I feel a failure now that I've finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It is good. Very good. I see that. But I can only muster mild "like" for the thing...moreI feel a failure now that I've finished The Fifth Head of Cerberus. It is good. Very good. I see that. But I can only muster mild "like" for the thing, and I feel as though I must have missed something along the way in my insomnia reading haze. And I can't really see myself going back to redress the situation because I just don't feel connected to Gene Wolfe's work.
A subtle, ingenious, poetic and picturesque book; the uncertaintly principle embodied in brilliant fiction...
and I think, "Yep, but meh." And then I read what China Miéville says about the book,
[[author:Gene Wolfe]'s] tragico-Catholic perspective leads to a deeply unglamorized and unsanitized awareness of social reality. This book is a very sad and extremely dense, complex meditation on colonialism, identity and oppression.
and I think, "Mmmhmm, but still..." And I enjoy the three novella = novel structure, but the manufactured obscurity makes me cold. And I appreciate the struggles of the three protagonists, but I only ever flirt with investing myself in their conflicts. And I see Wolfe playing with the themes that people venerate this work for, but I can't quite put my finger on anything that I can personally take away.
So I walk away from the book unmoved and uninspired, yet I see its quality. I really do. So please don't avoid this book because of me. I probably missed something crucial. The fault for my lack of excitement is likely my own -- or my lack of sleep's. Whichever it is, though, I will never know. Sorry, Mr. Wolfe. I'll try to do better next time I read one of your books. (less)
Thank you for the dazzling joy of Freedom & Necessity. This book went toe to...moreSummerside, Prince Edward Island 29th August 2010
Dear Steven and Emma,
Thank you for the dazzling joy of Freedom & Necessity. This book went toe to toe with Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian and won the battle for my attention (and that's saying something). I don't know how you did it, but I am so glad you did. THIS was one of the best reading experiences of my life. Where do I begin?
I want to begin with the form you chose. But I am going to hold off on that and talk about Hegel, Engels and Marx. Hegel, your unifying thread, was used in a way that I am sure he would approve of; he was the natural connection between your boys. Richard and James sparring over the Science of Logic while their lives are at their most uncertain was pure genius. Then you gave us Engels, but not Engels as an abstract ideologue whose impossible ideals inform the characters' actions but as a fully developed character whose realism is a fulcrum about which the novel's action necessarily turns. Then you add Karl Marx in a family man cameo that brings the great historical thinker down to the Earth of his family life. Again...genius.
But you weren't content with your brilliant invocation of historical figures. No. You wanted us to believe in your four main characters. No. More than that. You wanted us to love and pull for and fear for and cheer for your lead cast. And you succeeded. James Cobham, Susan Voight, Kitty Holbourn and Richard Cobham are the most completely realized characters I've read since Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin in Perdido Street Station (and speaking of Perdido, thanks to China Miéville for pointing me towards your marvelous book). They go beyond the page. They live and breathe. Their relationships feel true because they are true. They are petty and self-indulgent and unrelenting and selfish and cruel and spiteful and occasionally silly. But they're also heroic and outward looking and tractable and selfless and kind and mostly serious. They are people I want to know, and they're people I do know thanks to you two.
And now it is time to talk about your form, because the epistolary nature of Freedom & Necessity -- and your masterful execution -- makes all of this possible -- this and so much more. James, Susan, Kitty and Richard are given to us on their own terms because everything is shared with us through their journals and letters (and by the end I felt like one of their children reading the family's history, which I am sure you intended). We only know them through what they want to tell us and through what they need to say about and to one another, and there is no truer record of a life or lives than one's own correspondence coupled with the thoughts and epistles of others.
But even that wasn't enough for you. You had to create one of the most compelling adventure-intrigue-mystery-historical fictions ever written, and again the ultimate genius was in your choice of the epistolary form. I have never read an ending like that, Steven and Emma. You build and build and build towards the denouement, then you skip ahead a couple of days because that's when the players would be ready to write their thoughts, so we get fragments from Richard, nothing from Kitty and James, and the perfect recall of Susan (albeit from her limited perspective). You withhold and withhold and then deliver in dribs and drabs the final actions of your tale in a way that blows my mind. Druidic conspiracies mix with greedy grabs for property mix with labour disputes and revolution, and all of it is delivered from the perspective of our four correspondents. UTTERLY...FUCKING...BRILLIANT!
So thank you for your genius. I am going to read your solo books A.S.A.P, and I beg you, please, to come together and write another novel because Freedom & Necessity is damn near perfect. I want more.
Yours in humility,
p.s. thanks, Jacob, for giving me the final push to pluck this off my shelf and read it. I am forever indebted.(less)
My first impression of Mack Reynolds, based on his Utopian Sci-Fi novel Lagrange Five, is that he is a man who cares deeply about equality -- economic...moreMy first impression of Mack Reynolds, based on his Utopian Sci-Fi novel Lagrange Five, is that he is a man who cares deeply about equality -- economic equality, racial equality and gender equality. But knowing that doesn't make Lagrange Five any less difficult to read.
For all his love of equality, Reynold's story is packed full of uncomfortable language and conventional, '70s era gender and race roles (most of which, sadly, continue into our time). The trouble is that the excellent points Reynolds makes (and there are many) are forced to contend with material that contemporary audiences have been trained to disdain.
For instance, the main female character in Lagrange Five, Susie Hawkins, is really just a classic girl-Friday in a space noir that intentionally channels Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler (which, paradoxically, is one of the most entertaining aspects of Lagrange Five -- the noirishness that is), while Whip Ford, the only significant, non-villainous character of colour, looks exactly like Harry Belafonte and becomes the Tubbs to the hero's Crockett.
It doesn't matter at all that Susie Hawkins is a Doctor. She's still the aide to the great man, Professor George R. Casey, whose disappearance kicks off the noirish mystery, and most of her time in the novel is spent as love interest for our hero -- Rex Bader. But things are much worse for Whip Ford. Not only does he spend most of the novel slagging off every "Whitey" he sees and being described as "the Black" (here's an example: "The Black's eyes were cold, cold now."), but he actually asks Bader to become "an honorary nigger" so that Bader can join the population of his new, segregated space island -- "The Promised Land."
Yep...Reynolds employs language and social roles that society has come to despise over the last thirty years, but he really is employing these things in a way that, at the time, was progressive. One imagines that his books would be very different today and would adhere to our standards and what we now consider forward thinking. And I think there is every possibility that Reynolds villains -- oil rich Arabs who are poisoning the Lagrange water supply -- would be someone else because beneath all the unintentional discomfort, Reynolds wants a world without prejudice or bigotry.
So he gives us a woman doctor in charge of her own sexuality; he gives us a righteously angry black man (and he's careful to let us know that his anger is righteous) who is working to overcome his own racism; he gives us powerful white men and not so powerful white men who are dedicated to equality and project color and gender blindness in all their dealings. Yet there is always that off-putting language to pull us away from the ideals Reynolds is trying to express.
I've been trying to read this for a couple of years, and this was my third and last attempt. The first problem the first time around was that it wasn'...moreI've been trying to read this for a couple of years, and this was my third and last attempt. The first problem the first time around was that it wasn't what I'd expected (having been recommended by Iain M. Banks I was expecting something more operatic). The second time through I just couldn't commit. This time around those first two problems held, and then my inability to engage with any characters (I made it halfway this time, so had more time to get to know them) killed it for me. There was nothing to care about and no one to care about. At least for me. Kind of bummed, actually. I've heard such great things about Macleod. Not for me, I guess. (less)
As a semi-retired actor, there are many literary characters I'd love to play, and for all kinds of reasons. Cardinal Richelieu and D'Artagnan spring i...moreAs a semi-retired actor, there are many literary characters I'd love to play, and for all kinds of reasons. Cardinal Richelieu and D'Artagnan spring immediately to mind, but there are countless others: Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin (Perdido Street Station), Oedipus, Holmes or Watson (I'd take either), Captain Jack Aubrey (I'd rather Stephen, but I look like Jack), Heathcliff, Lady Macbeth (yep, I meant her), Manfred, Indiana Jones. But none of them are people who I would actually like to be.
That I reserve for Shevek.
Ursula K. LeGuin's Odonian-Anarchist physicist is what I would aspire to be in the deepest places of myself -- flaws and all.
The reason is simple and profound. Shevek constantly strives for change inside and outside himself, for an embracing of true freedom with the knowledge that freedom requires change, that change is dangerous, and that the danger of true freedom trumps safety.
No matter what pressures are brought to bear, Shevek is his own man.
I could go on about him, but I am loathe to diminish the strength of what I have written.
My three star rating is a tentative one because I hope to finish this book someday. There were portions of The Master and Margarita that I was quite e...moreMy three star rating is a tentative one because I hope to finish this book someday. There were portions of The Master and Margarita that I was quite enjoying, but the book never fully captured my attention. I think some of the blame must fall on the book, but I accept the fat-older-brother's portion of the cake. Maybe it was the distraction of class prep, maybe it was that I was too busy reading O'Brian, maybe it was just my mood, but it was probably a little bit of all these things. Suffice to say that I failed to get through in this time, but I do plan to go back when the time is right.(less)
Katherine Budekin wrote her frightening vision of a Nazi future in 1937, at the height of Hitler's power in Germany, as a scathing attack on the power...moreKatherine Budekin wrote her frightening vision of a Nazi future in 1937, at the height of Hitler's power in Germany, as a scathing attack on the powerful patriarchies engaged in fascism.
Her argument , however, goes far beyond the confines of Nazism and her imaginary Nazi future. She is concerned with the history of all of Western Civilization: a history driven by gender politics, wherein women's voices have been erased from the collective memory almost as completely as her Nazis wiped out the history of previous Empires.
Budekin (who tellingly wrote under the name Murray Constantine) achieves much in her story: her argument is compelling, occasionally prophetic and often disturbing. Sadly, despite the profundity of Budekin's message, Swastika Night doesn't hold up aesthetically.
It is a book packed full of explication. Budekin rarely shows us what is happening; she tells us through an interminable series of discussions between her major characters. Because of this, Swastika Night lacks immediacy. And immediacy would have catapulted Swastika Night into the status of other dystopian classics, like Orwell's 1984.
As it stands, however, Swastika Night is an excellent, though artistically flawed, vision of our male driven world. It is absolutely worth a read, but don't expect to be entertained by the experience.(less)
The Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is a sobering and often depressing look at Israel's "conquering" and occupation of Palestine, wherein the r...moreThe Secret Life of Saeed: The Pessoptimist is a sobering and often depressing look at Israel's "conquering" and occupation of Palestine, wherein the roles of conqueror and conquered are clearly delineated and deeply entrenched.
Although something seems lost in this English translation, there are moments of absolute brilliance in Habiby's work that manage to break through. Saeed Pessoptimist's entire world is a prison: mental, physical, spatial and spiritual, but through his great gift of pessoptimism, he manages to escape to his own brand of freedom.
I wish I could read Arabic so that I could truly appreciate Emile Habiby's great work of art. This is an important read for anyone interested in understanding a culture currently engaged in one of the saddest ongoing chapters in modern Middle Eastern history.(less)
I restarted The Scar last night because I needed a dose of Mieville's prose, and was blown away, as I always am, by Mieville's description of place. T...moreI restarted The Scar last night because I needed a dose of Mieville's prose, and was blown away, as I always am, by Mieville's description of place. This time he is describing Bas-Lag's oceans. He captures flavours and temperatures and underwater sounds and the danger inherent in the waters that have no boundaries in a way that is poetry for me. I have heard from other readers that these disconnected, deep descriptions are difficult beginnings for them, that they make it tough to connect early with Mieville's world, and I suppose I can understand that, but the pure beauty of the prose is the sort of thing I could read just for itself. Pull it out of the story, make it a fragment, and I would savour it like a tasty meal I was eating for the first time.
On the story level, the opening of The Scar is both an important introduction to the story where so much will happen on Bas-Lag's oceans and an instant tug away from New Crobuzon, the steaming Metropolis at the heart of Perdido Street Station. It offers a hint of a vaster, less crowded, but no less dangerous place wherein he-cray hunt with their squid and danger rises from the deep to slaughter hunter-gatherers indiscriminately. It's a reversal of the horror of the Slake Moths from Perdido Street where death fell from the sky, and I imagine it was an intentional reversal.
Just the opening is good enough for me to give The Scar five stars. And I am nowhere near Armada yet. (less)
Much creepier than I expected and much smarter, The Island of Dr. Moreau, as with so much of H.G. Wells' science fiction, addressed the ethical pitfal...moreMuch creepier than I expected and much smarter, The Island of Dr. Moreau, as with so much of H.G. Wells' science fiction, addressed the ethical pitfalls of a scientific eventuality far too early to be anything other than prophetic, yet it still manages to be more entertaining than preachy.
Edward Prendick finds himself shipwrecked on an island with Doctors Montgomery and Moreau. The former a follower of the latter, who just happens to be a mad vivisectionist. Beyond these scientists, Prendick finds himself intensely weirded out by the other inhabitants of the island, frightening man-animals created by Dr. Moreau.
Moreau captures the island's animals and painfully turns them into half-men, then forces them to live by strict standards that he believes will overcome their bestial natures. Moreau's primary commandment is that they cannot eat meat. This is, of course, a recipe for suspense and horror, for how can one expect Leopard Men or Puma Men to curb their need for meat, when the humans conducting the experiments cannot curb their own bestial natures? It simply can't be done.
Prendick finds himself becoming a participant, although not entirely willingly, in Moreau's society of vivisection. And once the animals finally rebel, as we know they must, he becomes the last man on the island, watching the tortured animals return to their natures and throw off Moreau's pseudo-society.
Even now, one hundred and thirteen years after it was written, The Island of Dr. Moreau is spooky enough to work as an effective horror/sci-fi story, but its still relevant thematic depth is what makes Moreau essential to anyone who loves books. Genetics (eugenics), animal experimentation, psychology, colonization, imperialism, patriarchy, scientific chauvinism, religion, and ethical imposition are seriously and intelligently explored. Wells' implied conclusions may be unsettling at times, but The Island of Dr. Moreau will make you think.
WARNING: This review probably contains some (but not many) spoilers, so you may not want to read this if you haven’t read Perdido Street Station yet....moreWARNING: This review probably contains some (but not many) spoilers, so you may not want to read this if you haven’t read Perdido Street Station yet. This review also contains plenty of vulgarity. Please don't read this if you do not want to see the "f" and other words. Thanks.
Me reading my review: I decided to read this on SoundCloud, since BirdBrian has turned me into a recorded voice madman. You can listen right here if you'd like.
I fucking hate moths.
Seriously. I hate them. They freak me out. You know how Indiana Jones hates snakes? That's how I hate moths. I hate them so much that the disdain and fear extends to butterflies. I actually made a little girl cry when I was surprised by a butterfly and crushed it between the sole of my shoe and concrete, although I've never been sure if she cried because I squished the moth or because I let loose with the sanguine battle-cry: "DIE FUCKER!"
Moths and butterflies are frightening, fucking horrible, unholy, unnatural, freaks of fucking nature.
I sense you wondering why I feel this way. Well ... I'll tell you.
When I was sixteen years old, I walked out of my bedroom on a Friday night and headed for what I thought was a D&D marathon. Somewhere upstairs my Dad heard my bedroom door closing and yelled down, "Turn off the light." Even back then he was a stickler for energy conservation (but that had everything to do with being a cheap bastard and nothing to do with the environment). I heard him, but I ignored him. My friend Pat was honking for me outside, I had a pack full of D&D gear, and I was in a hurry. I was up the stairs, in my shoes and out the door before anyone could say anything more.
Now I had this fucking bizarre bedroom window. You see, I was and am the lightest sleeper the world has ever seen (even now I have double blacked windows, wear a black eye mask and 33 decibels ear plugs, and I still wake up at even the slightest shift in the air), and to try and buy me some more sleep without hurting the aesthetic of our home (a far more important concern for my Mom than combating my insomnia), my Dad installed a blind whose efficacy required the removal of my window screen. That meant that when my window was open in the summer, which it was the night I was out D&Ding, my room was open to all creatures great and small -- mostly small.
So somewhere between the time I left and the time I came home, my Dad came downstairs to make sure I'd turned off my light. He opened my door, reached for the light switch, turned off the lights, closed the door and went off to bed himself, but not before the light had attracted some fuzzy, beige, fluttering, dusty fucking creatures.
That night we didn't play D&D.
Nope ... that night we ate some mushrooms. My first time on hallucinogens. And what did I do? I invited the creatures of the night into my room. At around 4 a.m., I found myself back at home on the downturn of my trip. I needed to get to my room, put on some chill-out music and a soft light, and just let my cozy room ease me back to reality. I opened my door, closed it, flipped on the light switch and was fucking bombarded by HUNDREDS of moths.
I fucking lost it. I grabbed my squash racket and started killing while I screamed and swore and trashed my room.
There were probably only about a dozen moths in my room, but those shrooms did their job, and I spent the rest of that long morning obsessing about fluttering wings and the claustrophobic feeling of moth dust and guts settling on my skin, in much the same way that dreamshit settles on the minds of sleeping New Crobuzoners.
I am sure that you’ve figured out why I related this story now.
When I first read Perdido Street Station, I was enjoying Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin’s search for crisis energy well enough. The beauty of China Miéville’s prose and the complexity of New Crobuzon made Isaac’s rather pedestrian quest tale, whose goal was providing Yagharek -- the exiled, wingless Garuda -- a way to fly again, a compelling read. Then came the blindside of the Slake Moths, and my enjoyment was transformed into absolute horror, keep-the-lights-on-late-at-night-horror, stomp-all-fluttering-insects-into-the-pavement-horror, fucking-shit-my-pants-at-night-from-nightmares-horror. Miéville dumped the quest and changed the plot and raised the stakes, shifting the tale unexpectedly and fundamentally, and that coupled with the horror of the Slake Moths made me a passionate believer in his writing.
For me, the Slake Moths are the most terrifying creation in literature. Now I know that much of that is the psychology of my good trip gone bad, but when one considers all of my inadvertent personal subtext -- that Mieville’s Slake Moths feed on fear, and induce fear through their droppings, that their shit is sold as an hallucinogenic drug, that they suck the minds of their victims dry with an interdimensional tongue -- well, I hope my passion for the Slake Moths will be forgiven.
But then, I know that my love for Perdido Street Station goes far beyond my drug-induced psychosis. China Miéville’s writing bursts with sensuality, intelligence, politics, social commentary, fierce creativity and a thirst for life that is unparalleled. And those are just some of the reasons his fans love him.
For me, however, my loathing of the order lepidoptra means that Perdido Street Station must and will remain my favourite Miéville, and Slake Moths will continue to excite and haunt the recesses of my mind until I die.(less)