bloodygranuaile: (ed wood)
There come times in the life of every reader where a book contains enough Things Relevant To One’s Interests that it makes them go “Oh, it’s like this author has written this book just for me!” When you have as many things Relevant To One’s Interests as I do, this happens with some regularity, I will admit.

But it is decidedly rarer for an author to tell me “I’m writing this book for you!” two years before the book is actually published.

But that is indeed what happened at Readercon a few years ago; I believe it was the year that Mary Shelley was the Memorial Guest of Honor. There were three of us; I think it was me and Gillian and Emily, and I’d gone to get my copy of In the Forest of Forgetting signed, and Theodora Goss was telling us about the novel she was working on. It was based on all my favorite old Gothic tales, about the daughters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the girl monster creations of a bunch of other mad scientists, who form a club and fight crime. She was writing this book, she said, for us; we were precisely the sort of audience she had in mind.

This stuck in my mind and it has been with possessive glee that I have followed every update on the novel, and when The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter finally hit shelves this summer, I thought, My book is here! The book written for me! because I am self-centered like that. I told Dora Goss this when I attended a reading she did with Cat Valente at Brookline Booksmith this week.

I was reluctant to read it unless I could do it all in one sitting, so I spent the week enjoying the anticipation, and then this morning I made myself a cup of coffee and plonked myself down in the living room with the intention of doing nothing else all day until I finished it.

I was not disappointed.

The story is largely from the point of view of Mary Jekyll, 21-year-old daughter of the long-dead Dr. Jekyll, although the book is being written by puma-turned-human-woman Catherine Moreau, with added commentary from the other characters. (It is a new way of writing a novel, because they are modern girls and it is the ‘90s. The 1890s, obviously.)

The story begins when Mary Jekyll’s mother dies of complications from madness, and Mary finds herself nearly destitute, with no employable skills, very little in savings, no income from either of her parents, and a large house in London that, in the current economic climate, cannot be sold. In going through her mother’s papers, she discovers that her mother has for years been donating a pound a year to a charitable society for the care and keeping of “Hyde.” The only Hyde that Mary knows about is her father’s former assistant who disappeared after being accused of murder, and for whom there is—or at one point, was—a reward of one hundred pounds for information leading to his capture. Mary takes the papers to her local celebrity detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, and from thereon out, things get weird. In short order, Mary finds herself saddled with an incorrigible younger sister named Diana; Beatrice Rappaccini, a lovely young Italian woman who breathes poison; Catherine Moreau, a young lady who used to be a puma; and Justine Frankenstein, who used to be Justine Moritz and who had erroneously been reported as disassembled in Mrs. Shelley’s book from a century earlier.

The girls are all daughters or creations of men with ties to a mysterious group called the Société des Alchimistes, which appears to have something to do with a series of gruesome murders of ladies of negotiable affection in Whitechapel, which Holmes and Watson are also consulting upon. The murdered women have all had body parts removed, and the only available description of who they’d been seen with sounds very like the supposedly late Edward Hyde.

If you’re a big old Gothics nerd like me, one of the most fun aspects of the story is the sheer number of old classics that Goss manages to squish into this novel. In addition to the five young women and the aforementioned Holmes and Watson, the madman Renfield from Dracula pops up as a fairly important secondary character, as does Dr. John Seward from the insane asylum and Dr. Van Helsing, although the latter only in the form of letters. I kept half-expecting Mrs. Poole, Mary’s housekeeper, to turn out to be Grace Poole from Jane Eyre, although if she is it’s not addressed in this book. I was also pleased to find a reference to The Castle of Otranto.

With this many other works crammed into it, it is good that the book doesn’t take itself overly seriously. The girls’ commentary occasionally dips into a distinctly modern register, and, of course, the book’s not nearly as dense as any genuine Victorian writing at all. Most of the plot is a sort of comic caper type of action-mystery, with a lot of gallivanting around London and bits of the English countryside infiltrating circuses and chasing Beast Men and doing amateur detectiving and trying to do it all while managing the deliberately constricting reality of 19th century English women’s clothes, although that last bit is not as modern an invention as you might think, featuring prominently in Wilkie Collins’ classic The Woman in White (although apparently in real 19th century novels, women who spy on other people while wearing insufficient clothes have to fall deliriously ill for weeks immediately afterwards, them’s the rules). It’s also a joyous, empowering, delightful portrayal of friendship and solidarity between women, even women who are very different and who don’t always actually get along that well (especially when Diana’s involved).

I don’t want to give the ending away but suffice to say that while the girls and Holmes and Watson do technically solve the Whitechapel murders, the Société des Alchimistes is not an easy foe to vanquish, leaving us with an excellent setup for a sequel as well as a convincing cover for the Whitechapel murders never being officially solved, like with anyone getting arrested for them.

The book is quite light on romantic subplots, which I appreciate. Beatrice has a tragic romantic backstory, although by the time the book is being written by Catherine, Beatrice is more concerned with the suffragist and Rational Dress movements. There are hints of romantic interest between Mary and Holmes, which is cute because Goss doesn’t bring up Holmes’ canonical drug habit at any point. The other girls have decidedly un-romantic backstories re: men’s attention.

I’m already eagerly awaiting the sequel, because reasons, and I highly recommend the book to anyone who likes funny stuff about mad scientists and girl monsters, even if you’re not a huge Gothic lit dork. I would also highly recommend it to anyone else who is a Gothic lit dork who doesn’t take it too seriously, which I would hope would be most of them, since Gothic lit is a bit goofy to start with.

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
The tenth and final volume of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan graphic novel series is Transmetropolitan, Vol. 10: One More Time, which is a terrible title because every time I look at the cover of this volume I get Daft Punk’s song of the same name stuck in my head. Which, I suppose, is appropriate, because Spider Jerusalem is pretty punk and definitely daft. 
Despite the title it is a fantastic book and a fantastic end to the series. Spider defeats Callahan with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM, which is pretty much what we were expecting, but as always, whether it’s boring or not is in the execution, and the execution is pretty satisfying. It does make one wish that taking down a corrupt criminal president with THE POWER OF JOURNALISM happened a little faster in the real world rather than the slow-ass pace of Watergate or whatever the fucksticks is going on now (hoping and praying that whatever’s going on now actually does result in taking the president down eventually), but hey, the point of science fiction is to inspire us to envision a better future than our current tawdry realities. (Not that there are many ways in which Spider’s futureshock dystopia is better than our current tawdry realities; it’s more of a warning than an inspiration, I guess.) 
This volume is about twice as long as most of the others, but only half or maybe two-thirds of it is actually the story proper. Afterward there’s a series of little vignettes, mostly based on excerpts from I Hate It Here, Spider’s crankypants column for The Word, drawn by a variety of other comics writers. It’s fun seeing Spider and his filthy assistants rendered in all sorts of other folks’ styles, even as someone who’s not very familiar with other graphic novels and has no idea who these people are. I’m sure it’s even more fun if you recognize the other artists. 
Anyway, WHAT A DEPRESSINGLY TIMELY SERIES. It certainly makes me wish our current media institutions had more violently psychotic journalists, though, considering they’re up against increasingly violently psychotic politicians apparently. We should arm them all with bowel disruptors, just in case.
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol. 9: The Cure,  Spider goes around re-gathering evidence for his project to take down President Callahan in between bouts of forgetting words while his brain falls out his nose. (Don’t do drugs, kids.) This outlaw journalism-ing involves such fun tasks as beating Fred Christ’s head in with the Chair Leg of Truth, but it is ultimately Spider’s crotchety former editor who does some massive day-saving with backup copies of Spider’s evidence. Spider then goes out and interviews more people, most of whom are not Fred Christ and who he therefore does not bash in the head with the Chair Leg of Truth. 
Spider gets some journalistic help from a scarfaced TV anchor named Robert McX, who does some epic signal boosting of Spider’s work by throwing it in Callahan’s face. But that’s about where the book ends, so the real fallout with obviously be the Big Showdown with Callahan in Volume 10 that we’ve all known is coming eventually.
This volume contains the immortal line “I hate Nazi sex midgets,” but other than that is one of the less weird installments in this series.
bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, Vol 8: Dirge continues the story of Spider’s attempt to take down the Smiler, and the Smiler’s attempt to thwart Spider at every turn and probably kill him. 
Because this book was written 16 years ago but is still depressingly relevant to everything about modern life, the big incident chronicled in this volume is something called a ruinstorm, a gigantic, destructive bomb of wind and water that apparently used to be much more common before they figured out how to stabilize the climate and weather a little. The Smiler uses this ruinstorm as cover to basically get all the press and cops off the streets so he can hack into newspaper archives and delete a bunch of stuff. Spider, of course, is having none of this and is more determined than ever, but he is suddenly on a deadline—he gets diagnosed with a degenerative brain disease and has one year, maybe two, until he loses all his cognitive faculties. 
Most of this book serves largely to set the scene for the big showdown against the Smiler that’s coming later, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of this volume. 
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
I had the privilege of hearing N. K. Jemisin read from a draft of The Fifth Season, the first book in her Broken Earth trilogy, at Arisia way back in 2015.  It was beautiful and terrifying, and yet I still didn't immediately read the book when it was published, nor even when it won the Hugo Award for Best Novel last year, because I am always and eternally months behind on what I intend to be reading. But it was high up on The List, and when it was suggested for this month's BSpec book club -- which is still three weeks away -- I was thrilled to be coerced into finally getting around to it.

The story takes place on a viciously volatile planet, prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions and other seismic cataclysms to a point that surviving through them defines all human culture. The big continent all the humans live on is sarcastically named the Stillness; no one lives on islands, because if it's small enough to be considered an island it's also small enough to disappear tomorrow under a tsunami. Every couple hundred years the planet undergoes a Fifth Season, defined as any sort of environmental catastrophe resulting in six months or more of winter. Usually these see civilization go to pieces to some degree or another. There are people with magical abilities to work with seismic energies; they are called orogenes, and they are feared and loathed, carefully trained to guard civilization from the Earth's ravages, but distrusted and tightly controlled.

There are three storylines in this book, which take place in three different times, and the most recent one -- which is related in the second person -- happens at the beginning of one of these cataclysms. The protagonists are a young female "grit" (an orogene still in training) called Damaya; a twentysomething trained orogene named Syenite; and a middle-aged orogene named Essun, who is the protagonist of the second-person sections where the Season has started. I was able to guess how these characters were related just enough before it was revealed to feel smart, but not far enough in advance to feel like Jemisin was treating the reader like they're dumb. 

This might be as close a thing to the perfect book as I've read in quite a while, from a whole bunch of different angles. The worldbuilding is fantastic -- utterly unlike anything I've ever read, but based in enough real stuff to make it easy to vividly imagine. The societies in it are old-fashioned -- rustic, even -- and modern at the same time, with distinctive language that sounds naturally evolved and is easy to pick up on quickly. The three-threaded way the story is structured is brilliant, especially once you do find out how they all come together. The language is rich and alive and beautiful and makes me want to roll around in it except that it also has sudden stabby bits and you should never roll around in anything that comes out of N. K. Jemisin's imagination, figuratively or otherwise, because it will probably eat your face off. It's scary, but also makes me remember how much I enjoyed collecting shiny rocks as a kid and that Earth science is really interesting. The characters are mostly POC, at least half of them women, and a range of sexualities are represented, including a trans character. The ending, which is obviously a setup into the next book, is one of the most brutal verbal cliffhangers in the history of brutal cliffhangers -- like, ending a 450-page novel with a question could be cheap, but in this case it's really, really not. 

Jemisin is clever with little details, too. An example: The very hateful, very obscene slur for orogenes is rogga. You can see the -rog- taken from orogene as its root, but the dropped vowel makes it start off sounding like rock, which is both plebian and on-topic. The double g in the middle parallels that in one of the most hateful, most obscene slurs in American English, subtly -- possibly subconsciously -- driving home just how unacceptable the word is: It sounds, instantly, blunt and harsh and taboo, even though it's a completely made-up word that I've never heard before in my life. When reading the book, I occasionally read sentences out loud to myself, because sometimes I do that in books with really good sentences, but whenever I reached that word, I couldn't say it out loud; I'd absorbed the taboo already.

In short, we are not worthy of N. K. Jemisin.

I'm kind of annoyed I can't just dive right into the sequel since I have other book clubs to read stuff for, but maybe I'll blow them off.
bloodygranuaile: (Default)
 In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 7: Spider’s Thrash, newly unemployed gonzo journalist Spider Jerusalem and his filthy assistants are on the lam.

Fortunately, Spider has money, so he can afford to write for free for a bit for the rogue newsfeed The Hole. If he can convince them that doing so won’t get them all killed, which might be tough, since the Smiler’s administration is hellbent on killing Spider and anyone he associates with. But that’s OK for Spider, since he’s equally hellbent on taking down the Smiler.

In the meantime, however, he spends a lot of time interviewing people on the street, first interviewing a bunch of child prostitutes and the foster homes that they sort-of live in, then interviewing all the mentally ill people that the system has slowly been kicking out of actual psychiatric institutions. It’s sad and disturbing to read, especially when you remember the defunding of mental health institutions that took place under Reagan out here in the real world. In-universe, it becomes extra disturbing when you figure out that the mad people filling up the streets were the only witnesses to some of the Callahan administration’s crimes.

This volume’s not nearly as funny as some of the others, but it’s just as exciting.

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 In the sixth volume of Transmet, Transmetropolitan, Vol. 6: Gouge Away, Spider has become a media celebrity.

The first part of the book opens with excerpts from a number of different Spider-themed TV shows, including a cartoon called Magical Truthsaying Bastard Spidey and a terrible porno. Spider sinks into a self-hating depression, and the filthy assistants go shopping for clothes and guns with his credit card for a while, which is a less pointless plotline than you’d think. Eventually, Spider gets real pissed off and decides to do a journalism, beating up and interviewing a bunch of folks with dirty secrets on Callahan’s administration, including one of the guys that beat the genetically modified kid to death in the last volume. The results are explosive, although Spider and his filthy assistants are prepared and manage to stay one step ahead of his firing/eviction/freezing of assets. And that’s the plot, but as usual, the fun bits are in the details.

Callahan’s administration makes the current administration not seem so bad, if only because the current administration did not have its campaign manager murdered for public sympathy (nor has it grown its vice president in a vat, although I would actually believe that of Mike Pence if it were currently scientifically feasible). For this volume, at least, we’ve got a good old murder mystery kind of thing going on for most of it, with fewer Distressingly Relevant parallels than most of the other volumes. Which is a nice break. 

bloodygranuaile: (little goth girl)
 Ah, it feels good to get back to Transmet.

After reading the first four volumes in December, I borrowed the next batch but hadn’t gotten the time to actually read them, which is pretty much the story of my life now. Which means Transmetropolitan, Vol. 5: Lonely City is the first volume I’ve read since the current Administration actually began. This is also the first volume in the series after Callahan’s administration begins in the City.

The beginning of this volume is a series of random vignettes about the City and about Spider and his life at the moment and his various psychological issues. He tells short little stories about people from his past and profiles some of the unfortunates living in the City. There is a short storyline where they make a local senator’s life hell. Then eventually the plot starts, and it’s a sadly relevant one, futuristic gene-reading technology aside.

In the middle of the night, a kid with a recessive gene from some kind of genetically modified church that had been freaking people out a few generations ago was kicked to death by four assailants. The police at first do not release the tapes of the attack or arrest anybody, which Spider finds suspicious, because he knows there must be tapes due to the overly surveilled nature of public space in the City. Spider uses his platform to shame the police into making arrests, and protests gather outside the police building as the dead guy’s community realizes the police had tried to bury a hate crime. But it gets worse, and by the end of the book, there’s a pile of dead bodies and Spider’s the only person who knows what happened to them—but when he tries to publish, his column is censored by Callahan’s government for security reasons. In short: Police brutality, corruption, and coverups. Sound relevant?

This being Transmet instead of the real world, however, this version of police brutality and impunity comes colored with lots of darkly hilarious absurdity, over-the-top vulgarity, and creative future-shock tech. Spider grandstands about journalism and shoots people with his bowel disruptor, as is typical for him, and his two filthy assistants do their best to keep up and keep him out of trouble. The cat still has two faces. The illustrations of the City are full of cleverly awful jokes and bizarre foodstuffs, including Irish children, because of course.

I could probably have read this more slowly and spent more time looking at the art, because the art is very, very busy and detailed. But that’s quite hard for me to do, for some reason. The art is about as fast-paced as the story, so I end up ripping through each volume quite quickly.

On to the next one, to see what perfidy the Smiler has in store for our antiheroes. 

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
In Transmetropolitan, Vol. 4: The New Scum, Spider and his two “filthy assistants” are still covering the shitshow of an election, doing interviews with Tammany Hall boss-esque incumbent The Beast and empty suit upstart Senator Gary Callahan, aka The Smiler.

Spider also interviews a bunch of other people, including a lady who used to be cryogenically frozen, because the 23rd century is weird like that. But mostly, this volume is entirely about the election.

Everything we’ve heard about the Beast in the past three volumes is awful. The more we learn of the Smiler, though, we start to see that he’s awful too, and of course, as soon as it becomes clear enough that he’s actually going to be more awful than the Beast, he wins the election. Spider and his filthy assistants throw hand grenades off the balcony when they learn this.

The title refers to the most throwaway stratum of city life, those disenfranchised by the Beast as punishment for never voting for him, although the term “new scum” was given to them by their new supposed hero Senator Callahan. The old scum is presumably the Beast’s voting base.

The relentless misery of electoral politics is occasionally broken up by subplots from weird religious sects, a cute section where Spider is actually nice to somebody (in this case, a young girl whose favorite toy had to be pawned), and by the blossoming pain-in-the-ass friendship between Channon and Yelena, Spider’s assistants (technically, his current assistant and his former-assistant-now-bodyguard).

The Hotel Fat also sounds like the futuristic version of Trump Tower, I’m just sayin’.

It’s hard to truly describe just how incisively weird Transmet is without just pointing out the stuff in panels—the cultural detritus (and I use that word for a reason) cluttering up every available surface in each panel is solid gold to read through, from food stands selling reindeerburgers and French people to a stenciled message on a public bench that reads “Warning: This bench becomes red-hot between 1 a.m. and 7 a.m. No sleeping.” I know there’s some cities in the U.S. that would do that if they could figure out how to do so cheaply enough.

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Hold onto your butts, because Transmetropolitan, Vol. 3: Year of the Bastard is where the real main plotline in Transmet—and the one that’s got nerds running in droves to reread the series—shows up: the election.

With Channon having ragequit Spider’s employment and fucked off to a nunnery, Spider starts off this volume avoiding covering the electoral shitshow that is consuming the city. His editor lands him with a new assistant and orders to start doing his damn job, so Spider decides to cover the opposition party’s convention.

The incumbent president is a corrupt, marginally competent lowlife that Spider has stuck with the nickname The Beast, and who seems to be the one primarily responsible for doing to the America in Transmet what Steve Bannon wants to do to the America in our reality, in this the worst of all timelines.

The opposition party’s two main candidates are a racist fascist named Joe Heller and a clean-cut senator with a creepy wide grin, Gary Callahan, nicknamed The Smiler. Spider’s main puzzle in this book is to ferret out and report on the shady dealings that allow Callahan to steal the Florida primary from Heller, who practically owns the state, and therefore nab the opposition party nomination. The shady dealings include a vice-presidential candidate who was literally grown in a vat. Personally, I think it’s unlikely that Florida will still exist by the time we’re growing full humans in vats, but perhaps it went and annexed part of another state or something.

Callahan’s campaign manager, Vita Severn, is basically the only halfway decent-seeming person involved in the whole affair, so of course she gets assassinated. This upsets Spider and gives Callahan a giant boost in the polls. What a coincidence, eh?

The political parallels to today’s electoral fuckery aren’t perfect—the Beast, Heller, and the Smiler all have attributes that are familiar enough among today’s politicians, but the characters themselves are quite their own. But there’s a lot of very resonant stuff about corruption and fakery and the government being run by people whose views on what the government actually ought to do are certainly not along the lines of “promote the general welfare.”  And, of course, there’s the role of the media, although none of the investigative journalists actually covering our campaign ended up getting quite the amount of celebrity Jerusalem supposedly enjoys (or hates, rather), plus Spider doesn’t have to compete with professional troll farms.

Still. Elections is ugly, and Ellis does ugly very well.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
God, I hadn't realized how much I missed Spider Jerusalem.

I first read Transmetropolitan in college, almost ten years ago now, during a blessed period of time where Donald Trump was just some buffoon on reality TV and was totally off the radar screen of people who don't watch reality TV, which just so happened to include me and literally everybody else I knew. That might have been the only plus of that time period, honestly—any hopey-changey goodfeels brought on by the impending end of the historically awful Bush administration were offset by it being precisely the time when the economy imploded. (More specifically, I think I read Transmet during the fall semester at the end of 2007, after the subprime loans had started crashing but before TARP was passed.)

Following the surprise election of the nuke-happy, gropey old toddler to the highest office in the land—helped along by Kremlin trollbots, a corrupt FBI (itself helped by the execrable Jason Chaffetz), thirty years of hysterical anti-Hillary Big Lie propaganda from the GOP because she dared support universal health insurance before it was cool, a comfortably useless Democratic establishment without a competent marketer in sight, and a useless clickbait-driven media ecosystem that on the whole displays editorial judgement so poor it would get kicked off the middle school yearbook staff—it seemed like time to revisit everyone's favorite foul-mouthed, drug-addled gonzo journalist and see how prescient the series really was.

The result, so far, is that it's depressingly prescient. There are a handful of things in it that come off as now being weirdly old-fashioned—cash tollbooths with humans working in them, which are rapidly on their way out in the real world, or the fact that Jerusalem can live off of only writing one column a week, even if he is a celebrity—but overall, we do really seem to be just further along the trajectories Ellis identified in 1998 when it was first published: Increased corruption, sham democracy, advertisements and screens everywhere, cities overcrowded to the point where they can't ever stop being filthy no matter how fancy and overdeveloped they get; high-tech luxuries existing alongside widespread poverty; an exhausted, frenzied populace overstimulated into gullibility and complacency; and, of course, power-hungry scam artists taking advantage of all the generalized confusion and disorder at every turn. It's actually quite shocking to realize it was written almost twenty years ago—if it had been published last week, I'm pretty sure the only thing that would need to change would be the tollbooth worker.

In the middle of it all is social justice rogue Spider Jerusalem, returned to the city after hiding in the mountains for five years because his creditors finally found him, a heavily tattooed agent of chaos in colorfully mismatched camera-spectacles (the machine that made them is also on drugs).  Spider bullies his way back into a writing gig with his old editor, a weekly column called I Hate It Here, where he dedicates himself afflicting the comfortable but doesn't really have the time or sensitivity to comfort the afflicted. He does, however, tell their stories, raging on behalf of the dispossessed in time-honored angry lefty fashion, calling out the dirty secrets of the powerful and generally using his boundless capacity for assholery to troll for good.

Transmetropolitan, Vol. 1: Back on the Street covers Spider's return from the mountain and his break back into the spotlight as he covers a riot and uncovers the deliberate setup behind the violence. It bears an unsettling resemblance to some of the accounts of outbreaks of police violence at protests we've been hearing about over the past few years—peaceful protests where some small event (or unproven reports of one) are used as a pretext for attack by an overmilitarized police force, although these haven't ended in actual mass slaughter in the U.S. (so far, at least). The group targeted in this riot is a bunch of people spliced with alien DNA, known as transients, who are basically kind of a cult led by a Charles Manson-esque figure called Fred Christ. Christ leads the group to "secede," declaring the destitute handful of city blocks they've been sidelined into to be its own country, building half-assed barricades around the transient's ghetto and cutting off the utilities that their altered bodies don't need in order to drive out any remaining full humans. They're portrayed as a bunch of gullible but harmless weirdos (except for Fred Christ, who is a creeper), so of course the state brings down the hammer on them for this hopelessly ineffectual act of treason.

With a busy, expressive drawing style and lots of creative swearing, this high-octane nightmare-fueled story nonetheless displays a greatly hopeful reminder of what journalism could and should be. Today's Beltway media would do well to take note: With the incoming administration, all journalists are going to have to become muckraking investigative pains in the ass, or they can go find another profession. Put on your stompy boots and remember: You don't have to put up with this shabby crap! You're a journalist!

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the best literary discoveries I made this year was Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy, of which the first volume, Ancillary Justice, was the first book I read in 2015, after it had won nearly every award in science fiction for 2014. Ancillary Sword I read sometime midyear, and the third volume Ancillary Mercy, was just published this fall.
Ancillary Mercy was a spectacular finale to the series. Breq has sooort of the same goal that she had in Ancillary Justice — to shoot Anaander Mianaai with a Presger gun, against dreadful odds — but things have gotten bigger and more complicated since then, not like it wasn't complicated to start with. Formerly more of a lone wolf, Breq is a Fleet Captain now, with a crew and a ship dependent upon her, and she's deeply enmeshed in the unstable petty politics of Athoek Station, where her ship is docked. Other complications include the arrival of Presger Translator Zeiat (we're pretty sure she's Zeiat because Presger Translator Dlique is dead, so she can't be Dlique) and an unregistered human living in the slums of Athoek Station who might be an ancillary to an ancient, long-lost ship from before Anaander Mianaai took over the Radch, apparently still hiding in its ghost system on the other side of the gate.
One theme that had been running constantly through the books that's really pushed to its limits in this one is the idea of who counts as real people. The Radch have a very self-absorbed notion of "civilization," where to be "civilized" is to be Radch, and therefore anyone who's not Radch can be murdered with impunity as lowly savages up until they become Radchaai — at which point they are entitled to all the benefits of the Radchaai state, on the condition they follow its rules and leave any other sort of identity completely behind them. This doesn't always pan out in practice, of course. The Presger — the powerful, ineffable aliens that are the only creatures the Radchaai are really afraid of — have a similar delineation between Significant Beings and insignificant ones, with Significance being enforced by strict treaties. The Radchaai have managed to get humans a treaty designating them Significant; AIs such as ships, stations, and ancillaries are still considered tools rather than independent, civilized, or Significant races by anybody — except, perhaps, themselves. And Breq has been doing a pretty convincing human impression for several hundred pages now. If the trilogy weren't so long, it would make an excellent, excellent addition to the Aliens and Others in Science Fiction course I took at Clark, which I will freely admit shaped a lot of my thinking on what "literary" work (discussion of what "literary" means to be had at another time) speculative fiction does. Stories that look closely at the relationships between artificial intelligence and humanity have always been my favorite type of science fiction anyway; I like cyborgs better than aliens.
I also like tea, although not as much as the Radchaai like tea, but all the same I very much enjoy the role of tea in these books, and they make me want to own more fancy tea paraphernalia. Fancy tea sets are frequently used as status symbols, and status is extremely important in Radchaai society. One especially fancy tea service becomes quite integral to the plot after it is tragically shattered by a spoiled brat near the end of Ancillary Sword, as it provides important clues to one of the many knotty political mysteries Breq is trying to untangle.
This series has been targeted by assorted reactionary types for being too political, as if any halfway decently written political drama isn't going to be freaking political, or indeed, any decently written story at all. And it is true that the villains and heroes in this work are not determined by whether they are wearing white hats or black hats, but by their actual actions and beliefs. There are some plotlines featuring actions taken and beliefs expressed that do relate to certain hot topics in modern civilization, such as Lieutenant Seivarden's slow, painful journey toward becoming less of a classist assbag, and Anaander Mianaai's questionable views on how to handle peaceful citizen protest. Personally I think these are handled stellarly they're certainly relevant to modern issues, but they are very much a part of the world of the Radch after all, while the world of the Radch seems strange initially, people are people and we kind of do the same basic sorts of stupid shit in a lot of our societies and they are integral and organic parts of the story Leckie is telling. And honestly, it's these sort of little human details people being whiny and emotional and status-conscious and petty and materialistic and flipping their shit about tea that fills out these sorts of big epic space dramas with their talking ships and nearly-magical weapons and farcically incomprehensible aliens and makes them feel real and rich and relevant.
I think this is never more relevant than with the Presger, who are so completely and terrifyingly outside of human norms that the Presger Translators they send (who seem to be . . . constructed, somehow, like they were grown and programmed in a lab) generally come off as farcical in addition to their being some confusion over which one is Translator Dlique and which one is Translator Zeiat, Translator Zeiat's favorite drink is fish sauce, no matter how many times the humans try to explain that fish sauce is a condiment which, occasionally, makes it tempting to forget that they are actually terrifying. All their weirdness makes total sense somehow, to them, and they're the ones with the sufficiently-advanced-so-as-to-be-indistinguishable-from-magic guns. It's creepy as hell. But it is also still hilarious.
Actually, much of the book is hilarious; it might be a bit much if it weren't. But for a spaceship, Breq is pretty witty in a deadpan sort of way.
I'm a bit sad that there will be no more of this series, although I think it did wrap up in a very satisfying way. Perhaps I should go back and read it again rather than pining for more; I'm sure there's some things I missed the first time around.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I seem to be getting back into the swing of this whole "book clubs" thing! For my writing group's book club, I just finished reading Kameron Hurley's debut novel, God's War, the first book in her "Bel Dame Apocrypha" series, which appears to be at . . . three books? Four books? A trilogy with a companion novel? Idunno.
Our heroine—or possibly anti-heroine; it's difficult to tell since this is one of those "everybody sucks, but in different ways" sorts of stories—is Nyx, a bel dame, which is a sort of government assassin who mostly is supposed to cut off the heads of "contaminated" soldiers and draft dodgers. This is serious business, because Nyx's world is embroiled in a centuries-long ongoing holy war between her country of Nasheen and its neighboring Chenja, and in Nasheen, the entire Nasheenian male populace is drafted. As a result, women do basically everything else, although a lot of them go to the front, too. (In Chenja, it works a little differently, but most of the men are still drafted.) The world they live on has been laboriously terraformed by magicians to be habitable, but is still an inhospitable desert planet in which bugs are the main power source for most things—from cars to medicine to magic—and biological weapons are common in the war. Overall, the worldbuilding is highly original, very earthy, and extremely gross.
Nyx, through a series of bad life choices, winds up stripped of her bel dame license and running a bounty-hunting operation with a ragtag team of international misfits, which consists of Rhys, a pious Chenjan political refugee and magician of mediocre talent; Khos, a big blond Vikingesque shapeshifter dude who left his strictly sex-segregated homeland of Mhoria because he was too heterosexual to cope (somehow this isn't stupid); Taite, an asylum-seeker from the shapeshifter-hating country of Ras Tieg who isn't properly inoculated and whose pregnant older sister isn't, either; and Anneke, who is I think actually Nasheenian and who is sort of the mechanically handy one and is super into weapons.
Nyx gets issued a note (i.e., a bounty-hunting assignment) by no less illustrious a person than the Queen herself, which is unusual, because the Queen ordinarily does not give notes to disreputable bounty hunters and indeed seems to be attempting to actively circumvent the bel dames, who are supposed to be the government's assassins. The note will pay enough for Nyx and her entire team to peacefully retire, if it doesn't get them all killed. Obviously, that's going to be a BIG "if."
The assignment is to bring in an alien who has gone missing—possibly kidnapped, more likely she ditched the other aliens she came to the planet with and went into hiding—and who, supposedly, could end the war. How, it is not known, but obviously this is kind of a big deal, because if she could end the war in favor of Nasheen then she could also end it in favor of Chenja.
Since the bug tech/magic in this world is quite advanced and biopunky, Nyx and co. are able to sustain a pretty hefty amount of getting shot, tortured, beaten, sunburned, starved, cut up, and generally damaged before they will die, and in certain cases, even death isn't the end—we learn that Nyx has already been resuscitated once before the book's main story even starts. This mission (and Nyx's life in general) is brutal. The actual body count is high—assassins gotta assassinate somehow, after all—but Nyx also goes through organs and limbs like they're going out of style, and all the immigrants on her crew seem to get beaten up, cavity searched, and tossed into boxing rings on the regs. It's the grittiest thing I've read since I listened to that podcast about medieval bread (it had actual grit in it so it wore people's teeth down and gave them abscesses).
I'm also impressed that there's number of tropes in here that could have been crappy if they'd been written by a less skilled or more bitter writer. Nasheen is run entirely by women, with the entire male gender being sidelined to the role of cannon fodder, and it's neither a feminist utopia nor the sort of whiny simplistic oppression-reversal story that has plagued so many decades of sci-fi, but a real-feeling, high-stakes look into the unsustainable human cost of constant warfare. I think one way the book gets avoids having any of these tropes come off badly is that there's such a variety of them—the overarching "shared" culture on the planet is largely technological, plus sectarian violence around what is technically supposed to be the same religion. Outside of that, each country structures its society and its oppressions radically differently, and none of them come off looking particularly good. It's Khos, the giant Viking dog-man who left his homeland because he liked sleeping with women too much, who has the most astute observation in the entire book: All these societies, in their different ways, lack balance, and this lack of balance—these systems of control, separation, and lack of respect—that cut people apart from each other are all really like cutting out a part of yourself, which is why everything on Bugpunk Desert Planet is so endlessly messed up.
This is a high-octane, high-context, action-packed work of grim, cynical, desert-flavored grimdark. It would make an absolutely killer HBO show, and I'm very much looking forward to the book club discussion.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I've been dropping the ball pretty hard on a lot of my book clubs, and BSpec's book club to read Liu Cixin's The Three-Body Problem is no exception, except that I actually DID make it to the book club. I was surreptitiously (OK, not that surreptitiously) attempting to read the last 10% or so of the book during the meeting, and I finished the book the following morning.

This is not because the book was not good. It's because parts of the book were not good, and when I got to those parts, I'd space out and spend time dicking around on my phone or thinking judgmental thoughts about real life things (don't ask) and otherwise not making any progress despite sitting on the couch or my bed for pretty substantial periods of time. But the bits that were good were really good, which is why I kept attempting to read.

Three-Body Problem is a Chinese novel that has a lot of elements of what I'm familiar with as sort of Golden Age-y/"classic" science fiction, including both the fun bits that make me feel like I ought to read more classic sci-fi and the doofy bits that are why I don't. I can certainly see why the more dedicatedly sci-fi-oriented parts of SF/F fandom like it, but I think it could have been edited down one or two hundred pages (probably the same way a lot of sci-fi fans feel about the long Victorianesque food-porn-ridden fantasy doorstoppers I like to read).

Things that were good included everything to do with the video game, the space bits at the end with folding the proton, the story of the Trisolaran listener, the characterization of the one character who actually has characterization (she's the bad guy, but whatever), the one scene where they actually use the bloody nanofilaments that are the whole reason the "protagonist" is even in the story, and some of the discussion about the Cultural Revolution and the Chinese political situations in general. I was also kind of impressed at the way it managed to provide a sympathetic look at pretty much all sides of the conflict--it was nihilistic as shit, but I really felt for the aliens who were going to invade, and the humans who sold the planet out to the aliens, and the "evil" environmentalists, and also the people who, you know, didn't want aliens to invade and murder us all, even though the anti-aliens-invading side really had fewer and less compelling arguments.

Things that were less good: the protagonist was boring as hell. In fact, all but one of the characters were there just to be their jobs and had no discernible characterization outside of "having expertise in such-and-such because that's their job," although the "dirty cop" character was kind of fun, if only because he seemed to have been borrowed from a different genre so at least he shook things up a bit. There was a bit too much technobabble and longwinded discussion of physics for me, especially since it definitely seemed to be doing the classic Golden Age Scifi That Is Not Considered Literature (And This Is Why, Dammit) thing of substituting technobabble/sciencebabble for characterization. There was also some weird gender stuff, some really odd sexualization of some of the female characters at really inappropriate times (like... when bloodcrazed teen girl Red Guards are murdering people or being murdered) that took me out of the narrative, the kind of stuff that makes me stop thinking "Aliens are invading; what happens next?" and instead reminds me "I am sitting on a couch reading words that were made up and written down by a dude; that is what is going on right now. What will the next words be and will they be any good?" There were a couple of continuity issues, like the boring protagonist had a wife and son for one scene in the beginning when he needed them to take pictures, but then they are never mentioned again.

I know I am clearly missing a whole lot about Chinese culture and storytelling and the political realities of what can and cannot get published in China, and I'd love to know more about that (Sarah provided some insight in our discussion, secondhand from her Chinese grad school roommates who had read the book before it was available in English and apparently had a lot of opinions about it) (thanks, Sarah!). But I'm still not 100% sure I'm going to read the second volume? I might if I'm feeling particularly nihilistic, but generally if I'm going to read an underedited 800-page genre monstrosity I'm going to go for some sort of dark fantasy with too much characterization (and food porn) (and dresses) rather than too much physicists talking about how physics is, like, everything there is, man.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)

In January I read Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, which won last year’s Best Novel Hugo along with a whole bunch of other awards, and this week I read the sequel, Ancillary Sword, which is also up for a Hugo in a non-shenanigans-filled way.

Our protagonist is still Breq, the one remaining body of what used to be a troop carrier and hundreds of troops all linked together into one giant AI, before the Lord of the Radch destroyed her. There were reasons for that, which are uncovered in the first book. In this volume, Breq, now Fleet Captain of the Mercy of Kalr, gate-jumps to a station above a minorly important tea-growing planet to seek out Lieutenant Awn's little sister and try to mitigate the damage from the Lord of the Radch's conflict with herself.

The result is a complex melodrama of politics and personal relationships and cyborg stuff, packed with ample amounts of both shooty space action and tea-drinking imperial snobbery. The Radch continue to be a fascinating culture, with perhaps more in common with the British Empire than with the usual U.S.-military-in-space that we normally see, but with a lot of uniquely Radchaii worldbuilding--it's a gender-neutral culture; the most important type of relationship recognized in society at large is that between "patron" and "client" (romantic coupledom is considered a bit childish); family and personal relationships are put on display through jewelry, mostly pins.

It could have ended up a ridiculous mishmash, in which case I probably would have liked it anyway but for different reasons, but it all pulls together really well. The stakes are high; Breq is badass; the worldbuilding is rich; and the plots explore a lot of really important issues about identity and power and entitlement, giving moral weight to all the shooting and tea-drinking snobbery. (I realize this means this book is not for everyone; some people apparently prefer to know who the good and bad guys are by whether they're wearing white or black cowboy hats on top of their space helmets; but I like it when determining good-guy and bad-guy status involves some sort of thought about what constitutes "good" and "bad.") I like being in Breq's head a lot--her perspective is *different.* And I loooove the way the technology of the Radch affects the characters' identities and sense of self--I kept thinking that my Aliens and Others class would have had a field day with this series. Breq is not human, but sometimes she seems more human than the human characters, for many of the positive ways we evaluate "human," at least. Other times she is definitely, definitely not. There are a number of times when you get so sucked in to Breq's POV that everything she does seems to make 100% perfect sense and only later, when somebody else points it out, do you realize how odd it looks from a human point of view.

The third book, "Ancillary Mercy," is supposedly in copyedits right now, according to the author's Twitter. How do I get to be Ann Leckie's copyeditor?

bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
I picked up Maureen F. McHugh’s China Mountain Zhang for a book club where, predictably, I missed the meeting because I hadn’t finished the book in time. This happens entirely too often. Oh well.

The book, published in the early ‘90s, is a sort of cyberpunky near-future thing in which Chinese communism beats out Western capitalism as the dominant world system, where China is the world’s only superpower and the U.S. has become a sort of backwater-y semi-colonial state after something called the Cleansing Winds campaign. The book is structured as a series of vignettes detailing the lives of a loosely connected network of characters, of whom the central and most-frequently-recurring one is a half-Chinese, half-Latino American man named Rafael Luis or Zhang Zhong Shan. Zhang looks purely Chinese due to some now-illegal gene splicing stuff, which gives him an advantage in a China-centric society; he is also gay, which gives him some disadvantages, since in this version of the future gay rights have not advanced one whit since 1992. The book follows Zhang from his beginnings as a construction tech in Brooklyn through a series of career and personal events, including a contract job on an Arctic research base, a stint as an engineering student in China, and attempts to get work in New York again now that he is basically overqualified for everything there.

Other characters include some kite fliers, a pair of colonists on Mars, and Zhang’s former boss’s daughter who has a bone disease that disfigures her face. All of their stories are seamlessly worked in with the technological advances of the world—kite racing a sort of flying-bodysuit sport where the audience “jacks in” to fliers to experience what they experience; the colonists on Mars are having issues with the systems that keep their colony livable; the daughter gets an advanced medical treatment that regrows all the bones in her face and discovers how different life is for pretty girls than ugly ones (somewhat predictably, she gets assaulted on a date). Zhang becomes something called an “organic engineer,” which is apparently like a cross between systems engineering and architecture, except more Daoist. (It makes sense in the book.)

Characterization and worldbuilding are key here, so the book only works because they’re both so very well done and so very well-integrated with one another. There’s not a huge amount of plot; Zhang has a sort of coming-of-age arc thing going on but it’s a slowly developing career path, not a “Saves the world and finds out who he really is at the same time” action-adventure story. And apart from a creepily accurate prediction of a Second Great Depression in the U.S. at the beginning of the twenty-first century—although this one supposedly had something to do with trade balances—I can’t really weigh in on how plausible a vision of the future it is. But it feels plausible, and real, and immersive, and for that it’s a good read. Everything—fashion, technology, language, setting—is very detailed, except the beer, which is always just described as “beer” and on the rare occasions it is a type of beer the characters drinking it don’t care, which sounds weird to me but that might be a quirk of when and where I live.
I was worried going into this that it would end up with some flavor of the paranoid Cold War propaganda that infests a lot of older sci-fi—instead, life under Chinese communism appears to have a lot in common with life under punitively-minded Western capitalism in an economic slump. Zhang deals with unemployment, the difficulties of gaining an education, problems of then being overqualified once the education is obtained, government bureaucracies, gentrification, housing instability, officially-nonexistent class issues, running out of money—all the usual stressful BS of being a young, single urbanite. In this way it was a little depressing, because, man, I do not need to read books to experience being unemployed and scrambling to pay rent in a crappy shoebox apartment in a gritty city. Although at least Zhang lives alone most of the time.

I liked this book, but I think I’m gonna read something a bit more escapist next.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
The elevator pitch for Elizabeth Bear’s new novel Karen Memory is colorful enough that you can pretty much be certain that if you like the elevator pitch, you will like the book, and if you don’t, you won’t. The elevator pitch is: Heroic prostitutes versus disaster capitalists in the steampunk Old West.

I was pretty much sold at that point, and I am happy report that Karen Memory is just what you’d want from a pitch like that, with added awesomeness besides. This includes a fictional appearance by real-life historical badass U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and his giant mustache.

I’ll be frank: I have enjoyed a fair number of stories that are absolute trashy messes, because they are trashy mess hodgepodges of stuff I like, and I probably would have still liked Karen Memory well enough if it were that. All the same, that is not the case here: This is a really solid story. It’s got strong and unashamed dime-novel elements, but it all ties together into a coherent, well-paced, thrilling narrative that is chock-full of awesome things and they all make total sense.

It’s a first-person narrative that does well the main thing a first-person narrative has to do well, which is: the voice is fabulous. Karen’s been taught “proper” grammar as part of her genteel parlor-girling duties, but the narration is in her regular nineteenth-century Old West working-class reads-a-lot-of-dime-store-novels voice, and it’s great—it’s fun and colorful and folksy and smart, and Karen’s a great one for sly observations and over-the-top similes and you can generally tell she’s got her roots in a good old playful Irish storytelling tradition. She says “could of” and “knowed” and she’s not one whit the less smart for it. She’s also totally adorable in her developing feelings for Priya, an Indian girl who’s managed to escape the cribhouses of the story’s villain, abusive pimp Peter Bantle.

Priya’s also great—a budding mad scientist with phenomenal language-learning skills who wears pants and is even more awkward about feelings than Karen. In fact, the cast of characters surrounding Karen is almost exclusively made of thoroughly awesome people, except the people who are such utter terrible people that you viscerally want to punch them in the face with their own fists, which does still make them great character. The cast at Madame Damnable’s consists of a diverse crowd of women (and one dude—the house bouncer, a gay Black man named Crispin), including the inestimable Miss Francina, a transwoman who nobody is an asshole to about it (except Peter Bantle, of course), the human embodiment of solidarity and friendship, and all-around stellar character. The other girls come in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and accents, and they each have their own characters, though we rarely learn their backstories. The rest of Rapid City seems to be populated with men ranging from the villainous to the sort of ineffectually decent enough, at least until Marshal Bass Reeves and his posseman, a Comanche dude named Tomoatooah, arrive. They kick ass, quietly and with great dignity and sometimes dynamite. The dynamite is less quiet, obviously.

On to the steampunky bits! The steampunky bits are a bit less goofy than much of the steampunk I’ve read so far, although I admit to only reading ridiculous steampunk. There are no flying whales. There is, however, a lot of really bizarre city infrastructure and some weirdo robot full-body sewing machines that sound more like Iron Man suits than anything else. Much of the plot hinges on a creepy technological advance that’s so far still secret but not implausible based on what tech they’ve already got, and a bit more plot hinges on a particularly souped-up submarine with tentacles, because what’s a steampunk story without at least one octopus-thing? At any rate, I’m wicked jealous of Karen’s sewing machine.

I strongly recommend this book to everyone who likes badass ladies, steampunk, stories about lesbians that aren’t tragic death coming-out novels, historical figures you haven’t learned of in school, seeing abusive assholes get what they deserve, the Old West, big diverse ensemble casts, luxuriant mustaches, characters exhibiting genre-savviness (the genre in question being dime novels), and fun.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Oh my gawd, what does one say about Ancillary Justice? It's Ann Leckie's first novel, and it has managed to win basically every SFF genre award out there, including the Hugo for Best Novel. It's certainly the sort of book you don't want to talk too much about in front of people who haven't read it, partly because it's a bit hard to explain until you start reading (at which point it's not nearly as difficult to follow as I was afraid it would be) and because you don't want to give anything away. You just kind of want to shove it in people's faces going "IT WON THE HUGO AND THE NEBULA AND THE ARTHUR C. CLARKE JUST READ IT."
This is, of course, insufficient as a book review, and I'm sure will be VERY insufficient as a book club discussion, which is what I've got next Thursday, particularly since everyone at the book club will have read it.
Our protagonist is a soldier who goes by the name of Breq, though this is not her name. She is an AI, and she used to be a much bigger AI: She used to be an entire ship, and all of the cyborg "corpse soldiers"--heavily modified human bodies that all shared one consciousness--that staffed it, known as ancillaries. But Breq, formerly ancillary unit Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen, is the only one left after Justice of Toren and her entire crew were blown up. Now, twenty years later, Breq is hellbent on revenge, and nearly in a position to get it. But there are a couple of complications: One, she picks up one of her former captains, near-dead after developing a drug addiction after being cryogenically frozen for a thousand years. Two, the entity Breq is hellbent on revenge on is none other than the Lord of the Radch, the supreme ruler of the largest imperial human civilization--and the Lord of the Radch has her own ancillary selves, which has led to a whole host of other interesting issues.
The one thing I knew about the Radch going into this book is that they don't mark gender socially--not in language, not in dress, not in mannerism. Unlike Ursula LeGuin in The Left Hand of Darkness, Leckie--through Breq's first-person narration--defaults to referring to everybody as "she," in the dialogue when characters are speaking Radch, and in Breq's viewpoint narration, since her native language is Radch. The result is a book where, 90% of the time, it's easy to read everybody as female, even though there are a few instances where it's pointed out that particular characters are male or female, usually minor ones. I think Sievarden is the only really major character whose gender is ever given; he is male. But I don't know what gender Breq's one remaining body is, or what gender the Lord of the Radch is, or what gender Lieutenant Awn was (although I was strongly reading Awn as female and Lieutenant Skaaiat as male, for some reason). The one excerpt from this book that I had read was a scene where Breq is talking to someone not in Radch and is struggling with picking the right gender markers in the gendered language they are using, and I went into this a little worried that the whole book was going to be like that and be exploring pronoun usage on every page (which would get old fast), but mostly it doesn't--mostly the book zips along just reading like it's all ladies all the time, which I am entirely OK with.
In addition to being a highly personal story of revenge and a highly sci-fi-y story about a ship in the body of a cyborg traveling around a bunch of planets trying to shoot someone with a fancy space gun, this story is also very political. All the conflict and murder and revenging results from a set of policy reforms implemented by the Lord of the Radch, trying to halt the previously inexorable, Manifest Destiny-like expansion and assimilation "civilization" project of imperial Radch. These reforms, of course, call into being the idea that there was something less than 100% ideal with the old way of doing things, which is an idea that is extremely unpopular with many important people, including... ah, but that would be spoilers.
I really wish this book had been out when I was taking Betsy Huang's "Aliens and Others in Science Fiction" course at Clark. Justice of Toren One Esk/Breq's identity stuff is really interesting, especially the stuff about how One Esk differs from the rest of Justice of Toren, and what happens when she gets stuck in one body and tries to pass as human, and ahhhh so much awesome stuff.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
One of the very cool things about attending nerdy literary conventions like Readercon is that you can pick up unusual little hard-to-find books. This past Readercon, in honor of the awesome Memorial Guest of Honor, Mary Shelley, I picked up a little limited-run paperback--scarcely more than a pamphlet--called The Mortal Immortal: The Complete Supernatural Short Fiction. While Mary Shelley wrote a lot of things besides Frankenstein, it looks like she only wrote five pieces of supernatural short fiction. But now I have all of them!

First off, the cover is gorgeous, a textured gray with the the text made to look like a gravestone rubbing. The text is a nice atmospheric sort of tiny cramped round serif font, which is very old-timey, but it gets a little wearing to read, and also it's not right-justified and suffers from random line breaks. Overall, though, it is a very pretty book.

Before getting to the five stories, there is a meandering and somewhat self-indulgent introduction, framed as a short story wherein a middle-aged Mary Shelley returns from the dead and snarks at the book's editor. But only a little--I think it would have improved with some additional snarking, honestly. The reanimation conceit fits very well with Mary Shelley's works, as it is a theme she returned to time and time again; it works slightly less well in that the narrator manages to not narrate himself enough to establish himself as a character I care about, but enough that I feel like I'm sitting through him talking about himself. Also, he seems to be mimicking the highly detailed, overwritten prose style of the period, which, dude, there's a reason we stopped writing like that when we invented proper editing software. It does provide some solid background information on what Mary Shelley did with her life and her writing after all the fun exciting bits with Frankenstein and Percy Shelley getting his fool self drowned that you always hear about, at any rate.

The first story is The Mortal Immortal: A Tale, which brings us into the fun madcap world of Agrippa and alchemy, and reminded me that I still need to read that third Deb Harkness book. Our narrator is a hapless former apprentice of the famed alchemist, who has a haughy, demanding girlfriend, and is also an idiot who doesn't know the first thing about lab safety (literally the first thing you learn in a modern school, which is don't put anything in your fucking mouth). Idiot narrator eats a science experiment that causes him to age imperceptibly slowly, which causes issues in his marriage with Haughty Demanding Lady. (Her name is actually Bertha, as in the apropos Grateful Dead lyric, "Bertha, don't you come around here anymore.") Overall, it is an endearing story about two idiots, which eventually turns into a meditation on how age affects our relationships.

The second story is entitled Transformation, about a reckless young Italian lad who is, quite frankly, an asshole. He is in love with his guardian's daughter, but then he goes off to Paris and makes reckless party boy friends and spends all his money and becomes even more of an asshole, which results in a big family drama wherein he tries to kidnap the girl he wants to marry--twice. All this changes when, wandering around in a penniless rage, he meets a magical dwarf. No, he seriously does meet a magical dwarf, who offers to switch their bodies for three days in exchange for all sorts of riches, so that he can attempt to woo his girlfriend again (don't ask me how this was supposed to work) but then there are plot twists and he almost dies and becomes less of an asshole, the end. This story was really quite a lot of fun, what with all the kidnappings and fight scenes and almost dying.

The third story, Roger Dodsworth: The Reanimated Englishman, is not only the weirdest story in the book, but possibly the weirdest use of epistolary form I have ever seen. It's in the form of a newspaper article, that basically apologizes for not being able to get an interview with Mr. Dodsworth, and then goes on about the science of how he reanimated (cryogenics, basically), and the circumstances under which he was found, and then proceeds to speculate about what it must have been like for him. I'm not used to "speculative fiction" meaning "fiction in which people sit around speculating about stuff," but that seems to be what this is. Anyone who complains about Roger Walton should very definitely not read this story.

The Dream gets us back to more conventional storytelling form, with a regular third-person narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. This is also my favorite piece in the book, possibly because it's the only one with a female protagonist. Our heroine, Constance, is planning on getting herself to a nunnery, because her whole family is dead after a brutal fight with her boyfriend's family, as they have been enemies for years yadda yadda medieval stuff. The King of France visits her to try and talk her into not going to the nunnery, and her boyfriend, also the only surviving member of his family, comes to convince her to take him back or else he will go off to die heroically in Palestine. Constance decides to let St. Catherine decide for her by spending the night on a religiously significant ledge over a river. I must wonder how often this is actually how people made major life decisions back in olden times.

The last story, Valerius: The Reanimated Romani, at least has the good grace to feature actual transcriptions of our reanimated dude talking and thinking about things, although there's not much of a story arc to this one. To be quite honest, it is like 90% bitching about how terrible and degraded 19th century Italy was and how the Roman Republic was so much better. (It's a bit funny if you know about how much Mary Shelley hated Italy.) Also the friendship he strikes up with a young married English lady sounds . . . not solely friendlike.

I'm super excited that I read this, but honestly, Frankenstein is clearly still the masterpiece.
bloodygranuaile: (oh noes)
Many people have recommended China Miéville to me, generally with no explanation of what sort of stuff he writes or why I would be interested in it, and usually recommending Perdido Street Station specifically, which is about I have no idea whatsoever. But when one of my book clubs decided to read The City & The City, I figured I'd read it, both to see what it was all about and because I'd missed the last few of that book club.

The book club meeting was last Thursday, and I finished the book tonight, so it turns out I missed that book club meeting too. Oh well.

The reason this book took me goddamn forever to read is 100% due to crazy life hecticness that leaves me no time for reading, and not at all due to the book being not good. I know some people think it starts off slow, but I think it starts off a good kind of slow that I love in procedurals/mysteries/that sort of thing... jumping right into everything being totally batshit and continuing that way is good sometimes, but in a book where the worldbuilding is such a huge part of how the crime is put together, I like the sort of slow frustrated poking around in the beginning. It really picked up a lot at the end, and honestly, I thought the end was maybe even too rushed, so apparently I like slower-paced mysteries than the people in book club who were posting about it.

Our protagonist is a middle-aged homicide detective dude named Tyador Borlú, of the Beszel Extreme Crime Squad. Beszel is a vaguely Eastern European post-Soviet sort of city, located in the exact same spot as another city, called Ul Qoma. These cities operate simultaneously by splitting up the area, by street and patch of grass, and in some places "crosshatched," using a variety of colors and mannerisms and all sorts of little signifiers to keep them separate and different. Being in one city but crossing into, or even acknowledging stuff going on, in the other is called breaching, and will bring down a shadowy authority called Breach upon you, and then you may get disappeared. The plot happens when Borlú is called to investigate the murder of an unknown woman, and they finally figure out that she was actually from Ul Qoma. This leads first Borlú and his junior cop buddy, Corwi, and later Borlú and his Ul Qoman inspector partner, Dhatt, into a series of increasingly bizarre conspiracies involving political extremists of both the nationalist and unificationist varieties, a lot of confused archaeologists, and a discredited archaeological theory about a secret third city called Orciny.

As far as police procedurals go, this is SUPER POLICE PROCEDURAL-Y. There is lots of swearing and drinking coffee and complaining about paperwork, and everyone generally being gruff and hard-boiled and cranky. Female representation is fairly low, although not that bad by hard-boiled-detective-story standards--Corwi, the junior cop, is pretty badass when she's around, and never develops any tiresome romantic or sexual tension with Borlú, although she does get relegated to the background in the second half of the book when he goes over to Ul Qoma. The dead girl, obviously, is dead before the story even starts, but even so, she ends up being a pretty fascinating character. The other girl mixed up in this conspiracy also winds up dead, unfortunately. Borlú has two girlfriends, because of course he does, although they both very sensibly stay off-page for most of the book, which I am actually pretty OK with as it means the book features exactly zero sex scenes, which is something I think more non-children's-books should do. Overall it is still a pretty dude-heavy book. That is probably my biggest complaint about it, although it is a half-hearted complaint considering the number of dudely crime books where the women who are there are all terrible and oversexualized. So this is a non-gross dudely crime book, stuffed full of all the fun bits of crime-bookiness, like sharp punchy sentence fragments and always leaving it to the next chapter to tell you what it is that the narrator just figured out that is super important.

If you like police procedurals and noir and all that gritty shit, The City & the City is a fantastic addition to that genre, lovingly squishing in everything that makes a good police mystery a good police mystery into the weird knots and cracks of really fascinating "new weird" worldbuilding. If cranky foulmouthed homicide detectives aren't really your thing, though, I would probably not recommend it unless you're SUPER into urban worldbuilding to make up for it.


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