Sunday, June 14, 2009

Recent Reading Roundup 22

  1. The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia - Sedia's second novel centers around Mattie, a clockwork doll who has won a provisional freedom from her maker (he still keeps the only key that can wind her mechanism) and trained as an alchemist at a time when magic and mechanics are at odds. Mattie's commission from the gargoyles, her city's patron saints, to discover the reason they are turning into stone, is interrupted by civil unrest, as political struggles between the guilds of mechanics and alchemists boil over into riots, murders, and an uprising by the city's underclass. None of this is badly done, and there are some very nice notes such as Mattie's friendship with a foreign (and thus maligned and suspected) alchemist, or the character of the Soul-Smoker, who gathers up the lingering souls of the dead and is feared and reviled for performing a necessary act. But taken as a whole The Alchemy of Stone gives the definite impression of having been written to meet a checklist of modern fantasy tropes: steampunk, an urban setting, non-Tolkienian fantasy creatures, the intersection between magic and science, issues of class and racial prejudice mapped onto the fantasy world. There's nothing here that hasn't been done better elsewhere, and what Sedia brings to the table--her use of language and her characters--is again well done but unremarkable. It could simply be that I've read too many novels of this ilk to appreciate yet another entry in the subgenre, but I'm not so well read that this is likely to be an uncommon problem, and The Alchemy of Stone, enjoyable as it was while I was reading it, doesn't do nearly enough to set itself apart from the pack.

  2. Last Dragon by J.M. McDermott - Narrated by the empress Zhan from her deathbed as a series of letters to her exiled lover, McDermott's debut flits between different periods in Zhan's past, demanding our absolute focus as we piece that past together. Accompanied by her uncle Seth, a shaman, Zhan journeys from her remote mountain village to a great city in pursuit of her grandfather, who has murdered her whole family. Once there, she amasses a fantasy coterie--Seth's gypsy lover, a grizzled mercenary, and the paladin Adel, who is helping Zhan for her own reasons--and must race back to her home in advance of an invading army. All of this is to make Last Dragon seem very conventional, but even ignoring its jigsaw structure, the novel seems to be deliberately defying the conventions of epic fantasy by attempting to depict its characters and their situation as realistically and unromantically as possible. McDermott's focus is not on the few moments in which the characters confront their enemies head on but on the long, unheroic trudge to reach those moments--Zhan and Seth's miserable sea-voyage on their way to the city, the frozen wasteland the group must traverse on their way back to the village, the stinking prison cell in which they're held towards the end of the story--and he truly makes us feel the characters' misery and discomfort, the way that these overshadow their grand motivations of honor and duty even as those motivations keep driving them forward, so that victory, in the end, is simply a way of finally getting some rest.

    Last Dragon's tone of mingled determination and despair is so overwhelming that it's easy to simply get caught up in it, and in the pleasure of piecing together Zhan's story, but once the last page was turned I realized that as overpowering as I found the novel, I'm still not certain what McDermott was trying to do with it. Was the point nothing more than to give another whack to the epic fantasy subgenre, whose heroes often dedicate themselves, body and soul, to a cause, without suffering the soul-deadening effect McDermott so ably describes? Possibly, and if so then the point is well made, but it would be awfully disappointing to think that so much effort had been put into contravening the basic assumptions of a subgenre that most of the novel's target audience don't read (it has the whiff of condescension too). There are enough questions left unanswered by the novel's ending--mostly relating to Adel and her true motivations in helping Zhan, but also involving the gap between the end of the novel and the dying Zhan's present--that it could very well be that McDermott expects us to piece together an underlying story, one that I wasn't quite able to see. Or the underlying story might not be there, and the point of the novel could be that we're being told a partial narrative by someone who was only a minor participant in the proceedings--which, once again, is a rather flimsy point on which to hang a novel. Whatever the answer is, the end result is that Last Dragon feels a little underdone, and yet I'm not sure that this ought to matter. McDermott's writing is strong enough that the novel can be enjoyed simply for its tone and effect--not to mention for its plot, which is entirely riveting--and I'm willing to let that be enough for now.

  3. Tokyo Cancelled by Rana Dasgupta - Niall, who liked this novel a great deal more than I did, compares it to David Mitchell's Ghostwritten--which like it is a novel made up of globe-spanning, linked narratives, in which the fantastic is used to highlight some of the aspects of modernity--but I was more strongly reminded of Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales. Unlike Mitchell, and like Valente, Dasgupta--who strands a small group of airline passengers on their way to Tokyo in an unnamed Indian airport and has them tell each other stories to while away the hours until their flight--starts with familiar fairy tale formats and complicates them to the point of surrealism. Either way, the comparison is unkind. Tokyo Cancelled is a great deal more fantastic than Ghostwritten, but not completely steeped in the fantastic like The Orphan's Tales, and the midpoint it occupies does not seem, to me, particularly stable. It's never clear whether we're meant to anticipate realism or surrealism, whether fairy tale logic or real world logic will hold sway, and the result was that I could never quite immerse myself in the novel. It doesn't help that I wasn't particularly taken by any of the stories as stories. There are some nice touches here and there--a touching love story between a woman who has lost hope and a sailor she meets in a coffee shop, the billionaire who builds a tower in which to keep his daughter, who causes all organic matter to sprout and bloom, out of the hands of the ministry of defense, the tailor who buries a garment commissioned by a prince in the desert and returns to find it hailed as a precious antique--but every time, just when it seems that Dasgupta has hit on a compelling metaphor, or has built up a good head of narrative, he loses the thread. The central concept--marrying modernity and fairy tales--is a good one, but Tokyo Cancelled just doesn't manage that mix very well.

  4. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin - One of my reading projects for this year is to finally get properly acquainted with Le Guin, whom I've enjoyed well enough in the short form (and in her non fiction and reviews) but whose novels have never worked for me. I started with Lavinia, about which I may have more in the future, and having done reasonably well there felt brave enough to tackle The Left Hand of Darkness, which had already defeated me once in my early teens. I pronounce the experiment a limited success, in that I finished the novel (no onerous chore, to be certain) and liked parts of it very much, mainly the construction of the customs, language, history and folklore of the planet Gethen, and the last third of the novel, in which the human envoy to Gethen, Genly Ai, traverses an ice shelf with a disgraced Gethenian politician, Estraven. The matter of fact way in which Le Guin describes the danger and hardship Genly and Estraven face, as well as their attempts to deal with them, contrasts sharply with her descriptions of the landscape itself, and create an intense and utterly engrossing sequence.

    On the other hand, the actual meat of the novel, and the reason that it is so well known--Le Guin's description of the effect that genderlessness has on Gethenian society--left me somewhat cold. Partly, the problem is that the novel has dated rather badly. Jo Walton has a good post here about the difficulties of reading The Left Hand of Darkness in the more feminist era to which it no doubt contributed, and as she says it is hard not to be thrown by Genly Ai's simplistic assumptions about masculinity and femininity, not only because we'd like to believe that in the more advanced era in which he lives such assumptions would be a thing of the past (the fact that he has several female colleagues would certainly seem to support this expectation), but because those assumptions are so different from present-day stereotypes about men and women. Observing Estraven's careful calculation of their food intake during the ice crossing, Genly muses that such behavior would be scientific in a man and house-wifely in a woman, and though clearly Le Guin is making a point, that point is so over the top for our time (when was the last time you heard someone described as house-wifely?) that it is jarring. Beyond its datedness, however, I find it difficult to accept the notion of The Left Hand of Darkness as a feminist novel. Le Guin's point that, absent gender characteristics, Gethenians treat each other simply as people (which is anyway undermined by her choice to use the male pronoun for all Gethenians--a choice which I understand she reversed in several Gethen-set short stories) doesn't deal with gender but circumvents it, and in so doing implicitly reinforces Genly's sexism. If anything, The Left Hand of Darkness is a story about a challenge to Genly's masculinity, and has little or nothing to do with women, but because that masculinity is rooted in such dated notions of gendered behavior, it's hard to sympathize with Genly's ordeal. Not for the first time, therefore, I find myself admiring Le Guin's work but not really resonating with it, and though I'm glad to have read such an important piece of SF history, I don't think I'm going to become a Le Guin fan any time soon.

  5. No Name by Wilkie Collins - I like Collins better than Dickens, with whom he shares certain attributes and interests, but unfortunately the portion of his bibliography that's considered worth looking at isn't nearly as large. I'd already read his two best known novels, The Moonstone and The Woman in White, which left me with his second tier, into which No Name was my first foray. Once again, my conclusions are mixed, but in a way that demonstrates just how important historical context is in determining which novels survive the test of time and which fail it. As a piece of writing, No Name is only slightly less successful than either The Moonstone or The Woman in White, and in its middle segment, which describes a battle of wits between the con man Captain Wragge and the housekeeper of the man he plans to swindle, Mrs. Lecount, it even surpasses them. But it's a novel rooted in assumptions I don't share, and it fails because it expects me to react in certain ways to its characters' actions when actually my reaction is the exact opposite.

    No Name's beginning creates the expectation of another Vanity Fair--when two sisters are left penniless after their parents' deaths by a quirk of the law and the cruelty of their relatives, the younger, Magdalen, vows to regain her fortune by whatever means necessary. But No Name quickly becomes a soppy, happy-ended Count of Monte Cristo--Magdalen debases herself and abandons her cherished ideals and beliefs in order to avenge herself on her relatives, but ends up alone and near death, and renounces her wicked ways. The problem, for one thing, is that those ways aren't that wicked. Vanity Fair works so well because Thackery, without losing sight of the real hurt she causes, recognizes that Becky Sharpe's offenses against society's mores are, objectively, meaningless, but Magdalen, despite hurting no one but herself--she tells lies, goes on the stage, marries for money--is described as the most wretched and evil creature in existence. Even worse, whereas The Count of Monte Cristo recognizes that a desire for vengeance is normal, and only then concludes that to pursue that desire is soul-destroying, No Name starts from the assumption that there must be something wrong with Magdalen for wanting revenge on the people who have hurt her, that she is perhaps even monstrous (though it's never stated outright, it's pretty clear that what Collins means is that desiring revenge is monstrous in a woman). Magdalen is no Becky Sharpe, whose wickedness is offset by intelligence and humor. All she has is a strength of character which Collins describes as being a manifestation of evil, and unlike Becky she isn't the author of her own life--the actual planning of her revenge is left to Captain Wragge, with Magdalen as the mute driving force behind him. A happy ending for Magdalen, therefore, requires that she lose her one defining attribute, which is what happens when she surrenders herself to a kind man who forgives her past crimes. All told then, a rather disquieting read, despite Collins's great skill at plot and character. I think I'll have to find another Victorian to be my Dickens substitute.

12 comments:

Kit said...

If you feel up to more le Guin at some point you might take a stab at The Dispossessed. It's probably her best novel, and unlike Left Hand of Darkness its central conceit has aged gracefully.

I actually think LHoD is one of le Guin's worse books; it's badly structured and difficult to read, and I can't see any thematic reason why it needed to be. Genly is a bad anthropologist and a terrible diplomat, so he's not a particularly good viewpoint character for describing Gethenian society, and as you point out, these days he comes off as such a sexist ass that we don't care about his own identity problems. This leaves us with Estraven and the Ice, both of which are excellent, but which aren't enough to carry the novel all by themselves.

But you may dislike Le Guin less than you think you do; her style varies more widely between books than any author I know. A Wizard of Earthsea is nothing like Left Hand of Darkness is nothing like Orsinian Tales is nothing like Rocannon's World. I suspect people are who enjoy her entire oeuvre are rare; I love most of her work and find the Orsinia stuff completely unreadable.

What else have you read? If you liked one of her short stories I might be able to rec you something else in that vein.

Anonymous said...

I would like to defend LHoD in that I think the novel ages rather better when one comes to it without knowing much about its importance to the SF field and its reputation as a work of early feminist SF. I can see how reading it with such expectations one might well be disappointed. To put it another way, I disagree with you on what "the meat of the novel" is, while I agree that it is hard to see it as particularly feminist today.

Not knowing anything about the book, I read Genly Ai (at least initially) as a terribly annoying character, for the reasons the first commenter points out. Believing this to be intentional, I took it as a rather neat doubling in that the reader is distanced both from the envoy and from Gethenian society - and feels closer to the latter (and especially Estraven), despite their difference and supposed alienness.

Which is to say that of course the novel has aged, and so one must make allowances just as one does when reading (say) a Victorian novel - but it is not dated in the sense that it is (among other things) a beautifully written description of how Genly comes to realise how deep conscious and unconscious assumptions can go in shaping his perceptions, how they prevent him from succeeding in what he is trying to do, and how they are overcome by building relationships. I don't think this concept has dated at all - what has aged are the specific assumptions about gender. And I can't off the top of my head think of another SF novel which describes such a process as well as LHoD does.

I would defend this reading (which does clash with the notion that Genly Ai is a select representative from an advanced Terra) in that it is explicit in the book at least to some extent in the conclusion, when Genly finally understands why the Hainish send single individuals as envoys: so that they are forced to change.

I can see why one would dislike the book if one tried to identify with Genly Ai. It doesn't work if one thinks one should "sympathise with Genly's ordeal". I thought the whole idea was that the reader was to feel terribly frustrated by Genly almost up until the very end of the crossing over the ice - thus posing the question as to what unexamined prejudices and preconceptions we might be carrying around with us despite out best intentions. One would be much happier identifying with Estraven - but the structure precisely doesn't quite allow that easy out.

confluence said...

I also find Le Guin's writing very variable. I don't like any of her fantasy -- I tried very hard to read all the way through A Wizard of Earthsea, but found it extremely dull. I like her SF a lot more.

I thought The Dispossessed and Left Hand of Darkness were OK, but I particularly recommend The Wind's Twelve Quarters, a short story collection. I only have the second half of a two-volume edition; it's my favourite Le Guin book.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Kit:

I can't think of the titles of individual Le Guin stories I've liked (the only one I remember is "The Birthday of the World," which I didn't care for that much). I do have a copy of The Dispossessed, however, so that might be my next foray.

Of her other novels, I've read A Wizard of Earthsea, which I liked well enough but without feeling compelled to read the sequels, and just recently Lavinia, which I enjoyed a great deal more.

Anonymous:

You're probably right that Left Hand can more profitably be read as Genly's journey towards immersion in Gethenian culture, but that reading still doesn't help me appreciate the novel because, once again, Genly is too far behind the character I expect him to be. Why is he so unclear about his true purpose on Gethen? Why wasn't he taught that he needs to immerse himself in an alien culture? I see no reason for this except that Le Guin wants us to reach that understanding, and that brings us once again to the novel's datedness. I started reading Left Hand expecting Genly to become changed by Gethenian culture and became increasingly frustrated by his ignorance of the fact that such a change was necessary.

It may be that Le Guin intended for us to be put off by Genly, but I'm not sure I see how that would encourage readers - or at least modern readers - to explore their own prejudices, as Genly's starting position is so far from being one I can identify with. If Genly started out believing himself to be unprejudiced and willing to be changed by the alien, I could have sympathized with his realization that he was nowhere near as open-minded as he believed himself to be, but as it is I felt completely alienated from him.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your reply! You're right about the discrepancy between Genly's purported role and qualities and his actual character. I suppose I was willing to suspend disbelief more than you were - perhaps because I so enjoyed the quality of the writing of Gethen itself, and because Genly is not the only main character (just because he is Terran). I find it interesting that Genly's character, who sticks in this novel (at least initially) like the foreign body he is, should stand in the way of the novel to the degree it seems to for you. I can well understand feeling alienated from him - I just don't see why that is such a problem.

Thinking about it, it is quite possible (even likely) that the way LeGuin intended Genly to function is much more along the lines you and Jo Walton read him - as a viewpoint character for the reader in an alien world. That's why I found your review intriguing.

Anonymous said...

PS "If Genly started out believing himself to be unprejudiced and willing to be changed by the alien" - I think one could even grant him that. It's just that he believes it in the abstract - he just has no idea what it means. It's in the nature of preconceptions that one is not aware one holds them. To put it another way, I'm not sure how you would write that journey over the ice if Genly was a less flawed character. The fact that his particular preconceptions are far more grating today than they probably were in 1969 - well, of course.

Kit said...

I agree with Anon that the "Genly is an ass and this is a book about how his assness made his diplomatic mission impossible and got Estraven killed" reading is probably the best possible modern reading.

The problem with this is that Genly is a cipher. We don't know anything about him except that he's Terran, he's sexist, and he's a bad anthropologist and a terrible diplomat. Think about how much we learn, albeit obliquely, about Estraven in the course of the book vs. how much we learn about Genly- Genly is really a blank, assy slate. There's just not enough Genly in the book for it to work as a character novel. Possibly he worked as a default human template in 1969, but nowadays he so far behind the rest of us that you really want to know what his problem is, and the book never tells you.

There are three main stories in the book, the anthropology story, the political story, and the character novel. Genly's personality makes it impossible for him to do a good job reporting stories 1 and 2, and yet the book isn't enough about him for story 3 to hold up on it's own. That's what I meant by structurally flawed. Estraven's narration always works better than Genly's because he's competent to report on S1 and S2 and he has enough character development that his half of S3 actually holds up fairly well. Once they get on the Ice Genly gives up on S1 and S2 and starts reporting on the landscape, which he is actually competent to do, and he begins making progress with S3, so the book goes more smoothly.

As a whole I find the book kind of frustrating, because Genthen is fascinating and I want to learn more about it, but Genly is too obtuse to tell me. He's not curious and he doesn't even speculate about the stuff he doesn't know, he just sits there like a lump. He's a bad choice of narrator. If you compare him to say, Bren Cameron, the narrator of C.J. Cherryh's Foreigner books, who is also incredibly irritating and who is in a comparable situation of having to cluelessly negotiate baffling alien customs, you notice that unlike Genly, Bren is constantly trying to get more information and to integrate the information he does have, and in the process we wind up learning way more about the Atevi than we do about the Gethen. Brem often gets things wrong because he's obtuse, but he's still competent to narrate the S1 and S2 threads of his novels. I just can't see why le Guin thought Genly needed to be a Genly and not a Bren.

There's also the Watsonian question of why the Ekumen can't find better Envoys. This is a broader question than just Genly- in all the Hanish stories I've read, the ratio seems to be about 1 competent diplomat in 10. In later books you often find out why they're incompetent, but this doesn't answer the question of why the Ekumen doesn't bother to screen their personnel. My pet theory is that the NAFAL travel means that the well-adjusted people take other jobs that don't necessitate leaving everyone they know forever and the Ekumen have to take what they can get, but that's never made explicit.

Abagail: yeah, I don't consider "Birthday of the World" to be one of le Guin's great triumphs either. Although IIRC the collection it's in also has "Solitude," which was brilliant. I haven't gotten around to Lavinia yet, but when I do I'll try to think if she's written anything else in the same vein.

Mary Anne Mohanraj said...

Just a quick note that in one of her books of essays LeGuin critiques her own choice to use the male pronoun for the genderless Gethenians, and essentially says that she thinks she was wrong. She does it beautifully and brilliantly, too, running two essays in two columns down the page. The first is the original essay in which she defended the choice -- the second is from many years later, and is a point-by-point thoughtful taking apart of her original position. I could wish more academics and essayists would be so honest about their own work and errors.

It's either in _Dancing at the Edge of the World_ or _Language of the Night_ -- can't remember which essay collection offhand.

Anonymous said...

Kit, that's a really interesting argument - I'll have to read the Foreigner books... You may well be right that Genly didn't have to be quite so dumb.

I agree "Genly is a cipher" - thats why when I read the book I didn't see him as the *central* character. That would be Estraven, of whom, as you point out, we learn much more. Especially since Genly's character development is pretty much entirely due to Estraven, who does all the legwork you expect from an envoy - "constantly trying to get more information and to integrate the information he does have" both on the personal and political level. Maybe the sheer amount of space taken up by Genly invalidates this reading, I don't know.

Mary - thanks for pointing out that essay, I'll have to look it up!

Kit said...

Re: the pronoun thing, maybe you can read it as part of the framing? Genly respects Estraven so much that he automatically gives everyone male pronouns when he writes up the story. It undermines his character development, but given his description of Sovre at the end it's not clear how much character development he had to undermine.

As le Guin says in that essay (for which I second Mary's recommendation), it's still problematic, because you never see anyone doing any feminine things like mothering and thus you tend to just read them as male rather than questioning Genly's pronoun choices. But there is a reasonable Watsonian explanation for it.

Re: Estraven as the central character- huh, that's an interesting reading, and that would certainly explain why Genly sits around like a lump for most of the story- he's the princess in the castle. If that's what le Guin was going for she made a really interesting framing choice, because Genly's obtuseness means he's not a particularly great narrator for that story either. But maybe that was part of the point.

Re Bren: I very, very cautiously recommend the Foreigner books- many people seem to adore them, and the aliens are cool, but when I said Bren was incredibly irritating, I wasn't kidding. Bren is the anti-Genly; if Genly's vice is thinking about his surroundings too little, Bren's is over-analyzing every single thing that happens in a morass of whiny, introspective self-doubt until you want to punch him, or possibly the book, across the room. I like almost all of Cherryh's SF and I find these rough going. Cherryh writes very tight third person narration that's almost stream of consciousness, which normally works fine for her, but in these books it exploded like a cancer. Be forewarned.

Anonymous said...

I wonder how the book would have turned out if LeGuin had written Genly as female?

In principle, it should be possible to imagine this while retaining the structure, and this might show up more precisely what the flaws are. In practice, I have no idea.

Jed said...

Your tastes and mine continue to differ enough that I don't know if this'll be useful, but fwiw:

Le Guin is my favorite writer. I've always loved LHoD, but I last read it in college, so I can't respond to your critiques. I'm curious, though, what you think of The Female Man and Houston, Houston and other feminist sf of that general period--the men, it seems to me, are often pretty negatively portrayed, and I've always assumed those were realistic portrayals even though they sometimes read over-the-top to me.

I didn't like Dispossessed much, but I should probably re-read it. My favorite Le Guin besides LHoD includes:

Four Ways to Forgiveness
Fisherman of the Inland Sea
Voices
Tehanu
one of the Earthsea stories, something like On the High Marsh?
A love story set on O, where four-person marriages are the norm--was this in Fisherman? I forget.
The Shobies' Story (may also be in Fisherman)
several others, but those are the ones that spring to mind.
I think the Mobiles and Stabiles tend to be more interesting and thoughtful than Genly AI in later Hainish stories.

--Jed

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