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

March 19, 2011

Collage Criticism

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 3:57 pm

Lud-in-the-Mist Collage This is made from selected parts of an e-text of Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees, which I typeset, printed out, and ripped up. (No actual books were harmed in the creation of this artwork.)

I’ve done a few of these; the first was H. Beam Piper’s classic short story Omnilingual, and I’m currently working on a large one made from a play script of Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Don’t worry—that one had a long and happy life, and died a natural death before I saved it from the recycling and turned it into art.) There’s an interesting transgressive feeling to using printed matter like this, even when it’s printed matter I caused to exist purely for the purpose; I don’t think I could bring myself to rip up a physical book that was still in a readable state. Play scripts are a different matter, because an upbringing in the theatre means I regard them as essentially ephemeral: there to be scribbled on, ripped up for prompt books, broken, repaired, and tossed away.

The other Issue I have around this is down to which texts are legitimate targets. Instinct, of course, tells me that they all are; if it’s a text then it’s there to be analysed, reinterpreted, made to jump through hoops. Cutting it up and sticking it back together in a different order—in an entirely different way, in fact—is basically the same thing as literary criticism, albeit interestingly disciplined by the inability to add any new text.

On the other hand, doing this to the work of living authors (and especially living authors I know) is socially and morally fraught. I can’t think of any legal justification for forbidding it, but that doesn’t mean a great deal when it comes to intellectual property versus artistic reimagining and community investment; just look at the perennial debates over fanfic.

It isn’t just the authors, of course. The idea of reifying e-books by printing them out, and doing things to them which can be done to a physical book—treating the digital text as though it were always intended to be paper and ink—is an interesting artistic one in itself, especially when it involves re-typesetting them. But any alteration in the formatting or typesetting of a digital text means changing the work of editors & designers, and while designing for the screen (even when screens are as diverse as those of modern computers & e-book readers) is a very different discipline to designing for print, I still respect the original designers enough not to second-guess their work.

What are your feelings on this? How would it make you feel if I did this to some of your work, and would it make a difference to you if I started with an electronic version or a physical book?

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.

October 7, 2010

On the Meaning of Maps

Filed under: essay — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 8:57 pm

Mapmaking is a modelling technique – it reduces a complex, messy landscape, with all its layers and human factors, to something that a stranger can work with and use. Maps have always been incredibly important to two of the classic fantasy staples, the Invader and the Occupier, and that’s completely historical – the Survey of India is a central feature in many Raj novels, and overlaps firmly with intelligence work (the Great Game) in Kipling’s Kim. Terry Pratchett satirises this in Jingo, when the Ankh-Morpork generals plan their campaign on an “existentially satisfying” map of Klatch modelled from sand, and when the giant sweeping arrows shown on tactical maps turn out to be accurate models of (some) troop formations.

Oddly, maps are relatively obscured inside fantasy texts themselves, in favour of the metadata at the front of the book. That comes in two basic types – window-frame maps, the ones that are useful illustrations of the maps the characters are using; and picture-frame maps, the ones that are blatantly only there for the reader. (more…)

September 8, 2010

Akačehennyi on a Diet of Dreams

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 12:36 pm

By Kayleigh Ayn Bohémier. This is a blog novel, available here under a Creative Commons license.

It’s a dense, flavoursome book, making use of the blog medium—it’s basically in the form of a journal, with text formatting (including blacked-out text and nonlinear idea-clouds) and occasional embedded audio files without transcripts. I suspect it would make a screen-reader go screwy from time to time, but then a lot of SF does that in any case, with the density of odd words & names.

There are quite a lot of those here, since it’s thoroughly immersive, and the worldbuilding is decidedly non-Western. The viewpoint character, Salus Kobsarka-Nitannyi Niksubvya is a dark-skinned lesbian minority-immigrant, just beginning work with one of her political heroes.

You must forgive me when I make embellishments because I do not really remember the cirrus clouds in the sky or my thoughts as I dressed this morning, only the blue sky and the sun-shaped links I clasped around my dreadlocks. When I pose in front of the mirror every morning, I pull the transparent gyena up over my hair. To me, the gyena always suggests more … tantalizing … like the opening of a seductive dance in a film. A confession? While Kelis and I were engaged, I often lamented that she would stop wearing it after the wedding. I think that the bronze hair ornaments look beautiful beneath it no matter what any hotàkhi Shiji woman says.

It’s about a world shaped by colonization, oppression, and the struggle against them, but it isn’t about the oppressors at all; the plot circles around some of the consequences of this, the inevitable factionalism and complexity that you always get with real people and real situations. Mostly, however, it’s about relationships—romantic, sexual, professional, family, friendship—and the tensions between those and with principles or ambition. Between felt affinities and known affinities, perhaps; the truths of the heart and the truths of the mind, which can only be reconciled when one achieves akačehennyi.

There’s a glossary at the back of the book (well, insofar as blog novels have a back) which explains all the unusual words; if you’re the sort of person who likes those, it’s comprehensive and useful. Personally, I prefer to avoid them until afterwards, and enjoy figuring the words out from context. Nitannyi is a semi-stranger in the culture of the novel (a half-blood immigrant, brought up in the canyon dark) and I find the mixture of things she explains to us and things that are normal to her extremely good mind exercise. She’s also keeping this journal partly to improve her Tveshi, and Bohémier evokes that sense wonderfully in the language.

This book reminds me of Le Guin’s Hainish novels, but it’s very much a story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Definitely recommended, and to reiterate: it’s free online, so you have no reason not to give it a try.

May 22, 2010

China Miéville – The City and the City

Filed under: review,sf — Tags: , , — Sam @ 11:02 am

This is an utterly classic crime novel (of the grim, realist kind—low crime?) in its structure, but unmistakably science fiction in its methodology. The kicker is that the science involved is poli-sci and sociology.

Besźel and Ul Qoma would each individually be a typical Ruritania[1], but it’s the interaction between them that produces the novum here. Instead of facing each other across a defined border, as other doubled cities do, they interpenetrate—share physical topology, while the psychogeographical landscape is entirely different in each.

The setting could only have been Eastern Europe, and not just for Balkanesque reasons; this sort of calm acceptance of surreal sociopolitical realities, and the concomitant black humour, is utterly characteristic of the literature of the region.

It’s hard to classify by type[2], but then that’s the best kind of novel to think about in that way. The approach it takes to the inherent strangeness of the city and the city (a linguistic construction used in Besźel and Ul Qoma themselves—saying “the twin cities” or “the split cities” would be an extremely politicised speech act, because it would be an attempt to define the relationship between them) is thoroughly immersive, presented as it is by a first-person narrator who does not explain strangenesses to us.

Structurally, though, it’s a liminal fantasy in that it approaches and then (denies? subverts? co-opts?) the possibility of further strangeness hidden within the already bloody weird structure of Besźel and Ul Qoma.

That kind of liminality, an insistence on ambiguously negotiated boundaries, is mirrored in all the narrator’s relationships—unspoken agreements, unoffical arrangements, “they don’t know but they wouldn’t mind”. That’s how they do things in the city and the city, it seems…

[1] “Besźel” is probably taken from the Hungarian beszél, “to speak”. My Arabic-fu is rather more dodgy, but “Ul Qoma” could well be “The Summit”. Most of the initial establishment of place is done through language—the police slang mectec, or a trilingual pun in the name of a drug. The second book, set in Ul Qoma, makes much of the sheer size of the more economically advanced city’s building boom.

[2] The terms “immersive” and “liminal” come from Rhetorics of Fantasy (Mendlesohn – review here). And yes, I’m aware of the peculiarities of using a fantasy-specific theoretical schema on Debatable SF, but you use the tools that fit your hand…

March 2, 2010

Ian Whates – City of Dreams and Nightmares

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , — Sam @ 10:09 pm

Angry Robot, published on 4th March 2010. Info & sample chapter here.

This is a classic City Fantasy – the city of Thaiburley is just as much a character here as New Crobuzon, Lankhmar, or Haven are, and an inventively realized one. It’s a classic multi-level enclosed hive of scum and villainy, but a much gentler polity than most of the dystopias you see depicted like this—the ruling authorities appear to be both competent and well-meaning, for instance.

The author’s style is very discursive & up-front, happily explaining the action & his characters’ feelings to the reader; it’s not something I like, and I’d far rather see more description and less discursion, but I know a lot of SF readers do prefer it. The other two criticisms I have are that the book doesn’t pass the Bechdel test until halfway through, and the title. City of Two Opposed Yet Generic Fantasy Nouns is not exactly arresting – the effect it mostly has on me is to remind me that I still haven’t actually read City of Saints and Madmen yet, and I really should. The relevance of the title to the book is also rather ambiguous, though there are hints at the end.

Few of the thematic elements are unexpected: we have psionic magic, gruesome patchwork biotech, nonhumans communicating soundlessly and making artwork out of their excreta (distinct shades of Miéville there), street gangs, and incongruous levels of technology amidst filth, swords, and untreated suppurating wounds. They’re well integrated into an interesting, complex world, though, and this is a very solid debut for a series I’ll be wanting to keep an eye on.

November 30, 2009

Amanda Downum – The Drowning City

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , — Sam @ 2:28 pm

This was a chance discovery at the library. Let me just take a moment to explain why my local library FAILS at shelving. They’ve very carefully taken all the SF and fantasy books (a task made easier by the fact that they all have “SF” classmarks on the spine) and sorted them in alphabetically with other fiction. Crime (detective, police procedural, &c.) still has its own section; so do YA and black fiction. In all three of those sections, there are SF books. I’m not philosophically enamoured of sorting books by genre, but I do strongly prefer to have them sorted by likeness, and publishing-genre gives a good first-pass model for that. Also, the less time I have to spend wading through third-class chick lit[1] and “auto”-biographies of pop singers or models, the better.

Anyway, the book! Haven’t got it in front of me any longer, so this will be fairly brief.

The environment is basically South Asian in inspiration, but the heroine has travelled from a European-ish country. Downum doesn’t shy away from either skin colours or colonialism, and does a good job of depicting tensions between races[2] & nationalities. The magic system is well thought out and interesting.

Oddly, the author Downum reminds me of most is Tamora Pierce (I’m thinking particularly of Wolf-Speaker and Trickster’s Choice), but this is definitely not YA.

[1] I’ll happily read first-class chick lit. But it’s too rare for me to want to look through it deliberately.

[2] Actual races, not this dwarves-and-elves shite.

September 3, 2009

Tasha Campbell – River’s Daughter

Filed under: review — Tags: , , — Sam @ 10:07 pm

This is the first book from Verb Noire, a small independent press set up to publish work by, about, and for PoC writers & fans and their allies.

It’s really good; only 75 pages, but fits a whole story into them, and a neatly plotted arc at that, with a lovely immersive first-person style and a beautiful sense of place. It’s really hard to find a good short novel these days, but this is it.

It’s basically a Swan Maiden or Selkie story, but with both a PoC and a feminist twist, and a strong dose of localized American myth. Normally, these folktales are told from over the shoulder of the hunter who catches himself a pretty magical wife, and the woman’s no more than a cipher and a trophy; sometimes she ends up going back to the sea or the lake, but that’s only there as a signifier for the man who caught her, or perhaps for the people who freed her – subject rather than agent.

This is the first retelling I’ve seen from the PoV of the normally thoroughly othered skin changer; the best I’ve previously seen is Mercedes Lackey’s Black Swan, which retells Swan Lake from Odile’s perspective. Getting to see the river’s children from within, with Campbell’s admirable economy of description, is a delightful change.

Gail, too, is a pleasant protagonist to live with – she thinks about things, makes decisions, cares about people, and kicks arse when she needs to, but not often enough to seem unrealistic. Definitely recommended.

July 22, 2009

The Dark Is Rising

By Susan Cooper. Book 2 in the eponymous sequence, and there are probably fewer similarities to Over Sea, Under Stone than there are differences. Luckily, nearly all the differences are improvements.

It’s a classic coming-of-age-into-magical-powers tale, as Will Stanton discovers he’s the last of the “Old Ones” (special magic immortal people) to be born, and that the “Dark” (an immanent power, not fully explained in this book, which seeks to do all the usual things) is about to try something really nasty.

It was rather a surprise to find that since I’d last read this, I’d been spending time in the setting – Buckinghamshire has changed a lot since it was written in 1973, but Windsor Great Park is still very much there. Unlike the first book, it’s very much at-home – magic changes the world, overlays a new mystery onto it (mostly through timeslips) but it’s still Will’s own home, bounded by Roman roads and running water, and still very English and very much a family story.

Whilst Will’s needed to save the world, this mostly seems to be a matter of arbitrary destiny rather than any particular skill or competence on his part, and the reasons for any given plot McGuffin are shrouded in myth. Which isn’t a bad thing at this point in the series! I have all five books here, and I’m making a point of not reading each one until I’ve written about the last; otherwise, I won’t be able to treat them separately at all.

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