Tuesday, 30 April 2013

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

A Canticle for Leibowitz is Catholic science fiction, clearly written in the aftermath of Hiroshima and the shadow of the Cold War. It is mesmerizing, drawing on history and speculating on the future, focused around a small monastery in the American Southwest. It is also profoundly pessimistic about the fate of man and the inevitability of nuclear war. At the core of the world that Miller explores over thousands of years are some of the following assumptions:

1. In the wake of a nuclear war, the world will be plunged back into a new Dark Age.

And as with the previous Dark Age, Catholic monasteries will take on the role of guarding and copying knowledge that would otherwise have been lost. Miller himself took part in the bombing of the Monte Cassino monastery during the Second World War, and later converted to Catholicism. This part of his future mimics the past, where the monasteries of the Middle Ages were the keepers and disseminators of knowledge in the West. (Though as much or more of the knowledge that had been lost was kept, studied, and cultivated in the Middle East and other parts of the non-Christian world.)

It is interesting that within the world Miller creates, Catholicism is not an unrivalled power, and indeed, it goes through many different permutations and positions through the book. The papacy is at times powerful, and at times powerless. But although the position of the papacy may affect the ultimate fates of the monks at the Abbey of St. Leibowitz, the story focuses on the abbey, far from the centres of power, and is more concerned with how this contemplative order survives than with the changes the world undergoes.

(The abbey is consecrated to a man who appears to have been a nuclear scientist, who himself converted from Judaism to Catholicism, and died a martyr at the hands of an anti-intellectual mob.)

2. The knowledge that the monasteries have kept safe will inevitably be resdiscovered.

After thousands of years, secular scientists will rediscover the secrets of electricity and the dynamo (and, eventually, nuclear weapons), and will argue that they must be used at the hands of the rulers of the time, as it is in any case inevitable. They will argue that they should not be concerned if the knowledge is used for good or evil, only that it is used.

This obviously is one of the cores of Miller's belief, that the use of any power without consideration of the ethical implications will be turned, eventually, to death and destruction. This is the most obviously Catholic part of his argument, not that he really claims that the Church would have the power or will to do better. The Church is remarkably powerless in the face of progress. They can only endure, not influence.

3. Man is fallible.

And this extends to the Catholic monks as well as to the secular scientists and doctors that the various priors interact with. But the benefit of the doubt falls heavier on the monks - they are always seen as trying to do the right thing, although they too can be blinded by prejudice or inflexibility. For that matter, most of the secular characters are also trying to do the right thing, although their lack of a moral compass (all non-Catholic characters lack a moral compass) means that they justify doing evil in the name of doing good, with the best intentions.

4. Nuclear weapons, once discovered, will inevitably be used.

The third act of the book takes place in a world that has recovered from the Deluge of Fire thousands of years before, and repeats the same mistakes. As before, the Church is remarkably powerless (and there are no suggestions of how it could act better or differently). They are left with the sole option of merely making sure the church continues and continues to safeguard knowledge, as the world dies for a second time.

See why I say this is a deeply pessimistic book? His view of human nature, the inevitability of nuclear holocaust, and the powerlessness of what he sees as the true faith to do anything about it are the persistent companions of these pages. Scattered throughout are figures from Catholic mythology - the Wandering Jew, for example, and at the end, a second Immaculate Conception. (Whether that leads to the conception and birth of another Christ-figure is left hanging in the air.)

I do not share Miller's faith, nor his pessimism about the state of the world or its eventual end, but there is no denying that A Canticle for Leibowitz is a powerful (if depressing) look at the world as it was and as it could be.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Monday, 29 April 2013

Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan

This book took forever to read. This is not a remark on its readability or how much I enjoyed it - stuff just kept getting in the way. Books kept bumping it off the list of three books I was currently reading - once because a book came in from the library that had a long line of holds behind it, so I had to read it quickly, and once because it came around to being my turn to moderate a discussion in a group here on Goodreads, and I felt I should, you know, read the book I was moderating the discussion about.

So, through no fault of its own, Altered Carbon languished in limbo there for a while.

But I'm finally done it, and yeah, that was a damn fine book.

It's science fiction noir, and Morgan has a nice touch of both noir phrasing and overly-complicated noir plotting. I really didn't see the intricacies of the story until they were laid out, but it never worried me. I enjoyed being plunged into the confusing world that Takeshi Kovacs wakes up in, with little more information than he had.

Takeshi Kovacs was arrested in a bust. The sentence? Being put "on stack" - to have his downloaded personality put on hold for a sentence of up to 100 years, while someone else gets to use his body to be "resleeved" - to get back corporeality after dying in an accident, or being released from a sentence of their own. Or just for kicks, for the rich, a spare body to wear to fashionable occasions.

Resleeving is the core of this novel, the ways in which it could be exploited, who might be doing the exploiting, the disorientation of waking up in a body you don't know, the ways you might trip over the body's former occupant.

Kovacs finds himself resleeved on another planet - Earth - his time and body bought and paid for by a local rich man who can't believe he committed suicide, and wants Kovacs to get to the bottom of it. Kovacs follows this trail of bodies, treasured, used, and discarded down dark alleys and into sleazy joints, negotiating his new body as he tries to negotiate an entirely foreign world.

The mystery is quite satisfying. But it is the world Morgan creates here, the ethical, religious, and practical considerations of a world where it is very hard for death to be final, and bodies can be disposable. Life is still valuable, but what carries it around might not be.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

Wow. Just...wow. Why have I never read this before? Ray Bradbury has written an amazing, lyrical, spooky-as-hell set of pieces that all add up to something much more. Some are very brief, mere sketches of events. Others are full-length short stories.

Humans come to Mars, and find it inhabited. But first contact goes nothing like they think it will. Neither does second contact. Or third. Or, for that matter, fourth. But humans keep coming, and settle into the Martian landscape. Creepy, creepy things happen. Some of the stories seriously weirded me out. Not in a bad way.

But these are the kind of stories where you peer at the edges of your vision, waiting for whatever out there may be waiting for you. Atmospherically creepy, and sometimes with startling results. I never sat easily while reading The Martian Chronicles.

I did have minor quibbles with two of the events, but I can overlook them in the sheer awesomeness of the rest. Still, I don't quite believe that everyone would leave Mars to return to an Earth at war. While people may have had family there, people don't all rush back into a warzone. They would have watched with fear and terror, but more would have stayed. I know it needed to happen for the end of the book to work, but it did bother me. Also, are 12 people really enough for a viable genetic pool?

But because this book was not about the science, but about the beauty and mystery and mythical quality of the landscape and the Martians, I could put these quibbles aside, and come out of this book seeing it as a masterpiece, an object lesson of what science fiction can be, how it can transcend some of the traditional limitations of the genre, and reach beneath them to get at something wonderful and essential.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

Human nature tends towards, not entropy, but bureaucracy.

I think my father would have enjoyed this book immensely. It would have been exactly up his alley, as one of his favourite hobbyhorses is well and lovingly encapsulated in The Dispossessed.

I fear my review might focus more on Anarres and less on Urras, as it was the Anarrian sections that interested me more, the attempts to sustain (founding was the easy part) an anarcho-syndicalist society over a long period of time. For Urras, I thought that it was painted in clear terms, and avoided a polemic, although it did have very pointed things to say about class, and war, and conscription, and property, and the gendering thereof. 

(For the record, I think this novel had much more interesting things to say about gender than The Left Hand Of Darkness, with which I had major issues. Hopefully I'll review that one someday and get into them.)

And just once, I'll give in to the obligatory anarcho-syndicalist Monty Python joke, and then I'm done, I promise.

"You can't expect to wield supreme executive power just because some watery tart threw a sword at you."

Although, truly, talking about supreme executive power, with all the centralization that implies, doesn't seem very anarcho-syndicalist to me. But it's Monty Python. And I've digressed enough.

It was the Anarrian sections that held me, that showed a very thoughtful consideration of human nature, of a system of living that requires constant revolutionary thought, and how that must fight against the even more powerful human characteristic of desiring comfort and predictability, and how that can crystallize even the best ideas into strictures, into rules that once addressed something specific well, but tend to constrict over time until they bind everything badly and too close, and are in constant need of the goads, the people who kick over the traces and cause a fuss, even when they are under intense pressure to conform.

My father would have loved this book.

And I think I love it too, for its attempt to take this society seriously, to engage with the actual problems that might arise, for the care in which it shows what this society does well, which is really quite a lot, as well as how even the most revolutionary of societies settles eventually into becoming more restrictive.

My Dad was always of the opinion that organizations fracturing was a good thing, and that bureaucracy was a bad thing, because the first kept the organizations vibrant and engaged, and the latter threatened to stifle them. He also believed that big blanket bureaucratic solutions often helped no one at all very well. They might be necessary, sometimes, but when he was dying, someone wrote him a lovely letter that talked about what my Dad had taught him about "family and personal and small and imperfect."

And those are the solutions I'm working for myself, these days. We need people working on the big stuff, but we also need people trying to find small, imperfect solutions for these things right here.

This review has meandered away from the book, I'm afraid. But what I'm trying to say is that Ursula K. LeGuin does a wonderful job of showing a non-polemical view of a radically different society, tries to address in real ways the issues and the joys of such a society, and it left me with the feeling that something like this would be worth fighting for and against. To protect and to challenge.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Friday, 26 April 2013

Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

What is it about London that makes it the prime place to create another world, not hidden in the shadows, but accessible through secret passageways that tend to close tight behind those who stumble in? Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere jumps to mind, which China Mieville (I don't know how to do the accents!) credits as an inspiration, and now Un Lun Dun.

Although I guess the other example that I can think of, J. Michael Straczynski's Midnight Nation, is set in the States. Never mind. And in this book, UnLondon isn't the only city hidden behind another city. There's Parisn't, for example. And Lost Angeles.

I loved this book so, so much. It's the first China Mieville I've read, and it won't be the last. (I do realize that his other books are very different from this one, having read a lot of wonderful reviews of them.) But the imagination and creation I can't wait to encounter in other forms.

And in this one, the whimsy delighted me, the terrors worried me, the name for the garbage bins that guarded the bridge absolutely killed me. About the time that that was revealed, I started to have a big silly grin on my face. It recurred frequently.

Deeba and her best friend, Zanna, find themselves in UnLondon, where Zanna is the Chosen One, the Shwazzy. They're there so Zanna can beat the Smog. Except that things do not go even remotely as planned (or prophesied), and Deeba finds herself having to negotiate the conventions of prophecies, and to brave the horrors of the smoglodytes to stop the Smog from taking over, along with a group of friends, on a quest to find the one weapon the Smog fears.

I loved the way that Mieville played with conventions of young adult fiction, and had Deeba outright reject some of them. I just loved this entire world.

And to paraphrase a friend, I basically find solidarity to be one of the most moving things ever. I've gotten a little misty-eyed at every protest I've been a part of. I tear up a little watching pride parades. And that part in movies, where one person stands up against an evil, and then is unexpectedly joined by a larger crowd - that wrecks me, every time, with happy tears. And there is one of those moments in Un Lun Dun, and I'm not too ashamed to say that I had tears in my eyes.

This is China Mieville doing young adult, and I can't wait to try his much denser adult fiction. Lovely, lovely, lovely.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

 Note: This was written back in January. I'm not sick right now.

Books to avoid when you're feverish:

Infinite Jest

And the part of this book when Strange starts to toy with madness - which, of course, was the part I was at when I was stricken down with the flu. I'm recuperating now, but I still can't sit upright under my own steam for more than a couple of minutes, which would explain why I'm trying to write this on my lap on the couch while reclining back so I don't get dizzy. This virus sucks.

Anyway, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. I'm at a tiny bit of a loss when it comes to what to write about this one. I enjoyed it quite a lot, without ever quite loving it. I would recommend it, but it's not quite one of those books that I buttonhole strangers on the street to tell them about (and that gets me some odd looks, let me tell you.)

Let's see if I can break that down a little. I loved the footnotes, but I'm a sucker for footnotes. So much better than endnotes. Why don't we have a movement back towards footnotes in all academic books again? With the advent of computers, they aren't the same problem with typesetting they used to be. In this case, the footnotes were used to wonderful effect, as they enriched the story of magic in the world in lovely ways. I loved the fairy stories that cropped up in them, and gave so much texture to England-as-it-was.

Mr. Norrell is England's only practical magician - and he'd like to keep it that way, thank you very much, wary of the uses of magic, and its wilder possibilities. He wants to keep it carefully circumscribed, completely under his own control.

Enter Jonathan Strange, a self-taught magician of extraordinary creativity, who wants nothing more than to explore every dangerous path and publish his findings for all to see. As these two work together, quarrel, and become opposed, magic in England continues to grow.

And yet, they never hate each other - they just can't agree. Childermass, Norrell's servant, tries to strike a middle path, believing neither extreme is the way to go.

But beyond the magicians and their endeavours for self and country, there is the world of the Fae, and it is wild and dangerous and capricious and amoral. Norrell's first piece of major magic needed faerie help, and failed to understand the price. As a result, several innocents are sentenced to live with the fairy in his home of Lost Hope. This comes at a great personal price for one of the magicians. Neither realizes the strength of the enmity the fairy bears them.

I mostly very much enjoyed this book, but there were a few occasions when the characters were unacceptably dense about things they should have been paying attention to. For instance, when a fairy gives you a little finger, and then the next night, at the fairy's house, you see someone missing a little finger, the proper response is not "it's probably a coincidence."

I appreciated that the magicians did not understand the fairies, or their motives, but that particular moment irritated me beyond belief. Find something else they could have believably misinterpreted, not this moment that requires me to believe that Strange has suddenly entirely lost his ability to put one and one together and make two.

But the world that Clarke creates is both familiar and strange, and uses legends of the fae in marvellous ways, as well as a world that is in the process of having its base assumptions thrown up in the air, and the reactions people have to that, from horror to glee. And underneath it all, it's a story of a knotty friendship, with betrayals, assistance, and two characters that need each other, although they may not know it.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Wednesday, 24 April 2013

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

It has been a long time since I disliked a book this much. There was a moment on Sunday when the urge to throw it across the room and be done with it forever was so strong I had to clench my hands around the spine to keep myself from doing it. This was made more imperative by the fact that I was standing outside in a bus terminal at the time, and this was a library book.

There will be spoilers. I'm not marking them, because I want people to read them and then avoid this book like the plague.

Why do I loathe it? Let me count the ways. First of all, this book reads like it was written by someone who has only heard about humans third or fourth hand, by repute. The characters are largely cardboard. The main character, Tassie Keltjin, who is slightly better than cardboard, is an awful human being, passive-aggressive, judgmental, and a general brat. If she learned something along the way, that might have been something. I'm not sure she did. Oh, and she played the bass. This seemed to have no actual relevance to the character or the story, as though the author thought that having her play the bass guitar would impart depth without doing anything to make it meaningful. Or even interesting.

Other characters were mostly cardboard, and I couldn't give a flying crap about any of them.

Two, the author did no research. Some examples:

Freelance eye cancer researcher? Affiliated with neither a university nor a medical research company?
Mosquitoes don't burrow through your clothes and bite you, they land on top and bite through. Standardized patient programs don't recruit by testing you to see if you can make up fake symptoms with no prompting or training. What the hell use would that be?
Coffins are not that fucking roomy.

There were more, dear god, there were more. Those are just the ones that started to bother me from the beginning. But even that might have been okay. It wouldn't have made this a good book, but lack of research isn't enough to make a book this bad.

Then the melodrama started. And it was ridiculous. With no repercussions, most of the time. And often took real things that could be heartbreaking, and made them so over the top that they just made me angrier and angrier.

Of course the sensitive Portuguese student Tassie has been dating turns out to be a radical Muslim militant masquerading as Portuguese, who leaves for London while informing her he's not part of a cell. This is never paid off. Nothing happens with it. NOTHING. Tassie mopes because her heart has been broken, plays the bass, and in no way does this move the story forward or affect it.

Tassie becomes a part-time nanny for an adopted child. The parents eventually lose custody of the child - this happens in real life, and it could be presented in a way that meant something, that hit some emotional core. Oh no. Instead, we're treated to a story where we learn the adoptive parents are losing their adopted child because they've been living under false names all this time because one time, they were parents, and during a stressful drive, the father stopped by the side of the interstate and told their three year old to get out. And he did, somehow unbuckling himself from his carseat - a neat trick if you're three. AND THEN THE FATHER STARTED THE CAR AGAIN AND DROVE OFF sort of "by accident" and when they were trying to get back to him, the child ran into the highway and was killed and they were charged with negligence but got off but were desperate to adopt, so they changed their names and moved and....

I'm not making this up.

Oh, and the poisonous tapenade the adoptive mother makes, has Tassie take home and store, which her roommate accidentally eats and almost dies? There's no payoff for that either. No repercussions. And no clue what it was going to be used for - the adoptive mother never asks for it back.

And then there's the part where Tassie climbs into the coffin of her brother who was blown up by an IED in Afghanistan and snuggles with the bits. And then pulls the coffin lid down over her. I'm not even going to comment on this.

But it was this line, this one right here, that made me want to throw this smug, condescending little book into a puddle of oil.

"Tragedies, I was coming to realize through my daily studies in the humanities both in and out of the classroom, were a luxury. They were constructions of an affluent society, full of sorrow and truth but without moral function."

She goes on to say that the "triumph of the poor" was that they could laugh at their tragedies.

I couldn't even explain how angry this made me. The main character is so awful through the entire book about those she considers stupid (her entire home town, which she says several times should be blown up - people would be better off.) But this, the idea that a) tragedy as sadness really only affects the rich and b) that finding places to laugh in tragedy mean that you aren't affected - well, both of them just about made me explode.

Okay, now I've purged all that out of my system, let's hope I can go forward, and never think of this book again. I don't know what the author was trying to do with this. It's not funny. It's not good quirky. It's just terrible.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard

Hmm, three or four stars? This was good, but I don't think I'll read it again. On the other hand, that particular feeling does not say that this was a mediocre book. But that personal gut reaction is what I tend to use for star ratings - four stars means I would like to or wouldn't mind reading it again. Five stars are books I feel the need to own.

So this is a three star review, but it is probably a better book than that.

J.G. Ballard looks back at his experiences during World War II through a novel. Fictionalized, he manages to tell the story of Jim, a British ten-year-old who is present in Shanghai with his parents when Pearl Harbour occurs and war is declared between the Americans and the Japanese. (British? His parents would certainly consider themselves so, but Jim has never been to England, and muses at times about joining the Japanese air force - not out of any patriotic leanings, but because they have the power and the airplanes he longs to fly.)

Separated from his parents in the first days of this part of the war, Jim wanders around Shanghai, and eventually ends up in an internment camp for the duration. His parents are absent for the vast majority of the story

Ballard has a knack for expressing Jim's feelings about the war in ways that are simultaneously childlike and devastating. The book covers Jim's life from 10 to 14, and he grows accustomed to the war, to expect it as the normal sequence of events, and tries to figure out life as though it will always be that way.

The adults around him are startled and sometimes perturbed by Jim's adaptation to a life in wartime, to life in a camp, to life as a prisoner. They try to exploit him, teach him, or ignore him. Jim, in turn, doesn't understand why the grownups around him haven't adapted to the war the way he has, why they don't, on some level, enjoy it.

As the Japanese get closer and closer to defeat in the Pacific, life at the camp becomes more tenuous and dangerous. Jim is forced on a death march, food supplies are cut off, bandits roam the countryside, groups of prisoners are looking to loot whatever they can. The relative order of the camp fades into even more chaos, and Jim is no longer certain that he is even alive.

The portion of the book that takes place when relative order has been restored is fairly brief, and we never find out if Jim manages to truly believe that he isn't dead, or that war isn't the normal condition of life. It makes me wonder how Ballard himself coped. How he managed to negotiate a world that he knew to be fundamentally fragile.

Sunday, 21 April 2013

Childhood's End by Arthur C. Clarke

From my vast expertise of having read all of two, count them, two, Arthur C. Clarke books, I am seeing a common theme. I don't know if it extends beyond that to his other books, but here it is: The universe is a very, very big place. And humans might just be irrelevant to it. What is going on out there is so vast that it's an immense piece of egotism to think of ourselves as central, or even incidental, to it.

This theme, of course, is deeply unsettling. But also challenging and exciting. He is the only science fiction author I know of to be delving into these ideas. Many have had humans as the poor cousins of intergalactic power structures, but Clarke's books (again, the two I've read) have us as virtually below notice.

Except, in Childhood's End, we are noticed. The Overlords come. They help solve human problems. Their ships linger over cities. They help mold humanity into a saner race. And yet, that's not what they're really after. But the humans who oppose them make certain assumptions about what the Overlords want, and why they've done what they've done. They're wrong. The truth is far weirder.

Like Rendezvous with Rama, this is certainly more a novel of ideas than a novel of character - there is very little setting each human apart. So I wasn't engrossed in the struggles these individuals had in a changed and quickly changing world. But the ideas behind it, the musings on what losing war and poverty and famine would do to humans were interesting, and the final reveals truly breathtaking.

I didn't find Childhood's End to be grim or pessimistic, although the ending is certainly, in many ways, shocking. It is so different and offputting, I can see why people have seen it as negative. But I was also intrigued by it, excited by it, got some sense of why this utterly different world might be something to see. Or at least, to explore through fiction.

Humans might be irrelevant to the wider universe, but there might be the seeds of something more.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Too. Much. Fun.

But not too much, really. Just the right amount of fun. Ladies and gentleman, if you're looking for a relatively light read, with overtones of the theatre and English puppetry, and undertones of feuding rivers and power struggles, all sifted through the eyes of a police constable who has just discovered that magic is real, and he's been chosen to police it, then this is the book for you!

Step right up, step right up! Meet our star, Peter Grant, a young police constable who just knows he's going to be streamed into the branch of the police that helps the other branches of the police fill out their paperwork! Marvel as he runs into his very first ghost while guarding a very bloody crime scene! Prepare to get squicked as a wave of violence envelopes London and results in peoples' faces falling off! Hold your breath as he deals with the Gods and Goddesses of the various rivers and tries not to get caught in the undertow!

This book isn't going to change the world, but I enjoyed it every time I picked it up and never wanted to put it down. I want to run out and find the other two books that have been published right this very minute. I want to encourage them to have little book babies.

Peter is an amusing protagonist, and Ben Aaronovitch has a knack for turns of phrase that made me laugh out loud more than once. (Such as when, finding out that he's not going to be sentenced to paperwork, Peter informs us that as he left, he was definitely not skipping.) And the world he finds himself plunged into is so particular, the magic such an organic outgrowth of the history and geography of London and the Thames that I couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next. 

And I'm a sucker for theatre stuff, and when the underlying causes of the wave of strange violence emerged, it both delighted me and creeped me out. 

The supporting cast is just as strong as Peter himself, from Toby the dog, to Leslie the other police constable, to Nightingale the experienced magic officer, to Beverley the Brook, to Molly the whatever-the-heck-she-is, and while the narrative meanders a bit at times, they were always meanderings on which I was glad to be along. Magic isn't learned in a day, after all.

Later addition:

I am new to audiobooks. But I just discovered I can borrow them from the library directly to my iPod. And that they're a great addition to the walking-everywhere I already do. But I'm still only listening to books I've already read - I don't tend to retain things unless I've seen them written down once. So <i>Midnight Riot</i> and <i>Moon Over Soho</i> were two of the first I downloaded. I would like to strongly recommend that people check them out. Kobna Holbrook-Smith is simply amazing, and the sheer variety of distinct voices he can manage is spectacular. I already loved this book a lot, and listening to it and the next one during my morning walks the last few weeks has been a pure joy.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Quiet by Susan Cain

Okay, yes, there's a subtitle, but it's too long to put in the subject line. It's "The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking."

There's a real pleasure in recognition. Hearing about yourself, finding out you're not alone, it can be a huge relief and release. And so, as a long-time (although fairly gregarious) introvert, I enjoyed this book quite a bit. Not much of it was truly surprising, but still, it's nice to read a book that validates the way I tend to operate anyway.

And the section on over- and under-stimulation I found very useful. Having just come off of a very overstimulated week, I'm enjoying cocooning at home and doing some editing this week. The way she presented it gave me some good ideas for trying to build in moments of quiet. And to better understand why, when I've been at a conference all day, sometimes I can't stand the thought of being around another person and avoid the social events to take myself out for supper with a book.

None of this was revolutionary, but it was presented in such a way that was very helpful.

Similarly, her section on workspaces was really excellent. And by excellent, I mean I identified so strongly with every bit of it. It let me think about the various places I've worked, and which ones made me very stressed - and that was often half because I had a boss who was unpleasant to work for, and half because the open concept workspace made me jumpy and overstimulated.

On the other hand, she does tend to conflate introversion with high reactivity. I'm both, so I enjoyed it, but it does sometimes tend to steer this book away from being about introversion, and towards high sensitivity to external stimuli. The correlation isn't known - she points out that while 70% of people who are high reactive are introverts, no corresponding study has been done to see how many introverts are high reactive.

So, for a couple of chapters, we drifted away from introversion to high reactivity-presented-as-though-it-were-synonymous-with-introversion, although she had acknowledged we don't really know that yet.

In that section, I was most struck by something I hadn't heard about highly sensitive people - how much their later mental health depends on parenting. Makes me want to call my Mom and thank her (again!) for how she and Dad raised me.

I don't know how much all this science holds up - I'm not really qualified to judge. But much of it resonated with my personal experience, and that always inclines me to like a book. It's not one I need to own, or read again, but it was a validating read.

I'd be interested to see what the reactions of introverted readers of this book were compared to the reactions of extroverted readers.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

It's so much easier when books leave me with a very clear idea of what I want to say about them. It's much more difficult when I don't find that one hook that I want to rant about or laud to the skies.

I'm sort of in that position with 1Q84. I enjoyed it, as I always enjoy Murakami, while being at the same time slightly befuddled by it. His books are a little like reading dreams - weird as all get out, with dream logic that makes sense in context, but make me feel foggy and unsure about what happened by the light of day.

So did I love this? Not really. Like it? A great deal.

I think my bewilderment about what to write also partly comes from the distance I always feel between Murakami and the characters and worlds he creates. It's not the cruel gaze of an author torturing insects for our amusement (a charge my husband often makes about Milan Kundera.) But at the same time, there is that sense of detachment.

So, what did I like? I enjoyed the oddness of the story, of the two characters, Aomame and Tengo, as they try to find each other, while negotiating a world that suddenly has two moons.

(And it gave me a real pause, as I started this while I was reading Under Heaven, and was feeling regretful that Kay's world didn't have two moons, as his often do, then opened this book, and there they were! It was like my fictional universes had started to bleed together - something I think Murakami would enjoy mightily.)

I enjoyed the creepiness, the sense that things were deeply, intensely wrong, without having those things precisely defined. Sometimes the shadows are scarier than what hides inside them.

God help me, I did enjoy the self-referential nature of the book, and the almost-too-clever references to literary conventions, and how they need not necessarily come true, as those things only happen in books. For some reason, this worked for me. Particularly the Chekhov.

What didn't I like? The distance I alluded to earlier, I guess.

The translation was a little clunky at time (at least that's what I think it was - I read someone talking about how when the book always, always refers to one character as his "older girlfriend," that that's a literal translation that jars in English.)

Reviewing this book has been a great deal like trying to hold on to impressions of a dream. I may dream it again some day. Until then, it feels slightly unreal and I'm not entirely sure I'm awake yet.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is a gem of a novel - creepy, dense, menacing, and always intriguing. For a long time, the reader isn't quite sure what is going on, only that it isn't good - and it's to Collins' credit that when the plots are revealed, they are as interesting as anything I was supposing.

The book is long, but immensely readable, and if a few sections dragged, I just reminded myself that this was written as a newspaper serial, and authors tend to get paid by the word. Those sections were few, as it turns out, but there were a couple of places where the padding showed.

I also enjoyed the way the story was told, by multiple narrators with their own tales ranging from a page or two to vast swathes of the novel. This fractured narrative works well for the purposes of the novel, and the multiple narrators allowed Collins to hint at the mysteries from several different angles.

I just started a brief synopsis about three times - how to say what this book is about? Let's try again: Just before leaving London to take up a post as drawing teacher in the country, Walter Hartright helps a mysterious woman in white escape from those pursuing her. She will reappear through the story, catalyzing most of the unnerving events. Once at his new post, Hartright falls head over heels for one of his students, the beautiful Laura Fairlie. Laura, however is engaged to be married, and she and Walter are far too honourable to break her engagement. So he leaves. And the man Laura marries turns out to be a brute, and finds herself in great danger from him and his close friend, Count Fosco.

But while that does mention the unnerving presence of the Count, who always thinks two or three steps ahead of his opponents, it fails to mention the most vivid character in the book, Marian Halcombe, Laura's half-sister. Marian is intelligent, bold, and, in one of the best known descriptions from the book, ugly. But her outward appearance makes no difference to Marian, who sizes up the dangerous situation her sister finds herself in, and attempts to help her break free of it.

It is amazing how much of the tension in this book results from the simple constraints on women's opportunities and behaviour in Victorian England.

Marian is such a vivid, interesting character that I was disappointed when she dwindled as a presence, and became a mere background character when Walter took up the tale again - Walter is a serviceable protagonist, but he's something of a non-entity, and Marian is so much more interesting.

But despite this, I enjoyed The Woman in White a great deal, and was always eager to curl up in my rocking chair and read some more.

Read as part of the BBC Big Read

Tuesday, 16 April 2013

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

Doomsday Book really put me through the wringer. I woke up a couple of nights ago, worrying about the characters. They've popped into my head frequently the last few days. And I was in tears when I read the ending yesterday.

I think this is by far the best Connie Willis book I've read - and I've mostly enjoyed her other works. Everything is working on all cylinders in this book - the writing is superb, the juxtaposition of the two time periods masterful, the characters engaging, the story heartbreaking.

Against the better judgement of one of the historians (read: time travelers) at Oxford, Medieval History is sending someone back in time. Kivrin, Dunworthy's brightest student, is bound and determined to go, and enlists his help despite his misgivings about the project. And go she does, sent back to England not long before the Black Death arrives. Or is the timing off?

As Kivrin negotiates an illness of her own and the complexities of medieval life, all is not well in the small manor where she finds herself. Unsure where the drop that brought her through is, she doesn't know if she'll ever make it back. And then it gets worse.

At the same time, an outbreak of a new strain of the flu in Oxford puts the city under quarantine, and sparks panic and recrimination. The mirroring of plague in England with an epidemic in modern times is chilling and well done.

But the real strength here is the characters. Headstrong Kivrin, protective Dunworthy, intrepid Colin (11-year-old who finds himself in the middle of the power struggle in the modern period to save Kivrin.) And in the medieval period, the characters sparkle, both familiar and foreign. (view spoiler)And as they start one by one to die from the plague, it is gutwrenching. Willis captures so well the desperation of watching everyone around you die, and being able to do so little.

Along the way, she challenges the idea of how much we know about the past, and while her medieval setting may or may not be accurate, it is convincing. I loved it for putting a human face on the past, on seeing them as people, not entirely like ourselves, but not entirely foreign either. I loved it for juxtaposing the historians Kivrin leaves behind who prattle about numbers and ignore what those numbers mean with the people she encounters, who are not great, are not important in the grand scheme of things, but who nonetheless, matter. 


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Monday, 15 April 2013

Swann's Way by Marcel Proust

Swann's Way does not, say, have a lot of plot. At all. Let's get that out of the way upfront. If you're looking for a plot-driven story, look elsewhere. What it does is loop in and around certain topics, in the narrator's life and the life of Swann, and examine them in such minute detail, in flowing prose from one moment to the next, looping around the events in question. And it is beautifully written.

More than that, it contains these moments where Proust describes an experience in a way that I've never seen on page before and yet viscerally respond to. I get excited because small experiences I never thought worth sharing, never realized were universal, are suddenly there on the page, and I know them, and the way Proust describes them brings them vividly to life.

There were many examples I can't quite remember, but the description of the aunt waking up from some nightmare, and that sudden, thankful realization the horrors one was just dreaming were just that, a dream, and do not have to be lived through, that they aren't there to haunt you anymore. Of course, when I do that, the dreams tend to be a lot darker than that someone forced me to get out of bed and go for a walk, as the narrator's aunt feared. But that sense of relief, of thankfulness that what seemed so real is not going to continue to affect me every day for the rest of my life because it was, after all, just a dream - that I've experienced.

There were many moments like this, large and small. And even when I didn't have that shock of recognition, I still enjoyed the rest of the book, because the leisurely tour through the the minutiae of the everyday was so well done, and so interesting.

Swann's Way takes place in three parts - the narrator's remembrances of his youth at Combray, when his family first knew Swann, after Swann had made an unfortunate marriage, and the narrator's sensitive childhood, his fears and worries, and love for his mother. The second part takes place earlier, and details Swann falling hopelessly in love, and progresses through the stages of an unfortunate courtship. By the third section, we are back in the childhood of the narrator, when he has met Swann's daughter in Paris and fallen head over heels in love with her with all the unspoken love of an eleven-year-old.

It's hard to know who to recommend this book to. It's certainly not for everyone. It needs a lot of patience, requires a lot of attention, but it richly rewarding for all that. But I wouldn't blame those who get frustrated with its slow place, either.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

I am not quite sure what I think about this book. I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. The sudden twists and turns in tone didn't throw me off, but they did leave me a bit discombobulated. I wonder if I was trying to read it too closely, if I should have just let it wash over me the first time, and then gone back to think about it some more.

People talk about this as a comic novel, and most of the time, I didn't get that impression. Maybe not my type of humour? But the events that were supposed to be comic read as horrifying little vignettes, and so affected me that way.

In The Master and Margarita, the Devil (Woland) comes to Moscow, minor devils in tow. They upend many people's lives. A few deaths are caused (more about that later), many people are taken into custody by the secret police, most of those remanded to an insane asylum, thousands more embarrassed and revealed. Human nature, in all its weakness and pettiness, is fully on display, and so much of the evil Woland uncovers is of the petty kind, people acting from fear or weakness or greed or frustration, performing small unkindnesses that cause greater evils.

Against these smaller evils looms the greater evil of the state, fostering a world in which these petty small acts are magnified, taken to be indicative of corruption, and punished harshly. In a world where blowing off steam could be heard by the wrong person and bring down the eyes of the government,  the potential of these small unkindnesses is way out of proportion to their intent.

Acts of truth can be punished as harshly as those of lies. While the Devil and his minions (including Behemoth, a huge black cat with a penchant for violence) lay bare some of these hypocrisies and sins, what they are doing is making them more public.

Margarita is the lover of the Master, an institutionalized author, reported on by a neighbour for possessing subversive literature (his own novel, about Pontius Pilate.) When Woland enters her life, she is ready to seize the chance, although not above petty cruelties of her own. The Master is broken by the response to his book, and Margarita would do anything to reclaim him.

The actions of Woland and his entourage were frequently traumatizing, and sometimes out of proportion, but they always seem to have had their point. There is little Woland can do to the citizens of Moscow that hasn't already been done (except, perhaps, drive a few of them mad.) But if the existence of the Devil is true, in a society that forbids religion, then so is his opposite, who mostly enters through the chapters on Pontius Pilate.

But Woland is not only there to punish. Two deaths occur, true, but one was of a man who truly deserved it, by his own standards, and the other was a death Woland saw and did nothing to prevent, but did not actually cause. He is also there to mete out some semblance of justice. Someone has to attend to those who caused great harm intentionally, and he's weary of the job. But he is also there to give peace to those who have suffered and deserve some respite, those who are not pure enough to enter heaven, but do not deserve hell. In the end, even Pilate is given what he always wanted.

I need to reread this book at some point, and see what a second reading would do. For now, I'm going to let it sit and ferment. This book is definitely worth a read, but it challenged me at every point. There was no place to sit and get comfortable - and after all, that might be the point.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

I...I don't know what I was expecting. It certainly wasn't this. I knew nothing about this book before picking it up. It turned up on one of my lists, and I ordered it from the library, and eventually read it.

And at times, it felt like it was written just for me. It fit so neatly into things I love, writing styles I enjoy, and tales that have personal resonance. Oh yes, and tears. There were tears.

It has the feel of a fairy tale crossed with a hint of horror. Creepiness lurked around the edges of the story, never overt, never overdone.  I suppose the best fairy tales have that as well - the original ones can have an ominous edge.

The writing was beautiful, and I enjoyed every word. They created mood and character so effectively and enchantingly.

Midas lives on St. Hauda's, a small island where odd things happen all the time, but no one ever talks about them. He sees the world through a camera lens.

Ida returns to St. Hauda's after having vacationed there because, well, because her feet are turning into glass, and she hopes to find a cure. She stays with a friend of her mother's, a man who loved her mother, and now is becoming obsessed with Ida herself.

Ida and Midas' lives have strange parallels, at least so it appears at the beginning, although as the story unfolds, what seem like mirror images turn out to be quite different, after all.

As the glass starts to creep up Ida's legs, Midas and Ida look for a cure, if they can find a connection, if they can be together even under the deadline Ida's affliction creates. The glass is never explained, and it doesn't need to be. Neither are the tiny creatures Henry Fuwa takes are of, nor the creature that turns everything that meets its eye pure white. They simply are part of St. Hauda.

The Girl with the Glass Feet is about seeing, and ways of mediating seeing. Of knowing and being known. Of repeating the patterns of the past, and that what you remember may not be the whole story.

(view spoiler)And it is about loss. Ida's affliction turns out, in the end to be irrevocable, and the time of being together she and Midas manage to snatch before the end is fleeting and bittersweet. Where it laid me low was at the end, as the glass stops merely creeping across her body and starts to move so fast it can be seen, turning Ida into glass entirely in Midas' arms. In this unnatural death I heard echoes of my father's death, of the days when the minutes moved slowly and we sat vigil beside his bed, and of the days when things moved far too quickly, when there wasn't enough time to even take in what was happening, let alone know how to react. Fast or slow, death comes, and this book evoked such strong memories of those days that I sat and wept.

It was also that moment of death, that moment that is so brief and so long, when it is both apparent what has happened, and you can't tell exactly when it happened. It's not always sharp and easy to tell. What was the moment when life was extinguished? Was it this one or the one before? Has it happened yet, or is it still happening?

I had never heard of Ali Shaw before. I hope to read more of his books, and I hope they live up to this first effort that has been haunting me for days.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

I feel like I just ran head-on into the brick wall that is Infinite Jest, and my head isn't quite clear enough to figure out what I thought yet.

I mean, it was a slow-motion run, given that I started this back in December and read it very, very slowly. I've taken a lot of time to think about it. Why don't I know what I think?

I enjoyed most of it a great deal. I liked every individual storyline. I appreciated the characters, and the varieties of writing style, and the footnotes, and the sheer inventiveness and complexity.

And yet I didn't love it. I'm at the end of Infinite Jest and I'm just feeling like I missed something. I liked the book well enough, I'll probably read it again some day, but although individual sections moved me or entertained me, it's just not hanging together.

There was a point, about 200 pages from the end, when it all felt like it was starting to knit together, and never quite did.

When you get to this point with a proclaimed masterpiece, it's hard not to feel that you're just missing something. I feel like I'm missing something! How can all of these great pieces not quite hold up?

I'm pretty sure maybe it's me.

Infinite Jest is a kaleidoscope of characters, settings, and personal, political, national, international, and tennis intrigue. It circles around addiction. And entertainment. And communication or lack thereof. It's part dystopia, part character study, part comedy, part drama, part crazy shit.

I can't even begin to try to explain it. The writing is masterful, and those long paragraphs with little punctuation were hypnotic, always used for reason, and to great effect.

Dammit, there wasn't any part of this I didn't like! So why hasn't it taken that last leap and swept me away?

I'll reread this someday, and see if knowing what is to come helps put the rest in perspective, allows the book to finally knock me off my feet and dust me off with a whisk broom.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I am feeling totally inadequate to the task of reviewing this book. It's only the second Faulkner I've read, and while I enjoyed Absalom, Absalom, it didn't quite utterly astound me the way this one did.

I was expecting the run-on sentences and outright rejection of periods that I found in the last book. Instead, I found short little chapters, and voices that spoke in terse sentences that only hinted at what lay beneath.

This is the story of Addie Bundren, and what happens to her body after she dies, requesting that her husband, sons and daughter take her to buried in her hometown. It is the story of her husband, shiftless, possessive, prideful, self-reliant, and stubborn. Of her oldest son, Cash, practical, handy, straight-forward. Of her second son, Darl, the one everyone in the neighbourhood worries about - except the overly pious next-door neighbour, who is convinced he is the one son who really loves his mother.

About her third and favourite son, Jewel, who loves his mother, even if he doesn't show it in ways acceptable to that nosy neighbour. Who will take nothing from his father's hand, and finds the only things he does care about bartered without his knowledge. About her daughter, Dewey Dell, in all kinds of female trouble, and with few to help. About her youngest son, Vardaman, who is so traumatized by his mother's death that he becomes convinced she is a fish.

As I Lay Dying is frequently funny. It often made me care about the characters, and then, on a dime, made me so exasperated I could have strangled them. The point-of-view chapters pile one on top of the other, and each new one lays some new meaning on top of what I already understood - how someone had misunderstood someone else, or what one cryptic reference had meant, or a different reason why the misadventures of the Bundren clan were what they were.

Everyone in this book is fucked up. This is revealed, more and more. And Faulkner is both merciless and compassionate as he airs this dirt-poor Southern family's peccadilloes. I have no idea how he manages to achieve both at the same time, but he does.

The chapters frequently have devastating juxtapositions, but my favourite was the one chapter from the dead mother's point of view, about the uselessness of words and the stupidity of those who think that they can explain everything with the next chapter, when a man is riding to her homestead, intent on using his words to explain everything. I won't tell more than that, but coming hard on the heels of Addie's chapter, it tore down everything he said while he said it.

As I Lay Dying is a remarkable achievement. Everyone should read it.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

I have a confession to make. One that may make a pariah amongst all right-thinking book readers and reviewers.

I often read the back couple of pages long before the end of the book.

It’s a very old habit, and one that I’ve never been able to entirely break. (And since I read about a study that claimed that people who participate in this shameful practice still get the same enjoyment out of books as those who don’t, I haven’t worried about it too much.)

So, in reading Gone Girl, about 30 pages in, I felt that old tug. Just check the back few pages. Go ahead, do it. And I tell you, I’ve never been good at ignoring that voice when it insinuates itself into my head.

And this is a book where that knowledge from the last few pages definitely changes how you read the whole thing. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil it for you (at least, I’ll try not to), but knowing the ending made me read the whole book very differently. And I enjoyed that. I think I would have been frustrated had I not known how it was going to end.

Sorry, I’m an unrepentant sinner.

Gone Girl is what, nouveau noir? Where everyone could be a little bit shady, and crimes are flying fast and witty? Well, it doesn’t have that noir turn of phrase that you get with the great classics of the genre, but the story is solid, and the twists and turns very enjoyable.

Nick Dunne’s wife has disappeared, in a struggle. He reacts inappropriately to some of the succeeding search. But did he kill his wife, or is there something else afoot? That wife, Amy, was the subject of a bestselling series of books written by her child psychologist parents. She was Amazing Amy to the world, and had attracted some stalkers in the past. Are they involved? And what about that diary?

I’m not sure I can tell you anything else without doing to you what I happily did to myself.

But Gone Girl was a fast read, an entertaining one, and if you like a twisted mystery, worth picking up.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Hyperion by Dan Simmons

Hyperion was so good that it did something odd to everything else I was reading. It didn't show those books up as lesser, it made everything else better as well. I'm not really sure how that happened.

People had been raving about Hyperion for quite a while, and I'm glad I finally got around to reading it, prompted by a science fiction group I'm part of. As soon as I picked it up, I was grabbed by the story.

This is a science fiction riff on The Canterbury Tales - or maybe, as I look into it, The Decameron (I've never read The Canterbury Tales or The Decameron, so take this with a grain of salt.) A pilgrimage of seven set out to the Time Tombs on the planet of Hyperion - Canterbury Tales. But they do this in a time of mass upheaval, when it appears that the world itself could be ending - The Decameron, which is set during the Black Death.

On the way to their final destination, the Time Tombs, and the creature that roams them, The Shrike, a deadly killing machine that may or may not be from the future, sent backwards in time to unleash the coming war, the pilgrims tell their stories of how they came to be where they are.

The stories themselves are little masterpieces - creepy, atmospheric, and mind-bending. Every one takes a story of the Shrike and of Hyperion, and does something different with it, creating a mosaic of images that is never neatly resolved. The reality is possibly all of these stories, none of them, or more. A priest thinks he has found evidence of Christianity that predates the coming of humanity. A soldier is repeatedly visited in battle by a woman. A poet finds inspiration in disaster. A man watches his daughter grow younger by the day. A woman fails in her duty to protect another. A diplomat harbours an ancient secret.

And the menace of the Shrike grows, as the universe edges closer to war. But war with whom?

These stories are, individually, mind-blowingly good - in concert, they are little short of breathtaking. This is science fiction at its very best, and its avoidance of simple answers satisfies me deeply. I can't wait to read the next book.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Monday, 8 April 2013

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

I'm about to say something I wasn't sure I'd ever say about a science fiction novel about interstellar war - this book is warmly humanist in its approach. From the first time I sat down to read it, I felt invited and welcomed into the world Scalzi was creating. I enjoyed meeting and spending time with the characters he creates, who are mostly interesting and intelligent people that you'd want to know. I loved the digressions about the morality of following orders, and war as the easy way to deal with conflict.

Scalzi has the ability to create flawed but engaging characters you'd want to sit down and have a beer and an argument with. I associate that trait with a few other authors who give public credit to Heinlein for influencing them heavily. Although the subject matter is miles away, the approach to character reminded me slightly of my favourite author, Spider Robinson. John Varley is another who sprang to mind.

The writing is not like Heinlein's, in any of the three cases, but all three authors share that warm interest in human nature. All of them enjoy science and exploring the effects of science, but are more interested in the impact these changes have on people than they are in the technologies themselves.

In many ways, Old Man's War is a riff on or extrapolation of Heinlein's Starship Troopers. A recruiting army uses technology to enhance human capabilities to make them into complete soldiers. But where it is the young, in Heinlein, in Scalzi's world, it is the very old. Attracted by the promise of regained youth, with the only way off planet for many being joining up with the Colonial Defence Forces, John Perry joins up after his beloved wife dies. (She had planned on enlisting as well.)

Once enlisted, he finds himself in the midst of many brutal wars, against many different species. Because those implacably opposed to war would never have enlisted in the first place, there are no pacifists in this book. But there is a lot of thoughtful discussion about war. I hope at some point this series goes on to look at the politics of war - those making decisions who are not involved in the fighting, which the book only hints at. This book is focused on John Perry, the groups of friends he makes when he enlists, The Old Farts, and his experiences along the way.

While it goes along,the book has many interesting meditations about the seat of identity: the brain, the body, brain patterns, and chooses to let that hang in the air as a question rather than trying to definitively answer it. This is one of the strengths of the book - the willingness to not lay down a definitive answer, when the exploration of the idea is so much more interesting.

I enjoyed every minute of reading Old Man's War, and a couple of moments took my breath away. And if I say there was something about the writing style that reminded me pleasantly of my favourite author, you know that's a high compliment.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

The writing is hypnotic in Invisible Man and the dread all-pervasive. Every time I sat down to read a bit more, I was sucked into the prose, even though it made me deeply uneasy and worried about what was going to happen next.

It is stark, it is poetic, it is difficult, and it is rewarding.

A stunning look at one black man's experience in mid-century America. I almost wrote "the black experience" and then realized that that would be creating exactly the kind of invisibility that the main character wraps himself in. Over the course of the book, the nameless narrator is many symbols of blackness to many different people, but almost no one actually sees him as himself, as an individual, as a person.

He is seen as a disappointing letdown to the college dream, a management fink, a union snitch, the voice of the community, the symbol of resistance, a savage black lover, a toady to the white man, and finally, almost as a horrible example.

Thrown out of his college, the narrator makes his way to New York City, to a job, briefly, and eventually to The Brotherhood, an organization working to reform on the world on "scientific" principles. But every time things started to go well, I knew that something bad was right around the corner, and almost dreaded turning the page.

Those he works for want to use him, those who oppose him want to eliminate him, and everywhere, he sees the desire for ideological purity used to justify the suppression of individuals, in the name of liberating those same individuals. The narrator's inability to turn off his sense of self, and his sense of the selfhood of others leads him into trouble, again and again. Being able to tolerate contradiction and ambiguity brings him into conflict with those who want to see only pure and tainted. The many varieties of racism are coolly and lucidly displayed.

The sheer complexity of this book, the ideas that fly off these pages and strike you right between the eyeballs, and it's all wrapped up in a virtuoso display of prose.

Saturday, 6 April 2013

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

I think this book broke my brain.

I mean, it's so many things tied up in a slim little volume - an alt-history "what if Germany and Japan had won the Second World War," a meditation on the inability to ever accurately try to reconstruct what-might-have-beens, one of the most interesting literary experiments I've ever read, a look at chance and fate in how the world unfolds, and a book that can definitely bend your sense of reality.

The alt-history portion takes place after Germany and Japan have divided up North America, after Nazi programs have decimated Africa and started to send rockets to Mars. The action takes place mostly on the West Coast, where the Japanese hold sway. There, we jump between a Japanese trade envoy, a secretly-Jewish craftsman, his estranged wife who teaches judo in a small town in Colorado, a white seller of American "antiquities" to Japanese buyers, and a secret messenger from certain factions in the German regime to certain elements in the Japanese government.

The world that is created is distinctly different from our own, but not impossible to grasp. Dick examines how he thinks Japanese culture would affect San Francisco, and the changes in a society in which the Japanese are the conquering power.

The Man in the High Castle refers to the author of a book within this book, if you follow me. That author, Abendsen, has written an alt-history book about what the world would be like if the Allies had won the war. But it is not a world in which someone has written a book about our world. Abendsen's alt-history differs strongly from our own. But more than that, every time someone mentions the book to someone who hasn't read it yet, each has a theory for what the world would have been like, had the Allies won the war, and no two are alike.

Dick explores the limits of actually attempting to reconstruct what might have happened in any circumstances. The book strongly implies that this is impossible - chance or fate will have its way, and the factors we pick out as important and the ones we dismiss as irrelevant make this a loser's game, if you're going for accuracy.

The I Ching is another recurring theme of the book, and here's where it becomes a fascinating literary experiment. Every time the characters in The Man in the High Castle consult the I Ching, Dick did as well, and used the resulting hexagrams not only in the book, but to shape the subsequent narrative. Despite, or perhaps because of, this trick, the book hangs together remarkably well, becoming a powerful look at interpretation and chance, the moments you can control and those you can't.

The momentum around this builds to the conclusion which scrambled all my thinking for a while. If I remember the paper I heard on this book years ago, writing this book sent Dick a little around the bend into paranoia about the I Ching and the reality of the world.

This book is trippy. There's no two ways about it. It is also audacious, thought-provoking and rewards attention and, I imagine, will hold up to rereads. I look forward to tackling it again in a few years and seeing what I discover the second time.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees