Saturday, 30 November 2013

Gene Wolfe – Peace (1975)

“...that is to say, in all of this, I think, I believe in some sense much akin to the belief of faith, that I noticed, felt, or underwent what I describe – but it may be that the only reason childhood memories act on us so strongly is that, being the most remote we possess, they are the worst remembered and so offer the least resistance to that process by which we mold them nearer and nearer to an ideal which is fundamentally artistic, or at least nonfactual; so it may be that some of these events I describe never occurred at all, but only should have, and that others had not the shades and flavours – for example, of jealousy or antiquity or shame – that I have later unconsciously chosen to give them...”

Gene Wolfe is a notoriously slippery author, and ‘Peace’ may just be his most slippery work. In SF and Fantasy we are so used to the unquestionable authoritative voice, whether the competent, level headed first person or the infallible omniscient narrator. Gene Wolfe’s work works completely differently. His narrators, like Severian in The Book Of The New Sun, or Alden Dennis Weer in ‘Peace’, often explicitly announce their own unreliability fairly early on in the text, leaving the reader to puzzle out from inferences what actually is going on. But whereas in The Book Of The New Sun, for all its ambiguities, features lots of plot and action, ‘Peace’ is a much more unconventional work which is much less tied to SF and Fantasy traditions and tropes.
   ‘Peace’ takes the form of the memoirs of Alden Dennis Weer’s early years, growing up as a child in a sleepy Midwestern town and eventually becoming the wealthy president of an orange juice production plant. Weer’s narrative voice reveals him to be affable and talkative, with a tendency to talk around big events and an almost Ronny Corbit-esque talent for going off on diversions. ‘Peace’ features many nested stories, as Weer recounts tales told to him as a child, and one of the themes of the book is why we tell stories, and in particular why Weer himself tells, but never finishes, so many of them. Stories act both as a way we make sense of the world around us, and as a form of escapism. The stories Weer heard as a boy shaped the man he was to become, but now that he is an embittered old man, the unfinished stories represent both his desire for escape and his own frustrated potential.
   ‘Peace’ could just about pass as the incredibly well-written ramblings of a dying man, but this is still Gene Wolfe we’re talking about. There is something sinister on the margins of these pastoral reminiscences that’s actually kind of difficult to pinpoint. Weer is quite happy to insinuate romantic relationships with a whole host of young, attractive women, but he stops shy of saying it in black and white. Early on in the book, Weer tells us that one of his childhood friends died young, and it is only from details eked out later on that you discover that the friend was killed in an accident involving Weer. Mention of the boy disappears from the text soon after. In much the same way, characters appear, interact with Weer until he uncovers some deep truth in them, then disappear from the narrative until Weer casually mentions that they died some time back. You can’t help wondering if he killed them all. This also brings out a meta aspect of Wolfe’s text. The author exerts a god like power over the characters in their story, in effect killing them when they are dropped by the main thread of the narrative; being figments of the author’s imagination, without the oxygen of the author’s attention they cease to exist.
   This is accentuated by the warping effect Weer has on the text. Does he have magical powers, or is he delusional? Either way it shapes the story he tells us, as he believes he can travel back to other points in his life to talk to characters who have long since passed away. When Weer catches the bookstore owner Mr Gold forging books, Mr Gold explains that when he forges an ancient text, reality reshapes itself around it to accommodate it. Rumours spread, and memory is more malleable and suggestible than we give it credit for, and so something that never existed becomes part of history. Multiple characters observe that history is merely biography, the selected and selective memoirs of the victors. Weer takes issue with both of these, and it’s ironic that he speaks for objective reality when these are the processes by which his story shapes what we perceive of his world.
   And then there is the central ontological uncertainty of Alden Dennis Weer himself. He tells us that he is recovering from a debilitating stroke. But the event that starts the book is an elm tree falling over. Perhaps not full of import in and of itself, but we hear later on that it is a local custom to plant trees on people’s graves, the weight on their chests prevents their spirits rising. Certainly a lot of the stories Weer relates are ghost stories, and he claims he once attempted necromancy. There are other hints too, in the way Weer moves listlessly from room to room in his abandoned old house, and the way his house seems to melt into all the different places he lived and worked, the way he keeps circling around the deaths of those he knew, his compulsion to relive his past. And if you look carefully at the language throughout, but especially in that opening paragraph:

“I was asleep and heard nothing, but from the number of shattered limbs and the size of the trunk there must have been a terrible crashing. I woke – I was sitting up in my bed before the fire – but by the time I was awake there was nothing to hear but the dripping of the melting snow and I was afraid I was going to have an attack, and then, fuzzily, thought that perhaps the heart attack had wakened me, and then that I might be dead.”

It is possible that Weer is a ghost, unaware that he has died, for his sins denied the eponymous peace. 

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Pat Murphy - The Falling Woman (1986)

"Do not look for revelations in the ancient ruins. You will find only what you bring: bits of memory, wisps of the past as thin as clouds in the summer, fragments of stone that are carved with symbols that sometimes make sense."

After however many reviews of effusive praise, here's a book I have mixed feelings about. This isn't going to be a hatchet job like my review of 'Tau Zero'; I actually very much enjoyed 'The Falling Woman'. It's a well written and engaging book with a well researched and fully realised setting in which rounded characters act, for the most part, in a believable way. So why the reservation? Well, 'The Falling Woman' is a book by a white person about Mayans. Now, there's nothing inherently wrong with that, but whenever one encounters something like this the warning lights begin to flash somewhere in the back of one's head. White people don't have a great track record of writing non-offensive stories about Native Americans, from the reductive and patronising portrayal of them as the noble savage in Pocahontas/Dances With Wolves/Avatar to the source of mystical evil in Poltergeist. Pat Murphy is clearly someone who's done her research; I felt I learned a fair bit about archaeology and Mayan civilisation reading this book, and she takes care to portray the Mayans as individual people and not a homogeneous mass. This only makes it all the more disappointing when the only Mayan main character winds up playing the role of the villain, and her role in the story, and that of the disappearance of the Mayan civilisation, is to act as a plot device to repair the mother-daughter relationship between the two white main characters. Problematic.
   Before I sink my claws in, I'd like to say a bit more about what was good about the book. 'The Falling Woman' follows archaeologist Elizabeth Butler, a woman who left her family behind to concentrate on her career, and Diane Butler, her estranged daughter, and Elizabeth's colleagues and students as they excavate a Mayan city in Yucatan. Elizabeth can see shadows of the past, which is no doubt useful for her job, but starts to become a problem when the shadow of a Mayan priest, Zuhuy-kak, begins talking back and tells her that the goddess requires a sacrifice from her. Last time the cycle of the goddess came around, Zuhuy-kak sacrificed her own daughter...
   As you can imagine, writing Elizabeth Butler is quite the balancing act and something the author handles remarkably well for the most part. The simplest explanation is that Liz Butler is suffering from schizophrenia, but the book presents all her encounters with the past as natural and believable. For the most part she comes across as a prickly, fiercely independent woman who is a bit too wrapped up in her job. The book intelligently considers that what may be seen as madness in one context - for example, human sacrifice as practiced by the Maya - is seen as part of everyday life in another, and Liz is an example of this, a woman who never wanted to settle down and have a family but was coerced into it by the pressures of society, at great damage to herself. In a way, she has already sacrificed her daughter by abandoning her to be brought up by her father alone, which makes it all the more important that she doesn't sacrifice her a second time.
   Diane Butler herself is another compelling character, forced to the brink by her father's death and beginning to inherit her mother's visions, afraid that she is going insane. The building of bridges between her and her distant mother, as they slowly come to understand and like each other better, is well done and genuinely quite moving.
     Right, now that's done, scalpels out.  'The Falling Woman' recalls Michael Bishop's 'No Enemy But Time', which is another book about the past encroaching on the present. However 'No Enemy But Time' benefits from having a more racially diverse protagonist than the whiter than white leads in 'The Falling Woman'. 'No Enemy But Time' emphasises the similarities between ourselves and the Homo habilis that the protagonist spends time with, forms friendships and eventually a fulfilling relationship with; whilst in 'The Falling Woman' the Maya wind up being a threatening other.

On reflection, the better book

   For the little its worth, Zuhuy-kak initially appears as well drawn and ultimately sympathetic, and her point about her and Liz Butler being quite similar in their own way is well taken. However her reduction to cackling villainous joke by the end of the book is unwarranted and unpleasant. After the book has spent all this time trying to demystify the Mayan religion, it seems counter productive to have ghosts screaming for blood. Throughout the book, Mayans are referred to as Indians by professional archaeologists, who should know better. The curse of being a ghost is to lack your own agency, to be stuck outside looking in on the world of the living, only able to influence receptive people. The Maya as a whole are reduced to this in the book, a colourful backdrop for the story of the white protagonists to work out their issues against. So however much I enjoyed Pat Murphy's evocative writing, the book wound up leaving a bad taste in my mouth.

John Crowley – The Deep (1975)

“Crowned men with red tears running from their eyes held hands as children’s cutouts do, but each twisted in a different attitude, of joy or pain he couldn’t tell, for of course they all smiled with teeth. Behind and around them, gripping them like lovers, were black figures, obscure, demons or ghosts. Each crown had burning within it a fire, and the grinning black things tore tongue and organs from this king and with them fed the fire burning in the crown of that one, tore that one’s body to feed the fire burning in this one’s crown, and so on around, demon and king, like a tortured circle dance.”

In ‘The Deep’, as much as in ‘Engine Summer’, John Crowley displays both his gift with beautiful prose as well as his empathy with everyday suffering. Which is not bad at all for a first novel. Where its political manipulations between multiple morally ambiguous sides anticipates George R R Martin’s ‘A Song Of Ice And Fire’, while Martin delights in dreaming up new and inventive mental and physical punishment to destroy his characters’ lives, Crowley’s characters meet with simple, unglamourous deaths, frequently lost offscreen in the indiscriminate chaos of battle. All that’s left is the sadness of pointlessly wasted human life.
   I suspect you could argue long and pointlessly as to whether ‘The Deep’ is SF or Fantasy. It is set on a flat circular world that is supported on a giant pillar that rises out of the eponymous Deep, a void of nothingness that surrounds the world. The sun and numerous moons orbit around it, and an ancient beast known as Leviathan sleeps underneath the world, coiled around the pillar. So you have a premise not dissimilar to a severely warped Discworld or World Of Tiers, and indeed you might wonder what effect living on such a different world to ours would have on the people living on it. Well, the answer is perhaps less than you would think, seeing as the whole world is caught up in a viscous struggle for power that has been going on for time out of mind. You have your fairly standardish Fantasy set up, where the Folk, your average common people, are looked after – read exploited – by the Protectors, the landed gentry. The Protectors are divided into two factions, the Reds and the Blacks, who have been fighting each other for many generations. The knowledge in the world is controlled by the Grays, a brotherhood of priests and scholars, and just to confuse matters there is a group of freedom fighters called the Just, who see it as their task to assassinate everyone in the Protectors’ class to gain freedom for the Folk. Not that the vast majority of the Folk support their endeavours in any way. The neutral Endwives camp out near battles and clean up the mess, saving who they can.
   Much of ‘The Deep’ deals with the futility of war, the pointless and never ending cycle of revenge, betrayal and violence. The two sides are even named after chess pieces, suggesting how they are all reduced to pawns in someone else’s strategy, pieces on the board. Or perhaps checkers is the more apt metaphor, with everyone’s brilliant strategies shown to be so much hot wind. Much like a game, whoever is in the position of power seems to have absolutely no significance for anyone outside of the people playing. The most sympathetic Protector is the vaguely Ned Stark-ish Redhand, whose honour and general decency get him absolutely nowhere fast in this particular game. At least by the end of the book, there is a sense that everyone is sick and tired of war, and there is at least some kind of hope for a way out of the cycle of destruction.

Guess how many of these people are alive by the end of the book
 Into this confusion a Visitor is sent from beyond, a nameless being with silver skin and superhuman skin with a vitally important purpose to bring to the people, if only he could remember what it was. Due to his amnesia he starts the book as a wide-eyed blank slate, and is thrown right in the middle of the power struggle between the Reds and the Blacks, following a Red takeover from the Black king. Slowly we see him become wise in the ways of selfishness and deception as he learns more about the world he’s found himself in. The Visitor’s corruption is deftly handled. In his initial state, friendly, unthreatening and full of a hunger for knowledge, everyone he encounters finds him unsettling for these character traits as much as his bizarre appearance. Up until the moment where he takes action for himself, he is guarding the life of his friend.
   But it’s not just his surroundings influencing his behaviour; the call from his true purpose is too strong to ignore. And his change in behaviour is linked to what that purpose is. The Visitor is a messianic figure, sent from the heavens to redeem this poor war-torn realm. And to a certain extent that’s true. One of the characters spends a large chunk of the book trying to figure out an ancient riddle: if everyone has two parents and so four grandparents and so on all the way back up the line, how come the small world is not overcrowded? Where do they go? Well, of course, they die. The Visitor has been sent to facilitate this by being a bloodthirsty warrior, leading the world even further into mayhem, death and destruction in order to keep the population down.
   This is a brutal and shocking twist, and it gets right to the heart of what the book is about. Just because it is possible to imagine a higher power, should it exist there is no guarantee it would be the kind of higher power we’d like, or that its idea of our best interest would match ours. The world of ‘The Deep’ is ostensibly one where bad things happen on a regular basis, but it’s not in spite of God’s plan, but because this is God’s plan. When the Visitor, having travelled to the very edge of the world, summons Leviathan and speaks to it, he finds that the god-like being – it is never named explicitly – originally took mankind from another planet to this artificial world because people begged for a return to simpler times, without fully understanding what that wish meant. Eternal life as the perpetual motion of eternal struggle and strife. In ‘The Deep’, the covenant God made with humanity is simply a really bad bargain on humanity’s side. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Jonathan Carroll - The Land Of Laughs (1980)

"Reading a book, for me at least, is like travelling in someone else's world. If it's a good book, then you feel comfortable and yet anxious to see what's going to happen to you there, what'll be around the next corner. But if it's a lousy book, then it's like going through Secaucus, New Jersey - it smells and you wish you weren't there, but since you've started the trip, you roll up the windows and breathe through your mouth until you're done."

Notice how the dog has a human's shadow...

The act of writing is akin to that of creation. The author creates whole characters, settings, and if they write SF or Fantasy, whole worlds out of the ether. But because the writer is creating a work of fiction, and not living, breathing people, their responsibility to their art is somewhat different from, say, Dr Frankenstein's shunned responsibility to his monster. If the characters from A Song Of Ice And Fire were real people, we'd have to try George R R Martin for war crimes. In 'The Land Of Laughs', Jonathan Carroll explores the difference between these two responsibilities, and what would happen if they somehow started to merge.
   Schoolteacher Thomas Abbey's life is in a rut, so he decides to take a break from his work to write the biographer of his favourite author, Marshall France, legendary writer of children's books, with the help of his girlfriend Saxony. The arrive in the sleepy, idyllic small town of Galen, Missouri, the place where he wrote all his books, to try to convince France's notoriously difficult daughter Anna to give them permission. but as sleepy, idyllic small towns are wont to do, Galen has a dark secret at its heart. Almost all the inhabitants of the town are fictional characters brought to life by France's writing. France has absolute control over the large events in their lives - who they will marry, when they will die, what they like to eat, and anyone who leaves Galen for more than a week will die. France planned the lives of the townfolk up to the year 3000, but some years after the great man's death his powers are fading, events are no longer happening as he wrote and the people live in terror of simply winking out of existence one day. Anna France has been waiting for someone as obsessed with her late father as Thomas clearly is to come along and bring Marshall France literally back to life by writing his biography. But of course once he returns she will have little need of interlopers such as Thomas and Saxony.
   'The Land Of Laughs' is a powerful work about our relationship with fiction and how much we really want our fiction to be real. A fantasy novel is a particularly good choice of medium to explore this, as it's so frequently stereotyped as a genre of pure escapism. Marshall France is a children's author for precisely this reason, and it's no surprise that Thomas and Saxony were lonely, bookish children, due to Thomas' famous film star father Stephen Abbey and Saxony's childhood illness. We can extrapolate that Anna's childhood, with her famous father and surrounded by people she knew to be fictional, was probably similar. The characters' reading material, when they're not reading biographies to see how it's done, is almost exclusively children's classics or fantasy classics. Marshall France himself is compared to a cross between Lewis Carroll and Lord Dunsany. We also learn about Thomas and Saxony's world view from their other hobbies. Thomas collects masks, symbolising his unease with his own identity from living in the shadow of his famous father, and Saxony collects and makes marionettes, indicating her frustrated desire to exert control over both her destiny and her sickly body (she spends more time in hospital following their move to Galen, and the force of control France's power exerts over her to bring her back to Galen to get her to help Thomas finish the biography is by making her sick again).
   Thomas Abbey is the book's viewpoint character, and Carroll does an impressive job of keeping him utterly compelling yet thoroughly unlikable. Appropriately enough for a book that is about our childish impulse for escape, Thomas is childish and petulant. He treats Saxony like crap, patronising her, sulking when she talks back, and ultimately cheating on her with Anna after telling Anna that he does in fact love Saxony. However he is compelling because he has just enough awareness to realise how much of a jerk he is, yet his massive personality problems prevent him from ever actually doing anything about it. In the end, Thomas never outgrows his need for the two giant absent father figures in his life, Marshall France and Stephen Abbey. After successfully resurrecting France and going on the run after the Galeners kill Saxony, he starts writing his father's biography and summons his own father into existence. He has become the father to his own father figures.
   Although Thomas himself is too far caught up in his hero worship of France to every really turn against him, he does realise that what France has done is a terrible thing: he has brought these people into existence and denied them any free will or agency of their own. His attempts at providing for them are, in the end, just further control exerted over these people. The great Marshall France himself has the same childishness and selfishness displayed by Thomas, a desire to live in this imaginary world no matter the cost to others. Perhaps it is because in the end these two men are so similar that Thomas is able to inherit France's ability.

Saturday, 2 November 2013

Joe Haldeman – The Forever War (1974)

“Relativity propped it up, at least gave it the illusion of being there... the way all reality becomes illusory and observer-oriented when you study general relativity. Or Buddhism. Or get drafted.”

‘The Forever War’ is at heart a war novel. Joe Haldeman had served in Vietnam and his experiences inform the book. The concept is pure hard SF worthy of Robert Heinlein or Larry Niven. Soldiers are conscripted to fight in an interstellar war. Because of relativity a few years passing for the soldiers means many decades passing back on earth, they return home to a world hopelessly alien to them that has forgotten all about them. The soldiers finding themselves lost and out of touch in a world that has drastically moved on without them is a powerful metaphor for the reception the soldiers returning home from Vietnam received in reality. The main weapon that the soldiers use to fight the hive-mind aliens is even powered armour, same as in Heinlein’s ‘Starship Troopers’. But the two books could not be further apart. ‘The Forever War’ is about the horror and futility of war, and the senseless waste of lives lost and displaced that follow.
   The protagonist is William Mandella, one of a hundred strong and healthy young people with IQs above 150 called up to fight against a terrifying unknown alien threat that has been destroying Earth spaceships. From the beginning, Mandella is cynical about the army. He studied physics and was looking to go into teaching and has no desire to be in the army or fight in a war. Unlike the protagonist of ‘Starship Troopers’, who learns that the army is always right, Mandella’s experience is one of horror, pain and grief. There is an argument that any anti-war story has the problem that it is inherently glamourising war by turning it into entertainment, no matter what the ultimate message. ‘The Forever War’ uses this to its advantage by initially appearing to be a fun, Heinlein-esque space adventure yarn, in much the same way that William Goldings’ ‘Lord Of The Flies’ initially appears to be a Ballentyne-esque boys’ adventure before things start to go wrong. Mandella, with his high IQ, his easygoing competence and his laidback, wry tone, could easily be a Heinlein protagonist.
   The recruits start off their training on the moon, and then on the planet Charon, more than twice the distance from the sun as Pluto, to prepare them for the conditions of war in space. It doesn’t take long for things to start going wrong in these harsh conditions. The soldiers are warned that the slightest mistake in space can lead to their deaths, and many of them die messy, unglamourous deaths in training. Much of the novel’s power comes from the way Haldeman describes these deaths. The tone is achingly sad but never over the top, calm and without embellishment as Mandella describes truly horrific death. It effectively conveys the feeling of loss over this senseless waste of human life.
   Soon enough Mandella and the others are shipped off to the first confrontation with the Taurans, engaging in a series of bloody battles that most of them don’t survive. Mandella doesn’t relish killing other sentient beings, and survives more through luck rather than battle prowess, and the one battle that he does actually lead goes pretty poorly. Haldeman does a really good job of conveying the idea that war is not full of glorious victories and excitement, but long stretches of routine interrupted by moments of terror and violence. It’s another reason why ‘The Forever War’ is so crucial; it’s just about the only military SF book that’s not violently militaristic. The book is also sensibly cynical about both the military and the government. The army is not above implanting subconscious conditioning in the soldiers’ heads to make them better killers, without telling them. At the end it turns out that the Taurans had never known war until encountering humanity, and that the war had been started and prolonged by humans because the Earth economy needed a war to fuel it.
   On top of all this, ‘The Forever War’ is a deeply affecting love story. Mandella’s relationship with Marygay Potter, another soldier in his original company and the only one to survive as long as he does, is perfectly natural and believable. Throughout the novel they become more and more important to each other as they end up being their only remaining connection to the world they grew up in. I will admit to getting a bit emotional at the bits where he discovers her grievously injured in the acceleration shell, when they are separated again the final time they are ordered back into duty, and again at the end when he discovers that she has been waiting for him to return all this time.
   The message of ‘The Forever War’ about the human cost of war is always relevant, and it’s all the more important in a genre that frequently celebrates and glorifies violence. At a time when an adaptation of ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card is hitting the theatres, (a book that is well written but problematic before you even get to Card’s deeply unpleasant personal opinions), it’s clear that militaristic tendencies are still alive and well in the genre, and Haldeman’s deconstruction of those ideas remain just as powerful and moving as it must have been when it was first published.