years of working with psychologists: if you meet a person with a PhD in psychological research [not clinical practice] you can diagnose instantly their psychological disorder by asking them the topic of their thesis. It tells you a great deal about them, and only a little about people in general. Note that the full passage from Banks in this case also likens Marx’s techniques to Freud’s, putting Marx at no higher an intellectual level than Freud. In your place, Karl.

There’s a lot of other interesting stuff about Banks’s approach to the Culture in that interview, but I thought his frank opinions about these theorists tells us a lot about him as a theorist and ideologue. He doesn’t care for obfuscation and pretension, and he is not misled by psychobabble. Perhaps in that we can see some of the reasons why his books were so popular, and he was respected in both mainstream fiction and science fiction. His death was truly a huge loss for science fiction, and by extension for the literary world generally, though the literary world generally is too busy loving Foucault and Freud to notice. More fool them!

Popular perception of Tolkien’s world-building efforts seems to be that they were the product of a determined and methodical visionary. I think this perception arises because his worlds are so detailed and carefully constructed, so complete and internally consistent, that it’s impossible not to imagine that they were constructed systematically out of a guiding vision. However, reading Dimitra Fimi’s Tolkien, Race and Cultural History I have been given a very different insight into Tolkien’s world-creation process, as a jumbled, complex series of reworkings of different visions, stemming from differing and sometimes conflicting political goals, and coalescing around an accidental publication timetable. One also gets the sense that by the end of this creative process Tolkien himself was having difficulty understanding exactly how he approached it, and what his ideological and aesthetic purpose was. The book also helps us to understand how Tolkien’s creative process changed along with the creative fashions of the time, and shows the many ways in which Tolkien’s world-building was closely linked to the changing aesthetics of his era. Here I would like to give a brief overview of how his world-building proceeded, and the ultimate somewhat chaotic way in which it coalesced into a final (publicly) static form.

From inchoate faerie-lore to political vision

Tolkien’s first works were not about Middle-Earth at all, but poems and stories about faeries and goblins. These stories and poems had youthful naivete and a close connection to the fascination with faeries that British society was still enjoying at the end of the Edwardian era. His pre-war poems draw on the popular image of small, flitting woodland creatures of that time, and nothing in them resembled the creatures of his later world. By the end of his creative process Tolkien was saying in letters that he had “always” hated these Edwardian faerie imaginings, but this is clearly not the case in his unpublished and published early works – an interesting example of the author having a vision of his youthful self that is at odds with his own work. As the faeries of the Edwardian era were crushed under the wheels of the first world war (and some classic faerie hoaxes), Tolkien’s own work grew darker and more adult, with faeries changing to gnomes that eventually became Noldor, and who would become the original speakers of the elven language that he originally developed as a fairy and then gnomish tongue. From this mish-mash of faerie lore, combined with his language work, the original Silmarillion began to form after the war, but it went through many revisions and gradually became more mature and complex as the faerie transformed into elves. However, its form was heavily dependent on Tolkien’s political vision, and the content also changed with the development and subsequent atrophying of his political goals.

Middle-earth as a revolutionary Catholic project

Tolkien was a devout Catholic, and also a romantic (in the aesthetic sense), somewhat out of time and place in a protestant England becoming increasingly materialistic. During the end of the Edwardian era, in the pre-war years, this conflict between the increasingly materialistic and scientific modern England and its pastoral romantic past came to the fore in many aspects of its political and artistic culture, and indeed the fanciful beliefs in faeries was one example of a kind of pastoral revivalism occurring in increasingly urban and industrial England. Tolkien was no doubt affected by this romantic revanche, and in the pre-war years he and his friends joined together to form the Tea Club/Barrovian Society (TCBS) which had as its goal “to drive from life, letters, the stage and society teh dabbling in and hankering after the unpleasant sides and incidents in life and nature.” They envisioned England “purified of its loathsome insidious disease” by their works. At this time Tolkien was building his elvish language, and he appears to have envisaged a connection between England’s faerie past and the moral character of Englishness: he seems to have imagined faerie creatures as teaching morality and aesthetically superior ideals to humans in the mythology he was building at this time, and he saw his stories and poems about faerie as an opportunity to proselytize the TCBS ideals publicly. This puts a strange conflict at the heart of his work, because at this stage his language works and some of his stories include strong hints that his Middle Earth was built from a Catholic vision – his language included many specific terms for Catholic religious ideas and ritual objects, and a major part of his stories was inspired by a particular old English world for Christ. Here he was stuck, I think, because faerie are obviously not a Catholic idea and he was forced to reconcile these faerie “teachers” of the romantic vision with his Catholic ideals. At this stage his Middle Earth was incomplete, and he appears to have solved the problem by taking a step towards dividing the world into a period of myth and a period of near history. This step also appears to have been influenced by another of his ideological goals at this time: the recovery of an English mythology.

Tolkien’s English nationalism

Tolkien was open about his desire to build a “mythology for England,” and he admired similar efforts conducted elsewhere, most especially the Kalevala, which was a fabricated ideal of Finnish nationhood that was instrumental in forging modern Finland. Part of this project required the discovery or construction of myths for England, and indeed of a differentiation of English from British. The concept of “Englishness” is of course a joke, a fantasy of racial purity that has no grounding in science or history, but Tolkien liked to labour under the impression that he had some kind of identifiable racial “stock,” and that everyone else in England did too. At the point where he was writing The Hobbit and fiddling with multiple revisions of his world, Tolkien was still impressed by ideas that linked language and racial heritage, and he appears to have still subscribed to ideas about the inherent moral characteristics of different races (we will come back to this in a subsequent post, because Tolkien’s ideas about race seem to have been complex and to have changed a lot in the inter-war period). So early visions of his world included attempts to build a kind of tutelary lore for the English, which as part of the intended proselytizing of the TCBS would lead to the promulgation of ideals of Englishness in the same vein as the Kalevala instilled a unified concept of Finnishness in the Finns.

Unfortunately the Great War pulverized the Edwardian sense of romance out of the British population, and as the TCBS grew up their cynicism overwhelmed their desire to action; by the time the Hobbit came out their activities were largely just correspondence to each other, and Tolkien’s visions of Englishness and romantic revival, though preserved in his aesthetics and his written works, appear to have lost their overtly political impetus.

The Hobbit and the consolidating influence of publication pressure

After the war Tolkien’s world went through multiple revisions, and he kept adding, changing and recreating it, generally in a more adult and cynical direction. However, simultaneously he wrote and published The Hobbit, which he did not appear to have originally envisaged as a core part of his story – even his invention of Hobbits themselves appears to have been something of an afterthought. However, after its success he was put under pressure from his publisher to write more about Hobbits, and so the Lord of the Rings began to take solid form. But with this open publication of a part of his world some elements of it were cemented in place, and all of his vision now had to be built so as to be consistent with the position of the events of The Hobbit in its history. Building on The Hobbit meant constructing a story for adults, with all the conflict and realism that entails, that would be consistent with both the events of the Hobbit and the deeper past of his world. At this point, he had to consolidate the material of his world building and it is only at this point that we see the final form of his world, which we must remember had been built slowly in multiple conflicting revisions over 20 years. Thus it is that we see hints of many different aspects of earlier ideas: his English nationalism drawn in through the three different races of Men; his Catholic revolutionary project through the story of Feanor, a much-diluted version of earlier distinct attempts to create a specific vision based on a specific word in an Anglo-Saxon poem; his division of Middle Earth into eras of myth with flat worlds and pre-history with a spherical world; his placement of Numenor as a western Island, originally conceived of as England but with this visionary role for England diluted over many years of rewriting; his construction of Middle Earth as approximately European geographically, as legacy of his idea of the creation of mythical prehistory for England. All of these sometimes conflicting strands of thought, ideology and aesthetic were tied together not by a clear uniting vision spanning 20 years, but by a series of conflicting aesthetic, political and religious goals that waxed and waned over time, competed and complemented each other, and were deeply influenced by the political, religious and aesthetic trends of his era, as well as by the major political events that shaped Tolkien’s early years.

Understanding how Tolkien’s political and religious ideology shaped his aesthetics and his world-building is useful for better understanding the conservatism, racial theories and political ideals behind his books. For example, many people seem to like the idea that the One Ring is emblematic of technology and its corrupting influence on the world, but I don’t see any hint of this in the ideology underlying the world Tolkien built, and Fimi’s book (which I’m nearly finished now) hasn’t mentioned this idea at all – it just doesn’t seem to fit in with what Tolkien’s stated ideals and goals were (or with those we are able to infer). Similarly, defenders of his work against accusations of racism like to quote Tolkien saying he opposes allegory, perhaps as some kind of evidence that he doesn’t have any political goals underlying his work; but this goes against his own repeated statements of political and religious intent. The man formed a club that intended to use aesthetics to change the ideology of Britain – he was a very political writer! And his politics, or at least the way it interacts with his aesthetic vision, seems to have been both aware of outside political trends and ideals, and to have changed continuously over the period that he wrote his two major books and The Silmarillion. I think this background to the creation of his stories will help us to understand where the racial theories in his world fit in both the social backdrop of his era, and in the context of his own public and private statements on race, as well as his political and ideological goals. In my next post I will look at how his views on Englishness and religion, and his understanding of the politics of his era, may have affected the racial theories in his story – and how Tolkien’s views on race themselves changed as he wrote

 

The 2013 Booker prize shortlist was released recently, and to my surprise I saw a book on the list that looked appealing: Jim Crace’s Harvest. I’ve never read a Booker prize winner and only read two books ever nominated – both by Margaret Atwood – so I thought it would be interesting to see if the prize functions as any kind of recommendation.

I won’t make that mistake again.

Harvest is a novel supposedly about the period of Enclosure in Britain, when land previously held in common was enclosed and privatized. As far as I understand it, the common view of history (and certainly the one I was taught in school in the UK when they taught this) was that Enclosure was an enormously important and beneficial land reform that improved productivity and wealth, and led to the modernization of Britain. An alternative theory of history that I think has some popularity amongst radical leftists (especially anarchists) and eco-radicals is that Enclosure was an act of theft, in which the wealthy and ruling classes of Britain expropriated land from their tenants, drove them out to form a landless labouring class, and then exploited them as cheap labour. I think there is some truth to this claim, though it needs to be counter-posed against whatever horrors subsistence farming on the feudal commons brought about for the peasantry; certainly when I was taught Enclosure at school in the UK, nobody mentioned sheep – it was presented as a way of improving productivity and the lives of peasants, and presented as having been introduced alongside the agricultural advances of crop rotation.
So I was interested in a novel which explored a social drama against this context, of a village life being rapidly changed through Enclosure. The basic story is summarized at the Picador website:

As late summer steals in and the final pearls of barley are gleaned, a village comes under threat. A trio of outsiders – two men and a dangerously magnetic woman – arrives on the woodland borders and puts up a make-shift camp. That same night, the local manor house is set on fire.

Over the course of seven days, Walter Thirsk sees his hamlet unmade: the harvest blackened by smoke and fear, the new arrivals cruelly punished, and his neighbours held captive on suspicion of witchcraft. But something even darker is at the heart of his story, and he will be the only man left to tell it . . .

Told in Jim Crace’s hypnotic prose, Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed. Timeless yet singular, mythical yet deeply personal, this beautiful novel of one man and his unnamed village speaks for a way of life lost for ever.

The story proceeds very quickly from the harvest to the events described above. It is a straightforward plot, viewed through the eyes of a man who slowly gets excluded from his community as events turn nasty. It’s well written and evocative, although one quickly begins to see the technical devices Crace is using, so the prose becomes a bit same-same after a while. This isn’t a bad thing though, since the consistent style and the nature of the imagery are evocative of a late summer in the country of the distant past – you do feel like you’re reading about a different, simpler world of growers and spinners. Crace also manages to very solidly ground the lead character, Thirsk, in the foreground while making many of the villagers distant and washed out figures, not really described in detail and their inner lives hidden, in such a way that you do feel like you stand only with Thirsk, that you are something of an outsider, and that the village has an inner life you don’t understand. I think this is good for looking back at a time that we can’t really understand or feel any common cause with.

However, the book has serious flaws. First and most importantly, the ending is completely unsatisfactory. You don’t find out most of the reasons why most of the things described in the blurb happened, and you certainly don’t get to see any kind of resolution of any of them. Maybe it was Crace’s intention to have 7 days of chaos fall on a village for no reason, to be left unresolved and confused at the end … if so, he’s a punishing and mean writer. I think more likely he thought that he had resolved the story, and didn’t realize he hadn’t at all. Walter Thirsk’s final actions are also incomprehensible and weak, and we don’t see in them what I think Crace intended us to see. The plot is building to an interesting resolution involving several forces – the villagers, the strangers, the two lords and Walter – but instead all these separate threads go basically unresolved (except perhaps the strangers). To the extent that any of these people are built up as characters in the novel (and most aren’t, or drift through it as archetypes), Crace betrays them by showing a complete lack of interest in their fate.
Second, Enclosure plays almost no role in this story. Enclosure does not happen to the village, and the technician charged with the central task of implementing it is treated in such a way as to give the reader the impression that no one is interested in Enclosure and it is not going to happen. We are told that the strangers are fleeing from the enclosure of their own lands but we see no evidence of this, and because we never meet those strangers properly we cannot hear their story of Enclosure or know if their flight was the correct response – maybe they were criminals at home, too? Much of the resistance to Enclosure described in the book is also based on cultural objections, with no deeper political or structural analysis. We don’t hear any hint of empoverishment or land theft, though there is the impression given that some villagers will have to leave; nonetheless the villagers’ objection to Enclosure (described entirely through the opinions of Walter Thirsk) is primarily cultural: they have a way of life they don’t want to change, and they don’t like sheep. I don’t think, given this, that it can be said that “Harvest evokes the tragedy of land pillaged and communities scattered, as England’s fields are irrevocably enclosed.” There is nothing irrevocable about the enclosure in this book (that doesn’t happen), and the reasons the community is scattered are to do with witchcraft and feudal terror, not enclosure – which most of the community are still ignorant of when they leave. Even the three we supposedly know are on the lam from their previous community are clearly criminals, and could be fleeing for that reason as much as any other. I guess we’re meant to see the interaction between village and strangers as a clash between the new, threatening post-enclosure world and the Britain of the rural past, but I don’t see it, and the villagers respond to the strangers solely on the basis of their foreignness – their response is that of old Britain, and not motivated by (or even aware of) the possibility that these strangers might be a new class of dangerous, land-less worker. There is no political struggle in this book. Which is fine, but I think the role of Enclosure in the story has been completely over-egged.
Finally, this story has no special underlying thread or deeper plot: it is not the case that “something even darker is at the heart of [Walter Thirsk’s] story.” It’s just a tale of stupidity and nastiness on the edge of the earth, and the nastiness is so disconnected from sense and so pointless and stupid that it’s hard to credit on its face, let alone as the surface manifestation of “something even darker.” This is a story of a bad lord and some stupid villagers. Maybe the bad lord has a bigger plot to what he is doing, but we don’t find out because his story is not resolved; and if he does have a bigger plot, it’s clear what it is, and it’s not “something even darker,” it’s just plain old-fashioned viciousness deployed in the economic interests of the ruling class – something the book studiously fails to draw out in any great detail.
So in the end I just can’t see what is special enough about this book to win it a nomination for a Booker prize. It’s just a simple though well-written story about some trouble in a village. What are their criteria? Why is this prize special? Certainly some of the winners look like insufferably self-conscious attempts at literary fiction, and I guess that being on the panel must be unrewarding drudgery if you have to read through 6 or 8 novels desperately trying to be “weighty” without offending anyone. Harvest certainly gave the impression of trying to be weighty and literary without actually having anything resembling a decent plot or systematic under-pinning. It’s good, but it’s not exceptional and it’s certainly not well-crafted.
I’ve noticed that the Booker prize has come in for a fair bit of criticism on the grounds that it is really just a sheltered workshop for a dying and falsely ring-fenced genre, “literary fiction,” and I think I’m inclined to agree. This blogger describes the panel as an “ethnically pure, upper middle class cartel” and bemoans the lack of science fiction or fantasy in the prize. Certainly, looking at the lists of past short-lists and winners it seems pretty clear that the “cartel” are restricting the prize to an in-group of a few authors. For example, the 1985 list includes Doris Lessing, Peter Carey and Iris Murdoch – 50% of the list are past winners or regular short-listers. How is it possible that amongst all the literature of the Commonwealth for a single year, the same three people can end up getting in the top 6? Is the pool of good literature in the Commonwealth really so limited? Iain M. Banks’s The Wasp Factory was released in 1984, and he has published almost every year since – yet he doesn’t appear in a single short list, and I can’t see any evidence that this novel made the longlist either. Similarly Mieville’s best-constructed three works (The Scar, Perdido Street Station and The City and The City) don’t appear, neither does Philip Pullman, Gaiman’s Neverwhere, and of course nothing from the crime and mystery genres. I would say that The Rivers of London is a better work than Harvest, yet nothing like it appears on the short list. As others have observed, this prize exists to police the perimeters of a dying genre of literature, whose purveyors are labouring under the false impression is not a genre, but somehow the essence of fiction. It isn’t – it’s a dull backwater for people who take themselves too seriously.
From next year, the Booker will be opened to American writers, and some see this as the end of the prize. I’m not a big fan of contemporary American fiction, so I don’t see that as a likely outcome, but were the Booker panel to consider science fiction, fantasy and genre fiction then yes, that would be it for the Commonwealth writers – and certainly for British writers. How amusing, then, that a Guardian critic of this decision writes:
When eligibility shifts from the UK, Commonwealth, Ireland and Zimbabwe to English-language novels published in the UK, it is hard to see how the American novel will fail to dominate. Not through excellence, necessarily, but simply through an economic super-power exerting its own literary tastes
Well, whether it’s an economic super-power exerting its literary tastes or a white upper middle class conspiracy theory, we’re not going to see a shift to any kind of recognition of actual quality in literature. At least if the Americans are let in, there might be a chance of introducing a bit of democratic diversity to the judging. Or will there? I bet next year’s prize will contain the same narrow range of “acceptable” lit-fic blandness, and not a whiff of genre fiction in sight. Which is a great thing for all 6 lit-fic authors still plugging away at that stuff, but a shame for all the unsung novelists who write genuinely good stuff that people actually want to read.
At least until it diversifies we can be fairly confident that the Booker prize is a warrant of mediocrity, and avoid wasting money on its nominees …
Not enough to save you from castration

Not enough to save you from castration

I’ve been reading Anthony Beevor’s The Second World War, and I have been very disappointed by its handling of cryptography. Overall the book is an interesting and fun read, not as engrossing or powerful as Stalingrad or Berlin but retaining his trademark narrative flow, mix of military and personal history, and leavened with analysis of the broader political currents flowing through the war. It also doesn’t ignore colonial history the way earlier generations’ stories did, and  it is willing to present a relatively unvarnished view of Allied commanders and atrocities. The book has many small flaws, and I don’t think it’s as good as previous work. In particular the writing style is not as polished and the tone slightly breathless, occasionally a little adolescent. I’m suspicious that his grasp of the Pacific war is not as great as of Europe, and that he may fall back on national stereotypes in place of detailed scholarship, though I have seen no evidence of that yet. But the main problem the book has is just that the war is too big to fit into one person’s scholarship or one book, and so he glosses over in a couple of sentences what might otherwise have formed a whole chapter. This was particularly striking with the Nanking Massacre, which gets a paragraph or less in this book. That, for those who aren’t sure of it, is about the same amount of coverage it gets in a Japanese middle school history textbook – which also has to cover the whole of World War 2. Interesting coincidence that …

Anyway, as a result of this a great many things that might be important are given very little description. For example, the famous technology of the war – the Spitfire, the Messerschmitt, the Zero – are introduced without explanation or elucidation, and though constantly referred to by their proper names we don’t know what their strong or weak points are – it’s as if Beevor assumed we were going to check it ourselves on wikipedia. I was a little disappointed when I realized that Beevor had decided to treat the decryption/encryption technologies of the war – and the resulting intelligence race – in this way. So at some point early in the Battle of the Atlantic he starts referring to “Ultra Decrypts,” as if they were simply another technology.

This is disappointing because Ultra decrypts aren’t just another technology. There was an ongoing battle between mathematicians and engineers of both sides of the war to produce updated technologies and to decrypt them, and the capture and utilization of intelligence related to encryption methods was essential to this effort. The people who participated in this battle were heroes in their own right, though they didn’t have to ever face a bullet, and their efforts were hugely important. Basically every description of every major engagement in the African campaign includes the phrase “fortunately, due to Ultra decrypts, the Allies knew that …”[1]; the battle of Midway was won entirely because of the use of decryption; and much of the battle of the Atlantic depended on it too. These men, though they never fired a shot in anger, saved hundreds of thousands of tons of allied materiel, tens of thousands of lives, and huge tracts of land and ocean from conquest. Yet they aren’t even mentioned by name, let alone given even a couple of sentences to describe what they did and how they worked. This is particularly disappointing given that Alan Turing, who was hugely important to this effort, was cruelly mistreated by the British government after the war and ended up committing suicide. It’s also disappointing because cryptography was an area where many unnamed women contributed to the war effort in a way that was hugely important. In one earlier sentence during the Battle of Britain Beevor refers to “Land Girls,” the famous women who farmed England while the men were at war. It would be nice to also see a reference to “the Calculators,” young women who crunched numbers before computers were invented.

I find this aspect of Beevor’s book disappointing, and I’m sure that there are similar oversights in reporting the contribution of other “back office” types. Maybe it’s reflective of the modern idea that only “frontline workers” count, and only their stories are important. Or maybe it’s a reflection of a culture in which the contribution of nerds and scientists is always devalued relative to the contribution of adventurers, sportspeople and soldiers. It’s a very disappointing missed opportunity to tell an important and often under-reported story about the huge contribution that science makes to advancing human freedom.

fn1: And usually also includes the phrase “Unfortunately, [insert British leader] was too [timid/stupid/slow/arrogant] to respond and thus …”

Every girl wants some ...

Every girl wants some …

While I was in Greece working for two weeks I had no internet access, something of a catastrophe for my millions of fans but a strange chance to chill out for me[1]. Fortunately I had downloaded a couple of books to my kindle before I left[2] so I had plenty to occupy me, and first on my list was the Richard Morgan series The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands. In this post I will give a brief review of the two books, but what I’m really interested in with these books is the subtext, and the underlying implications of the world structure of the sub-genre they are derived from.

I have previously read and reviewed Richard Morgan’s cyberpunk/space opera cross-over novels, Altered Carbon and Woken Furies, both of which I really enjoyed for dubious reasons. Richard Morgan’s two new novels are fantasies rather than science fiction, and are also a departure from his previous style in that they are clearly intended to be “grimdark,” that new style of fantasy realism that embraces violence, rape and brutality but, most especially, rape. In his sci fi, Morgan kept the sexual violence repressed and simmering on the edge of the story: sure, there were snuff movie makers and some nasty criminal undergrounds, but they were just that – some kind of tiny minority who traded cruelty to a tiny minority. In The Steel Remains series, Morgan has moved the sexual violence to the centre of the story, along with a heavy dose of brutality, and embraced all the lowest aspects of grimdark. I have previously commented critically on his justification for doing this, and also on the general trend towards misogyny and violence in stories like A Game of Thrones, so I entered these two novels with very mixed views on what to expect.

First of all, I enjoyed these books for all the same reasons I enjoyed his previous works. In their broad outline they haven’t really deviated much from the basic themes of Altered Carbon. The story features on some elite soldiers who are veterans of a great war to save civilization. The war was brutal and they are scarred from it; but even more by the the cruelties they were forced to commit when they were deployed to put down civil revolts near the end of the war. They have emerged as scarred survivors with a very short fuse and a strong drive to hurt bullies and criminals, largely to try and rectify their own past complicity in horrible crimes. This means we get to see a healthy dose of bully-smashing, which I always find thoroughly enjoyable: child rapists, murderers, slavers, torturers and bastards get all manner of cruel and just desserts in this story, and it’s really hard to feel any pity for them. The world they’re in shows no shortage of such people, and in fact if our heroes were to set out on a mission to do in every bully and cruel bastard on the planet, they would end up very lonely. The world is divided into two main countries, a northern and southern empire that are basically equivalent to Europe and Asia Minor: the southern continent is clearly meant to be Muslim. One of our heroes is a gay son of a very privileged family, in a world where homosexuality is a deep sin; another is an outlander from horse tribes generally seen as barbarians. The main character (the gay man) is a picture in repressed rage, basically a shirt-lifting version of Kovacs from Altered Carbon. There’s a lot to like in watching these two men dispense with anyone who offends their sense of rightness which is, in general, the same as the reader’s. I think this means they are relatively (for fantasy) deep and complex characters, and generally in the right in a degraded and mediaeval kind of way. Unfortunately the story is not as tight as in his previous works: there are parts that don’t make sense and at times it feels like I missed a book, though I’m pretty sure I didn’t. Some sections, particularly those set in the faerie world, just don’t make any sense to me. There’s also a strong deus ex machina running through the whole latter part of the story, with one of the characters basically getting out of any situation through his role as vessel for some ancient darkness, the role of which is not explained. That aspect of the novels is pretty shit, actually, and I was disappointed with those elements of the story. So, although the novels retain some aspects of Richard Morgan’s best works, they represent both a structural and moral degeneration from his previous highs.

Which brings us to the issue of the grimdark. If the moral universe in which our heroes operate were to be characterized in two easy themes, it would be: every man rapes, and the strong can kill with impunity. This is grimdark, you see. At the time the story is set, the northern kingdom has instituted a new system of debt slavery, in which basically anyone who cannot pay a debt can be sold, along with their family, into permanent and brutal slavery. That is, if your neighbour goes underwater on their mortgage, you can buy them, and then rape them with impunity – and even pay for them to be sent to a special training school which will somehow (probably, the implication is, through rape and violence) turn them into willing sex slaves.

Furthermore, as far as I could tell in this world, free women seem to be divided into only two types of person: noblewomen and sex workers (who of course are routinely referred to as “whores,” a noun which in this story basically replaces “woman” in the narrative flow). The men could fill more roles, but no matter what they did, unless they were very very high in society, our heroes could murder them in the street without paying any penalty. It appears that in this world of grimdark, slaughtering people who spill your beer is pretty standard practice. I guess beer is expensive.

The implications of these setting elements are obvious and abhorrent. What kind of world can pass a law to enslave ordinary people’s neighbours? How is that going to work? Sure, one of our heroes is employed to rescue a girl from his extended family who is sold into this situation, but we’re somehow meant to believe that they are the first and only family to decide to take independent action against slavery, and that the rest of the world is just going along with it. This seems hardly credible. There is not, in general, any particular group targeted for exclusion and enslavement, and no sense that “it won’t happen to me.” Just ordinary families getting swept up in slavery because they went into debt. This scenario is just impossible to credit, even in a mediaeval dictatorship. Who would tolerate this? How long would it last before people started rebelling? Especially in a world where heroes can kill ordinary men with impunity, it seems pretty likely that a village would scrape up the money to pay a few mercenaries to go and liberate their enslaved members. It seems far less likely that they would buy those enslaved members and then subject them to the full cruelties of lifelong slavery. “Hi Bob, yes, I always enjoyed chatting with you at the pub, but from now on I own your family because you didn’t pay the beer tab, so I’m going to rape your wife and daughter every day.” Doesn’t figure, does it? But the society of these novels seems to just go along with it, as if they had a missing moral bone … which they certainly seem to lack when it comes to prostitution and murder.

There are prostitutes – sorry, “whores” – everywhere in this story. In one notable scene, our hero is stalking through some random street and hears a prostitute – sorry, a “whore” – busily sucking off a sailor in an alley, then notices a whole queue of sailors waiting for her services. This is … phenomenally weird. Everywhere we turn there are “whores,” but these men have to queue up; or is it the case that demand outstrips supply? In which case how can these sailors afford a blow job, and why are there “whores” everywhere we look? In this story “whores” serve as a kind of scenery or background the way trees, birds and carriages might be in a more standard story. Whereas in the Belgariad our heroes would be leaning against a wall and an ale cart or a bird seller might walk by, in this world it’s always a perfumed “whore,” who trails behind her (in a particularly odious moment of poor writing) “the smell of used woman.” Scanning the world Morgan lays out for us, there seem to be no female shop-keepers, apiarists, porters or grocers: just noblewoman and “whores.” And there are an awful lot of them, too. Also, just as in A Game of Thrones, these “whores” appear to be completely expendable, so if you have ever wondered what it’s like to kill a girl, you just hire one of those expendable “whore” things that are on every street corner, and no one will care if you do her in horribly. How does such a world come about, especially when there is a huge stock of slaves available to be used however one sees fit? The only way I can see this working is if there is a massive gender imbalance, but the female majority hasn’t yet figured out it can gang up and take over just from sheer weight of numbers. It’s just economically and politically weird. It seems, for example, that men care about their daughters – so how are they tolerating a world where every second daughter grows up to become an expendable “whore”? The observable nature of the world seems to run repeatedly up against the moral framework, in a way that ultimately cannot be reconciled.

The same applies with the weird phenomenon of people being able to murder each other with impunity, and also the cold-blooded way that men routinely dispose of all injured opponents by killing them. No world that works this way would stay civilized, and typically these kinds of extra-legal killings have only been possible in special places or at special times. The degree of casual murder on display in this story would be out of place in Japanese-occupied Manchuria or modern Afghanistan (as, for that matter, would the degree of misogynist violence). Those places were devastated war-zones under occupation; we’re meant to believe that this world is a functioning and stable society, bar a little bit of war recovery.

There is no place and time in history that has managed to stay civilized and maintain this degree of sexual and non-sexual violence. The setting is impossible, unless we are to imagine that the obviously basically human societies being portrayed are fundamentally amoral and alien, which they’re clearly not meant to be. It’s as if Morgan wanted to portray the moral exigencies of men trapped in total war (which is certainly the implication of his self-exculpatory musings linked to above) but couldn’t be bothered stepping outside the standard fantasy setting – as if it was too much effort to create the physical backdrop for the moral story. And who would want to write this moral story anyway?

I think this is a problem with “grimdark” generally: they want to write a world where men have unparalleled rights over and access to women, but they want to imagine a world where women can still walk the streets freely; they want men to be able to kill bullies without punishment, but they want a world where men still drink together with strangers in pubs. The reality is that these worlds don’t coincide, and the failure of the grimdark authors to realize this makes me think that they’re actually just using a cheap, knock-off fantasy setting to work through their unresolved adolescent issues: they want to get back at all the women who rejected them and all the men who bullied them, but they haven’t the imagination to construct a setting where this is possible; so they just dial our assumptions about the barbarity of mediaeval worlds up to 11, and get to work on the non-consensual sex. To me, this is lazy and weak world creation, and yet another example of how over the past 30 years the fantasy genre has consistently failed to live up to its transformative and speculative potential[3]. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that, as the nerds of the 80s grow into the peak of their spending power, and also start to experience their mid-life crises, their fiction will begin to be dominated by stories that appeal to their unresolved adolescent angst. But if it’s going to do that, I would prefer that it would at least do so in a slightly more mature and creative way than “grimdark” has so far managed to present me with. I guess I was hoping for too much …


fn1: That’s a lie actually, I was very angry about it.
fn2: Kindles are worth their weight in gold when you are travelling

fn3: Actually the soft-porn bdsm series Gor from the 70s(?) did this. In that story the author constructed a moral framework in which women fundamentally want to be used by men, and are turned on by male power. Although superficially based on capture and forced enslavement, willing were actually consenting to their own slavery, thus didn’t rebel and could be turned into willing sex slaves. Whether or not you think this is horrible (I don’t; I think it’s just porn) it is, at least, an attempt to make the moral underpinnings of the story match the actions of the protagonists. It’s an attempt to explore what the world would be like (from a pornographic perspective) if humans were morally different to how we actually are. Grimdark doesn’t bother with this speculation: it just rapes people[4].

fn4: that sentence sounds clumsy if it ends with the word “women,” but let’s be clear about this: by and large, grimdark doesn’t rape men (or if it does, they are generally deserving of it). It rapes women. Over and over again.

What's the Chinese for "fail"?

Sliding Void is the first in a series of hard SF novels by Stephen Hunt, author of a series of steampunk novels that I really enjoyed: The Court of the Air, The Kingdom Beyond the Waves, and The Rise of the Iron Moon. Hunt’s interest in space opera and SF was fairly clear in The Rise of the Iron Moon, so it’s no surprise to learn that he also writes hard SF, and although it’s also weird to read him in a completely new genre, the book was enjoyable and interesting – though not without its flaws.

The basic setting is a universe some thousands of years in the future, with the usual necessities of hard SF: hyperspace has been invented but travel is slow, there are many settled planets and terraforming and expansion is ongoing, the settled universe is divided into the core and the periphery, and the core is ruled by a shifty and sinister organization (in this case called “the Triple Alliance”) that maintains order at the expense of freedom and corruption. Of course, one can stay a step ahead of the alliance by working on the fringes of space, but not everything one does out here on the edge is entirely legal, etc. The outline of the setting probably seems to have a lot in common with Serenity/Firefly or Traveller:2300, including the importance of China in space exploration and the settling of planets on national lines (this is a German planet, that is a Chinese, etc). It’s pretty standard.

The story centres around one Captain Lana Fiveworlds and her oddball crew, who are running a free trader in classic Traveller style, tramp trading on the periphery. They need money in a hurry and get called in by an old contact to whom they owe a favour; he gives them the task of taking on a new crewman to help him escape from his arse-backwards mediaeval ice world, where he was a prince until he got a bit too arrogant and ran a war that got half the world chasing him. Unfortunately, there is something up with this new crewman and things rapidly go pear-shaped. That’s it! We then have to wait for book 2 to start finding out why things went wrong, and what they’re going to do about it.

This book is quite short and well-told, but interestingly a large part of the story is set in a fantasy world. The crewman is from the planet of Hesperus, a failed colony world that slid into an ice age soon after it was colonized. It’s an interesting story: the colonists were refugees rescued from an interplanetary war by a well-meaning aid agency and packed across the galaxy in cryonic sleep, arriving on their colony with nothing but the resources in their ship and nowhere to return to, their world having been destroyed. Soon after they arrived their new planet, which had looked so promising, fell back into an ice age and the colony fell back into the bronze age, so that when we stumble on it the planet is more like a norse kingdom than a sci-fi setting. I really like this idea, I think it’s quite believable and a terraforming outcome I don’t think I’ve read in a long time (perhaps in Ursula le Guin’s The Word for World is Forest? I can’t recall…) Stephen Hunt does this part particularly well, and the way the rest of the universe treats this planet is a sure sign that we aren’t dealing with a particularly well-meaning Alliance. No Culture here, folks.

The rest of the story, though brief, is well-written. It’s got occasional hints of “realism” such as has started to creep into modern genre writing – swearing, “gritty” settings and the like – which is particularly jarring when you’re used to Hunt’s other, gentler, steampunkier works. Hunt’s vision of hyperspace is cute – it’s all mathematical and humans can’t handle it, because they get “addicted to the maths” – and means that humans are dependent on the help of an alien crab species who are religious in their mathematics, and believe that entering hyperspace gets them closer to their mysterious mathematical god. The rest of the SF world is fairly standard, though some of the information technology ideas are cute: the characters refer to a wiki to learn about Hesperus, and when their barbarian crewman needs to be oriented to the modern world he is given full-immersion entertainment packages that give him 6 months of real-time experience of someone else’s life in a couple of hours. This means that two days after he’s arrived on ship he has already lived several years of subjective life in the modern world, and is speaking like a mixture of policeman and starship crew. His adjustment is otherwise not handled so well though: his first experience of eating rice just flicks by without any mention of how he feels about this new experience, and there are a few other moments where we really could get a deeper sense of his disorientation in his new world. Having spent half the book establishing his barbarian credentials, we see them all washed away in a chapter, which is a bit weak. Given that the whole thing is quite short, a few more chapters to have him settle in – perhaps including a moment of craziness – would be nice.

Another thing about this book that really frustrated me and nearly had me give up on it was the massive Orientalism fail in the middle. When we first meet the Chinese engineer, Paopao, he orders Calder (the barbarian) to make his favourite food: Ochatsuke. He has a list of ingredients in his kitchen which includes dashi and jako. Stephen Hunt has carefully researched the recipe for a Japanese traditional food, complete with Japanese names, and had his chinese character act as if this is some Chinese food or spiritual rite of passage: the food labels are all written in Chinese (how do you write jako in Chinese?) and Paopao tells Calder that “A man who steams rice may be trusted with the care of antiproton storage ring.” The implication is that this traditional Japanese food is somehow of cultural significance to this Chinese engineer, who judges his staffs competence on their ability to make it. This is, I think a straight-out orientalism fail: either Hunt doesn’t care about the difference between China and Japan, doesn’t know (despite having careful knowledge of a Japanese food that is quite obscure outside of Japan), or knows nothing about China and figures his readers won’t notice the difference. He obviously couldn’t make the dominant Asian culture in space Japan because that doesn’t fit the current narrative about an ascendant China, but he couldn’t be bothered doing the basic research on China necessary to fit the character to the story. The same applies with the stupid way he writes Paopao’s language: I’ve met enough non-native speakers of English now to know that the way Paopao speaks is not the way it works. On the one hand he says

Only if you submit to them, Mister Fighting Fourth. Sometimes it beholdens man to remember

which is perfect lyrical English and very advanced, including careful omission of an article such as non-native speakers often get wrong. But then he says

Found it inside fortune cookied on station above Kunjing Four

dropping both the subject (which I think is a Japanese, not a Chinese, problem) and all the articles, and mangling a sentence which anyone who can say the former would surely be able to spout very quickly and easily. Now, I don’t think anyone can get language misuse right (it’s extremely hard) but stuffing this up to this extent, while also mangling the character’s cultural origins, is a pretty big level of fail. It’s disappointing, and sloppy. I understand that with the ascendance of Asia, and the recognition that the 21st century is going to be the Asian century, people want to fit Asia into their inter-galactic hegemonies, and not being Asian are likely going to screw it up somehow. But there’s still a minimum level of research that one could do, in this case as simple as buying a Chinese cookbook and visiting a good restaurant.

I think we’re going to see a lot more of this kind of sloppiness in the years to come …

Anyway, aside from the small orientalist unpleasantness, this story is enjoyable and worth giving a go if you like classic hard SF. It’s reasonably well crafted, moves fast, has a smooth and easy narrative style, and has some nice ideas to add to the genre. Stephen Hunt’s writing is sometimes a little jarring, as if he were occasionally slipping into a young adult novel style, and sometimes his genre-bending doesn’t work, but in this case he’s combined a low-tech fantasy world with a hi-tech spacefaring civilization very well. I wouldn’t say it’s ground breaking or stellar in its achievements, and I think Hunt has been more creative in his steampunk work, but I can still recommend it. Read this book if you want to see a small amount of genre-bending in an otherwise classic, easily readable hard SF, but give it a miss if you demand only classic tropes in your SF.

How does this work, anyway?

I recently finished reading Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor Chronicles, second in the Majipoor Series but easily readable in isolation. It is not a single novel but a series of short stories set throughout the history of the eponymous planet; some of these stories are directly connected to the events of the first book in the series, Lord Valentine’s Castle, but I think most are intended simply to offer historical and cultural background to that tale. The settings of the stories are separated by huge distances in space and time but are strung together through a cute conceit: a low-level functionary in the central government has found a way to sneak into a library of memories, and through accessing the library enters the memories of any individual he can choose. So, he calls up random (and sometimes deliberate) people from Majipoor’s past, usually connected with great events in the history of Majipoor, and views the events through their eyes.

This is an interesting trick, since it sets the flavour of the planet and the culture through the choice of protagonist, which in most cases is a person who is neither famous nor important, just a person connected to some great event. Where the functionary could have stolen access to the memories only of the great and the good, he instead chooses random nobodies: a woman living in the jungle when the alien settlers first began to come to Majipoor; a mid-ranking military officer involved on the fringes of the final battle to eliminate Majipoor’s indigenous people; a shop-keeper who ends up marrying a lord (but not the lord himself); a low-level official who discovers the technology of the King of Dreams (but not the King himself). As the functionary gets bolder in his theft he chooses more powerful and famous people to spy on, but through the first half of the story we are shown the history of Majipoor through the experiences of its basic citizens. This helps to set the tone for a kind of subdued utopian world, which while not free of conflict or strife seems to have largely eliminated murder, other forms of serious crime, war and major civil strife. It’s a world that has been going quietly about its business for thousands of years, and by setting the stories in the frame of the world’s very ordinary residents Silverberg has set this tone very nicely. These stories are also surprisingly free of any form of violence or militarism, though one story involves a murder and one story involves an attempt at genocide. But largely they depict a world at peace with itself, a future society that, though its environment is harsh, has largely moved beyond the problems that beset our own.

Majipoor itself is a fascinating world: vastly larger than Earth but much less dense, so with similar gravity, flora and fauna, it is recognizable as a classic sci-fi garden planet, though with noticeable differences: it has very few mineral resources and the distances people have to travel are huge, so it is actually quite poor, with many people living close to subsistence level. Furthermore even after thousands of years of settlement it remains mysterious, with huge areas unexplored and unsettled. One story of this potted history is set in the period when the planet first opened its arms to alien settlers, who were deemed necessary just to populate the world enough to make it socially functional. At the same time, even though the planet is vast and fertile, the human settlers come into continuing conflict with the indigenous people who lived there before them, and these indigenous people or the knowledge of what was done to them figure in the background to many of the stories. So in many ways Majipoor is an inter-galactic allegory for the settlement of America or Australia, with all their utopian promise, conflict with the original inhabitants, and opening up of frontiers and then of society to aliens. Also similar to the early histories of those settler nations, Majipoor seems to be cut off from its galactic neighbours, having little significant interchange with them and unable to rely on them for either industry or development. People and things come from the stars, and the cultural background is that of the sophisticated galactic travellers who originally settled Majipoor, as is much of its technology, but at the same time it seems to be separated from those peoples. Some of the technology is mysterious to the locals, or known only to a few, and it’s not clear that the locals are able to aspire to the technological skills of their forefathers. There is no sense of hi-tech or heavy industry in this strange world. Like early Australia, it is characterized very much as a rural utopia, full of freedom but lacking in wealth and too distant from its original society to be able to gain much practical value from its originating culture.

It’s interesting to see these themes in a sci-fi story, and to see the sensitivity and care with which some of them are explored. Particularly surprising was the importance of the indigenous peoples’ story to the narrative, because I can’t see any evidence that their history is itself relevant to the remainder of the series (though I could be wrong – I haven’t read them yet). Silverberg has written other work about indigenous people, and clearly has an interest in this topic, so perhaps he has deliberately created an allegory to the old American west, but it’s not heavy-handed and the depiction of post-genocide Majipooreans’ view of their history is probably too optimistic compared to the way Australians or Americans view those issues now – perhaps this is another aspect of the utopianism of the novel. In any case, this kind of topic is rare in the genre, and the moral ambiguity of Majipooreans’ views of the issue of indigenous dispossession very close to the way modern Australians (and I guess Americans) view their own history. It’s nice to see this approached so carefully in the genre.

This book is a nice combination of gentle cultural commentary, careful world building, classical SF-style speculative work, and mild utopianism. It’s also very well written, with a really accessible style and easy descriptions that leave you with a clear image of the setting you’re in without using burdensome prose. It’s also largely free of many of the tropes or language of the genre, which I see as a sign of superior writing style: if you can deliver a SF setting to a reader without using SF jargon, in a smooth and easy prose style, you’re doing well. One complaint I had about the story was the intermissions between chapters in which the low-level functionary describes his feelings about the memory he has just entered – they have too much of the tone of narrative authority, so that I felt the functionary’s perspective was being used to convey to us how Silverberg believes we should feel about the story we just experienced. Also, these intermissions have too much tell and not enough show. But they’re short – not even a page in many cases – and the tone changes as the book progresses. Another complaint I think other readers might have is that the stories are too disconnected, and there’s not enough common theme to warrant presenting them as a novel rather than a straight-out short story collection. In many ways it feels like you’re reading le Guin’s Orsinian Tales (a beautiful, beautiful book!) but that book is presented as short stories, whereas this seems to have been marketed as a novel, and the narrative continuity of the functionary’s role is surely intended to make it read this way, even though there is nothing else to connect the stories except the functionary’s curiosity. This didn’t bother me at all, but I’m sure it would frustrate many readers.

Overall, however, I found this an engaging, intriguing and really enjoyable book. I recommend it to anyone who is interested in the kind of speculative social ideas that characterize the work of people like Ursula le Guin, Gene Wolfe or Samuel Delany (though it’s much more accessible than Delany). I don’t recommend it to people looking for hard SF, or SF full of conflict and combat. If you like unassuming social critique or practical utopia in your speculative SF, and you’re happy with SF/Fantasy mixed in, then this is definitely a good book for you.

The picture, incidentally, is by Jim Burns.

Scott Westerfield’s Leviathan is the first in a series of young adult steampunk novels, set in a very close parallel history of Edwardian Europe. They’re light-hearted, fast-paced and fun, and they have some nice new ideas for combining classic steam-tech with biotechnology. The basic setting is Austria and London on the eve of the first world war, with Europe locked into the exact same ludicrous stand-off as actually happened. The Austrian Empire – “clankers” in the common British parlance – bases its technology on steam power and heavy industry, while its main opponents, the British “Darwinists” have followed the old man’s lead into an industrial milieu based on bioengineering. Most of the action in the story revolves around two symbols of these two types of technology: an Austrian walker, very similar in essence to an ST Walker from Star Wars; and the British airship Leviathan, which is essentially a hydrogen blimp bioengineered from a massive whale. The technology on both sides is ludicrous and well beyond what one would imagine were possible in the time period, but it’s classic steam-based SF.

Each technological setting also comes with a character: the Austrian Alek, bastard teenage son of the Austro-Hungarian empire, who has to flee his home after the assassination of his family; and Deryn Sharp, a poor Scottish girl who has come to London with the crazy idea of disguising herself as a boy and entering the British Royal Air Force. Through a series of improbable accidents she finds herself onboard the Leviathan over Austria at the same time as Alek is fleeing across Europe, and so they end up meeting by chance. They then have to join forces to escape the Austrians chasing Alek, and thus the two of them are introduced into the scheming and plotting of European politics as the great powers plunge headlong into war. The first book ends at the point where we discover what they’ve become embroiled in; presumably we’ll explore more in later books.

This is a young adult novel, so it has some characteristics that I know many adult readers hate: hastily-sketched characters based on archetypes, simple and fast-flowing narrative style, sometimes awkward explanations of background and setting, and the frustrating phenomenon of children beating adults at their own game. But the fast-paced expositions and quick descriptions are a pleasant change from the bulky, unwieldy style of some modern SF and fantasy, and it’s nice to read a story with background nuance presented quickly and easily. The novel lacks the deep, thoughtful emotional engagement that characterizes the best young adult fiction (like, say, the works of Robert Westall or Maurice Gee) and it doesn’t have any of the coming-of-age intensity of much of the genre. I really like those aspects of good young adult fiction, and so in that sense this book is a little lightweight at times. But who cares? It’s fun, it has a cool giant floating whale armed with flechette bats (which have a cool name but are actually a bit of a stupid idea), and it has an alpine AT-AT chase between. What’s not to like? Also, I’m sensing strong hints of a dragon being involved somewhere in all this, and there’s definitely a kraken. The characters are a little shallow and stereotypical but engaging enough, and although both are a little super-human they are not insufferable prats such as one sometimes stumbles across in young adult fiction.

If you like steampunk and want to see such a setting leavened with carefully-imagined biotech, in a slightly later era than we usually associate with the genre, then this is a good book to pick up. It’s easy to read, fast-paced, and keeps the new ideas coming along at just the right pace to keep you interested. It also promises more depth – both emotional and political – in subsequent volumes. If you aren’t into young adult fiction, or like your stories slow-paced and thoughtful in the style of a classic fantasy trilogy, then you probably had best leave this one be. Overall, it’s a good effort and I’ll be persisting with the series.

Everything she can do, he can do better

I’ve started reading John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, in anticipation of what looks like a very fun movie, but I have to say that even though the story is interesting the writing is absolutely appalling. It’s classic Mary Sue, with a character who is just better than everyone else at everything and obviously already knows his way through the plot, as if he were in fact the writer of the story himself. It also uses the classic “tell, don’t show” error of teenage fanfiction. Reading it is a tedious exercise in admiration of a two-dimensional hero.

The basic story is simple: John Carter, ex-slave owner and “Southern Gentleman,” finds himself accidentally on Mars, where he is thrown into the middle of the ongoing conflict between two races who have been reduced to hard scrabble in a failing environment. Mars (or “Barsoom,” as the locals call it), used to be the home of a great race of human-like peoples, who slowly fell into decay as the environment of Mars failed. Another race appears to have decided to live communally on the land and, as commies are wont to do, degenerated into barbarism and cruelty. The descendants of the great race – red skinned humanoids – have great technology and are trying to save the planet, while the savages – weird buggish freaks – run around being cruel and nasty. John Carter lands amongst the savages, but immediately impresses them with his prowess at everything, and though a captive of these savages manages to get himself appointed a chieftain (through combat, of course) and is given wardenship of one of their prisoners, who of course is an extremely important member of the red-skinned people. He is also given a couple of women to look after him, and one of these just happens to be the only kind and thoughtful savage on Barsoom.

So, having accidentally disappeared from his own world, with its rich 19th century culture of slave-holding and subjugated women, where he is a much-admired and respected man, Carter finds himself on a completely alien world with different culture and language, but within a couple of seconds finds himself much-admired and respected, and lording it over a small collection of women – purely by dint of his talents, of course.

This could be a fun read, I suppose, like a kind of sexless version of Gor, but for the fact that John Carter is a tedious, insufferable braggart who is good at everything and never makes an error. And oh, how we are constantly reminded of his talents. For example:

To be held paralzyed … seems to me the last word in fearsome predicaments for a man who had ever been used to fighting for his life with all the energy of a powerful physique

or:

I do not believe that I am made of the stuff which constitutes heroes, because, in all of the hundreds of instances that my voluntary acts have placed me face to face with death, I cannot recall a single one where any alternative step to that I took occurred to me until many hours later … I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me

and following this up:

Fear is a relative term … but I can say without shame that if the sensations I endured during the next few minutes were fear, then may God help the coward, for cowardice is of a surety its own punishment

In case you hadn’t noticed, John Carter is a robust fighter who never feels fear and acts automatically out of a sense of duty. These quotes are from the first few chapters but Burroughs isn’t tardy about letting us all know that John Carter is the best, y’all: his manifold perfections are outlined in a foreword. But just in case you thought Carter might just be the 19th century equivalent of a great sportsman, we are also reminded that he is a consummate warrior, and a genius to boot. In training with the savages weapons, we find:

I was not yet proficient with all the weapons, but my great familiarity with similar earthly weapons made me an unusually apt pupil, and I progressed in a very satisfactory manner

Oh! The modesty! Also, within a few days of joining the savages, John Carter has befriended his watchdog in a way that no martian has ever done before, and has taught the martians better ways of managing their own mounts, and mounted combat, so that they are both better able to manage their mounts and better able to fight en masse. This despite the fact that he is unfamiliar with martian gravity and doesn’t speak their language. Not that the latter bothers him much:

in a week I could make all my wants known and understand nearly everything that was said to me. Likewise, under Sola’s tutelage, I developed my telepathic powers so that I shortly could sense practically everything that went on around me.

This, incidentally, is the entirety of the coverage that the existence of telepathy gets in this work for the first 8 or so chapters. We’ve had more sentences devoted to the production of the milk Carter drinks than to the telepathy he learns. It’s not, however, the last time that Carter gets a chance to remind us that he is a genius:

I nearly drove Sola distracted by my importunities to hasten on my education and within a few more days I had mastered the Martian tongue sufficiently well to enable me to carry on a passable conversation and to fully understand practically all that I heard

Here is an example of a conversation he could understand “within a few more days”:

In our day we have progressed to a point where such sentiments mark weakness and atavism. It will not be well for you to permit Tars Tarkas that you hold such degenerate sentiments, as I doubt that he would care to entrust such as you with the grave responsibilities of maternity

So, one week to learn how to say “I need to take a leak,” another few more days to get to the point of understanding an overheard conversation about “atavism.” Also, telepathy in one sentence. And nowhere in this time period is there a hint, even a single hint, of homesickness, or any kind of emotional trauma at having teleported out of a cave in Arizona to a field on Mars. Do you feel small yet? Or are you, more likely, bored stiff with this character who can do everything and anything?

In addition to being a robust Southern Gentleman who can learn martian in a day, Carter also seems to have remarkable luck to take exactly the right path in any situation. He hears someone behind him, so instead of attacking, he jumps, which impressed his attackers rather than getting him killed; he gives his horse its head in the darkness, which is just as well because it leads him up just the right path to escape the Indians; he makes a guess about the best way to impress the natives and – lo! – it was the right guess. Within about a chapter of the start of the adventure it has been well-impressed upon the reader that, no matter what, Carter is not at risk of significant injury, failure or death. As the reader, you have nothing invested in the story at all – it’s not like Carter is going to ever have to overcome a failing or character flaw (he has none), there’s no sense in which his plight is the same as yours would be if you ended up on Mars, and there’s never a feeling that he will make a bad choice, even by accident.

This apathy is further entrenched by the narrative flow, in which Burroughs tells us everything we need to know about the society, environment and structure of Mars long before Carter himself finds out the details. Rather than discovering the mysteries of Mars in the flow of the adventure, we’re told everything about a setting, person, circumstance or technology as soon as we encounter it. The phrase “As I later learned,” or “as I was to discover,” appears constantly in the text – maybe a couple of times every chapter, and always expounds on things we could quite happily find out ourselves with a bit of time. Thus, we only know we are somewhere mysterious because we are told we are on Mars: from the very moment of his arrival there, Carter’s narrative breaks the mystery of the planet with constant references to things that neither he nor the reader know. We even get a lesson in Martian demographics in the second chapter of his encounter with the savages, something that really could have waited to be revealed to us later in a conversation with someone.

This kind of adventure writing is so tedious as to be almost unbearable. The plot itself is interesting – I want to find out about Mars and the society Burroughs has created, and I want to see where the story goes. It’s a really good idea that, in the hands of a decent writer, would make a really cool story. I’m guessing, then, that the movie is going to be good. But the book – thoroughly forgettable so far. It reminds me of John Wyndham’s pompous academic Mary Sues, who always take a young woman under their wing and teach her the harsh realities of the world, while she constantly thanks them in breathless wonder at their wisdom; or the later books of Dune, after whats-his-face becomes a god and surmounts every challenge by simply being himself. No challenge, no threat, no sympathy with a human character, no need for character development and no sense that the character will ever grow as a person through adversity. Of course, this may change later, but at the moment it’s looking like the writing is going to be drier than the surface of Mars.

So, unless you’re feeling really patient, I can’t recommend John Carter of Mars. Is the rest of Burroughs’s work this badly written?

 

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