Thursday, 31 December 2015

Ken Liu - The Grace Of Kings (2015)

My review of Ken Liu's 'The Grace Of Kings' is up now at Fantasy Faction. Long a writer to watch for his excellent and moving short stories, Liu's debut novel, the first in a new Fantasy series, is no less incredible; a unique blend of Chinese historical and mythological influences and epic Fantasy that tells the tale of two rebel warriors bringing down an Empire who ultimately must face each other. Read more at the link.

Monday, 14 December 2015

Rachel Pollack - Unquenchable Fire (1988)

This time in the neglected classics series, I'm talking about 'Unquenchable Fire' by Rachel Pollack, This is another book I've wanted to write about for some time. It's a really interesting mixture of the everyday life and the mythic, set in an America transfigured by spiritual and religious revolution. It's about spirituality versus religious hypocrisy, and the importance of story telling as a method of communion - something that links us, allows us to share experiences and empathise with others. Read more at the link.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Silvia Moreno-Garcia - Signal To Noise (2015)

My review for Silvia Moreno-Garcia's 'Signal To Noise' is up now at Fantasy Faction. It's a wonderful, slipstreamy meditation on teenage life and growing up, through the filter of magic and music, set in Mexico City. Read more at the link.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

Anne Charnock - Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind (2015)

"Why is it that women are always the ones being dragged off? Why aren't they the ones doing the clubbing and biting?"

Anne Charnock's 'Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind' is a wonderfully understated and meditative book about family, loss and the creative process. It is a deeply feminist work that looks at the inequalities faced by women in the past, present, and how this may change in the future. As well as that it is an ode to the people who have disappeared between the cracks of history, people who have died in accidents or been killed in war, but most of all the creative talents we have never heard about because of the barriers inherently sexist societies placed in the way of them becoming recognised artists. The author was kind enough to send me an ARC in return for an honest review.
   'Sleeping Embers Of An Ordinary Mind' has a complex structure. The book follows two girls and one woman at different stages of their lives, in different parts of the world and in different eras. A hundred years in the future, Toniah has moved back into her family home with her sister Poppy while she starts her new job at the Academy of Restitution, an institute which works to restore and uncover the reputations of artists, philosophers and thinkers overlooked in their time because of their gender. In the present day, Toni is visiting China with her father, a painter being commissioned by a Chinese business man to paint a copy of a Paolo Uccello painting, while the two of them attempt to bond in the wake of her mother's death. And in Florence in the 1400s, Antonia Uccello, Paolo's daughter and an overlooked artist whose work today has disappeared, begins to paint under the tutelage of her father, whilst her parents and brother arrange her fate.
   'Sleeping Embers' is very different from Charnock's previous book 'A Calculated Life' about enhanced humans, sharing only her enviable clarity of style and her ability to convincingly and engagingly chronicle the minutiae of daily life as it is lived. The focus on the personal allows her to bring alive the interior lives of these young women as they discover about themselves and find a way to square their relationship to the world around them through their art and their work. Though their storylines never overlap, they are linked through their shared themes and concerns, and by art itself. Antonia is drawn to painting through her natural talent and understanding of the medium, and her creative mind is able to not only absorb the lessons her father teaches her about creating a masterpiece but to move towards innovative leaps of technique and form. However because of the social environment of the time, her family have to decide between marrying her off young or sending her to a convent so that her nature as an unattached daughter won't ruin the family name. The book explores the ways left open to her for exploring her personal growth and development in a time and place where women's lives are so thoroughly restricted.
   By moving between three different time periods, Charnock explores how life has changed for women since the 1400s, and her hopes and fears for the future. In the present day, Toni's world is much more open than Antonia's, as she visits China with her painter father and returns to her school in London, She is able to travel the world, and to freely pursue her creative interests. However Toni has just lost her mother in a car accident; her story is about her journey rebuilding her life around her mother's absence. This leads to her developing a school project about people who died young, truncating their branch of the family tree, which in turn causes her to discover her own great-great-uncle, Arthur, who was killed in World War I. However throughout her story, as she navigates the context of her world she naturally runs up against questions about how women have been perceived by society in the past and how they are now; whilst looking at a painting in the National Gallery, she finds herself noticing that the victims of the male centaurs in the painting are all women, and she quizzes her father on why he has never copied a painting by a female artist.
   The sections in the 2100s allow the author to explore how life for women may change in the future. Toniah comes from a family where the women have reproduced via parthenogenesis, allowing all-female households like Toniah's to have their own children. When Toniah's mother was going to school there was still a level of stigmatism attached to this but by the time Toniah's niece is the same age it is fully accepted as a reproductive right and such families as an accepted social unit. The Academy of Restitution represents another progression, an institute designed to redress the balance of women like Antonia Uccello who never received the opportunities in their lifetime that their male counterparts would have, nor the academic respect in the years afterwards. Charnock uses the Academy and its work to explore how history's perception of individuals' contributions can frequently be biased by assumptions, gendered or otherwise. The influence of privilege allows mediocre white men to receive all the credit, whilst the contributions of women can be ignored or forgotten, (though Charnock points out that male artists can wind up on the receiving end of this as well). Toniah's work in the Academy allows us to see Uccello as an innovator with the potential to advance art beyond its then-current boundaries, if she'd had the opportunities closed to her gender, whilst showing Toniah's ambivalence towards the work as the act of rewriting history and the politics of the job make her uncomfortable.
   Toniah's story thematically links to Toni's via the missing person she discovers in her family, her grandmother's son from a sperm donor who died in childhood, cementing her grandmother's decision to have her other children via parthenogenesis. Uncovering this family secret provides Toniah with the impetus to leave her family home again to seek out a new life lecturing in China. The themes of loss linking the three main characters also emphasise the universality of human experience; despite the radically different social contexts these three young women live in, their core humanity remains the same. Antonia, Toni and Toniah's character arcs are all about them coming to terms with the aspects of their surroundings and their lives that they can't change, and learning to exercise the agency that they have. They are also united by their appreciation of art. The book goes into great detail about the ins and outs of creating a masterpiece - the structure, the technique, the underlying message that the creator is trying to convey, and how they help the audience see this. 'Sleeping Embers...' is a celebration of the skill and invention that goes into the creation of a work of art, as well as the cathartic release that it brings to both artists and appreciator.
   'Sleeping Embers...' is a work of slipstream fiction, having elements of speculative fiction, especially in the section set in the future, rather than being a work of genre fiction in and of itself. However it displays a deft touch at worldbuilding. The future UK of the 2100s is imaginatively evoked, with new technologies such as the gestation clinic described in detail, but other technologies that would shape the home and the workplace of the future hinted at and implied. Similarly, there is an unobtrusive but meticulous attention to detail that makes the scenes set in modern day Suzhou or 1400s Florence vivid and convincing. The book's approach to storytelling is character-based rather than plot based, eschewing action and movement for reflection and introspection, drawing the reader in and making them really care about what's going on in these characters' heads. The end result is a book that respects the reader enough not to lead them, but to let them make their own connections through the themes and ideas presented. 'Sleeping Embers...' is both thoughtful and moving, and unlike anything much other than itself.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

Michael Swanwick - The Iron Dragon's Daughter (1993)

Today in my neglected classics series, it's a pleasure to be talking about one of my all time favourites, 'The Iron Dragon's Daughter' by Michael Swanwick. I can remember stumbling upon it quite  by accident in a charity shop, and having my entire attitude towards Fantasy fiction changed. Here was a book packed with inventiveness, unafraid to mix fantastical beings with dark existential musings. Rereading it now, it's still unlike pretty much anything else. Click on the link to read more. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

N. K. Jemisin - 'The Fifth Season'

My review of 'The Fifth Season', N. K. Jemisin's powerful and strikingly original new novel, is up at Fantasy Faction now. It is a wonderful book, and Jemisin is one of the genre's most exciting writers, I urge everyone to track it down and read it. Read more about it by clicking on the link.

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Patricia A. McKillip - The Riddle-Master's Game (1976 - 1979)

My review of Patricia A. McKillip's wonderful The Riddle-Master's Game has gone up at Fantasy Faction today. The trilogy, perhaps McKillip's best-loved work, is on a par with the excellent 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld', however while they share some thematic similarities, in particular the fascination with riddles, The Riddle-Master's Game is a work of great subtlety and beauty with its own distinct flavour. Click on the link to read about it. 

Robert Holdstock - Mythago Wood & Lavondyss (1984, 1988)

This is late as I have been on holiday and then busy back at work, but my review of Robert Holdstock's two classics 'Mythago Wood' and 'Lavondyss' went up on Fantasy Faction. These books are firm favourites of mine, and I had been wanting to write something about them for a while, so I am thrilled that I got the chance to do so.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Ellen Kushner - Thomas The Rhymer (1990)

My review of Ellen Kushner's 'Thomas The Rhymer' is up now at Fantasy Faction. It's a fantastic book, a wonderful reimagining of the True Thomas legend, with a genuinely moving conclusion. Click on the link to read about it.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Chris Beckett - Dark Eden (2012)

"Watch out for men who want to turn everything into a story that's all about them. There will always be a few of them, and once one of them starts, another one of them will want to fight with him."

'Dark Eden' is an engaging SFnal coming of age tale, in which a young man, disillusioned with the world he's grown up in, breaks free from its confinements and discovers a truth about the world that shatters the status quo. SF is particularly well suited to telling this kind of story, as demonstrated by the number of iconic works in this mold, from exemplary works like 'The City And The Stars' by Arthur C. Clarke and 'Non-Stop' by Brian Aldiss to more experimental or unusual takes on the form such as Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker' and John Crowley's 'Engine Summer'. What makes Chris Beckett's story so fresh rather than being merely an admittedly well done revisiting of familiar themes is its vivid and striking setting, and its willingness to deconstruct its protagonist's role as hero in his own story. The end result is a powerful, uncompromising look at society's need for change, despite the frequently high cost.
   The book follows a colony descended from two people who crashed on Eden, a sunless, isolated world heated by geothermal activity alone, who preserve the culture of Earth whilst waiting for rescue. The protagonist, John Redlantern, resents the authority of the Council, the traditions of a planet he has never lived on, and the way nothing ever changes, and realises that the small valley they are trapped in will not support the colony for much longer. Part of the appeal of 'Dark Eden' is the vivid way in which Beckett evokes this alien world. This is partially achieved by the language; the story is told in the first person from a range of characters' perspectives, and they all speak in a degraded, slang-heavy English. While not as radical as Anthony Burgess' nadsat in 'A Clockwork Orange', or the thick future dialect of Russell Hoban's 'Riddley Walker', it still creates a sense of estrangement, of stepping into a different world with a different perspective. However Eden is more prominently and effectively rendered by Beckett's imaginative descriptions. Much of the appeal of science fiction is its ability to transport the reader to fantastical worlds, and Eden, with its eternal darkness punctuated by glowing geothermal trees and insectoid, six-limbed, luminous animals, is gloriously and enticingly strange.
   The use of multiple point of view characters is unusual for a book of this type. Most coming of age stories are intensely focused on their protagonist's point of view, a reflection of adolescence's self-obsession, and the need to know oneself before one can know the world. Frequently, shifting the point of view to another character would in some ways dilute the intensity of the vision. However, while this doesn't always mean that the author always means for us to agree or approve of the protagonist's actions, it can be easy to get more swept up in the protagonist's own view of their importance and rightness than perhaps we should. While it would probably be possible to tell this book's story using only John Redlantern's viewpoint chapters, that would deprive us of the opportunity the other viewpoints give for us to see John in a less flattering, more rounded light, and also to fully experience the damage and disruption his actions cause. The standard narrative of all these coming of age stories is that the protagonist breaking up the restrictive society that he comes from is a good thing, and whilst Beckett argues that John's innovations and pioneering spirit are necessary for the colonists to break out of their rut and actually start living their lives, he also explores the impact the destruction of the old culture has on the ordinary people living in the colony, as well as the selfishness and naivety that drives a lot of John's decisions. Tina Spiketree's chapters are particularly valuable. In a less well conceived book she'd be merely John's love interest, but Beckett crucially makes her a well-developed and strong willed character in her own right, who is friends with John, believes in his cause and has a sexual relationship with him but is perceptive and well grounded enough to see all his flaws, and strong enough not to be pushed round by him.
   'Dark Eden' also explores aspects of gender and how they relate to society. The book describes a matriarchy on the verge of transforming into a patriarchy, as the society splits up into factions in direct competition for resources and the spectre of war begins to raise its head. It is refreshing to read a story about a society that has reverted to the primal without erasing women's roles, or setting up the men as hunter gatherers while the women stay behind, look after the young and cook. Most of the leaders are women, with a secret history passed on from mother to daughter from Angela, the original stranded colonist. The society is by necessity sexually very liberal, and the women choose who they want to sleep with. However, despite the fact that they do not have a word for rape, it's clear that sexual abuse does happen, an early sign that the naive society of the Family is not as idyllic and innocent as at first it appears. The scene in which John is molested by group leader Bella Redlantern is intentionally deeply uncomfortable, with Beckett exploring the confusion and difficulty this awakens in John by having this done to him by someone he cares for and respects; it would be a very different scene if the characters were gender flipped. Beckett is also interested in how people with disabilities live in his fictional society. Due to the level of inbreeding, deformities of the mouth and feet are common, and are stigmatised in the society. However Jeff, one of the most compelling characters in the book, is born with foot problems, and so is excluded from the hunting and other social activities. But this gives him the chance to hone his intellect and his unique perspective, and he becomes a key figure in the story of the progression of the tribe, figuring out how to domesticate the animals of Eden so that he can transport himself more easily.
   The loss of innocence is a common thread running through the book, as John becomes not only the first person in Eden to find away across the barren snowy mountains above the valley but also the first person to kill another human. John is always aware of the historical implications of his actions, that people will tell stories of the things he is doing, but as he grows and matures he is able to see other people's side of the story. He realises that his actions have had dire consequences as well as good ones, and that history may judge him very differently from how he judges himself. The ending of the book is bleak and deeply moving, with John and his tribe discovering that they truly have no chance of ever being rescued by Earth, but it is not without hope, as this gives them the closure to begin living their life fully on Eden, no longer recirculating useless traditions and huddling round the spaceship landing site, but free to explore the world around them and make their own culture.

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Gene Wolfe - The Book Of The New Sun

I am thrilled to announce that I've written an article for Fantasy Faction, one of my favourite websites. Just had my first article published by them today, about an old favourite of mine, Gene Wolfe's The Book Of The New Sun. This will hopefully be the first in a pitched series about overlooked classics of Fantasy. It's so exciting to see a piece of my writing up on a website that's so obviously run by and for a passionate community of fans, and I'm looking forward to contributing more articles in the future.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Patricia A. McKillip - The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld (1974)

"Sybel, there must be a silence deeper than the silence of Eld between those stars; shall we go listen to it?"

"The giant Grof was hit in one eye by a stone, and that eye turned inward so that it looked into his mind, and he died of what he saw there."

'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' is a gorgeously told tale of love and the human cost of war and revenge. It has a love of riddles, inventive magical beasts, and a well-drawn cast of believable characters with a strong, engaging female protagonist. However what truly elevates the book is Patricia A. McKillip's poetic language. Her command of striking imagery and finely balanced phrases places 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' in another category altogether from the faux-archaisms employed by Lord Dunsany and his imitators, a high Fantasy that almost qualifies as a prose poem.
   'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' takes a stock character that is usually a villain in most high Fantasy stories, the ice-queen wizard alone in her mountain fortress with only her enchanted animals for company, and turns her into a sympathetic, believable protagonist. Sybel is the descendant of a line of wizards with the ability to summon magical animals: the falcon, Ter, Gules Lyon, the Cat Moriah, the Dragon Gyld, the Black Swan of Terleth, and the Boar Cyrin, who answers all riddles save one. Her attempts to summon the White Bird Liralen are complicated when Coren of Sirle turns up at her gates, asking her to care for the baby Tamlorn, the son of King Drede. As Tamlorn becomes poised to fall between the rebel forces of Sirle and Drede's armies, Sybel finds herself drawn away from her hideout on the mountain of Eld and into the world of people, of which she wants no part.
   What follows is the story of the isolated, lonely Sybel learning to interact with people, as she becomes a mother figure for Tamlorn and negotiates the affections of Coren and Drede. This could be a standard, if wonderfully told, romance plot, if not for the nuance and depth. McKillip is fully aware of the depth and complexity of love, but also of the negative end of the spectrum of human emotions, how fear, hatred and jealousy can consume people. 'The Forgotten Beasts Of Eld' works so well partially because of how well grounded it is in real emotional depth.
   This is demonstrated in the book's treatment both of its villains, and of its protagonist as she makes more and more questionable decisions. There is no question that Drede's plan to have Sybel magically brainwashed so that she will love him and not attack him is monstrous, but Drede is not portrayed as a monster. He is shown to be a person who, because of the rumours about his wife's betrayal of him and his unsteady grip on power due to the forces of Sirle, is utterly hounded by fear, to the extent that he makes decisions that he knows are horrific. Even the wizard Mithran, who he hires to do the job, is revealed to be a bitter, lonely old man who has let his own lust for power consume his life. None of this excuses either characters' actions, but because we can understand where their motivations come from, and because we can believe that these people could end up like that, it makes the whole situation much more believable.
   Drede's plan is portrayed as the horrendous violation it is, and whilst neither Drede nor Mithran succeed, the event still clearly traumatises Sybel, and the book realistically explores the fallout from this. Sybel marries Coren so that she can move to Sirle and plot with his brothers, the Lords of Sirle, and her magical animals, to get her revenge on Drede. However, she soon becomes so obsessed with utterly destroying Drede that she stops thinking about what will happen to Coren, whom she has grown to truly love, and Tamlorn, who is now living with his father Drede and clearly loves and admires him. This is made worse by the fact that, in her desire to protect both of them, and to keep her revenge for herself, she refuses to tell either of them what happened. The book never condones Drede nor suggests that he doesn't fully deserve his comeuppance, but it does portray how Sybel's entirely understandable desire for revenge starts to consume her and cut her off from the people she loves.
   The book becomes increasingly morally complex as it goes along, exploring how good people can be driven to do bad things through entirely understandable motivations. This is illustrated by Cyrin's riddle about the giant Grof - the idea that we sometimes hide our own true motivations from ourselves, and to truly look into them can be painful. This is also symbolised by the Blammor, the ugly and frightening aspect of the Liralen that manifests to Sybel, Coren and Mithran as a cloud of smoke with ice for eyes that reflects back your own worst fears. Mirthan is too corrupted to survive his experience with the Blammor, but both Sybel and Coren have to face their own worst impulses before they can happily be with each other. As Coren says to Sybel,

"What do you think love is - a thing to startle from the heart like a bird at every shout or blow? You can fly from me, high as you choose into your darkness, but you will see me always beneath you, no matter how far away, with my face turned to you. My heart is in your heart. I gave it to you with my name that night and you are its guardian, to treasure it, or let it wither and die."

The complexity of the book's view of love, as something that ties the couple together but that can also be twisted and subverted into something damaging and ugly, is refreshing. In the end it is not just their love that pulls Coren and Sybel back from the brink, but knowledge, wisdom and self-awareness. Both Coren and Sybel, having looked into themselves, can see something of Drede in themselves, a man who let his feelings for his wife be twisted into something unpleasant and destructive by his fear and jealousy. Coren and Sybel first have to reject their own destructive, violent impulses, before they can return to each other purified, as symblised by the Liralen shedding the aspect of the Blammor to take its true form.

Brian Aldiss - The Malacia Tapestry (1978)

"'Somebody told me that Satan has decided to close the world down, and the magicians have agreed. What would happen wouldn't be unpleasant at all, but just ordinary life going on more and more slowly until it stopped absolutely.'
   "'Like a clock stopping,' Armida suggested.
   "'More like a tapestry,' Bedalar said. 'I mean, one day like today, things might run down and never move again, so that we and everything would hang there like a tapestry in the air for ever more.'"

'The Malacia Tapestry' is a lyrical Fantasy about a stagnating magical city. Following on from his experimental New Wave works 'Report On Probability A' (1967) and 'Barefoot In The Head' (1969) but before his re-invigoration of hard SF with the Helliconia trilogy (1982 - 1985), Brian Aldiss turned to Fantasy to explore his usual themes of degeneration and decay. Like the later Viriconium novels, the only other books it much resembles, 'The Malacia Tapestry' forgoes traditional plot in favour of atmosphere, generated by some of Aldiss's finest prose. The impoverished actor Perian de Chirolo undergoes a series of misadventures in the city of Malacia, cursed by ancient magicians never to change, and the course of these events reveal the life of the city, in which myth and superstition have mingled inseparably with very real magic. Malacia is rendered in hyperreal, magical realist intensity, its languid decadence allowing Aldiss to reflect on the nature of art and the necessity of change.
   Much of the distinctive flavour of 'The Malacia Tapestry' comes from its invocation of the grotesque and the grime, something it shares with Viriconium but descends back to Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books. Perian and his actor friends are all heavy-drinking, philandering lowlifes, as comic as they are tragic, and the image of the plague-ridden corpses being airlifted through the sky on inflatable balloons to infect the camps of the invading Turkish army is equally ridiculous and horrifying. As well as creating a compelling tone, this approach allows Aldiss to ground the novel, making Malacia feel more real and lived-in than your standard high Fantasy setting, which in turn allows him to blur the line between magic and myth within the story. Malacia features winged humans, dinosaurs, (called 'ancestrals' by the Malacians), and magicians, placing it firmly in the realm of the fantastic. However, the magicians don't use their powers to fight evil, but sell fortunes and perform tricks for bored tourists by the side of the road, the winged humans are not angels but are just another kind of people, who interbreed with normal humans to have children with vestigial wings, become frustrated housewives, and lose their ability to fly as they get older, and the dinosaurs are either used as domestic animals or hunted for sport by the upper classes. Thus Aldiss subverts the fantastical elements in the story by making them mundane.
   Aldiss then goes on to explore the interaction between the magical elements and the myths and superstitions of the Malacians. The city of Malacia has its own distinct culture, which is different from ours partially because it has been shaped and molded by these fantastical elements, however the ambiguity between what is real and what is myth makes it difficult to tell by how much. Malacian cosmology is an inversion of the Christian creation - they believe that the world was created by Satan, and that God appeared later to rebel against him and act in the interest of humans. Magicians, who worship Satan, and symbolise stasis, coexist with priests who worship God, who symbolises change. Thus the people of Malacia live their lives caught between these two opposing forces not of Good and Evil, but of Law and Chaos. Malacia's ancient curse preventing change symbolises the encroaching victory of Law, a society sliding into its own decadence. However, how much of this is the result of the magicians' curse, and how much of it is the ruling elite of Malacia and its council brutally preserving their own power at the expense of the downtrodden and exploited working class, is left to the reader to interpret. Aldiss hints at how seriously we shouldn't take the Malacian's own traditional views in the use of 'ancestrals' to describe the dinosaurs, and Perian's father's research into the Malacian's evolution that suggests they are descended from the dinosaurs, despite the characters' blatant mammalian natures.
   All of this hints towards the political thrust of the book. Despite the best efforts of the ruling council, rebellion is fermenting in Malacia due to the horrific conditions faced by the city's large, working class population, whose exploitation keeps the aristocracy of Malacia in power. Aldiss explores how the feudal societies standardly depicted in Fantasy would be fairly miserable for the majority of the population, and the necessity of social change to give more power to the people. The Malacian aristocracy are all portrayed as hopelessly decadent, self-absorbed and manipulative, whilst the working class cast of Bengstohn's play are much more sympathetic, their anger stemming from the struggles they face trying to make the best of life in a system that is unfairly stacked against them. Bengstohn hopes that his play, captured by the new medium of his innovative photo system, will spread his message that the ruling classes are morally bankrupt and prove a useful tool for bringing down the whole stagnant system. Thus, the actors in his play will play a part in bringing change to Malacia, ironically by standing still for long stretches of time while his device captures the image. Aldiss also explores how resistant people are to change, and how insidiously the forces that maintain the status quo enforce themselves on people's world view. Perian, as an actor with an academic father and a well-married sister, codes as middle class, but to all intents and purposes he lives in comparable poverty to the rest of Bengstohn's workers. However, his greatest desire is not to overthrow an unfair system that does him no favours, but to become part of the ruling class himself, improving his lot but doing nothing for anyone else. Perian complains that the plot of Bengstohn's play is unoriginal and cliche-ed, its moral too obvious, but he remains impervious to its message until he lives out the plot in exact detail himself. It is this alone that is sufficient to awaken the revolutionary instinct in himself, rather than the message in any art.

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Lauren Beukes - Moxyland (2008)

"'What, like the kids' games? That Moxyland shit? Murder and mayhem. Training them to be savage, don't you think? It's not about making friends with kids all over the world, it's about getting ahead, getting one over.'
"'But don't you think it's appropriate? Considering.'"

'Moxyland' is a brutally cynical yet frighteningly believable look at state surveillance and viral marketing, and how digital technology's utopian potential can be co-opted by forces of social control. Set in a vividly realised near future Cape Town, and shot through with future slang, it follows its four young, frequently unsympathetic protagonists as they struggle to express their individuality in an increasingly corporate-sponsored world, and find out, in no certain terms, who really holds all the power. Lauren Beukes deftly evokes a dystopian near future, a divided society living in fear, still suffering from the after effects of apartheid. She uses her characters' differing backgrounds to explore the diversity of different peoples living in the city. Through the ambitions, fears, prejudices and viewpoints of her characters, Beukes expertly dissects the attitudes, disparities and jealously-guarded privileges that have shaped their society.
   The plot is kicked off when Kendra, an up and coming photographer, is injected with a nanobot tattoo by the makers of the soft drink Ghost as part of an underground marketing campaign. She soon finds herself caught up in the schemes of Toby, a smug, arrogant trust-funded blogger, Tendeka, a homosexual would-be revolutionary trying to balance his anti-corporate ethics with the need to secure funding for his programmes to improve the lives of Cape Town's streetkids, and Lerato, an AIDS orphan who has been put through education by corporate funding and now works for Communique in a high powered corporate position that she hopes to advance from by selling company secrets. As all four of them fight for their own autonomy against the government and corporate forces that control their lives, the full nature of that control is revealed, along with the awful trade-off that both the characters and their society has made of their rights for the illusion of comfort and safety.
   'Moxyland' presents a chilling portrait of a government which, hand in glove with the corporations that prop it up, has gone to war with its citizens in the name of protecting them. This is a government that uses the threat of terrorism to justify releasing bio-engineered Marburg virus on a subway full of people, that uses fake identities over the internet to lure would-be dissidents out of the woodwork, then uses those dissidents to justify greater power for itself. Beukes draws out the similarities between the totalitarian government and the corporations that prop it up; both are self-serving institutions that are nominally meant to have the interests of the people at heart, but both place their own bottom lines above human rights, and even human lives. The book is darkly cynical about the idea of any person maintaining their own agency in such an atmosphere. All of the characters believe they are acting in their own interests and to further their own agendas, but in the end all of them are revealed to have been manipulated by government and corporate forces to serve ends other than their own.
   Beukes asks some very interesting and pertinent questions about digital technology and internet culture, especially about their utopian intent verses their use as tools for government surveillance, corporate spying, and even the petty and vindictive use that people frequently put them to. The book takes its name from a children's game in the novel, a massive multiplayer online role playing game in which the rules are enforced by a cute monster character called Moxy. Tony plays it in order to earn some quick cash, and observes that the game doesn't encourage children from all over the world to play and interact with each other, but rewards those who form gangs and bully those weaker than them, which is cynically pointed out as being good practice for the real world. It's also echoed in what the government in the book is doing in its plan to entrap terrorists, hiding behind fake identities and sock puppets, the standard operating procedures of your standard internet troll, and it foreshadows Lerato's ultimate recruitment into the government's secret internet security force, after training in the playgrounds of petty corporate theft.
   It also goes some way to explaining the selfish, narcissistic outlook of the characters, who are very much products of their society. The characters are all compelling and well developed, and the book explores how their various flaws stem from the intersection of their personalities and their social positions. Lerato's ruthless ambition partially arises from her upbringing as an AIDS orphan with very little in the way of future prospects if she didn't get a very comparative corporate sponsorship. Tony is intelligent, witty and charming, but because he is a pampered, spoiled rich kid who has never had to do a day's work in his life, he is sickeningly self-obsessed and self-absorbed, with almost a sociopathic lack of empathy. His obsession with digital technology and live-blogging everything through the cameras in his jacket contrast him with the more down-to-earth Kendra, who has an abiding interest in analogue technology, reflecting her more grounded perspective before she is corrupted by selling her soul to a corporation. At the beginning, Tendeka does genuinely seem to care for the streetkids that he looks after, however his preciousness over his ideals, which lead to him not accepting corporate sponsorship for his streetkids project, winds up stopping him from helping them, unlike his lover Ashraf who is just as idealistic but a lot more practical. Tendeka has his family's money to fall back on, which allows him to be picky about where he gets his money from, but Ashfar, who comes from a poorer working class background, doesn't have that luxury, and realises the importance in actually getting the work done. Tendeka's own high ideals and his desperation ultimately make him an easy pawn for the government, and he winds up causing much more damage than he does helping people, despite his good intentions.
   'Moxyland' shows science fiction at its best, examining in unflinching detail our interface with technology and how this is changing both our society and ourselves. It does so with a diverse range of well-developed and believable characters, and with powerful, succinct prose. It ranks as one of the most disturbing and haunting dystopias in recent history. The end result is a stark warning that has only become more pertinent in the years since it was published.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Genevieve Cogman - The Invisible Library (2015)

"That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she'd been taught, anyway. It wasn't about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice. Anyone who really loved a good story would understand."

'The Invisible Library' by Genevieve Cogman is a thoroughly enjoyable Fantasy adventure featuring alternate worlds, a steampunkish setting, great detectives, fairies, dragons, strong female characters and books, not to mention a compelling central concept. In its inventive use of alternate realities as a series of settings for the ongoing conflict between rival forces of order and chaos, it harks back to classic Fantasy works such as 'Three Hearts And Three Lions' by Poul Anderson or Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books. It is held together by its overarching love of fiction, and its steadfast belief in the value and importance of books; that stories are worth preserving because they tell us something important about the culture that produced them, and simply for the joy a good story brings.
   At the centre of 'The Invisible Library' is the Library itself, a vast, interdimensional space that a secret society of immortal dimension-hopping Librarians use to store fiction from alternate realities. It's an inspired creation, drawing on both Borges' infinite library and Edgewood, the house that acts as a portal between the worlds of humans and fairies from John Crowley's 'Little Big'. The Librarians themselves are a classic manipulative secret society, a force on the side of order but filled with dark secrets and arcane power games. Appropriately for a book about libraries, 'The Invisible Library' treats fiction as its playground, cheerfully mixing up Moorcockian Fantasy in its use of alternate dimensions and sinister, chaos-worshiping Fae, the Sherlock Holmes stories beloved of protagonist Irene in the form of the great detective Vale, and the scientific romances of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne in its steam-powered, Victorian-esque London. There are even elements of Lovecraftian cosmic horror in the villain Alberic, a rogue Librarian who has turned to the side of chaos to sustain his immortality. Cogman meshes all these disparate elements together seamlessly, and the book has gonzo invention to spare with its giant mechanical insects and clans of warring werewolves, vampires and fairies. It recalls the mad alchemy of the original steampunk novels by Tim Powers, James Blaylock and K. W. Jeter, rather than the more tired and cynical trappings of the genre that have been overused since.
   In keeping with the book's faith in the power of language, the Librarian's magical powers stem from language itself. The Librarians can speak the Language and force the physical components of reality around them to do their bidding, a literalised form of reification, which links thematically back to Borges. Cogman makes good use of the concept, exploring both the limitations of the technique - you have to phrase your requests very specifically for it to be useful, thus limiting its use as a 'get out of jail free' card for the heroes - and the extent to which it could be abused, in a troubling scene in which Irene uses the Language on a person to hijack an airship.
   As well as an intriguing set-up, 'The Invisible Library' also has well drawn and memorable characters. Vale, the Holmes-esque detective and Kai, Irene's assistant, trainee and secret dragon in human form, are compelling characters, all the more so for having the ability to act against Irene's and each other's interests when appropriate. Much of the philosophical weight of the book comes from Irene's attempts to keep Vale on her side. Vale is a rational and caring person who believes that the Library should use its powers to help people rather than just preserving books. One of the good things about 'The Invisible Library' is that, while the Librarians are unquestionably on the side of order, this does not necessarily mean that they are all good or nice; some of the Librarians will use any means necessary to acquire the books they are after, no matter how damaging the consequences to bystanders. We see this personified in the most interesting relationship in the book, between Irene and her ex-mentor Bradamant. Bradamant cares about completing her mission at any cost, and has thrown Irene under the train in the past to achieve this; as a result, Irene is especially conscious of how her actions affect other people, and wants to do her job without causing harm and to help people on the way if she can. Irene has to prove that she can get results whilst showing Vale that she is ultimately a moral person, unlike Bradamant. Cogman handles Bradamant and Irene's relationship very well; there's no denying that Bradamant is incredibly selfish, manipulative and unpleasant, even going so far as to drug Irene at the climax so that she can finish the job her way without Irene's interference, but she isn't the main villain, and by the end of the book there's a sense that she has learned to respect Irene, whilst Irene, by showing that she is both moral and competent is able to leave behind her hangups about being in Bradamant's shadow.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Barry N. Malzberg - Galaxies (1975)

"The novel itself cannot be written, at least by this writer, nor can it be encompassed by any techniques currently available, because it partakes of its time and that time is of the fortieth century, a time unimaginably distant... and it could be perceived only through the idiom and devices of that era which, to be sure, will not exist for more than eighteen hundred years.
   "Nor - continuing to be straightforward - will that idiom or those devices ever exist because science fiction is not a series of working models for the future but merely a sub-genre of romantic fiction which employs the future as historicals would use the past, as Westerns would use the West, as pornography would use fornication - in short as a convention, which is the focus of their appeal. By virtue of these reasons then, not to say others which are more personal - but which will be revealed - these fifty-five thousand words are little more than a set of constructions toward a construction even less substantial. It, as the writer himself, will not be finished in this world."

'Galaxies' is a bold, post modernist science fiction novel that deals explicitly with the nature of science fiction itself. Set out as the notes for the author's unwritten novel, also entitled 'Galaxies', Barry N. Malzberg uses the book's meta-narrative to unravel the impossibilities of writing science fiction and to comment on the many failings of the genre. However along the way the story the author is trying to write, about a space pilot trying to escape from a black galaxy caused by a collapsing neutron star, and his struggle to write it, wind up echoing each other and highlighting the metaphysical concepts and questions the author is intending to explore in the finished novel. The end result is both a compelling story in its own right and some of the sharpest criticism I've ever read of the SF genre. 
   In his earlier work, 'Herovit's World', Malzberg had satirised the poor writing found in much golden age SF using meta techniques and a narrative about a pathetic, struggling SF writer who understands human nature almost as poorly as his badly written space opera protagonist. However the structure of 'Herovit's World' was still that of a straightforward novel. The meta techniques in 'Galaxies' are much more sophisticated, with the framing device being that the text is the author's notes describing a science fiction novel which he has intentionally not completed. Thus the author becomes the main character as much as Lena Thomas, the captain of the Skipstone in the unfinished story 'Galaxies'. The story is ultimately recursive. The author's struggle to write 'Galaxies', as he engages with and attempts to subvert the expectations and demands of what is essentially a commercial genre in order to make a profound piece of art, as he writes himself into a hole he can't get out of, as he attempts techniques and reaches for affects that are beyond his skills as a writer, are metaphorically echoed in Lena's impossible attempt to escape from the gravitational field of the collapsing neutron star, and ultimately the author's preferred ending to the story has these two struggles converge, with Lena perhaps becoming the author and the writing of 'Galaxies' becoming the metaphor for her trials in the black galaxy.
   'Galaxies' is left as a series of notes in deference to the fact that if science fiction really were the medium of the future, it would need to be expressed in the idiom of the future, which of course does not exists yet. From this initial confession, and the observation that science fiction frequently simply uses its futuristic setting as an exotic backdrop rather than even attempting to engage with current modes of expression such as post-modernism, let a lone future modes of expression, or to engage with genuine scientific premises, the book engages with many of the genre's failings. Malzberg's criticism from the genre comes from both a genuine fascination with science fiction - its unique potential to engage with interesting scientific theories, its ability to tackle deep metaphysical ideas, its unparalleled scope - and his disappointment with a genre that he sees as frequently formulaic and subject to the conformity of market specifications as dull and all-encompassing as the manipulative Bureau which controls space travel in Lena's future. Much of the black humour in 'Galaxies' comes from Malzberg's cynical understanding of the demands of the science fiction market, which manifests in the author's notes as he talks about where he could pad out the story into a series of novels in order to make money, or about where he might add gratuitous sex scenes to keep the reader's interest.
   Throughout, Malzberg deftly uses the author's voice to betray the author's personality; the writer of 'Galaxies' is prolix, self-important and self-pitying, frequently going off on amusing tangents to complain about the difficulty of his life as a writer or to bitch about his professional rivals. However it is these failings that make the author ring true as a character in his own right, and it is clearly meant to be part of the joke. There are sections where the author criticizes Lena for having many of the characteristics that he has, utterly unaware that he is doing this. This also helps to foreshadow the ending. Making sure the reader is aware of the humanity, the failings of the book's two central characters helps the book sell its metaphysical aspects, as the author himself points out. And 'Galaxies' does succeed on a philosophical level, as well as a biting piece of satire. The author underlines the religious imagery involved in the central concept of the story 'Galaxies', with Lena as Job being tested by the author, and the cyborg advisers playing the role of the consolers. Lena's journey to achieving her own agency in defiance of the rigid control of the Bureau, even at the possible price of destroying the entire universe and all of existence, and hence the author's decision to write, or not write, 'Galaxies' as he sees artistically fit, is genuinely powerful and moving. It is in this integration of story and ambitious meta-narrative construction that 'Galaxies' is such a success.

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky - Hard To Be A God (1973)

"How I'd like to let out some of the hatred that's accumulated over the past twenty-four hours, but it looks like I'll have no luck. Let us remain humane, forgive everyone, and be calm like the gods. Let them slaughter and desecrate, we'll be calm like the gods. The gods need not hurry, they have eternity ahead."

In 'Hard To Be A God', Arkady and Boris Strugatsky explore the rise of totalitarianism, and the inadequacies of theories of history to deal with actual history unfolding. The story is set on a planet with medieval level technology, where the kingdom of Arkanar is undergoing a power shift as the king's minister, in a flurry of anti-intellectual paranoia, is creating a pervasive and controlling state based on fear and oppression. The main character, Anton, is a historian from a utopian Earth of the future, sent to study the unfolding of history on an alien planet, is bound by a rule of non-interference similar to the Prime Directive in Star Trek; he does what he can to save the lives of the intellectuals hounded by Don Reba's storm troopers, but he is not allowed to interfere with the natural unfolding of history. As the situation in Arkanar grows more and more violent and out of control, Anton finds himself increasingly at odds with his superiors, who insist that, as their theory of history does not allow for the development of totalitarianism out of a medieval society, the situation cannot be as desperate as he paints it.
   'Hard To Be A God' deals with the key theme that runs through much of the Strugatsky's work, censorship and the artist's struggle against it. As in 'Definitely Maybe', the novel features artists who come up against powerful forces wishing to silence them, in this case Don Reba's storm troopers, and, as they would in that later novel, the Strugatsky brothers explore the different ways in which different people respond to censorship and state-sponsored oppression. The Strugatskys quite rightly identify censorship of ideas as a key sign that something has gone deeply wrong with a society. Arkanar is being manipulated by Don Reba into fearing and distrusting new ideas and perspectives, vilifying and persecuting the very people who are capable of dragging them out of the middle ages, something that can only lead to its stagnation. Anton tries desparately to save the artists and scientists of Arkanar, some of whom are stripped of honour and property and beaten, imprisoned, executed, or else compromise their art and integrity by pandering to the strictures set out by the state.
   The book's setting allows it to mingle the tropes of science fiction and Fantasy, and to subvert the standard middle ages setting of much Fantasy in interesting ways. Because we experience the world through the eyes of Anton, in the guise of Don Rumata, the well-connected noble he pretends to be in  Arkanar, we see it through a perspective closer to our own than those who live in it. Anton is disgusted by both the social injustices of the rigidly feudal system and the technological backwardness of the people who live in it. By pointing out how bad the people smell because of the lack of modern hygiene makes the medieval setting, which could be overly familiar to readers of genre fiction, especially vivid and resonant for the reader. This allows the Strugatskys to humourously satirise the upper classes, who strut around assuming their natural superiority whilst appearing to Anton and the reader as drunken buffoons. It's also part of how the Strugatskys subvert the general tropes and expectations of the book's medieval, Fantasy-esque setting. 'Hard To Be A God' deconstructs the idea of chivalrous noblemen as brutally as George R. R. Martin's A Song Of Ice And Fire, with the Strugatskys portraying them as self-interested, aggressive, drunken boors. Similarly, the book plays with Fantasy mythology. There's an excellent passage where the authors describe the legends and myths that have built up around the Hiccup Forest, before revealing that they have been put in place there and exaggerated to hide the Earth people's secret base.
   'Hard To Be A God' is thoroughly cynical about human nature. While it features, on its periphery, a utopian society on Earth, it is fully aware of the horrors of history that humanity has had to go through to get to its current state of enlightenment. Don Reba's name is derived from Lavrenty Beria, Stalin's brutal secret police chief, and his horrific methods and brutality echo those of his real life basis. His betrayal and destruction of his own storm troopers when they get too powerful echoes Hitler and Himmler's destruction of Ernst Rohm and the SA, and his torture chambers are reminiscent of the horrors of the Spanish Inquisition. The Strugatskys acknowledge the violence and suffering which have shaped human history, but also the pettiness of human nature that drives much of history. The noblemen make ludicrous decisions because they're permanently drunk, which makes them particularly easy for Reba to manipulate. The feudal rights of the Barons Pampa wind up having to be fought for each generation in a wasteful, expensive and unnecessary war which always has the same outcome, all for silver mines which cost less than the war does and laughably trivial privileges for the Barons. The Stugatskys have a hope for what humanity can become, but despair at its violence, cruelty and idiocy. This despair ultimately overtakes poor Anton, as circumstances get to the stage where he is no longer able to stand by dispassionately. He reaches the point where whatever he does he winds up with blood on his hands, but his decisive action only causes more death and destruction.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Nnedi Okorafor - Lagoon (2014)

"We are change."

"Human beings have a hard time relating to that which does not resemble them. It's your greatest flaw."

Nnedi Okorafor's 'Lagoon' is a first contact novel, in which the aliens land in Lagos. It is a fresh and original take on the subject, not least for its setting, which is vividly and powerfully evoked by Okorafor. However as well as providing a welcome antidote to all the British and American-centred stories in which the aliens land in New York or London, the aliens in 'Lagoon' have not just come for the President and the protagonists; their arrival is a cataclysmic event with enormous implications for everyone living on Earth. 'Lagoon' portrays the reactions of a diverse cross-section of all the various walks of life and perspectives in Lagos, as well as the effects it has on fish and animals - human beings aren't Earth's only inhabitants after all. The end result is an ambitious, powerful and complex story, in which the city of Lagos plays as central a role as Okorafor's characters.
   Okorafor portrays Lagos with passion and in great depth. She clearly has a great love for and fascination with the place, its energy and bustling vitality, but also has a canny understanding of its many and complex problems, the poverty, corruption and religious tensions. This allows her to portray the good and the bad about Lagos as it reacts to alien visitors, with considerable nuance. This is aided by the fact that Okorafor is interested in everybody's response. Her narrative takes in not just her main characters, but expands to follow 419 scammers, the students' LGBT society, the military, gangs, prostitutes, manipulative religious leaders and differently abled street kids. So many depictions of anywhere in Africa by Western media portray the entire continent as one homogenized culture, so it is both refreshing and necessary as a British SF reader to engage with a work that portrays Lagos in all its complexity. Okorafor understands the value and importance of giving all of these different, and frequently marginalised characters, a voice. Everyone reacts to the news differently, coming as they do from different backgrounds and with different perspectives, and the cumulative effect of this is that it allows Okorafor to portray first contact as the cataclysmic, perspective altering event it would not doubt be.
   'Lagoon' also subverts the standard human arrogance which assumes that we would be the only species on Earth that the aliens would be interested in interacting with. Okorafor's aliens land in the sea, and their first interaction is with fish. Throughout the book they are just as interested in interacting with animals as they are humans, offering them the same help. The uplifted animals provide us with the first hint of what the aliens are doing; they don't see their job as being to add anything, but to act as a catalyst for the animal or person's desire. In this way they act as instigators of social change. One of the results of the aliens landing is that the sea life now has the weapons to fight off humans polluting their environment. The new world that the aliens will create will have to be fairer not just for people but for animals as well.
   As well as interacting with Lagos' people and wildlife, the aliens also interact with the spiritual forces that have been living in Nigeria along with the humans. Ijele, the Igbo Chief of Masquerades, Legba, the spirit of the crossroads, and the Bone Collector, a road monster that consumes human victims of road accidents, all manifest and interact with the aliens, and it is revealed at the end that the entire story has been spun by Udide Okwanka, a giant story weaving spider who lives in a cave underneath the city, and who has been inspired by the aliens to stop weaving and take part in the story. These are all forces that have been in Nigeria before the arrival of the aliens, forces which give the country the strength of character and history to react to something as big as alien visitors. This is also shown in the supernatural powers of the three main characters, who were specially selected to be ambassadors. Adaora, a marine biologist, was born with webbed hands and feet, and has a natural affinity with the water. Anthony, a famous rapper, is able to tap into the cosmic rhythm and use its power. Agu, a soldier, has super strength. These characteristics have put them on the edge of human society and the spiritual world, and allows them to interact with the aliens on more equal footing and as ambassadors of both.
   Part of what gives the book its unique flavour is its dialogue, much of which is written in Nigerian Pidgin English. Okorafor has a great ear for dialogue, and the different registers, how much slang the characters pepper their speech with, gives the reader more information about their background and their personality, as well as greatly contributing to the sense of place. The book's structure is interesting as well, moving from the third person present for much of the book to sections related by minor characters in the first person when the aliens are mingling with the humans and chaos has broken out. These sections help to deliberately disorientate the reader in the midst of all this chaos, creating a sense of disorder and speed as the reader is rushed around different places and viewpoints. There are also more poetic sections, as rendered directly by Udide Okwanka the spider, harking back to the oral tradition and linking this thoroughly modern work of SF to the traditional. The book ends on an appropriately ambiguous note; the aliens have arrived, Ayodele's sacrifice has made humanity open to interacting and sharing with their alien visitors, all possibilities are open for a new dawn for Lagos. What happens next is left to the characters, and to the reader's imagination.

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Nalo Hopkinson - Brown Girl In The Ring (1998)

"'But doux-doux,' Prince of Cemetery said, 'Your granddaughter head full of spirits already; she ain't tell you? All kind of duppy and thing. When she close she eyes, she does see death. She belong to me. She is my daughter. You should 'fraid of she.'"

'Brown Girl In The Ring' is an innovative re-imagining of the post apocalypse tale, in which vividly realised urban decay is juxtaposed with Afro-Caribbean folklore and mythology. The novel convincingly portrays the inner city of Toronto after economic collapse has lead all the wealthy corporations and businesses to withdraw from the centre, leaving behind poverty and violence. However, whilst post apocalyptic stories like 'The Drowned World' by J. G. Ballard show their protagonists going through a sort of psychological metamorphosis to come to terms with their new surroundings, in 'Brown Girl In The Ring', the characters make use of their traditional skills and knowledge to better cope with the transfigured world around them. Hopkinson's characters react to the situation around them, rather than letting themselves be passively shaped by it. This aspect is present in Hopkinson's feminist approach; her characters Ti-Jeanne and Gros-Jeanne, her grandmother, are powerful women with agency who can summon and channel spirits, and who don't need men to support them.
  Nalo Hopkinson presents a vivid yet nuanced depiction of a post-apocalyptic situation. With the businesses and law enforcement agencies terrified to set foot in the centre, everything is run by Rudy and his gang, who maintain their power through crime rings, fear and coercion. Hopkinson doesn't shy away from portraying the violence and poverty that have become a part of the characters' every day lives, from Ti-Jeanne's dangerous walk home to the gangs of street kids living in the sewers and looking out for themselves. However, rather than succumbing to despair, the communities in Hopkinson's Toronto work hard to survive, forging a new life from a mixture of street savvy and traditional knowledge and practices. Ti-Jeanne's community is made up of racially and culturally diverse survivors who have been forced to become self-sufficient, from the East Indian restaurant owner Roopsingh who makes Canadian and Carribean food to herb growers and urban farmers like Gros-Jeanne who sell him ingredients. Gros-Jeanne herself epitomizes the book's synthesis of modern knowledge and traditional practices. She is an ex-nurse who acts as the community's healer, augmenting her medical knowledge with her traditional herbal remedies and her ability to channel the spirit world. Hopkinson's aesthetic is reflected in the characters' dialogue, a rich blend of Afro-Caribean dialect that gives the book its distinct flavour.
   'Brown Girl In The Ring' is also notable for its explicit feminism. The book revolves around its three central female characters, Ti-Jeanne, her mother Mi-Jeanne and her grandmother Gros-Jeanne. All three are distinct characters with strong personalities, and the book explores how Rudy, in his masculine arrogance, woefully underestimates all three women, leading to his downfall. Hopkinson is particularly good at exploring the characters' different aspects of womanhood, allowing them to take on traditional roles and aspects of femininity that male writers typically use as excuses to exclude female characters from taking part in an action-packed, post-apocalyptic science fiction adventure/horror story. Ti-Jeanne is a young mother who is still breast-feeding her baby. She carries her baby with her practically everywhere throughout the book. For many male writers, this would be grounds for writing her out of her own story, her role as a mother with a baby taking precedence over her role as the protagonist of her own story. Hopkinson allows her to remain the protagonist; having a baby doesn't make Ti-Jeanne any less a person with agency, with obstacles to overcome and issues to solve, and she doesn't let it stop her. Equally, however, Hopkinson fully explores Ti-Jeanne's nurturing and caring feelings for her baby, showing how Ti-Jeanne can be both a good mother and a fully realised character at the centre of a book. Similarly, Gros-Jeanne is an old woman whose role is defined as a healer and a dispenser of wisdom; Hopkinson allows her to fully embody this female archetype whilst still having a character of her own, a powerful, headstrong woman who cares for her family but makes some terrible mistakes. Mi-Jeanne is a particularly interesting character; as a homeless woman struggling with mental health issues and a mother who abandoned her child she is thoroughly Othered by society, and as the duppy in Rudy's bowl she has been forced to commit horrific murders for him, yet Hopkinson still manages to connect to the human core of the character and to pave the way for the process of reconciliation between her and her estranged daughter to
   As well as exploring the strength inherent in femininity, Hopkinson also explores masculine weakness. Rudy, a truly monstrous character, ultimately became a bully himself in response to all the bullying he suffered throughout his life, the only way his rigidly masculine perspective sees to avoid receiving pain being to inflict it on others. Similarly, Tony, Ti-Jeanne's boyfriend and the father of her child, is revealed to be a very weak man, unable to stand up to Rudy despite knowing full well that the things Rudy asks him to do are wrong. His lack of moral fibre scupper any chance he has of making up with Ti-Jeanne.
   'Brown Girl In The Ring' also explores issues of social justice. Its central plot is set in motion because Premier Uttley, the governor of Toronto, needs a new heart, so the director of the hospital contracts Rudy to arrange to have a fresh human heart provided for her, knowing full well that Rudy provides him organs by harvesting them from poor people living in the centre that no one with any power will notice has disappeared. As a metaphor for the exploitation of the poor by the wealthy it's not subtle, but it is viscerally powerful and the implications are well thought out and deftly handled.
   However, perhaps the most striking aspect of the book is the elegant way it incorporates Afro-Caribbean mythology into its urban post-apocalyptic setting. Gros-Jeanne, Mi-Jeanne and Ti-Jeanne share the ability to channel the Orisha spirits. These give Gros-Jeanne her healing powers, and Ti-Jeanne her powers to see how people will die. In 'Brown Girl In The Ring', the spirit world encroaches on our own world with hallucinogenic intensity, from Ti-Jeanne's vision of the Jab-Jab to Ti-Jeanne's eerie possession by Prince of Cemetery when Gros-Jeanne calls on the spirits, to the nightmarish final sequence in which the spirits take their vengeance on Rudy for abusing magic. Hopkinson manages to seamlessly integrate these spiritual beliefs into her realistically conceived SF world, creating something both powerfully memorable and unique.

Monday, 23 March 2015

Emily St. John Mandel - Station Eleven (2014)

"What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty."

'Station Eleven' is a post-apocalypse novel about the importance of art, the fallibility of memory and the fragility of our existence. It tells the story of the Travelling Symphony, a nomadic Shakespeare company that tours the area around the Great Lakes twenty years after humanity has been decimated by an aggressive flu pandemic, performing plays and classical music to the surviving communities. However, due to its inventive nonlinear narrative structure, the book also spends a significant amount of time exploring its characters lives before the collapse of society. The book achieves a powerful sense of pathos and an appreciation for the wonders of the modern world by exploring what it would be like to lose all that. By exploring the way its characters' lives have woven around each other and interacted both before and after the collapse, it makes profound observations about individual perspective and the subjective nature of memory. At a time when the age-old conflict between genre and literary fiction has been rekindled, 'Station Eleven' is a triumphant example of how a writer outside of SF can combine SFnal tropes and ideas with literary techniques to enrich both forms.
   One of the charges frequently leveled at literary fiction that plays with SF tropes is that non-genre writers are dilettantes who don't fully understand the ideas they're using or their history in the genre. One of the things I really liked about 'Station Eleven' was how Emily St. John Mandel has written a book that is tonally different from your standard post-apocalyptic SF, yet her appreciation of genre shines through. The Travelling Symphony's motto, written on their lead caravan and tattooed on Kirsten's arm, is "Survival is inefficient," which is taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. I like that a Shakespeare company can have a motto lifted from Star Trek, and it fits in with one of the themes of the book, which is that ultimately we decide what things hold significance for us, from the paperweight that different characters place different emotional weight on as it passes through their hands, to Clark's museum of iPhones and credit cards, a tribute to the lost technology of the old world.
   Genre fiction raises its head as well in Station Eleven, the comic series being written by Miranda that gives the novel its name. In the comics, Station Eleven is a space station the size of a moon designed to look like a planet, on which a handful of escapees from the alien conquest of Earth live in a flooded twilight world. Miranda is a central character in the book, though she dies in the early stages of the flu pandemic. She ties together most of the other characters, from her relationship with Arthur Leander, the actor whose heart attack on the night of the flu outbreak kicks off the book, to Kirsten, an actor with the Travelling Symphony whose copy of Station Eleven is one of her few prized possessions. Station Eleven itself, with its eerie, deserted twilight world and its oppressed citizens longing to return to a world they can never get back, becomes a central metaphor for the characters' situation in the book. This is despite the fact that Miranda created Station Eleven purely as a passion project distinct from her job, and only ever vanity published it in a small print run. The point is that all art, as a form of human expression, is worthwhile, and that by its nature it resonates with people. From Station Eleven to Star Trek to 'King Lear', they were all created out of love and speak to the people who experience them; they are a coping mechanism for both the creator and the audience, and this is what makes them important.
   'Station Eleven' has a nonlinear structure, its narrative split between the post apocalypse, the time immediately leading up to the collapse, and times in the characters' lives many years before. It also makes use of multiple viewpoint characters. The advantage of this approach is in the accumulation of detail from different perspectives; the characters interact before and after the end of the world, and we see different scenes through different eyes, fragments of old letter or articles revealed and completed in other characters' stories. In an SF novel, it would be unusual to spend so much time in a post-apocalypse novel before the actual apocalypse; we know what our world is like today, and that's not what we're interested in. With 'Station Eleven', the accumulation of detail and context serves to help us understand the characters better, giving more insight into their actions and decisions, why they choose to hold onto what they do. It also allows Mandel to illustrate the importance of perspective and the subjectivity of experience. As a novel of the apocalypse, it is necessarily about loss and regret, all the things that we take for granted in the world today gone forever. However in order to tease out what loss and regret really mean, it is necessary to turn to the context of individual experience. Arthur Leander's journey, from struggling small town actor to reluctantly famous star, forces him, like Lear, to think about the things he regrets - his numerous failed marriages, his inability to spend time with his son - and take stock of what's important. Similarly, the collapse of civilisation coincides with Clark's own soul searching, and provides Jeevan with a chance to start a more meaningful life. Ultimately, all of the characters' emotional journeys converge on the same thing that the apocalypse forces everyone to confront: with the loss of the life you know, what would you miss, what is important to you that you would keep, and what would you change?
   A shallow reading of 'Station Eleven', with its troupe of actors and musicians performing Shakespeare in the ruins of civilisation, might accuse it of softness, a hopelessly naive vision of humanity. In most post apocalypse novels, culture is the first thing to go to the wall in the rush to bludgeon your neighbour with their own femur. 'Station Eleven' is an undeniably optimistic book, which one doesn't normally say about post-apocalypse fiction. Not only to people maintain their humanity in the face of total societal collapse, at the end, it's implied that one of the settlements has rediscovered electricity. It's hard to imagine an apocalypse more different than Ballard's stories of people's mental states regressing to reflect the ruined landscapes, or the string of awful yet totally rational decisions the protagonist takes on the road to hell to protect his family in John Christopher's 'The Death Of Grass'. However, while 'Station Eleven' doesn't dwell on the violence, it is most definitely still there. Mandel hasn't let her characters off the hook or taken the easy way out. Kirsten, August and the rest of the Travelling Symphony are people who have had to do horrible, violent things in order to survive, and suffered horrific violence in the process. They have come out the other side, and they still think that Shakespeare and classical music are worth preserving. There's something wonderfully inspiring and moving in that.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Lucius Shepard - The Dragon Griaule (1984 - 2012)

"'Griaule... God! I used to feel him in the temple. Perhaps you think that's just my imagination, but I swear it's true. We all concentrated on him, we sang to him, we believed in him, we conjured him in our thoughts, and soon we could feel him. Cold and vast. Inhuman. This great scaly chill that owned a world.'
   "Korrogly was struck by the similarity of phrasing with which the old woman Kirin and now Mirielle had referred to their apprehension of Griaule, and thought to make mention of it, but Mirielle continued speaking, and he let the matter drop.
   "'I can still feel his touch in my mind. Heavy and steeped in blackness. Each one of his thoughts a century in forming, a tonnage of hatred, of sheer enmity. He'd brush against me, and I'd be cold for hours."'

Lucius Shepard wrote the first story about the Dragon Griaule in 1984 near the beginning of his career as a writer of genre fiction, and continued to write about him on and off throughout his career. The central idea is so compelling that you can understand why he kept coming back to it: Griaule is a massive dragon, thousands of feet long, paralyzed by a spell that was meant to kill him. Overgrown with trees and foliage and home to wondrously bizarre parasites, Griaule exudes malevolence into the surrounding countryside and towns, and psychically manipulates the people who live there to do his bidding. It's a wonderfully elegant idea that takes one of the staples of the Fantasy genre and twists it into an unfamiliar new context. Griaule is both an imaginative and compelling setting, a hallucinogenic psycho-geography reminiscent of M. John Harrison's Viriconium (with its well drawn characters, inventive setting and lyrical writing, perhaps the only thing other than themselves that the Griaule tales much resemble), and a character in his own right. Through his machinations and the human characters who live off him, Griaule's vicious, arrogant and hateful character permeates the stories. Yet what makes the Griaule stories stick in the mind is how artfully Shepard exploits the ambiguity of his presence. The exact extent of Griaule's powers are never fully explained, leaving it to the reader to determine how much of the characters' frequently unpleasant actions are the result of Griaule's manipulations, how much Griaule's character accentuates the dragonish aspects of their own natures, and how much the Dragon's presence acts as a handy excuse for their bad behaviour, a chance for them to waive responsibility for their own actions due to a malevolent higher power.

The Man Who Painted The Dragon Griaule (1984)

"Strange, that it has taken me all this time to realize it was not Jarcke, not you or I who was culpable, but Griaule. How obvious it seems now. I was leaving, and he needed me to complete the expression on his side, his dream of flying, of escape, to grant him the death of his desire. I am certain you will think I have leaped to this assumption, but  I remind you that it has been a leap of forty years' duration. I know Griaule, know his monstrous subtlety. I can see it at work in every action that has taken place in the valley since my arrival. I was a fool not to understand that his powers were at the heart of our sad conclusion."

The original Dragon Griaule story tells how the Dragon was killed by the artist Meric Cattanay painting a mural on his side with toxic paint. It is appropriate to the twisted logic of the Griaule stories that they should start with what seems like the Dragon's defeat, an event that later turns out to have been orchestrated by Griaule himself all along. It also speaks to the incisive and violent nature of Shepard's writing that they open by depicting art as an act of violence. Cattanay is a grim, intense young man who is utterly consumed by this one huge idea, to create a work of art worthy of Griaule both by matching his natural splendor but also his deviousness and violence. Shepard explores how the entire project warps and shapes the surrounding land and peoples. In order to produce all the paints necessary, the town of Teocinte which lives in the shadow of the Dragon destroys the surrounding forests and countryside, and embarks on a series of wars and invasions to fund its economy. In this way, the method of Griaule's demise, whilst artistic in nature, winds up spreading the Dragon's hatred and destruction throughout the region. Cattanay's relationship to Griaule develops; in the beginning he views the people who live near the Dragon as superstitious for regarding Griaule as almost god-like in his power. However as his passion in his work swallows him up, and his love life ends in jealousy, violence and heartbreak, he begins to see more and more of the Dragon's influence over the seemingly random events of his life. By the time his work reaches its conclusion, he finds that he has developed a deep empathy for Griaule, as a powerful being trapped in his own destiny, and feels nothing but disgust for the people of Teocinte, who use Griaule as a symbol of their petty military strength now that he is dying and they no longer fear him or hold him in awe. 
   The context of the story is shifted by the sections of letters and faux historical documents that proceed each chapter. They hint at Cattanay's feelings of imprisonment in his own life, at the lack of agency he feels in his own work, at his feelings of helplessness in the face of the power of the Dragon. However the last section reveals that the entire ploy was conceived by Cattanay and his art college friends on a drunken night out as a scam to win the reward for killing Griaule from the city fathers of Teocinte. Thus how much of the story's events were genuinely manipulated by Griaule, how much this has been later mythologized, and how much is Cattanay's own paranoia and neuroses, is thrown into question.
   From the beginning, the elements that make the Griaule stories so fascinating are all in place. Shepard's writing is lucid and lyrical, his descriptions of the fauna and flora living on the dragon and the people who live nearby, from the faded squalor of Hangtown to the more prosperous streets of Teocinte, are detailed and intelligently thought out. The story is set in a slightly different world to ours, in an alternate 1800s, and makes good use of its Central American-ish location. Shepard's characters are well fleshed out, and he has a canny understanding of politics and how they shape both worlds and world views. For all that it manages to achieve, the story is quite brief. The ideas and themes it explores would be expanded in later stories.

The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter (1988)

"There was no choice, she realized; over the span of almost eleven years she had been maneuvered by the dragon's will to this place and moment where, by virtue of her shaped history and conscience, she had only one course of action."

'The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter' fleshes out the menagerie of parasites and symbiotes living in and on Griaule. Shepard lets loose his imagination, fully realising the wondrous and hallucinatory venue of Griaule's body. It also shows the extent and subtlety of the Dragon's manipulations, as the entire events of the story are set in motion by the Dragon to temporarily evacuate his symbiotes before one of his millennial heartbeats floods the chambers of his stomach. Catherine, the daughter of a man who makes a living scavenging Griaule's fallen scales, was made to sleep directly on Griaule's back when she was a child so that she might form a protective bond with him. After she kills one of the men from the village for attempting to rape her, she hides in the forest in the Dragon's mouth from his vengeful brothers and finds herself taken into the community of the Feelys, the descendants of outcasts from the village who live symbiotically in Griaule's stomach, and who believe that Catherine has come to them to serve a great purpose for Griaule.
   Trigger warning: there is a fair amount of sexual violence in the Griaule stories. Seeing as Catherine's descent into Griaule is set off by an attempted rape, this seems like an appropriate place to try to grapple with what's going on here. The Griaule stories all feature sex, but in ways that is intentionally off-putting. Most of the sexual relationships in these stories are deeply unhealthy, from the creepy father-daughter incest between Lemos and Mirielle in 'The Father Of Stones' to Hota's position as sexual surrogate for Griaule in 'Liar's House' to Peony's history of abuse at the hands of her family in 'The Taborin Scale'. To Shepard's credit, the female characters in theses stories who suffer sexual abuse are not defined by it; whilst Shepard treats the subject seriously and explores the psychological impact it has on his characters, the characters are able to overcome these experiences. Human sexuality becomes another aspect of life to be corrupted by Griaule's malevolent influence; what should be an expression of love or affection becomes twisted into a tool for power and domination over another. There is shading in how this is portrayed; Griaule seems naturally attracted to people who have had traumatic and damaging experiences, and this is true of the men as well as the women in these stories. However for all that there is reason for it being there and it is sensitively explored and portrayed, I could understand if readers found it upsetting or off-putting.
   Catherine's flight into the Dragon allows Shepard to expand on Griaule as a fantastical setting, and show off the power and inventiveness of his imagination to its full extent. It's reductive to label Griaule as a Big Dumb Object, especially with the extent to which his character colours these stories, but in his awe-inspiring size and the alien environment he provides, he evokes much of the same sense of wonder and unknowable mystery. Shepard's descriptions are vivid and striking, from the poisonous forests in Griaule's mouth to the dwellings of the Feelys hanging off the inside of his stomach wall. There is a particularly wonderful scene in which the Feelys hunt a gigantic tapeworm in Griaule's stomach.
   'The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter' explores Griaule both as a scientific phenomenon, one whose biology can be explored and mapped, his parasites catalogued, and also as a mystical, almost god-like power. Interestingly, Shepard doesn't separate these out. The Feelys regard Catherine's great purpose as almost messianic, and hold her in the awe befitting a religious figure, because Griaule has selected her especially to carry out his will, and will communicate it solely to her. Yet this great purpose is purely physiological, utterly without a spiritual element. Griaule goes to all this trouble to save the Feelys not out of magnanimity, but because they carry out a convenient symbiotic duty in keeping his stomach free of parasites, and it would be an inconvenience to replace them. Catherine undergoes a lot of suffering to achieve this purpose, yet the experience does afford her the chance to grow and develop as a character in a way that her previous life didn't. When she completes her purpose and returns to confront her previous tormentors, she realises that she doesn't need to take revenge on them, she is able to move on with her life and gains some semblance of happiness and satisfaction. This is an indication that she genuinely is finally free of Griaule's influence.

The Father Of Stones (1988)

"I find it simplistic that passion and premeditation are deemed to be mutually exclusive."

While 'The Scalehunter's Beautiful Daughter' is concerned with Griaule's biological and metaphysical nature, 'The Father Of Stones' explores the pervasiveness of his influence, and what this influence means for the people who come into contact with it. Lemos, a jeweler, is accused of murdering Mardo Zemaille, the priest of the Temple of the Dragon, with the Father of Stones, a precious stone said to be produced by Griaule, and claims as his defense that he was manipulated to do so by Griaule. The story focuses on Korrogly, Lemos' defense lawyer, as he attempts to disentangle the truth and save his client's life. Korrogly is a young, working class man struggling to make it in a middle class profession, and 'The Father Of Stones' is the story of his moral decay and degradation. Lemos' case comes to him at a point in his career when his faith in the law is floundering, and his experience of being lied to and manipulated, by Lemos and his daughter Mirielle on a small scale, and by Griaule himself on a larger scale, completes his disillusion, leading to his slide into amorality.
   'The Father Of Stones' is a fantastical murder mystery, an elegantly constructed whodunnit in a Fantasy world. One of the themes running throughout the Griaule stories is the slipperiness of objective truth, especially where motivations are concerned; people may think they are doing things for one reason, excuse their actions with another reason, and have a hidden underlying motivation they aren't even aware of. Griaule's purpose is to simply throw all these possibilities into confusion. If it is impossible for any character to truly understand their own motivation, then for all they know Griaule might well be secretly pulling the strings behind them all.
   By extension this calls into question if any of the characters can have free will while Griaule exists. It is appropriate that 'The Father Of Stones' features the Temple of the Dragon, and the cult that has been built up around worshiping Griaule, so prominently, as one could reasonably ask the same question with regards to any higher power. For Korrogly, the existence of Griaule's all powerful and all pervasive will becomes an excuse for him to waive responsibility for his own actions and abandon the moral reservations that have been holding his career back. The Temple's doctrines consciously echo those of Aleistair Crowley's "Do what thou wilt," a motto that Korrogly himself takes to heart at the end of the story. Interestingly, whilst Shepard here has drawn a direct line likening Griaule to Satan, the priest Zemaille was actually working on a spell to reawaken the wizard who originally paralyzed Griaule so that he would be able to complete his work and kill the Dragon. Once again people's apparent motivations and their hidden agendas are at odds with each other.
   Because of the subtlety of Griaule's manipulations, and because his very existence seems to encourage the spread of violent, selfish and destructive behaviour in people, the actual mystery of the story ends on an ambiguous note. Korrogly is manipulated by Lemos and Mirielle, but it's not clear to what extent his actions, and indeed Lemos' and Mirielle's, are being manipulated by Griaule as well. Either way the Dragon gets what he wants. It's actually far more disconcerting to leave this unresolved, to leave the reader wrestling with to what extent humanity's evil is internal or external.

Yeah, there's a lot of text in this article. Enjoy this crude drawing of Griaule to break it up a bit.

Liar's House (2004)

"To find your way to freedom in what is inevitable, within the bonds of your fate ... that, for me, is love. Only when you accept a limitation can you escape it."

'Liar's House' sees Shepard return to Griaule after a number of years. This story shows us how Griaule is able to carry out his biological urges to reproduce, showing again the power and precision of the Dragon's influence. It's also another exploration of the objective truth's slipperiness, and to what extent free will and freedom are possible in the face of such a vast and inescapable power. Hota Kotieb, the story's protagonist, is chosen by Griaule to father his child with the dragon Magali, who is also summoned to Griaule for this purpose. As the story unfolds, we see that the pub Hota and Magali have been staying in, nicknamed Liar's House, was specifically constructed to Griaule's specifications to be a nest for his child.
   Hota is stolid, unimaginative, angry and prone to violence. Following an incident in which he murders some people, he becomes and outcast and a loner. The qualities that mark him out for Griaule's choice to father his child tell us a lot about Griaule's own personality. However, we also get a bigger glimpse than we have done before at the personalities and outlooks of dragons through the character of Magali, who must manifest as a human for Hota to impregnate her. Magali, like Griaule, is arrogant and demanding, and utterly without social graces. Shepard manages to make her behaviour convincingly alien, a being with a very different set of values and priorities than humans. But she is also a sympathetic character; like Hota, she is subject to Griaule's will, being a less powerful dragon, and her attitude of finding her own kind of freedom within the allowances of a restrictive set of circumstances is in many ways the best that any of the people who live under Griaule's influence can hope for. It's a powerful metaphor for living and surviving under oppression. But Migali also reminds us that Griaule himself is as trapped as any of the characters in these stories. Migali describes the ecstasy and joy dragons feel when flying:

"Each flight is like the first flight, the flight made at the instant of creation. You're in the dark, maybe you're drowsy. Almost not there. And then you wake to some need, some urgency. Your wings crack as you rise up. Like thunder. And then you're into the light, the wind... The wind is everything. All your strength and the rush of the wind, the sound of your wings, the light, it's one power, one voice."

For all Griaule's subtlety, his vast influence and his meticulous control of the lives of others, he is trapped immobile in his own body, denied of these simple pleasures. No wonder he's so malevolent towards the rest of creation.

The Taborin Scale (2010)

"'The city's of no consequence. As for Griaule...' He chuckled. 'We've always underestimated him. By hacking him apart and carrying the pieces to the far corners of the earth, we did exactly what he wanted. Now he rules in every quarter of the globe.'"

'The Taborin Scale' answers the question raised by the original Griaule story - how do you tell if a giant paralyzed Dragon is dead - and in the process reveals more about Griaule's powers and his personality. We know that Griaule deals in morbidity and death, and also that he theatrically arranged his own death. It is fitting that he would want so spectacular an event to have an appreciative audience, But, in keeping with the ambiguity of the Griaule stories, what appears to be Griaule's demise may have only increased the range and scope of his dominion. The story also provides the fullest depiction of Griaule's character so far.
   In 'The Taborin Scale', George Taborin, a coin collector, finds an old scale shed by Griaule when he was young, which transports him and the prostitute Sylvia back in time to when Griaule was young, where the Dragon has collected various groups of damaged individuals to bare witness to something important. This is the first time in the book we get to see Griaule moving, and it's linked to his final awakening at his death. The young Griaule, much smaller than we're used to seeing him but vital and still powerful, is contrasted with his agonizing collapse and death, a stark reminder of the universality of old age and death. Giving Griaule his movement back allows us to experience him more as an active presence in events, rather than slyly manipulating events behind the scenes. With all his strength behind him, he is much less, subtle, using his roar and his physical presence to frighten and coerce the people to go where he wants them. At the end, in order to herd everyone to the amphitheater back in the present where they will bear witness to his death, he uses his fire to send everyone in the right direction. Thus we learn that while Griaule's arrogance and violence have remained the same, his legendary subtlety has been learned since his paralysis, a necessary development to allow him to exercise his power without his physical strength to back him up.
   'The Taborin Scale' also illustrates the way Shepard uses the continuity between the Griaule stories. While Cattanay doesn't physically appear, his prediction that Griaule would collapse from the inside is finally realised. With its wry historical footnotes, 'The Taborin Scale' recalls the chapter prologues from the original story, albeit in a more humourous way. In 'The Father Of Stones', Korrogly calls Catherine to the stand as a witness to talk about her life and convince the jury of the power and precision of Griaule's manipulations. These callbacks are precise enough to remind us that all the stories are indeed set in the same world, without needing to erase the ambiguity that runs through them, or corroborate any of the various unreliable viewpoint characters' perceptions.
   The relationship between George and Sylvia also recalls Cattanay's relationship with Jarcke, as again the two characters go in opposite journeys with respect to their views about Griaule. While Sylvia loses her almost religious belief in Griaule's power by seeing the horrific destruction wrought by his death and dealing with the aftermath, George goes from being a cynic to being utterly convinced that Griaule's power has only been increased by the dissemination of his body parts following his death. This is symbolic of the two character's different journeys set off by the same experiences, an example of how different people experience the same cataclysmic event.

The Skull (2012)

"He felt he would have been able to see through this deception without Yara's help, and he speculated that Griaule may never have been a subtle creature, that his reputed prowess in this regard had been exaggerated due to his bulk (even a gross manipulation would be perceived as a subtlety when the manipulator was roughly the size of a county in Rhode Island) and to the ease with which people could be manipulated, thanks in large part to their eagerness to absolve themselves of responsibility and shift blame for their behaviour onto an outside influence, as if they were at the mercy of forces beyond their control."

The final Dragon Griaule story has the largest scope, the Dragon's destruction finally allowing Shepard to move beyond the confines of Teocinte, Hangtown and Port Chantay. Its realistic setting and its unflinching exploration of poverty, fascism and cultural privilege make it the most disturbing and haunting of them. Set in Temalagua, a slightly disguised Guatemala, and influenced by Shepard's real life experience of living and working there, the story describes the misfortunes that have plagued the country since it came in possession of Griaule's skull. The story sensitively and intelligently portrays the climate of need and desperation that allows fascism to arise, as well as showing how a white, heterosexual male character can be written about in a context that fully shows his entitlement and privilege. It's a powerful piece of writing that explores concerns far removed from those usually found in stories with dragons.
    In 'The Skull', everything Griaule has represented to different people throughout the preceding stories comes together, and in doing so illustrates the potency of the stories' central concept. To different characters, Griaule may represent the sins of the past, their own moral corruption, the forces of oppression and stagnation. There's an extent to which whatever any character sees in Griaule is a reflection of themselves, their own worst instinct amplified and played back to them. The beauty of this is that it robs neither Griaule nor the human characters of their agency. Griaule always remains his own entity, with a powerful sense of agency despite his paralysis. But crucially his presence doesn't explain, mitigate or wash away the evil committed by humans. This is especially important when dealing with such heavy subjects as Shepard engages with here.
   Following his death and dismemberment, Griaule's skull is transported to the court of the despotic king of Temalagua. From there Shepard takes us through the history of the skull, which becomes the history of Temalagua's turbulent history from the 1800s through to the present day. The interesting thing about 'The Skull' is that, apart from the presence of dragons, the history of Griaule's world unfolds much the same as ours. The history of Temalagua's rulers shows a Central America disrupted by Spanish and then USA imperialism, leaving Temalagua a country struck by poverty and bloody revolutions.
   Shepard explores the social and political ramifications of this in great detail, with an emphasis on how this affects the people who live there. He depicts a country run by gangsters, the drug trade and prostitution rings, in which the majority of people live in poverty, and extremist political parties like the incredibly nasty right wing Party of Organised Violence, or PVO, are on the rise. We get to see the country through the eyes of both Craig Snow, a North American expatriate, and Yara, a Temalaguan woman who has grown up in the slums. This is an effective choice, as it shows just how much Snow's viewpoint is shaped by his privilege as a well off white male US citizen. As much as he shows moral outrage at the rise of fascism and the poverty he sees around him, he is blind to the desperation in the people around him, his country's role in perpetuating it, and is feckless about how much danger his actions put other people in. Yara calls him out on this:

"You've been here how long? Four years? Five? Long enough to realize that any change is welcome in Temalagua. Any chance that things will improve, however slight, is welcome. You can't impose your American logic on us. You people are smothered by the media, by lies, by silk sheets and fatty foods. Most of you don't notice how fucked you are. Here the government doesn't bother to hide things from us. Savagery, poverty, and injustice are shoved in our faces every day. We're fucking desperate! If change makes things worse... so what?"

Yara is central in a cult which is dedicated to bringing back Griaule. As the result of human sacrifices, Griaule is brought back in human form, as Jefe. The PVO has been set up according to his plan, to allow Jefe to take control of Temalagua in a fascist coup. Yara helps Griaule because she believes that once he has transformed back into his dragon form, he'll leave the Temalaguans alone, and in the process his coup will have destroyed the corrupt government and will have left the PVO in too much disarray to function without him. Shepard boldly draws connecting lines between real life monsters and the monsters of Fantasy. In the aftermath of the 20th Century, the spectre of fascism haunts the world. Its poisonous doctrines fit in well with Griaule's character and world view, Because we recognise him from history books and news reports, Griaule as Jefe is much more frightening than he ever was in his Dragon form, an arrogant sociopath who has people killed on a whim. Snow and Yara succeed in killing Jefe while he is still in human form, thus preventing his rebirth as a Dragon, but his legacy lives on in the "ordinary monsters", the other, merely human fascists and would-be-demagogues waiting in the wings to take power in the vacuum left by his death, and in the lives ended, uprooted and destroyed by his tyranny.