18 July, 2018

Lords and Ladies by Terry Pratchett

This book tells the story of myths invading Lancre, a small kingdom deep in the mountains. On the one hand, elves invade from a parallel dimension. On the other hand, Magrat embodies a fictional myth to defy the actions of the elves. On yet another hand, Shakespeare is being spoofed throughout.
In fact, the mere act of opening the box will determine the state of the cat, although in this case there were three determinate states the cat could be in: these being Alive, Dead, and Bloody Furious.

On the first hand, the theme is on the book cover. The elves are a kind of aristocracy—expectantly entitled, cruel but beautiful, and more powerful than normal people. Myth isn’t necessarily bad, it’s attractive. But when people subordinate themselves to myths of the past, they forget their own present and others’ futures. On the other side of myths being bad, having the aristocracy around to organize and lead some fighting can help: Magrat forgets too much of her earlier self while becoming a queen, but then is able to help when she remembers because she is a queen. Well, almost a queen.
Nanny Ogg looked under her bed in case there was a man there. Well, you never knew your luck.

But I think the more important theme lies in the myth-becoming-real. It allows Pratchett to play out how people typically deal with myth in their day to day life, or don’t as the case may be. For instance, Granny resists the myths because she can see the damage they have caused and will cause if allowed to reign again. However, at one point or another, all the people who can resist the myths are too tied up with their personal paramours to care or even notice—myths and shifts in cultural psychology are subtle things that are often missed. Yet, like the first-level analogy shows, myths are something to balance with reality, to banish when they’re dangerous and encourage when they’re beneficial. I think this is the main point of the novel.
Personal’s not the same as important. People just think it is.

On the third level, Shakespeare is both kind of silly (this book spoofs Midsummer Night’s Dream) and really important simultaneously. Quite like myths. He helps explain humans and their craziness, as well as making them laugh at the same time. I wonder if this book is Pratchett’s tribute to that most famous writer. So many parallels can be drawn between the two.
Verence would rather cut his own leg off than put a witch in prison, since it'd save trouble in the long run and probably be less painful.

Pratchett here combines all these aspects of examining myths into every facet, nook, and cranny of his book. The resolve argues that what we can do today is better than what we could have done back in mythic times, trying to drag people’s focus to the here and now instead of there and then. The whole well-focused affair comes off much like the strengths of Small Gods did: brilliantly.
It wasn't that Nanny Ogg sang badly. It was just that she could hit notes which, when amplified by a tin bath half full of water, ceased to be sound and became some sort of invasive presence.

Yet, where Small Gods kept the slapstick down and the philosophy more on the surface, here Pratchett subsumes the philosophy under the slapstick patina, as is typical of his other Witch tales so far. Pratfalls and Shakespearean parody run the show from start to finish, translated into the Discworld universe successfully. But the underlying philosophy is always there and always guiding the twists and turns in the plot.
Don't try the paranormal until you know what's normal.

That’s all I can say, I think. It’s somewhat more slapstick than Small Gods, but as deeply interesting philosophically or sociologically. And it’s a strong, strong novel that needs to not be ignored in the Pratchett cannon. Some Shakespearean love helps, I’m sure—but less than with Wyrd Sisters, his other Shakespearean tale.
You can’t say ‘if this didn’t happen then that would have happened’ because you don’t know everything that might have happened. You might think something’d be good, but for all you know it could have turned out horrible. You can’t say ‘If only I’d…’ because you could be wishing for anything. The point is, you’ll never know. You’ve gone past. So there’s no use thinking about it.

17 July, 2018

Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Pratchett deftly handles faith and atheism, religion and politics, myth and reality, philosophy and theology, humanism and higher powers. He claims he has received letters from believers and non-believers praising him for this book, and I can see why. It’s a masterclass of even-handedness. Sure, Pratchett comes down on the side of atheistic humanism personally, but lets the book come down on a faith-based finish, as seems appropriate in this fantasy setting. And I think that balancing act indicates what makes this novel so great.
His philosophy was a mixture of three famous schools—the Cynics, the Stoics and the Epicureans—and summed up all three of them in his famous phrase, 'You can't trust any bugger further than you can throw him, and there's nothing you can do about it, so let's have a drink.'

The book is funny in two ways: it has some of the slapstick humor of earlier Pratchett fare, but starts to use a situational humor that seems to occupy much of Pratchett’s later works. For instance, a prophecy tells that the time of the eighth prophet is at hand, but the eighth prophet ends up being an illiterate novice gardener. This is inconceivable to the church hierarchy, particularly those glory-seeking members who believed themselves to be likely eighth prophets. Pratchett supplies this funny situation with some slapstick between Vorbis and Brutha and Om, the god of the religion, but the point of the situation illuminates human desire more than slapstick pratfalls. I hope Pratchett continues this strong technique because it allows him to reach a satisfying depth of analysis.
Fear is a strange soil. It grows obedience like corn, which grow in straight lines to make weeding easier. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground.

For anybody who contemplates the big questions in life, this study of belief and perception is more directly philosophical than much of Pratchett’s earlier fare. Through showing positives and negatives to both sides of every argument Pratchett brings out, his even-handed treatment goes a long way towards making this book palatable to both sides of each argument. And with something as contentious as religion tends to be, this treatment is perfectly readable by all. I’ve often said that the inherent strength of science fiction and fantasy lies in being able to freely discuss a contentious issue without offending either side—merely by couching it in the guise of some fictional analogy. The example I often give deals with religion: to write a book about the dangers of religious fanaticism and use Christianity or Islam as the religion in question will alienate potential audience members, at the least. To be able to make up a fake religion and take some parallels from actual religions, then discuss it negates the potentially off-putting nature of challenging beliefs people hold dear. Pratchett does exactly that here: he embodies this example and pulls it off sensationally.
The Ephebians believed that every man should have the vote (provided that he wasn't poor, foreign, nor disqualified by reason of being mad, frivolous, or a woman). Every five years someone was elected to be Tyrant, provided he could prove that he was honest, intelligent, sensible, and trustworthy. Immediately after he was elected, of course, it was obvious to everyone that he was a criminal madman and totally out of touch with the view of the ordinary philosopher in the street looking for a towel. And then five years later they elected another one just like him, and really it was amazing how intelligent people kept on making the same mistakes.

And he does throw everything in here: humanist secular philosophers, religious inquisitional fundamentalists, deep belief simpletons, political influences and reactions, religious war-mongering, people who only associate with echo-chamber believers of their own religion, anti-theists, and inter-religious relations. However, instead of trying to chew more than he can handle, Pratchett sets this whole varied work in the field of a religious pilgrimage of sorts, allowing him to expand and contract his focus to handle all of the variety he has adopted. For instance, the humanism Brutha encounters in Ephebe (think, Athens) is dealt with by Brutha later, while wandering in the desert. In other words, the array of influences Brutha sees and takes on in Ephebe is then dealt with in his own time in the desert. This pacing of putting many influences into the boys head, then letting him sort through them slowly allows the novel a clear direction, keeping it from getting lost in the weeds or twisted off into culdesacs of discussions. It’s an effective tactic and one that seems particularly Dostoevsky-esque.
Humans! They lived in a world where the grass continued to be green and the sun rose every day and flowers regularly turned into fruit, and what impressed them? Weeping statues. And wine made out of water! A mere quantum-mechanistic tunnel effect, that'd happen anyway if you were prepared to wait zillions of years. As if the turning of sunlight into wine, by means of vines and grapes and time and enzymes, wasn't a thousand times more impressive and happened all the time.

I believe that this is one of the best Discworld novels. The jokes are more dense than later works, but less so than earlier works, and this novel rides the line between early and late Pratchett while making some of the underlying philosophy he is known for more explicit. It’s a great place to start for anybody interested in reading Pratchett.
Time is a drug. Too much of it kills you.

21 June, 2018

Thud! by Terry Pratchett

Every Pratchett book I read, I think to myself—what was happening in Pratchett’s day that so closely echoes mine now, years later? Is he prescient? This is Pratchett’s ethnic tensions book (As Dessa said this year, 2018, “Looks like gender’s over, race came back”). This book came out in 2005—reacting to 9/11 and the strained ethnic relations that came after it. It is set in Ankh-Morporkh, Pratchett’s main character throughout the series (though I could also say his main character is you and me), a city populated by some of Pratchett’s series scene-stealers: Sam Vimes & the rest of the members of the City Watch, Ridcully, Vetinari, et al.

Part of what Pratchett does so well in this series is exemplified in this novel: his tendency to populate a novel with minor characters already mentioned in earlier novels. In other words, why create a whole new character in the series, when a past character could fill in here? Explain them enough so they make sense in this novel, then move on. For Pratchett’s series, this keeps a consistency that rewards long-time readers without stripping the novel of meaning for first-time readers. This tendency allows Ankh-Morporkh to feel populated, a complex city that certainly feels similar to cities I’ve lived in. (The tendencies of grouped humans, their struggles and responses—this is where much of Pratchett’s satire stretches its legs.) By contrast, the first few novels had forgotten minor characters that were delved into for jokes, and then forgotten. In later works, by leaving minor characters more ambiguous, Pratchett gifts himself the ability to use them later. To be clear, I don’t want to be Terry Pratchett. But he does what he does so well, I want to understand how and why.

Another series aspect, when Pratchett starts his earlier novels, he often summarizes his Discworld itself, but here he doesn’t—and he hasn’t for a few novels. Instead he introduces on a need to know basis, rather than a must explain everything basis. I miss nothing, having read so much other Pratchett, but I wonder how a new reader would react. Due to my preference for a lack of info dumping, I love Pratchett focusing on the specific novel’s story more. I think that readers are intelligent enough to pick up what they need from what Pratchett puts down, but I am interested to hear from any new Pratchett readers about whether they were able to track successfully—because I believe they would be.

As a single novel, which this blog tries to focus on, these two series tendencies work out spectacularly. Minor characters are, well, minor. Pratchett doesn’t allow himself to dredge their depths like he has in earlier novels. But this way the story moves on without the little eddies and culdesacs for the sake of jokes. That’s not to say the book isn’t funny—it’s hilarious. But the density of jokes is less here than what he’s written before. The tendency to disguise the philosophy behind jokes is less apparent here. The philosophy is more on the surface. (It’s difficult to discuss this book without talking about the series, because I’ve been reading the series through.)

But this book is one of my favorites so far. This novel speaks to current events of ethnic tension and concludes hopefully that proximity can solve some of these problems—in other words, proximity allows external influences to affect ethnic tensions: economic considerations, interest in something as simple as a chess-like game called Thud, and the great equalizer of laws and crime generally help overcome the ethnic tensions. When the focus is solely on ethnic tensions, of course the tension tends to ratchet up incessantly. But if that ethnically schismatic focus can be broken, the tension can be pushed down somebody’s priority list and it can fade. This is Pratchett’s point in the novel.

And this theme plays out in each of the major characters—Vimes, Cheery, Angua, Sally, Carrot, and Detritus. Vimes hates vampires, but Vetinari forces him to hire one, Sally. Sally ends up saving his life and surprising him in many small ways as a good copper. Throughout the book Sam struggles with ways to deal with the ethnic tensions, and clings to the idea that being a copper trumps being a vampire, or dwarf, or troll, or human. This puts him in some awkward positions—like standing with a troll in a dwarf neighborhood—but he uses quick thinking to refocus the complaints of people who could be offended by his subordinate’s presence, refocusing the potential complaints onto his reason for being present. Something like, “I’m just here to investigate a murder, don’t bring up the fact I brought a troll—I didn’t, I brought a copper. Sure, he happens to be a troll, but that’s beside the point right now. He’s a copper. Now, what about this murder?” It’s a combination of theme and story that truly helps this book sing.

Even the less-focused on aspects of the book tend to support this theme: Thud is a game seen as an intriguing interaction between people, and beloved by both trolls and dwarves. This shared love starts to trump the generations long-animosity between these species, at least for some characters. This consistency and the thought put into every aspect of the book is stellar.

Now, a big complaint here from Strange Horizons:
“my biggest complaint with the book is a serious one, in that, if not answered, it will mean the end of (at least) main character use for one of the most popular and beloved characters in the series, one whose struggle against his demons has made him compelling, but whose subsequent vanquishing of them, while immensely satisfying, means he’s lost the compelling contradiction in his nature. In short, while Sam Vimes has endeared himself by conquering the dangerous voice (or voices) inside himself, their absence means we will always know what he’s going to do. This doesn’t make him boring (he had a great cameo appearance in Monstrous Regiment without this being an issue), but it does mean that Pratchett will have to be supercreative if he wants Vimes to continue doing leading-man duty.”
I’m not certain that I agree. While she is correct that Vimes needs his cigars less in this novel, and he does vanquish the voice of the demon; in my eyes, Vimes still has at least two major contradictions: Pratchett set up this new contradiction within Vimes about being a father and a busy head police officer, new competing priorities for his time and mortality; also, Vimes’ most basic conflict of his desire to keep the peace and his difficulty in doing that within the laws is still strong and well. So I don’t see this novel as putting Vimes out to pasture as a character.

In all, I think this is one of the stronger Discworld novels and would suggest it to anybody as a solid place to start in the series.

15 June, 2018

Going Postal by Terry Pratchett

I’m struggling to tell how sarcastic this book is. There are chapters! There are even interstitials! And there’s a love interest! Is this even Pratchett? Or is this Pratchett poking the typical story structure in the eyeball? As evidence, some of the interstitial titles intentionally mislead the reader in a way that makes readers laugh when they realize—the way angel refers to Vetinari and the girl in the tower with “Princess in the Tower”; the way Moist is a hero and not a hero, but he’s called a hero; “Gladys Pulls it Off” refers to her satisfying the exacting needs of another character’s rigid and gendered moral code; “There is always a choice” is a truism subverted and played for laughs. Some of them are also intentionally funny little sayings that spark the reader’s imagination and whet the appetite for the reveal of what they’re on about: “Mr. Lipwig’s bad underwear”, “The Bacon Sandwich of Regret”, “The wizard in a jar”. And this shows Pratchett at his best, touching on culture and exposing it in his own way, with humor. We know interstitial titles, and most of them are terrible. But these are good ones in that they help spark imagination, but they also play with expectations and subvert the idea of interstitials. The text referenced is not limited by the interstitial. So, yes, the book is somewhat sarcastic in its structure. But while it’s sending up these tropes for laughs, it’s also showing why they were used in the first place: a tendency I associate with post-modern cinema (Wes Anderson, Quentin Tarrantino).

The story starts a bit sparse, then speeds up quite a bit. It’s one of those books where you wonder what the heck is going on for a third of the book (luckily the humor should carry this bit for most readers) then the second two thirds explain that first third and give it new meaning—very much like Umberto Eco’s Foucault's Pendulum. Again, this might be lampooning a tendency of modern literature to take a third of the book just building the framework for the important bits later on, but Pratchett inserts his humor and strong character development in order to make the reader care early and often about what’s going on—doing it right, in other words.

Theme: Karma. This book is all about it. It’s like Game of Thrones, with humor. (My summary of the theme of Game of Thrones being, “Satisfying a desire requires sacrifice. You can't shake your past and you have to sacrifice on the altar of the future. Sometimes the consequences are foreseen, and sometimes they are not.”) But this is also about how Moist can work to overcome his past, to subvert the Karma, in a way. At its heart, this tale optimistically maintains that you can overcome your past and become a better person. Yes, there are repercussions to Moist’s ill-spent youth. But he also learns from those experiences and surprises himself with his new lifestyle. This theme and conclusion is communicated clearly and I appreciated the way it reflects reality, instead of the hopelessness of other novels with similar themes.

Pratchett pulls this theme out of almost every situation, dialogue, and monologue in the book. But he forgoes making it boring because he consistently shifts his viewpoint and the landscape. In other words, as Moist changes, and as the city changes around him, and as the character focused on shifts from Moist to others and back, the situation in which karma plays such a central role evolves and its influences update to reflect the optimism of Pratchett’s point. This is a fantastic tactic that allows the depth of the theme to surf along the waves of these constant minor updates to the landscape of the novel. Pratchett then swings between complex and simple reflections on karma while it all feels necessary and appropriate.

Like the theme, Moist is not the slapstick character typical of earlier Discworld novels, instead, he struggles between criminality and straight shooting, apathy and engrossment, all the while subtly shifting from a shyster to a pillar of society. On this character development rests the whole story. Though that’s not to say the story is forgettable at all. This tale of extreme government ineptitude and rebuilding of the postal service gripped me throughout. Sure, it sounds boring on the surface—corporate restructuring, the novel—but the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.

In short, though this isn’t a slapstick comedy, it’s deeply funny. Though it’s a corporate tale, it’s set in such a fantastic world that the boring parts are lent interest by the window dressing bringing in other themes. Though the character development is central to the novel, it’s not some drama bereft of adventure. Though it is partly sarcastic, this is sarcasm done right. This is good writing and a good book.

26 May, 2018

Master & Commander by Patrick O'Brian

I find a pattern of analysis fits this first book in the series: that of yes and no, or the supremacy of the "but". For instance, Jack’s character is inconsistent; but, that perceived inconsistency may actually be a part of his character, making him consistently inconsistent. And that pattern of analysis fits the way I think about this novel pretty well: first thinking something isn’t done well, then thinking that at least it’s used well, then coming to a paradoxical conclusion. This pattern is a bad sign. Then again, I appreciate these conflicts driving the book forward. So this pattern is both good and bad? Maybe it’s often initially off putting, then forgive-able.

The most apparent aspect of this pattern is the language. The language of the whole attempts an early nineteenth century diction. There are a couple of cringe worthy moments, but then O’Brian winks an eye and takes the reader through Mowett’s lengthy description of the rigging with obvious humor. Mowett’s description shows how O’Brian uses nautical terminology much like a science fiction author uses technobabble: he gives a detailed and esoteric description of the actions the crew does, but then summarizes the relevant result for the reader. So maybe his use of archaic language is not terrible? Or maybe I’m just used to it by the end of the book?

A counter-example would be William Shakespeare, who writes Julius Caesar using the language of his day—making the play legible to his audience to try outselling the bear-baiting pit next door—instead of using an archaic language. But Shakespeare gives flavor through the subject and scenery instead. For instance, the line, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen,” sets the scene effectively in the time period. It’s a somewhat illuminating comparison to me, but it still leaves me confused: the comparison points out simply that two authors took two different tactics to communicate the time period of their works. But is one better than the other? I tend to think it may be more a case-by-case basis, and less a hard and fast rule, but there’s obviously a balance to be struck here, depending on the work in question. In general, I like period language for the dialogue, and the author’s contemporary language for the narrative; but again, that’s not a hard and fast rule. By the end of the book, O’Brian’s work is really starting to sound good.

But at the beginning, his use of language rides a fine line between annoyance and setting the scene. For instance, the line of dialogue, “Thankee, thankee, Captain. I am far better, I am glad to say, now I am out of the clutches of that bloody-minded sawbones.” Sure, when Latin was more widely studied by children, literate people used more complex sentences and more phrases in sentences—I can buy that this premise makes some sense. But this man is drunk. Does he come off drunk? Or did the language get in the way of O’Brian communicating the nature of the character, in favor of communicating his conception of the scene in general? Is this just “talk like a pirate day”, the book? Or, on seeing a group of sailors in the first chapter: “but they all of them had long swinging pigtails”. Looks like the editor forgot to take out either “they” or “all of them”.

The most interesting part of the character arc of Jack—that transition between one of the men and one of them—is glossed over with a later comment that he was never really one of the men because he was only busted down to their level, and even then for only a few months. This missed opportunity rankles. But the counter for this would be that when he loses James Dillon, it affects him more than perhaps it would have if Jack was still a normal sailor. However, without seeing Jack more often before his command, it’s impossible for the reader to judge how much of a change is occurring. But, because there is always a but with this book, the author has to start his story somewhere, and that sense of peeking into these men’s lives in media res is well done for sure. I am left with a sense that we’re watching a snapshot of a part of the continuum of these mens’ lives.

The biggest annoyance was Stephen, who is attracted to a cruise or two for the philosophical benefits, the travel, and the naturalism. He has enough leisure time that he stares through a pipe into the sea most of the day, but is too caught up in the JA JD clustercuss to really engage in the amount of philosophical contemplation that was forecast. That said, as always with this book, there’s another way to look at it: there is quite a bit of insight into reality and people here, and I did come away contemplating the condensed nature of ship-crews, service politics, and war in general. But why is Stephen down on his luck? Because he’s hiding from his nationalistic Irish past? That makes some sense, but I’m not sure.

The tertiary annoyance for me is that the story wanders: it sort of episodes its way to a sort of conclusion that clearly billboards a series to come. Balls still in the air at the end include:
  • Jack’s relations with the Hartes,
  • the Navy’s official response to the successful actions of Jack,
  • the hints of threatening peace, (Spoiler Alert, it happened in 1802 and lasted about half a second) which I find interesting as Jack has been at sea since 12, and in that mindset since 9, making him a younger Achilles, who was at war from 15-25;
  • the backstory of Jack’s role in the Battle of the Nile,
  • Jack as a shipless captain,
  • Jack overcoming the death of Dillon,
  • Jack recognizing the uselessness of Dillon’s replacement and dealing with that situation,
  • Jack’s secret, buxom source of Spanish shipping details,
  • et cetera.
Though that list is just for Jack. The other characters all have their own lists, and the novel has its own as well.In other words, there are many characters, and none are resolved by the story of this book. INSERT BILLBOARD FOR SEQUEL HERE. However, again, that life-as-a-continuum feeling the book embraces is spectacular. This annoyance is the flipside of that authorial choice.

If the book was better, I wouldn’t be quibbling quite as much, but it’s not the best book I’ve read, so these quibbles are stuck in my mind as possible reasons for why I wasn’t infatuated with this work. However, I’m intrigued enough to read another book in this series, though this one wasn’t great.

07 April, 2018

Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

1. Brunner writes this novel in an unusual way. Since I’ve finished reading it, I’ve seen it called a non-novel. I have also seen that this method is similar to what John Dos Passos employs in his USA Trilogy. I haven’t read the USA Trilogy, so this was my first experience with this method.
—First, the narrative aspects of this novel rely upon an ensemble cast, often widely dispersed around the globe. Casts’ stories relate directly in the cases of Norman, Donald, and Chad, but mostly tangentially for the rest. These characters are widely different as well: Donald the bottled up, Norman the sauve but unsatisfied, Chad the skilled but unemployable. The supporting cast represents the major forces in the background of this world: anarchists cooking up bombs, soldiers training for war, a famous beautician style guru, Mr & Mrs Everywhere, addicts in their homes, lawbreaking mating couples, ex-colonial “advisers”, etc. It’s a snapshot of how Brunner believed the late 20th century would look. It’s remarkably accurate, sure, but the strength of it doesn’t rely upon its accuracy. Rather, his wide net of secondary characters informs the breadth of the novel’s reach: though some of these characters appear for only a few pages, and are strawmen as a result of the briefness of their roles, the sheer number and variety allows the novel a satisfying scope of societal criticism.
“You’ve consulted the Book of Changes before, haven’t you?” he added to Gerry.
“Yes. You showed it to me when I first met you.” Gerry drained his glass and set it aside. “I told you I thought it was a load of dreck.”
“And I told you it works for the same reason there’s no such thing as art. I quoted the Balinese who don’t have a word for it, but merely try to do everything as well as possible. Life’s a continuum. I must have said that to you because I say it to everyone.
—The chapters themselves are short: a few paragraphs or pages. These draw narrative arcs forwards, largely sticking to the characters being discussed and progressing their parts of this story. But the focus of the novel jumps back and forth between characters because of the shortness of the chapters.
—In between these narrative chapters are snapshots of the wider world. Newspaper headlines, vignettes of stories unrelated to the main characters, snippets of dialogue, paragraphs of opinion pieces, microfictional narrative sections that bridge chapters. This technique puts flesh on the world without relying on traditional expositional tactics. But it runs the risk of jarring the reader out of the narrative arc: these snapshots could easily distract from the whole. It took me about a third of this book to fall in love with it, as a result of feeling untethered while reading. Yet by the end I didn’t see any other way this story could have been told better, and I enjoyed the snapshot sections as much as the story sections.
Pierre Clodard has mentioned the idea of divorcing his wife Rosalie, but so far only to his sister Jeannine.

Jeff Young sold that batch of GT aluminophage, and it did very satisfactory damage.

Henry Butcher is in jail.

There’s a new Begi story. Nobody knows where it got started. It’s called “Begi and the American”.

Mr. & Mrs. Everywhere have not yet been to Yatakang. If they go, all hell will break loose.

Occasionally Bennie Noakes says, “Christ! What an imagination I’ve got!”

Meanwhile, back at the planet Earth, it would no longer be possible to stand everyone on the island of Zanzibar without some of them being over ankles in the sea.

(POPULATION EXPLOSION Unique in human experience, an event which happened yesterday but which everyone swears won’t happen until tomorrow.
The Hipcrime Vocab by Chad C. Mulligan)
—Like some experimental writing—and some ensemble cast books—it took me a bit to get used to Brunner’s techniques, but once I did, the whole was worth every second. Unlike Lincoln in the Bardo, these snapshots all occur in the same world as the rest of the book, providing more context for the characters, and building the world out with more detail. It’s a technique that fits this story perfectly, yet I don’t think it’s for every story. Many of the snapshots are quotes from books written by Chad Mulligan, and he ends up becoming one of the main characters in the book—if it can be said to have main characters—at least the most common secondary character. But it’s a real treat when the story and storytelling mesh so well.

“Ready now, ma’am,” a soft voice advised her, and she stared at the enigmatic shape of Shalmaneser, which she had made possible and did not understand.
I wonder if God sometimes feels that way about His creatures.
She liked speech-making and show because she fed on tributes to herself, but the mood of the times was against it. She rationed it, warily, to people who might appreciate it: meetings of stockholders who liked to sense the majesty and solemnity of a multi-billion dollar enterprise. This was only a gathering of staffers, most of whom were scientists not connected to the big scene of real life.
2. The tale told centers around societal criticism, and Brunner’s dissatisfaction with the culture at large. The main thrusts of his narrative attack are consumerism and government interference; but he also touches on his anti-war beliefs, ideologies, the sexual revolution’s likely results, the state of family in America, and opinions about religion. It’s a wide-ranging book and I could be here listing things he doesn’t like for days. But I’d rather discuss his conclusion: all you need is peace, love, and understanding, and these are based on effective communication. Things like supercomputers and war will not solve the problems inherent in a society: the former can only solve some of any one problem, the latter can only solve external problems which may relieve some internal tension, but not all. The premise is that our society is filled with contradictions—he spends a particularly good section discussing smells and our innate reactions to them, as well as our bipolar methods of dealing with them—and Brunner pushes forward these contradictions that he believes are tearing our society apart, fifty years into his future—coincidentally, about where we are today. His future vision of society is actually fairly accurate, which makes the book a mind-trip to read today: unpopular wars, domestic and foreign terrorist attacks, consumerism run rampant, nationalism transferred to diplomacy-ism, reliance on computers, propaganda overload, racism, etc. Brunner created a convincing future that has somewhat come true, and that does help the book be a fascinating read today. But it doesn’t matter: again, the book still would’ve been good if he had flubbed the future-vision. On one hand, it indicts the 1960s culture it was initially aimed at. So, if we had listened to him and spun away from his future vision, or done a worse job of changing our culture, and his future vision hadn’t largely come true, it still would’ve been a poignant cultural artifact and entertaining read.

And to plot Yatakang’s next revolution on the threshold of a volcano seemed perfectly, inexpressibly apposite.
3. Brunner’s writing is solid. He keeps a satirical, blackly humorous tone that made me laugh many times, and cringe just as many. Yes, there is rape and incest in this book, but he uses them to drive home his societal critiques. Yes, there is a lot of violence and racism, but all in ways that echo newspaper reports today. Brunner’s writing is one of his strong suits, and it kept me enthralled. I kept reading it thinking that the quality would dip, but I don’t think it ever did. He may not be the best story teller, but the sentences and short narrative bursts of his tale are told in such an interesting way that I don’t care that his story is a little shallow. (Emphasis on “a little”.)

“This very distinguished philosophy professor came out on the platform in front of this gang of students and took a bit of chalk and scrawled up a proposition in symbolic logic on the board. He turned to the audience and said, ‘Well now, ladies and gentlemen, I think you’ll agree that that’s obvious?’
“Then he looked at it a bit more and started to scratch his head and after a while he said, ‘Excuse me!’ And he disappeared.
“About half an hour later he came back beaming all over his face and said triumphantly, ‘Yes, I was right—it is obvious!’”
4. The characters are not the most memorable. The synthesist, the CEO, and the sarcastic, ivory tower, pop societal critic. Chad, the latter of the three, is the most memorable. I think this is because of three reasons: first, by the time of his introduction on-scene, the reader knows him through the quotes from his books. He says interesting things, his introduction is memorable, and the reader already has enough information to care about him by the time he arrives. Second, he’s perhaps the most iconoclastic personality. He gets in people’s faces and says unthinkable things consistently. He also does things outside the social normal that Brunner has set up. Third, his change from start to finish is the most true-to-life. Where Donald is brainwashed, and Norman goes native, Chad finds the answer to his lifelong quest, and it consumes him—for better and for worse.
—Norman’s character relies on his race and religion to make him unique, but it relies on those things too much, and Norman isn’t developed well enough to be a great character. He is serviceable, and interesting, but he’s there to show the things around him, rather than to interest the reader in himself.
—Donald starts out as a sort of everyman, experiencing some nihilistic ennui. But his brainwashing comes out of left field and he’s a shattered man afterwards. He’s the government’s big mistake, and his arc is more metaphorically important than narratively essential.
—In short, Brunner can write great characters, but they all serve the pace and technique of the story instead of their own ends. Sure, I prefer characters, but this minor quibble doesn’t detract from the book at all, and I still love this book.

The world was a place of echoing colours, mostly drab—the colour-range of shit. The world was a place of tingling smells, making her nose run and her eyes water. The world was a place of indefinable menace, that clad her skin in the crawling caress of invisible cold snails. They figured out afterwards she must have been trying to hide, but what she opened wasn’t a closet-door. It was a window.
5. So, my notes can be summed up by: great book, a couple of quibbles, but nothing that detracts from the greatness of the novel. Some people call it a non-novel, but I think that’s splitting hairs too much. Or maybe that’s just me, in the post-structuralist era, being all post-structuralist about what a novel is. This book has characters and tells a story about their fictional lives. It’s told in a prose that touches on beauty and profound insight. And to me, that’s a novel, so I’m happy with calling it a novel. Further, this is a great novel. If you like Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, or Joe Haldeman, this novel is definitely for you. At the same time, the narrative techniques will put some casual readers off, and that’s fine too.
And to plot Yatakang’s next revolution on the threshold of a volcano seemed perfectly, inexpressibly apposite.

21 March, 2018

Witches Abroad by Terry Pratchett

1. “I got rambling / I got rambling on my mind / I got rambling / I got rambling all on my mind.” So sang Robert Johnson in 1936, when he also recorded the classic, “I Believe I’ll Dust my Broom”. These two songs ran through my head the whole time I was reading this book about voodoo, witches engaging in tourism to the discworld analogy of Louisiana, and the power of stories. The whole book ruminates on stories and the power they have—certain things need to happen in this tale because they have happened in other tales, and Pratchett says so. His real thrust is this line from the book: “People think that stories are shaped by people. In fact, it's the other way around.” We create stories, and in so doing the stories create us. Pratchett plays this point for humor, as usual, but the point isn’t lost in the jokes. The two support each other in a way indicative of Pratchett’s brilliance.
Nanny Ogg knew how to start spelling 'banana', but didn't know how you stopped.

2. The characters are less revealing here than the theme. Pratchett doesn’t run wild or create too many new characters, rather, he lets characters we already know run the show. It could be seen as fan service, I guess, but it could also be Pratchett expanding the scope of his usual cast of characters. To me, because the novel is so smitten with the theme, it doesn’t come off like fan service.
Cats gravitate to kitchens like rocks gravitate to gravity.

3. Again, this novel follows episodic lines, but Pratchett has grown as an author. This isn’t a bad fix-up like the first two discworld novels were. The theme carries the whole with more consistency than Eric did, being so focused on one thing, rather than the three separate wishes of the boy Faust Eric. This consistent theme, and the consistent main characters, keeps the novel a novel, and means that it’s much stronger than Equal Rites. But the fact still remains that this rumination on stories is not structured as concisely as a typical novel. Variety is the spice of writing. Sometimes, when I see a novel and it’s composed of three or four different episodes, I’m wishing there was a term to put on the cover that would warn me. Here, it works, but not brilliantly. It works by contrast with other novels, as a break from the typical novel structure.
“Good and bad is tricky," she said. "I ain't too certain about where people stand. P'raps what matters is which way you face.”

4. So, it’s a novel, but just. It explores an interesting theme with wonderful humor, but plays heavy towards the humor. The characters feature more complexity than in past works, but are still familiar enough that the question of fan service is present. In all, I thought it was a fun book, a good one, even. But if you’re not into vampires or voodoo, it might not be as gripping for you.
Find the story, Granny Weatherwax always said. She believed that the world was full of story shapes. If you let them, they controlled you. But if you studied them, if you found out about them... you could use them, you could change them.

19 March, 2018

Way Station / Here Gather the Stars by Clifford D Simak

This novel holds peace up as an answer to humanity’s problems. However, Simak doesn’t go into what he means by peace. He seems to be applying four aspects of peace: as the antonym to war, as a lack of conflict with neighbors, as contentment with life and the unexpected results of choices, and/or as a connection with a higher spiritual force. The first is unexplained and told as a given—which is where this novel tries to delve into the Cold War setting. The second is detailed the most, but more in action than rumination, meaning that it could be easy to miss the point. The third occupies most of the book, as it follows the main character (Enoch Wallace) who is struggling with peace and loneliness in his own life. And the fourth is a deus ex machina, literally—there’s a machine called The Talisman that accentuates a spiritual person’s connection with the spiritual realm. I am dissatisfied at the depth Simak analyses all but the third aspect of this theme. He fails to write out a definition of peace, and for a novel where that concept is the resolution, this lack seems curious. Now, I’m happy if I have an understanding of what he means by peace from the rest of the text, but he leaves off discussing it, just on the cusp of discussing it, more times than he actually delves into the central concept. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the resolution seemed too pat, and if I had more foreshadowing and discussion of the central concept, it would’ve been less out of left field, and could have worked better. I’m disappointed simply because the book is enjoyable to read, and having that final impression show some shallowness that wasn’t present in other aspects of the book—building the main character, the complex galactic situation politically, the realistic actions that followed rationally one to the next and made sense—left me wanting the book to be a few more chapters long. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Though Simak tempered the deus ex machina with a later disappointment for Enoch in his loneliness and potential love life, it still left me dissatisfied.

Novels are stories that touch on so many aspects of the human experience, so choosing where to focus and where to expand is an important part of the writing process. And this book expands and focuses in appropriate ways, except that last bit. Simak brushes against peace, spirituality, galactic cofraternity, the Cold War, the CIA, illegal family businesses, communication, heuristics, loneliness, and the list goes on. I don’t expect any author to explore every little facet of every theme they bring up, but I do expect the central one to be more explored than others, than peace was here. As an aside, the Talisman itself is foreshadowed enough that it doesn’t strike me as a horrible deus ex machina; I wish peace had the same treatment.
He stood quietly in the dark and silence, and the voice of a century of living seemed to speak to him in a silent language. All things are hard, it said. There is nothing easy.

But the plot and story are strong and carried me through the novel. Simak writes best when he is explaining actions. Scenes like the virtual reality gun range speed up and get the blood pumping, while discussions about loneliness slow down as the emotion takes over Enoch’s mind. There is not a pre-arranged pattern of plot pacing, but a plot that speeds and slows as the story dictates. Simak masters pacing through paying attention to the story and what he’s already said in it. However, the book does seem like it’s split in two—there seems to be a first and second half to this novel: the build-up and the crisis respectively. This split nature may be a result of its original publishing as a serial story in a magazine. (I noticed the split while reading, then checked later and saw that it was serially published originally.)
Tonight, he thought, he probably should tell Ulysses about the watch that had been put upon the station. Perhaps he should have told him earlier, but he had been reluctant to admit that the human race might prove to be a problem to the galactic installation.

Simak develops Enoch as a loner, so his actions and interior monologue inform the reader most; but Simak doesn’t let the few moments of dialogue go ignored either—they are dense with revealing moments about Enoch’s character and priorities. Some of the dialogue surprises because it reveals such a different side of him. Outside of the spoken word, the way he reacts and prioritizes inform who he is throughout, and it’s a strong tactic that left me understanding Enoch.
It was a hopeless thing, he thought, this obsession of his to present the people of the Earth as good and reasonable. For in many ways they were neither good nor reasonable; perhaps because they had not as yet entirely grown up. They were smart and quick and at times compassionate and even understanding, but they failed lamentably in many other ways.

The opening is strong. Simak starts with the CIA crew discussing the strange case of Enoch Wallace, giving the reader an intro to the novel that doesn’t rely on an intro-info dump, but does connect the reader with the intrigue of the novel right away. By the end of that opening, I am as full of questions about Enoch as the CIA is. Then Enoch comes on-scene and takes over the novel, but the CIA people keep popping up in interesting ways, meaning that the opening is not forgotten. It’s a sensational tactic and one that draws me in instantly.
A man could be as self-effacing as he well could manage and still he could not hide. Soon or late the world would catch up with him and would come crowding around his door, agog to know why he might be hiding.

So, in closing, Simak creates a unique situation with a strong opening, tries to use the situation to its strengths, populates it with a well-built character, and lets the story dictate the pacing. These aspects are done very well. However, the story ignores the implications of every idea it brings up, the end was capped off by a deus ex machina that solved almost every problem in the book too perfectly, and who in the world thinks its a good idea to have a last page reveal of what the whole book was about? That's worse than an intro-info-dump. That said, the strength of the action and plot means that I will definitely be looking for more Simak to read.