30 September, 2015

Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon — First Read

This book is available to read freely online here.

1. This is a strange book, but it's organized well so it holds together. It chronicles a fictional history for mankind up to a specific point in the future. It's a large span of time that Stapledon is dealing with, and he organizes the time periods into eighteen main parts: seventeen different evolutionary variations on our humanity coming after his predictions for what would happen next in our world, the world of the first men. This organization is successful at keeping the whole project legible and varied.

2. It's structurally a good tactic to start here with the familiar, you and me as first men, then continue carefully and slowly away from that point, noting the early differences in detail. Then, by the time the reader gets to the eighteenth men, all of these crazy differences between us and them are palatable to the reader because they've seen the slow change over time in stages. This is a crazy book dealing with some inconceivable topics and states of being. But by showing the slow evolution, Stapledon allows the reader to understand his conception—by taking us one step at a time, I can follow much more easily.

3. However, he spends too much time on the first men. Even the intro to the version I read advised the reader to skip the first four parts due to their repetitiveness and their placing the book so specifically in 1930—plus, Stapledon gets some of his early prophecy very wrong. I also think too much time is spent on the first men: 37.5% of the book tells the story of the first men and the Martians, though the Martians only have a couple pages at best. This is what HP Lovecraft believed was a "disproportianate acceleration of the tempo towards the end." More time is spent on the first, second, fifth, and eighteenth men, while some of the later variations only receive a couple of sentences of description. Let me break down the pacing:
  • the first 6 chapters are given over to the first men;
  • chapters 7-9 to the second;
  • chapter 10 to the third;
  • chapter 11 to the fourth and fifth;
  • chapter 12 the fifth alone;
  • chapter 13 to the sixth, seventh, and eighth;
  • chapter 14 to the ninth, tenth, eleventh, twelfth, thirteenth, fourteenth, fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth;
  • and the final two chapters, 15-16, to the eighteenth men.
This pacing struck me two ways: either Stapledon is not being as fair and evenhanded with his philosophical opponents in the second half as he was in the first, or he ran out of steam as a writer. Like when you try and fit a word onto a note card and you kinda run out of room so you mash all the letters together there at the edge and it's pretty obvious that you ran out of room. That's almost what this "acceleration of tempo" feels like. This disproportion between how much time is spent on the first men, and how much time is spent on the tenth through seventeenth men was a little frustrating as a reader. It felt like a little more planning or editing could have helped. Like I said, some extra time with the first humans at the start is a positive—it allows human readers an empathetic avenue into this weird future evolutionary story—but Stapledon spent too much time on them. This is actually not a major detriment for me though, because his project doesn't seem to be future history or future prophecy on any level deeper than the surface.

4. The themes are evolution and genetic engineering, as well as man attempting to find man's place in the universe. And it's man's search that is Stapledon's project here. Through the 16 intervening species of men between the first and the last, each symbolizes characteristics of a philosophy that Stapledon is arguing against. Three examples:
  • The fourth men are the most intelligent beings ever created. They think better than anybody, they govern with wisdom, and they are driven by objectivity. Empirical evidence is prime in their minds, and their thirst and passion for study is unrivaled. These are the smartest, wisest, brightest, and most objective beings that have ever been, and they're working together perfectly in a perfect commune. Yet, they have lost their humanity: love, sex, emotion, familial ties, competition, the easy ability to walk around. Through ignoring these basic human characteristics, they are wiped out. In other words, pure intellectualism uninformed by emotion is a philosophical dead end. As attractive as it seems from our perspective, Stapledon imagines that the true philosopher Kings would end up ruling the people through tyranny. And he makes a convincing argument.
  • Even the Martians who invade earth are a metaphor for a philosophy: their group mind and body representin mindless communism.
  • At the end, even the 18th men still have questions to be answered. I assume that the 18th men embody Stapledon's personal philosophy: they have done away with guilt, they are sexually highly diverse and liberal, they're all philosophers and artists, they have the ability to act and think together in groups of 96 or as an entire species, they are immortal, and they can re-experience the past at will. In other words, Stapledon wants us to get to a place where our morals are less limiting to our intellect, where we appreciate the well done good and evil act alike, and where the only things left unanswered are what the future holds and what happens after death.
Let me quote two paragraphs to give a specificity of how he's accomplishing his project:
The ether ship is in a manner symbolic of our whole community, so highly organized is it, and so minute in relation to the void which engulfs it. The ethereal navigators, because they spend so much of their time in the empty regions, beyond the range of "telepathic" communication and sometimes even of mechanical radio, form mentally a unique class among us. They are a hardy, simple, and modest folk. And though they embody man's proud mastery of the ether, they are never tired of reminding landlubbers, with dour jocularity, that the most daring voyages are confined within one drop of the boundless ocean of space.

Recently an exploration ship returned from a voyage into the outer tracts. Half her crew had died. The survivors were emaciated, diseased, and mentally unbalanced. To a race that thought itself so well established in sanity that nothing could disturb it, the spectacle of these unfortunates was instructive. Throughout the voyage, which was the longest ever attempted, they had encountered nothing whatever but two comets, and an occasional meteor. Some of the nearer constellations were seen with altered forms. One or two stars increased slightly in brightness; and the sun was reduced to being the most brilliant of stars. The aloof and changeless presence of the constellations seems to have crazed the voyagers. When at last the ship returned and berthed, there was a scene such as is seldom witnessed in our modern world. The crew flung open the ports and staggered blubbering into the arms of the crowd. It would never have been believed that members of our species could be so far reduced from the self-possession that is normal to us. Subsequently these poor human wrecks have shown an irrational phobia of the stars, and of all that is not human. They dare not go out at night. They live in an extravagant passion for the presence of others. And since all others are astronomically minded, they cannot find real companionship. They insanely refuse to participate in the mental life of the race upon the plane where all things are seen in their just proportions. They cling piteously to the sweets of individual life; and so they are led to curse the immensities. They fill their minds with human conceits, and their houses with toys. By night they draw the curtains and drown the quiet voice of the stars in revelry. But it is a joyless and a haunted revelry, desired less for itself than as a defence against reality.
Here he's talking about a perfectly unified society that is able to handle anything through their perfect community. Yet, when taken outside of that community and faced with an actual unknown, even a minor unknown like "two comets, and an occasional meteor," these people who draw their strength from insularity are crazed, diseased, emaciated, and half of them die. They have no defence against reality outside that of their community. In Stapledon's mind, insularity leads to inflexibility which leads to mental instability when confronted with something outside of one's conception or experience. This philosophical project of lining up different philosophies then shooting them down works for Stapledon. I must mention that some seem a little straw-mannish: essentially saying that a group realizes a failure is coming from a long way out because they are so logical, so they gracefully step out of the way. But these examples don't really detract too much.

5. Part of the reason that it works is he never loses sight of wonder. In the descriptions of each of the stages of man's evolution, in the descriptions of geological and universal time, in the short episodes of specific situations that ended up being important—Stapledon suffuses this book with a sense of wonder that I think is necessary to the readability of the dryer philosophical theme. If it was just straight philosophy, this project would have been better suited to an essay. But he wants to write it in this narrative form, so he fills it with life, wonder, and beauty. The marriage of these two actually ends up working very well. It's a big risk, not having characters and relying upon descriptions, world-building, and philosophy alone to interest the reader and drive the book. But Stapledon's descriptions allow wonder to carry the whole thing:
The sky turned black. The Arctic summer became a weird and sultry night, torn by fantastic thunderstorms. Rain crashed on the ship's deck in a continuous waterfall. Clouds of pungent smoke and dust irritated the eyes and nose. Submarine earthquakes buckled the pack-ice.

A year after the explosion, the ship was labouring in tempestuous and berg-strewn water near the Pole. The bewildered little company now began to feel its way south; but, as they proceeded, the air became more fiercely hot and pungent, the storms more savage. Another twelve months were spent in beating about the Polar sea, ever and again retreating north from the impossible southern weather. But at length conditions improved slightly, and with great difficulty these few survivors of the human race approached their original objective in Norway, to find that the lowlands were a scorched and lifeless desert, while on the heights the valley vegetation was already struggling to establish itself, in patches of sickly green. Their base town had been flattened by a hurricane, and the skeletons of its population still lay in the streets. They coasted further south. Everywhere the same desolation. Hoping that the disturbance might be merely local, they headed round the British Isles and doubled back on France. But France turned out to be an appalling chaos of volcanoes. With a change of wind, the sea around them was infuriated with falling debris, often red hot. Miraculously they got away and fled north again. After creeping along the Siberian coast they were at last able to find a tolerable resting-place at the mouth of one of the great rivers. The ship was brought to anchor, and the crew rested. They were a diminished company, for six men and two women had been lost on the voyage.
I think the writing is good: it communicates well and has that perfect balance between specific detail and unstated mystery which allows wonder to seep into the text. It is evocative without being breathtakingly beautiful, but also without being ugly. As you can tell from the first paragraph quoted in point 4, there is a suspension of disbelief that the reader today must engage in order to fully enjoy this book. This was written in 1930 and some of the science shows it. But in all, the writing is solid.

6. In essence: the solid writing, the episodic storytelling structure, and Stapledon's philosophical project are so closely related in this text that the end result is staggering. It's a job well done and I can see its influence directly on Arthur Clarke, who also said: "Last and First Men: No other book had a greater influence on my life....(It) and its successor Star Maker (1937) are the twin summits of (Stapledon's) literary career." It also influenced CS Lewis's Space Trilogy: "I believe that one of the central ideas of this tale came into my head from conversations I had with a scientific colleague, some time before I met a rather similar suggestion in the works of Mr. Olaf Stapledon. If I am mistaken in this, Mr. Stapledon is so rich in invention that he can afford to lend, and I admire his invention (though not his philosophy) so much that I should feel no shame to borrow." Fritz Leiber suspected this book had the power of myth, to which HP Lovecraft responded: "Its scope is dizzying—and despite a somewhat disproportionate acceleration of the tempo toward the end, and a few scientific inferences which might legitimately be challenged, it remains a thing of unparalleled power. As you say, it has the truly basic quality of a myth, and some of the episodes are of matchless poignancy and dramatic intensity." I agree with Lewis and Lovecraft and Leiber here. The marriage of structure, writing, and subtext is superb.

23 September, 2015

Three Moments of an Explosion by China Miéville

1. I certainly wanted more variety of structure. Short stories are where authors can try more with less risk of wasting a year on a crap novel: they can attempt new schemes and test sentence structures and throw it all away if it doesn't work, only having wasted a few hours of time rather than weeks or months. And Miéville does that here, somewhat. But at times he sticks rigidly to his familiar themes and styles: the unknown, barely glimpsed or heard horror understood by one character as necessitating flight, and by another as the other's irrational flight; the mid-story reveal of a deeper mystery that, though it's not what the story is about, subtly or wholly changes the setting or stakes; a discussion of how humans exist in a world where one significant thing is quite different and, to us, illogically so. These are good tactics and he writes them well. But this is a collection of 28 short stories mostly using these three tactics. I wanted more variety here, and didn't get it. For instance, the three italicized stories are transcriptions of video, and instead of trying this structure then moving on to trying other interesting new things, two more stories come along written as a video transcription. I wanted more variety, but the stores are mostly good: well-written and engaging, communicative of his subtext, and interesting.

2. What I like the most is that they remain focused on humanity. Mostly he examines the various ways we deal with the unknown and unknowable: our reactions, our reactions to our own reactions, others' reactions to our reactions, and how we react to their reaction to our reaction. This is what makes Miéville great: he goes that one layer deeper into what makes us who we are and how who we are reacts. With the fantastical, often unknowable setting or actions, this honesty about humanity grounds the stories and keeps them legible and applicable to human readers. No matter how weird, farfetched, or illogical it all gets, there are still humans and recognizable reactions. The themes here circle humans and the unknown, reaction chains and how we interface with the unknown and stay human with it. Like the three figured cast of "In the Slopes," which is probably a wonderful metaphor for the theme of the stories, the unknown comes and in their final act they pointlessly attempt protection, succeeding instead at love, trust, fear, panic, and acceptance of the fateful inevitability. The speculative aspects almost always affect the characters in interesting, recognizable ways. Miéville uses them as more than decoration throughout. But they are not the focus. Rather, they are a pivot point, or a metaphor, or a way to look at something in a new light initially undimmed by preconceptions. This is strong science fiction.

3. The other thing Miéville does well is allow readers to care before the plot really gets moving. We already care about Nick before we learn his condition. This effectively gives his illness import. This is rare: in The Caves of Steel, the initial murder is not inherently interesting or important or contextualized to the reader at all. So many speculative novels start with a murder that it's no longer gripping but cliché—like a D&D campaign beginning in an inn, or a film's external scene setting shot not informing the following scene at all. Miéville avoids this by beginning his stories before an important action, far enough back that the reader is able to guess at the importance when the action occurs, actually giving the action some import. This is both engaging and refreshing.

4. The writing is economical and unusual, prone to wonderfully surprising one-liners and immense pace changes. There are some strange sentences while Miéville pushes and stretches language, trimming and pruning—such as, "I said, he said, we must go"—but he's still usually making sense. There is beauty here:
"Couldn't arrange the sun," Anna called. The cloud cover was flat and unvarying gray. The yard was too enclosed to feel the wind.
But mostly, his wonderful wording leads to surprising one-liners:
I poured myself a glass of water. I didn't like how it looked at me.

They started to shed shadows.

God is a scrimshander.
There are many other examples. He uses words rather than being constrained by the ways they've been used in the past. He attaches new connotations, stretching their traditional meanings a bit. A typical author would have written, "They started to shadow whole swaths of London." He says, "shed shadows." It works. At least more often than it doesn't.

5. Miéville mostly shows. He does this well, using sentence structures and word choices to modify pace and show fractures in human logic and understanding and changing minds. But he also tells well:
I looked straight at Ian and willed myself not to show guilt.

I loved the London bergs.

I'm not thrilled by the prospect.
He does both well and uses both to influence the pace of the narrative, to breed mystery. For instance, why is he not thrilled to go back? Too much here would've piqued my interest less. But when an important crux is reached in "The Dusty Hat," the character's emotions are shown through the episode with the water glass looking at him funny, and his other actions, which slows down the narrative through needing more words to show emotion by action rather than telling, which allows the story to dwell for a space, which billboards the importance of that part of the story. Miéville shows and tells well, but also uses both to influence the story brilliantly.

6. I think at two or three points Miéville is a bit too preachy in the stories and it comes off egotistical.

7. "In the Slopes" is one of my favorite short stories. It uses one of his typical structures—surprise the reader 1/3 into the story—but Miéville writes this tactic so well that it's a delight to read. It's a 33 page story about "The Other Pompeii". It begins with 14 pages about two dig sites—one traditional, the other new and mysterious—and their two dig-crews—one traditional, the other experimenting with new techniques. Their professional rivalry plays out like a soap opera for the island's permanent inhabitants. This rivalry is the focus of the first 14 pages. Then Miéville nonchalantly drops a massive revelation about the artifacts themselves that completely changes the setting, recasting all the mundanity of island life and the professional rivalry in a strange new view that uses the mundane-fantastical contrast to show the human truth that time will make any atypical typical. He reveals this in a way wholly appropriate to the characters and the setting: this is a revelation to the reader, but it's obviously mundane to the islanders. Rather than blasting off with this new revelation in a new direction, like a pulp author would, he continues the human story from the first 14 pages within this newly shifted frame: the story's still about the professional rivalry and the digs. Miéville often uses this sort of bait-and-switch tactic, like a sonnet's volta, to recast a partially built world with a nonchalant detail drop that shifts the whole thing. These fantastic elements are part of the whole story and integral to the story, but they're never the point: something to do with humanity is always the point. It's a tactic he uses often—both in this collection and in his other works—but perhaps nowhere better than "In the Slopes". Although, The City and The City quite skillfully does this as well.

8. "Polynia" engages a different structure. Here, London is invaded by relics of the past. Illicit explorers of these relics send messages back to London while government expeditions livestream their explorations. But the whole is told by an adult looking back on his childhood obsession with these artifacts. The structure leaves the why until the end—examining the parts and plot before reflecting on why the adult is bringing these situations back up. Again, it's a mundane, human, coming-of-age story in a fantastical setting. Miéville uses the set pieces to ally the largely unlikable main character with the reader: I am as interested in the objects of his obsession as he is. And without these speculative artifacts, well, I would have been hard pressed to feel with this kid about Pokémon or Minecraft. But the strange, illogical artifacts, about which I have no preconceived notions, allow me to empathize with a character who is otherwise unlikable.

9. In "The Design", Miéville experiments with an interesting structure: the story ping-pongs back and forth in time, allowing the future narrator to reflect on the past and foreshadow the more future past. The mystery of the narrator's origin and interest in William ties it all together. He's not just a close school chum, that's apparent, but the specifics of what he is are hinted at throughout, not explicitly given. This effectively drives the story forward while the situation of the design itself is more the excuse for the subtextual story—the hook to draw the reader in while the relationship between William and the narrator takes its time building up enough detail to gain interest and import.

10. "Säcken" shows the physical monster, describes it, which is typically a no-no. I've been heard to say, "never show the monster," and I detest writing rules. But it works here, because the real monster is the humanity that created this, not the strange physical result. In this way, it's indebted to Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau and Shelly's Frankenstein, both of which fully show the physical monster because the humanity is the real monster. But of course, it's Miéville, so he has his own point and take on this plot element.

11. I did not like a few stories, or maybe I just didn't get them. "The Condition of New Death" lost sight of humanity in the window dressing. "The Crawl" failed to deal with the genre in an interesting way. "Rules" had a great premise and opening, but petered out in a lackluster mess. "The Rope is the World" is a fascinating idea that nothing is done with: this should probably be a novel to really get enough out of this rich concept.

12. In many ways, most of the stories are worthy of study by a writer: even the failures are still interesting enough to make engaging with them worthwhile and enjoyable. The stories are dense with techniques, confident wordplay, and appreciable pacing, world-building, and character creation. Maybe I read them too quickly—one and a half weeks—but I grew fatigued by the similarities of structures, themes, and the long story to short story to long story arrangement of the book. I think spacing the stories out in my own reading would have been a better method here: one that would have allowed more time to reflect on every story and draw conclusions from each.

13. I most liked "In the Slopes," "The Design," "Polynia," "Dreaded Outcome," "Watching God," "The Dowager of Bees," "Keep," "Covehithe," "A Second Slice Manifesto," and "Three Moments of an Explosion." However, "In the Slopes" and "The Design" seem to just blow everything else out of the water.

20 September, 2015

Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny

1. The coolest thing Zelazny structurally does is to make Sam fail constantly. Sam shoots from the hip an awful lot, and mostly misses: he frees the demons and becomes possessed, he attempts to steal the thunder chariot and gets taken captive, he battles the gods and loses—there are more examples. Though Sam loses battles, he messes up in ways that he can turn to his benefit: by being possessed, he befriends the demon; by being captured, he has opportunity to proselytize the gods; by battling the gods, he sews doubt in their minds and in man's. He takes what comes to him and finds any advantage to draw from it. This isn't a pulp trick though: it's not John Carter falling while fighting, then sitting and stewing until some deus ex machina frees him, then going straight back to the fighting. Rather, Sam risks and loses, but makes the most of it, turns it to his advantage in a way that doesn't rely on hitherto unknowns or outside forces, but through the characters themselves in an honest way, not shying away from what would be a corner a lesser writer would've written themselves into. Something is lost and something is gained. Afterwards, instead of sticking to the same plan in the same way and trying again, that plot element is concluded and Sam moves on. This tactic of Zelazny's is subtle, but a big difference. This is not cheap storytelling. It comes off sophisticated and complex. Brilliant. (Though a counterpoint would be the mother of the glow, which is a deus ex machina)

2. The world building inspires awe. Zelazny starts right in with the characters in the world. He stays with them throughout. It's all the characters, and through them the world-building happens. For instance, in the opening of the book Yama operates a prayer-machine. The reader has no clue what a prayer-machine is other than the clue the name itself gives. This machine and the way the characters interact while using it gives a sense of the world. He doesn't stop the action to explain the technology, but he does give the basics: what a machine does, why the character is using it, and some context of whether the machine is for mortals or gods. These explanations arise naturally, are not overly wordy, and are not overly complex—they only give one more layer to the depth of the technology, keeping the focus on characters and plot and ideas while intruding as little as possible into the narrative. Some of these explanations arise in dialogue, as does much of the fictional history: two characters referencing a shared experience while introducing it to the reader. This is how the world-building is accomplished: the focus stays on the characters, goals, and actions rather than the technology or traditional world-building by narrator. With the prayer-machine, which is quickly explained, he builds trust in the reader, and I trust him to explain things as needed from there on. By not intro-info-dumping, he draws out the world building throughout the novel, which keeps the reader discovering new ideas. By the end I have a great sense of the world. Again it's not cheap or pulpy, but incredibly sophisticated: he focuses on the characters and uses them to build the world naturally and slowly. He doesn't use this tactic to excuse any deus ex machina later. (Except the mother of the glow)

3. But the structure isn't all perfect, unfortunately. That ending drags on in a way that feels like Zelazny lost his path. It's longwinded and introduces new characters and continents in a wild proliferation of plot threads spreading out and too heavily indicating a sequel, which was never written. Six and a half chapters of this novel are structured perfectly, while half a chapter drags.

4. The main structural risk is starting in the middle, then backtracking to another starting point in the past, then surpassing the original starting point to an ending point in the future. This works, but I think it could have been a bit more clear. I initially missed it and was quite confused for a couple of paragraphs.

5. I had a hard time keeping some of the minor characters straight. Because everything flows so well and keeps on moving without major pauses, some of the characters are not clear before the tale moves on, causing minor confusion. Plus, each character has so many names. Their myriad-names convey the serial nature of their mind transfers, sure, but also obfuscate who is who.

6. The novel happens in stages of action and reflection, attempting to meld the two and mostly succeeding. What I mean is that a lengthy action passage will be followed up by a lengthy passage where not much physically happens, but it reflects on the action that just occurred and the action that is about to occur. The novel is almost a 50-50 split of reflection and action, which fits the setting and themes well.

7. It's refreshing to have any author treat another culture this fairly: he is not stereotyping, he's writing complex and conflicted humans who happen to be Hindu, Buddhist, or Christian. Indian themes run through the novel, but never feel like cheap window dressing. Instead I came away with a sense that Zelazny embarked on a truly massive research project before writing this. He method-writes this, inhabiting parts of the culture to tell this tale.

8. The broad writing tactic mixes science fiction story with fantasy word choices, descriptions, and sentence structures. I wouldn't have thought this possible to this level of success. But Zelazny pulls it off, effectively embracing and illuminating the fantastic inherent in science fiction. He also allows that fantastic and utter incomprehensibility to cause the writing. All things are described as mythical, through deeply paradoxical, incantational, and mystical language. It's a gripping voice. Let me give four examples:
His followers called him Mahasamatman and said he was a god. He preferred to drop the Maha- and the -atman, however, and called himself Sam. He never claimed to be a god, but then he never claimed not to be a god. Circumstances being what they were, neither admission could be of any benefit. Silence, though, could.

The high-frequency prayers were directed upward through the atmosphere and out beyond it, passing into that golden cloud called the Bridge of the Gods, which circles the entire world, is seen as a bronze rainbow at night and is the place where the red sun becomes orange at midday.
"I shall tear these stars from out the heavens, and hurl them in the faces of the gods, if this be necessary. I shall blaspheme in every Temple throughout the land. I shall take lives as a fisherman takes fish, by the net, if this be necessary. I shall mount me again up to the Celestial City, though every step be a flame or a naked sword and the way be guarded by tigers. One day will the gods look down from Heaven and see me upon the stair, bringing them the gift they fear most. That day will the new Yuga begin."

The day of the battle dawned pink as the fresh-bitten thigh of a maiden. A small mist drifted in from the river. The Bridge of the Gods glistened all of gold in the east, reached back, darkening, into retreating night, divided the heavens like a burning equator. [...] There were no clouds in the heavens. The grasses of the plain were still moist and sparkling. The air was cool, the ground still soft enough to gather footprints readily.
This writing is simply fun to read. The names also contribute to this wonderful voice. Zelazny avoids overwhelming the readers with made up, pseudo-historical names by using familiars like Buddha and Shiva, but also by using explanatory names: Lord of Light, God of Fire, Garden of Joy, Purple Grove, etc. These explanatory names are perfect: they both explain and give a sense of the importance that calling a city Keenset doesn't have without the further explanation of Keenset's technological advance and the battle. For instance, Purple Grove implies that it's unique and tells what's unique about it in the same breath. Zelazny's voice here is stunning.

9. The theme is traditional versus advancement, old versus new, the powerful few versus the powerless many. From the very start, with the prayer machine, the reader begins to get a sense of this theme. And all throughout, this theme is drilled home by the plot, the dialog, the monologue, and the setting. The demons are a powerless many, yet they still threaten Sam. Sam fights the gods, not by brilliant battle, but rather by shifting the rules of the game to favor the many, the new, advancement. The theme runs through this entire novel, influencing every word. It's a fascinating look at a space colony gone native en masse, at how pinched resources can affect a whole planet of people and their social structures, at how adopting a pose eventually causes your face to stick that way. It's engaging and has a satisfying depth.

15 September, 2015

The Tower by WB Yeats

This collection is available to read freely online here.

For Garrett.

1. There are some astounding lines in here:
"Now I shall make my soul."
"What shall I do with this absurdity—"
"Strange, but the man who made the song was blind."
"He stumbled, tumbled, fumbled to and fro."
"The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,"
"Having inherited a vigorous mind"
"It is time that I wrote my will,"
"Life overflows without ambitious pains;"
Yeats is working with lines that, when taken out of context like this, appear to mean one thing but, when read in the poem, mean something different. This is interesting structurally, but I find the constant shift between what is implied and what is actually said to be fatiguing over the length of this whole collection.

2. In the first two poems I see a combination of The Wind Among the Reeds and Michael Robartes and the Dancer. The former plays with words and is easy to understand. The second constructs complex patterns and is wider ranging in thoughts and topics, circling and including and ruminating towards a conclusion. This collection draws from both, but might not do either as well as those earlier works.

3. The second poem, titular, is very tight. It is constructed like "A Prayer for My Daughter": it starts simply, confronting aging, then goes ranging wide before coming back to a concise close. At first it seems somewhat rambling, but each example, thought, and memory is called back in later to influence other thoughts. Every one. This is controlled, and tight. But, the seeming divergences risk sidetracking and losing me when they first appear. Yeats does not connect them clearly enough until later in the poem, and that's my biggest problem here.

4. Here, Yeats' long poems are not quite as good as his shorter ones. And with the dates they were written, I suspect these are B-sides interspersed with shorter poems. I know that's terrible, but the disparity of poetic quality in my perception is that great. I think the rhyme schemes often hurt the longer poems by forcing them into too patterned a cadence. In the first poem, the enjambment really works, and I wonder if the longer poems should have had more of it to break them from their overpowering pattern.

5. His repetition is often immediate and often exact:
"A faithful love, a faithful love."
"Are but loose thread, are but loose thread."
This pauses the poem, allowing the reader time to reflect. Yeats also uses some formulaic repetition: "self-sown, self-begotten." But I end up wishing there was more, and more varied, repetition and formulaic repetition. I've seen him use both so extensively and well in the past that I wonder why he sets them aside. They're scarce in this collection. Why? Is he trying to say something that he feels they will not help? Is he bored with them? Is he pushing himself away from them?

6. "Owen Aherne and His Dancers": what a great poem! Repetition here comes back in force, but it's not the formulaic, almost repetition of a phrase, rather it's repeated words that take the stage: wind and wild, heart and mad, cage and run. This poem discusses the poet's own thoughts and feelings and contrasts them with each other. These long lines are used to allow large words space to be couched in sense-making phrases. It worries at a sliver of thought, at the reaction to the aging, and approaches it from multiple sides at once: eventually putting the aging man in his place, and the young in theirs. But it's all set in longing—an old man for a young woman's beauty and activity. Through this specific situation, the people are all placed in their proper realms—and even the poet's heart and mind are situated.

7. I also liked "Meditations in Time of Civil War" with its uncomfortable honesty, shame, and look at how people exist during Civil War times: not extraordinarily, but mundanely. Just a bunch of glimpses of life during this time period, but together they're greater than the sum of their parts.

8. "The New Faces" complexly weaves a number of phrases in this mystic, paradoxical reflection on one lover dying before the other. The stilted, stopping, jagged, cut-up rhythm and cadence supports this theme and reflects the mental state of the partner left behind. Brilliant pairing of structure and theme.

9. Due to the rambling, wide ranging, sidetracking nature of these poems, they're often difficult at first read—and without relying upon repetition but being forced into a rhyme scheme, the sounds do more to confuse the reader than carry them through. These are not poems whose progression is standard logic or easy to follow at first. But once the logic is revealed at the end, the second read is more rewarding than the first. To restate this in gallery art terms, these look jumbled from 20 feet away, somewhat clearer from 10 feet, and still more clear from five. But these too often require deep study just to get the gist of it. And in this way I think these are mostly failed experiments. Fascinating and at times breathtaking, but failed.

10. The theme here is contradictions or contrasts and learning to appreciate both sides of them: old and young, love and loneliness, Civil War and the day-to-day mechanics of life, etc. These are sometimes a grass-is-greener longing, and sometimes a condemnation, but always appreciative of both sides and wishing for their combination. Like in "The Tower", where a song praising a country-maid's beauty leads to a drowning:
Strange, but the man who made the song was blind;
Yet, now I have considered it, I find
That nothing strange; the tragedy began
With Homer that was a blind man,
And Helen has all living hearts betrayed.
Oh may the moon and sunlight seem
One inextricable beam,
For if I triumph I must make men mad.
Those two lines, "Oh may the moon and sunlight seem / One inextricable beam," are key to the whole collection, and stunningly beautiful. He longs for the binding of the paradox, the understanding of both moon and sun as one, the mystical. The place where the best of both sides of the contradiction come together and shed off their negatives: the vigor and beauty of youth with the imagination and experience of age; the triumph of silent solitude and the togetherness of love; the spirit that drives men towards freedom and that which drives them to a paycheck. And this theme of contrasts is supported by both word choices and sentence structures—long and short lines exist in the same poems, monosyllabic and multisyllabic words all have meaning and importance, poems of many parts and poems of one stanza share pages in the same collection, longer poems embrace multiple forms to make multiple points. This interaction of theme and mechanics shows how holistic Yeats' writing has become by this stage. It's a staggering display of skill.

11. My favorites are: "Owen Aherne and His Dancers", "Meditations in Time of Civil War", "The New Faces", "Youth and Age", and "Sailing to Byzantium", that classic mythical poem. I almost would put "The Tower" on this list, there're some incredible lines in there but I just can't.

13 September, 2015

Michael Robartes and the Dancer by WB Yeats

This collection is available to read freely online here.

For Garrett.

1. In this collection, Yates experiments structurally, often drawing out sentences. For instance, a line in "The Leaders of the Crowd" reads:
"How can they know
Truth flourishes where the student's lamp has shone
and there alone, that have no solitude."
That final phrase, "that have no solitude", took me multiple reads to understand. I think it's because the phrase is so far separated from the "they" that it modifies. I find this often weak here: it breaks the flow of the poem with the complexity that requires figuring out before the poem is trackable. The modifier and the modified are just too far apart for first-read legibility.

2. This collection requires effort from the reader and multiple reads of each poem. The poems shift directions, topics, and locations. These shifts endanger reader engagement. Three other examples come to mind:

—The two stanzas in "The Second Coming" differ wildly: the first is a despondent diagnosis of the world and man's affect, while the second is a spiritual reflection on a possible future growing out of this.

—The second example is "A Prayer for my Daughter", where nearly every stanza is separated by topic, time, person, action, or location. Like in a sonnet with a distinct volta, both the point and counterpoint have space in the poem—room to breathe and infect the reader's imagination.

—For the third example, let me use a short poem to really drive home how much space he gives to point and counterpoint in this sixteen-line poem. In "Under Saturn", the first three lines are given over to pining for lost love, then two to the comfort of present love, then five reflect on aging, then four recollect a recent situation, and finally two sum up the poem in a rumination. These significant changes throughout the poem puzzle the first-time reader and take time to parse out.

These three examples explain why I had to read most of these poems multiple times to get a sense of what is said. This complexity is not inherently a negative though: I think it works well in "A Prayer for My Daughter" because it's all driven by the title—yes it's a rambling, jumping prayer, but it is still the poet praying for his daughter—and in "The Second Coming", where each stanza is given space enough, memorable lines enough, and distinction enough to really work as a whole. Though these are puzzling poems, they are not generally too puzzling to unpack for two reasons: first, the unpacking is a pleasurable exercise because it's rewarding—"The Leaders of the Crowd" became one of my favorites after not understanding it initially. Second, some of the beautiful lines are gripping and allow the poems to impart something memorable on first read:
"And of a red-haired Yates whose looks, although he died
before my time, seem like a vivid memory."

3. These complex poems and associations of ideas or thoughts start out focused before wandering off into a widening gyre of association, then closing with a newly focused perspective. This works, but often on second or third read—not first. He seems more interested in the construction of arguments and progression of ideas than sounds. For example, in "Under Saturn", he opens focused on a specific situation—the poet accused of wool-gathering lost loves—then he touches on three other events and ideas before he focuses in again at the end, stating the actual cause of his "saturnine" mood, a cause which reflects back on the rest of the poem to cast it all in a new light. These three other events are consecutive, connected thoughts and memories growing wider in scope before narrowing again to the end. I think length of both line and poem allows these complex constructions to work: "A Prayer for my Daughter" also follows this pattern, but was more quickly understood because its length gave me time to get comfortable with the shifts. He starts one place, wanders wide through myriad reflections, and ends up another place.

4. This collection is characterized by contrasts. Let me take one poem for an example: "A Prayer for my Daughter". Yeats contrasts her peaceful sleep inside and the raging storm outside, her infancy and her future, the storm and his prayerful walk, beauty and kindness, the poet himself and his daughter, his wishes for her and society's, public courtesy and private same, ceremony and custom—all this while contemplating virtuous life. But in the end he chooses one over the other and, through his wishes for his daughter, he reveals himself and his priorities. This is just one example, but the rest of the poems in the collection are also characterized by contrasts. These contrasts allow him witty, judgmental summations—notably the one about Helen of Troy:
Helen being chosen found life flat and dull
And later had much trouble from a fool,

5. Here, some phrases pull double weight: in "The Second Coming", the line "what rough beast" can be read as interrogative or exclamatory and it works both ways. This is strong writing because Yeats does not do it too often. If he did, I would feel like the poem was meaningless. But by giving a rare single line here and there an available alternate meaning, it forces the reader to think about that option, and hence, the poem.

6. I had thought his incantatory voice was a byproduct of formulaic repetition. But here it comes from using exclamatory phrases followed by rolling stress patterns that come off ominously. He also uses some exact repetition—like in the second stanza of "The Second Coming", where the sentence structure and stress pattern changes to a more flowing, fast pace, punctuated by exact repetitions of phrase and word.

7. There is less formulaic end-rhyme here. Even in the mostly end-rhymed "The Leaders of the Crowd", the long lines and enjambment soften the impact of those end-rhymes: only four of the twelve lines are end-stopped. Often, end-stopped end-rhymes overwhelm a poem, but he does it well here through enjambment and long lines.

8. The theme here is revolution, war, daily life during both, and a contemplation of daily life in the future—which is the reason for both, the hope of both—and the past—which provides the reasons leading to both. This is a fairly focused collection and the first four poems contemplate the past, the next eight or so examine the present, while the last three focus on the future. This organizational structure helps the reader place poems that may at first appear ambiguous.

9. My favorites here are "A Prayer for my Daughter", "The Leaders of the Crowd", and "Under Saturn". I hated no poem, but found the first two off-putting in some way. I don't think I get them yet. I hope I do not have to read A Vision before understanding them.

12 September, 2015

The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

1. This revenge story reminded me of The Count of Monte Cristo in a couple of ways: the revenge-driven main character, the pause in action while Gully gets rich and learnéd, fortuitous escape from the inescapable prison where he illicitly found a friend who began his education, disguise by notoriety in society, a period of self doubt, a love interest turned enemy—this list could keep going. But this is not a straight retelling: this lacks the complexity of character relations, the three enemies are instead three potential sources of information pointing towards the real "enemy", there are no back story interludes of length, there are less supporting cast members of importance, Gully differs from the Count significantly—this list could also continue. These differences are interesting because they show an intriguing path for retelling a story in a new way with different themes. This is not a copy-and-paste, this is inspiration. It keeps those actions, story characteristics, and events appropriate for Gully and the setting, not those that were appropriate to the Count.

2. I think Gully is a well-realized character. Bester does not give him motivations too complex: revenge, finding the truth, hiding the truth, survival, and a sense that anything is possible—all mated to an "at all costs" mentality that produces numerous tensions in the novel. Then, Bester puts this character into different situations: a cargo cult, a solitary existence in a storage locker on a wrecked ship, a gutter brawl on the Spanish steps, upper crust parties, jail, etc. By applying different pressures and keeping Gully's priorities shifting through plot elements, the character reveals himself as holistically consistent, and surprisingly nuanced. As Saul points out, everything goes Gully's way, but not as either Saul or Gully plan it to. It's surprising without being predictable. The range of situations allow Gully's range of reactions appropriateness and consistency.

3. This is a tight, well constructed narrative. Not only does each character matter in the story, but his foreshadowing is excellent. Jiz's white spacesuit and Gully's love for her is recalled through the albino Olivia later. The mystery of Gully's opening position is revealed and expanded at the end. The poetic intro becomes a part of Gully's physicality. Bester's foreshadowing deftly allows the reader moments to feel clever without giving away too much.

4. The pace of information keeps the plot moving while giving the reader what they need to know. Partly this is achieved through circling back: the cargo cult is visited thrice, the Nomad is visited twice, all the interrogations are seen twice, the offices of The Presteign of Presteign are seen a few times, etc. This circling back allows the author: to dispense with always introducing new areas, which keeps the plot rolling; to show the passage of time through small changes—like at the cargo cult—and large ones—like at Robin's apartment—which helps contextualize the action; reflects the tightness of the novel's construction, mirroring the characters who come back to new importance later; and it allows Gully's character arc to be driven home by his new association and status within those places. Through going back to places, and the places themselves, the information inherent in the world-building is allowed to be quick and lets the story also be quick: because the reader is not being constantly bombarded by mere place descriptions, the descriptions of the world are able to occur more often without losing legibility.

5. This is proto-cyberpunk! I'm happy to find the origins of such an influential movement in the world. Gully's body modifications; the world of freaks looked at with resignation rather than wonder; the Megacorporations of immense power; the scope of the earth and the solar system; the class division between super rich and mostly poor; the fantastic future technology bringing dystopia; the lone anti-hero; even space-Jaunteing as a sort of singularity—this book is clearly influential on cyberpunk.

6. The writing never mis-steps. It's tight, mostly efficient pulp fiction, allowed to expand into beautiful descriptions in a couple of places: the description of the bombing, and Gully's fight with death at the end.
“There's light all over the horizon. Quick clouds of it. Above, there's a sort of sparkling effect. Like Christmas lights twinkling.”
“Oh, you see so little with your eyes. See what I see! There's a dome in the sky, a rainbow dome. The colors run from deep tang to brilliant burn. That's what I've named the colors I see. What would that dome be?”
“The radar screen,” Foyle muttered.
“And then there are vast shafts of fire thrusting up and swaying, weaving, dancing, sweeping. What are they?”
“Interceptor beams. You're seeing the whole electronic defense system.”
“And I can see the bombs coming down too: quick streaks of what you call red. But not your red; mine. Why can I see them?”
“They're heated by air friction, but the inert lead casing doesn't show the color to us.”
“See how much better you're doing as Galileo than Galahad. Oh! There's one coming down in the east. Watch for it! It's coming, coming, coming, now!”
A flare of light on the eastern horizon proved it was not her imagination.
“There's another to the north. Very close. Very. Now!”
A shock tore down from the north.
“And the explosions, Fourmyle! They're not just clouds of light. They're fabrics, webs, tapestries of meshing colors. So beautiful. Like exquisite shrouds.”
This is poetic and both of the characters here have their own voice. Perfect. Even the later almost Deus ex Machina of Gully's rescue by Olivia makes sense with the characters and their motivations—she would rescue him, and the writing is the reason this makes sense: Bester's word choices and sentence structures quickly and efficiently communicate this, but they don't shy away from personality and poetic beauty.

7. All the actions make sense and feel logical and appropriate. They have weight and serve to explain both world and cast while progressing the plot. This double use of plot points wonderfully gives them import in the storytelling, and allows them to reinforce their own importance to the world. Like the places circling back, the plot points serve double purpose.

8. There's some deeply experimental writing at the end—and it works well. The repetition of letters and gibberish attempts to communicate Gully's mind and physical abnormalities—as well as his deep synesthesia. And it works. The fractured writing is offset by the factual straight narrative interludes to keep the whole legible. This tactic of interspersing experimental writing from Gully's point of view with the narrator's straight prose is brilliantly effective.

9. This seems like pulp fiction at first, but dives into literature through deep examination of human motives, rumination on the costs of science and power and their appropriate uses, and an unwillingness to brush off the implications and results of actions without first studying them and drawing important conclusions from them. The novel's conclusion isn't some Death Star explosion or a rescue of the princess after killing the monster, it's a subtle reflection on the logical conclusions of the plot thus far.
"Stop treating them like children and they'll stop behaving like children. Who the hell are you to play monitor?"

"Who the hell are we to make decisions for the world just because we're compulsive?"

"That's all of us. We prattle about free will, but we're nothing but response... Mechanical reaction in prescribed grooves. Press the button and I'll jump."
Bester deeply contemplates the results of his plot, world, and characters. Through reflective passages like these, he encourages the same in his reader. This is truly good stuff.

10. But the writing is not wholly satisfying. I want more beauty in the prose, more alliteration and internal rhyme. Like in the sentence quoted above, why doesn't it say, "Who the hell are you to play hall monitor?" Simple, little alliterations and internal rhymes to make the whole sound a bit more beautiful. Or at least more poetic. These little, simple techniques add up in the passage quoted in point 6 above, and I wanted more of that.

09 September, 2015

Cremulator by Robert Reed

This short story is from Clarkesworld Magazine's September 2015 Issue 108, and is available to read here, for free for now.

Issue 108's cover is New World Coming by J. Otto Szatmari.

1. It feels like the structure here is the point in some ways. It's the key to making all this legible. The five part structure helps by keeping the five stories distinct and understandable, divided enough to encourage the reader to contemplate each portion separately. From this, the conceit of stories told from alternate realities is allowed to emerge. This skillfully communicates a conceit dangerous to reader comprehension: that first time I hit a difference—Gwen married to the student instead of Melanie—it was a real shock. I trusted the author by this point so I took it as mystery instead of incompetence.

2. The reason I trusted him is because right off the bat he spent two paragraphs talking about the student's attraction to his teacher, then said, "But I'm telling a different story now." This is a dangerous play. I have to trust him at this point, but he better make good on that trust. By this point, Reed has already established the main character of this first part, and he goes on to begin the plot from this character's point of view. This shift pays off because the character and tone are similar both before and after the break. When he successfully rewards my trust that first time, I'm more likely to trust in him the second time. The second break of character inconsistency is much bigger, and if he hadn't sown the field beforehand, I don't know if I would've made the jump with him.

3. The third dangerous move is having five distinct short stories combined into one. This can cause confusion for the reader, or each part can be so distinct that they don't relate all that well—like in Foundation. But Reed simply ties them together in two ways: plot and characters. This is the same plot told five times from five points of view and five similar but alternate realities. The characters are recognizably similar—though all three may not be present in every part. The similarities keep the stories connected and show the theme. Further, each section adds another layer or detail to the central plot, progressing the overarching plot by adding detail through each of the five plots' specifics. Something unique happens in all five parts, letting each stand as their own short story, but also contributing to the reader's understanding of the overarching plot.

4. The theme is actualized possibility—here iterated over five actualizations. This comes directly from the structure and plots, or the structure and plots are crafted around this examination of five instances of a similar event occurring on similar earths to alternate reality similar characters. It leaves me pondering all those choices I've made in life, and what life would be if I had taken a different path, what life could be. That exhilarating sense of being overwhelmed by the unknown, while knowing that the moment and the choice are important. In the first story, the unknowns of the student's attraction to Gwen is overwhelming. In the second, Gwen contemplates the unknowns inherent in love, specifically focusing on her relationship with her family and with Melanie. In the third the unknowns of childhood, past, and home baffle Gwen and the student. In the fourth, the unknowns of the plot and of her own field of specialization overwhelm and surprise Melanie. In the fifth, the unknowns of death, our typical cultural communications, and bodies of knowledge outside our specializations overwhelm the student and Melanie. This theme ties the whole together, keeping the whole package legible and focused.

5. The first two paragraphs masterfully set the scene: without telling "It's a small town," Reed shows us what makes a small town. Without describing every person, the main character's specifics illuminate the whole and reinforce the shorter descriptions of other characters' actions. This shows rather than tells, but shows really well. Instead of building a new world from whole cloth, Reed starts with familiars understandable to his readers, describes them, then diverges slightly to give a sense of his worlds. This is why I think the writing is more scene setting than world building—the worlds are recognizably earth, after all.

6. He also tells well. "It was my mission." "I'm smart and always have been." "I've never been happier." These are short, descriptive sentences that help explain the characters. Through their shortness, they often communicate his sense of self-confidence, resignation, and puzzlement. Reed's writing of the whole mixes showing and telling and does both well.

7. The writing is good: the short sentences tend towards concise descriptions that are well worded and structured. It is Hemingway-esque in that it relies on the described for interest, but doesn't shy away from a beautiful phrase.
"And in a day when this kind of behavior mattered, my English teacher happened to have a girlfriend in the city. Of course the young lady never discussed sexual peculiarities. Paid to teach English, that’s exactly what she did."

"This is what life has taught me: People are peculiar. A person can spend every day of his life finding examples of our spectacular oddness, and if that’s what he likes to do, then his life is destined to be full and rich."

"I rarely get to meet legends. Despite a reputation for combativeness, this particular legend was nothing but pleasant."
Or maybe Reed's writing is more like Bukowski with its wit. It doesn't matter either way though: Reed is his own writer and he's a good one. In the dialog I even get some small sense of distinction in characters.

07 September, 2015

Dragonslayer by Mary Soon Lee

Published here in Heroic Fantasy Quarterly #25, available to read for free online.

1. Having tried my hand and speculative poetry, I can honestly say that it's beyond me right now. It is not beyond Mary Soon Lee: I like this page-and-a-half poem. I especially like the flowing pattern of stresses, which allows the poem to carry a reflecting, around-the-campfire feeling that I imagine Homer has in the Greek. I think the first line really shows this well: "It's true enough, / I killed a dragon— / an old dragon with the maimed wing, mind you[...]" It comes off like a practiced storyteller grasping for a new story, and the stress patterns are what give it that impression. It flows for a couple lines, and then there's a small short aside, before the narrator gets back to the flowing narrative. Another example: "I remember women screaming. And men. / The smell of roast meat. / Then the dragon came up to my smithy / and fired the roof, / and I filled up with fire myself / and ran at it with an axe in one hand, / a spear in the other." It's this patterned back and forth between short phrases and longer action sentences that really give it the feel of a good storyteller.

2. The humor is well placed, and well done. Like in the opening line quoted above, the humor helps characterize the narrator as valuing humor over boasting. This helps explain him as a character, so when he reacts to the king being humbled in front of him, it is in line with the rest his character, even with his admiration for the King's ability to perform his duties. In essence, he admires that the king performs his duties and does more, doing that more like a human. Really, the character is fascinating, and he is explained mostly through the humor. We see three or four sides of him in this poem, each interesting, and I'm interested in how they fit together. I think we get enough in the poem itself to make some guesses, and that's what helps the poem last past the page.

3. Some of the wording in here is quite beautiful. "Oh, I've done well enough, / but most of that's luck—". Though there are a couple of end-rhymes, she's instead working with a few sounds and allowing them to drive the poem forward. F, W, D, L, E, and R often show up within here to draw the poem on and give it a musical lilt: "but he rode at the front of the charge / in his first battle / like a King should, / and afterwards he got down off his warhorse / and walked in the mud,". She is not sticking to alliteration or rhyme with these sounds, but rather she's using them throughout the poem, allowing them to fall within the word wherever they do. She isn't getting picky and making sure that every word starts with a W, rather, she is allowing the W in afterwards to help carry the pattern of that sound forward. I think this variety in using specific sounds strengthens the poem's impact and beauty.

4. I think the strongest thing about this poem is that it is a wonderfully engaging narrative, but it doesn't lack a interesting reflection on the characters within, or duty. This isn't a pulp fiction poem focused only on the plot. Rather, it expands from the plot in contemplating the culture surrounding the titular character, and specifically focusing on that character's feelings about his leader. This allows the poem to be more important, interesting, and relatable than simply a tale about a Dragonslayer.

5. The one thing I would change is to focus it more. There are a couple of things in here that do not add to the narrative thrust or the philosophical bent of the poem, but seem like asides and do not add anything for the reader. For instance, the first two stanzas read:
It’s true enough,
I killed a dragon —
an old dragon with a maimed wing, mind you,
crippled by some foreign prince.

The dragon came down the mountainside
after it was injured,
right into our village.
I remember women screaming. And men.
The smell of roast meat.
Then the dragon came up to my smithy
and fired the roof,
and I filled up with fire myself
and ran at it with an axe in one hand,
a spear in the other.
To me, the fourth line in the first stanza is at best pointless, at worst distracting, at most probable referring to something else in Mary Soon Lee's writing. Either way, from the poem itself, I don't understand why it is in there. Similarly, the mountainside and the timing of when the dragon came into the village: in the first, what does this mountainside add to the poem? Nothing. In the second, I've already learned from the first stanza that the dragon has a maimed wing, so the entire line "after it was injured" is redundant, and doesn't add anything to the poem, at best. At worst, it feels heavy handed, which can be insulting to the reader when done much more than this. So, if Mary Soon Lee asked for my advice, I would send her back a copy of her poem that starts like this:
It’s true enough,
I killed a dragon —
an old dragon with a maimed wing, mind you.

It came right down into our village.
I remember women screaming. And men.
The smell of roast meat.
Then the dragon came up to my smithy
and fired the roof,
and I filled up with fire myself
and ran at it with an axe in one hand,
a spear in the other.
A couple of stanzas can be made more concise like so. But this is a strong poem as it is and I'm very happy to have read it. I look forward to reading more.

6. After Worldcon this year, I decided to read Mary Soon Lee. This is a strong start and makes me very excited to read more of her works. I found this poem because it is next to a poem by my friend Cullen in the 25th issue of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly. Another friend is currently writing a poem about a dragon as well, and I'm definitely sending him this one so that he can learn from it. [Edit on 9/9/15: he loved it! I hope it inspires him to finish his.]

04 September, 2015

The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

1. This novel wonderfully mixes mysticism, science, and adventure saga in an engaging way that reflects the ideas Le Guin discusses: paradoxical politics, mythic mysticism, human evolution, and interacting with people different than oneself. I think the main theme here is the latter: living with different people and cultures. Much of the storyline and many of the monologues and conversations support this idea of differences complementing rather than separating. And the structure of the story as well—especially in the chapters that switch between Ai and Estraven's perspectives from chapter to chapter. Their adventure on the ice directly supports this theme because they have to complement each other simply to survive. They must also understand each other's differences for psychological survival. This is an interesting book that embraces mystic paradoxes, but is also driven by a well paced, exciting narrative adventure.

2. The interspersed chapters of myth storytelling really work: adding to the sense of place and the understanding of the culture. They even influence the plot in appropriate, natural ways: elements of the myths are directly quoted and indirectly discussed by Ai and Estraven in the narrative chapters. But these chapters of myth could endanger the reader's engagement with the story by breaking the narrative flow—they could come off as tangential time wasters. But they do not. Through their short length they lessen the danger of losing the reader; through their focus and tight construction they remain important to the reader's understanding of this culture; and through their echoes in the overarching story they stick to the thrust of the plot and theme of the novel, keeping these interludes integral to the whole. They help break up the longer introspections, conversations, and chapters to stave off potential reader fatigue. This novel experiments structurally, and Le Guin pulls it off.

3. One of the ways that she pulls it off is the writing quality and variety. Her writing techniques differ from Ai's chapters to Estraven's, and the myth chapters differ from both. But beyond that, one chapter is composed of journal entries, another is half taken up by a flashback, and she changes her writing techniques for these too. Her writing is incredibly varied throughout. That it remains legible, and that all of these various techniques are done well, shows the incredible breadth of her skill as a writer.

4. At times though, she tells more than she shows. This probably in part reflects the attempted alieness of the culture Ai is exploring: it would be impossible to show everything in here from the start when Estraven's reactions are so foreign to the reader. But by the end of the novel she trusts her readers to have understood her telling, so she shows more. Her showing is stronger than her telling, but I cannot fault her too much because her telling leads to more showing.

5. She translates some terms for the reader automatically instead of giving the reader another made-up word, then translating it in a dictionary excerpt. What I mean is that she describes temperature in Fahrenheit degrees instead of whatever the local word and scale might be. The alieness of the culture and world is already so well established that she doesn't need to browbeat the reader with another invented word to communicate temperature. This works wonderfully: it simply communicates with the reader while avoiding unnecessary complications in world building, and unnecessary explanations outside of the narrative thrust of the story.

6. Though she often translates terms, the made-up names are almost too much. Almost. Often, speculative fiction names every street, house, and boat with a ridiculous, made-up word, name, or title. It may be intended to give a sense of history to the place described, but provides too much detail for the reader to follow, obscures the location and blocking of characters, and is invented history that the reader cannot actually relate to. This bad habit typically does more to overwhelm the reader than inform them. Here, Le Guin almost does that, but holds back just enough to not drown the reader by trying to impart objects with unrelatable pseudo-historical import. She does this by simply using generic terms where possible. For example, she mentions that this snowy world has quite a few names for different types of falling snow, many names for snows on the ground, and still more names for ices. But rather than listing a hundred made up words and defining each of them, she simply mentions that they exist, and then translates those words as "snow" throughout. Or at least she usually uses the human words familiar to mountaineers and glacier lovers, not new alien ones.

7. Every idea she touches on early in the novel is explored in more depth later. There are some early ideas that I wanted more of after I first read them: mystic politics, androgynous culture, Ekumenical worlds, the winter weather and technology on Winter, et cetera. In chapter 11, the mystic politics are explored in greater depth. Throughout the novel, the androgynous culture is slowly explained more and more. The chapters where they cross the ice allow weather and technology to be discussed naturally. And at the end, some ways the Ekumenical worlds work are mentioned. This book deeply explores a few ideas—even going so far as to courageously criticize blind patriotism during the heart of the cold war. Instead of the usual science fiction trick of pushing a single idea to a logical extreme before examining it, this is more of an exploration of a few ideas—she calls it a "thought experiment" in her 1976 intro—and it's a great tactic for a speculative fiction novel. She pulls it off here by hanging philosophical exploration on the plot hooks of an exciting adventure tale.

8. The characters are well-realized. They're not terribly complex, but their alieness from each other helps what complexity they do have to become important. Argaven is somewhat complex, and his characteristics become important to the plot itself because of his position of power. Estraven and Ai are interesting, though Ai is somewhat passive as a person and both are reserved. They are well understood by the end, and they make sense—they don't do something that doesn't seem like them.

9. In all, what I'm trying to say is that this is good writing with a variety of experimental techniques, good storytelling with a variety of experimental structures, and a deep examination of some interesting ideas. It's unusual in all the good ways, and she pulls it off. This was a good read. Not magnificent, but solid with quality. I think the first three or four chapters were a little rough in how the world was introduced, but it all pays off by the end. And O how happy am I that she didn't start the novel with the murder. Of the last four speculative fiction novels I bought, three start with a murder. This is annoying because I want variety as a reader. Le Guin gives that to me here.