Sunday, April 30, 2006

Arthur & George by Julian Barnes

Julian Barnes' Arthur & George is a novel that sent me scurrying to the thesaurus, searching for just the right adjective to describe it. 'Accomplished' might be a good word--without resorting to flowery and interminable description, Arthur & George is an impressive and convincing recreation of its era. 'Precise' might be another--every word in its place, and each one doing exactly what Barnes intended it to do, no more and no less. And then there are all the adjectives I can't use to describe the book--words like 'grand', 'exciting', 'passionate'. Arthur & George, in other words, is the sort of book I could easily see placing on the shortlist for a major award, in recognition of everything it does right. And just as easily, I can see how it would be the first book to get knocked off the list when the time came to choose the winner, because of all of the things it doesn't try to do at all.

Barnes' novel is a fictionalization of an episode in the life of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. In 1906, Doyle was petitioned by a George Edalji, a Staffordshire lawyer, who had been convicted of mutilating a horse and sending threatening letters to himself. Although the evidence against Edalji was slight, and there was every indication that the local police had settled on him as a suspect because of his non-white lineage (Edalji's father, the Reverend Shapurji Edalji, was converted to Christianity in his youth, married a Scottish woman, and at the time of the trial had served his congregation for several decades), and although the mutilations continued while Edalji was remanded and awaiting trial, he was found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison. A letter-writing campaign resulted in his release after three years, but with no explanation. With a criminal conviction on his record, Edalji couldn't practice law, and he turned to Doyle for help in obtaining a pardon and compensation from the Home Office (although significantly altered, the Edalji case was obviously an inspiration for a sub-plot in Michael Chabon's novella The Final Solution).

The book's title, and even its cover design, which depicts two men standing together in silent camaraderie, suggests that Barnes' focus is the relationship between Arthur and George. In truth, the two don't even meet until more than halfway through the novel, and spend very little time together after that initial meeting. George never plays Watson to Arthur's Holmes (and frankly, if there's a Holmes between the two it is the dispassionate, observant George), and the interactions between them are never more than polite. Barnes is far more concerned with describing the two men as individuals--George, brought up in quiet asceticism, an unimaginative and asocial man; Arthur, driven by notions of honor and chivalry, given to grand gestures and elaborate demonstrations of affection.

Barnes' prose throughout the novel, although by no means unlovely or underperforming--as I've already said, the novel effortlessly evokes its period--is dry and utilitarian. His purpose is to describe locations, characters and events, but at no point do his descriptions elicit emotion. Instead of forcing his readers to feel as he wants them to feel, Barnes politely invites them to sympathize, not empathize, with his characters. Even his descriptions of high emotion have a clinical, detached quality.
And then his capacity for calm professional analysis ran out. He felt immensely tired and yet also over-excited. His sequential thoughts lost their steady pace; they lurched, they plunged ahead, they followed emotional gravity. It was suddenly borne in upon him that until minutes ago only a few people--mostly policemen, and perhaps some foolishly ignorant members of the public, the sort who would beat on the doors of a passing cab--had actually assumed him guilty. But now--and shame broke over him at the realization--now almost everyone would think him so.
The emotion that Arthur & George does elicit is borrowed from its readers, and from history itself. Barnes is relying on us to react with outrage and horror at the indignities that George Edalji and his family experience. For years, the family received abusive letters and threatening messages (the same letters which George was accused and convicted of writing). Barnes describes this harassment in chilly, matter-of-fact terms, and leaves it to us to imagine the stifling horror of this relentless assault. Similarly, there is very little editorializing in his descriptions of George's patently unjustified and unfair trial and conviction--Barnes obviously assumes that we can be relied on to be horrified by this miscarriage of justice*.

This analytical, emotionless approach to character exploration invariably succeeds with George, but fails with Arthur. Arthur's problems aren't as grand and as affecting as George's. It's easy to get worked up over the thought of a blameless and decent man being convicted of a crime he didn't commit, but how exercised are we supposed to get over Arthur's marital difficulties, especially when juxtaposed with George's problems? In almost every respect, Arthur & George is a stronger novel when dealing with the latter character. When introducing his two protagonists, Barnes coyly avoids acknowledging their respective idiosyncrasies--that Arthur is the famous novelist and creator of Sherlock Holmes; that George is a middle-class Englishman of Indian descent in the 19th century (which, I suspect, means that readers who approached the novel without any prior knowledge of either the characters or the affair that brought them together had a reading experience that was quite different from mine). But the revelation that George is not white has a bite--it comes when a brutish police sergeant forces George to spell his unusual last name--whereas the discovery of Arthur's true identity smacks of playfulness: "Arthur had initially called his detective Sheridan Hope. But the name felt unsatisfactory, and in the writing Sheridan Hope had changed first into Sherringford Holmes and then--inevitably as it seemed thereafter--into Sherlock Holmes."

Most importantly, Arthur is a much less interesting character than George. There's no question which of the two would make for a more interesting dinner companion--Arthur would be able to talk about the great men of day, recount amusing stories from his past, and just in general be jovial and entertaining, whereas George's greatest contribution to the world of letters seems to have been a pamphlet about railroad law. But as a literary character, Arthur is very nearly one-note. Barnes sums him up in a few sentences--he is a man desperate to believe in chivalry and to act according to a personal code, who inevitably finds that conviction challenged by the realities of his life. Once this fairly mundane crisis is established, there is very little that the novel can tell us about Arthur that we haven't already worked out for ourselves. George, in contrast, is constantly confounding our expectations. This is due in part to Barnes stacking the deck--in the earlier segments of the novel, George's lack of appreciation for the finer nuances of social interaction is very nearly autistic ("How d'you do, my name's George" he says to the schoolyard bully, and when the above-mentioned sergeant asks for it, the sixteen year old George responds that he knows his own name). We are surprised, therefore, when we meet George as an adult and discover an observant, thoughtful individual, full of appreciation for the quirks of human behavior--even the kind he doesn't participate in himself. Once the initial surprise wears off, however, we continue to be impressed by George's ability to observe people, and to make unprejudiced and compassionate observations about them. George is also capable of turning that keen insight on himself, and of not taking himself very seriously. Ultimately, George is a thoroughly likable person, a mensch, whose quiet civility puts Arthur's blustering sentimentality to shame.

Sight, and observation, are a recurrent theme in Arthur & George, which seems only appropriate for a novel over which the ghost of the Great Detective must inevitably hover. Once again history seems to be on Barnes' side--Doyle trained as an opthamologist, and Edalji suffered from a severe myopia which, according to Doyle, was his first indication that the mild-mannered lawyer was incapable of traipsing across unfamiliar fields in the dead of night to slaughter livestock. Barnes himself seems to engage in a great deal of dispassionate observation--it is at the core of his approach to the entire novel, and primarily to the characters--and his characters attempt, with varying degrees of success, to do the same. But of greater interest to Barnes is the failure of this attempt at unprejudiced observation. Some of his characters see what they want to see--which in certain cases might be called faith, and in others self-delusion, and in others yet racism. Others refuse to see what is right in front of them, such as George's insistence that the persecution of his family and his own conviction were not motivated by racial prejudice. And then of course there are those who are obsessed with believing that which can never be seen. Doyle was famously a proponent of spiritualism, a patron of psychics and mediums, and Barnes concentrates on Arthur's relentless quest to prove--empirically, with visible evidence--that these men and women were truly contacting the world beyond.

Ultimately, however, Arthur's belief in the afterlife is not a question of evidence but of faith, and Barnes obviously expects us to consider the difference between the kind of knowledge that is supported by observation and evidence and the kind that doesn't require either. Here, unfortunately, is where history, which had previously buoyed the novel up, begins to box it in. The 19th century medium has become synonymous, in our culture, with the charlatan and the snake-oil salesman**. We can't respect Arthur's faith in the survival of the spirit because the terms in which it is couched are, to us, emblematic of self-delusion. The question is answered before it can even be asked, and the entire sub-plot--which might, I suspect, have been the point of the novel--collapses in upon itself. What's left is the historical recreation.

I read Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a few months ago, and was particularly struck by the book's first segment, which follows Herbert Clutter and his family on the last day of their lives. Capote describes the Clutters as decent, hardworking, generous people, whose lives were as charmed as it is likely that any human life could be--riddled with niggling inconveniences and not-inconsiderable sorrows, but ultimately happy and productive. I couldn't help but wonder how accurate Capote's image of the Clutters was--whether he, or their grief-struck neighbors, had smoothed over the rough edges. I had no such doubts when I read Arthur & George--I believe whole-heartedly that Barnes has captured the essence of both Doyle and Edalji's personalities, and the truth of the events that brought them together. As a recreation of a moment in history, a fictionalization of real-life events, Arthur & George is unquestionably a success. It is a nearly-journalistic account, and a very readable and fascinating one at that, but I honestly don't think that it can be called a novel.

* The one instance in which this approach fails is in the descriptions of George's life in prison. George is a solitary, stoic individual, used to a very simple life and not given to complaining, which explains his ability to withstand his incarceration as well as he does. Ultimately, however, this resilience makes George's prison term seem less like a grave injustice and more like a dull, overlong holiday, on which he has the opportunity to read the great classic novels. It's interesting to compare Barnes' descriptions of prison life with Sarah Waters' similar recreation in her novel, Affinity. I found the novel quite tedious, but there's no question that Waters manages to bring across the horror of prison life.

** Which, if I may be allowed to segue again to Waters' Affinity, is one of the reasons I didn't care for the book--it never occurred to me that the medium character was anything but a fraud.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

How Is This a Bad Idea? Let Me Count the Ways

SCI FI Announces Caprica:
SCI FI Channel announced the development of Caprica, a spinoff prequel of its hit Battlestar Galactica, in presentations to advertisers in New York on April 26. Caprica would come from Galactica executive producers Ronald D. Moore and David Eick, writer Remi Aubuchon (24) and NBC Universal Television Studio.

Caprica would take place more than half a century before the events that play out in Battlestar Galactica. The people of the Twelve Colonies are at peace and living in a society not unlike our own, but where high-technology has changed the lives of virtually everyone for the better.

But a startling breakthrough in robotics is about to occur, one that will bring to life the age-old dream of marrying artificial intelligence with a mechanical body to create the first living robot: a Cylon. Following the lives of two families, the Graystones and the Adamas (the family of William Adama, who will one day become the commander of the Battlestar Galactica), Caprica will weave together corporate intrigue, techno-action and sexual politics into television's first science fiction family saga, the channel announced.
  1. I don't know if anyone on the BSG production staff has noticed, but the show is floundering. I was under the, it now seems, hopelessly naive impression that the decision to push the show's third season premiere back to October was made at least in part in order to give its writers a chance to take stock and put their show back on track. Now is not the time to split the production team's creative energies.

  2. Once again, maybe I was being naive, but I had assumed that the story of the Cylons' evolution and the first war would be introduced on Galactica itself. Splitting off the original show's backstory strikes me as a phenomenally bad idea.

  3. Corporate intrigue, sexual politics--if the second season has demonstrated anything, it's that these are exactly the topics that Galactica's writing staff tends to stumble over and mishandle. Sure, there's 'techno-action' stuck in the middle, but I doubt there are going to be a lot of space battles on this show.

  4. I had my fill of science fiction family sagas with Taken.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

And, to Cap Off an Already Excellent Day...

...John Crowley has joined livejournal. He'd like some friends--why don't you go become one?

Can I Get a 'Hell, Yeah!'

Niall Harrison reports that Geoff Ryman's Air: Or, Have Not Have, AKA one of the finest SF novels published in recent years, has won the Arthur C. Clarke award. This is the book's third major award--it's already swept the Tiptree and the BSFA, with the Nebula yet to come (a sad confluence of events kept it off the Hugo ballot).

Nods Head Vigorously

Via Emerald City, Roz Kavney's five hundred words about M. John Harrison (scroll up for an interesting observation about Osama Bin Laden's lack of historical perspective, which for all its cleverness strikes me as rather missing the point). Kavney succinctly lays out everything that makes Harrison such a challenging, often frustrating but always irresistible author. I almost wish I could quote the whole entry, but here's a good pull-quote:
Science fiction is all about the fulfilment of wishes and Harrison is all about the vanity of human wishing and the shabby consequences of answered prayers. He is one of our most intense moralists because he tells us the truths that we often read sf and fantasy to avoid. Where therre are victories in Harrison's work, they are moral victories and the cost is almost too much to bear. He is a poet of things ending and failing to be reborn.
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

This is Probably a Bad Idea: Your Host Tackles the Veronica Mars Mystery

First of all, I should probably mention that I have the investigative skills of a stunned wombat. Seriously, you wouldn't believe the things that I had to have pointed out to me this season: that Logan deliberately targeted Hannah, that the bomb was stashed in one of the bus passengers' bags. I have absolutely no chance of working out the solution to Veronica Mars' season-long mystery simply by examining the available evidence and deducing a theory of the crime. The thing is, I don't think anyone else has a chance of doing that either, or at least not yet. Veronica Mars is a mystery story, which means that although on a certain level it is an intellectual puzzle, first and foremost it is a drama, and its writers' primary objective is to maintain tension and ensure that the mystery's solution is surprising to its viewers. There is, without a doubt, at least one piece of crucial evidence as yet undiscovered, without which the mystery can't be unraveled. The rules of good storytelling demand that this evidence not be revealed until the season's very last episode. There is simply no way, at this point in the story, that I or anyone else could solve the mystery using evidence alone. What I can do, however, is use my familiarity with stories and their conventions to at least make some intelligent guesses about what the season's end has in store.

One of the things I liked about the revelation of Aaron Echolls as Lilly Kane's killer was that, although as a plot twist it was shocking, psychologically it made perfect sense. The writers had made certain, over the course of the first season, that we learned certain things about Aaron and Lilly that made the fact of their affair seem organic to the characters. We learned that Lilly was promiscuous, and that she treated her lovers poorly. We learned that Aaron would sleep with anything female that stood still long enough, and that he had a violent and explosive temper. When the sex tape of the two of them surfaced, the discovery we made, and the theory of the crime that Veronica deduced, dovetailed perfectly with our previous knowledge of the two characters' personalities.

Lilly's murder, however, was a crime of passion--all that was required of the killer was that he or she have a violent temper. The bus crash in the second season was a premeditated crime, and its perpetrator must therefore have a more complicated and unusual personality. The crime was committed in cold blood. It was calculated, although to what extent remains unclear. We still don't know whether the bomb's intended target was the bus or the limo, and I have the sneaking suspicion that Cervando's claim that the explosion was meticulously timed is a red herring--what if the intended target was a single passenger, on either the bus or the limo, and the fact that the bus was at the cliff at the time of the explosion was merely an unfortunate accident? We have no way of knowing just how intelligent and calculating our murderer is, but given the strong likelihood that the gift basket with the bomb ended up in the hands of someone other than its intended victim, I think we can safely conclude that the murderer is not a criminal mastermind. Most importantly, unless we discover a common trait that links all of the victims (or all of the intended victims, if the bomb was supposed to destroy the limo), our killer has no compunction about killing innocent bystanders in order to get a specific person out of the way. We're talking, in other words, about a person who is either mustache-twirlingly evil or a complete psychopath.

Which would be kind of boring, and which is why I find myself enamored of the theory that the killer is a contemporary of Veronica's and not an adult. I'd be happier with a killer who is still somewhat human, and I think the only way that can happen is if they have a teenager's moral deficiencies. By and large, the student body of Neptune High has demonstrated a breathtaking capacity for selfishness, self-centeredness, and a lack of empathy--in other words, typical teenage self-absorption, taken to extremes. These are the kids who thoughtlessly commit grievous sexual and physical assaults, who humiliate their fellow students for kicks, who demonstrate almost no sympathy in the face of their fellow students' pain, and who in general act to gratify their immediate urges without giving serious thought to the consequences of their actions. For an adult to be this season's killer, they would have to be monstrous, but at Neptune High, Veronica seems to encounter nothing but monsters, who at the same time are still recognizably human. The show has toyed with taking its noir tone to such an extreme--mostly by constantly teasing us with the possibility of either Weevil or Logan being killers (and yes, I realize that post-"Plan B", Weevil and Logan are both killers)--but for the most part it has shied away from this level of darkness (did anyone really believe that Veronica was going to sic Harry on Liam Fitzpatrick?). I'd be interested to see the writers take this extra step.

It certainly doesn't help that our prime adult suspects are all such bores, and, in terms of story logic, extremely unlikely killers. After laying out such a compelling argument for her guilt in "Never Mind the Buttocks", I think we can safely conclude that Kendall is not the killer. Terrence Cook has been a red herring from day one, and Woody Goodman, although obviously a shady character, is far too obvious. They all have secrets, and no doubt are involved in the bus crash in one form or another, but I find it hard to believe that any one of them will be revealed as the killer.

If we do accept the notion of a teenage killer, who are our suspects? If we dismiss the characters who have been underexposed (Mac, Butters, Cora, Jane), or overexposed (Weevil, Logan, Wallace), or who are simply too stupid to tie their own shoelaces, much less orchestrate a murder (Dick Casablancas), we're left with a rather small group of potential killers. The first is Jackie, and I realize, even as I write this, that there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that Jackie is capable of mass murder. There's certainly been no indication that she has either the determination or the intelligence to carry out the bus bombing, and given that she was practically a stranger to all of the potential victims, it's hard to imagine what her motive might be (her rather flimsy justification for an animus against Miss Dumas notwithstanding). I'm really only considering Jackie as a possible killer because, if she isn't involved with the bus crash, I am at a loss to determine the purpose of her existence.

I disliked Jackie when the writers wanted me to dislike her, and I liked her when they wanted me to like (read: pity) her--between dissing Jane Austen and being dunked in cold water by half the school, there wasn't much chance that I wouldn't respond to her exactly as the writers wanted me to--but at no point did I develop any feelings of my own towards her. Jackie's taken part in quite a few plotlines over the course of the season--she gave Wallace something to do, was a minor motivator in his decision to leave Neptune, and her behavior after Terrence was accused of the bus crash makes for an interesting counterpoint to Veronica's actions when she was similarly ostracized. I find it hard to believe, however, that the writers truly introduced Jackie for no other reason than that she should take part in these minor plotlines, and while this certainly wouldn't be the first time that Thomas and his writers had grievously misjudged a character's appeal and effectiveness (exhibit A being Duncan, the first season's alleged femme fatale), I'd like to believe that they had a greater purpose in mind when they came up with Jackie. Since she's apparently leaving the show (hardly a great tragedy, although Tessa Thompson did her best with what she was given) I can only hope that that purpose will come to light before the end of the season, and one possibility is that she had something to do with the bus crash.

In all honesty, though, I don't believe Jackie is the killer. I am less certain, however, about Beaver Casablancas. Throughout the season, the writers have gone to great lengths to show us just exactly how little we know about Beaver, but we do know that he's clever, that he's calculating, and that he has a vicious streak and a mountain of barely suppressed rage brewing against the world. And then there's the implosion of his relationship with Mac under extremely suspicious circumstances. In other words, there's a very good chance that Beaver is seriously messed up. I can't offer any compelling evidence for Beaver's guilt, or even suggest a motive (my best guess is that Woody Goodman is involved in some capacity. I think the theory that Beaver's sexual hang-ups have to do with some sort of molestation on Woody's part makes a great deal of sense, and it's possible that Woody manipulated Beaver into placing the bomb on the bus--and that Beaver has now turned around and is manipulating Woody), but he's the only character whose guilt makes any sort of sense, psychologically and from a story logic standpoint.

Most importantly, Beaver's guilt would hurt like hell. In spite of the disturbing undercurrents to his behavior, we've come to feel for this kid. We'll be gutted if it turns out that he was capable of committing such a horrible crime (assuming, of course, that the writers don't turn Beaver into a super-villain at the last moment, but I think we can trust them not to do that), and a character we love--Mac--will be heartbroken. Veronica will be forced to choose between upholding justice and hurting someone she cares about. In every respect, Beaver's guilt would be a satisfying solution to this season's mystery and so, even though I can't offer a shred of evidence for it, I'm willing to commit myself publicly to the theory of his guilt.

And yes, I realize that I haven't dealt with Curly Moran.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Recent Reading Roundup 5

I'm not ignoring you all--I've just been reading a lot. Here's a small selection:
  1. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth - Unsworth's novel, about the English slave trade in the mid-18th century, is admirable but strangely unlovable. Unsworth has an excellent ear for period voice and a good eye for details, and Sacred Hunger is a fascinating primer on the economics of the triangle slave trade. Without drowning his readers in detail, as other authors of historical fiction are apt to do, Unsworth carefully instructs us in everything from the proper construction of slave ships to survival tricks in the wilds of Florida. Ultimately, however, Sacred Hunger is a meditation about good and evil, about the economic forces that still shape our lives, and about the nature of slavery. Without ignoring the awfulness of this practice, Unsworth treats slavery as a human invention, and its victims as human beings--who are capable, in their turn, of enslaving others. Where Sacred Hunger fails is in its characters, who are all too often used as mouthpieces in Unsworth's philosophical quest after the goodness or evilness of human nature. The two main characters--Matthew Paris, a dispirited doctor on a slave ship, and his cousin Erasmus Kemp, an imperious young man who mistakes possession for love--are well-rounded enough, but the rest of the cast is made up largely of cardboard cutouts whose job is to express a certain philosophical perspective. Well-written and thought-provoking as it is, Sacred Hunger is ultimately a treatise on a very important and interesting subject, but not a novel in any meaningful way.

  2. Waterland by Graham Swift - Swift's novel, which combines the memoirs of a middle-aged history teacher, the history of his immediate family, and an imaginary history of the draining of the English fens, put me very strongly in mind of The God of Small Things. Like Arundhati Roy, Swift switches back and forth between several narrative strands in several timelines, converging on a single event that drives the action of the entire book. Swift uses the landscape of the fens, and the story of its reclamation and conservation, as a metaphor for just about everything: human nature, love, history, and life itself. Waterland is a novel about history and stories, the way that they become confused in our minds, and the impulse to transform the story of our lives into at least one of them. That said, Waterland's crescendo isn't--the revelation is obvious and, since we don't really care about the character involved, not particularly wrenching. Swift does a good job throughout the book of gradually revealing his characters' numerous secrets, first suggesting them and then laying them out for us, constantly complicating our understanding of their personality and history, but the one seminal event that supposedly drives the narrator's life lacks the resonance of previous revelations. Waterland is made up of many gorgeous and at times quite funny parts, but at the last moment, it fails to come together into any sort of whole.

  3. Black Juice by Margo Lanagan - I've been going on and on about Lanagan's short story "Singing My Sister Down", which is indeed a beautiful and wrenching piece, and deserves every award it's been nominated for. "Singing" is probably the best story in Black Juice, and I don't think any of the other stories in it manage to replicate its emotional resonance. The stories in Black Juice take place, for the most part, in primitive or semi-primitive societies, either post- or pre-industrial. These societies are ruled by rituals, traditions, and superstitions, and Lanagan's topic throughout Black Juice is the question of how humans can remain human within the rigid and often unfeeling framework of these traditions. Although there are some fantastic pieces here--"My Lord's Man", in which a loyal servant can't comprehend his master's love for a wild and unprincipled woman; "Sweet Pippit", about the efforts of a tribe of elephants to be reunited with their beloved trainer; "Yowlinin", about a young woman marked as jinxed by her community--I think the collection peaks with "Singing My Sister Down", and all too often I got the impression that Lanagan was more interested in coming up with new customs with which to confront her characters than she was with telling a story.

  4. Smoking Poppy by Graham Joyce - Joyce's The Tooth Fairy is an old favorite, and I've been looking forward for some time to trying another one of his novels. Smoking Poppy, about the attempts of a father to rescue his daughter from the middle of the Thai jungle (not to mention an opium addiction), unfortunately proved a profound disappointment. It's not just that the first person narrative is poorly written, or that the characters are all completely unlikable. It's that the book is entirely, 100% predictable. The narrator is a crotchety, middle-aged, lower-middle-class Brit who is so set in his ways that body piercing gives him apoplectic fits? By the end of the book he'll be toking up and pondering the central concepts of Buddhism. His best friend is a loud, loutish drunk who thinks with his stomach and dick and seems to be a weight around the main character's neck? He'll prove to be an invaluable asset in the narrator's travels, and will no doubt save him numerous times. And so on and so forth - the recriminations between the narrator and his kids, their tearful reunion as they all discover (several hundred pages after we'd reached the same conclusion) that they're all selfish pricks, the cracking of the prissy, evangelical son's tough exterior in the face of the hardships he and his family face. Thirty pages into Smoking Poppy, I could have drawn a flow-chart to describe how the novel's plot would play out, and Joyce did nothing to compensate me for this predictability.

  5. Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers - my first Sayers, which as it turns out is coming in rather late in the game, both for Sayers' signature detective, Lord Peter Wimsey, and the relationship between Wimsey and Gaudy Night's protagonist, Harriet Vane. I'm not a big mystery fan (which, I suppose, begs the question of why I keep picking them up), so it was actually quite refreshing to discover that the mystery in Gaudy Night--about a campaign of vicious harassment in an imaginary women's college in Oxford--is only a plot device to get Vane and her fellow female scholars to contemplate the question of educated, professional women in the 1930s. Gaudy Night is primarily a romance, albeit a rather cerebral one, as Harriet tries to see her way clear to marrying a man just as opinionated, just as intelligent, and just as independent as she is. It was quite fascinating to explore Sayers' circa-1935 attitude to feminist questions, at the same time hopelessly old-fashioned and disturbingly relevant, and although the question of whether one can marry and still keep from being swallowed up by one's spouse is not an obvious one today, I think it still deserves to be pondered. As an added bonus, Gaudy Night takes place in and around streets and buildings that I had been tramping down just a few weeks ago, and it was quite amusing to be taken on another walk down them by a writer as skilled as Sayers.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Honestly, Tournament of Books Folks, What Did You Think Was Going to Happen?

Dale Peck judges (or rather, refuses to judge) the current round of The Morning News Tournament of Books:
Regardless, until writers realize the social compact is spiritual and species suicide, a pseudoethical pressure valve that allows Western society to pretend it’s examining its troubled conscience when all it’s doing is assuaging the guilt we feel for exploiting the rest of the world—and destroying it in the process—then the literary novel will remain little more than a series of embarrassing, irrelevant mea culpas. Speaking to the present context, this is my way of saying that I refuse to advance either of these books, even by the flip of a coin; as meaningless as the title “novel of the year” is, neither of these deserves it.

But speaking more generally—hell, you’re all just waiting for the pull quote anyway—books like these make me want to join al Qaeda.
Be sure to check out Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner's commentary, which is only about four times as long as Peck's entry. I have a sneaking suspicion that the entire exercise is nothing but a big, attention-grabbing stunt. To which I say, more! The ToB has been entirely uneventful this year, and rehearsed or not, performances like this are at the very least funny.

Sweet Galactica-y Goodness

The always-excellent Dan Hartland has another Battlestar Galactica piece up at Strange Horizons. It's not exactly a review of the second season--more a meditation about the 'one year later' leap, what it tells us about the writers' attitude towards the show and about Galactica's chances of survival.
The overall impression is not of a show confidently stepping forward towards a grand new format, but rather a series galloping full tilt from a paradigm it's not sure it can write very well anymore, heedless of everything it has set up. Having followed Galactica and expected some follow-through on the old issues, the viewer is instead presented with an episode which pays lip service to addressing them but in fact is merely getting them out of the way. It is a curiously unceremonious narrative, a nervy rather than a gutsy performance.
I find it interesting to note the difference between Dan's approach to a second season summary piece and mine. I discussed the second season's strengths and weaknesses, and had almost nothing to say about the reboot at its end. Dan concentrates on the shift forward and only touches on the season that preceded it. I think Dan is right when he says that the second season "ended by eviscerating itself". Once we acknowledge the reboot, there's very little left to say about the season itself--it has been bled of all significance and importance, and might as well not even have taken place. Which may very well have been the point.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

The 2006 Hugo Award: The Novelette Shortlist

It's was bound to happen sooner or later, but I have almost nothing to say about this year's nominees for the novelette Hugo. There's a single stinker in the bunch--and I'm sure it'll surprise no one when I say that it's Michael A. Burstein's "TelePresence", for largely the same reasons that made his nominated short, "Seventy-Five Years", such a waste of space, plus a heavy dollop of technobabble and preachiness (and notice how I'm not even bursting into an incandescent rage over the fact that Burstein has two nominated stories on the ballot--I'm gone numb, folks). As for the rest of the nominees, they're a harmless bunch--pleasant, readable, nice. And absolutely forgettable.

You've got your fan favorites, such as Cory Doctorow, who, in his nominated novelette "I, Robot", revisits the same theme--centralized, code-protected, government-controlled software bad; open-source, distributed, hacker-designed software good--that was already getting tired two short stories and one novel ago. Granted, there's an added twist in that, according to the liner notes, "I, Robot" is part of "a series of stories with the same titles as famous sf shorts, which would pick apart the totalitarian assumptions underpinning some of sf's classic narratives." Which is a neat idea, for a while--in Doctorow's version of Asimov's future, hardwiring the three laws into a positronic brain takes so much hardware and so thoroughly cripples the robot that the entire field of robotics and artificial intelligence is held back. The protagonist's society rigidly enforces the use of three-law-compliant technology, becoming a totalitarian state in the process, whereas the more enlightened Eurasia (Doctorow really couldn't stop himself from this embarrassing 1984 riff--"though now that they'd been at war with Eurasia for so long, it was hard to even find someone who didn't think that the war had always been with Eurasia, that Oceania hadn't always been UNATS's ally"--I mean, come on) is a paradise where human and AI live side by side, everyone is happy, and there's no crime (I'm quoting verbatim on that last point). We get the point, we got it back in "0wnz0red". Might this not be a good time for a new shtick?

And then there's Peter S. Beagle, and if you're a big fan of his novel The Last Unicorn you'll probably love "Two Hearts", which returns to that same world many years later and describes the last days in the life of Lir the hero. If, like myself, you found The Last Unicorn pleasant but ultimately unrewarding, an unsuccessful attempt at writing Gaiman-esque fiction which merges high-falutin' epic fantasy with a knowing, modern perspective (when, let's face it, even Gaiman more often then not overshoots 'clever' and lands on 'twee') that ultimately loses out on the best of both voices, you'll probably feel the same about "Two Hearts". Only, in this case, there's a Mary-Sue-ish main character to contend with as well, a brave little girl who travels to Lir's castle to get him to rescue her village from a ravenous griffin, who captures Lir's, and Molly's and Shmendrick's, affections, who is kind to small animals and the disenfranchised, who plays a pivotal role in slaying the griffin, and who is constantly told how special she is, how brave she is, how interesting she is. The Last Unicorn is a fan favorite, however, and I suspect that residual affection for the book will put the Hugo safely in Beagle's hands.

Then there are the smaller names--Paolo Bacigalupi's "The Calorie Man" and Howard Waldrop's "The King of Where-I-Go". Not bad stories, either of them. Bacigalupi does a good job of extrapolating a future in which biological weapons have killed off natural crops, leaving humanity's fate in the hands of mega-corporations, who zealously guard their sterile, bio-engineered seeds. Waldrop convincingly describes a sun-drenched childhood in 1950s Texas and Alabama, and a close relationship between the protagonist and his sister. There's also a plot, in both cases, but I just couldn't make myself care. In Bacigalupi's story, the protagonist is trying to smuggle a scientist who knows how to create fertile yet healthy crops. There's a lot of action and even gunplay, but given the high stakes of his story, Bacigalupi never gave me any reason to care about his characters or their world's problems. Waldrop can't stop drenching the reader in infodumps--half the story is made up of more information than we ever really needed about the workings of linotype machines or the rules of croquet. The time travel plot gets swallowed up in all that extraneous information, and as I said I found the entire experience so boring that by the end, I was barely willing to expend the effort. Bacigalupi's story is probably the best of the bunch (although you'd need an electron microscope to know for certain) but neither he nor Waldrop were able to keep me interested.

I have to say, I found the experience of reviewing this year's Hugo- and Nebula-nominated short fiction a dispiriting one. I've been doing this for three years (in previous years, I posted my thoughts on Readerville), and I am so tired of coming across the same names, the same ideas, the same bad writing, when all the time truly deserving fiction is being ignored. I could spend hours going back and forth about the Best Dramatic Presentation - Short Form nominees, and still not come up with a definitive winner, but with the short fiction categories, I'm lucky if there's one standout piece. When I reviewed the Hugo-nominated short stories, I mentioned offhand that M. Rickert's "Anyway" and Joe Hill's "Best New Horror" were eligible for the Hugo in that category. It's a thought that's been haunting me. Imagine it--a shortlist with Rickert, Hill, and Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down" on it. How would you ever choose the winner? I don't think I've ever seen a shortlist that gave me such pause, and from what I've seen in the past three years, I have trouble believing that either the Hugo or the Nebula voters will ever come up with one.

Friday, April 07, 2006

The 2006 Hugo Award: The Short Story Shortlist

What to say about the short story Hugo ballot? Is it better than last year's monstrosity? On the one hand, yes--I actually care who wins this year, and the shortlist's overall quality has improved. On the other hand, not quite. With the exception of the one truly deserving story on the ballot--oh, why be coy? It's Margo Lanagan's "Singing My Sister Down", which as I have already written is a beautifully written and harrowing story--there isn't another nominee that I wouldn't happily drop for a more deserving piece. While it's true that only two of the five shortlisted pieces are genuinely terrible, that's two too many, and the other nominees are not much more than decent. I don't read a lot of short fiction over the year, but even I know that M. Rickert's "Anyway" should have been on this shortlist, and about half the stories in Joe Hill's collection, 20th Century Ghosts, including the sublime "Best New Horror", are eligible for the Hugo this year. I'm sure that there are other fine stories that have been cast aside in favor of a disappointing and unexceptional list of nominees.

Given the two winners (one of them, unbelievably enough, literally) that he had on last year's short story ballot, I expected that this year's worst story would come from Mike Resnick. To my very great surprise, that dubious honor goes to Michael A. Burstein, whose "Seventy-Five Years" may very well be the worst written piece of fiction I've ever read, and I used to read fanfic. To be honest, when I finished "Seventy-Five Years", I was sure that its nomination was some sort of Dada-esque joke, a piece of performance art or a protest against inattentive Hugo voters--an attempt to see just how low a nominated story would have to sink before the entire convention rose up in unison and announced that the emperor has no clothes. There's the writing, to begin with: ineffective description ("She walked quickly past the Alexander Calder sculpture "Mountains and Clouds" that filled the cavernous atrium. The black aluminum sheets of the suspended "clouds" and the standing "mountains" contrasted with the white marble of the floor and walls"), clunky exposition ("A calendar on the wall displayed today's date: Thursday, February 27, 2098"), terrible dialogue ("You haven't changed, Isabel. You're still as blunt as ever"), and unconvincing characterization ("She looked into his eyes, and for the first time in years, saw in his soul the man she remembered"). Then there's the plot--Isabel comes to visit her senator ex-husband in order to convince him to drop a bill. The bill's purpose is--wait for it--to extend the date of release of individual census forms from seventy-two to seventy-five years. But wait, there's more--turns out the senator is a clone, and he's afraid that if his census form is released he won't be able to run for President. Isabel convinces him to come clean in order to promote clones' rights (in a stirring debate that goes something like: "Do this thing!" "Shan't!" "Pleeeeeease!" "Oh, OK"). Really, that's it, and in case you were wondering, the whole thing is actually a lot more exciting in three sentences than it is in several thousand words. I've been wondering why Analog and Fantasy & Science Fiction have been so lax in posting their nominated stories online (F&SF finally got its act together today, which means the novelette review will be up some time in the near future), but now I suspect that for Analog at least, this is a deliberate strategy. Its editors know that a lot of Hugo voters vote out of loyalty to an author or a magazine, and I suspect that they actually have a much better chance of winning with "Seventy-Five Years" if they make sure that as few people as possible actually read it.

Hey, want to read a really good story about dealing with a spouse's Alzheimer's? Want to read a story that really brings across the heartbreak of watching someone you love slowly disappear, and the frustration of becoming your helpmate's parent? If so, you should buy Maureen F. McHugh's excellent collection, Mothers and Other Monsters, and read "Presence" (and all the other stories too). On the Hugo shortlist, unfortunately, you'll have to suffice yourself with Mike Resnick's "Down Memory Lane", and I know I said that Resnick hasn't written the worst story on the ballot this year, but it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. I thought I had properly steeled myself for Resnick's diabetes-inducing flavor of mawkish sentimentality, but I was still thrown by the way that his protagonists, Gwendolyn and Paul, deal with Gwendolyn's deteriorating condition. These aren't human beings--they're saints, and their reactions are appropriately inhuman. Gwendolyn, after receiving a terrible death sentence: "Well, Paul, it looks like we have a lot of living to cram into the next few months. I’ve always wanted to take a Caribbean cruise. We’ll stop at the travel agency on the way home." Paul, contemplating a murder-suicide: "I knew that I couldn’t. Myself, yes; the woman who’d been my life, never." Gwendolyn never rages, never sinks into depression, never becomes more than Paul can handle. Paul is never frustrated, never angry at Gwendolyn for more than an instant, never exhausted by the burden of caring for her. The couple allegedly have two grown children, but they are nowhere in sight as their father deals with their mother's disease. Eventually, Paul decides to travel to an illegal South American clinic where he can be infected with Alzheimer's (this, apparently, helps the cause of Alzheimer's study) so that he can be with Gwendolyn in her nursing home. At this point, the story transitions into a diary format, with Paul's entries becoming increasingly childish and poorly-spelled ("Boy am I lucky. At the last minute I remembered why I went there in the furst place"). Surely even an editor willing to turn a blind eye to Resnick's poor writing and even poorer characterization should have reached for their red pencil when confronted with this seventeenth-rate Flowers for Algernon rip-off?

I enjoyed David D. Levine's "The Tale of the Golden Eagle", which was nominated for a Hugo in 2004. Levine has a gift for description, especially of the ornate and the opulent. He uses this same gift in this year's nominated short, "Tk'tk'tk". Walker is a salesman trying to peddle Earth technology to an alien culture, but constantly finds himself being brought up short by the cultural differences between himself and his potential customers. Levine does an excellent job of describing the alien city--their near-organic clay architecture, the baking heat in the streets, the smells of this alien place. The aliens' society, however, is too familiar--bog-standard Eastern, complete with an emphasis on manners and face-saving and a self-effacing way of speaking ("Perhaps the honored visitor might wish to partake of a cup of thshsh?" "This-humble-one-accepts-your-most-generous-offer"). "Tk'tk'tk" essentially boils down to the familiar story of the materialistic Westerner who has a mid-life crisis while visiting the more spiritual East, and eventually goes native. Which in itself might be alright, were it not for the fact that the two stories--the alien and the familiar--work against each other. Walker learns how to make business deals with the aliens, but Levine doesn't explore the ramifications of this discovery--what it tells us about the alien culture and their philosophy of life. On the other hand, we don't get to know Walker well enough to care about his problems. As a character he is never much more than a cliché (and a rather unpleasant one at that--his distaste for the aliens and their culture is at times a little hard to take), and his transformation is equally flat and unconvincing. Lovely as it is, "Tk'tk'tk" is neither a believable character exploration nor a credible exploration of an imaginary world.

There's nothing overtly wrong with Dominic Green's "The Clockwork Atom Bomb"--certainly nothing that would explain why I had such a non-reaction to it. True, Green's use of humor in his tale of a UN aid worker trying to disarm leftover weapons in war-ravaged Africa is haphazard. Green sprinkles his dark jokes into a relatively earnest narrative, and the first time I encountered one of them, I didn't quite know what to make of it. But this is a minor complaint. "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" is well-written, the science is neat and elegantly explained, the premise is interesting and not a bit creepy, the characters are, if not terribly deep, at least pleasant and believable. Even the humor works once you start expecting it. It's possible that I was underwhelmed with "The Clockwork Atom Bomb" for reasons that have nothing to do with the story itself--I just finished reading Simon Ings' superb novel, The Weight of Numbers (which you should all read because I need people to talk to about it), which also describes the depredations of civil war in Africa, and does a much better and more affecting job of bringing across the horror of the situation there and the absurdity of the Western world's piddling attempts to make things better. But I think the real problem is that Green's story is very nice, but not remarkable in any way. I'm glad I read it, but under no circumstances does it belong on a major award shortlist.

I didn't give a damn about last year's short story Hugo winner. James Patrick Kelly's "The Best Christmas Ever" was the best story on the ballot, but not so good that I was genuinely bothered by the fact that it lost. This year, I'm already preparing myself for disappointment. The same voters who created this uneven, ridiculous shortlist could very easily fail to recognize the one deserving story on it, and bestow the Hugo on someone other than Margo Lanagan. What truly scares me is that if Lanagan loses, it'll almost certainly be because the votes were cast out of loyalty, not any consideration of literary quality, which means that she'll lose to either Burstein or Resnick. In which case, I would consider her to be perfectly within her rights to set fire to the room.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

The 2006 Hugo Award: The Novella Shortlist

There are two good reasons to start a review of this year's Hugo-nominated short fiction with the novella category. The first is that, as I mentioned in the previous entry, it's the only category that is available online in its entirety (taps foot impatiently). The second is that I've already read and reviewed two of the five nominated pieces. I wrote about Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners" and Robert J. Sawyer's "Identity Theft" when I reviewed the Nebula-nominated novellas, but to recap briefly: Link's story is brilliant, confusing, and gorgeous; Sawyer's is an underwritten mess. The remaining novellas on the Hugo ballot certainly make it a stronger and more impressive shortlist than the Nebula list, although by no means a perfect one.

I resigned myself long ago to being baffled by Connie Willis' appeal. At her best, I think Willis writes cute, enjoyable and eminently readable fluff (To Say Nothing of the Dog, last year's Nebula-nominated novella "Just Like the Ones We Used to Know"). At her worst, she mixes her pleasant but usually overdone and repetitive humor with ill-advised attempts at serious drama, and the result is a grotesque Frankenstein's monster, neither comedy nor tragedy, and usually about six times as long as it needs to be (Doomsday Book, one of the worst books I read last year, or Passage, one of the worst books I've read, ever). But fandom seems to love her, and she's been showered with so many of its major awards that clearly it and I are so severely in disagreement that any attempt at a resolution would be pointless. I had decided, therefore, to say nothing more about Willis' Hugo-nominated novella, "Inside Job", than that it was a Connie Willis story, and if you liked that sort of thing then you would probably enjoy it and if, like me, you didn't, you would scratch your head in bewilderment at the notion that this cheerful but forgettable piece might have a serious chance of winning a Hugo. The only problem is that "Inside Job" isn't cheerful. Nor is it tragic. It is neither the decent kind of Willis nor the atrocious kind. It is simply dull.

Willis' plot--about a debunker of charlatan mystics in Beverly Hills and his former-movie-star sidekick who may have encountered a person channeling the spirit of H.L. Mencken--is paint-by-numbers predictable, right down to the burgeoning romance between the main characters (for about three milliseconds, it seems as if Willis is going to do something bold and not have the male and female leads get together by the end of the story--that the female lead may, in fact, not be on the up-and-up. For a moment there I was actually impressed, and then I remembered that this was Connie Willis, who, to quote Debra Doyle, "has to bring in the Blitz and the Black Death just to keep the girl cooties from crawling out of the gutter margins of her novels and taking over the whole enterprise". Sure enough, the girl proved trustworthy after all, and the story ended with her and the guy in each other's arms). "Inside Job"'s plot is light-hearted, but Willis' humor is nowhere in sight. It's a completely leaden story with not a single joke or chuckle. Take away tragedy and comedy from Connie Willis' writing, and what's left is infodumps--everything you never wanted to know about the life of H.L. Mencken. To be perfectly honest, I barely even knew who Mencken was before reading "Inside Job", but Willis failed to make me care about him, and I can only imagine that readers who are familiar with him will still be put off, and quite likely bored, by the barrage of trivial details about him that make up the bulk of the story. I'm not going to bother wondering why this pointless story is on a major award shortlist--if I did, I would shortly start ranting about Doomsday Book's double whammy--but I find it hard to believe that even Willis' fans will find much to get excited about in "Inside Job".

James Patrick Kelly's "Burn" (scroll down the list of authors for a choice of formats) is strongly reminiscent of Kelly's Nebula-nominated novelette, "Men Are Trouble". Like that earlier story, "Burn" is well-written and compellingly characterized, a fascinating and comprehensive portrait of a complex future society. And, much as he did in "Men Are Trouble", it seems that Kelly is far more interested in describing this future society than in telling a story. "Burn" is a long piece, just barely squeaking in under the wire for novella length, and most of that space is taken up with the culture, customs and history of Walden, the last traditional human enclave in a post-human future. Terrified by the changes that humanity was undergoing (one of Kelly's most interesting choices in "Burn" is to give us very little insight into the shape of human life outside Walden, but there are glimpses of FTL travel and communication, digitally downloaded humans, and sophisticated AIs), Walden's founder established it as a place for humanity to return to a simpler way of life (Henry David Thoreau's life and philosophy are an obvious influence on both Kelly and his characters, and the novella's chapters are prefaced by quotes from Walden and Thoreau's journals and other writings). Simplicity, however, is complicated by opposition from the remnants of Walden's original settlers, who attempt to curb the process of terraforming the planet into a forested pseudo-New England by setting devastating fires.

Our protagonist is Spur, an injured firefighter who, while bored and recuperating in a technologically advanced facility, makes contact with the outside world--specifically, with a potentially psychic boy-king, The High Gregory, who promptly travels to Walden hoping to mediate the dispute between the two warring sides. The kid is a delightful character, and, especially when they first meet, his interactions with Spur are quite funny. As the story winds on, however, the focus shifts away from this meeting between the rustic and the hyper-advanced and back towards Walden-ian society and customs, not to mention Spur's own issues--residual trauma from his injury, a fraught but loving relationship with his loner father, his crumbling marriage. Kelly raises many questions about the value of simplicity as a way of life, about the choice to walk away from technology, and about the rightness of the Walden-ians' war against the original settlers, but they are mostly abandoned by the story's end--having comprehensively introduced us to Walden's present, Kelly seems to feel no need to speculate about its future. "Burn" is written in elegant and assured prose, and Kelly seems to have the rare gift of making his frequent infodumps interesting, and of interspersing them with his narrative without slowing its pace (which is, admittedly, not such an impressive accomplishment when we consider that "Burn"'s plot moves at a rather stately pace). In a way, I suppose "Burn" is classic SF--the examination of how humans will live in the future, of how technology will affect our lives and how we might react to technology. Without an actual plot to energize it, however, I find myself admiring the story but not loving it--it's a lovely still photo where I had expected a film.

I saved Ian McDonald's "The Little Goddess" for last when I read the nominated novellas. It seemed impossible that the story could fail me--McDonald is the author of River of Gods, one of the finest books I read last year, "The Little Goddess" is set in the River of Gods universe, and it revolves around the fascinating Nepalese custom of anointing girl-goddesses. I wasn't disappointed. "The Little Goddess" is a stunning piece, written in prose that is both poetic and energetic. Whether he's describing the dark, blood-stained palace where our heroine spends seven years of her life as a goddess, or funeral pyres on the banks of the Ganges, or the thought processes of a human merged with those of several AIs, McDonald transports us effortlessly into another world. As he did in River of Gods, McDonald extrapolates a future India in which tradition and technology come together in strange and unexpected ways--a place where some women are sold into marriage and others have chips installed in their brains that will allow them to carry illegal AIs across the border. McDonald's nameless narrator is clinically insane--possibly schizophrenic--but through McDonald's skilled use of the first person voice, her thoughts and emotional reactions are perfectly understandable. For all her many misfortunes, this young woman never pities herself, or indeed seems to feel much of anything, but we pity her and feel for her. "The Little Goddess" has many points of intersection with River of Gods, and many familiar organization and concepts from that book make an appearance in the novella.

Which is my only real problem with the story. "The Little Goddess" is, essentially, a miniature River of Gods. Apart from the first part of the story, a not-particularly SFnal description of the selection process and life of a Nepalese Kumari Devi, there is nothing in "The Little Goddess" that wasn't present in McDonald's novel, and in fact the novella seems to be made up of River of Gods' leftover scraps of material. Even the main character is basically an amalgam of several of the River of Gods characters. Which, given that River of Gods is a superb book, is obviously a strange thing to complain about, but as much as I enjoyed reading "The Little Goddess", I'm not sure what the point of writing it was if McDonald wasn't going to try to do anything new with it. As an introduction to McDonald's fiction and to the River of Gods universe, "The Little Goddess" is a superb appetizer, but there's very little in it to satisfy readers who have already had the seven-course meal.

I'm very curious to see who walks away with this year's novella Hugo. Will it be Willis, the perennial fan favorite? Will it be Kelly, rewarded for writing traditional, futuristic, space-set SF? Will the fact that River of Gods lost last year's best novel race give McDonald an edge? Personally, I'm sticking with Kelly Link as my choice for the winner (although I wouldn't be disappointed if "The Little Goddess" won). Link's story is still in a league of its own--a better written, more intelligent, more imaginative piece than any other on the shortlist, or for that matter any other I've read this year, and great fun to boot. Both McDonald's and Kelly's stories, however, are literary, well-written, and less confusing than "Magic for Beginners", and I suspect that the Hugo voters will prefer to reward a story that doesn't stray too far out of their comfort zone.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006


A mere two weeks after the Hugo nominees were announced, Asimov's has finally gotten its act together and posted online links to its nominated stories. Dare I hope that Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog might not be far behind?

What this means, though, is that the novella ballot is all online. Expect a review in the near future.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

The Horror

I don't tend to read a lot of horror fiction. Partly, I suspect that the reason is momentum. I didn't take much interest in horror as a teenager, beyond the requisite Stephen King novels and a few, largely unsuccessful, forays into Koontz. I never developed a proper grounding in the genre, never learned to understand its rules and to recognize its sub-genres. Seeking out horror fiction that will interest me as an adult is therefore a precarious, hit-and-miss venture. I find myself, as I do when I try to make forays into comic books, forced to rely on the judgement of others, reaching for the super-popular and unable to recognize the subtle clues that, in another, more familiar genre, would indicate to me whether a particular work is right for me.

But a far more important reason for my lack of interest in horror, both as a teenager and nowadays, is the simple fact that books don't scare me. Whether its purpose is to make me gag or to shudder, horror rarely manages to elicit these reactions from me. A horror novel has to have some quality beyond its putative scariness in order to appeal to me, such as King's exciting plots and effortless storytelling or Mark Z. Danielewski's games with narrative voices, descriptions of various media, and typography in House of Leaves. So it was with some surprise that I realized yesterday that in the last week, I've read as much horror as I read in the entirety of last year (which, before you get all excited, is all of two books. For a while I thought it was going to be three but it turns out that Graham Joyce's Smoking Poppy is barely even a genre novel, not to mention dull and badly written), and enjoyed it quite a bit. I wasn't scared, but I didn't get the impression that I was meant to be. The authors of both of the books I read seemed to be using the conventions of horror, but either ignoring or actively circumventing its alleged purpose.

It's actually a little surprising that I enjoyed Sean Stewart's Perfect Circle (Firecracker in the UK), given that, right off the bat, it hit two of my personal reading peeves. Stewart uses pop culture references--in this case, music titles--to set the mood in various scenes, which I find tantamount to admitting that he doesn't trust the emotional resonance of his fiction and feels the need to shore it up by referencing the art of others. The novel is also narrated in the first person, and I have a very low threshold of tolerance for misuses of this voice. I've been trying for a while, but I still haven't managed to articulate just where I draw the line between successful and unsuccessful uses of the first person voice. I usually require, however, that it be strongly naturalistic. Unless the novel is written in an elaborate, overly-formalist and possibly epistolary style (see Nabokov, Collins, and the Brontes), I need to believe that a first person narrator is sitting in front of me, having some coffee and telling me a story. All too often, however, what I find when I read fiction written in the first person is clunky language directed at an invisible, nonexistent audience, a narrative neither personal enough to draw me in nor unobtrusive enough to allow me to ignore it. Wherever the line is, Stewart skates very close to it--there are some incredibly awkward turns of phrase in Perfect Circle--but never quite crosses it, and even the music references are easy enough to ignore. Perfect Circle is no stylistic triumph, but Stewart's failures weren't enough to scuttle my enjoyment of the book's strengths.

This is the sort of statement that could get me into a lot of trouble, especially seeing as I'm a genre outsider, but I often wonder whether, as a genre, horror relies on metaphor to a degree far greater than either science fiction or fantasy. Frankenstein's monster, after all, is a metaphor for scientific hubris run amok. Dracula is a metaphor for our darkest impulses--selfishness, desire, hunger--unchecked by morality, reason, and moderation. And ghosts, obviously, are a metaphor for a past that still troubles us. Will Kennedy, the narrator of Perfect Circle, sees ghosts, which would normally be Stewart's cue to launch into the standard I See Dead People plot, in which the gifted (or, possibly, cursed) protagonist resolves a dead person's unfinished business, usually placing themselves in some peril in the process and possibly resolving some of their issues as well (said issues are usually headlined by the protagonist's distaste for their unique skill). And indeed, there are several instances in Perfect Circle where it seems that Stewart is going to start telling this story, but always he veers away and turns his focus back to Will himself and his more quotidian problems.

Unemployed, living in squalor, divorced from a wife he still loves and who left him because of his morbid obsession with death, despised by her new husband and quite a few of his relatives as a freak and a loser and mostly pitied by his twelve year old daughter, Will Kennedy is himself a ghost. Like the black-and-white specters he encounters wherever he goes, Will won't let go of the past. Rather than doing something to improve his life, Will obsesses over his past mistakes and uses them as a justification for making more mistakes. In the standard mold that Stewart riffs off and distorts, the gifted individual makes a connection with ghosts and gets them to forgive themselves or the people who hurt them . In Perfect Circle, it is Will who is affected--both positively and negatively--by the dead. A vindictive spirit nearly manipulates him into committing a murder, and the spirits of his departed family members finally get him to accept forgiveness and a new beginning.

Which is, admittedly, a neat twist. Just not quite neat enough. There are some odd and eerie moments in the novel in which Stewart makes us feel the weirdness--not the horror but simply the weirdness--of living surrounded by the dead, such a scene in a Thai restaurant in which Will's living waitress is accompanied by the ill-tempered ghost of her dead uncle, who lambasts her for forgetting the specials and to whom Will offers a tip in the form of a burnt dollar bill. But for the most part, Stewart fails to realize his premise's full potential. Ultimately, Perfect Circle is an enjoyable but rather conventional novel about an aimless thirty-something man learning to let go of the past. In trying to circumvent the standard tropes of the ghost story, Stewart comes perilously close to turning the supernatural elements of his story into window-dressing. How easy would it be, after all, to turn Perfect Circle into a naturalistic story about a man at the end of his tether (although the happy ending might be a little harder to justify)?

Interestingly enough, Perfect Circle skates close to a different sort of horror with its recurring theme of spousal abuse. Will is repeatedly confronted with images of women--both familiar and unfamiliar--who are abused by men who claim to love them. Two of the ghosts he encounters were murdered by their lovers, and as the novel's plot progresses Will develops an eerie half-empathy with their killers. What did you do to make him kill you? Will asks of the ghost of his beloved cousin, and frequently throughout the novel he muses that he has never loved a woman enough to kill her. One of Will's most powerful memories is of being taken by his cousin (the same one who will later be murdered by her boyfriend) to the hospital room of a recently-raped friend. The visit is intended as educational experience for young Will--to teach him the consequences of what he himself might some day do to another woman. Stewart comes very close to suggesting that the impulse to hurt and even kill women is inherent to all men, but in the end he won't quite come out and say it, and the entire sub-plot fails to coalesce. Will is nearly goaded into killing his ex-wife for an imagined sin (really, for leaving him and not loving him any more), but neither he nor Stewart will acknowledge the ugliness that would have to exist within him in order to bring him to the point of being thus manipulated. Both the force for and the force against the murder exist outside of Will, with his own will-power acting simply as the deciding vote. Once the murder is averted, Will refuses to look back and wonder whether there might be something fundamentally wrong with him for even contemplating it, and the narrative doesn't suggest that he ought to.

All that said, Perfect Circle is an entertaining and enjoyable read. Will is a likable screw-up, but not unrealistically so--it's easy to imagine how he could have worn away at the affections of all but the most devoted of his friends and relatives. His relationship with his daughter Megan is touching but not cloying--there's a very powerful scene towards the end of the book in which Will receives an angry letter from Megan, excoriating him for his failures as a father and for constantly forcing her to look after him instead of the other way around, only for Megan to call and ask him to burn the letter unread. I'm not entirely certain why the book has received the enthusiastic praise that I've seen around the net, but I can recommend it as an imperfect but worthy endeavor (the first four chapters were serialized in Salon last year:1, 2, 3, 4).

If Perfect Circle was last year's literary horror darling, this year's is unquestionably Joe Hill's superb collection, 20th Century Ghosts (currently available only in the UK). Like Stewart, Hill plays games with the familiar conventions of modern horror (one of the genre's most intriguing characteristics is the fact that even readers who have never cracked open so much as a Stephen King novel have had enough exposure to horror in popular culture to instinctively recognize its fundamental clichés), but instead of trying to circumvent or overturn these conventions, as Stewart did in Perfect Circle, Hill complicates them. Graham Sleight wrote an excellent and thoughtful review of 20th Century Ghosts for Strange Horizons, which pretty much says everything I would have liked to say about the book, so I'll just add that I think Graham is being particularly insightful when he calls Hill a moral writer and a subtle one. Most of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts are concerned, in one form or another, with some sort of moral transgression, and Hill's characters are punished for their sins (as Graham very correctly points out, horror is frequently a genre concerned with punishment--usually of the wildly disproportionate kind) not by some supernatural moral entity, but by their own guilty consciences.

There's a danger here of making Hill sound like a simplistic writer, but there is nothing simple about the stories in 20th Century Ghosts. They take place in a world that is rife with evil and depravity, one in which the innocent are frequently hurt and victimized, where children are abused and neglected by parents and guardians, and the weak are preyed upon by the strong. The narrator of "Pop Art" (not, strictly speaking, a horror story, but a lovely and harrowing piece nevertheless) is the best and only friend of Art, a boy born with a 'genetic abnormality'--he's an inflatable balloon. Art is also almost universally reviled and tormented, both by schoolyard bullies and by adults such as the narrator's father. Observing the cruelty with which the world treats his gentle, harmless friend, the narrator darkly muses
It is my belief that, as a rule, creatures of [the narrator's father's violent dog]'s ilk--I am talking here of canines and men both--more often run free than live caged, and it is in fact a world of mud and feces they desire, a world with no Art in it, or anyone like him, a place where there is no talk of books or God or the worlds beyond this world, a place where the only communication is the hysterical barking of starving and hate-filled dogs.
Hill's universe, in other words, is horrifying, but not supernaturally so. Another author--possibly Stewart--might have stopped here and concentrated on the horror inherent to the real world, but Hill keeps going. He overlays his mundane horror with the supernatural kind. His characters, no matter how depraved their actions might be, react to both forms of horror as thinking human beings, possessed of a conscience. In "You Will Hear the Locust Sing", a darkly comedic cross between Kafka's The Metamorphosis and the familiar school shooting story, the narrator, Francis Kay, wakes up transformed into a giant cockroach. Hill transitions effortlessly between frank and disgusting descriptions of Francis' new biology and the joy he takes in it, and moments of terrible and brutal violence. Francis kills his neglectful, unloving father and step-mother, and then steps back in horror--"He wanted to tell someone he was sorry, it was awful, he wished he could take it back". Francis later commits more murders, but the very fact that his immediate reaction to the first murders he commits is remorse reminds us that this is, after all, a human being--capable of terrible things, but still a moral creature.

The supernatural element that drives the novella "Voluntary Committal" is the otherworldly quality of the cardboard forts built by the narrator's mentally unstable brother. In Morris' hands, simple cardboard boxes can be made to form a doorway to another world, from which there can be no return. The narrator witnesses the disappearance of his best friend inside one of these forts, but the event that haunts him is a teenage prank gone horribly wrong, in which he may or may not have injured a child. This is the great horror of the narrator's life--that, as a boy, he failed to understand the consequences of his actions, and treated human life with cavalier disdain. As the narrator ages and as the effort of living with the guilt for his actions begins to overwhelm him, Morris' forts come to seem soothing rather than terrifying--a source of salvation and possibly peace.

Hill's characters react to horror--both the quotidian and the fantastic--like normal human beings, and it is this ability to convey realistic and subtle human reactions that is Hill's greatest strength as a writer. Hill is not a great stylist--his prose is largely utilitarian, with a few unfortunate forays into the clunky and the overwrought--but he does know how to fuse realistic and supernatural horror into a single entity, one that would be sadly diminished if either element were to be removed. None of the stories in 20th Century Ghosts could be boiled down to a mainstream story with supernatural elements sprinkled in, or a supernatural story with an unusual amount of psychological realism.

"Best New Horror", the collection's opening story, is described by Graham as Hill's manifesto, a statement about his attitude towards horror and the people who write and read it unthinkingly, revelling in punishment and depravity without a moral frame of reference. At the heart of the story is another story, "Buttonboy", submitted to Eddie Caroll, the editor of a horror anthology. "Buttonboy" was originally published in a literary review and largely reviled by its readers for its twist ending--after describing the largely naturalistic attempts on the part of a young victim of a brutal assault to regain some semblance of her old life, the story ends with the heroine recaptured and about to be killed by her assailant. Eddie calmly considers that mainstream readers aren't accustomed to twist endings, but in this case I find myself siding with the literary review's readers. As described in "Best New Horror", "Buttonboy"'s two halves seem hastily and unconvincingly sewn together--the naturalistic and supernatural horror fighting against each other and destroying the story's resonance. Hill, happily, is a better author than "Buttonboy"'s, and expects us to be better readers than Eddie Caroll. 20th Century Ghosts is a fascinating collection, at the same time lovely and troubling, and I will certainly be looking forward to Hill's next effort, in or out of the horror genre.