Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 10, 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

My re-read project, over at Fae Awareness Month, is going apace:

Chapters 1-5

Chapters 6-10

Chapters 11-15

February 3, 2011

China Miéville – Kraken

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 11:38 am

Kraken is extremely ambitious; it attempts to draw from dozens of zeitgeist archetypes, pulling up their Mysteries and folding them together in a kind of symphonic origami. However, there’s a very fine line between that and “half-arsed in six different directions” and I’m very much afraid that Kraken is on the wrong side of it.

It’s a novel about surfaces & intersections—we see this most of all with the titular kraken. As we’re often told, the kraken dies when it comes to the surface: accustomed to the crushingly intimate pressure of its benthic home, the openness and emptiness of the surface is lethal. We see it also in the arms-length collaborations and conversations between different cults, the way in which they deal with each other using a kind of multivalent ecumenicism, striking theological poses and leaving it at that. The benthic depths of religion are still there, but they ain’t coming here.

This is the kind of novel that absolutely relies on a city setting, and (for the British) couldn’t be told anywhere except London, metonymically denatured as it is. London’s neomythic character is one of atomized alone-in-a-crowd emptiness, with uncountable individual social & ethnic groups touching only along their edges; there’s always another borough, there’s always something new to discover, there’s always an unexpected alley.

In the same spirit as his earlier Un Lun Dun, Miéville packs Kraken with surreal and fantastic imagery; in this case, however, it’s all explained and demystified. In fact, flattened. Some scenes read like Robert Rankin by way of Clive Barker, with their quotidian treatment of putatively horrific tropes, and then a later casual explanation. I’m thinking particularly of an early scene, where our first introduction to supernatural abnatural assassins Goss & Subby (your basic tattered-and-drab nonsense-talking thug and his creepy child sidekick—2/10 for originality, but of course that isn’t the point) is as they unfold themselves out of a small parcel. That could be a real intrusion moment, a way to ram home the way that strangeness has pushed itself into our protagonist’s life—but we’re in neomythic London, so strangeness is nothing new. A few scenes later, our one-step-behind police officers find out exactly how Goss arranged it (there’s a bloke who folds stuff; in neomythic London, you can buy anything if you know where to go) and that’s the last we hear of literal folding. This kind of semiotic flattening is all over the text, however: two of the antagonists are quite literally signs of themselves.

Miéville is clearly doing this flattening & estrangement deliberately, but it doesn’t work for me; the text glances over dozens of different mythoi and literary antecedents (my personal favourite was the cult of Sredni Vashtar) but treats them with as much interest as a tourist who goes home with photographs showing signs to historic buildings. I’m sympathetic, in principle, to the message (“There is no one universal meaning, no divine system. Everyone contends for their share of ontological authority. The future is what you fight to make it. Stuff just happens, and it’s up to us to deal with it. Everyone matters.”) but it isn’t coming across with passion or dedication, only with a kind of weary, intellectually smug postmodern box-ticking perfunctoriness.

I think, also, that the time of clever new portmanteau coinages for fantastika tropes is done. In Kraken, we have “realitysmith”, “Londonmancer”, “mageslick”, and “knacker” (someone who uses a “knack”, rather than someone who butchers dead horses) as well as the evergreen “ab-” prefix… abhuman, abnatural, absurd. It gets tiresome.

On the other hand, Kraken does have a lot of good points. Miéville’s imagination is as fertile and profuse as ever, and some of his inventions—like the kraken cult itself, and Wati the union organiser—are amazing.

Overall: if you read for imagery and whimsical invention, I recommend Kraken. For character and plot, it’s passable; as regards themes and style, it’s a failed experiment. But as always, that’s better than not making the experiment at all.

(Pornokitsch are a lot more positive, incidentally.)

February 2, 2011

Michael Moorcock – The Coming of the Terraphiles

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 2:22 am

I’m a big fan of Doctor Who, and I’ve been reading Moorcock since I was 12 or so. So I was extremely disappointed with this book.

It’s not good Who, since Moorcock doesn’t have much empathy with Eleven—the Doctor we see here might be almost any of them—and less with Amy. She gets almost nothing to do, and Moorcock doesn’t have her distinctive voice at all. In fact, since there’s a reference to “her unruly red hair standing on end” at one point, I’m not sure Moorcock has ever done much more than read a written description. The only plot she gets is in turning down an Earl’s proposal, and the flirtation goes on for half the book without any reference to Rory. Presumably, this adventure takes place during the period he spent erased from existence, but the Doctor doesn’t seem to think twice about it either.

It’s set in that last refuge of the SF hack, the Edwardian era IN SPACE, using that hackneyed plot device, the anachronistic mess of half-remembered history. So, in our Incredibly English Future, we have Wodehouse-grade peers & Chaps playing the ancient game of “arrers”, which is basically cricket and archery at once, interspersed with jousting, broadsword fighting (using swords three feet wide and a foot long), and Cracking Nuts With Sledgehammers. Amidst all that, a penniless young man and the daughter of a millionaire fall in love, and the young woman’s mother acquires and wears the most appallingly ugly hat in the multiverse. Oddly, everyone seems to want that hat, and not just as an excuse for Woosteresque hijinks.

I’ll spare you the rest of the plot; it doesn’t get much better. It’s nearly all Moorcock’s consistent Eternal Champion mythos, and what isn’t Moorcock appears to be more Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy pastiche than it is Doctor Who. There are some extremely good concepts involved (Frank/Freddie Force and his Antimatter Men would have made extremely, er, appropriate villains for the Sixth or Seventh Doctors) but they suffer from trying to cram in far too many of them. Introducing us to Captain ‘Ironface’ Cornelius, Peggy the invisible burglar, Captain Abberly and the three singing Bubbly Boys, and Captain Quelch along with the First Fifteen not only dilutes the effect but ensures that none of them get enough screen time actually to be interesting.

It’s not good Moorcock, either—it doesn’t have any noticeable significance in his mythology, and doesn’t provide anything lingering except fluff. The plot ends with two unexpected oh-I-had-it-all-along moments, the McGuffin solving the Problem, a Heroic Sacrifice, and and a Happily Ever After. That’s not necessarily a problem, but if you’re going to go for a trad plot in a stock setting, you can’t do without intense emotional engagement, and I felt none of that at all.

November 8, 2010

Jasper Fforde – Shades of Grey

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 6:42 pm

Fforde is one of the most quintessentially English novelists writing today. His humour is rarely laugh-out-loud funny, without gag lines or signposted comedy moments, but it has a delightful quality of extended surreality, and utterly absurd passages that nevertheless make complete logical sense in context.

The premise of Shades of Grey is completely science-fictional, and follows a rather English tradition of dictatorship novels, more or less started by 1984. Fairly far (probably, anyway) into the future, society is seemingly happy but regimented and controlled by the sinisterly manipulative Government. Much of history has been suppressed, and nobody knows what’s really going on, but if our hero and his antisocially rebellious (but nevertheless extremely attractive) girlfriend can avoid being sent to the Mysterious Government Facility for reeducation, they may get to the bottom of things.

Fforde’s take on the System, here, is unusual and very English—it’s run not by a legion of faceless oppressors, but by The Rules, which are followed because they’re The Rules, and because they’re obviously right. (Well, except perhaps for the one about the spoons.) Of course, the Rules are labyrinthine and complex, and there are a great many loopholes and inconsistencies. For instance, even persons engaged in heavy manual work must wear a collar and tie, but shirts are optional. Libraries have been denuded of most of their books in successive Great Leaps Backward, but staffing levels are required to be maintained. Despite the mass simplification of the world, new cultural tropes grow up, and the human tendency to name & categorize is in full force—as ably demonstrated by Caravaggio’s Frowny Girl Removing Beardy’s Head, and the Museum of the Something That Happened.

Society is organised chromatically, from Grey through Red to Purple, but it’s not a strict hierarchical ladder—the classifications are awarded by the amount of colour perception one has, and unexpected genetics can change a family’s status quite quickly. Since the society depends on all the colours, Red-perceptors have as vital a function as Yellows or Blues, despite a formally lower status, so there’s some interesting social crosslinking going on.

The way the colour technology & the influence of colour on society is introduced is entirely immersive, since the whole book is narrated by a smart but rather gormless teenager who already knows all of this and assumes we do too. As I’m rather a fan of this particular kind of worldbuilding, it worked well for me, and having a clueless protagonist is a very good way to introduce the truth about the world (well, something a bit closer to the truth, anyway) to both of us at the same time.

If you’re already a Fforde fan, you’ll almost certainly enjoy this, though it has far fewer pop-cultural allusions and a strongly SFnal ancestry. If you haven’t read Fforde, and this is the kind of SF you like (mindbending rather than -blowing, and rather funny) then you’ll probably enjoy this. If you don’t enjoy this, there may well be something Not Entirely Right about you.

October 13, 2010

Lavie Tidhar – The Bookman

Angry Robot, 416pp paperback. Out in the UK since January 2010, published in the US and in ebook form October 2010.

“This is the time of myths, Orphan. They are the cables that run under the floors and power the world, the conduits of unseen currents, the steam that powers the great engines of the earth.” — Inspector Irene Adler

The Bookman is set in an alternate Victorian era, and it’s intensely focused on the myths and legends of English literary geekdom. It has echoes of Alice Through The Looking Glass, Perdido Street Station, The Tempest, and The Eyre Affair, with a large chunk of Mayhew thrown in for good measure.

It’s set not long after 1887, several hundred years after an expedition to the Calibanic Isle results in the wholesale replacement of Britain’s ruling classes with giant poetry-obsessed lizards. Lord Shakespeare was the first of the great Poet-Prime Ministers; Moriarty is the most recent. And yes, that Moriarty. At the newly rebuilt Rose Theatre, Henry Irving performs his own adaptation of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner supported by Beerbohm Tree. (Described as a young actor; Tree was actually 34 and quite famous in 1887, and we know the book isn’t set any earlier because it mentions a new air from Ruddigore. I mention this nitpick, because it’s the only factual or chronological inexactitude I’ve been able to find in the course of an entire book of Victoriana.)

Opposition to Les Lézards’ rule is rising, however; Karl Marx, John (“Don’t call me Nevil”) Maskelyne, and Isabella Beeton meet in a cellar underneath a Charing Cross bookseller, and notorious terrorist organization the Persons from Porlock besiege literary figures with the nonsense of Edward Lear. And then there’s the titular Bookman, assassin and anarchist.

Tidhar’s style is rather readable, and drops into an intensely Dickensian mode for some descriptive passages. He clearly knows and loves London well, and does a very good job of bringing out the city’s character.

“He stopped in his walk through Leicester Square and bought one of the sausages so advertised, covered in oil, dripping fried onions, held in a soggy bun. Everywhere there was the smell of cooking foods, and the lights in all the public houses were burning, and the cries of the drinking class sounded, merry and loud, from every open window but were drowned by the street merchants.”

There is one problem I need to highlight, however, and that’s the Bechdel test failure. There are female characters; a couple of them are quite important to the political plot going on in the background, but they don’t get much screen time. The protagonist has a love interest, who spends most of the book dead, and a female relative who appears briefly and helps out. None of them get to talk to each other. Given that in this society, a woman can be an Inspector at Scotland Yard, that seems rather a missed opportunity.

February 10, 2010

Catherine Webb – The Extraordinary and Unusual Adventures of Horatio Lyle

This is rather good Victorian adventure, starring eccentric inventor & Special Constable Horatio Lyle. And his dog Tate, which gives a neat summary of the level of humour involved!

The science involved is impeccable, and there’s something irresistable about a hero who carries dangerous chemicals around in his pockets. The two other protagonists, Tess the burglar and Thomas the young gentleman, are pleasantly sketched, but obviously will always be more interesting to actual young readers.

As is Extremely Traditional for stories set in the Victorian period, the villains are Chinese; this can get rather dodgy, but there are also Chinese third-parties who both aid and work against the protagonists at different times. The part I’m not sure at all about is the tseiqins’ allergy to iron & magnetism, a characteristic normally given to very Celtic creatures. That said, it’s perfect for an antagonist in this period.

December 24, 2009

Steampunk, SF, Fantasy – same difference, really

Filed under: sf — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 9:33 pm

I want to start this off by reviewing Stephen Hunt’s Rise of the Iron Moon. It’s the third in a series, starting with The Court of the Air, but it stands well on its own.

It’s steampunk; that’s more or less inarguable. The question is, what makes it steampunk? It has brasstech[1], a more or less Victorian social and aesthetic atmosphere (complete with workhouses), and steam-powered robots. So those are more or less classic markers of the SF subgenre of steampunk.

On the other hand, it also has multiple races (including the aforementioned steam-powered robots, who are sapient and self-perpetuating), a nation state under attack by invaders, and magic – even a bloody magic sword. So that’s your “gaslamp fantasy” for you.

As far as the -punk component goes, it’s got a royal family subjugated and kept in squalor (though still Genetically Superior – less a Missing Heir rising from obscurity to save the world than a set of heirs kept around in case they were needed), a Parliament that works by violence, and a lot of blood and death.

And as far as non-Victorian SF goes, it’s also pure Dan Dare-grade docsmith stuff, with two-fisted fights in the dank, strangely twisted interior of the – well, you can fill in the details yourself. They’re all there.

So that’s a set of roots like Japanese knotweed, there. One of the fundamental problems with the classic SF movement – you know, the ultra-rationalist idea of prophesying the future, introducing a novum and extrapolating what would really happen in a world with that novum, these other three random hidden assumptions, and the rest of society staying exactly the same as it was – is, well, that it doesn’t work. What we’ve learned over decades of doing that is that doing that doesn’t bloody well work.

What does work, on the other hand, is the glamour and wonder of Science. The thrill of engineering, of invention, of delight in craft and Mastery. It may well be technologically implausible these days, but then the only useful definition of “plausible” for SF purposes is “things nobody’s yet proved won’t work”. Only the glory of engineers lives forever.

What really is implausible – what breaks our immersion, what reminds us constantly that these are historical texts and must be interpreted through a lens of their time – is the social and cultural context that these Science Heroes live in. And one of the criticisms that gets constantly levelled at steampunk is that same one – that the social and cultural context is wrong, implausible, impossible.

The criticism’s correct, of course. But it’s also missing the point, because that’s the idea. It’s not wide-eyed unicorn-spattered utopianism; it’s deliberate dissonance, it’s the invocation of a time and culture that never was, never shall be, and never should have been[2], in order to express those same tropes of wonder and delight. It gets the implausible cultural context out of the way to start with, in the full recognition that there’s always going to be some there, for someone, and we may as well start with one that nobody’s ever been in, and which we all know[3] is heavily problematic, but is nevertheless familiar to everyone who’s likely to be reading it.

[1] That is, non-Victorian level of technology powered by Victorian means – which strictly speaking Does Not Work, and if it did would require a hell of a lot of constant intervention by a great many skilled workmen and unskilled labourers. Sigrid Ellis has a fantastic rant on that, even namechecking Bazalgette and talking about the wide base of the tech tree needed to support all of that.

[2] Steampunk Victoriana is full of aristocrats and wealthy industrialists, but it’s also full of street urchins, black-gang crewmen, and factory kids. This ain’t no Deco future here.

[3] You’d hope, anyway. But there are still some people who don’t know that “Victorian” is basically shorthand for “racist, sexist, classist, imperialist, colonialist, and practically everything else you can think of”.

December 6, 2009

Triumff, Her Majesty’s Hero – Dan Abnett

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 4:56 pm

The premise of this particular alternate history is that the discovery of Scientific Principles of Magick means nothing much has changed since the 1590s or so. Elizabeth I did end up marrying Philip of Spain, and now Elizabeth XXX[1] (“Three Ex”) rules over the Anglo-Hispanic Unity. People still drink sack and musket, the top ten hits are all played on the lute, and doublets are still very much in fashion. None of this makes sense in a historical sort of way, but this sort of cheerful just-take-this-part-for-granted-so-we-can-get-on-with-the-story is completely within the grand traditions of SF, so who’s counting.

The year is 2010, and Sir Rupert Triumff has just discovered Australia. Well, “discovered” in the sense of “visited”, at least, given that they have quite an impressive technological civilisation going on – the level of real-world 2010, in fact, with VisageBook, ThyPlace, and reliable sanitation[2]. Unlike your usual run of explorer, he’s quite keen on leaving them to it, even though that means missing out on Rather A Lot Of Money. This is one of the big plot points; the other, almost inevitably in alternate Elizabethanism, is an attempt to assassinate Her Majesty.

One of the back-cover quotes describes it as “Blackadder crossed with Neal Stephenson”, and I can see the resemblances, but frankly it’s more like 90% Blackadder.

There’s only one thing that really threw me, and that’s the authorial voice; it veers from omniscient narrator to first-person, and it’s all the same person. We look into the sealed room where people are conspiring, we go to the bath house with Triumff, we follow him as he visits with officials – and then the narration zooms in with an “And I was there, too – yr humble servant Wm. Beaver”. Normally I’d start wondering whether the details of the conspiracy and the heroic capers were Vastly Exaggerated, Improved Upon for Artistic Verisimilitude, or simply Made Up, but
that sort of unreliable narrator tends – for reasons of simple common sense – to be a main character, whereas Wm. Beaver is extremely marginal. So I’m just going to put it down to it being Bloody Weird, which given that it’s Dan Abnett writing for Angry Robot books is probably par for the course.

[1] One of my favourite passages is the description of the royal portraits of various Elizabeths, in appropriate styles. (Even if the dating is a little peculiar in places.)

There was Elizabeth IX, a Mannerist madonna, her elongated, dreamy face averted heavenwards; there was Elizabeth XIV, Barbizon-style, a dot in the middle of the rolling landscape; there was the Moralist Elizabeth XX, with her rosy cheeks and her comical courtiers; there was Pre-Raphaelite Elizabeth XXV, dressed as a winsome Maid of Orleans with a dainty, lethal estoc and a consumptive frailty; there was Elizabeth XXVI, a Futuristic blur of speeding gown and streamlined tiara; and there, apparently, was the De Stijl Elizabeth XXX.

[2] This is Rule No. 1 for writing about the mediaeval or early modern periods. Everything is dirty, torn, badly laundered, and/or covered in shit.

September 15, 2009

Frances Hardinge – Verdigris Deep

This book is difficult to describe. It’s about families, mostly, but not in the everything-is-a-metaphor-for-your-parents’-divorce sense so tiresomely common in children’s lit. There is a divorce, but it isn’t where we think it’s going to be, and the well spirit is just that.

It’s a book about learning to connect and to value friendships, and about forgiveness – about learning to tell what we, and each other, really want. The well spirit does some monstrous things, and gets described using some really grotesque imagery, but that doesn’t make her a monster to be opposed utterly in the way a less skilled writer might have done.

August 17, 2009

Et in Arcadia Ego

Filed under: sf — Tags: , — Sam @ 10:02 am

…hang on, that’s not SF, is it? It’s respectable mainstream theatre, and there’s a production on in the West End. What’s it doing here?

The answer comes in two parts. First, my definition of SF can be more or less summarized as “things which are like other things which are SF”[1]. (Whatever your S stands for. F is for fiction, mostly.) Arcadia makes a more or less perfect pair with To Say Nothing of the Dog, and a really interesting match with Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle.

Secondly – this is a play about science. It’s a wonderful, thinking, tingling play, and it gets both history and science perfectly. It is kind, true, and necessary all at once. It has a fascinating premise – what if a young teenage girl, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had understood iterative modelling and the Second Law of Thermodynamics? And what effect did it have on the people around her? Is that which has passed away truly gone?

This play is fire to the cool river water of To Say Nothing of the Dog. There’s passion, and love, and death, and literal fire; nearly everywhere in the play, something is burning. And in an ocean of ashes, there are islands of order; patterns arise from nothing.

[1] This is an iterated algorithm. If you knew the algorithm which would make a computer read SF and write an SF response and fed it back say ten thousand times, each time there’d be a book somewhere on the screen. You’d never know where to expect the next book. But gradually you’d start to see this shape, because every book will be inside the shape of this genre. It wouldn’t be a genre, it’d be a mathematical object.

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