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.

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November Reading Roundup

Pretty productive reading month here. The highlight was discovering the work of Peter Watts: Blindsight, as I mentioned before, is fantastic, and anyone with any interest in the cutting edge of SF should hop to it. I also read his short story “The Island” (pdf available here) — like Blindsight it’s just paragraph after paragraph of ideas skillfully, thrillingly dramatized. Watts is sometimes called a pessimist because things generally don’t end all that well for his characters, but both Blindsight and “The Island” earn their downbeat endings.

mouthriverbeesI read about half of both Ted Chiang’s Stories of Your Life and Others and Kij Johnson’s At the Mouth of the River of Bees, both from the heroic Small Beer Press. The writing styles are very different. Chiang has an almost naive “non-style,” eschewing any sort of ornament, while Johnson’s style feels like it’s squarely in the mainstream literary world — many of her characters have the ennui and aimless passivity of most everyone in the typical New Yorker story. Both of them are excellent writers, though; especially strong are Chiang’s “Story of Your Life” and “Understand,” and Johnson’s title story and “26 Monkeys, Also the Abyss.” Her alien sex story “Spar” is disturbing and batshit crazy in the best way.

No fault of theirs I didn’t read all the stories in either book, incidentally — I usually like to come back to a book of short stories later, so that each story gets its full due and doesn’t start to blend in with the others.

kvanttivarasThe most disappointing read this month was definitely Hannu Rajaniemi’s The Quantum Thief. I was interested in this one for the Finnish angle, and I do like SF that limits its setting to our solar system — Rajaniemi’s friend and blurber Charles Stross does a great job of this in Saturn’s Children. And the first few chapters of The Quantum Thief (the ones that secured Rajaniemi a nice three-book deal) have a great, desperate feel with chunky hard SF details: strangelet bombs and induced combat autism and utility fogs and proteomic computers and antimatter engines. You can see why Tor would be excited by those chapters. But the story very quickly devolves into unthrilling reversals of fortune and other painfully recognizable narrative turns — Rajaniemi has obviously internalized Hollywood story beats to a fault. The characters are ultra-thin, tending to fall into various categories of wish fulfillment: they’re pretty much all suave and/or badass and/or fuckable. There’s also a lot — I mean a lot — of this sort of dialogue:

‘I have been thinking.’
‘Really?’
He gives her a reproachful look.
‘I’m allowed to tease you,’ she says. ‘That’s how these things work.’

Pretty meager stuff. The gevulot concept is great, I will say, a sort of ubiquitous, immediately accessible privacy utility used on Mars. It’s quite well portrayed. Also, there’s a certain reveal near the end, regarding the nature of the Oubliette, that is skillfully done. Overall, Rajaniemi has some interesting ideas but the actual form and feel of the novel are just not there yet.

atmomI re-read H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness. I say ‘re-read’ but the last time was in my teens when I went on a major Lovecraft kick, tearing through Bantam’s 80’s reissues with the lovely, creepy Michael Whelan covers. I have fond memories of reading these and I still don’t mind Lovecraft’s florid style, though it’s hard to argue with anyone who can’t stand it — it’s there, everywhere, all the time. And boy howdy the guy sure liked his fetid ichor; you can tell because of all the fetor and ichor. Incidentally I also read some short stories by Walter de la Mare this month — “Crewe” and “Missing,” both semi-horror stories where the taleteller tells the narrator more than he intends to — and came upon the following passage in “Missing”:

It was a foul outburst, due in part, I hope, to the heat; in part to the suffocating dehumanizing fœtor which spreads over London when the sun has been pouring down on its bricks and mortar as fiercely as on the bones and sands of some Eastern mud village.

So there was a fair amount of fetor/fœtor sloshing around this month.

Less fetid, but more squalid, was George Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I really enjoy Orwell’s second-tier works, but I prefer Coming Up for Air to this one, mostly because the narrator of Coming Up for Air is such a cheerful boob. However if you’re a fan of pre-decimal British money, Keep the Aspidistra Flying is chock full of calculations of how many bob and quid of your bookseller’s assistant wages you can spare on cigarettes and still not die of starvation.

Leckie_AncillaryJustice_TPAnn Leckie’s Ancillary Justice was a pretty interesting, if uneven, debut SF novel. There’s a strong LeGuin influence, as confirmed by Leckie, particularly the icy setting and gender slippage from The Left Hand of Darkness. Leckie zigs where LeGuin zagged, so to speak, using feminine pronouns as the default where LeGuin used the masculine — though unlike The Left Hand of Darkness where gender is physiologically changeable month to month for the natives of Gethen, the Radch language in Ancillary Justice simply doesn’t differentiate between he and she. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when this one’s translated into Finnish, which also doesn’t differentiate pronoun gender; the slight tension in not knowing a character’s gender off the bat is quite effective, and whenever we find one out later it’s a bit of a thrill. For all I know, though, that thrill died out for Finnish readers long ago.

The first two thirds of Ancillary Justice are well done, with surprisingly assured pace and tone. Particularly strong were the scenes where the sentient ship and its ancillaries (human bodies all with the same consciousness as the ship) are having different conversations with different humans during moments of crisis. Leckie doesn’t line-break in these scenes to indicate the different conversations; she just plows through, and it’s a testament to her skill that just a little extra attention is needed to follow what’s happening, and that the extra effort feels rewarding to the reader.

The last third of the book is still enjoyable, but it’s definitely more careless than what went before, frantic rather than measured. This was somewhat the case with Blindsight as well — it feels like Leckie and Watts each didn’t quite trust their story enough, and so felt that the ending needed to be a drawn-out slew of action-packedness so that the reader would feel like their time spent reading had been worthwhile. Maybe Hollywood has infected us all; someday every film, even romantic comedies and E.M. Forster adaptations, will end with a massive alien attack on New York.

crace-jim-harvest-cover-022613-margI thought at first that Jim Crace’s Harvest, nominated this year for the Man Booker prize, had a trick up its sleeve. One of Crace’s previous novels was set in post-apocalyptic America; and Harvest seemed a bit cagey about its setting, as if it might be only ostensibly set in medieval England and gradually reveal itself to be taking place in the run-down post-oil agrarian future. But, no, my clogs were too clever — even though the year is never mentioned, we’re just in medieval England. In any case, it’s a short, fascinating study of how quickly even the sturdiest community can be corrupted and destroyed, either through commercial interests or sexual jealousy. The narrator, Walter Thirsk, watches as his farming village comes apart due to the influence of several visitors: a surveyor, a dislocated family from another village, the absentee landowner. It’s an earthy read — Crace, through Thirsk, dwells lovingly on the details and routines of farming life.

Like some of the other books I read this month, Harvest goes a little wobbly at the end, with fires and scatterings and rushings to and fro. The threads we’d most like to see tied up are left strewn about; some situations or conflicts needed and deserved more exploration. In this case, it could be seen as a structural choice — things fall apart, the center cannot hold, etc., for the story just as for the village. But it almost feels more like absentmindedness, or a not-quite-solid sense of what the story itself demanded. Thankfully no alien invasion, though.

Finally, I finished Introducing Quantum Theory last night. It would be a stretch to say I understood it — actually it would be an outright lie to say I understood it. Who are we kidding? But at this point I’m just trying to get a fuzzy sense of the vocabulary and concepts there in order to lay the base, hopefully, for greater understanding in the future. I’m really in no hurry, right? It’s not like I have to teach a class on it next month or something.