E is for English eeriness, WTF is for Hawk

For me there’s probably no more alluring title for a longform article than “The Eeriness of the English Countryside.” Robert Macfarlane’s on a tear recently, between this and his other recent Guardian article about older landscape terminology in Britain. That one was right up my alley — it’s probably obvious that I dig esoteric landscape wordlore, given the name of this blog (“the Brake,” as described on that “About” page, is a major feature of the novel I plan to revise soon). Meanwhile I’d like to read/listen to/watch pretty much everything he name-checks in that article about English eeriness — including his own books, which I haven’t gotten around to yet.

Also this weekend, in the New York Times, Helen Macdonald has a lovely meditation on Wicken Fen, the Cambridgeshire nature reserve. Though I have to confess I got a little peeved with Macdonald when I read the opening of her recent bestseller H Is for Hawk — namely this passage:

I’ve had people rush up to me in the supermarket, or in the library, and say, eyes huge, I saw a hawk catch a bird in my back garden this morning! And I’m just about to open my mouth and say, Sparrowhawk! and they say, ‘I looked in the bird book. It was a goshawk.’ But it never is; the books don’t work.

Ugh, man. Second paragraph of the book and Macdonald gives my own back garden goshawk sighting the smackdown — the bird’s too small, and goshawks don’t visit back gardens in the middle of Munich. (I still think the bushy thigh-feathers look more goshawksome, but probably that’s just the bird hunching down in the cold.)

On the other hand, it was still an amazing and moving birder experience, and a sparrowhawk is a gnarly beast in its own right, and I’m always happy to soak up some more bridlore. So I’ll be reading H Is for Hawk at some point, but not yet — the pain of losing the goshawk is still a bit too raw.

Not a goshawk, apparently

Not a goshawk, apparently, but still awesome

Quote #21

terminal-beach“Having surrendered his initiative to the dynamics of the city he was reluctant to try to win it back merely for a better cup of coffee.” – J. G. Ballard, “Billennium” — Currently I’m really digging Ballard’s collection The Terminal Beach in the ’66 Penguin edition. (Cover image here courtesy of one of my favorite websites ever, The Art of Penguin Science Fiction).

Penguin Tracks

Some day everything will be redesigned as a Penguin cover and I won’t mind a bit. Today’s entry: track listings from classic albums.

kate_bush

February Reading

The goal this year (well one of the goals, it’s not like it’s my only aim in life) is to reduce the number of books on my shelves that I haven’t read. Clearly this means I have to read more books than I buy, and so far I’m on the credit side. This year I’ve only bought three books, all at my buddy Tom’s independent bookstore Phinney Books: Nicola Griffith’s Hild, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Neuromancer (which I already read twenty years ago, so it doesn’t count against me).

This all applies only to physical books. I’ve bought six e-books in 2015:

(It only just occurred to me now that, since Priest and Allan are partners, two of these purchases contribute to their household income.) E-books don’t stare at me accusingly from the bookshelves, so no matter how eager I am to get to some of these they might have to wait a while.

I did read a different Christopher Priest novel this month though: The Prestige. As a longtime fan of both Priest and the film version of the book, I suspected that I would find a way to be disappointed by this one, and I was right. prestigeTold mostly through the journals of two dueling magicians in the late Victorian age, with a framing device of a meeting between two of their descendents, the novel feels strangely arid. Priest’s books always have a certain reserve, but in the Dream Archipelago books that reserve reacts against the lush setting and passionate characters to create a powerful tension. In The Prestige the reserve feels sterile — the Victorian age is barely evoked and the relationships as portrayed feel arbitrary. It doesn’t help that it was the source material for a truly compelling film, with vivid performances and some of the best pacing I’ve ever seen.

The book’s last scenes are creepy and unsettling in a very satisfying way, though. In keeping with the structure of a magic trick (I can’t count the number of times my son and I have quoted the movie’s “Every magic trick consists of three parts…” speech at each other, pronouncing three as free in our crappiest Michael Caine impersonations) both book and film lead you to believe you’re experiencing one sort of story only to reveal a sort of surprise genre-shift in the last act. What’s interesting is that the book turns towards horror while the film swerves into science fiction.

Next up are a pair of books with a common subject but diverging approaches: Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars and Andy Weir’s The Martian. red_marsI enjoyed Red Mars. Some of the characterization feels old-fashioned and maybe even a bit square (along with the names — Americans born in the 1990s with names like Frank, Phyllis and Gene? Really?) but the intrigues and challenges the colonists face are involving, and the intent to portray as realistically as possible humanity’s first interplanetary colonization is necessary and noble. Robinson really commits to his project here, and there’s enough narrative force to keep me interested in the prospect of reading the later two books of the trilogy.

The Martian succeeds in spite of itself. The characters are bland, the dialogue juvenile, and the protrayal of the Martian setting almost entirely non-existent. Really the story of how it got published (blog posts to e-book to national bestseller to upcoming film) feels like a major part of its charm. But I will say the climax is marvelous, a seat-of-the-pants can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong rescue attempt that’s compelling even though you’re pretty sure the guy’s going to get out all right. Also in its favor: my son, who’s more of a hard-science enthusiast than me, really loved it. But I don’t have a lot more to say about it.

I started David Grann’s The Lost City of Z but found it a bit thin, surprising given a) all the positive reviews it received, and b) the subject matter of lost civilizations and disappeared explorers. Grann’s weirdly dismissive summary of the Victorian Age was what finally led me to put the book down for good — I guess between this and The Prestige, poor depictions of the Victorian Age had me in a bit of a huff this month.

I burned through Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. This was a breakout novel in 2013 about a woman who continually relives her life — honestly you’ve probably read about it everywhere else. life_after_lifeAgain and again while reading it I was reminded, in tone and feel, of William Boyd’s 2002 book Any Human Heart; and like that book it’s full of novelistic pleasures. The variations on Ursula’s early life are fluently done — they never feel onerously repetitive, and Atkinson finds ways to deepen our familiarity with the characters on each run-through, each time observing different events in Ursula’s life, or following events from a different character’s point of view. In particular the portrayal of Ursula’s marriage to Derek Oliphant, in one of her more harrowing lives, is fantastic. Derek-as-sudden-monster maybe feels a bit overdone — do we have to have him dump the poorly poached egg on Ursula’s head? — but the marriage is quickly, skillfully sketched and feels like a whole novel’s worth of story.

In the afterword, Atkinson states that “if pressed, I think I would say Life After Life is about being English…not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.” It’s a telling statement — the book is laced with clichés of Englishness, bluebells and buttercups and the Blitz, etc. Often it feels a bit derivative, as if Ursula were reliving scenes not from her own life but from various English novels. Here, for instance, is a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach:

Mr. Winton — Archibald — had set up his easel on the sand and was attempting to render a seascape in watery marine smears of blue and green…He thought he might try to put some figures in his painting, it would give a bit of life and “movement,” something his night-school teacher (he took an art class) had encouraged him to introduce into his work.

And here’s a minor pre-WWI character seen briefly on the beach in Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room:

Charles Steele in the Panama hat suspended his paint-brush…He struck the canvas a hasty violet-black dab. For the landscape needed it. It was too pale — greys flowing into lavenders, and one star or a white gull suspended just so — too pale as usual. The critics would say it was too pale, for he was an unknown man exhibiting obscurely, a favourite with his landladies’ children, wearing a cross on his watch chain, and much gratified if his landladies liked his pictures — which they often did.

The echoes begin to haunt the reader the way Ursula’s past lives haunt her, a literary déja vu. There’s also a bit of business about killing-Hitler-before-it’s-too-late that feels like a distraction — though it’s lovely to read that Ursula lives on Elisabethstrasse when she’s in Munich, a rather short street in the Schwabing neighborhood that we crossed all the time when we lived there.

Last was M. John Harrison’s The Course of the Heart. Like a lot of Harrison’s work, it’s a little opaque and obsessed with the fallenness of the world around us, its disrepair and dismal scuzz. course_of_the_heartHere, though, that fallenness serves the purpose of highlighting the Gnostic impulse at the heart of the story. The characters, having briefly accessed a higher (or at any rate, other) realm in a brief rite in their college days, suffer from the echoes of this act through the rest of their lives — echoes both supernatural and psychological. The narrator’s friends Lucas and Pam remain haunted, uncertain people, adrift amid the squalor of 1980s Northern England, while the narrator himself seems to escape the consequences until, well, he doesn’t.

I’d been eager to read this novel ever since I first encountered excerpts of it in Harrison’s story collection Things That Never Happen, and it didn’t disappoint. Harrison’s books have been a consistent joy in my reading life for the past two years — and I still have Viriconium out there waiting for me, equally promising and threatening, like the Pleroma in The Course of the Heart. Wonderful.

Alethea Hayter’s Romantic Imagination

I almost didn’t look at this weirdly short article from the NYT’s Sunday Book Review, but it was a slow moment at work so I glanced through it. There isn’t a lot there I’ve read, though it’s always great to see Patrick Hamilton’s fantastic, darkly funny The Slaves of Solitude get a mention. What really caught my eye, though, was James Parker’s endorsement of a book by Alethea Hayter.

hayterFor years I kept an eye out in used bookstores for Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination. It’s just the perfect title — the only way I could find it more alluring is if it were called Opium, Pumpkin Pie, and the Romantic Imagination. I finally found it at Magus Books here in Seattle over the summer, in near perfect condition despite its 1970 printing. So far I’ve only read random passages but just having it on the shelf is a thrill.

The only other book of Hayter’s I’d heard of before today is The Wreck of the Abergavenny, about the death of William Wordsworth’s sea-captain brother in the title tragedy. Again, perfect: I’ve been completely intrigued by this incident ever since I first saw a mention of it in college, but I’ve never seen more than a sentence or two about it.

I’m not sure I’ll ever read the book Parker calls out, Voyage in Vain: Coleridge’s Journey to Malta in 1804 — Vol. 1 of Richard Holmes’s Coleridge biography (which I just finished last month) ends with Coleridge boarding the ship that will take him to Malta, so presumably Vol. 2 will cover the whole jaunt pretty well. We’ll see — maybe Holmes will pique my interest. Parker makes a pretty good case for it:

Over 40 years old, this book; but very contemporary in its speculations and zoomings-in. Disheartened, opium-entangled, the great poet suffered terrible shipboard constipations while brooding beautifully in his notebook on the shapes of waves and sails and clouds.

November Reading

A pretty typical reading month here, with some SF and some English Lit.

Some months seem like they go on forever — it feels like several months ago that I read Acceptance, the third and final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. It’s a solid ending to the series. VanderMeer maintains the story’s integrity throughout, providing enough sense of the source and scope of the Area X anomaly to satisfy the reader without waving his authorial arms around.

The trilogy could be about anything — write an intelligent-sounding sentence and it would probably sound like a viable thematic statement. acceptance“The unknowable future and the way it transforms how we see the past” — I just made that up on the fly but it seems credible and I could probably back it up with something from the text. This is not me faulting the trilogy for thematic nebulousness. A really good novel, a novel with depth, should be “about” a lot of things. VanderMeer touches on the shortcomings of the scientific method, the chasm between modern masculine vs. feminine approaches to the world, the limits of knowability, and human dissociation from nature. It’s possible I’m just riffing here but honestly all of this gets a look-in at some point.

The story itself loses some of its horror and intensity, however. Annihilation was a fleet, terrifying beast of a book, a truly unsettling reading experience. The second book, Authority, was different, a portrayal of men and women trying to get a handle on horror using the frankly inadequate tools of systems analysis and project management; and the streak of satire served as a really effective counterpoint to the disorienting immediacy of the first book. Acceptance, though, suffers a bit from loose-end-itis; its strongest line is the story of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper in pre-anomaly Area X who had previously been a minor off-stage character. The material about previously-explored characters — the psychologist/director, the biologist/Ghost Bird, Control — occasionally feels like it’s marking time. And VanderMeer’s style, crisp and evocative in the first two books, has started to calcify a bit by the time we reach Acceptance. What was vivid and haunting in Annihilation has hardened into mannerism; but VanderMeer is testing the limits of his talent here, almost certainly growing it in the process. No shame in that.

From the unsettling shores of Area X to some unsettling islands: I read a few stories from a collection of Christopher Priest’s “Dream Archipelago” stories. dream-archipelagoOf the six stories, I’d read three of them previously in the collection An Infinite Summer. The three new ones were all strong entries. The shortest and least satisfying was “The Equatorial Moment,” a vignette of military jet crews experiencing the time vortex that looms over the islands. The other two revisited two horror-infused elements of Priest’s The Islanders, with the return of the repulsive insect species known as the thryme in “The Cremation” and a journey back to the tower-haunted island of Seevl in “The Miraculous Cairn.” In each tale, the horror element serves to charge an intriguing story of sexual misunderstanding. Great, great additions to Priest’s ongoing project.

Next was the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Coleridge, Early Visions: 1772-1804. coleridgeColeridge has long been one of my cultural heroes, a troubled visionary whose poetic gifts were betrayed by his own internal weather. I would have liked a deeper dive into the fantasy/supernatural poetry here (most of Coleridge’s signature poems were written in the years covered by this volume, before he turned to criticism and the Biographia Literaria). Really only the conversational poems such as “Frost at Midnight” and “Dejection: An Ode” get what feels like a thorough treatment, while the more outré stuff like “Kubla Khan” and the Ancient Mariner get slighted — along with the incredibly influential “Christabel,” though possibly that will get more space in the second volume once it’s finally published in 1820.

In any case, I reckon Kubla Khan and the Ancient Mariner get plenty of attention elsewhere — John Livingston Lowes’s 1927 study The Road to Xanadu: A Study in the Ways of the Imagination is a maniacally comprehensive and entertaining investigation into the reading and experiences that influenced those two poems. Holmes, meanwhile, does a fine job of portraying Coleridge the man in all his dreamy, mercurial imperfections.

Titus Andronicus is considered the least of Shakespeare’s plays, tituswidely derided for the almost Grand Guignol graphic violence: amid the rape and the murder and feeding of kids to their parents there are at least three hands chopped off (the image here is of Livinia, post-handectomy and -tonguectomy, from a 2006 production at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre). I read it because I flipped open my Oxford Shakespeare and came across the “Oft have I digged up dead men from their graves/And set them upright at their dear friends’ door” speech from Aaron, the moor who serves as the villain. Nothing else in the play really matches that speech’s outlandish malevolence, but it’s still a fun read. Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry for Titus Andronicus mentions a 1970 Finnish TV adaptation:

In 1970, Finnish TV channel Yle TV1 screened an adaptation of the play written and directed by Jukka Sipilä, starring Leo Lastumäki as Titus, Iris-Lilja Lassila as Tamora, Eugene Holman as Aaron and Maija Leino as Lavinia.

Eugene Holman! I’m assuming there weren’t two black Eugene Holmans in Finland in 1970, so presumably this is the same Eugene Holman who spent a few days introducing us American students to the Finnish language back in 1987. It’s hard to imagine the mild-mannered linguist taking on the role. Anyway, small world.

I read a few entries from a Penguin collection of Borges essays orlando(“Literary Pleasure” in particular was good) and the first fifty pages of Jim Crace’s The Gift of Stones (which I lost interest in — I didn’t buy the Stone Age setting at all). And I finally got around to reading Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. I’ve been meaning to read it for years; I’ve always been intrigued by the idea of a sort of Bloomsbury/Highlander mash-up. So I was surprised to find it disappointing — the tone is too arch and the style too clotty for real pleasure in reading, at least until it reaches Woolf’s own era when her natural fluency of perception and detail returns. There’s a great moment of cognitive dissonance in this section:

Then she got into the lift, for the good reason that the door stood open; and was shot smoothly upwards. The very fabric of life now, she thought as she rose, is magic. In the eighteenth century, we knew how everything was done; but here I rise through the air; I listen to voices in America; I see men flying — but how it’s done, I can’t even begin to wonder. So my belief in magic returns.

What a lovely description of the SFnal impulse, and a great way to end the month’s reading.

Echopraxia and Emergence; or, Haunted by Slime Mold

Yesterday I finished reading Peter Watts’s Echopraxia which, along with his Tor.com short “The Colonel,” expands the universe of his previous novel Blindsight (technically it’s a “sidequel,” not a sequel, to that novel). Like Blindsight, it’s a pretty great read, telling the story of Daniel Brüks, a baseline-human biologist pulled seemingly by chance into a journey toward the sun with a crew of hive-minders, a vampire, an army colonel, a socially challenged pilot, and a lot of psychological baggage.

A quick nitpick: Watts really overuses italics. He should really trust his own talent and not feel compelled to juice every few lines of dialogue or description with it:

He’s asleep?” Brüks looked back at the ceiling; Moore was spinning more quickly now, head out, legs spread in a V, the strap winding tighter between man and metal. In the next instant he was airborne again.

“Sure.” Lianna’s dreads bobbed gently in the wake of her nod. “What, you stay awake when you exercise? You don’t find it, um, boring?”

Strip out the italics, and that passage — and really every passage with italics in the book, aside from those with vessel names and thought excerpts — will feel more estranging, not less; and estrangement is certainly the goal here.

There are also a few missteps that are surprising from an actual biologist — he includes the line “Valerie waited, patient and empty, less than two meters from his jugular,” when it’s the carotid artery, not the jugular vein, that’s the scarily vulnerable blood vessel in the neck. This is the sort of detail Watts normally thrives on getting right so it’s a surprising flub.

Lastly, Watts misstates the nature of entropy, which always drives me crazy:

Life didn’t throw entropy into reverse — nothing did — but it put on the brakes, even as it spewed chaos out the other end.

Gah! This is the pop-culture misapprehension of entropy at its most flagrant. Taking low-entropy energy and spewing out high-entropy energy is not “putting the brakes” on entropy. It’s entropy! Entropy doing what entropy does! echopraxia-peter-watts-richard-andersonSaying that life is somehow edging around entropy’s strictly policed perimeter is just giving ammo to creationists.

I mention this stuff at the start here because everything else about the novel, from the fantastic Richard Anderson cover to the haunting, perfect, unexpected ending, is dynamite. Watts actually doubles down on his high-risk high-concept Pleistocene vampire conceit (see what I did there? See how annoying it is? God now I can’t stop) with the addition of scientfically created zombies of several flavors, and the result is tremendously unsettling. Watts takes his near-future setting seriously, and he always puts in the thought to figure out a scientifically plausible rationale for even the most outré ideas (and the reading time — the quantity of primary sources he references is always impressive, even when some of it is from the late 21st Century).

He also seems to be putting conscious effort into improving his literary style and his plotting. Some of the stories in Beyond the Rift were awkwardly written, but Blindsight saw a real improvement and Echopraxia has felicitous phrasing and just-right word choices on every page. Watts’s similes are often especially evocative: “Spacesuits hung there like flensed silver skins…” or “The bow of the ship began to topple, slow and majestic as a falling redwood” or:

He soared through an ocean of stars, dimensionless pinpoints: abstract, unchanging, unreal. One of them broke the rules as he watched, a pixel unfolding into higher dimensions like some quantum flower blooming in time-lapse.

This is fine writing. But what really draws readers to a Peter Watts novel is the diamond-hard SF concept work. Echopraxia, like Blindsight, is overflowing with bold speculations — this time about Darwinian competition, and the nature of the universe’s basic substrate, and the definition of intelligence, and spaceship design, and a dozen others tossed off just for the thrill of it, any one of which most SF writers would gladly build a whole novel around.

Watts’s ending this time is heaps stronger than the frenetic action piled up at the end of Blindsight. Here we get an eerie, deceptive détente between two species with no reason to trust each other, followed by another eerie détente between two species with no reason to trust each other, and it’s a powerfully unsettling resolution, fraught with horror.

Stray observations:

  • Looking over my review here, it’s a little unfairly front-loaded with nitpicks, mostly about italics. So I’ll say now, in italics and in boldface as well, this book is a fantastic read.
  • One of the most interesting, and ultimately horrifying, elements of the story is the slime mold-like substance discovered on a vast solar cell station by the crew of the Crown of Thorns (Watts still has a bit of a hang-up about religion, though the polemics are a bit more subtle here than in Beyond the Rift). As I said, I finished Echopraxia yesterday; today I started Steven Johnson’s book Emergence, a pop-sci exploration of the nature of emergent systems, and the introduction is all about slime molds. Watts gets into some emergence theory in his novel — the neurons not understanding the brain, that sort of thing — and it makes me wonder if he’s read Johnson’s book, which was published in 2001.
  • I mentioned that Richard Anderson’s cover is terrific, but so is the cover image for “The Colonel” at Tor.com. I really dig Anderson’s elusively sketchy illustration style.
  • Watts took part in a really enlightening Q&A over at Reddit’s SF Book Club, specifically about Echopraxia. Worth checking out, he seems like a gracious and funny guy.
  • Based on the description of the vampire Valerie, I feel pretty certain this Helmut Newton photo of Sigourney Weaver circa Alien 3 is a dead ringer (pun intended).

weaver-newton

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