I’ve been meaning to read Kay for quite a while now, probably since hearing the buzz around Ysabel a few years (?) back. The other month I picked up T...moreI’ve been meaning to read Kay for quite a while now, probably since hearing the buzz around Ysabel a few years (?) back. The other month I picked up The Summer Tree at the library, and put it back down about a dozen pages later, on the run from clunky storytelling and stock characters.
But I actually sought this novel out, waiting my turn at the NY Public Library as its only copy made its way through about twenty other hands. I was eager to read it, first because my sense from reading other reviews of Kay on Goodreads was that there is a real difference in quality from his earlier work (of which The Summer Tree is one) and his more mature works. Second, Under Heaven is set in a time and place I’ve been very interested in these days: the Asian continent around the turn of the first millennium.
In the larger sense, Kay does credit to the field of epic fantasy in the way he breaths life into his world, which is based heavily on 8th century (CE) China. The traditions, mores, values and art of that society are rendered with a Merchant Ivory level of detail, as is the geography and environment, which evoke some nice poetic moments, like this one:
“The distant outer edges of the road had been planted with juniper and pagoda trees by the present emperor’s father, to hide the drainage ditches. There were beds of peonies—king of flowers—running between the lamplit guard stations, offering their scent to the night in springtime. There was beauty and a vast grandeur to the imperial way under the stars.”
Still, when you spend six hundred pages with an author (as with a roommate) you come to notice certain minor faults which, after a while, in the absence of truly awesome writing, can telescope into huge failings.
Among these are the passages following Shen Tai’s sister, Li-Mei, who was made a “false princess” and given to a barbarian leader as a peace offering from the emperor. En route she gets rescued by a Tarzan-of-the-steppe type character (complete with stock barbarian dialogue) and we are treated to a fairly lengthy and tedious description of her journeys with this man as Li-Mei descends further and further into a classic damsel in distress.
Also frustrating are the things that Kay leaves on the table: there are a number of interesting relationships and tensions left unexplored, paths that could have been taken that would have resulted in a more satisfying read. Instead, Kay seems to favor the more quotidian events (a lot of journeyings to and fro, conversations that do little to deepen characters and only just rehash exposition we’ve already read earlier) to these nascent tensions.
Among the things I thought could have been better fleshed out [***MINOR SPOILER ALERT***] was the relationship between Shen Tai and the rebellious general, Roshan. Their brief meeting in the early half of the novel shows us some unexpected depth to the military commander who, up until that point was depicted as a disgustingly fat strawman (Kay’s reliance on the fat = evil stereotype set him back a couple of points in my book, no matter that An Lushan, the historical figure on which he is based, was believed to be obese), and Shen Tai’s emergent sympathy with the man is a thread I was expecting to see develop later on, but instead the narrative just drops it, and Roshan returns to the beastly 2D caricature he was before.
Also, despite the large number of female characters, I’m fairly certain that Under Heaven fails the Bechdel Test.
All-in-all, though, I’m happy to have been given a glimpse into an imagined version of ancient China, which was my primary reason for picking up the book in the first place, but Kay’s reputation as a master of the epic story gave me higher expectations than were warranted.(less)
They Shall Have Stars is the first novel of the quartet that forms James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, also referred to as his “Okie” novels.
TSHS...moreThey Shall Have Stars is the first novel of the quartet that forms James Blish’s Cities in Flight series, also referred to as his “Okie” novels.
TSHS definitely reads like a set-up for a larger work. The dual story lines—the discovery of an anti-ageing drug that will bring about pharmaceutical-induced immortality, and the construction of a massive bridge on Jupiter that leads to the discovery of anti-gravity, allowing cheap, easy space travel—serve to bring about the technological advances that will allow the space travel of the later novels to occur. In that way, it felt like a prelude to a larger work rather than part of a continuum, more The Hobbit than Shadow of the Torturer.
The political structure of Blish’s world (Jupiter and Earth—primarily Washington DC and New York—in 2018) is a very loosely veiled, barely extrapolated version of the Cold War 1950’s: J. Edgar Hoover and Joseph McCarthey combine in the figure of Francis Xavier MacHinery, the hereditary head of the FBI (yes, the position is now a hereditary one in this world), and Senator Bliss Wagoner, the self-sacrificing Jesus-like figure who single-handedly fends off MacHinery and the Jupiter program’s detractors long enough to allow the discovery of anti-gravity.
While it didn’t occur to me until I read Manny’s excellent review, it now seems abundantly clear that Blish has embedded into this otherwise parochial novel a perspective on religion that is, even today, fairly radical. As the society in TSHS moves closer and closer to conquering both death and the confines of gravity, largely against its will, Blish is showing us what the second coming of Christ will really look like in a technologically advanced future: immortality achieved through scientific breakthrough, and access to the heavens brought about through a massive, expensive public works project. (less)
I feel like reading Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories is like passing some sort of science fiction Rubicon: once you've read them you are officially...moreI feel like reading Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories is like passing some sort of science fiction Rubicon: once you've read them you are officially a nerd, no backsies.
Crystal Express contains, among other short stories, all of Sterling's Mechanist/Shaper stories outside of the novel Schismatrix, and while some of the non-M/S pieces didn't quite do it for me, this collection gets five stars anyway--the quality of the far future M/S world is so vivid and compelling, the alien-ness so amazingly alien (as in Swarm, where two human Shapers live inside an asteroid among large hive-mind insects), that some of the minor faults (the sometimes incoherent off-scene politics, the occasional cypher character) are easily overlooked.(less)
Gann covered the NYC downtown art music scene for the Village Voice at a time of great upheaval and change (mid-'80's to early '90's). These pieces re...moreGann covered the NYC downtown art music scene for the Village Voice at a time of great upheaval and change (mid-'80's to early '90's). These pieces represent some of the best writing about American music of this time. For the obituary of Julius Eastmen alone, this book is worth the price.(less)
A touching novella that tells the story of a son returning home to his father's deathbed, set in post-independence Indonesia. Father and son were both...moreA touching novella that tells the story of a son returning home to his father's deathbed, set in post-independence Indonesia. Father and son were both political prisoners in their own time. (less)
I think I’m finally learning how to dig late Wolfe. His last few novels—Evil Guest and Pirate Freedom—seem to be his takes on classic pulp subgenres (...moreI think I’m finally learning how to dig late Wolfe. His last few novels—Evil Guest and Pirate Freedom—seem to be his takes on classic pulp subgenres (the flapper-era/noire and the Stevensonian high seas adventure, respectively), and they are odd creations. I had very mixed feelings about the Evil Guest, and I have yet been able to finish Pirate Freedom (one of these day). This novel, though, was a good deal of fun, but only, I think, because I’ve become attuned to Wolfe’s idiosyncratic playfulness (endless wordplay on the word black, a coterie of ancient myths and legends woven into the fabric of the novel (and into the fabric of the novel’s fabric of reality). It felt almost like a lighthearted riff on Little, Big, and though it’s nowhere near as substantial a creation as Little, Big, it is full of enough mystery, fantasy and Wolfe’s trademark obscurantist narration to make it enjoyable to most fantasy enthusiasts.(less)
I read this for "The Rubbish Wind," "The River Potudan," and "The Return." When reading Platonov, it's hard to shake the feeling that he was someone w...moreI read this for "The Rubbish Wind," "The River Potudan," and "The Return." When reading Platonov, it's hard to shake the feeling that he was someone who desperately longed to not exist, or to somehow un-exist. His characters, both in The Foundation Pit and here (with the exception of the protagonist of "The Return") yearn to dissolve into nothing, and their actions to that end are often disturbing. In fact, the only other book that I think disturbed me as much as The Foundation Pit in recent years was Thomas Ligotti's My Work Is Not Yet Done: Three Tales of Corporate Horror, and although they are very different books from very different times, I suspect there is some similar kernel at the heart of both writers.
In the "Rubbish Wind" the road to the main character's non-existence is shockingly gruesome, something that I imagine would make even Quentin Tarantino choke back his lunch. In "The River Potudan," the main character's non-existence is a more touching, cleansing, almost Catholic self denial that gives him the ability to understand and accept love when it's almost too late.
"The Return," however, is the reason I picked up this collection. The story of a man returned from war to find his family changed, it packs into its few pages a sad yet somehow redeeming portrayal of human weakness and acceptance. It's a story that Chekhov would have been proud to have written, and it sounds a note of hope for the human soul that is an amazing statement from the author of deeply nihilst The Foundation Pit.(less)
I luurrrve Shepard, and the Griaule stories are some of my favorites, but there isn’t nearly as much heart in this one as there is in his earlier stor...moreI luurrrve Shepard, and the Griaule stories are some of my favorites, but there isn’t nearly as much heart in this one as there is in his earlier stories. It was a bit of a bummer, frankly.(less)
No, not the lady who gives Arthur Excalibur, this is about another lady in another lake, though Philip Marlowe could pass for a modern day King Arthur...moreNo, not the lady who gives Arthur Excalibur, this is about another lady in another lake, though Philip Marlowe could pass for a modern day King Arthur, if you think real hard about it.(less)
Kyle is one of the smartest, most cogent, most well-read (and well-listened) writers about contemporary music out there right now, better even, in my...moreKyle is one of the smartest, most cogent, most well-read (and well-listened) writers about contemporary music out there right now, better even, in my opinion, than Alex Ross, whom I nonetheless love to pieces. This book is a total joy to read, taking Cage's revolutionary work and delving not only into the philosophy behind it, but using it as a launching point for an overview of Cage's life and a history of American classical music in the 20th century. And, of course, his music.(less)
This is a perfectly fine fantasy novel that just happened to trigger a bout of crankiness in me about certain fantasy tropes. Every now and again I pi...moreThis is a perfectly fine fantasy novel that just happened to trigger a bout of crankiness in me about certain fantasy tropes. Every now and again I pick up an epic fantasy novel that, despite being a perfectly fine work on its own merits, leads me to think that perhaps epic fantasy isn't the right genre for me.
First, I've come to realize that I hate most stories that try to use gods as characters. It just seems to take an amazing concept (quasi-anthropomorphized representations of vast phenomena that can interface with us mortals in strange ways) and turns it into something utterly mundane (humanoid super beings that are subject to the same politics, intrigues and pettiness as the rest of us). I know that this has its roots in mythology, where gods and goddesses of various ancient cultures plot and war against one another and screw around behind each others' backs, just like the rest of us, but, you know, with magical powers. But, for that reason, most mythology strikes me as every bit mundane as so-called "realist" fiction. The gods' pettiness is a reflection of ours, their stories are symbolic (sometimes heavy handed) representations of human failings that were as every bit as real to Homer as they are to us. Mythology, therefore, in my mind, occupies a space somewhere between fable and satire - there is nothing intrinsically fantastical about it.
The portrayals of "gods" in fantasy fiction that have left the deepest impressions on me are those where their motives, means and their meanings are obscured, hinting at a level of consciousness beyond what we can concieve (i.e. Anselm of Canterbury's "That Than Which Nothing Greater Can Be Conceived" ). Think Hanga, the shark god in Gene Wolfe's "The Tree is My Hat," or (even though they're not explicitly called gods in the book) the Powers in Vernor Vinge's Fire Upon the Deep. In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, however, the gods' motivations, abilities, weaknesses, life stories, are all laid bare for the reader, as if they are just another character, albeit with awesome super powers.
Anyway, like I said, a decent novel that just pushed the wrong buttons in me. My only other beef, aside from the above rant, is that, for all the imaginative fire power that went into the novel's world, the story is essentially a family rivalry story featuring royals behaving badly. We are told that this all-powerful family keeps a hundred thousand kingdoms under their boot, cruelly playing states and peoples against one another, but almost all the action takes place within palace walls, and almost everyone we meet is a high ranking member of the family (or a god). Given the novel's title, I was hoping to get out of the palace more and explore at least some of the strange, fascinating lands that get only brief mention in the narrative. Also, given all the excellently detailed portrayals of the ruling family's decadence and their indifference to their subjects, I was hoping that the narrative spotlight would occasionally fall, if only briefly, on some of the marginalized inhabitants of these kingdoms, of which we are told there are multitudes (is a peasant uprising here and there too much to ask?).
But, still, all my hand wringing aside, it was a well-written story with quite a satisfying conclusion. I'm happy to have read it, but probably will not be signing on for the remainder of the series.(less)
I am selectively skipping around this collection of dark short stories. So far, Old Virginia, Shiva Open Your Eyes, and Hallucinagenia are all captiva...moreI am selectively skipping around this collection of dark short stories. So far, Old Virginia, Shiva Open Your Eyes, and Hallucinagenia are all captivating reads. Barron has a real knack for intense, engaging prose, and has the rare ability to grab my attention within the space of just a few paragraphs. There is a strong hard boiled feel to all of his characters.(less)
The only other book I've read that comes at all close to kinship with this fascinating space epic is Stross's 2005 Accelerando, which appears to have...moreThe only other book I've read that comes at all close to kinship with this fascinating space epic is Stross's 2005 Accelerando, which appears to have been influenced both indirectly (in form & style) and directly (posthumanism & lobters!) by Schismatrix, which predates Accelerando by two decades. In both cases there is at least one tongue-lolling, brain boiling, oh-wow SF concept worked into the story in every paragraph. Such a high ratio of idea-to-story weighs a little heavy on the reading at times, sometimes making ciphers out of secondary characters and making blatant macguffins out of interplanetary political conspiracies and intruige, but it never veers too far into the superficial, and Sterling occasionally lets his left brain cool down for stretches and allows some real depth and pathos to seep into his story before resuming the SF pyrotechnics. There were occasionally whole stretches of the story that made only a passing amount of sense to me (i.e. "are they *really* transforming themselves into modified deep sea creatures and colonizing the subterranean oceans of Europa, or did I miss something?"), but such parts were still a deliriously pleasurable experience.
Considering how much of this book, first published in 1985, still feels new and mind-blowing, and given the influence it has had in the genre these past two decades (Swanwick, Stross, et. al.) it is a must read for sf devotees.(less)
Kobo Abe is one weird dude. This much I knew from having read The Woman in the Dunes and Friends. Those were both dark, strange, slightly paranoid, pr...moreKobo Abe is one weird dude. This much I knew from having read The Woman in the Dunes and Friends. Those were both dark, strange, slightly paranoid, present-day psychological dramas with a strong dose of Kafka Flavor (tm) thrown into the stew. And Inter Ice Age 4 is all those things, with a startling science fictional premise to boot.
One of the joys (or discomforts, depending) of reading Abe is having almost no idea where he is going with a story. So, whereas the first third of Inter Ice Age is given over to the story of a team of scientists who develop a computer that can predict the future, and the strange, nightmarish murder-mystery that results from their experiments with its abilities, it soon modulates into a very strange, threatening, far-ranging conspiracy story. Some large entity, it turns out, is master-planning the human race's next leap along the evolutionary ladder by creating a sub-species of human that can live under the ocean.
My only problem with Abe the science fiction writer: he clearly does not give a fuck about infodumps. There are several "as you know bobs" stuffed hamfistedly into the story, most of which read like Abe's own hasty notes on marine life and human anatomy and other odd topics necessary for the plot to make sense.
But this was a small price to pay. There is a healthy dose of WTF every few pages, and the conclusion of the story - a vignette of one of an unnamed inhabitant of the far future underwater world exploring the ancient remains of a city - is one of the finest science fictional set pieces I've read.(less)