May 31, 2016

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, May 2016

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies, River of Smoke and Flood of Fire
Collectively, "the Ibis trilogy", three historical novels centered around the First Opium War. They're beautifully written and the viewpoint characters (of which there are many, weaving in and out of the three books) are all very well-drawn. Beyond that, the setting and the protagonists give Ghosh a chance to depict — "comment on" suggests something more heavy-handed — imperialism, cultural diversity and exchange, free trade, multiple identities, enough varieties of love that cannot be acknowledged that I'd have to think to list them all, desires ditto, gardening, memory, the perils of getting what you want, and much, much else. It's really impressive, even if I was not very happy with the ending, and I will be revisiting it at a more leisurely pace.
Elizabeth Bear, Karen Memory
Mind candy. I am normally a big fan of Bear's writing, but just got through this one. The central feature of the book is the voice of the first-person narrator, Karen Memery (sic), and while this was clearly a labor of love on the part of the author, my reaction to that voice ranged from indifference to irritation. (The character wasn't irritating, her style was.) As for the steampunk setting --- as my friend Henry Farrell once put it, "the goggles do nothing", i.e., it seemed like it would have been very easy to tell a very similar, and no worse, story without those props. Clearly, though, lots of people like it very much, so I will just look forward to Bear's future books.
Elizabeth Hand, Generation Loss
Mind candy: a mystery or literary thriller (or both?). The writing is excellent and the protagonist, a failed New York photographer very much out of her element in Maine, is a very well-realized character (and a complete jerk, with impulses which are much, much worse). There are apparently sequels, which I look forward to tracking down. ROT-13'd, for being both a spoiler and catty: Gubhtu V qb ubcr Pnff trgf orggre nobhg fbyivat zlfgrevrf guna whfg orvat yhpxl jura fur qrpvqrf fbzrbar fbhaqf qhovbhf.
(Picked up on the recommendation of Aunt Agatha's in Ann Arbor.)
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning
This is a deeply impressive effort to take seriously the line that "history is the trade secret of science fiction". That is, Palmer has tried to craft a 25th century which is as strange, as familiar, and as both-at-once-because-that's-not-what-we-meant, as our own time would have seemed to someone from the 17th century. This applies not just to the world-building but also to the story-telling (e.g., the way her narrator is simultaneously speaking to his own future and trying to channel [what he thinks of as] an 18th-century voice). This is, to my mind, exactly the sort of thing good science fiction should do. I hope the example of the effort catches on, though I worry that it will merely be specific inventions which get imitated.
Having enthused about setting and narration, I have to admit to being more ambivalent about the plot. Or maybe plots; there are at least two, one revolving around the high politics of the world, and the other around a young boy who seems to have miraculous powers. Both are hard to summarize, or even describe, and both are left very much unresolved at the end of this book. I find it hard to say whether I like the story, though I was certainly eager enough to keep reading, and am frustrated enough by not knowing what happened next that I pre-ordered the sequel.
ObLinkage: Palmer's round-up of her self-presentations and reviews by others.
Robert Jackson Bennett, American Elsewhere
Mind-candy contemporary fantasy, but of truly exceptional quality. This is in many ways a meditation Lovecraftian themes, transposed to the Southwest and rationalized with "because of quantum" (*). (Spoiler-proofed discussion below.) But it's not just yet another re-hashing of monsters and tropes from Lovecraft, which would only matter for those who are already fans of that micro-genre. Rather it's a work of genuine artistry and originality, as well as a hell of a lot of fun. The only real point at which I see a failure, or at least a lost opportunity, is that if you are going to tell a story which revolves around physicists in northern New Mexico unleashing something monstrous, you really should engage more with the reality of Los Alamos... But, again, as entertainment this is just remarkably good.
Discussion of the Lovecraftian connections, ROT-13'd for spoilers: Oraargg znxrf ab hfr bs Ybirpensg'f fcrpvsvp zbafgref be cebcf. (Gurer ner n srj zragvbaf bs syhgvat, naq n guebj-njnl nobhg "jura gur fgnef nyvta", juvpu frrz yvxr qryvorengr ersreraprf, ohg nera'g pbafrdhragvny.) Gur gehyl Ybirpensgvna ovgf pbzr va jvgu gur crbcyr va Jvax sebz ryfrjurer, v.r., bgure qvzrafvbaf jvgu qvssrerag culfvpny ynjf. (Gur ivfvbaf jr pngpu bs jung gurve jbeyq vf yvxr ner rrevr.) Gurve gehr nccrnenaprf unir gur hfhny pbzcyrzrag bs gragnpyrf naq gur yvxr, ohg zber vzcbegnagyl gurl ner napvrag, vauhzna orvatf bs vaperqvoyr cbjre, jubfr gehr sbezf naq angherf ner zber guna gur beqvanel uhzna zvaq pna fgnaq gb nffvzvyngr. Gurl unir pbadhrerq znal jbeyqf, naq orra nf tbqf gurer, ohg urer gurl ner zber be yrff uvqqra. Naq lrg gurl ner pbzcyrgryl vagrejbira vagb gur uhzna yvsr bs gur vqlyyvp gbja bs Jvax, juvpu fvzcyl jbhyq abg rkvfg jvgubhg gurz. Crbcyr pbzr gb zber be yrff qvfgheovat evghny neenatrzragf jvgu gurfr cbjref, jvgubhg rirel dhvgr orvat ubarfg jvgu gurzfryirf nobhg jung gurl ner qbvat. Naq gur urebvar svaqf guvf jubyr jbeyq obgu ubeevoyr naq snfpvangvat, naq gura qvfpbiref gung fur vf npghnyyl cneg bs vg, zhpu zber vagvzngryl guna nalbar ryfr va Jvax; gung gur ivrjcbvag punenpgre vf va snpg bar bs gur zbafgref vf n irel Ybirpensgvna gbhpu. Gur ybj-yvsr pevzvanyf ba gur obeqref bs Jvax, gur ebyr bs Zban'f onol, naq gur pyvznpgvp qrfgehpgvba bs gur gbja, ba gur bgure unaq, nyy frrz zber yvxr Fgrcura Xvat.
Query: Do Wink and Night Vale communicate?
*: Whereas in Lovecraft they were rationalized with "because of relativity".
Michael Alan Williams, Rethinking "Gnosticism": An Argument for Dismantling a Dubious Category
I first read this by chance in graduate school, when it seemed to me a really good demonstration of how to do properly critical and skeptical, but not nihilistic, intellectual history. (Among other things, this includes admitting when the social component of such history is largely guesswork.)
On re-reading after fifteen (!) years, I still find it the main thesis largely persuasive. To attempt my own summary: the ancient sources which modern scholars label "gnostic" are united neither by clear evidence of a shared tradition or organization, nor even by the reports of the orthodox heresiologists; the supposed "anti-cosmic" attitude, forced alternative of either extreme asceticism or licentiousness, etc., are not supported by the texts (and the latter is a bog-standard accusation of the orthodox against everyone), and seem to be largely modern constructions or interpretations; and that, in short, it would be better to chuck the whole category of "gnosticism" in favor of clearer and more empirical ones, like "biblical demuirgical traditions". (Though Williams doesn't harp on this, one could then investigate, rather than pre-judge, questions like "did all texts with biblical demiurgical myths share a common origin?" and "what range of attitudes towards the human body are shown in such texts?".) I do feel like this would have been even stronger had it included an account of how the modern concept of gnosticism had evolved. I also, of course, feel like I really shouldn't pronounce anything until reading the counter-arguments, but naturally I haven't taken the time to track them down...

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Tales of Our Ancestors; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime; Writing for Antiquity; Cthulhiana

Posted at May 31, 2016 23:59 | permanent link

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