Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008, A Year in Reading: Best and Worst Books of the Year

I read 66 books in 2008, a slight uptick from last year but nowhere near the numbers I used to rack up when I was gainfully unemployed. In terms of quality, too, 2008 showed a slight but noticeable improvement over 2007, though it still wasn't as exciting a reading year as I could have wished. Genre-wise, the books I read this year clustered mostly around SF and contemporary-set literary fiction. I've been reading less and less fantasy and historical fiction for several years now, and in 2008 I seem to have bottomed out with both genres. On the other hand, the number of nonfiction books I read this year is quadruple that of last year (which is a more impressive way of saying I read four nonfiction books) and I've started to get back in the habit of reading graphic novels and YA fiction. Of my reading resolutions, I failed to meet only one--I had planned to read something by Willa Cather, or George Orwell's less-known books, but never got around to either. The one thing I didn't set out to do that I probably should have was focus on Hugo-eligible novels, but at any rate that category interests me less than the short fiction categories.

The year's best reads, therefore, in alphabetical order of the author's surname.
  • The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, Volume II: The Kingdom on the Waves by M.T. Anderson (review)

    Incredibly, the second half of Anderson's Octavian Nothing duology is just as good, and at points even better, than the first. Following Octavian's escape from his master at the end of The Pox Party, The Kingdom of the Waves finds him enlisting in a loyalist freed slave regiment in the hopes of securing his freedom and striking a blow against what he views as the forces of tyranny. There's a lot that's remarkable about this book--Anderson's historical pastiche, which rivals and often surpasses that found in many adult historical novels, his fearless overturning of the traditionally accepted division into good and evil in the Revolutionary War, which he manages without ever forgetting the complexity of the situation in that fraught time, the expansion of the roles of the first novel's characters, in particular Octavian's foil and dark mirror Pro Bono, who in this half of the story emerges as a hero with a narrative weight equal to Octavian's--but perhaps its most stunning accomplishment is that, though we know that Octavian's cause is hopeless and his prospects grim, reading it is never less than an intense and completely absorbing experience.

  • Pump Six and Other Stories by Paolo Bacigalupi (review)

    Joining the small but elite ranks of utterly essential genre short story collections, Pump Six is a retrospective of a career that has, in the span of less than a decade, established Bacigalupi as one of the most distinctive and consistently excellent writers working today. The comparisons to Ted Chiang are as justified as they are annoying in their ubiquity, for though the two write very different science fiction, they share the important quality of being, if not quite unique in the kind of stories they write, then at least the very best at writing them. Bacigalupi's futures are grim and poverty-stricken--affluence of any sort is a thing of the past, and the Earth's diversity and plenty are waning if not already gone. His stories ask what happens after this diminishment, and the answers he comes up with are as disorienting as they are thought-provoking.

  • Darkmans by Nicola Barker

    I've written at length about every other book on this list, but this is the very first time I've even mentioned Barker's infuriating, fascinating, hilarious novel. That's because, much as I loved it, I couldn't rightly tell you why, or even what the book is actually about. In this, I'm joined by Victoria Hoyle at Eve's Alexandria and Alan DeNiro at Strange Horizons, both of whom wrote excellent reviews which unmistakably conveyed their admiration for the book without quite managing to explain its appeal. Or maybe the problem is that both Hoyle and DeNiro capture the book perfectly, but that it seems incredible, even to somone who has read it, that the book they describe--the minute examination of a few days in the lives of middle class, suburban English people who may or may not be experiencing intermittent possession by the ghost of a medieval court jester--should achieve all the superlatives heaped upon it. Darkmans is an exercise is thwarting expectations. It's long (nearly 800 pages). Its style is anything but unobtrusive--long, meandering sentences punctuated by stream-of-consciousness utterances, both of which concern themselves less with action than with describing the characters' state of mind. Its topic ought to be tedious or at the very least depressing. It should be an unholy mess, switching frenetically as it does between characters, settings, and points of view. Nevertheless, Darkmans made for one of the most effortless, exuberant, and often hilarious reading experiences I've had this year, and one of the most expertly controlled novels I've ever read. And, heartbreakingly, all of this still doesn't express what it is or why I loved it. You'll just have to read it for yourselves.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (review)

    This book, in contrast, has already been praised to high heaven by nearly everyone who read it, not to mention featuring on just about every best of year list in existence (last year's lists, but I like paperbacks). And what can I say--it's all justified. This is, indeed, a fantastic book, funny, extraordinarily well-written, effortlessly involving its readers in the travails of its protagonist, sad-sack, perpetually horny Dominican geek Oscar, as well as the history of his family and nation. Simultanously a celebration of geekery and Dominican culture and a clear-eyed examination of their worst attributes, Oscar Wao is as disquieting a read as it is pleasurable.

  • Remainder by Tom McCarthy (review)

    Were it not for Darkmans, Remainder would take the prize for the book whose presence on this list--or anyone's best of year list--seems most unlikely and inexplicable. The flat, affectless narrative of a brain-damaged accident victim who emerges from rehab incapable of any meaningful emotion, then rediscovers passion by recreating moments from his past using real people as props, it sounds too weird and too cerebral to engage its readers' emotions. But Remainder turned out to be a shocking, visceral novel, and the experience of reading it nothing short of hypnotic. McCarthy's language is deceptively simple, building a sense of menace and impending doom precisely by stifling all emotion as it describes the narrator's increasing detachment from reality, and his (and his enablers') increasing willingness to do whatever it takes to bend the world to his whim.

  • Black Man by Richard Morgan (review, with other Clarke nominees, and also)

    The great leap forward of Morgan's career, and this year's deserving winner of the Arthur C. Clarke award, Black Man (Thirteen in the US) takes everything that was good and enjoyable about Morgan's debut Altered Carbon--the impeccable plotting, the thrilling action sequences, the effortless SFnal invention and worldbuilding--and adds a truckload of interesting ideas about gender, race, nationality, prejudices founded on all three, politics, the building blocks of human society, and the eternal question of nature versus nurture. It was an absolute delight to rediscover Morgan, whom I'd gotten bored with several books ago, and to find in him an exciting and unusual SFnal voice.

  • Beware of Pity by Stefan Zweig (review)

    Perched right at the meeting point between the 19th century novel, concerned with morality and rationalism, and 20th century modernism, Zweig's only novel and final published work is a study of obsession, and a tragedy driven by good intentions and characters too weak to see them through. The novel begins with a young Austrian cavalry officer committing a simple faux pas when he unwittingly offends his host's daughter by asking her to dance, not realizing that she is paralyzed, then follows his attempts to make amends, each of which deepens his entanglement with the family and their dependence on him, which he both relishes and resents. Zweig describes his characters and the deepening ties between them with razor-sharp precision, bringing them vividly to life and making the inevitability of their failure to live up to their own romantic conceptions of right and wrong fascinating, and heartbreaking, to watch.
Honorable Mentions:
In years past I've dedicated a separate post to the year's worst reads, but I'm both sorry and glad to report that though I read my share of disappointing, mediocre, and just plain dull books in 2008, only one book truly went beyond bad and into the realm of books whose awfulness deserves to be enshrined and cried out from the mountaintops. So, the very worst read of 2008 was:
  • The Blue Place by Nicola Griffith

    It's been nearly a year since I finished reading Griffith's mystery novel, the first in a series featuring her Mary Sue-slash-superhero detective Aud Torvingen, who is beautiful, smart, deadly with weapons and her bare hands, a good cook, a fantastic gardener, a talented carpenter, an excellent dresser, and, of course, a damaged person haunted by the victims of her own badassness, and I still can't believe that a book this ridiculously awful was allowed to go to print, much less gain acclaim and warrant not one but two sequels. The mystery is plodding and obvious, the characters a gallery of stereotypes with not a single smidgeon of genuine personality to share between them, and the love story, between Aud and her femme fatale client, is characterized by the kind of turgid melodrama that would shame a junior high schooler's Harry Potter fanfic. But every single one of the novel's flaws is overshadowed by Aud, who never for a moment demonstrates that she possesses even the tiniest hint of self-awareness or a sense of humor about herself. She takes herself as seriously as the novel takes her--the grand, tragic heroine of her own life, whose triumphs and failures, loves and hates, interests and hobbies are so much more fascinating and meaningful than those of the common, ordinary people around her. The only people I would even consider recommending The Blue Place to are aspiring authors, so that they can learn how not to construct a character.
Dishonorable Mentions:

Monday, December 29, 2008

2008, A Year in Reading: Best Short Stories of the Year

I made a startling discovery when I sat down to put together this list: at a very rough estimate, I've read in excess of 200 short stories this year. And, with a very small group of exceptions, they were all genre stories. And, with a slightly larger group of exceptions, I read them all in the last few months, as I started gearing up for the Hugo nomination deadline. The results of this glut are both rewarding and slightly disappointing. There are nearly twice as many stories on this list as there were last year (including honorable mentions), and each one of them is a fine, exciting piece of writing. For each excellent story, however, my slowly-accumulating list of potential Hugo nominees contains two or three pieces which I found interesting or well crafted but ultimately not that special, and in order to find each one of those I had to wade through several others which were mediocre, predictable, or just plain bad. I'm starting to get a feel of just how exhausting it would be to have one's finger on the pulse of genre short fiction, and though I wouldn't quite say that the rewards aren't worth all that work, the fact remains that I found most of the stories on this list not in genre magazines or original story anthologies but as a result of someone else having done the work of separating the wheat from the chaff--in single-author collections, best-of-year anthologies, and even awards shortlists. Still, in the short-term, it's quite fun to dive into the raw (for which read post-slush pile, post-editorial staff) mass of new genre short fiction. Here's what I've come back with.

As ever, these are the best short stories I've read for the first time this year, not the best short stories published this year, though I've noted year of publication for those of you who, like myself, have a Hugo ballot to put together. The stories are listed by order of their author's surname.
  • "The Fluted Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi (2003), from Pump Six and Other Stories

    "The Fluted Girl" isn't really representative of Bacigalupi's exceptional debut collection (about which more in the forthcoming best books of the year post). It's probably the closest thing Bacigalupi has ever written to a fantasy story, for though there's a carefully explained SFnal explanation for every one of fantastic elements within it, it has the feel of a particularly dark fairy tale: the young girl who grows up in a feudal system, who is stolen away to the evil witch's castle, befriending some of its enchanted denizens and making enemies of others. Despite which, it is a quintessential Bacigalupi story--furious at the exploitation of the weak by the strong, and tinged with horror at what human beings do to one another and themselves. The revelation of the transformation wrought on Lidia and her sister ranks as one of the most startling moments in my reading this year, and the ending, in which Lidia is poised on the brink of a break for freedom, is perfection itself. I've read lots of good stories by Bacigalupi this year (in addition to Pump Six he has a piece in Fast Forward 2, "The Gambler"), but "The Fluted Girl" is the one that continues to haunt me.

  • "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" by Ted Chiang, from Fantasy & Science Fiction, September 2007

    Would you believe it, I very nearly left this story off the list. My excuse is, I was sure I'd read Chiang's universally lauded, Hugo-winning novelette last year. And the fact is, "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" does feel a little like yesterday's news (Chiang has already got a new story out, "Exhalation" in Eclipse 2, which for him is a breakneck pace of publication). Buckets of virtual ink have already been spilled in praise of this story, culminating with its winning both the Nebula and Hugo awards earlier this year. In light of which, it seems like stating the obvious to say that this was one of the best short stories I read this year, but here goes: Chiang's story is the perfect fusion of his trademark love of science and good storytelling, which combine into a sad, haunting piece about free will and predetermination that more than earns its place on the short list of truly excellent time travel stories.

  • "Drown" by Junot Díaz (1996), from Drown

    Díaz's debut collection didn't quite get a fair shake from me when I read it very soon after being blown away by his excellent novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. Fine as they all were, too many of the stories within it felt like dry runs for or outtakes from the novel. The title story, however, while still hewing close to Díaz's recurring theme of the life of Dominican immigrants in America, is something quite different to the novel, a raw, heartbreaking narrative with little of the linguistic gymnastics that characterize so much of Díaz's writing. Narrated in the first person, "Drown" is the story of a young man who knows that he has squandered most of his opportunities to get out of his neighborhood and off a path that leads to a lifetime of poverty and petty crime, but who can't quite work up the courage to change his life. The material is familiar and depressing, but in Díaz's hands it becomes fresh and utterly devastating.

  • "The Illustrated Biography of Lord Grimm" (2008) by Daryl Gregory, from Eclipse 2

    There have been so many attempts in recent years to tell superhero stories with weight and substance and relate them to the concerns of real people and the real world, but in my experiences of this burgeoning subgenre Daryl Gregory's decision to tell a superhero story from the point of view of the people on the ground is unique. It is also brilliant, as is Gregory's decision to parallel the antagonism between superheroes and supervillains with the East/West divide during the Cold War. "Grimm" is told from the point of view of Elena, a young woman who has grown up under a regime that might be Soviet were it not for the fact that her fearless leader is the supervillain Lord Grimm, whose glorious exploits are recounted in song, story, and comic book for the edification of his country's citizens. When a troupe of American superheroes launches another attack against Grimm, Elena and her friends and neighbors have to scramble for safety in a direct and deliberate parallel to the all-too-familiar plight of civilians during wartime, and as result their attitudes towards the superpowered beings who torment and champion them are similarly tinged with realism. I can't think of a single story or novel I've read that's done a better job of placing superheroes in the real world.

  • "Stories for Men" by John Kessel (2002), from The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories (free download)

    I've gone on at great length about this thought-provoking, meaty novella, so I'll just quickly recap: "Stories for Men" packs more, and more interesting, thoughts about the role and trappings of gender into several dozen pages than many full-length novels. This is a clever, impeccably crafted story about the reversal of gender roles and life in a female-dominated society that pushes itself far beyond the often simplistic depictions one tends to find of both these concepts, and which forces its readers to ask difficult, thorny questions to which there are no easy answers. It may very well be the smartest story I've read this year, and certainly the one that hews closest to the classic definition of science fiction as a genre that ponders how technology might change humans and human society, while still focusing on characters and communities.

  • "The Goosle" by Margo Lanagan (2008), from The Del Rey Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy

    Like the Chiang, this is a story that's gotten a lot of virtual ink this year. If there's any justice, it'll follow in "The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate"'s footsteps and earn, at the very least, nominations for the Hugo and Nebula. Lanagan's dark sequel to "Hansel and Gretel" drew criticism for its frank depiction of sexual abuse, but it should be clear to anyone who reads it that her goal, at which she was entirely successful, was to depict not only the physical but emotional toll of such abuse, which grinds down its victim's soul to the point where they depend on their abuser for their sense of self. From this grim premise, Lanagan crafts the closest thing she can to a happy ending--the triumph of anger over self-loathing, with only the faintest hints of hope for the future. This is a punishing story, but also one of the most remarkable I've read this year.

  • "Days of Wonder" by Geoff Ryman, from Fantasy & Science Fiction, October/November 2008

    SFnal invention as only Geoff Ryman can do it--surprising, exhilarating, clever, and benevolent. "Days of Wonder" starts from a Tiptree-esque premise, set in a future in which the world has been inherited by animals who are both sentient and ruled by biological imperative. When a throwback horse begins to question the natural order of things, she arouses both suspicion and new kinds of relationships, including a short-lived but strong alliance with one of her predators. Ryman's depiction of the costs and advantages of biological determinism is nuanced and thoughtful, and the SFnal McGuffin driving the story is a delight to uncover. I've had problems with Ryman's short fiction in the past, and particularly with his tendency to write happy endings which sometimes offer cheap, false consolation to victims of real hardship and atrocities, but this story's happy ending is impeccably crafted, and feels organic and well-earned.
Honorable Mentions:

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Tender Thoughts on Nothing

"This war touches people that your congress holds in the same contempt that King George reserves for the people of Boston. I mean women, and yes slaves too, for that matter. Though I'm sure you wish I would not mention that subject, as it might upset your southern friends."

Abigail Adams, John Adams, "Independence"
In Matt Cheney's review-slash-meditation on the second and concluding volume in M.T. Anderson's The Astonishing Story of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation, he expresses a sentiment that I've come back to several times in the last few months: the difficulty and trepidation with which a reader returns to an author whose previous work has astonished and delighted them. "Merely replicating the experience is not enough. Once a mind has been blown, it develops tough scar tissue, and a larger force is necessary next time." And, Cheney is sad to conclude, the second Octavian Nothing volume, The Kingdom on the Waves, doesn't quite have that necessary explosive force. Though I agree with his identification of the key differences between the two volumes--the first one, The Pox Party, is more meditative, focusing on Octavian's slow realization of the true nature of the experiment within which he's been brought up, whereas The Kingdom on the Waves, which sees Octavian escaping the home of his owner Mr. Gitney with the help of his tutor Dr. Trefusis and spending a time in British-occupied Boston before joining the freed slave regiment formed by Virginia's colonial governor, is a more traditional historical adventure novel, albeit one which maintains the first volume's melancholy tone and discursive narrative style.

Happily, unlike Cheney I found this transition not only palatable but necessary to the success of the story Anderson is trying to tell, about the role of slavery in the American revolution and America's inception, and the self-contradictory and even hypocritical definitions of liberty ascribed to by both sides, each of which was willing to deny liberty to some--slaves or colonists--in order to secure their own financial well-being. I enjoyed The Pox Party's early chapters, which describe Octavian's odd childhood among a group of free-thinkers whose scientific curiosity spurs them to acts of lunacy and cruelty, and his slow puzzling out of the rules of his world (though, I suspect, not nearly as much as those readers who came to the novel unaware of Octavian's true situation, and in fact I wonder whether Cheney's disappointment with The Kingdom on the Waves isn't rooted in part with this greater attachment to The Pox Party, as he was one of its early adopters), but it would have been both strange and inappropriate for him to continue in his childish passivity once those rules had become apparent. Already at the end of The Pox Party Octavian makes a first attempt at rebellion when he escapes Gitney's house and joins the rebel forces, only to be unwittingly betrayed by a fellow soldier and returned to bondage. Understandably, then, in his next bid for freedom Octavian dismisses the Sons of Liberty and embraces England. In so doing, he and Anderson ask a question not frequently raised in fictional discussions of the Revolutionary War--why should a slave care about their master's freedom, and why shouldn't they support a tyrant who offers to free them from their own enslavement?

Like Cheney, I was reminded while reading The Kingdom on the Waves of Esther Forbes's classic children's novel Johnny Tremain (though for my part I assumed this was because Johnny Tremain is the only other children's novel about the Revolutionary War I've read), another story about a young man coming of age during the American Revolution and finding himself by committing himself to the cause of liberty. In Forbes's novel, however, the protagonist is white and a patriot (according to Wikipedia there is only one character of color in the novel, a free woman who supports the rebel cause). What made me think of Johnny Tremain while reading Octavian's story was the realization that Forbes had, either deliberately or unconsciously, left out any discussion of slavery from her novel because she couldn't reconcile it with her story's focus on liberty and self-actualization. Because the question can't be answered in any satisfactory way, it, and the very existence of slaves and slavery, is ignored. This is, of course, a common occurrence in fiction--a story is told from a white and/or male perspective even if female or non-white characters have a more interesting, more harrowing, more complicated story to tell within that same setting. Octavian Nothing, the story and the character, are a response to this tendency. They force their readers to examine the American Revolution from a different perspective, and, in so doing, turn the traditionally accepted axes of tyranny and liberty on their heads.

Octavian joins the loyalists simply as a matter of expediency--the Virginian governor Lord Dunmore has struck upon the idea of using the patriots' own slaves against them, and offered freedom to any slave who takes up arms in England's cause (while simultaneously guaranteeing the property rights of slave owners who remain loyal to the crown). Among the members of Lord Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment Octavian continues the journey of self-discovery begun in The Pox Party. Having grasped what it means to be a slave, he now learns what it means to be part of a community of slaves. From his fellow escapees he learns about life in Africa, about the different African nations and their customs and traditions, and most of all about the cruelty endured by enslaved Africans during the passage to America and at the hands of their masters. The more Octavian discovers about himself--about the culture stolen from him and the suffering spared him--the angrier and more despairing he becomes, so that by the time he first takes arms against patriots he is as staunch a loyalist as one might imagine, and outright dismissive of the rebel cause, which he thinks of as the crying of infants who know nothing of true suffering. A "mob of slave-drivers," he calls the rebels at one point, "baying for liberty and offering none themselves" he thinks of them at another. Torturers, preachers of lies, traitors and instigators of chaos--soon there is no imprecation vile enough to suit Octavian's wrath at the patriots.

But The Kingdom of the Waves is more than an exercise in subverting the received distribution of good and evil in the Revolutionary War. Though Octavian eventually arrives at an outright rejection of the patriot's reasons for rebellion, the novel itself, I think, takes a more nuanced approach. Among the soldiers of the Ethiopian Regiment Octavian finds Pro Bono, formerly a servant in Mr. Gitney's house who had been a cross between a father and big brother to Octavian. Having been given to one of Mr. Gitney's investors and following the outbreak of revolution and the news of Lord Dunmore's offer of emancipation, Pro Bono escapes his owner, makes his way to the regiment, and renames himself William Williams. His and Octavian's reunion is initially joyful, but a strain soon begins to creep into their relationship. As fond and protective as Bono is of Octavian, he often seems resentful of him, teasing him about his sheltered, luxurious upbringing, and undermining Octavian's efforts to be accepted as one of the men by revealing details of it to other members of the company. Octavian's suffering, Bono seems to be saying, is sub-par, not worthy of being spoken of in the same breath as his own or that of the other former slaves in the regiment. Though on one level this is true, the pain Octavian endures as a result of this insistence on quantifying injustice might easily be used as a counter-argument to his own dismissive attitude towards the rebels' complaints--just because other people have suffered more than you have doesn't mean that you haven't suffered and don't deserve redress for that suffering.

More importantly, the struggle between Octavian and Pro Bono over Octavian's right to demand justice and liberty is an expression of what is, to my mind, the two volumes' central theme--the tendency of all humans to construct a narrative of their lives in which they are the central character, and the liberating and destructive effects that these narratives can have when imposed on others. When Lord Dunmore's regiment prepares to retake the city of Norfolk, its members are shocked when the fleeing rebels' sack the city, but declare that in having done so, the rebels have undermined themselves. The people, Pro Bono declares, "will finally see what species of criminal is parading through the streets, calling themselves friends of liberty." But when Octavian's company is sent into the city to round up any remaining rebels, and catches one of them in the act, he responds with a tirade that simultaneously sheds a light on his own perspective on the balance of power--no less slanted and no less fiery than Octavian's--and on the very real truth that those who control the perception of facts, who determine the narrative that people accept, control the facts themselves.
"When a man sits starving and he watch the citizens of a town lick His Lordship's black arsehole like a cur with hopes of stroking, a man starts to resent their flattery and groveling, and maybe if a man see His Lordship's going to light a little fire, a man reckons, Maybe as I should light a little fire myself. ... A man reckons, Here's showing Norfolk our high opinion of people who don't love their countrymen as much as they love despotism. ... A man reckons, We do this, and we ain't going to get the blame anyways. Because Lord Dunmore, Governor of the Negroes, started the burning. So when they say, 'Who burned Norfolk?' ain't nobody going to answer nothing but, 'Lord Dunmore and his Ethiopian Regiment.' Welcome, boys, to the annals of tyranny."
Of course, this very tendency to edit our personal narratives to suit our purposes and convenience is the reason that stories like Octavian Nothing aren't more common, and though such self-serving narratives may be the salvation of some--the rebels themselves, or even Octavian's mother, who upon arriving at Mr. Gitney's house fabricates the story that she is an African princess in order to protect herself and her son from thinking themselves enslaved--they are often the undoing of others--the slaves who, as Anderson concludes in his afterword to The Kingdom on the Waves, were the reason for the American experiment's survival during its tenuous first decades, or Pro Bono, forced to watch with seething resentment as Octavian is treated with a gentleness and deference he deserves no better than any common field slave while Bono himself lives an ordinary slave's life.

The end of The Kingdom on the Waves finds Octavian sunk into a deep gloom, not only because of the abject failure of the Ethiopian Regiment and the loyalist cause, or the depravities he has witnessed and committed (the latter parts of the novel find Octavian, Bono, and several others of their company trapped behind enemy lines, and are the kind of bleak depiction of the chaos and senseless brutality of war that is more often associated with WWII or Vietnam stories), but because he's lost hope in the possibility of compassion. Human beings, Octavian concludes, are avaricious and cruel by nature. They will always tell themselves stories in which they are the heroes, and others are either villains and therefore deserving of exploitation, or cheerfully willing to be exploited, or simply not mentioned or even thought of. Some faint hope is held out when Octavian gives his own narrative--the two volumes of the duology--to Mr. Gitney, in exchange for the results of seventeen years' worth of observations of Octavian's growth, which the boy has burned for warmth, and the old philosopher is moved by what he reads to beg the Octavian's forgiveness, thus suggesting that our self-narratives can sometimes be an instrument of furthering compassion and understanding. But it is surely no great cause for rejoicing that the only character in both novels to grow past their preconceptions and develop compassion for someone they had previously seen as a means to an end is a half-mad, penniless invalid.

A possibly unintended consequence of The Kingdom on the Waves's emphasis on self-serving narratives and the disappearance of the disenfranchised within them was to make me aware of the people Octavian thoughtlessly left out of his own narrative. There are a handful of female characters in both Octavian Nothing volumes, and the issue of women's difficult circumstances in that era is left largely unexamined. Though there are several depictions of women suffering indignities unique to their sex--Octavian's mother, we learn, was repeatedly raped during the passage to America; a pregnant slave is beaten for stealing food and delivers a stillborn child; the plantation where Pro Bono is sent is crawling with its master's half-black children--these are described as crimes against slaves who happen to be women, not crimes against women enabled by those women's enslavement. (Towards the end of the novel Octavian witnesses his commanding officer rape a white patriot woman and kills him for it, but this is treated as yet another example of that officer's unworthiness--and by extension, the unworthiness of Lord Dunmore, who will soon betray the Ethiopian Regiment--than a commentary on the lot of women in wartime.) Neither reading is inaccurate, of course, but the primacy of one over the other makes it clear that even Octavian is a person of his time, and that there are forms of prejudice and enslavement that he simply doesn't see.

Which is why The Kingdom on the Waves is well-companioned by Tender Morsels, Margo Lanagan's first novel to be published outside of Australia, following several well-received short story collections. As the Octavian Nothing duology is to slavery, Tender Morsels is, at least at first, to the disenfranchisement of women. Like Anderson's novel, it is a story about people in a society which is designed to deny their personhood and to justify physical and emotional violence against them. "There are plenty would call her a slut for it." is the novel's opening line, setting the novel's tone with Lanagan's characteristic directness. Tender Morsels is littered with examples of women doing things they might be called sluts, or suffer a much worse fate, for doing or enduring. A quick, no-strings-attached roll in the hay, walking unescorted in a bad part of town, or, in the case of young Liga Longfield, a campaign of abuse and cruelty so vicious and so unflinchingly described that it makes the early chapters of Tender Morsels almost too much to get through.

When we first meet Liga, she is thirteen and has been left in the cottage she shares with her father beside a roaring fire, which begins to exude a foul-smelling smoke. The smoke causes Liga to experience terrible cramps, but when she tries to get away from it her father bars the door, and doesn't let her out until her guts threaten to drop away.
But it was too late for the cold, clean air to save her; her insides had already come loose. She could not run or she would shake them out. Already they were drooling down her legs. ... She fell to her knees in the snow. Inside her skirt, so much of her boiling self fell away that she felt quite undone below the waist, quite shapeless. ... She heaved and brought up nothing but spittle, but more of her was pushed out below by the heaving.
By this point we don't need to be told what Liga's father has started doing since her mother died, but it takes Liga one more forced, unwitting abortion before she understands what's happening to her, and she's pregnant for the third time when her father, on his way back from procuring the means to get rid of this child as well, is killed by a passing coach. Even his death, however, isn't the end of her suffering, as when her pregnancy is discovered by one of the town boys, Liga becomes fair game: "The whole aspect and stance of him changed. He had the coin to buy her, the set of him said. Was she the kind he would buy?" Though even buying, it seems, is too good for Liga--a few months after her child is born, the boy, with four of his friends, arrives at her cottage to take by force what he's decided she's lost the right to withhold.

Regardless of the genre of her story, Margo Lanagan is first and foremost an author of horror. No other author looks as steadily at the muck and mess of human cruelty and depravity, at the violence that we inflict on one another and the blood and guts that spill out as a result. The first chapters of Tender Morsels read like an expansion of her story "The Goosle," which was also told from the point of view of a victim of sexual abuse who has barely enough force of will and independence of thought left to know that they don't like what's being done to them. And, just like "The Goosle," these chapters are at one and the same time a punishment and a tour de force. By the time Liga has dragged herself, sore and bruised from her latest ordeal, to a nearby cliff, we are too steeped in her pain and despair to offer much resistance. Then a measure of mercy is extended--a supernatural entity (never particularly well-explained, as is most of the magic in Tender Morsels) gives Liga two jewels, and tells her to plant them at either side of her cottage and sleep between them. When she wakes up, her home is clean and well-tended, her body is healed, and, most importantly, every person who has ever hurt or insulted her has disappeared from the town, and the ones remaining are kind and accommodating.

Liga has been transported into her own heaven, which in her mind is a place of women: herself and the two daughters left to her by her father and her attackers, and the women of the town, the matrons and grandmothers with whom she trades and from whom she learns crafts. What men there are are bland, biddable creatures who do their work and don't give her a moment's distress. Here Liga raises her daughters--Branza, soft-hearted and kind, and Urdda, strong-willed and courageous--who grow up happy and carefree, completely innocent of the horror that drove their mother to shelter in a dreamworld or the more complicated, more dangerous world outside.

But as all idylls must be, this one is shattered when a local witch (the 'her' of the opening line) concocts a spell to transport a friend to the place of his heart's desire but sends him to Liga's heaven instead. Once the barrier is breached, it is vulnerable to further incursions (or, as Lanagan not-too-subtly terms them, punctures or perforations), particularly on the Day of the Bear, a local fertility ritual in which four young men from the town dress up in bearskins and chase the young women of the town. Two of these men fall into Liga's paradise and are transformed, for a time, into actual bears. The first is a sad, serious boy named Davit Ramstrong, whose infatuation with Liga is half-romantic, half the love of a child for its mother. The second is a wastrel who sets his sights on Branza (the times between the two world are out of alignment, so that though only a few years pass between Davit's visit and this one, the women in Liga's heaven age ten years), who responds with an uneasy mixture of attraction and fear. Urdda, meanwhile, uses the second bear's appearance to discover the soft spot between the worlds, and makes her way back into reality.

Before long, all three women are back in the real world (though, again because of the different speeds of time in the two worlds, Liga and Branza age a further decade in the year Urdda spends without them, so that when the family is reunited they are 40 and 25 to Urdda's 15), and here is where I start to argue with myself about this book. On the one hand, only a masochist would wish for a repeat of the novel's early chapters to be inflicted on these blameless and quite lovable characters. On the other hand, there is something disappointingly mild about the family's adventures in the real world. Upon her arrival, Urdda is discovered by Davit, now older and a married man with children of his own, who recognizes the little girl he played with as a bear, and takes her to the witch who started the trouble. Between them, they form an instant family around the homeless girl, one which expands to include Branza and Liga when they are retrieved. Liga's blatant falsehood about Branza and Urdda's legitimacy is unthinkingly accepted in the town, and she and her daughters quickly become respectable figures.

The second half of Tender Morsels is a story about learning to live in the real world after a lifetime spent in heaven. The choice, as all three women learn, is between a life that is safe but devoid of passion, adventure, or surprise, and a world which offers as many dangers and sudden heartbreaks as it does pleasures. Interestingly, it is the obedient Branza who chafes against the restrictions placed upon her as an unmarried woman, who must never walk anywhere unescorted or expose herself to comment by behaving in an unladylike manner, while headstrong Urdda, perhaps because she arrives in the real world at a younger age, quickly adapts to its rules. When Branza tries to find her way back into her mother's heaven, she is told that she mustn't: "You are pure-hearted, Branza, and lovely, and you have never done a moment's wrong. But you are a living creature, born to make a real life, however it cracks your heart." The novel's ending is a sort of genteel parallel to its grim beginning. Davit, now widowed, asks Liga for Branza's hand in marriage, a quasi-incestuous request given that he played with her when she was a child and he a young man, and that like Liga's father he is placing a girl in the role once reserved for her mother. In so doing, he causes Liga, who has begun to entertain hopes of him for herself, great pain, but at the same time he is clearly a good man and a good potential husband. His marriage to Branza cements the family's return to the world and reacceptance into the community, giving the women the stability and security they enjoyed in Liga's heaven while still allowing them to live in the real world.

And, to be honest, I don't care for this ending. It feels too neat and too convenient. When I started reading the first Octavian Nothing volume, I noted that it began just like the variety of young adult novel which inevitably ends with the unappreciated, put-upon youthful protagonist discovering that they are special in some way, and being rescued from their mean circumstances by a parent or guardian who took them to a better life. Clearly, Anderson was working hard to recall these kinds of stories because he wasn't going down that path, wasn't going to appease his audience by essentially saying that the suffering of all slaves was made less terrible because this one particular slave, the one he had made us care for, had found an escape hatch. It broke my heart when I realized how unlikely a happy ending for Octavian would be, but I think I was even more saddened when I realized that Tender Morsels was going down the path Anderson had avoided.

Liga, Branza and Urdda live in a world in which what happened to Liga can happen to another girl, who will have just as little recourse to justice, and meet with just as little compassion and assistance, as Liga did, a world in which the local constable will arrest Branza for attacking one of a pack of boys who swarm her for the crime of walking on her own, but of whom Davit thinks that "Crimes against women he had no sense of at all." It's hard to begrudge the women their happy ending, but they earn it with a lot of luck, and by slotting themselves neatly into the chinks of the world-machine, and accepting the roles assigned to women (Urdda becomes the apprentice of a powerful, out-of-town witch, and thus takes on a non-traditional and powerful feminine role, but there's something not quite believable in the degree of respect and independence accorded to this character, especially when juxtaposed with the complete lack of respect accorded to almost all other women in the novel who are not wives or widows). Before Branza accepts that she can't return to Liga's heaven, she angrily tells Urdda that "other people's desires are so wrong and so cruel" and rages at a man for beating his donkey, but one of the effects of her acceptance of reality is that she seems to have forgotten the suffering of others. What's important is that "she was to be loved and protected by Davit for the rest of her life".

This is now the second time that I've taken a novel for children to task for not having a bleak enough ending. One more and I fear I'll become one of those people who think that only grimness is realistic and only misery worthy of being made into art. What rankles about Tender Morsels's ending, however, isn't its realism--people have carved out good, happy lives for themselves in the shadow of terrible injustices, and that's something that ought to be celebrated--but the fact that it depends on a sudden shift in gears, from one kind of story to another. Tender Morsels starts out as a story about a character who endures terrible injustices because she lives in a world arrayed against her, and who escapes into another world. It ends as a story about that character learning that life in the real world, though fraught with dangers, is worth more than life in a dream. The problem is that the lesson learned from the second kind of story--acceptance of the inevitability of heartbreak and pain--is precisely the lesson one shouldn't learn from the first kind of story, which strives to elicit rage and indignation. It's one thing to say 'unhappiness and misfortune are the risks you take if you choose to live in the world,' but it's quite another thing to say 'being made into a sex slave by your father and then gang-raped by men who think that having been impregnated by him makes you fair game is the risk you take if you choose to live in the world.' In their time and place, it may very well be that the choice placed between Liga and her daughters is between a real life in an antagonistic, dangerous world and a life that is no life at all in a dream world, but this shouldn't be presented as a happy ending simply because they've managed to luck into a good compromise.

For all my problems with its ending, Tender Morsels is a good read. Even its less exciting segments--the bucolic idyll of Liga and the girls' life in the dreamworld, the mundane domestic arrangements they establish when they return to reality, the passage of time as marked by village rituals--are never less than hauntingly rendered, and when she wishes to Lanagan can turn on the terror at the blink of an eye and strip away the women's security as if it were nothing but an illusion (which of course it is). She also does a good job with secondary characters, diving into the points of view of Davit and another village bear who suffers terribly as a result of the increasing permeability of the boundary between worlds. Tender Morsels is a bit shapeless, as novels go--there's almost no tension in its second half, after the women return to reality--but despite this it is entirely fascinating, because of the liveliness of its characters and because by that point Lanagan has taught us to fear for their safety. Still, it is less than it might have been. Towards the end of The Kingdom on the Waves Octavian begins to wish for a promised land, where no one suffers and everyone is kind to one another. There is no such place, Pro Bono tells him, and the novel's ending holds out little hope that Octavian will find any sort of haven, or that if he does he'll be allowed to keep it for long. Tender Morsels concludes that, even if such a world exists, life within it is no life at all, but it suffers a crucial failure of nerve when it fails to conclude, as Octavian Nothing does, that this is a tragedy.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Other Side of the Island by Allegra Goodman

Allegra Goodman is a tough author to quantify. She started her career as a thoroughly ordinary literary fiction author. Admittedly, her topics were somewhat esoteric--life in Hawaii, ultra-orthodox Jewish communities in the 70s--but, from my one foray into her early career, still thoroughly respectable psychological novels, full of unhappy marriages, strained parent-child relationships, and frustrated desire. Along came Intuition, a novel about an ethics scandal in a cancer research lab, whose emotional crux was the importance of science and scientific research to all of its characters. With her follow-up to Intuition, The Other Side of the Island, Goodman has once again made a hard left turn, this time into YA dystopian SF. As jarring as this transition is, it can hardly be described as choosing the road less traveled. Novels for children by authors of adult fiction have been all the rage for the better part of a decade, and dystopian, SFnal futures having been steadily gaining in popularity for almost the same amount of time (especially in the hands of mainstream authors). Even the subset of dystopian novels for children is hardly virgin territory. My previous experiences with both of the transitions Goodman has made--adult fiction to children's fiction; mainstream to genre--have taught me to be suspicious, to anticipate dumbed-down, unoriginal versions of more interesting works by authors native to both of these fields.

On one level, that is precisely what The Other Side of the Island delivers. The quickest and most accurate way to describe this novel is 1984 Lite. The protagonist is Honor, a ten year old who has recently relocated to island 365 with her parents, in a time described as "the eighteenth glorious year of the Enclosure." The island is one of the rare spits of land remaining after global warming and rising ocean levels transform Earth into a waterworld, and its inhabitants are huddled beneath a canopy intended to shield them from the ravages of unpredictable weather. Almost as soon as Honor and her parents arrive on the island, they call attention to themselves. A representative of the local school finds Honor deficient in the catechism of Earth Mother, the leader of the Corporation and the architect of Enclosure, and sniffs at her name, which, though beginning of an H like all the approved names for children born in the eighth year of the Enclosure, sounds like an O name and therefore "sticks out." When the family sings together in the evening, a Neighborhood Watch representative shows up to chastise them for being out of bed after curfew. At school, Honor gets into trouble for describing her experiences in the northern islands where she grew up, which don't match up with the approved version in her textbooks.

Quite a few of the touches in The Other Side of the Island are blatantly Orwellian, such as Earth Mother as a play on Big Brother or the slow encroachment of newspeak into the characters' language, which is signaled mostly through suspicious capitalization. When Honor's schoolwork is deemed Inaccurate, it means that she's telling a truth the establishment doesn't want to acknowledge, and when her class is told that there is something sad they must Accept, it means that the real situation is more fluid than they've been led to believe. Other elements draw on other canonical works of dystopian SF--the librarian whose job it is to edit out offensive passages and restrict access to books deemed inappropriate is surely a reference to Bradbury's book-burning firemen--but others are simply ubiquitous. An adult who has read some subset of the group which includes 1984, We, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, The Handmaid's Tale, The Carhullan Army, Never Let Me Go, and many other novels of the same ilk will know what to expect at The Other Side of the Island's every turn, and in case they happen to get confused, they can always fall back on Honor's textbooks, which punctuate the novel's action to hammer in the points that the rest of the narrative has been comparatively subtle about.
"The Flood destroyed the ancient world," Honor recited to the class. "Where there were continents, only islands are left. Where there were archipelagos, only mountainous islands remain. After the Flood, and the wars that followed, Earth Mother organized the Great Evacuation to the remaining islands in the Tranquil Sea. Then the Earth Mother rose up and spoke. 'What is freedom? What is choice? Words and only words. We need Safety. We need shelter from the elements. Without shelter all other words are meaningless.' Earth Mother pledged to Enclose the Polar Seas. She pledged to establish New Weather in the North and reclaim the islands there, one by one. Finally, she pledged to make a new world in the islands of the Tranquil Sea, islands she numbered and named the Colonies."
The result of all this borrowing from better, braver works of fiction should be a novel like Stephen Baxter's The H-Bomb Girl--perfectly acceptable for children who haven't read those better novels, but of absolutely no value to adults. Which made it all the more surprising when The Other Side of the Island turned out to be one of the most intense and terrifying novels I've read this year. This isn't a novel that should affect me--its manipulation is blatant, obvious, and familiar--but it does. The biggest reason for Goodman's success in getting under my skin is her choice to reverse the traditional roles of children and parents in dystopian children's novels. Unlike Baxter's Laura, Honor is not a plucky iconoclast. Though there are plucky, rebellious children in her vicinity--her best friend Helix, her younger brother Quintillian (though as he is barely more than a toddler, perhaps 'precocious' might be a better description)--Honor herself is timid and eager to conform. For most of the first half of the novel, she is driven by fear--of the unpredictable, uncontrollable old weather outside the Enclosure, and of the authorities on the island.

It is Honor's parents who are the rebels--having a second child and refusing to "give him back to the community" so that both their family and another can achieve the ideal form of two parents and a single child, collecting pamphlets by the rebel leader known as The Forecaster which urge independent thought and question Earth Mother's dogma, even taking Honor out of the Enclosure to touch the actual ocean. Honor's reaction to their behavior is part teen rebellion, part what Terry Pratchett calls "the sheer galactic-sized embarrassment of having parents," and mostly abject terror. She has seen what happens to people who don't conform, and more importantly she's seen what happens to the children of non-conformists when their parents disappear--remanded to the care of the state, housed in barracks on the school grounds and treated with disdain and suspicion. Desperate to avoid this fate, Honor tries to counteract her parents' rebelliousness with total conformity. She sheds Helix's friendship because none of the other girls are friends with boys, and changes her opinions and behavior to match those of the other girls in her class in order to win them over. She even changes her name to the more acceptable Heloise. The standard behavior of a teen eager to fit in, in other words, but in Honor's case the penalties for not fitting in are very real and very grave, and her terror at the potential consequences of her parents' behavior is palpable. Like many novels told from a child's perspective, The Other Side of the Island makes adults seem cruel and stupid when really they're just trying to do what's best for their child in the long term (or are simply too wrapped up in their own problems to notice anyone else's), but at the same time Goodman makes it clear that Honor's parents are taking terrible risks not only with their lives but with their children's, and thus opens up the question of whether it is better to acquiesce to totalitarian regime or risk being destroyed by challenging it.

Of course, none of these tricks would be effective if Goodman weren't the same exceptionally fine writer she's shown herself to be in her novels for adults. The Other Side of the Island is told in short, declarative, seemingly affectless sentences whose cumulative effect is an overpowering claustrophobia. Every single line of dialogue or bit of description hits on another restriction that Honor has to abide by if she wants to fit in, or another way in which she holds herself back in order to keep from sticking out. In Intuition Goodman used details as a way of establishing a sense of place and of the characters occupying it, but in The Other Side of the Island details have an obfuscating effect. The more we see of Honor's world, the greater our awareness that we are seeing only what she's allowed to see, and that there is much that is being concealed from both her and us. We can guess at the contours of what we can't see--especially if we've read dystopian SF before, since most totalitarian regimes will seek to restrict the same things using the same means, and as I've said Goodman is traveling down well-trodden paths--but that awareness actually intensifies our fear for Honor, because we know she's playing a game she can't win.

There is, however, a sense that in her determination to reveal as a means of concealing, Goodman is trying to have her cake and eat it. The Other Side of the Island is narrated from a point in Honor's future (perhaps long past her own lifespan): "All this happened many years ago, before the streets were air-conditioned. Children played outside then, and in many places the sky was naturally blue." are the novel's first sentences. The absence of context, then, can be explained as an assumption of a common context with the novel's 'intended' readers that its actual readers don't possess, a common SFnal device. When Honor recalls her brother being accidentally doused with detergent and becoming "so memory-sick he couldn't even remember his own name" the narrative is taking it for granted that readers will know what memory-sickness is and associate it with detergent. At the same time, however, The Other Side of the Island is clearly pitched at 21st century readers, stressing the ways in which Honor's world is different from theirs and particularly the elements of her life designed to horrify us by recalling a history that Honor (and presumably the people who come after her, into a world in which the streets are air-conditioned) isn't familiar with. When Goodman makes a rare and therefore attention-grabbing foray into imagery with Miss Tuttle, the librarian who "bent over her work and every once in a while lifted up a page to admire the cutouts she had made--so many small and large rectangles in some places that the paper looked like lace," she is clearly relying on a contemporary revulsion at the mutilation of books, drawn from associations her narrator shouldn't be able to make.

It certainly doesn't help that in its second half The Other Side of the Island becomes the kind of novel that, were it actually written in the kind of future suggested by its opening sentences, would not simply be reduced to lace by the likes of Miss Tuttle but sent straight to the mulcher, probably with its author along for the ride. For all of Honor's best efforts to fit in, her parents are disappeared, and she and Quintillian are soon designated orphans and sent to live on school grounds. There she becomes reacquainted with Helix, whose parents were taken away some time earlier, and becomes the plucky heroine she had previously, and so refreshingly, resisted being. There are a few nice touches in these chapters--Helix has for some time been rescuing the redacted portions of books from incineration, but when he reveals to Honor the real ending to Bridge to Terabithia she angrily and perhaps understandably replies that she prefers the new version, in which the heroine lives--but they aren't enough to overcome the fact that only sheer idiocy on the part of those in charge would explain their behavior towards Honor and the other orphans. Having previously, and with an awe-inspiring skill at wielding both the carrot and the stick, reduced Honor to a drone, her teachers strip her of all hope, make it clear that her future prospects are nonexistent, irrevocably shut her out of the very society she had been desperately trying to gain entrance to, and lock her in with several other disaffected youngsters in the same situation with only a bare minimum of adult supervision.

Shockingly, the result is rebellion, and, with the help of quite a few coincidences--Helix just happens to know what's happened to his and Honor's parents, Honor just happens to catch a glimpse of her mother, who just happens to have the perfect opportunity to send Honor a message, which is a code that Honor just happens to figure out, and be in the right place and right time to make use of, with the help of various adults who just happen to be members of the resistance against the Corporation--a successful one. I don't want to sound like one of those people who complain that happy endings are inherently unrealistic, but there's something almost glib about the ease with which Honor regains everything she's lost, and something almost calculating about the way Goodman qualifies that victory by ending the novel almost as soon as it's achieved, leaving the question of the larger fight against Earth Mother unanswered. It may very well have occurred to her that stories of dystopian futures are tough to end satisfyingly--too bleak and the story has no emotional arc; too happy and the story's message is undercut--and that Margaret Atwood may have hit upon the only good way to do so in The Handmaid's Tale, but the contrast between Honor's decisive triumph and the abruptness of the novel's ending is too jarring. It feels like Goodman deliberately trying to undercut the happy conclusion to Honor's story because she knows she's taken it too far. In a novel that works mainly because of Goodman's ability to successfully tweak her readers' emotional reactions, this is one bit of manipulation that falls flat.

I've come out more strongly against The Other Side of the Island than I'd planned to when I started this review, and certainly when I finished reading the novel several days ago and was still in the thrall of Goodman's prose and of its intense first half. Some novels grow in one's mind the further one gets from them. The Other Side of the Island is the kind that fades--the longer one spends away from the scary and claustrophobic spell it casts, the more obvious its flaws become. Nevertheless, that spell is cast, which means that there is something to read for in The Other Side of the Island. It's not a novel that I can recommend, if only because I'm not sure who I could recommend it to--if you have a child who's ready for Orwellian ideas, you might as well cut out the middleman and give them 1984 instead, and adult readers would be much better off with Goodman's adult novels--but it is by no means an unsuccessful work. To her credit, Goodman steers clear of the cardinal sin of adult authors delving into children's writing--unlike China Miéville's Un Lun Dun or Michael Chabon's Summerland, the one thing that can't be said of The Other Side of the Island is that it is mild or toned down. This may mean that, even constrained by a didactic, secondhand plot, the fact that Goodman is an exceptional writer shines through. Or it could mean that she has a good children's novel in her and just needs to find the right story for it. Whatever path she chooses to take with her next novel, The Other Side of the Island has done enough to persuade me to follow her on it.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008


My review of Brian Francis Slattery's second novel, Liberation, appears today in Strange Horizons. Also of interest might be my review of Slattery's previous novel, Spaceman Blues.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Father Knows Best: Thoughts on Dexter's Third Season

There are certain genres and story types one associates with serial killers. Procedurals, thrillers, intense games of pursuit and evasion between detective and killer or killer and prey, psychological horror or the regular, visceral kind. In its first season, Dexter hewed pretty close to the expectations created by its premise, pitting the eponymous (anti-)hero against a rival serial killer whose ultimate goal was to turn Dexter away from the path of provisional righteousness on which he was set by his cop father, who taught him to kill only those who deserved it. In its second season, the show abandoned the mystery which drove the first season, but retained the procedural and detective elements surrounding it, as Dexter struggled to avoid being uncovered by his fellow cops when the bodies of his victims were discovered on the ocean floor. Dexter's third season, which concluded this week, seems to have cast off even these elements. Though the season had its share of gruesome murders, thrilling pursuits, surprising plot twists, and even a new serial killer, these elements went hand in hand with, and often seemed to take a back set to, more mundane developments. Dexter's relationship with his girlfriend Rita and her children takes a huge step forward when she becomes pregnant and they decide to marry. At the same time, Dexter is trying to come to terms with the memory of his adoptive father Harry, who for years was his touchstone, the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong and of the steps Dexter should and shouldn't take in his life, but who in the first and second season was revealed to have been deeply flawed, and to have deceived Dexter about many of the most important facts of his life. The result is the most low-key, shapeless serial killer story imaginable, but at the same time still one of the best and most satisfying shows on TV.

I've written before about the qualities that separate successful multi-season novelistic TV shows from the unsuccessful kind. The key, I speculated, was formula. Not the kind that brings CSI and Law & Order's detectives back to the same starting point every week, but the kind that identifies the fundamental, ur-story the show is trying to tell and, though constantly changing its garb, retells it again and again. Buffy is a story about a girl whose impulses towards heroism and normalcy are constantly at war. Angel, the story of an ordinary man faced with the inadequacy of heroism in an imperfect world. For all the differences between its three seasons and their genres, Dexter is that kind of show, telling the same story with each of those seasons. Each time, Dexter rebels against the limitations placed on him by Harry, who throughout Dexter's childhood and adolescence drummed it into him that a normal life and true acceptance and recognition were things he couldn't, and shouldn't, have. Each time, Dexter insists that he knows better and temporarily rejects Harry's code, only to return to it older, wiser, and of his own volition, committing to it not as a child in awe of his father but as an adult who recognizes that father's strengths as well as his flaws.

Each of these three rebellions is driven by a person who comes into Dexter's life and seems to represent a loophole to Harry's law that Dexter must live a lonely, secretive life, hiding his true nature from the people closest to him. In the first season, this is Dexter's brother Brian, himself a serial killer who wants Dexter to sever all ties to the world of normal humans. In order to accomplish this, he kidnaps Dexter's adopted sister Deb and offers her to Dexter to kill, insisting that their bond is as much a lie as the ones told by Harry when he concealed Brian's existence from Dexter, and that Dexter is a pure monster who doesn't need reasons, such as the guilt of his victims, to kill. This is too much to ask of Dexter, who feels genuine affection for Deb and Harry. He rescues Deb and kills Brian to protect her. In the second season, Dexter forges a bond with his NA sponsor Lila, who, though ignorant of its true depths, encourages him to embrace the darkness within him as an integral part of who he is. As their relationship deepens it becomes clear that Lila is unpredictable, amoral, and dangerous. She begins to pose a threat to Rita and her children, and ultimately reveals herself to be as monstrous as Dexter or Brian when she kills Dexter's colleague Doakes (though at the same time getting Dexter out of a tight spot, as Doakes had learned the truth about Dexter's extra-curricular activities) and kidnaps the children.

In the third season, Dexter makes the acquaintance of an up-and-coming assistant DA, Miguel Prado (Jimmy Smits, in a performance that is just that right amount of over the top). Their meeting is anything but auspicious--on one of his routine pursuits of the unrighteous, Dexter crosses paths with Miguel's younger brother Oscar, who attacks him and ends up dead for his trouble. Shocked at having killed someone who doesn't meet Harry's rigorous code, Dexter seeks Miguel out and quickly finds himself taking Oscar's place in Miguel's life and affections. But what starts out as one kind of disquieting relationship metamorphoses into another when Miguel begins to guess at Dexter's secret and, rather than recoiling, is fascinated, asking Dexter to teach him how to kill so that he, too, can deal out his own brand of justice. Dexter begins to believe that he can have a partner and a best friend, but he soon learns that Miguel has been manipulating him for his own ends. When Miguel kills an innocent woman and targets another, Dexter is forced to dispose of him as he did Brian and Lila.

Each repetition of this story has the same basic progression. Dexter's idealized image of Harry is shaken. Dexter encounters someone who seems to offer him unconditional acceptance and rejects Harry's code. That person threatens Dexter's family and Dexter dispatches them and recommits to his father. We might expect a series that kept repeating the same plot over and over again to intensify the stories it uses to do so, but Dexter takes the opposite approach. Each iteration of Dexter's dance of negotiation with his father's legacy is more mellow, more subtle and more drawn out. It takes him barely more than a single episode to discover, embrace, and reject Brian, while the rest of the first season is given over to the more traditional serial killer story of his and Brian's game of cat and mouse. His infatuation and disillusionment with Lila span roughly half the second season, and the other half concerns his efforts to evade the FBI. In the third season, the procedural elements are not even on Dexter's radar--though a serial killer is operating in Miami, Dexter is too busy with his personal life to bother with him, and leaves it to Deb and the other cops in his department to track the killer down. He starts the season angry at Harry (having learned at the end of the second season that Harry killed himself after being confronted with the bloody reality of the monster he'd created), makes Miguel's acquaintance in the season premiere, slowly opens up to the other man, and takes most of the season to fully comprehend the depths of Miguel's depravity.

With each season, the intensity of the relationship being offered Dexter is toned down: a brother, a lover, a best friend. Each of these potential partners is more normative than the one before: a serial killer, a bohemian artist with a drug problem and a penchant for petty crime, an upright ADA. Each has a more limited understanding of Dexter: Brian knows everything about Dexter, from the brutal killing of his mother that made him what he is, to the details of Harry's training, to his habits and rituals in the present day; Lila senses Dexter's darkness, but doesn't learn that he is the serial killer Miami is in uproar about until the season's final episode; Miguel initially believes that Dexter killed the man accused of Oscar's murder (Dexter's real target on the night Oscar got in his way) by accident, then that Dexter is a vigilante seeking to enact justice on criminals who fall through the justice system's cracks. Only very late in their relationship does he realize that Dexter is a more experienced, more primal killer than he ever imagined (and it is debatable whether Miguel ever makes the connection between Dexter and the previous season's Bay Harbor Butcher killings, for which Doakes ends up taking the fall). Each of these relationships seems more manageable, less dangerous to Dexter and to the people he might endanger if his darker impulses were allowed to run unchecked. Each of them seems like a more humble ambition on Dexter's part--it's clearly a bad thing for him to want to roam the streets with his murderous brother, but is it really so terrible for him to want someone to play golf or have a beer with? What this toning down of the temptations placed before Dexter accomplishes, however, is to intensify the series's main point, the conclusion it leads us to again and again: that anyone who can look at Dexter's true form without revulsion and horror is, however seemingly benign, a monster, and that Dexter must maintain rigid, unwavering control of himself if he is to be allowed to live among people.

Shortly before Dexter's second season started airing in Israel, I chanced upon an interview with Michael C. Hall on an Israeli news site. The interviewer mentioned that some reactions to the series (it wasn't clear whether he meant critical or fannish reactions) lamented the absence of a real-world Dexter, who would rid us of criminals and undesirables. There's no denying that Dexter's writers play on the audience's less noble, more bloodthirsty impulses in their efforts to make their main character sympathetic. In a mid-third season episode, for example, Dexter kills a pedophile who has been stalking Rita's daughter. The man doesn't meet Harry's code, and there were non-lethal ways for Dexter to get rid of him, but the audience's sympathy is with Dexter because of the profound (and not entirely rational) revulsion towards pedophiles in popular culture. I am, however, absolutely certain that, if they even exist, the people referred to in this interview have completely misread the series, and that its writers absolutely do not intend for us to see Dexter as a good or desirable creature (as opposed to, say, Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes's writers, whose attitude towards Gene Hunt and his methods of policing becomes more objectionably unambiguous with every episode they produce).

If there are people out there who laud Dexter for eschewing wishy-washy liberalism and returning to hardcore attitudes towards right and wrong, then they have drawn the right conclusions from the wrong reading. Dexter is hardcore. It does reject airy-fairy notions about moral relativism, and does place an emphasis on harsh moral judgments. But it does so by insisting, and repeatedly returning to the undeniable truth, that Dexter is a monster who does monstrous things. For him to accept himself would be catastrophic, just as the people who have accepted him over the course of the series have turned out to be catastrophes in the making. The best thing for Dexter, the show repeatedly concludes, is to live a lie, to deny himself. Only through this denial, and through adherence to his father's edicts, can Dexter have the things that are worth having: a wife, a home, children. Though none of the people who love him will ever truly know him, their love is worth so much more than the love of the kind of person who would accept him for what he is. As the third season finale repeatedly points out, everyone has secrets, truths about themselves that they keep hidden even from those closest to them. What Dexter seems to be saying is that those secrets, the self-imposed restrictions and shame they represent, are a good thing--that there is someting wrong with people, even normal people, who accept themselves unconditionally, don't seek to restrain themselves, and feel no shame at their failures and mistakes. For a show that takes so much pleasure in the shocking and the transgressive, this is an extremely conservative message.

In its third season, Dexter completes its transformation from a procedural mystery to a character drama. The season's overarching plot is not about the pursuit of Oscar's murderer, or the serial killer who emerges in the wake of that murderer's disappearance, or the investigation of the murders committed by Miguel, though each of these plotlines takes its turn in the foreground. The season is given its shape not by any of these stories but by the growth and disintegration of Dexter and Miguel's friendship. The secondary characters' storylines also focus more on character than plot development: Deb is approached by an internal affairs detective (one of the series's most delightful female characters, who is sadly shunted off halfway into the season) who wants her to spy on her new partner; she falls in love with her CI and has to decide whether a man who, by any rational criterion, is entirely wrong for her might be exactly what she needs; Maria LaGuerta deals with the loss of her friend Doakes in the most terrible way imaginable and in her loneliness feels the effects of having sidelined her personal life for the sake of her career; Angel Batista has a dark night of the soul but finds new love.

What's remarkable about the third season is that, for all its emphasis on soap opera developments and the absence of a strong plotline to tie it together, it still feels like the same Dexter of last season and the season before. The writing and acting are still exceptionally fine, and the characters are still consistently appealing and lifelike, but more importantly, the show hasn't lost sight of the story it was always trying to tell: the story of a monster who lives among humans. Dexter's first three seasons are, in a way, the story of Dexter's journey from unquestioning childhood, through rebellious youth, and to a wiser adulthood. Next year he'll be facing or getting ready to face the challenges of fatherhood, and I'm not sure a repitition of the same story we've seen three times already will suit that change in his life. But so long as Dexter's writers remember the kind of story they want to tell, I have faith that they will find new ways and new genres to tell it with.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Nation by Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett's Nation begins with the arrival of a ship, the Cutty Wren, on a cold, snowy night, at an English port, where its crew is forbidden to disembark, its body is soaked with disinfectant, and its captain is informed that he must turn around at once on a matter of national importance.
The captain shook his head. "This is not good enough, Mr. Blezzard. What you are asking--it's too much. I--Good God, man, I need more authority than some words shouted through a tin tube!"

"I think you will find me all the authority you need, Captain. Do I have your permission to come aboard?"

The captain knew that voice.

It was the voice of God, or the next best thing. But although he recognized the voice, he hardly recognized the speaker standing at the foot of the gangplank. That was because he was wearing a sort of birdcage. At least, that's what it looked like at first sight. Closer to, he could see that it was a fine metal framework with a thin gauze around it. The person inside walked in a shimmering cloud of disinfectant.

"Sir Geoffrey?" said the captain, just to be sure, as the man began to walk slowly up the glistening gangplank.

"Indeed, Captain. I'm sorry about this outfit. It's called a salvation suit, for obvious reasons. It is necessary for your protection. The Russian influenza has been worse than you can possible imagine! We believe the worst is over, but it has taken a terrible toll at every level of society. Every level, Captain. Believe me."
It is difficult to imagine an opening better suited to wrong-footing and confounding the expectations of long-time Pratchett readers. Even taking into account the well-publicized fact that Nation is not a Discworld novel, its setting takes some puzzling out. The references to Russia (and, earlier in the chapter, Liverpool and San Francisco) set the action in our world, but there's a foreignness to the characters' speech and manner that seems to resolve itself when they refer to the recently concluded Crimean War, and then resurfaces when they refer to a king instead of a queen. Before its action even starts, then, Nation establishes itself as an alternate history, and it veers further into the unreal with talk of a global epidemic with wide-reaching geopolitical implications. Then, of course, there's the tone: the near-total absence of humor (though as it turns out the shipboard interludes in Nation are its most humorous segments), the almost Steampunk-ish touch of the salvation suit, and most of all the sense of impending doom. Between the darkness, the snow-storm, the plague, and the urgency with which the ship is dispatched on its errand, Nation's first chapter creates the expectation of a world-shattering disaster poised to crash down on the characters' heads.

Of course, most Pratchett fans will find all of this wrong-footing terribly exciting. Especially if, like myself, they've been drawing diminishing returns from his novels for years, finding them increasingly repetitive and predictable. Even more so if they've noticed the buzz calling Nation not simply a return to form but an entirely new direction for Pratchett, and his best novel to boot. Which just goes to show, once again, how important it is to manage expectations before cracking open a book, and particularly one by someone who was once one of your favorite authors. Nation is undeniably an unusual Pratchett novel, and at points quite a fine one, but it isn't a new direction for him so much as it is a new recipe, a new mixture of the same familiar ingredients. Despite the gloss of newness--and the very real newness of its un-humorous tone--longtime Pratchett fans reading Nation will very quickly find their equilibrium restored and their expectations met.

When the end of the world comes, it comes not to the crew of the good ship Cutty Wren, but to the villagers of a tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It does, however, come crashing down on their heads, in the form of a tsunami that washes away everything and everyone in its path. The sole survivor is Mau, a village boy on his way back from his rite of initiation into manhood. Instead of being greeted by a feast and the proper ceremonies to usher him into the next phase of his life, Mau finds the bodies of his family and friends. And there lies the true difference between Nation and everything else Pratchett has ever written--Nation is grim. There is still a lightness to Pratchett's tone, not quite humorousness but a sort of ironic detachment, and his approach to characterization and emotion is perhaps overly cerebral. These combine to set Nation apart from other catastrophe novels like The Road or Blindness or even Watership Down, but the horror of what Mau has endured and the enormity of what he's lost are never downplayed.
Everyone would have been on the shore, around the big fire. Would they have heard the roar of the wave above the crackle of the flames? Would they have known what it meant? If they had been quick, they would have headed up Big Pig Valley, to the higher ground beyond the fields. But some of the wave would already have been roaring up the eastern slope (all grassy there, nothing much to slow it down), and they would have met it pouring back on them.

And then the roaring cauldron of rocks and sand and water and people would have broken through the west of the reef and into the deepwater current, where the people would have become dolphins.
As Mau, and we, soon discover, he isn't the only sole survivor on the island. Ermintrude is the daughter of a colonial governor, and the ship taking her to meet him is wrecked on Mau's island. Before the two of them can fully scale the barriers of language, culture, and racial prejudice between them, they become the effective rulers of a new community, as survivors of the tsunami from neighboring islands begin arriving in ones and twos, starving, tired, and terrified. As the only surviving member of his clan Mau, though not officially a man, is the chief of this new nation. Ermintrude, who quite sensibly takes the earliest possible opportunity to change her name to Daphne, is cast in the unlikely role of alpha female when she successfully delivers the baby of one of the first refugees. Together they shepherd the new community through the mundane crises of ensuring their survival and the more exciting ones of preparing for a cannibal attack and puzzling out the secrets of Mau's heritage.

The true business of Nation, however, is the emotional and spiritual aftermath of Mau and other survivors' ordeal. Nation's prologue lays out the fairly straightforward creation myth ascribed to by Mau's tribe, complete with the promise of life after death. As the full scale of the calamity visited on him become apparent, this myth ceases to be a comfort to Mau and becomes a goad. He rages at the gods who failed to save his people, constantly chewing away at one of the core questions of religious belief--if the gods are real, why do they let people suffer and die? And if they aren't real, what is the point of the rituals and sacrifices which have bounded and regulated Mau's entire life?

Against Mau's furious agnosticism, other characters in the novel embody other attitudes, more and less accepting, more and less thoughtful, towards this ageless question. Chief amongst them is the priest Ataba, with whom Mau develops a prickly and fractious relationship. Though well meaning, the two can't seem to help pushing each other's buttons, whether it's Mau challenging every one of Ataba's expression of faith and assumptions about the way the universe works, or Ataba, who only half-jokingly takes to calling Mau 'demon boy' (because of the precarious disposition of his soul, which is trapped between boyhood and manhood), insisting that Mau's enraged denial of the gods' existence is itself a form of belief. As Mau, spurred by aspiring naturalist Daphne, embraces rationalism, Ataba insists that at heart the boy still craves proof that there is something more to his existence. Providing a counterpoint to both is Daphne, who before arriving on the island endured her own share of personal tragedy, which has burned out whatever apparatus of belief she once possessed.

Since this is a Pratchett novel, its characters have to negotiate not only with their own doubts in order to formulate a spiritual attitude, but also with what may be the provable existence of God--both Mau and Daphne hear the voices of his tribal gods, Mau repeatedly has conversations with the god of death, whom he forbids to take any more of the refugees, and Daphne travels to death's realm to save him when he pushes said deity too far. These glimpses of divinity pose as much of a challenge to the believer Ataba as they do to the agnostic Mau and the atheistic Daphne. This is in keeping with Pratchett's last major foray into the topic of religion, Small Gods. In that novel, the god Om is the focus of a religion whose adherents number in the millions, and yet still finds himself powerless, a voice on the wind heeded by only a single believer. Despite directing their prayers to him, what Om's other followers actually believe in is the edifice erected around him. Like Small Gods, Nation is a novel that is less about religion than about the uses religion is put to.

Against Mau and Ataba's frantic seeking and Daphne's wholesale abdication of faith, the other survivors' approach is more traditionally unquestioning. Some thoughtlessly return to the rituals they followed before the tsunami, refusing to ask for a reason for their seeming abandonment by their gods. Some try to prove that the tsunami was caused by a lapse or error in proper observance. And some make a new god of Daphne's ship, which provides the fledgling community with much-needed raw materials and supplies. It would be easy to treat this thoughtless shadow of faith with disdain, but Pratchett takes it seriously, as an expression of the universal human need for narrative and order. The refugees on Mau's island are bolstered by their faith, not necessarily because they truly believe but because it provides them with structure, a set of rules and conventions of thought that allow them to make sense of what would otherwise seem a capricious, chaotic life.

It may be Nation's greatest accomplishment that it maintains, throughout the entire course of the novel, the tension between understanding and respecting this need for structure and distrusting both it and the habits of unthinking acceptance and intellectual malaise it fosters. The same ambivalent attitude is taken towards rationalism, which is the salvation of Daphne, her father, and possibly Mau, but which is expressed as monstrousness in the character of Mr. Cox, who plays the part of villain in Nation's final chapters. The first mate on the ship which brought Daphne to the island, Mr. Cox is nihilism personified. He immediately locks horns with the ship's powerfully devout Captain Roberts, in a sort of dark parallel to Mau and Ataba's relationship. Long before he incites the crew to mutiny, Cox makes it his goal to undermine Roberts's faith--whom he wants, the narrative tells us, to "shoot in the faith"--even as the captain makes it his furious, disgusted mission to save Cox's soul. His presence on the island is felt long before he sets foot on it, in the form of the ship's parrot, who reiterates the argument between Cox and Roberts by regurgitating both expressions of faith and needling challenges to it, some of which, like "What about Darwin?" use rationalism as a weapon.
It began with Cox sitting up straight during the prayer meetings and shouting "Hallelujah" or "Amen" every time the captain finished a sentence, and clapping loudly. Or he'd ask puzzled questions like "What did they feed the lions and tigers with in the Ark, sir?" and "Where did all the water go?" Then there was the day when he asked Cookie to try to make a meal for the whole crew out of five loaves and two fishes. Then when the captain said the story was not meant to be taken literally, Cox gave him a smart salute and said: "Then what is, Cap'n?"
Small Gods is a book that has been mentioned quite often in reviews of Nation by Pratchett fans, who have noted similarities not only in the two books' topics but in their quality. 'The best thing Pratchett has written since Small Gods' is a sentiment which has been bandied about quite liberally. I can see the similarities in topic, but not in quality. Though Nation is as fine a discussion of the nature and varied expressions of religious faith or its rejection as Small Gods was, it is nowhere near as fine a novel. Small Gods finds Pratchett at the top of his form not only as a thinker but as a writer and a crafter of stories. Writing about it just recently, Jay Lake quite correctly pointed out that the main character Brutha "has one of the most amazing character arcs I've ever seen in fiction," going from an unformed, unthinking lump to a furious, devout, humanistic, compassionate, sly prophet. As a story, Small Gods is also a delight, juxtaposing Om's search for an explanation for his predicament and Brutha's blossoming, through which Pratchett expresses his ideas about religion, with a rollicking, twisty plot involving war, political intrigue, revolution, and one of the finest villains Pratchett has ever thought up. On both of these counts--character and plot--Nation falls far short of the standard set by Small Gods, as well as many other Pratchett novels.

Despite their similar topics, Nation's plot reminded me less of Small Gods and more of another non-Discworld Pratchett novel, The Carpet People. An odd entry in his bibliography, it was originally (and quite astoundingly) published when Pratchett was only 17, and soon went out of print. When the Discworld series took off the idea was floated to reissue it, but Pratchett was unhappy with publishing his juvenilia as it stood, and reworked the novel. "It's not exactly the book I wrote then. It's not exactly the book I'd write now," he says in the introduction to my edition, and though it's impossible to tell exactly where the teenage Pratchett ends and the adult one begins, The Carpet People is clearly a journeyman work. Whereas later Pratchett novels parodied well-known or influential fantasy works, The Carpet People is simply derivative of them. At the same time, its setting is wildly inventive and brilliantly realized. As its title suggests, The Carpet People takes place amidst the fronds of a carpet--a rainbow-colored, shaggy carpet, to be precise, which is populated by microscopic beings to whom a burnt match is a near-endless source of coal, and a penny a sheer copper edifice stretching up into the heavens. Pratchett populates this square of fabric with monarchs, tyrants, mystics, philosophers, and monsters, a feat of wild imagination that presages the Discworld itself.

Like Nation, The Carpet People tells the story of a young person who is thrust into adulthood and a leadership role when their home is destroyed by a natural disaster which puts paid to their cozy way of life and sheltered habits of thought. The Carpet People is a more lighthearted novel than Nation, and therefore the loss experienced by its protagonist, Snibril, the younger son of the chief of the Munrung tribe, is less complete than Mau's. Though his village is destroyed, most of its inhabitants survive, including Snibril's older brother and current chief, Glurk. But like Mau, Snibril is transformed by this loss. He gets to see more of the world, and learns to think about what he's seen in new ways. One might argue that Nation is The Carpet People grown up--though I am very fond of it, there's no denying that The Carpet People is a flimsy work, more enjoyable for Pratchett's feats of inventiveness than for anything he says with them. But it is also, and despite the derivative quality I've mentioned, a damn fine piece of storytelling.

The elements Pratchett uses to assemble his story are a little shopworn--the exiled wizard, the great warrior disguised as a wanderer, the witch hidden in the deep forest--but what he makes of them is fresh and lively, seasoned with his trademark irreverence and the originality of his setting. For much of his career, Pratchett continued this approach to plot, lampooning or refurbishing fantasy tropes, and in the process making them his own, and never less than enthralling. Some books back, however, he seems to have decided that plot was getting in the way. In many of his recent novels, the plot feels familiar--in the Ankh-Morpork novels, the villains are always a shadowy conspiracy striving to regress the city to a less enlightened state; in the Granny Weatherwax novels, they're a magical menace that threatens human agency--and bloodless, a scaffolding for ideas rather than a method of expressing them. Pratchett's YA novels, and the Tiffany Aching books in particular (though not so much the first one, The Wee Free Men) seem to suffer from this malady in particular, being a great deal more episodic than most of his 'adult' novels. Nation is cut from the same cloth. The challenges that face the tsunami survivors show up in neatly demarcated installments, and though all of them feed into the central mystery of Mau's heritage and the truth about his religion, the process of unraveling that mystery feels less like a story or an adventure and more like a lesson--one that characters and readers are learning simultaneously. Despite the overwhelming grimness of the book's premise, the individual chapters, and the ordeals the characters undergo within them, are rather mild, and even the main antagonist, Cox, is only introduced late in the novel and feels less like a villain than a representative of everything Pratchett finds odious.

At the root of much of Pratchett's character work there has always been a fascination with how human thought processes work--the rationalizations, prejudices, and fictions that cloud reason, and the way that an awareness of them can foster rational discourse. This came to a head in The Wee Free Men, in which Tiffany Aching is informed that she has 'the second thought'--the ability to think about the way she thinks, and identify the fallacies and errors that trip her up. In Nation, Pratchett takes this approach even further, and much of Mau's internal monologue is taken up with his charting the ways in which his mind is changing and growing.
he did not like to admit that the Nation was behind the trousermen in any way, but the toolbox had impressed him. Oh, everyone could invent a hammer, but there were things in that box--beautiful, gleaming wooden and metal things--that not even Pilu knew the use of. And they spoke to Mau somehow.

We never thought of pliers because we didn't need them. Before you make something that is truly new, you first have to have a new thought. That's the important thing. We didn't need new things, so we didn't think new thoughts.
Where Tiffany's second thoughts illuminate her (ornery, stubborn, fiercely loyal) character, however, Mau's are generic. They are thoughts about how people work, not how Mau works, and little by little Mau is flattened--not a particular boy stepping up to fill a role because there's no one else to do it, but an everyman coming into his inheritance of knowledge, thought, and reason. If Brutha is transformed, Mau is ascended--into something that is part hero, part saint, but not really human any more. Though admirable in his devotion to his friends, his community, and the humanist ideals he embraces after the tsunami, Mau is missing the flaws and foibles that make a character lovable or believable as a human being. He's too busy being a mouthpiece to be a person.

The flaws that have marred my enjoyment of Nation--the flat characters, the episodic plot, the didacticism--could be the result of an author of adult fiction trying to talk down to a juvenile audience, but I'm more inclined to think that they are what happens when author with an agenda just happens to have written a children's book. Which sounds bad, but the fact is that when Nation is compared to other children's books with an agenda, and particularly an agenda having to do with religion, it comes away looking very good. This is a book that truly does encourage its readers, of any age, to question the role of religion and rationalism in their lives, rather than hammering them over the head with a prepackaged point of view, a la the His Dark Materials books or, to a somewhat lesser extent, the Narnia series. It rejects easy solutions to the conflict between the two, and embraces the messiness of human attitudes towards both. The present day coda, in which a character who is quite obviously a blatant authorial insertion speaks directly to the readers' stand-ins, bemusedly notes the resilience of magical thinking even in our rational age, and leaves it to the readers to decide whether this is a good thing. That's something worth reading for, even if you're an adult and familiar with Pratchett's more substantial, more accomplished writing. It's a shame that Nation isn't the return to form that its ecstatic reviews had led me to hope for, but for all its flaws it does demonstrate that even in a degraded, didactic form, Pratchett says things worth listening to.