Friday, 18 August 2017

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

While I was reading this book, I was swept along, absolutely enchanted. I wasn't sure where it was going, and it was entirely unlike anything I'd read before, and I was loving it. Now I'm done, and I'm perhaps a little perplexed about where we ended up, or what it all meant, but the journey was so enjoyable I would have a hard time regretting the ride. And perhaps the feeling like the meaning is a wisp of fog just out of reach fits very well with the book as a whole.

In the way that life has of handing you little synchronicities, I have just started working on learning a new Tarot deck, one that came my way when a coworker said that she'd had it for a while and would never use it, would I like it? I gave it a good home, and am now finally settling down to familiarize myself, in a long process that will take me months to a year before I feel anywhere near comfortable enough with it to read for others using that deck. The synchronicity comes in because it's the Arthurian Tarot, so I was reading The Buried Giant while learning that the Knight of Pentacles in this deck is Sir Bors, and the Emperor is, predictably, Arthur. Or last night, when the card that came out of the deck for me to think about was Stone Five, a card of a standing stone in a barren field during a blizzard, with no shelter and nowhere to hide from the elements that batter it.

What I'm getting at, in addition to my excitement at embarking on learning a new Tarot deck, is Arthuriana, and trying to interact with it in a way that is open to interpretation and movement of meaning, which I feel this process has in common with Ishiguro's work. The Buried Giant is set in post-Arthur Britain, with Briton and Saxons settlements side by side, and a mist over the land that shrouds memories and dulls disagreements, paralyzing and soothing at the same time.

This is the story of an old Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are unhappy in the community in which they live, cold and no longer allowed to have candles in their small dwelling. They resolve to walk to their son's village, which is, they're sure, not that far away. Most of their past has faded in the mist that surrounds the land, but nevertheless, they set out.

On the way, they  meet a Saxon warrior, a boy who his village believed to have been bitten by an ogre, a monastery with some very odd practices, and, oh yes, Sir Gawain. The warrior is there to kill the dragon whose breath covers the land and causes the amnesia, but Gawain claims that quest as his own.

In between moments of forgetfulness, vague hints of the shared past of Axl and Beatrice emerge, worries that they would not be as dear to each other with full memories as without, and this is a microcosm of the larger theme of the impact of forgetfulness on the world. Would it solve divisions of tribe and history? Would it take away more than it gives? Would people still be whole people without substantial parts of their memories?

What we see may not be warfare, but it's far from free from petty suspicion and even mob justice. The boy bitten by the ogre is almost killed by villagers who suspect that he may turn into an ogre himself. They are suspicious of strangers, but know not why.

What could be bad enough to want a cloud of forgetfulness to settle over the land? Ishiguro carefully does not say, but knowledge of the Arthur myth and several hints in the book lead in a certain direction. Look for the worst thing King Arthur is ever reputed to have done, and you have a place to start.

The question I'm left with there more? I liked this book a whole lot, and yet I wonder if I missed something. Were Axl and Beatrice supposed to be larger figures from the Arthurian myth than is completely obvious? There's a reference to adultery, which leads me down one path, and a bit at the end about recognizing the boatman who is going to ferry them across the water to and island. I just don't feel like I know, and I'm not sure if I should know.

But I'm okay if I don't. This is strangely about memory collective and personal, about old age and love, about life coming to a close and what comes after, all in elegant prose that was delightful to drift through.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Unexpected Stories by Octavia Butler

A large part of the reason I picked up a particular Humble Bundle was because it included several Octavia Butler books, including the two Parables, one of which I'd read, and one of which I hadn't. I wasn't sure what Unexpected Stories would be, but my general theory is that if it's Butler, I'm in.

I guess I hadn't really been aware that Butler had written short fiction as well as novels, but it doesn't really surprise me. It did surprise me that these were two as-yet unpublished short stories, and I wondered if they were ones that were unpublished for a reason. Having read them, the first one is good, but shows some rough edges, while the second is much shorter, and a gut punch of a story. It's really great.

If you've read a bunch of Butler and are hungry for more, you'll probably want to read these. I'm not sure I'd recommend them as a place to start, but it's definitely a worthy way-station on my way through her work. I can't wait to get to the novels of hers I haven't read, although I think they're dwindling in number.

The first story, "A Necessary Being" is about leadership and difference in a world that seems in some ways post-apocalyptic, although the people populating it are so different it's hard to know if they're descended from humans, or if we're on an entirely different world with entirely different aliens. It doesn't really matter, I suppose.

Wherever we are, the tribes that remain live precariously, vulnerable to drought or famine from year to year. The tribe we meet first has been suffering from a drought, which may or may not get better. Their Hao worries about what to do when the news comes that another Hao from another tribe has been sighted. Which needs some explanation.

In this society, the colour of your skin determines your caste status, which seem to be mostly warriors or judges, with another mass of people of no particular caste. The colours, though, are what take this into the alien. One is yellow, and I think the other green? The Hao are those who are blue, and the bluer they are, the stronger they are believed to be. The Hao are the leaders, and a tribe without one regards itself as doomed.

So when the new Hao comes into their territory, the river tribe decide they must capture him at any cost, as their present Hao has had no children. Their Hao hates the necessity, having watched her father go through a crippling ritual to bind him to the new tribe and prevent his escape back to his former people, but does believe that a Hao to pass on her authority to is necessary.

What follows is a dance of personal loyalty, tribe loyalty, and some sort of racial loyalty, although the Hao can come, it seems, from any couple, although children with each other have a higher chance of being the blue. (I didn't mention that these people can all change their colour, voluntarily and involuntary, which makes emotional states easier to discern.)

It's a good story, but it doesn't feel like Butler quite at her best. Certainly worth a read, but it's the second, much shorter, story that is the one I'd go back to. "Childminder" was apparently written for a legendary and unpublished Harlan Ellison anthology, and as such, feels like it was more ready for publication than "A Necessary Being."

This one is recognizably set in a version of our world, albeit one where psi powers have been discovered, and are in the process of being bureaucratized and controlled. The lead character is a childfinder, able to find nascent psi powers. But those who set up the organization she left were more interested in people whose powers had fully manifested, and, not coincidentally, were white and of a higher class. The main character decides that she wants to find those whose powers were almost never nurtured or allowed to blossom, moving to something like a housing project to work with the Black children there.

Then, one day, the organization shows up on her doorstep, having decided they were interested in those children after all.

And I'm really not going to say any more than that. Seek out this story, in particular. It's so amazingly good and complicated, particularly by the mini-epilogue. I'd love to talk to people about it.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

The Victim by Saul Bellow

I had never read any Saul Bellow books before, but I picked this one up from a large 1001 Books To Read Before You Die list, which is one of the many sources from which I pick books. They tend to be quite different from my usual science fiction fare, and that's partly why I like them. It's good not to get too settled into one genre.

So with this one, I moved away from my genre fiction, and more recent works, back into mid-20th century literary fiction. I knew very little going in, only that Bellow was a Jewish author, and I feel like I might have heard that he wasn't particularly good at writing rounded female characters. Now, having read all of one of his works, I can say that in this particular book, women are so far to the side that it's not like they're being treated badly, but that they're barely present. Even when they are. The Victim is so firmly rooted in male experience it has little space for women.

It wasn't particularly offensive, but that when the women characters were around, there wasn't a whole lot to them, with the possible exception of the sister-in-law. She has more to do in the novel, but it's mostly to be irrational about the care of her sick son and accusatory after his death. She's there to be Emotion with a capital E.

The main character is Leventhal, a Jewish man in New York City, employed for several years now after a long stint of unemployment, still feeling uncertain of his place and status. The book was published in 1947, so also written with the uncertainty of WWII and the Holocaust. During his time unemployed, he became frustrated and even belligerent over the treatment he received from employers, which may or may not have been tinged with antisemitism. (This feels like a recurring theme - some things Leventhal experiences are undoubtedly antisemitic, but others are far more nebulous, and it feels like he spends a lot of time biting his own tail trying to figure out if a certain action belongs in one category or the other.)

At one point during this search, he became aggressive with the man who was interviewing him. Shortly afterwards, the man who'd gotten him the interview, Klein, was fired, probably because he wasn't any hot shit at his job anyways, but Klein fired holds Leventhal solely responsible for the wreck his life became after he lost his job, his wife left him, and then was killed in a car accident. He has taken to drinking, and comes to Leventhal with his accusations and an offer to let Leventhal make it right.

Leventhal rejects the assertion, but not entirely. He lets Klein bother him, and even stay with him while his wife is away visiting her mother, and wow, does the guy who holds him responsible lack every kind of boundaries, and there were plenty of red flags that should have had Leventhal changing the locks and possibly calling the police. Maybe levels at which your warning bells should be going off are different for men, but yikes!

In the meantime, Leventhal has to negotiate the sickness and death of his nephew, who dies before his brother can make it back to his son's side. That this pales in comparison to the issue with Klein is, I think, deliberate, and unsettling.

His social life is full of people who make random comments about you people and how everything is controlled by Jews that is blatant, but then there are moments where you doubt his reactions, because he's assuming he's the centre of other people's lives the same way he is the centre of his own. It's complicated and well done.

The question that came to my mind after the end was who the titular victim was. Leventhal, hard done by and doing hard by himself? The man who depicted himself as Leventhal's helpless victim? I kept coming back to Leventhal's brother, who makes no such claims, but is the one dealing with devastating events without crying out.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Reading the Bones by Sheila Finch

*Some Spoilers Below*

I had a very up and down relationship with this little novella. At the beginning, I was irritated with it, then I mellowed and decided it wasn't that bad, and by the end of the book, had gotten thoroughly aggravated again. In the end, it feels like something with a lot of potential, but with a trick ending that undermines most of what has gone before, and some troublesome colonialism to boot.

It's not great. It's not terrible either, and there are some good ideas here, even if they're not always executed well.

The novella is set on the planet that colonization forces have named Krishna, which is a good sign that Indians are the colonizing force here. This was the first thing that irritated me - it's very hard to lift what is essentially British colonialism, wholesale, transport it to another planet, but make the colonizers Indian and therefore...what? Less colonialist? Not really. It made me angry, that she just substituted Indian names into a setting with amahs, native markets, and rebellions that take place in prose that matches so closely fiction I've read set in British-ruled India, without real thought given to it. (Or at least, thought isn't evident.)

It doesn't suddenly make it okay, if you just replace the British with British-acting Indian colonial powers. It doesn't make it something you can not pay attention to - you want that in your story, you'd damn well better grapple with it honestly, not just state it and try to move on. It's enough to derail what you're doing, and it took me a long, long time to get over it. Add in the drunkard linguist looking at the 16-year-old daughter of the governor and remembering his dead wife, and I had a very hard time getting into this. And the casual description of watching a rape that shocks the viewers, but has no effect on the woman raped. I'm not sure the later explanations of biology make this any clearer. (And we all know how I feel about the overuse of evolutionary psychology.)

It got better, though, when the action jumped forward a few years, and we were with that daughter of the deceased governor as she attempts to become a linguist (lingster) as well, too old for most of the training, but taken under the wing of a lingster looking for universal sounds between alien languages that arose on different planets.

In this case, we got her story juxtaposed with that of her younger sister, who had grown much older because she had not travelled relativistically, left on the planet in a hurried evacuation. The younger sister had been adopted into the alien (Frehti) female priesthood, and sought to solve a problem of a racial split that had lost half the males and much of the possibility of procreation, through recovering and codifying a language the Frehti had brought with them from another planet.

Of course, both sisters end up on the planet at the same age, the older scarcely aged from when she left, the younger nearing her death from old age. The crisis of the Frehti nears, and the younger ancient sister is bound and determined to be the one who solves it, having struggled for her place in Frehti society.

But of course, when they come face to face with a new language from the fallen/altered Frehti, the one who can learn to speak it in barely moments is not the one who has spent her life with the unfallen Frehti, it's the one who has been off-planet for years, but has been educated. This didn't sit that well. Particularly when it all shakes out, and then the older offworld sister shrugs and says "well, it wasn't a problem of linguistics at all. Too bad she wasted her life."

Which...this whole book is about linguistics. Most of the characters are lingsters, or Frehti elders obsessed with language. I mean, I'm fine with not everything having a linguistics answer, but when all you get is a hammer, over and over, it doesn't feel like an unreasonable expectation that there will be a damned nail somewhere.

So, the middle was pretty good, but the beginning didn't show enough thought, and the end was all about giving a middle finger to the characters and the readers, who hadn't been given any hints of any other options all the way through. And this is a plot problem that could have been solved so easily. Have one scene, a couple scenes, where another one of the Frehti elders questioned whether it was about language, who came up with a different idea. Use it as a way to show how orthodoxy works or doesn't in Frehti culture, and then you've at least left the possibility that lifelong obsession might be wrong.

But as a "Psych!" moment right at the end, it's more frustrating than it is interesting or intriguing.

Wednesday, 9 August 2017

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch

*Some Spoilers Below*

I find it hard to write reviews for books far into a series that I've read, loved, and reviewed. I start to feel like I've run out of new things to say about a milieu that's familiar, with characters I know and enjoy, and stories that all identifiably come from the same pen. That being said, the Peter Grant series is one of my favourite comfort reads on the market today, and it jumped into that category almost as soon as finished the first one.

These are exactly the sort of books that I want to own and have on hand, and in the morning, when I'm not up for something new, but want something to read while I'm eating my oatmeal, I reach for one. I've read each of the first five several times each, and when I want an audiobook comfort read, this is also where I turn. I haven't listened to this book yet on audio, but the series narrator has some of the best audiobook chops I've ever heard.

What I'm saying is, if you're looking for enjoyable urban fantasy, this is probably what you want. That being said, don't jump in with this book. Where the other ones have strongly centered around one police case, this one is much more about gathering together all the disparate threads that have been emerging over the last several books, and weaving them together.

There is a case at the centre, but compared to the attention on Lesley and on the Faceless Man, it gets comparatively little screentime. It's mostly notable for how much it pisses off Lady Tyburn, given that it concerns her daughter, Olivia. Olivia is present at a party where a girl ends up dead from a drug overdose (and, thanks to Dr. Walid and his new associate's work, we also know due to thaumatological damage) (brain damage from Too Much Magic.)  Tyburn calls up Peter to lean on him to keep her daughter out of the police investigation, which is promptly scuppered when Olivia blurts out in a formal interview that she supplied the drugs.

That becomes less important as we discover that the dead girl had been involved with a French trickster fox character in selling the prized possessions of the Faceless Man on eBay, which means that both the Faceless Man and Lesley start interfering the investigation in fairly major ways.

Both my husband and I were seriously worried for Nightingale, and Peter has been emphasizing for a couple of books now how slow the process of learning magic is, and how Nightingale is all that stands between the forces of evil and annihilation. I would be very upset if Nightingale is eventually killed off, but not all that surprised.

Let's see...Peter is happily mostly shacked up with Beverly, which worries her sister Tyburn, given that Tyburn will outlive her husband and children. Although I'm not sure that's as much a worry with Peter, given that Nightingale has been aging backwards for decades. With an absolutely mundane man, sure, but does it really apply in this case?

At any rate, there are showdowns and near misses as Peter and Nightingale, and Peter's new de facto partner, Sahra Guleed, who I like quite a lot, get ever closer to the Faceless Man, and his mundane identity is revealed in this book. There's also a very interesting discussion between Peter and the Faceless Man at the end of the book that offers some clues to what the master plans might be (and they sound just a little racist to me, and I'm quite sure that's deliberate).

All in all, I enjoyed this one, but I wasn't in it for the mystery, which is largely shunted off to the side in favour of the larger overarching plot that is quickly getting nearer a boil.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Danger Planet by Brett Sterling

I am somewhere over 40% done reading all the Hugo Best Novel winners and nominees. I hadn't quite realized that the list I had grabbed from the internet all those years ago included the Retro Hugos that had been handed out by that point, until I finished this book and went looking for the year Danger Planet had been nominated. I kind of like picking up the Retro Hugos in this list, but knowing that this award was handed out in 1996 makes it a little bit more baffling that Danger Planet made the cut. Perhaps there weren't that many novel-length SF books to pick from.

Which is not to say that Danger Planet is a bad book, precisely. It is a rollicking space pulp adventure, with a stalwart genius scientist/adventurer/atom gun quickdraw master/mastermind hero, as muscled and adoration-worthy as any other I can think of. But that is exactly what this book is, and it's not a lot more. It's not bad as science fiction pulp. As an award winner? Well, I like to see nominees that are trying something a bit more ambitious, although it's true that in every given year there are books nominated for all sorts of reasons, some better than others.

This is a book that bops along nicely, and doesn't bear thinking about for more than a second, although I'll go ahead and think about it regardless. And it was one absolutely terrible bit of wordplay at its core. That alone should have disqualified it, as far as I'm concerned. (I'm joking. Mostly.)

But I'll tell you, so you can decide for yourself. Most of the action takes place on the planet of Roo, where the herb that, scientifically treated, gives all of humanity incredible longevity. Roo is a terrible name for a planet, and you can probably see where this is going.  We eventually find out that the long-gone evil race that used to rule the galaxy might still have some sleeping members on Roo's moon.

They are...wait for it...the Kanga.

Yup. This is all an elaborate kangaroo joke, with no real reason for it. It doesn't really pay off in anyway, other than to make me shake my head when they revealed the name of the evil race, a name that does much less than strike terror in any heart.

It's also one of those pulp books where the hero is a genius scientist in both biology (having invented the longevity treatment) and physics (invented the drive that gives humanity interstellar travel), as well as being the best quickdraw on the atom gun in the galaxy, and strong and stalwart, and deeply in love with his best gal, who follows along, and gets herself in some danger by being plucky, only to be rescued at the end.

He doesn't do this all by himself - Captain Future has the Futuremen. Oh, didn't I mention that his title is Captain Future? Curt Newton, Captain Future? In addition to being all that himself, he has a brain in a box, a coarse robot who gets as near to cussing as you can have in the 1940s, and an android who is a master of disguise. Together, these four (and his best gal Joan when she can follow along) travel to Roo to find out who is stirring up the natives, who burning down the plantations of the vitron (longevity plant) farmers. They're also the workers on those plantations, I think, and certainly the impact of out-and-out colonialism isn't examined in this particular book.

(But it made me more sympathetic to the Roon. Why should they work for humans hellbent on controlling a crop on their own planet, making huge profits and shipping it all off-world? Of course, they're not rebelling because of that. They're rebelling because they're superstitious uncivilized people, easily bamboozled by those occupying their planet. I was going to say by the White man, but although most of the human inhabitants of Roo do seem to be male, the names are split between names that read as White and those that deliberately give the sense of being Asian.)

A lot of this seems very much like a Western, transported to space. Of course, Captain Future manages to save the day at the end, even though the dread Kanga (I can't even type it with a straight face) do awake at the end, and are fairly quickly dispatched by Captain Future, even though it took the old good race the Denebians, a long time to fight them into stasis.

It's fun, but it's also one of those older science fiction books that, once you start thinking about it, is chock full of assumptions and tropes that make it a bit troubling.

Friday, 4 August 2017

The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

My themed-read Science Fiction and Fantasy book club is in the midst of a theme on Fairy Tales, and although I'd never read The Bloody Chamber, I knew I had to get Angela Carter in there somewhere. All I've read of her before is Wise Children, so, with the help of google, I picked this set of short stories for her inclusion in the theme, crossed my fingers, and hoped.

We had the club meeting last night, at the time of writing this, and overall, I think it ended up being a good pick. There were some questions about the order of the stories and some of the stories within, and it sparked some good conversations, although I forgot to try to link it to the previous book so we can build on what we've talked about each month as we go. Ah well, next month.

For a retelling of fairy tales, this is long on sexuality, budding bodies, potential sexual violence, and self-discovery. That's not particularly unexpected, as these are often the subtext of fairy tales, brought into text forcefully. There are a number of stories that mash together a couple of fairy tales to create something unsettling, like the story where Little Red Riding Hood meets a classic werewolf folk tale. 

It is odd that the stories are grouped so that every run she makes at a particular fairy tale comes one right after the other. There are back-to-back Beauty and the Beast stories, and three or four Little Red Riding Hood/werewolf stories, one right after the other. This felt a little odd, more like you were reading someone's drafts that truly different stories, even though each was a distinct take.

I don't know if any of us knew quite what to make of the Erl-King story, other than what it was on its face, a story of sexual obsession and submission.

While these are stories that come from a feminist root, they're not so much stories of female empowerment. Some of them are stories of male violence, and in others, while the women end up in better positions than they started, it tends to be less because of actions they themselves have taken as because those around them have supported them in becoming who they would like to be. There are a bunch of stories of women with animal or part-animal lovers that allow them to indulge and discover their sexuality without restraint. But these are not stories of women actively changing their own destinies, for the most part. The opportunity to embrace a new destiny comes to them, mostly unsought, and they seize it.

Animality and humanity are common themes, with animals or half-human animals often being portrayed as more honest (although not all - that one werewolf!) than humans. "Wolf-Alice," the last story, is probably the most explicit exploration of this, with the feral girl learning gradually how to think in the future and past, sadly distancing herself from who she was when she was raised by wolves. But it's there in the Beauty and the Beast stories as well.

Then there's the one Dracula meets Sleeping Beauty meets The Boy Who Couldn't Shudder story, where a lonely vampire lady lives in her crumbling Bulgarian castle, draining those who stop by unwittingly, until a young blond male virgin soldier comes by. At my book club meeting, we had different opinions of what the ending meant, with my husband coming up with a far creepier interpretation than the rest of us. I'm not sure he's wrong, and shudder.

Reading this book often left me unsure what I wanted to say about it, and I find that continues. There's a lot here, but there doesn't feel like one big cohesive point. This is not unexpected, given that it is made up of short stories. There are a lot of little points to consider, and I feel like I've barely scratched the surface.