Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Journalism: Are You Doing It At All?

If you've visited io9 any time in the last week, you'll have noticed banners, sidebar ads, and the revamped title bar all bearing the by-now familiar images of an alien spaceship and an alien-shaped gun range target, which are only part of the gargantuan promotional effort for Neill Blomkamp's upcoming film District 9. The advertising blitz was directly tied to io9's coverage of Comic Con, with most of its con-related articles accompanied by an individual banner reading 'San Diego Comic Con - Presented by District 9' (you can still see the individual banners if you go back a page or two on io9's history, and though the main site's title bar has returned to normal, it's still in its District 9 version on the individual pages of several of the Comic Con-related articles).


If you've visited io9 any time in the last week, you may also have noticed that on July 24th, site editor Annalee Newitz gave District 9, which she saw in an advance press screening at Comic Con, a rave review, and that on Tuesday, news editor Charlie Jane Anders, in an article ranking the con's biggest buzz generators, gave District 9 the top spot.

Commenter oliverkirby, who suggested, albeit not very diplomatically, that District 9 triumphed over James Cameron's Avatar in the latter article because of the advertising buyout, was told by Anders that "that's the most ban-worthy comment we've had in ages." I commented yesterday, saying that the film's sponsorship of io9's Comic Con coverage represented a clear conflict of interests. The comment appeared some time during the night, was replied to by commenter zenpoet, and has since been deleted (comment permalinks don't appear to be working. Click on 'show all comments' at the bottom of the page to see oliverkirby's comment and the reply to mine). Both user accounts are now banned from commenting on the site.

On the one hand, I feel more than a little silly getting worked up about this. To rant that I've lost all respect for io9's journalistic integrity is to suggest that I had any in the first place, which is very much not true. There's a wide spectrum in culture journalism between delivering news and delivering hype, and io9 has always tended towards the latter end. And to be honest, even the most conscientious, independent blog or news site will inevitably bump up against the problem of distinguishing journalism from advertising. Is it alright to accept an ARC from a publisher or editor? Should you go to an advance press screening of a movie you've been eager to see? Should you accept memorabilia and tie-in merchandise from PR agents? For that matter, should you go to Comic Con, which is ground zero for this kind of targeted, swag-laden advertising?

I have different answers to each of these questions, and am by no means of a Jonathan McCalmont-esque purist persuasion. I recognize that it's impossible to interact with the product of an entertainment industry--particularly one like Hollywood, with money to burn--without becoming complicit in the marketing of that product on some level, and that there are many shades of gray when it comes to deciding just how deep that complicity should run. What io9 did, however, does not fall in a gray area. io9's Comic Con coverage was brought to us by District 9, and as part of that coverage io9 informed us that District 9 was "One of the Best Movies of 2009," and that it had won the convention's "buzz wars." There is no way to make this kosher, and if there were, deleting and banning commenters who questioned this choice is clearly not it.

Bear in mind, also, that this isn't some newbie blogger excitedly running a promotional book giveaway from their den because they're just so stoked that a publisher actually talked to little old them. io9 is run by Gawker Media, a half-decade old company running some of the most highly visited blogs on the net. There is no way its editors aren't savvy enough to understand what they were doing. Advertising on the site isn't the equivalent of some blogger activating Google Ads in the hopes of getting a couple of bucks to defray the costs of blogging part-time. Like traditional newspapers, io9 is in the business of selling eyeballs to advertisers. The District 9 sponsorship-rave combo makes it look as though the site has made the transition to selling customers, and only serves to blur the difference--already not that easy to discern--between io9 the science fiction news site and io9 the promotional brochure.

This is not, by the way, to be taken as a comment on the film itself. I've heard good things about District 9, including from sources other than io9, and the trailer is very promising. I'm looking forward to seeing it--it is incredibly irksome to me that I'm leaving Montreal the day before its release--though I have to say that io9's behavior also reflects badly on the film's PR team, who, one would think, were already paid up in the snafu department. I'm even prepared to believe that both the review and the buzz ranking article were written in good faith, but whether or not they were, it simply doesn't matter. You can't review your own sponsor and expect to be taken seriously as a news source, though of course it remains an open question whether that is a state that io9 has ever aspired to.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Fetch My Smelling Salts

The Booker longlist is out, and to my great surprise it contains one novel I've read and liked (The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters, review here), one novel I own and am eager to read (The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt), one novel which I'm very curious about due to high praise from trustworthy reviewers (Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel), and one novel by an author whose previous novel I liked very much (How to Paint a Dead Man by Sarah Hall, returning to respectable literary fiction after a walk on the SF side with The Carhullan Army). This is very nearly unprecedented. The last time I actually cared about the Booker nominees was in 2004 when David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas was nominated, and a heavy favorite to win. Of course, it lost to Brideshead Revisited 2: Revenge of the Tories, and both that upset and subsequent longlists and shortlists have repeatedly reinforced my feeling that the Booker is awarded in some alternate universe of readers who are looking for completely different things from fiction than I am, and I'd gotten used to ignoring the award. Though I wouldn't be surprised if most of the interesting nominees on the longlist got winnowed during the shortlist's creation, the very fact that I'm hoping otherwise is a huge step forward in my relationship with this award.

In less encouraging literary fiction news, Yann Martel is about to break his near decade-long silence with a new novel, coming in 2010. Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether the author of Life of Pi really needed to grace the literary world with another work of fiction, much less get paid three million dollars for it, the actual novel sounds vile: "Like Life of Pi, it will be an allegory involving animals – this time tackling the Holocaust via the medium of a donkey and a howling monkey." It is taking everything I've got not to go Godwin all over this topic, but I honestly had thought that the twee Holocaust fashion had run its course with The Boy in the Striped Pajamas.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Alpha and Omega

Hey, you know what show could really use a bit more online discussion? Dollhouse! "Echo," the original, unaired pilot for Joss Whedon's by no means triumphant return to television, and "Epitaph One," the shelved thirteenth episode of its first season, are now viewable through various and sundry means. Taken together, they paint a very different picture of the show from the one arising from the first season. Not simply because they are both well-written, engaging hours of television--hardly stellar on either count, but certainly head and shoulders above most of the season's conventionally aired episodes--but because they illustrate how wide the gap is between the show Whedon envisioned and tried to create and the show he was allowed to make.

"Echo," which hews closely, but is not identical, to the script leaked soon after the show's television premiere, confirms the suspicion that Fox executives who demanded that Whedon retool it created another "Serenity"/"Train Job" scenario, but in Dollhouse's case the pilot switcheroo (and the reworking of the show itself which apparently accompanied it) had a much more profound effect on the series as a whole. You can work your way back to Whedon's original plans for Firefly simply by unscrambling its episodes, but there is no way that Dollhouse's first season could follow from "Echo" instead of "Ghost." Too much of what was spread out over the entire season was originally condensed into this single hour--Sierra is already an active, Lubov's introduction and the revelation that he is Victor happen in quick succession, Ballard receives Alpha's message about Caroline, then meets and fights with Echo, and is shot for his troubles. This is not an unmitigated good--someone coming to the pilot cold would, I suspect, find it a little too frenetic, and certain characters, Adelle in particular, are lost in the hustle and bustle of moving the plot along--but especially when one considers how glacially the first season advanced towards stories that "Echo" deals with in a single scene, it's hard not to regret the season we might have gotten, which could have taken the story to the next level instead of stretching its first chapter over a dozen hours of television.

"Echo" is also a great deal better than most of the first season at dealing with some of the icky gender issues that Dollhouse has raised, and for whose treatment both the show and Whedon have come under near-constant fire. Sady Doyle, in what is still to my mind the most interesting bit of writing about the show, argues that in Dollhouse Whedon is examining, and dismantling, many of the thoughtless and often paternalistic assumptions that underpinned his previous work, and that the show is a metaphor for the pervasiveness of misogynystic thinking in our culture, of which even the 'strong female characters' of Whedon's previous work are a product. "Echo," even more than the examples she gives, bears this observation out. Its second scene, and our first introduction to Echo (Caroline is almost entirely absent from the pilot, which is frankly all to the good) feels like the dark reflection of Buffy's opening scene, itself famously a skewering of conventions when it reveals that the seemingly helpless girl breaking into the school with her date and starting at noises is actually a predator who devours him once he assures her that they are alone. In "Echo," Echo interferes with a man's attempt to coerce his girlfriend into becoming a party favor for his friends, chases him off contemptuously, and forcefully but not unkindly persuades the intended victim to take control of her life. It's a portrait of feminine strength, and (assuming we'd never seen a promo for the show, heard anything about its premise, or knew that Dushku was its lead) it comes as a shock when we cut away to another engagement and discover that this heroine was simply a figment of someone's imagination, and more of a victim than the girl she rescued.

After "Ghost" aired, I took the concept of the dollhouse as yet another attempt by Whedon to deconstruct prostitution, a la Inara in Firefly, but "Echo" makes it clear that the comparisons others were drawing to River were more apt. Like River, Echo is a superhero whose heroism only becomes possible because of her own destruction, which is instigated without her (in Echo's case, full and uncoerced) consent. But whereas Serenity tries to create a disconnect between the profound violation and mutilation inflicted on River and the abilities that it bestowed upon her, thus allowing us to view her heroism as something inherent to her, for which we can cheer unambiguously, Dollhouse doesn't give us that comforting space. Echo is never shown as a hero without the pilot stressing that that heroism has been achieved by stripping her of her volition. The image of the super-powerful woman is never allowed to distract us from the misogyny of the culture that created her.

"Echo"'s emphasis on free will or its absence has the effect of downplaying the sexual aspect of the dollhouse. My biggest problem with the seemingly endless barrage of criticism directed at Dollhouse for allegedly failing to acknowledge that the dolls are being raped is that it seemed fairly clear to me--especially from those episodes intended to move the overarching story forward like "Man on the Street" or "A Spy in the House of Love"--that in the story Whedon was trying to tell sexual rape was merely a specific instance of the greater act of rape being committed against the actives--the rape of their mind, the complete stripping away of their personality and free will. This is borne out by "Epitaph One," which flashes forward to 2019, a post-apocalyptic future in which doll technology has been weaponized and made wireless. People are stripped of their personalities in the blink of an eye, to become host bodies for the personalities of others, or mindless drones bent on carnage, or simply blank slates, and the characters who discover the dollhouse are darkly amused to learn that "the tech that punk-kicked the ass of mankind was originally designed to create more believable hookers."

This is not to say, however, that the complaints that Dollhouse downplays rape or even uses it for titillation are unfounded. That Whedon's real interest was in telling an SFnal story about the dismantling of the fundamentals of what it means to be human doesn't change the fact that sexual rape is a real thing that happens, and is downplayed, all too often, whereas brainwashing technology isn't, and that using the former as nothing but a prop with which to highlight the awfulness of the latter is problematic to say the least (Doyle's argument that doll technology is a metaphor for misogynistic culture seems weaker in the face of the all-out post-apocalyptic "Epitaph One"). It also doesn't excuse the prurience with which the first season treated Echo's sexual engagements, or the fact that in its standalone episodes in particular the show seemed to be inviting us to tut sanctimoniously over the terrible things being done to Echo while enjoying her sexy shenanigans. Despite "Echo"'s emphasis on depersonalization rather than rape--Echo's engagements in the pilot are functional rather than sexual, and even the date she goes on is primarily intended to give the client someone awesome to show up with at his ex's wedding--it does a better job facing up to the fact that the actives are being raped in a single scene than the first season does in whole episodes, when it shows us Sierra coming back from an engagement, her forehead gashed, her gait unsteady, the shattered expression on her face leaving no question as to what has happened to her. Though it could be argued that this scene is, perhaps intentionally, drawing a distinction between a sexual act which Sierra's imprinted personality clearly didn't want and Echo sleeping with the wedding guest (and though it's more than a little disturbing that Sierra is apparently the go-to character when it comes to rape), this short, wordless scene delivers a more powerful punch than any number of Ballard's lectures.

If "Echo" is the ghost of the show Whedon wanted to write, "Epitaph One" is a glimpse of the story he is trying to get to. Though well done, it is, in itself, not much to get excited over. Its plot feels much like a retread of the mercenary plotline in Whedon's Alien: Resurrection, itself a rehash of many films that came before it, including the original Alien, and which Whedon had already cannibalized when he created Firefly--a rag-tag crew of misfits in an unfriendly future happen upon a piece of extremely dangerous technology and discover that it has been/will be used by the government against its citizens. The episode's opening scenes feel almost like a parody of Mad Max-type films, with the characters spouting dense 'futuristic' jargon at each other--"Green room is open but the party is crashed." "Any wielders?" "Negative. Just butchers and dumb shells, but it's pretty thick."--which only seems more ridiculous when one recalls Whedon's established skill at crafting believable patois. Things settle down a little once the group happens on the dollhouse and the characters are given a little room to stretch out, and the episode has some genuinely surprising twists, but this is still, at its core, a story in which people in a creepy location are picked off one by one by an unseen menace, interspersed with flashbacks to the previous decade that tell us something about the steps that led up to this situation but mostly give us more questions to ponder.

That "Epitaph One" is so striking, then, is mainly to do with the fact that though it is part of the Dollhouse continuity, it also seems to be the beginning of a completely different story, one which shares Dollhouse's premise but uses it for different ends. More than anything else, "Epitaph One"--which ends with the surviving characters leaving the dollhouse, guided by Caroline, to find a way to combat the wiping technology--feels like a pilot for its own show. As Dollhouse's first season finale, it is a profound statement about the story Whedon wants to tell--of the transition from controlled use of doll technology, through greater and greater violations of human agency, and finally to a nightmare realm in which the human consciousness and the human body are distinct, separable entities which one can mix and match. Though it should be noted that the use of flashbacks which reveal the current cast's future has the distinct whiff of Lost about it, and carries the risk of reducing the show's narrative to a quest for the connective tissue between different plot points--how did Claire lose her scars? Why did Victor and Sierra break up? What did Adelle do with Dominic's body?--this is by far a more interesting story than either the personality of the week stories or the season-long investigation which characterized the first season.

We shouldn't, however, be too quick to allow ourselves to be swept up by the double whammy of "Echo" and "Epitaph One." Just as the original pilot casts a light on the compromises Whedon had to make in order to get Dollhouse's first season on the air, the fact that "Epitaph One" was never aired makes it clear that there is serious resistance to the story Whedon wants Dollhouse to be. The finale's title suggests that there will be--or that Whedon planned for there to be--other epitaphs (the tomb is presumably humanity's), possibly revisiting the same characters, possibly flashing forward to other periods. Will they too be quashed? Will "Epitaph One" be cannibalized for scenes and plot points as "Echo" was? How can the second season cater both to viewers who have seen it and those who think of "Omega" as the season finale? It's pretty clear at this point that Dollhouse is by far the strangest, most challenging thing Whedon has ever tried to do, but that ambition doesn't excuse the fact that, whether due to network interference or inability on his part, what he's actually producing is sub-par, and unlikely to get any better, or move towards the strangeness Whedon is after, if Fox has its way. It's hard to believe that Dollhouse will ever be the story Whedon wants it to be, or that it will survive long if it is. Its unaired episodes, which have for the first time piqued my interest in the show, also leave me extremely dubious about its future.

Monday, July 13, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Novel Shortlist, Part 2

[part 1 here]

By the time I got around to reading Cory Doctorow's Little Brother I'd developed something of a complex about the book. That'll happen when every single thing you read about a novel that is, by any yardstick of critical exposure and fannish attention, the genre novel of 2008 only deepens your conviction that you're going to loathe it. Little Brother's positive reviews stress everything that I hate most in fiction--its preachiness, its naked, political didacticism, and the sublimation of plot, character, and all other literary attributes to this end. Its negative reviews question whether Little Brother, whose action is frequently halted so that it can transform into an instruction manual for fomenting revolution, ought even to be called a novel. Having conquered my fear, I'm pleased to report that Little Brother is, in fact, a novel. It has a story, and a rather engaging one at that--following a terrorist attack on San Francisco, teenager Marcus Yallow and his friends are rounded up by Homeland Security for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, held without cause or access to an attorney, interrogated and tortured. When they're released, one of their number is missing, and as DHS tightens its grip on the city Marcus, using his hacker know-how, dedicates himself to undermining it. It's a simplistic plot, to be sure, and carries more than a whiff of the self-righteous fantasy of suffering for a good cause, but it's also an effective one. For all of Little Brother's frequent infodumps, and despite the fact that Marcus's burgeoning political awareness comes neatly packaged in lesson plan-sized chunks, the relevant soundbites all but highlighted for our convenience, it's hard not to get caught up in Marcus's adventure, in the intensity of his hatred for DHS and the risks he runs trying to outsmart them. I found it possible to enjoy Little Brother despite its didacticism and despite the frequent infodumps (which are anyway quite easy to skip, as they contribute nothing to the plot of the novel). What I couldn't get past was Marcus himself.

The consensus seems to be that like Zoe Boutin, Marcus is a thinly veiled version of his own author. Perhaps because I'm not a regular Boing Boing reader, the similarity between Marcus and Doctorow's voices didn't strike me as strongly as it did in Zoe's case, and though some of Marcus's interests seem suspiciously adult, on the whole I think he makes a persuasive teenager. Which is to say that he's an arrogant, self-absorbed dickhead. This actually works in the novel's favor in its early chapters, which contrast Marcus mouthing off to his vice principal (who knows that Marcus has committed a crime but can't prove it) and getting away with it, with Marcus giving the DHS agents who have picked him up in a random sweep some attitude, and ending up sleep-deprived, starving, and lying in his own waste. It's precisely because the first scene depicts Marcus as something of a punk, who could maybe stand to be taken down a peg (I leave it as an exercise to the reader whether Doctorow intended for us to have this reaction), that the second scene, and Marcus's complete disintegration in its wake, come as such a shock. The problems start when Marcus, and his friends Vanessa and Jolu, are released and realize that their other friend Darryl is missing. An incensed Marcus vows:
It happened to me, that's the point. This is me and them, now. I'll beat them, I'll get Darryl. I'm not going to take this lying down.
Which is a rather neat summary of everything that's wrong with Marcus Yallow, and of why it's so completely messed up that Little Brother tries to sell him as a hero. Only moments after realizing that his friend is still in hands of kidnappers and torturers, Marcus makes the entire ordeal about himself. Though he pays lip service to the notion that he's going to rescue Darryl, what's important to Marcus is that he be the one to effect that rescue. Marcus's next move is to convince Vanessa and Jolu to lie to their parents about their kidnapping and Darryl's whereabouts so that Marcus can launch a campaign to get back at the DHS unimpeded (thus allowing Darryl's parents to believe that their son was killed in the bombing). This choice collapses Little Brother's plot into a sort of corollary to the idiot plot--a story that only works if the majority of its characters don't know that anything is happening--but it also paints Marcus as the sort of person who genuinely cares more about avenging a blow to his pride than rescuing his friend. For all its carping about justice and liberty, what Little Brother boils down to is revenge. The DHS shamed Marcus, and took away his power. What he wants, and what all his actions over the course of novel are aimed at achieving, is to humiliate them in retaliation and thus get his power back. That's a normal, understandable reaction, but it is not, as Doctorow would have us believe, an admirable one, and in its own way it is no less reflexive and destructive than that of Marcus's father, whose liberalism collapses into an us vs. them, security first conservatism in the wake of the bombing. Both he and Marcus are lashing out at the people who have hurt them without any real consideration of the consequences of their actions.

Little Brother does, eventually, get back to the issue of rescuing Darryl and the others like him who have been held, by that point for months, without charge or even acknowledgement of their detention, but not before Marcus becomes the founder and leader of a new youth movement and makes it with a hot chick (a Girlfriend so Perfect that it is mind-boggling that any author with even an ounce of self-awareness would allow her out of his sight unedited). When he finally does remember Darryl for more than a few consecutive minutes, Marcus does what he should have done in the first place--tell his and Darryl's parents the truth, and get the media involved. This, however, is not depicted as Marcus coming to his senses and realizing how childish and self-centered he's been, but as a culmination of his heroism, despite the fact that Marcus's anti-establishment activities have done nothing to hasten Darryl's release. Darryl and his suffering--by the time Marcus finds him, he's psychologically shattered--are nothing but a means to Marcus achieving fame, fortune, and the loss of his virginity. For all that it is exciting and engaging, Little Brother is as tone deaf a portrait of social activism as I've ever encountered, and I'm quite baffled by the commonly voiced argument that it is a worthwhile novel because of the lessons it teaches children about liberty and civil rights. Is this really what kids ought to be learning? That it is more important to look cool than to help people, and that real heroes put their own hurt feelings ahead of the well-being of others?

One reason I am glad to have read Little Brother is that having done so finally allows me to draw an informed comparison between it and Anathem. In a lot of ways, Anathem and Little Brother are the same book--the narrative of a clueless, emotionally illiterate teenage boy who becomes embroiled in world-shattering events (in the process gaining status, acclaim, and the love of a cool and sexy girl) and whose narrative is half story, half infodump. Of course, Stephenson lectures where Doctorow preaches, but on the other hand there's so much more lecturing in Anathem than there is preaching, or in fact anything else, in Little Brother, and given that the books share other faults--mainly the flatness of their characters and the utilitarian and often befuddled treatment of women--it does bare pondering why I had such different reactions to them. The reason, I think, is the narrators themselves. Unlike Doctorow's mouthpiece, Anathem's Erasmas is a good kid. Like Marcus, he's spurred to action by the misfortunes of a loved one, his teacher Orolo, but unlike Marcus what interests Erasmas isn't getting even with the people who hurt Orolo but actually doing something to help him. One of my favorite scenes in Anathem comes close to its end, when Erasmas talks to Lodoghir, one of Orolo's philosophical enemies. In their previous meeting, Lodoghir subjected Erasmas to a grueling public humiliation as a way of discrediting Orolo's theories. Marcus Yallow would turn this blow to his pride into the crux of his existence, and dedicate himself to getting back at Lodoghir. Erasmas, realizing that there are greater issues at stake, gets over himself, and when Lodoghir becomes part of the effort to save their planet, he and Erasmas treat each other as allies. They don't like each other and they don't agree with each other, but they both realize that they are not the most important person in their story. For all of Little Brother's this-is-happening-now hysteria, that's something Marcus, and Doctorow, never grasp.

In a way, then, I'm grateful to Cory Doctorow for writing a novel as bad as Little Brother, because it's caused me to regain some of my appreciation for Anathem, which has otherwise proved effervescent. I liked it very much when I read it this winter, but the farther away I get from the novel the more significant its flaws seem, and the harder it becomes to recapture the pleasure of reading it. That pleasure seems to have been rooted in the slow learning of Erasmas's world, an alternate Earth in which the scientifically inclined are sequestered in monastic orders for their, and the general population's, protection. Erasmas's continent-spanning adventure, which is sparked when Orolo is the first to detect an alien ship in planetary orbit, and ends up taking Erasmas into space, is nothing but a delivery method for this world, for Stephenson's potted history of Western philosophy, and for the novel's neat-as-hell final twist (in a way, Stephenson is as fond of Stuff as Stross, but the difference between Anathem's elegance and Saturn's Children's diffuse messiness is that Stephenson's Stuff is introduced with a goal in mind, each infodump a stepping stone on the path to the novel's central revelation). Anathem is a puzzle book, but once the puzzle has been put together there's nothing to stop us noticing just how flimsy its plot and characters are. Ultimately, Anathem really is a more humane, more intelligent, more interesting, significantly less preachy version of Little Brother, but that's not exactly high praise.

Meanwhile, there's a persuasive argument for favoring Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book for the win. I was underwhelmed by Gaiman's latest, a children's novel which retells The Jungle Book with a twist by having its protagonist, Nobody Owens, raised by the ghostly inhabitants of a graveyard he flees to after his parents' murder. Like most of Gaiman's work, The Graveyard Book is polished and technically superb, but it is also somewhat weightless--beyond the neat central concept, there's really not much substance to the book. It's a cute, well done novel, but far from Gaiman's best and with nothing to distinguish it as deserving of a major award. That, at least, was my feeling last winter, before the Hugo odyssey began. Taken alongside the other nominees, The Graveyard Book starts to look very good indeed, if only because Gaiman is alone on the shortlist in actually having written a novel--a work of fiction whose primary concern is the telling of a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, and the exploration of its characters' personalities and inner life. (Is it a coincidence, one wonders, that The Graveyard Book is the only fantasy on the ballot?) What's more, unlike Scalzi, Doctorow, and Stephenson, Gaiman actually writes persuasive children, or for that matter, persuasive people. Gaiman's characters, and his world, have depth, whereas all the other nominated novels are nothing but surface--flat, unrealistic characters, and settings created to make a point or cobbled together from other, better writers' scraps. The sheer pleasure of immersing oneself in a world that feels emotionally real is almost enough to make up for the fact that Gaiman does so little with that world.

Almost, but not quite. In the end, I placed Anathem above The Graveyard Book in my Hugo ballot. Though both novels are flawed, I think that The Graveyard Book's flaws would come to seem more irksome in later years if Gaiman were to win. It's the better novel from a technical standpoint, but Anathem is the one that does something new and different and uniquely SFnal, as well as being the novel that engaged me emotionally when I first read it. If I had managed to read all five nominated novels before July 3rd, I still would have voted No Award in the third slot (followed, in case you're interested, by Zoe's Tale, then possibly another, more emphatic No Award vote, then Little Brother and Saturn's Children). I think Anathem has a good chance of winning, though Doctorow and Gaiman also have strong fanbases among Hugo voters, and both of their novels have had a lot of buzz (Scalzi, meanwhile, is a long shot, and Stross probably doesn't have a chance). It's hard to work up much pleasure at that thought, however, as this year's ballot has me rooting against the nominees I dislike rather than for the ones I like. I think it's safe to say that my first experience reading all five Hugo nominated novels has not been a positive one. I'm going to hold on to the hope that 2008 was an aberration, both in the quality of books published and in the tastes of the Hugo voters, but I'm suddenly very pleased that this experiment in being a Hugo voter is unlikely to recur for some time.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The 2009 Hugo Awards: The Best Novel Shortlist, Part 1

I have a shocking confession to make: I did not read all of the best novel Hugo nominees before the July 3rd voting deadline. I have an even more shocking confession to make: this was not because I didn't have the time to read these novels, but because of a lack of inclination. I'd read the two nominated novels I was actually interested in--Neal Stephenson's Anathem and Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book--long before the nominations were announced, but whether because of previous experiences with their author, or because of reactions from people whose opinion I trust, or because of the impression I'd formed of their topic and tone, none of the remaining three nominees--Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi, Saturn's Children by Charles Stross, and Little Brother by Cory Doctorow--appealed to me. I'm used to grumbling through Hugo reading when it comes to the short fiction categories, but committing myself to three novels I had not the least expectation of enjoying was a bit more than I could stomach, and if it weren't for this blog and the commitment I'd made on it to write about the best novel nominees, I probably wouldn't have made it through.

I wish I could say that at least some of these novels surprised me, if only because I'd come to them with such low expectations, but though one or two turned out to be not nearly as bad as I'd feared, on the whole this year's best novel shortlist is really, really disappointing. I'd happily trade at least three, if not four, of the nominees, and even the remaining novel--the only one I consider remotely worthy of the award--is deeply flawed. Perhaps the most notable attribute of this year's best novel ballot is how thoroughly dominated it is by YA genre fiction. Zoe's Tale, Little Brother, and The Graveyard Book were written and marketed for the YA audience, and Anathem, though ostensibly an adult novel, is also written in the YA mode, centering around a teenage protagonist who finds himself at the epicenter of a world-altering event, and ends up becoming a hero. In general, this seems to me like a reasonable reflection of the state of the genre. The shift towards YA-oriented writing has been several years in the making, and a sizable portion of the most talked-about genre books of the last few years have been geared, at least in theory, towards young readers. It follows, therefore, that the Hugo would also be dominated by these novels.

Though it might be tempting to conclude that the shoddy state of this year's shortlist is the result of the infantilization of the genre, to my mind the problem isn't that YA books are being nominated, but that the wrong YA books have been. How much stronger would this year's best novel shortlist have been if Terry Pratchett's Nation, Margo Lanagan's Tender Morsels, or even Allegra Goodman's The Other Side of the Island had been on it? (This is not even to mention books that have received a great deal of critical attention, but which I haven't yet read myself, such as Patrick Ness's The Knife of Never Letting Go, Kristin Cashore's Graceling, or Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games.) In adult publishing, we have Ursula K. Le Guin's Lavinia, Iain M. Banks's Matter, David Anthony Durham's Acacia, and Felix Gilman's Thunderer. Understand, there isn't a single one of these novels that I consider exceptional, and I have serious problems with most of them--for all that I think that the Hugo voters were asleep at the switch, there's no denying that 2008 was simply not a very strong year for genre novels--but each and every one of them would have made this year's best novel ballot stronger, and, quite frankly, less embarrassing.

Zoe's Tale by John Scalzi is a companion volume to The Last Colony, itself the third volume in Scalzi's series of novels about John Perry, and preceded by Old Man's War and The Ghost Brigades. Coming to Zoe's Tale cold, as I did, makes for an odd reading experience not only because I haven't read the previous novels but because Zoe's Tale itself is a story that takes place in the interstices of another story, with which I'm unfamiliar. Though Scalzi goes to some lengths to clue newbie readers into the events of The Last Colony (one assumes that the novel was intended, at least in part, as a introduction to the Old Man's War universe for young readers), it's easy to guess where he's eliding over scenes which in the adult novel were fleshed out, and where he's relying on the reader's familiarity with The Last Colony. The result, though nominally self-contained, feels very much like half a story, but what's more, it creates the impression that The Last Colony was itself an incomplete story. As Scalzi notes in his afterword, he was inspired to write Zoe's Tale because of complaints from readers of The Last Colony who felt that that novel ended with an unearned last minute save--Zoe turning up in the nick of time with just the right alien technology to save the colony. Zoe's Tale does tell the story of how Zoe was able to achieve this, but it's hard not to feel that we're reading Scalzi's make-up work, his retroactive justification for a piece of lousy plotting that ought not to have made it out of the editing stage, for which he's been rewarded with a Hugo nomination.

Zoe is Zoe Boutin-Perry, the fifteen year old adopted daughter of John Perry and Jane Sagan, who in The Last Colony are asked to lead the colonization effort of an uninhabited planet. On their arrival, the colonists discover that the planet is in a zone disputed by an alien alliance which has made--and made good on--the threat to violently uproot any human colonies. The colonists are therefore not only living under the threat of imminent death, but have to maintain strict radio silence and do without any EM-generating technology for fear of giving away their location. This is a dubious premise to begin with (why, despite knowing about the EM restrictions before dispatching the colony ship, and despite the existence among the colonists of a contingent of space-Amish whose equipment is purely mechanical, is the majority of the colony's material computer-controlled?), and it only becomes more so when it turns out that the colonial government is not simply stupid but actually evil, attempting to orchestrate the destruction of the colony as a means of starting a war (this, however, may be a complaint best laid at The Last Colony's feet). Zoe's Tale only becomes closely involved with this story towards its end, when it gets to work plugging the hole in The Last Colony's resolution, and most of its action is concerned with describing Zoe's acclimation to her new home and her coming of age under extremely unusual circumstances. Far from being an average colonist, Zoe is a messianic figure to an alien race, whose peace treaty with humanity stipulates that she be accompanied constantly by two alien bodyguards, who also report on her every move to their entire race (which means that the colonial government's decision to place Zoe on a colony they plan to sacrifice to an invading alien horde makes perfect sense). The crux of Zoe's Tale is Zoe's struggle to decide just to what degree she's justified in taking advantage of the aliens' devotion to her, and whether she's willing to continue in her role as their goddess despite having done nothing to earn it.

Zoe's Tale is, therefore, a novel driven by its narrator's interiority and her personal growth, and though Scalzi is to be commended for stretching himself beyond the space-adventure format of the Old Man's War books, in trying to write a character-driven novel he's bitten off a bit more than he can chew. Zoe is entirely unbelievable as a teenager--too self-possessed, and all too apt to spout platitudes about teenage behavior that make her sound like nothing so much as an adult talking about teenagers from a vast distance of years. Actually, what Zoe really sounds like is Scalzi himself--but for its events, her narrative reads like your average Whatever entry, and her voice and sense of humor are all but indistinguishable from his. This is not entirely a bad thing--Scalzi's sardonic humor is a big part of his blog's appeal, and in Zoe's Tale it translates into several extremely funny sequences. As unrealistic as Zoe is, she is more often amusingly unrealistic than annoyingly so, and the novel moves at a fast enough clip that her, and Scalzi's, tendency to become too pleased with their own cleverness is rarely given time to grate. The novel's emotional climaxes are blatantly telegraphed and arrive with all the subtlety of a meteor impact, but they never fail to hit their mark, and despite there never being any real doubt on this count, by the end of the novel you do find yourself rooting for Zoe to take charge of her own life. Zoe's Tale is an enjoyable novel, and so unassuming that to stress its flaws--the silly premise, the unbelievable narrative voice, the predictable and manipulative plot--feels a little like kicking a puppy. If I were discussing it in any other context but its having been nominated as one of the five best genre novels published in the last year I'd probably be happy to cut it some slack. But it has been nominated for the Hugo, which is to say that someone took that puppy and entered it in the Kentucky Derby. Whether or not that's fair to the puppy, it sure as hell isn't fair to the people who came to see a race.

Saturn's Children by Charles Stross is the only novel on the shortlist written for and about adults (though one might argue that its central character arc, which sees the narrator from a meek, unquestioning acceptance of her fate to self-directing kickassness, has something of the YA about it). So wouldn't you know, the main character is a sexbot. Freya is one of a line of robots whose emotional template was designed for sex and, in the right circumstances, for complete, slavish infatuation. She's doomed, however, to spend her life in unfulfilled loneliness, as it's been more than a hundred years since the humanity died out. Freya and her fellow sexbots and servants are a society of slaves, still hard-wired to serve an extinct master race and struggling to cope with freedom. The premise, of course, borrows a lot from Asimov and makes several overt references to Heinlein, most particularly Friday, but Stross's emphasis on agency and free will is all his own.

If Zoe Boutin is an unbelievable teenager, Freya is an unbelievable person. Her narrative voice amounts to little more than a litany of the events she experiences--mostly crisscrossing journeys across the solar system, as she first becomes the employee of a shadowy cabal attempting to smuggle biological organisms into the inner planets, and then the target of several factions who want control of a fabled reconstituted human--with no sense of a personality underlying them. This is partly in keeping with the novel's depiction of Freya as an unformed person, who still defines herself through her model's purpose and her inability to fulfill it, but Stross's method of infusing Freya with personality is for her to absorb the memories of an older and more experienced model, who was employed as a spy and an assassin. So that not only does Freya lose what little self she once had, the person she becomes is spy thriller cliché, indistinguishable from the hundreds of timid girls turned tough who came before her. Other characters in the novel suffer from a similar flatness, which is compounded by the presence of different yet psychologically identical iterations of the same model. Again, this is clearly an extension of Stross's premise, but it amounts to an emotional deadness in the novel's heart, with no characters emerging as fully-formed people for us to care about or even take an interest in.

It's not simply the characters' sameness that breeds a deadness in Saturn's Children. Stross's tendency to simply fling Stuff at the readers--sociology, physics, fashion, eroticism, philosophy, architecture, a couple of daring escapes and fight scenes--all viewed through Freya's undiscerning, unfiltered gaze, leaves the novel all but shapeless. For a novel that is clearly informed by the thriller, Saturn's Children is too flabby, too weighted down by all this Stuff, to work. The thread of plot is almost impossible to discern, and with Freya such a passive protagonist for most of the story the novel feels like nothing more than a lot of events strung together. Between Freya's flatness and the novel's flabbiness, it's hard to tell where the twists are supposed to come, the emotional climaxes, the funny bits. I think, for example, that Stross expected me to be surprised when Freya, a couple hundred pages into the novel, copped to being a robot. I wasn't, of course, because I'd known the novel's premise going in, but in most novels you can tell where a revelation was supposed to be even if you see it coming. In Saturn's Children I'm just not sure. There's no shift in the novel's tone, in Freya's voice, in the things she says or doesn't say--beyond actually saying the word robot--to signal that this was supposed to be a major turning point in the story, or if there are they have been so thoroughly snowed under by Stross's beloved Stuff that I can't make them out. And yet the word itself is so heavily signposted that I can't help but wonder if I was supposed to be shocked by it. Similarly, I think that Saturn's Children was intended as a raunchy sex comedy, and there are a few lines and scenes that drew a chuckle out of me, but there's so little sense of the narrative's ups and downs that in most cases I couldn't pick up on the laugh cues until they'd sailed past.

Saturn's Children is littered with moments like these, in which you stare at the text and wonder 'was I supposed to feel something here?' It's a novel that turns its readers into robots. It concludes with a climax so anticlimactic that I was shocked to turn the page and find myself confronted with an epilogue, but even worse than that, I have no idea what Stross was trying to accomplish with it. There's clearly a dialogue here with Asimov and Heinlein's ideas about personhood and the feasibility and morality of intelligent, mechanical servants, but beyond the obvious point that slavery is wrong and free will is good (and what I assume is a corollary point about religion, as Freya's devotion to humans is frequently described in terms that recall religious ecstasy), I'm really not sure what Stross was trying to say.

[to be continued]

Sunday, July 05, 2009

The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Sarah Waters and I have had our ups and downs, mostly due to the fact that I read her first three novels in reverse order of their publication--from the twisty, superb Fingersmith, through the intense but punishing Affinity, to the borderline unreadable Tipping the Velvet. However unfairly--since, after all, Waters had been improving as a writer--I found myself reluctant to go any further with her, and gave her fourth novel, The Night Watch, a pass. Positive responses to it, as well as the slow healing of the wounds left by Tipping the Velvet, persuaded me to make a stab at her latest effort, The Little Stranger, and I'm glad I did. Fingersmith remains my favorite of Waters's novels, and I have serious problems with Stranger, but there's no denying that it is both absorbing and intense--shockingly so, given the ordinariness of its setting and the matter-of-fact way in which its events are reported. Even more importantly, it demonstrates--as the first three novels would have, had I not had the misfortune to read them in the wrong order--that Waters is not content to rest on her laurels, either in her settings or in her style. She's an author who is testing the boundaries of her talent and continually complicating the kind of stories she writes, with results that are, at the very least, fascinating to observe.

What I find interesting about Waters is that she's clearly a writer who is torn between her romantic and realistic impulses. Her first and third novels are driven by the vast array of pulpy tropes that make up the romantic novelist's toolkit: the babies switched at birth, mistaken identities, wicked guardians, and false confinement to a mental asylum in Fingersmith; the sequence of evil, unworthy, or unsuitable lovers the heroine must traipse through before she meets her one true love in Tipping the Velvet. In between these two novels, however, Waters wrote Affinity, a claustrophobic psychological novel which concerned itself almost exclusively with its narrator, Margaret's, troubled state of mind, and whose events and settings were stiflingly mundane. Affinity's plot is essentially Margaret moving back and forth between the cramped, airless house in which she is profoundly unhappy, and the drab, institutional prison where she visits female inmates, as she falls deeper into the delusion that one of the inmates--who is clearly manipulating her--loves her, and draws closer and closer to ruin and suicide. Though Waters's descriptions are undeniably effective, I found Affinity to be a profoundly mean-spirited novel, the literary equivalent of a splatter film. I felt that it expected me to enjoy the intensity with which Waters described Margaret's unraveling--certainly there was no room for pity, only a cold disdain, in her descriptions of the lonely and pathetic Margaret--and couldn't help but wonder if like so many artists before her, Waters had mistaken ugliness for realism.

The Little Stranger is a partly successful fusion of these two impulses. It's a ghost story mixed with the story of the decline of the British upper class, a sort of cross between Brideshead Revisited and The Haunting of Hill House. It achieves its romantic effect--the ratcheting dread experienced by the inhabitants of Hundreds Hall--through mundane means, and describes that dread and its causes through the eyes of a thoroughly mundane and rational man. In 1947, Doctor Faraday (whose first name is never revealed to us) is called to the dilapidated Hundreds Hall to treat a servant. Once the home of one of the county's most illustrious families, both the house and its inhabitants--the widowed Mrs. Ayres and her grown-up children Roderick and Caroline--have fallen into disrepair. The changes in economic reality and attitudes towards class wrought by the two world wars mean that the Ayreses no longer have the financial wherewithal to field the army of servants needed to keep their house from falling apart and themselves in the manner to which they had been accustomed. Faraday finds them living in genteel squalor--Mrs. Ayres clinging to the affectations of the squire's wife even though she has no one left to condescend to, Roderick faltering under the cumulative weight of lingering shell-shock and the stress of keeping the failing estate afloat, and Caroline, cursed with a plain face and a decent brain, desperate to get out.

Faraday, whose mother was once a servant at Hundreds and who carries a chip on his shoulder for that, as well as for his own confused class feelings--his working class parents worked themselves into an early grave in order to put him through medical school--is nevertheless drawn to the family, becoming their confidant and benefactor, offering advice, free medical care, and the occasional luxury item in exchange for a half-hearted acceptance as something between a servant and a member of the family. Dan Hartland calls Faraday's confused response to the Ayreses an expression of England's continuing love-hate relationship with its upper class, which is no doubt true, but not having experienced this ambivalence first hand I was mainly reminded of other novels that toy with it--Brideshead Revisited, of course, but also The Go-Between, The Line of Beauty, and Beware of Pity. Like the protagonists of those novels, Faraday is a man who has had to discard his origins in order to advance in life, and now finds himself without a sense of self. He's drawn to the Ayreses not because of their privilege and wealth--which they no longer possess--but because of the unshakable certainty with which they regard their place in the world. That same certainty, however, renders the Ayreses impermeable, a self-contained unit which Faraday can observe and occasionally interact with, but to which he can never truly belong. The only way for Faraday to gain admittance to the family is for it to be torn down.

And torn down it is. One by one, the Ayreses fall by the wayside, undone by poverty and their inability to cope with their reduced circumstances. As, of course, we knew they must, as Waters promises in the novel's opening paragraph, in which Faraday recalls a childhood visit to Hundreds, which even then seemed to him "like an ice ... just beginning to melt in the sun." It is precisely this certainty of the family's doom, however, that recalls the mean-spiritedness of Affinity. The whole point of the novel seems to be for us to observe the disintegration of a family whose destruction is assured from the get-go. Because Waters continues to grow more subtle and more sophisticated with each novel she writes, The Little Stranger is not nearly as uncomfortable a read as Affinity. Several off-ramps appear on the family's path towards doom, making that doom seem less inevitable, and the obvious homage to Brideshead Revisited and its ilk softens the sting of the Ayreses' failure to take advantage of these opportunities, a failure which seems less like a choice on Waters's part and more like keeping faith with her literary antecedents. Nevertheless, there is no denying that the novel's emotional charge is derived mostly from waiting for the next axe to fall, for the next calamity to afflict the Ayreses and claim another one of their number.

Far from being tragic, this anticipation of calamity is the source of the novel's pleasure--the pleasure one feels at the thrills and scares of a horror movie. It's through the romantic, ghost story aspect of the novel that the Ayreses' destruction is related, as the family experiences hauntings and supernatural events which rattle the self-assurance that their real-world troubles had left untroubled. If, in the past, the Ayreses had been able to retreat to Hundreds Hall and pretend that the world hadn't changed around them, now the house itself seems to have turned against them. All of which is not to say that The Little Stranger is a genre novel--indeed it is determinedly, deliberately ambiguous about its genre, offering a rational explanation immediately alongside each supposed supernatural happening. For that matter, the specific type of supernatural phenomenon at work is never settled upon, with several different explanations suggested--is Hundreds haunted by the ghost of Mrs. Ayres's oldest daughter? Does it house a poltergeist? Is the emotionally unstable Roderick a firestarter? Does the teenage servant Betty have telekinetic powers? Is Caroline unconsciously punishing the family that has immured her in her childhood home?--but never enough 'evidence' to support any of them over the others.

To a genre reader, this ambiguity seems a little like the coyness of a mainstream writer not quite willing to admit having written a genre novel (though given her pulpy leanings this may be an unfair charge to lay at Waters's feet). I certainly found it less effective than in novels like The Haunting of Hill House, which like The Little Stranger leave us uncertain as to whether the haunted character is truly haunted or insane. In these more overt genre works, the uncertainty is used to bring us into the main character's fractured headspace. The Little Stranger, however, uses it as a distancing device. Faraday being so entirely rational means that the dilemma is just that--two competing theories, each with evidence for and against it--instead of the mingling of rationality and horror that make Hill House or The Turn of the Screw so effective.

That said, it is probably the case that Waters wasn't trying to emulate The Haunting of Hill House or any other straight up ghost story, for all that she may be recalling them, and that the distancing she creates through Faraday's mundane, unimaginative worldview is quite deliberate. Dan Hartland's reading that the supernatural elements of the novel are both a smokescreen and a metaphor for the more mundane attacks against the Ayreses and their class--as another character says to Faraday, what's sucking the life out of the house is the labor government and its deliberate strategy of taxing and regulating the upper class out of existence--is more generous than mine and quite likely closer to what Waters intended with the novel. It doesn't, however, change the fact that Waters takes advantage of an ambiguity she has no intention of supporting. None of the supernatural explanations for the Ayreses' predicament--not even the supposed revelation of the novel's closing paragraph--truly hold water, and in the end it's hard not to feel that Waters was simply wasting our time, using the ghost story--and the question of whether the novel actually is a ghost story--to gussy up a too-familiar Brideshead retelling, then tossing it by the wayside when it's no longer useful.

I've touched here mostly on my complaints against The Little Stranger, which is unfair because, as I said at the beginning of this review, I did find the novel nearly unputdownable. There's a lot here that's worth reading for--Faraday himself, with his complete lack of self-awareness and mixed up class prejudices, is a masterful example of the unreliable narrator, and his descriptions of the increasing calamities at Hundreds are a fine demonstration of the power of an affectless, boring and personality-free voice to create tension and horror. It's what's left when the last page is turned and the effect of the novel's romantic elements is allowed to subside--the Brideshead homage, the discussion of class in post-war Britain--that is leaving me, if not cold, then a little put off. Though The Little Stranger restored my faith in Waters as a writer, I can't help but feel that it is a mean novel. It may not be a ghost story, but it is uncomfortably reminiscent of the kind of horror novel that gives its genre a bad name--the kind that expects us to turn off empathy and enjoy the suffering of others. I can't help but feel that between this extreme and Evelyn Waugh's fawning lament for the death of the British upper class there is a more sensible, more compassionate middle ground, but Sarah Waters hasn't found it yet.

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

Here's a conundrum for you to chew on: is a derivative work worthwhile if it's successful in its derivation? Felix Gilman's debut novel, Thunderer, gives the unmistakable (but, it must be noted, perhaps mistaken) impression of having been written as a result of its author reading China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, turning the last page and saying 'I can do that.' And the thing is, he can, and has. Thunderer recalls Perdido Street Station (and to a lesser extent The Scar) in its plot, characters, setting, and most of all its tone, but it also recalls its quality. Like Perdido, it is a sprawling, multithreaded narrative which coalesces into a rip-roaring adventure. Like Perdido, it is the story of a place--a city--which is illuminated through its inhabitants, both natives and newcomers, and the story of how those people are changed--elevated, broken, or simply made different--by that city. Like Perdido, it describes a society in a moment of flux, whose weaker members are on the brink of achieving real social progress, and the forces arrayed against that change. Like Perdido, it features magic being transmuted into science, quantified and made ordinary, but also still so much stranger and more dangerous than the people investigating it realize. There is, in short, very little here that hasn't already been done, but Gilman carries off his own iteration so well that it seems--especially when one considers that Miéville himself has long since moved on to other things--more than a little churlish to complain about his unoriginality.

All of this is basically to say that Gilman--who is nominated for the Campbell award this year, and is certainly my choice for the win--is a very good writer, and wastes no time in proving it. Thunderer's first chapter is a panoramic introduction to the novel's main characters as they experience the event that sets each of them on their path throughout the novel--Arjun, a traveler arriving in the city of Ararat; Holbach,a scientist getting ready to conduct the most important experiment of his career; Jack, a teenager preparing to escape from the workhouse in which he's spent most of his young life; Captain Arlandes, about to experience the defining tragedy of his life--but it is also an intensely kinetic scene. The narrative swoops in and out of the lives of the different characters because it is following the Bird, one of Ararat's divinities which is gracing the city with a visitation. Holbach's experiment is an attempt to capture some of the bird's magic and use it to his, or rather his patron, the Countess Ilona's, ends--to raise her warship the Thunderer into the sky, thus cementing her dominance over the city. Gilman's description of the Bird's arrival and Holbach's experiment is suffused with motion and activity, and at points quite overpowering (it also put me in mind of several similar scenes in Miéville's novels, most particularly the capture of the avanc in The Scar).
The Bird curves itself in space toward the balloon, leisurely, as if curious about this bright clumsy challenger. Then it rushes suddenly forward, its presence sharpening into a line across the sky. The balloon leaps and the Countess's men are dragged from their feet and let the ropes slip from their burnt and bloody hands. Lucia shrieks. The Bird soars close past the balloon and the feathered cloud following the Bird engulfs it for a second. Half obscured by the flock, the balloon seems to turn itself inside out, and for a moment it becomes a great pair of wings, sixty feet of azure taffeta spread out on the wind. The wings beat once, then the fabric falls slowly to the ground, curling smokily in the air. The basket drops, not slowly. The little menagerie of birds in the basket takes flight, their wings whole again, and joins the god's flock.
(It is perhaps worth noting that all of the characters mentioned here are men. Though there are women in the novel, they tend to stand out less. The Countess is more an éminence grise than a character. More central than her is Holbach's attorney Olympia, who is mentioned obliquely in this chapter but not introduced for several more. She, however, is the only main character without a trajectory of her own, and spends the novel advancing the agendas of others and getting caught in their wake.)

The main plotline of Thunderer reads very much like Perdido Street Station retold with Yagharek as the protagonist. A newcomer from a foreign culture arrives in the city looking for help--Arjun is a devotee of the god known as the Voice, whose presence has receded from the monastery at which he's spent his life. He's come to Ararat, the city of gods and a sort of gravity well for divinity, in the hopes of finding it again. To this end he approaches a scientist who is associated with a bohemian, freethinking set--Holbach's efforts on the Countess's behalf fund the Atlas, the definitive portrait of Ararat through which its compilers hope to expose the city's workings and spur its inhabitants to improve on them. This group is a target of the city's authoritarian rulers--in Ararat, mainly the censors who view any attempt at cartography as heresy, but also the ruling powers of the city who fear the change the Atlas might bring about. The scientist's investigations (or, in Thunderer, Arjun's pursuit of the leads Holbach offers him) inadvertently unleash a dangerous being into the city, which menaces its population and finally threatens its very existence, placing both the scientist and the newcomer at odds with the city's rulers even as they scramble to save it. A secondary plotline follows Jack after his escape and draws on a different literary source, as Jack, whom the Bird has gifted with the power of flight, becomes an emblem of freedom and gathers around himself a band of similarly lost boys who spend their days thumbing their noses at authority. The blatant Peter Pan reference seems to be the only reason for the existence of a third plotline, revolving around Arlandes as he captains the Thunderer and sinks further and further into depression following the death of his wife during its raising. Despite showing us Arlandes's growing detachment and his willingness to perform greater acts of cruelty on the Countess's behalf, his story ultimately fizzles out, and the character seems to exist mainly to act as the Captain Hook to Jack's Peter.

Of course the true main character of the novel is the city itself. Gilman has the knack of making Ararat seem not only believable--complete with different neighborhoods, each with its own flavor and social set, theaters and music halls, restaurants and cafes, businesses and warehouses, a vast array of temples and places of worship, parks, prisons, statues and landmarks--but incomprehensibly vast. This vastness is brought home by Holbach's Atlas, which, in its fourth edition and comprising dozens of volumes, still can't capture the true form of the city, which anyway changes faster than it can be described. Though most of the characters in the novel make some attempt to shape Ararat, the sheer size and complexity of the city means that their efforts have chaotic, unpredictable effects, and even the most powerful characters such as Ilona and her political enemies find themselves powerless before the mass of the city and its collective will. As in Perdido Street Station, it is Ararat's survival that is the novel's primary concern. The monster Arjun releases into the city--a demented river god who spreads disease and turns people into zombies--is a threat not because it kills people but because those deaths threaten to send the remaining population away, to turn Ararat into a ghost town. Like Perdido, Thunderer ends with its main characters dispersed, damaged, and for the most part frustrated in their goals, but the ending is nevertheless a satisfying one because Ararat has survived.

Gilman's one original touch in Thunderer is the god angle. Ararat is home to a thousand divinities, each with its own followers and places of worship, and each with its own irrational affect on the city--the Spider, whose followers receive cryptic instructions to change their lives according to a master plan they can't see; Tiber, a pillar of fire; The Spirit of the Lights, whose appearances blind some of those who see it, and leave others incapable of seeing anything "but colors and glitter and star-blaze." It is precisely this proliferation of gods, however, that leaves Ararat's natives intolerant of Arjun's single-minded devotion to a god who has abandoned him. They view it as a selfish obsession, an addiction, and Arjun himself begins to question his devotion after his encounter with Typhon, the river god he inadvertently infects with humanity and turns into a monster. The loss of self Arjun experiences with Typhon is so similar to his single, life-changing spiritual experience with the Voice that he begins to question his faith, and to wonder whether the gods aren't simply, as Holbach describes them, forces of nature, to be studied like the tides or the weather.

It's an interesting approach, but it feels underdeveloped. Though Gilman contrasts Arjun's devotion with Holbach's scientific approach, there's very little comparison between Arjun and believers within the city, so that the notion, raised several times throughout the novel, that Arjun is fundamentally different from a native of Ararat because he isn't accustomed to a profusion of gods is left unexplored. Gilman also doesn't do enough to distinguish the Typhon from any other kind of supernatural menace--for example, Slake Moths--and only introduces, but doesn't really explore, the idea that it's the touch of humanity that turns the god monstrous and makes it loathe its disciples. There are a lot of bald statements when it comes to religious attitudes--mainly Holbach, Olympia, and even Jack's belief that Arjun's faith is a selfish addiction--but very little explanation of them, or exploration of their subtleties. Ultimately, the religious theme is overpowered by the novel's plot. By the end of the story, when Thunderer's plotlines tie into one another and become the single story of Arjun and Jack's last stand against the Typhon, the monster's divinity feels almost incidental.

A sequel to Thunderer, Gears of the City, was published late last year. The brief excerpt from it which appears in Thunderer, and its plot description, give me hope that it both moves away from established Miévillian plots and does more with Ararat's unique characteristics--not only the proliferation of gods but what appear to be gateways to alternate dimensions or past and future versions of the city, through which Arjun learns to navigate. Whether or not it does, I think that Thunderer establishes Gilman as an author to watch. It is, despite being derivative, an excellent, exciting, and extremely well-written novel. Though I certainly hope that Gilman goes on to make his own unique mark on the genre, he's done enough to earn my attention and wholehearted recommendation.