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

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“Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily.”

I read “Who Goes There?” for the first time this morning, the novella by the infamous John W. Campbell (writing as Don A. Stuart) that served as the basis for The Thing From Another World and The Thing and The Thing and “The Things” but is unrelated to The Thing. It’s a quick and fun read but man, those adverbs:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue. The Thing on the floor shrieked, flailed out blindly with tentacles that writhed and withered in the bubbling wrath of the blow-torch. It crawled and turned on the floor, it shrieked and hobbled madly, but always McReady held the blow-torch on the face, the dead eyes burbling and bubbling uselessly. Frantically the Thing crawled and howled.

I’m just going to repeat those first three sentences because I want you to try and really imagine what the hell’s going on there:

The huge blow-torch McReady had brought coughed solemnly. Abruptly it rumbled disapproval throatily. Then it laughed gurglingly, and thrust out a blue-white, three-foot tongue.

And the writhing and the withering and the wrath! Great stuff.

Christopher Priest’s Dream Archipelago

An Infinite Summer was a fortuitous find at Twice Sold Tales. I knew there were collections of Christopher Priest’s stories floating around, of course, but I hadn’t got around to pursuing them, despite how much I admired his earlier books The Space Machine and A Dream of Wessex. Reading An Infinite Summer quickly led me to Priest’s 2011 novel The Islanders, just released last month in the US by Titan Books; I’ve been half-living in the Dream Archipelago ever since.

infinite-summerThere are five stories in the collection. “An Infinite Summer” and “Palely Loitering” both explore time travel. The title story follows a young man cast out of his own era in Edwardian England just when his dreams of happiness are about to be fulfilled, while “Palely Loitering” is a novella about a curiously retro future. Both of these stories are excellent and enjoyable; but the real attractions here are the three other pieces, all set in the Dream Archipelago.

A vast, world-girdling chain of tens of thousands of islands on a sort of shadow-Earth, bracketed by two warring nations at one pole and an icy, battle-scarred wasteland at the other, the Dream Archipelago is a conception Priest has been revisiting since the ’70s. As with most of his work, it’s a milieu that doesn’t quite claim a tight niche in fantasy or science fiction or slipstream or horror, though there are certainly elements of each.

One of the main things that distinguishes the Dream Archipelago from much modern SF and fantasy is its reluctance to engage in worldbuilding. It seems strange to claim that a book like The Islanders, expressly conceived as the exploration of an imaginary world, has disregarded the worldbuilding convention that so many genre readers crave. But for Priest a setting portrayed so coherently, adhering to a dogma that demands such close attention to internal consistency, would be airless and artless.

For example, we see him mirror contemporary technology throughout the stories — there are cars and planes and radio, and by the time he writes The Islanders there are drones and the internet and email and DNA profiling. But there are also anachronisms: writers who spill ink from inkjars and smoke cheroots, miniaturized surveillance bots. And there are lacunae: unknown regions, blank spots on the map (or, as Priest avers: “No maps are allowed. Not even to me.“).

The concept of a modern age of air travel and instant communication that still permits unexplored regions seems inconsistent; but like any great artist Priest will always sacrifice the consistent for the evocative. It is dream logic for a dream archipelago, and like dreams it may be inconsistent but also incredibly haunting.

So we get a piece of intense body horror like “Whores,” or an eerie tale of obsession like “The Watched,” or a lovely study of moral choice like “The Negation.” As Priest points out in his brief, charming introduction:

The Dream Archipelago is more an idea than an actual place, but if it has a correlative reality then it would be a kind of fusion of the Channel Islands and Greece, with bits of Harrow-on-the-Hill and St Tropez thrown in for good measure. I should like to issue a small warning here (knowing, as I do, what the stories are about): each story in the Dream Archipelago is entirely self-contained.

This is true, as far as it goes: any of these stories, and for that matter The Islanders, could be enjoyed without reading any of the others. But one of the many pleasures of reading The Islanders is the elliptical references to those earlier stories. While it’s a bit disappointing to find only passing mention of the island of Tumo or further exploration of the Qataari, for example (both featured in “The Watched”), Priest sketches in some historical context for the horrifying events of “Whores” and provides a melancholy resolution to “The Negation.”

islandersWritten in Priest’s usual lucid, measured style, The Islanders takes the form of a gazetteer of selected islands, with longer stories interspersed throughout. The gazetteer entries allude to quirks of geography or custom, while the stories explore the mysteries and injustices and horrors of the islands, and the effects of the endless war in which the islanders do their best to stay neutral.

There are through-lines, of course, connecting threads woven through the novel: the dreaded thryme of Aubrac Grande, an insect species that inflicts a horrible, lingering death on anyone it infects; the unravelling of the mystery surrounding a performer’s murder on the remote island of Goorn; the intertwining lives and loves of artists like Dryd Bathurst and Jordenn Yo and writers like Chaster Kammeston and Moylita Kaine. There is a tale of intrigue as a woman working for a covert mapping agency on Meequa seeks to learn the fate of her lover on the mysterious neighboring island of Tremm. And there is a marvellously eerie novella, an expert blend of psychological horror and Cthulhuesque weirdness, set on the isles of Goorn and Seevl.

It’s these intrigues and unresolvable weirdnesses that prevent the world of the Dream Archipelago from collapsing to a mere analogue of our own world, and that make a persuasive case for uncertainty and mystery in a hyperconnected, Google-mapped age.

Stray observations:

  • The garish and surreal cover of my 1979 US edition of An Infinite Summer (see above) surely must have made Priest shudder, but it’s actually an accurate representation of elements from two unrelated stories in the collection.
  • Priest has a lovely essay on his site about Ursula K. Le Guin’s Guardian review of The Islanders, pointing out that she probably didn’t recognize that the character of the writer Moylita Kaine was in fact drawn from his brief acquaintance with Le Guin herself. He also mentions that Kaine’s novel The Affirmation (a title that Priest recycled for one of his other novels featuring the Dream Archipelago) as described in “The Negation,” is modelled on The Magus by John Fowles. The Magus is also clearly the inspiration for “The Watched” — it’s no surprise to learn that it’s one of Priest’s favorite books.
  • Halfway through writing this I realized I was listening to the soundtrack of The Prestige (which we re-watched last week). Must be Christopher Priest month here in the Smith household.

S.T. Joshi in the NYT

Two things I didn’t know but am now aware of, thanks to the Times profile of S.T. Joshi:

Review – “After the Apocalypse”

More great stuff from Small Beer Press. I ordered Maureen F. McHugh’s short story collection After the Apocalypse after reading the title story in a “Year’s Best SF” anthology. It’s one of those stories that uses its last lines to masterfully re-jigger the whole emotional structure of the story — not in any sort of trick-ending way, but just through solid, unflinching commitment to the portrayal of a certain kind of horrifying character.

With cover foxing baked right in!

With cover foxing baked right in!

McHugh’s stories are all set after hard times have fallen. There aren’t any actual apocalypses here, unless they’re the not-with-a-bang-but-a-whimper kind. Entropy is an over-used — and usually misused — concept when applied to societies (you could probably blame Pynchon) and McHugh doesn’t use it herself. But the stories here are mostly about what happens to a closed system that’s accustomed to exporting its chaos when that chaos gets harder to export. We can’t offshore our waste heat forever — inevitably, it will find its way back to us in the form of bird flu or spongiform encephalopathy or economic collapse.

Even before the societal trauma, McHugh’s protagonists are pretty much all hard luck cases, victims of a bad economy or a relationship gone wrong or simple class divisions. But what differentiates these stories from the typical New Yorker-type story of lower middle-class ennui is that, for the most part, the protagonists try to claw some sense of agency from their lives — even if that impulse leads them to destructive, or self-destructive, acts.

The included stories are:

“The Naturalist” — A convict in a zombie-plagued Cleveland used as an Escape from New York-type penitentiary city finds himself conducting fieldwork on the undead. Clever twist on zombies, and a great use of physical detail. McHugh does a good job making a sympathetic character out of someone committing monstrous acts.

“Special Economics” — A pair of young women, working indentured jobs at a biotech firm in Shanghai, use their gumption to try and find a way out of their servitude. The view of modern China felt refreshingly unpatronizing.

Useless Things” — The best story in the collection, to my mind. A woman living alone in New Mexico after massive economic collapse scrambles to keep her life from deteriorating. Nothing terribly shocking happens here but it’s a haunting story. Like Kij Johnson’s story “At the Mouth of the River of Bees,” this one skillfully uses pet dogs as a means of raising the emotional stakes in a subtle way. Every relationship here felt real.

“The Lost Boy: A Reporter at Large” — Written as a feature story in a newspaper, this one investigates a teenager who disappeared after dirty bombs were set off in Baltimore.

“The Kingdom of the Blind” — A collection of programmers try to figure out if the health-care software system they run is developing into an AI. Some really good characterization in this one.

“Going to France” — A magical-realist story of a woman who gives aid to some folks flying to France, and the brief jolt they give to her life. Somewhat slight, but still interesting.

“Honeymoon” — A woman leaves behind an annulled marriage in Lancaster, PA for a hospital job in Cleveland, where she takes part in a disastrous medical study. This one’s very reminiscent of the stories in T. Coraghessan Boyle’s collection Greasy Lake.

“The Effect of Centrifugal Forces” — A resentful teenage girl deals with the deteriorating mind and messy relationships of her mother. Solid story — even more harrowing than the portrayal of spongiform encephalopathy is the (truly sympathetic) portrayal of a hoarder.

“After the Apocalypse” — A mother and daughter make their way north to Canada as the US falls into anarchy, sort of a negative exposure of McCarthy’s The Road. I’ll be curious to see how bad the moms in McHugh’s previous short story collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, are in comparison to the one portrayed here.

There really isn’t a dud here, which is rare for a collection of short stories.

Review – Beyond the Rift

The Canadian biologist and SF writer Peter Watts, in the somewhat sour and defensive afterword to his selection of short stories Beyond the Rift, comments ruefully on the terms he finds often applied to his work: dark, paranoid, dystopian. (Sour isn’t there yet although I guess I’ve just added it to the list.) But, as he points out, “There’s wonder here, too: a diaphanous life-form big enough to envelop a star; mermaids soaring through luminous nightscapes on the ocean floor; a misguided Thing whose evolutionary biology redeems Lamarck.”

The best stories in this selection are the ones that give scope to that sense of wonder. When Watts focuses on the near future, or the earthbound, or the topical, his characters are often one-dimensional ciphers; and there’s always an undercurrent of aggrieved resentment, of sour disappointment in how inevitably awful humanity’s behavior will be. beyond-the-riftBut when he gets out into deep space or deep water his stories, paradoxically, get a chance to breathe; taking time with the setting, and the mechanics of surviving in it, he lets his characters out from under his judgement, and once they’re free they consistently surprise the reader and themselves.

So the standouts here are the stories set in space (“The Island” and “Ambassador”) or in the undersea milieu of Watts’s Rifters trilogy (“Home” and his first published story, “A Niche”). I’d previously read the Hugo-winning “The Island,” about a mother-and-son team of wormhole builders who come upon an intelligent Dyson swarm, and found the downbeat ending to be a gratifying, surprising tonic. “The Ambassador” is less expansive but similar in tone, while “A Niche” is an expertly paced and constructed story, with the kind of ending that makes you laugh in delight at how well the author has set it up and how little you saw it coming.

The characters in these four stories are all edgily, uneasily posthuman, brutally bioengineered for the harsh environments they explore. Their existence is more or less a torment to them, sometimes due to neglect of the human sensibility trapped within the engineering and sometimes due simply to past trauma (there’s a substantial amount of past trauma in Watts’s work, often child abuse).

The Things,” meanwhile, possibly the best-known of the stories here, is a retelling of John Carpenter’s 1982 film The Thing from the alien’s point of view. It’s clever and enjoyable, a thorough exploration of a truly alien mindset. And it does a great job of making the alien sympathetic — but honestly don’t be fooled:

the-thing

That is not a life-form you should be rooting for.

Other stories are less effective. Watts, the son of a Baptist minister, doesn’t like Christianity — in the afterword he calls it believing in “an invisible sky fairy who sends you to Space Disneyland when you die,” and the atheist clichés there give you a sense of his not-terribly-nuanced thinking on the subject. So “A Word for Heathens,” and “Hillcrest v. Velikovsky” spend some time on that. There’s a handful of stories that extrapolate modern technology to pretty modest results (“The Eyes of God,” “Mayfly,” “Flesh Made Word,” etc.). A different reader may get more from these ones than I did, as I tend to find this sort of story the most inessential sub-genre in SF.

“Nimbus” is about, uh, angry clouds.

These stories, as well as a few forgettable others, may spring from Watts’s frustration with modern humanity but they don’t play to his strengths. And I suspect he knows this: it’s probably not a coincidence that his novels take place in the same settings as his strongest short stories. So far, of the novels, I’ve only read the truly magnificent Blindsight, but the whilequel/sidequel Echopraxia, due to hit the shelves in August, is already one of my most anticipated reads of 2014; and based on “A Niche” I’m pretty eager to get to his Rifters trilogy.

NYT: “France No Longer There, Reports Suggest”

How the media will report the apocalypse:

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