Saturday, May 28, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, May 23-27

This week's reviews kick off with Matt Cheney's fascinating take on Gary K. Wolfe's essay collection Evaporating Genres, in which Matt discusses his own expectations from reviewing and criticism, and the difficulties those expectations caused him in appreciating Wolfe's book.  Duncan Lawie is pleased with Aliette do Bodard's Harbinger of the Storm, the sequel to Servant of the Underworld, which is set in the same universe as the Hugo-nominated novelette "The Jaguar House, in Shadow."  Nader Elhefnawy considers David Wingrove's Son of Heaven, a prequel volume to the Chung Kuo alternate history sequence, and finds it less exciting than the books that follow it and touched with a vein of Sinophobia that they managed to ameliorate.

Friday, May 27, 2011

The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Novelette Shortlist

If the short story ballot feels like a snapshot of the genre short fiction scene in 2010, the same year's novelette ballot seems deliberately retro.  All but one of its stories are brimming with classic SF tropes--long-haul space voyages, Martian colonization, alien encounters, toolshed astronauts--and even more than that, with nostalgia for a time when those tropes dominated science fiction.  I wish I could say that that nostalgia is leavened by a sophisticated handling of characterization, and an understanding of some of the pernicious assumptions that underpin Golden Age SF, but unfortunately, with only one exception, that's not the case.  The result is a ballot that feels regressive and at time uncomfortably exclusionary.

Nebula winner Eric James Stone's "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" is a story that seems of a piece with stories like Michael A. Burstein's "Sanctuary" (Nebula nominee, best novella, 2006) and Mike Resnick's "Article of Faith" (Hugo nominee, best short story, 2009).  Like them, it's a story told from the point of view of a religious officiant in the future (in Burstein and Stone's stories, on a space station) who must decide what to do when an alien (or in Resnick's case, a robot) becomes a member of their church, and how to reconcile alien culture, human incomprehension of that culture, and religious edicts.  Another point of similarity between the three pieces is that they are all very, very bad, their indifferent prose and cardboard-thin characters outshone only by their dodgy politics.  The narrator in "Leviathan" is the leader of the Mormon mission on a space station in the sun, where plasma-based aliens called swales have been discovered.  Much to the aggravation of the local anthropologists, the Mormons have been proselytizing to the swales, and when the narrator discovers that swale society has no concept of bodily autonomy and that smaller, weaker members are routinely raped by larger ones, he sets out to try to convert the largest and most powerful of the swales.

What's wrong with "Leviathan" isn't just that it's badly written and that all its characters seem to have been created either to spout talking points (the titular Leviathan just happens to say something that echoes the book of Job) or act as straw men (the anthropologist who, against her better judgment, ends up helping the narrator, and along the way lobs softballs at him and acts like a stereotype of a disdainful atheist; interestingly, the one good point she makes--pointing out that the only reason the Mormon swales care that they're being raped is that their new religion has taught them to view sex as a sin--is completely ignored by both the narrator and the story).  Worse than these is the fact that it's not a story so much as a thought experiment that posits a situation in which none of the negative associations of Christian missionary work are applicable--the swales are aliens so there's no issue of racism or colonialism; they appear to have no culture or religion of their own for Christianity to destroy; they're technologically powerful so the role of missionaries in enabling slavery and economic exploitation is negated; the swales' leader is cruel and inconsiderate of her followers, some of whom want a change, so the missionaries aren't barging into a situation where they're not wanted--in order to lead to the conclusion that, under these conditions, it's totally OK to impose Christian values on aliens.  This is a little like the way that creators of war movies have been gravitating towards the alien invasion premise (Skyline, Battle: Los Angeles, the upcoming Falling Skies) as a way of getting around the fact that it's no longer acceptable to use the Russians or the Chinese as faceless hordes of evil invaders, or the way that the creators of Avatar tell the utterly familiar story of a white man who not only saves the Native Americans but is better at being Native American than actual Native Americans, but insist that they're not being racist because the story is set on another planet and among aliens.  Except worse, because the creators of those works are trying to have a bit of fun without thinking too much about politics, whereas politics is really all that "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Has Made" is about.  The premise of proselytizing to aliens raises a lot of questions, but Stone is more interested in giving definitive answers, ones that shut down all objections to missionary work, among humans and aliens alike.

Allen M. Steele's "The Emperor of Mars" seems rather unobjectionable when compared with "Leviathan," and in fact "unobjectionable" is a good way of describing the story, a sort of club piece in which the director of a Martian colony describes how one of his "Mars monkeys" (as the story has it, the futuristic equivalent of oil rig workers--lots of hardship, lots of risk, lots of money) suffered and then recovered from serious mental trauma.  Anyone who follows SF awards will know that the suffix "of Mars" in a story title, especially when preceded by any sort of royalty, indicates a reference or an homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars.  Personally, I find SF fandom's Burroughs-philia--or at least award-voting fandom's determination to repeatedly reward it--rather tedious (see also H.P. Lovecraft) but Steele comes up with a relatively novel approach--the contrast between Burroughs's romantic, pulpy version of Mars, and the harsh reality of a barren planet whose only signs of civilization are the unlovely, utilitarian installations plonked down by the colonizing humans.  The story's subject, Jeff, retreats from this ugly reality, in which his family on Earth has been killed in a senseless accident, into Burroughs's fantasy, and eventually declares himself Emperor of Mars.  Apart from the fact that this feels a little too much like a retread of the Sandman story "Three Septembers and a January," the problem with "The Emperor of Mars" is that what little substance there is to it is dedicated to nostalgia--to the celebration of Golden Age writing about Mars, not just Burroughs but Zelazny and Van Vogt and others.  Parts of the story read like potted reading lists of famous Mars-centered stories (the narrator and Jeff's psychiatrist both just happen to be erudite SF fans who can rattle these titles off at a moment's notice), a sentimental trip back through the red planet's different representations in literature.  There's a long tradition of the Hugo celebrating stories that celebrate SF, and even more than Burroughs-philia I find this tendency hard to sympathize with or even understand.  Of all the things that science fiction should be, nostalgic and backwards-looking is surely at the bottom of the list.

A slightly different form of nostalgia informs Sean McMullen's "Eight Miles," in which a 19th century aeronaut is hired to build a hot air balloon that can travel the vertical distance in the story's title--which is to say, into space.  The purpose of this exercise is a creature discovered by the narrator's patron in the Himalayas and dubbed Angelica, a fur-covered woman whose mind seems to be addled by the rich, humid atmosphere at sea level.  The narrator ends up building a hydrogen balloon and fashioning oxygen tanks in order to converse with Angelica, who turns out to be a Martian, the exiled military leader of the losing faction in a recent war.  The setting of the story makes it easy to categorize "Eight Miles" as steampunk, but the further I read, the less that tag seemed to fit.  The science in "Eight Miles" is--to my admittedly untutored eyes--plausible for its era, and in fact one of the key points of the plot is that the narrator is only one of a relatively large community of balloonists, and that the technology, though esoteric, is by the time the story starts so unremarkable that he's been reduced to renting his balloon out by the hour to sightseers.  A similar lack of romanticism accompanies the invention of oxygen tanks.  McMullen is careful to show us how the narrator builds on known scientific phenomenon--a chemical reaction that releases oxygen--and available technological know-how to make something that is only slightly different than what existed before.  There is, in other words, no sense in "Eight Miles" that technology is beautiful, magical, or particularly cool, none of the "Check it: Gears" attitude that I associate with steampunk.  What it reminds me of, once you strip away the Victorian set decorations, is the famous Golden Age trope of the triumph of the engineer, the story whose heart is in showing us how a Competent Man uses knowledge and skill to solve a problem or overcome an obstacle.  Burroughs, meanwhile, rears his head again in the psychic visions Angelica sends the narrator of her former empire on Mars.  The combination of these two approaches to science fiction--pulp adventure and hard SF--and the Victorian setting that is overlaid on both, give a gloss of newness to the story, but it's not quite enough to obscure the familiarity of its component parts.

Aliette de Bodard's "The Jaguar House, in Shadow" is the only story on the ballot that isn't set in or about space, and which is not permeated by the Golden Age nostalgia that seems to afflict the other pieces (it may or may not be a coincidence that de Bodard is also the only woman on the ballot).  It's part of a sequence of stories set in an alternate history dominated by China and the Aztec empire (de Bodard has also written two books, Guardian Servant of the Underworld and Harbinger of the Storm, in this setting).  I haven't gotten along with any of the other stories in this sequence I've read, nor with de Bodard's writing in general, but, perhaps because it's a more intimate, more character-oriented piece, "Jaguar House" seems to be the exception.  The premise is that religious extremists bent on restoring human sacrifice have taken over the Aztec empire, and that the various "houses"--martial associations or peacekeeping organizations--who stood against the new regime have been destroyed.  This is all very quickly glossed over, but with enough detail to make it clear why Onalli, former Jaguar knight, is incensed that her former friend and Jaguar House commander Tecipiani has chosen to side with the priests and to cleanse the house of dissenters.  The action of the story is Onalli's attempt to break into the house in order to rescue another dissident, Xochitl.  The story is successfully tense and exciting--Onalli's break-in, her fight scenes on the way to rescuing Xochitl and then her confrontation with Tecipiani, are all very well done, and the conflict between her and Tecipiani is nicely complicated by the revelation that the latter believes she's saving the lives of the Jaguar knights and novices under her protection by siding with the priests.  But I agree with the commenters in the Locus Roundtable short story club discussion who found the story a little thin.  It's obviously an interlude in a larger story, one whose handling of the disagreement between Onalli and Tecipiani, and the philosophical conflict it represents, is presumably more extensive than de Bodard has time for here.  "The Jaguar House, In Shadow" might, for the first time, make the prospect of reading more stories in this universe appealing, but it doesn't quite stand on its own.

Back into space we go with James Patrick Kelly's "Plus or Minus," a sort-of retelling of "The Cold Equations" that reconsiders and modernizes that story's core assumptions beautifully, and shows the rest of the ballot how to have a conversation with your genre's past without getting swallowed up by nostalgia and sentiment.  The protagonist is Mariska, a low-ranking maintenance worker on a long-haul spaceship several months out of port.  The first half of the story is a closely observed and extremely uncomfortable portrait of the relationships that develop among the ship's crew, and particularly Mariska's troubles with her boss, Beep, who resents her for being the daughter/clone of a famous space explorer.  Beep harasses and bullies Mariska, whose intelligence and strength of will aren't quite enough to compensate for the fact that she is completely under Beep's power and has no way of escaping him until the ship arrives at its destination.  These segments are tense and horrifying--the claustrophobia of space travel magnified and made so much worse by the claustrophobia of sexual harassment.  In the second half of the story, an accident leaves the ship without enough oxygen to make it to its destination.  Where "The Cold Equations" treated this scenario as one of blinding certainty--a simple mathematical calculation that yields only one result--"Plus or Minus," as its title indicates, performs a more fuzzy calculation.  The answer, in both cases, is the same--the ship's remaining supply of oxygen will suffice to bring some of the crew home but not all of them--but in Kelly's story there are many more variables--how long will the rescue ship take to arrive?  How much oxygen can the crew conserve by sleeping and performing as little physical activity as possible?--and a recognition that a margin of error of even a few minutes can mean the difference between life and death.  A few elements of the story don't quite work, mainly Mariska's resentment of her mother and her determination not to go into deep space, which feels like part of another story--presumably 2009's "Going Deep," which also features Mariska--that Kelly doesn't quite have the room to properly elaborate on here, but the ending is so perfect--simultaneously recreating the harsh brutality of "The Cold Equations" and complicating it with human compassion and guilt--that these seem like minor quibbles.

So, two bad stories, two OK ones, and one very good one--not the worst novelette ballot I've ever read, but not far from it either.  Especially when you consider that the novelette shortlist is often the compensation that we shortlist reviewers look forward to, the one category where quality tends to win out over fannishness and logrolling, this is very disappointing.  Even more dispiriting is the fact that I'm by no means confident that "Plus or Minus" will win the day.  "That Leviathan, Whom Thou Hast Made" has already, and inexplicably, won the Nebula, and the general nostalgic tone of the shortlist suggests that this year's Hugo voters are looking to be comforted, not challenged.  They might opt for Stone, or the Golden Age enthusiasm of "The Emperor of Mars."  A membership that produces a shortlist this poor certainly can't be trusted to recognize the only worthwhile story on it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

At the Strange Horizons Blog: Defining the Audience

At long last, my series on defining the Strange Horizons reviews policy has started up again at the magazine's blog.  This time, I try to explain why the reviewing vs. criticism discussion and the question of spoiler warnings are fundamentally about the same thing.

Note also that, thanks to the magazine's intrepid webmaster Shane, the blog now displays full posts on the main page and syndicates full posts.  It's like living in the future.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, May 16-20

Tim Miller kicks off this week with a glowing review of Karen Joy Fowler's collection What I Didn't See and Other Stories.  Following him is Michael Froggatt, discussing NYRB Classics's translation of modern Russian fantasist Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy, which Michael finds worthwhile mainly for its middle segment.  Niall Alexander rounds out the week with a review of Subterranean Tales of Dark Fantasy 2, edited by William Shafer, which after a slow start pleases Niall immensely.

The 2011 Hugo Awards: The Short Story Shortlist

The ballot for this year's short story category functions quite well as a snapshot of 2010's short fiction scene, and the Hugo award's interaction with it.  You've got one of the most popular, and most talked-about, short stories of the last few years.  You've got two of the award's darlings, including one who has had a story on at least one of the short fiction shortlists for four years running.  And you've got a story from a new and much-lauded online short fiction venue.  Unfortunately, the ballot also functions well as a snapshot of the reasons that the Hugos so frequently disappoint me--its stories prioritize sentimentality over quality of writing or ideas; what little fantastic invention there is in them is staid and predictable; even the one deserving piece is derivative, much to its own detriment.

Carrie Vaughn's "Amaryllis" and Mary Robinette Kowal's "For Want of a Nail" feel like variations--rather similar ones at that--on the same theme.  Both are told from the point of view of an insecure young woman who lives in a resource-scarce future and in a society that views wastefulness as the ultimate sin, rigidly regulates consumption and resource allocation, and enforces strict population control (interestingly, though in both stories the thwarted desire to have a child is an important plot point, it's not the heroines, but someone close to them, who wants to have a baby).  Surely only one such story on the ballot would have been enough, and Vaughn's is the one that should have gotten the boot.  Since its launch nearly a year ago, Lightspeed magazine has received a lot of positive critical attention, and with contributors like Carol Emshwiller, Robert Reed, Catherynne Valente, and Charles Yu it's easy to see why (and why it's also been nominated in the best semiprozine category).  As an introduction to the magazine, however, "Amaryllis" is a very poor ambassador.  Its heroine, Marie, captains a boat and leads a household in a fishing community.  Marie is the product of an unsanctioned pregnancy, a crime for which her mother's household was disbanded, and some in her community view Marie as tainted with the crime of unjustly consuming resources.  That resentment comes to a head when Marie is falsely accused of overfishing, an accusation that might cost her her position and household.

This is all explained in bald, inelegant infodumps that do little to convey the drama of Marie's situation--or to persuasively argue that that drama even exists.  Vaughn repeatedly tells us that no accomplishment of Marie is ever enough to wash away the sin of her illegal birth, but that's not the world she sketches.  The fact is that Marie has achieved her position with relative ease and that she seems to be respected by every character in the story except for the one who tries to frame her.  And when she gets off her ass and accuses him of lying, those lies are easily exposed by a leadership that is only too happy to do so (a particularly grating false note--no bully would act so baldly in a situation where they knew they had no backing from the powers that be) and treats Marie as if she were no different from any other captain with a grievance.  The point, presumably, is that Marie needs to get over her own self-loathing and lack of self-confidence, but Vaughn's best efforts at conveying these boil down to having Marie tell us, once or twice, that she suffers from self-loathing and lack of self-confidence.  We see little or no evidence of this beyond the contrivance that drives the story, and Marie's alleged transformation is achieved in a single sentence that gives no impression that here is a real person making an incredibly difficult leap forward.  There's never any sense in "Amaryllis" that Vaughn is working to capture the readers with either her prose or her construction of characters.  Instead she seems to rely on her setting, and particularly on the manipulative element of regulated pregnancy, to do the job, but as both of these are rather hoary tropes--as evidenced by the presence of "For Want of a Nail" on the ballot--there's really nothing here to read for.

"For Want of a Nail" benefits from the comparison with "Amaryllis"--it's better written, has a more imaginative premise, and does a much better job sketching in its characters.  The setting is a generation ship some way into its journey.  Rava has recently been made the caretaker of Cordelia, an AI who acts as a chronicle for the generations of Rava's family who have lived aboard the ship, and is trying desperately to fix Cordelia after a recent mishapa as well as hide the fact that that mishap was Rava's fault.  Along the way, Rava discovers that Cordelia's programming has been altered by her previous caretaker, Rava's uncle Georgo, who, while still in the early stages of senile dementia and knowing that if his disease were discovered he'd be deemed unproductive and "recycled," inserted a base command into Cordelia's code to protect him at all costs.  Though there is some infodumping in "For Want of a Nail," it's less prominent than in "Amaryllis," and to a certain extent the story does expect us to piece together its setting from snatches of information.  For a while, this helps to conceal the flaws in Kowal's worldbuilding, but especially towards the end of the story these become impossible to ignore.  Why, despite the fact that the ship has its own on-board computers, is Cordelia a freestanding unit?  (I won't ask why that unit looks like a Victorian desk over which Cordelia projects a hologram of herself in period dress because, well, I'm afraid we all know the answer to that question.)  Why, despite the existence of those same computers, is it necessary for the family to use a sentient being to record their life experiences?  For that matter, why record their every living moment instead of keeping diaries or video logs?  Kowal seems to have posited all of these head-scratchers in order to reach the point where Cordelia, whose damaged programming means that she has to be disconnected from the ship's mainframe and thus sentenced to senility herself, is compared with Georgo, but Kowal's emphasis is in entirely the wrong place.  "For Want of a Nail" is a story in which a senile old man is euthanized against his will, and neither the characters nor the narrative are particularly moved by this, or feel that it bears discussion.  Rather, Georgo's predicament, and its off-page, matter of fact resolution, are a stepping stone to Cordelia's tragedy--the choice between death and living in senility, the same choice that was denied to Georgo.  "For Want of a Nail" is a muddled story in several respects, but this failure to notice the implications of its own worldbuilding is a flaw from which it can't recover.

I haven't gotten along with all of Kij Johnson's Hugo-nominated stories in the last few years, but I always came away from them feeling that there was some substance to the story, even if I couldn't quite grasp it.  "Ponies," Johnson's nominee this year, is entirely, and almost insultingly, substance-less, a story as unworthy of Johnson as it is of its nomination for the Hugo.  "Ponies" is a vignette--and though in theory I suppose it's possible that a vignette could pack enough of a punch to deserve a Hugo nomination, none of the recently nominated ones, for example Kowal's "Evil Robot Monkey" from 2009, have done so--in which a little girl named Barbara is invited to a "cutting-out party" for her pony, Sunny.  In order for Barbara to fit in with TheOtherGirls, their My Little Pony-esque ponies have to lose two of their three magical attributes--talking, flying, or their horn.  When Sunny realizes that she's actually going to lose all three of her attributes, she rebels, the other ponies kill her, and Barbara is declared "not OneOfUs."  The End.  No, really, The End.  I'm trying to wrap my mind around a voting membership that, on the one hand, gave Johnson a nomination for her disquieting, controversial "Spar" last year, and on the other hand sees anything worth recognizing in this simplistic, old-fashioned piece that seems to be patting itself on the back for saying something that has been said so many times before, and in exactly the same way.  It's 2011, for crying out loud--are we really still shocked when someone takes a supposedly benign yet subtly patriarchy-affirming girls' toy and makes something sinister of it?  Haven't we reached the stage where pointing out that female hierarchies encourage a destructive conformity is simply stating the obvious?  For that matter, haven't we reached the stage where that's no longer entirely true?  Even My Little Pony itself doesn't buy into the rigid hierarchy of girls' groups and the tyranny of niceness anymore--the new incarnation of the series, by all accounts, celebrates diversity, features characters who are encouraged to develop their skills and unique personalities, and rejects queen-bee-ism in all its forms.  Johnson is too good a writer for "Ponies" not to have some effect, but the tools she uses are so blunt--I found the portmanteu titles like "TopGirl" and "ThisIsTheBestGame" particularly obvious--that I can't believe that so many people found the story genuinely affecting, much less worthy of a nomination.

I first heard about Peter Watts's "The Things" last January, shortly after it appeared in Clarkesworld magazine.  If you follow the genre short fiction scene, you'll know that the conversation surrounding it is rather small.  There are a few little-read magazine reviews, and the occasional review of an anthology or collection, but outside of award season, an individual story will rarely receive a great deal of attention.  "The Things" was the exception.  The speed with which it made its way across fandom and even outside of was unlike anything I'd seen before, and the praise for it seemed unanimous.  Watts is a good writer whose short stories I've enjoyed in the past, but the reason for all the attention and praise "The Things" received was that it is, as so many of its proponents noted, professional fanfic--a retelling of John Carptenter's 1982 film The Thing from the body-snatching alien's perspective.  I didn't read "The Things" until last fall, when it participated in Torque Control's Short Story Club.  My reaction at the time was that it was a well-written story that depended too heavily on its source material, and that if, like myself, you haven't seen the original film, much of its attractions will be lost upon you.  Upon a second reading for this review, I want to modify that judgment a little.  I still think that The Thing is too present within "The Things."  There are too many scenes whose purpose is obviously to retell and alter the meaning of scenes from the movie, and whose emotional impact is lost on someone who hasn't watched it.  But I don't think that the story depends on the film. 

On the contrary, if you lopped off the explicit references to The Thing, the explanations of what was going on under the shed or who was taken over when, you'd have a perfectly coherent story that I would have enjoyed a great deal more than I did "The Things."  There's a lot of substance here that is completely unrelated to the movie--the story of an alien to whom all life is a single, infinitely changeable entity, who takes a long time to even understand that life on Earth can function as discrete beings with a fixed biology, and is disgusted and horrified by that realization.  It's not a new trope, but Watts handles it with the intelligence and viciousness for which he's become famous, and the story would have worked perfectly well without the film as a framework.  I'm sure that people who have seen The Thing enjoy "The Things" on another level that I don't have access to, but that, to my mind, is a flaw.  Fanfic is a lot of fun, and it can be used to achieve impressive and meaningful effects, but it has its own place and its own conventions--chief among them, that its dependence on someone else's source material is not a bug but a feature.  The Hugo isn't a fanfic award, though, and stories nominated for it should stand on their own merits.  I don't think that "The Things" does that.

Despite that flaw, "The Things" is the best in a very poor bunch, and has enough strengths that I wouldn't be scandalized if it won the Hugo.  The rest of the ballot, not so much, which is why I'm slightly reassured by the thought that Watts is practically a lock.  I rarely expect much from the short story ballot, and after six years of writing Hugo reviews I've reached the point where even a horrible shortlist--and this isn't the worst I've read by a long way--doesn't depress me too much.  But as I said at the beginning of this review, this year's shortlist feels like an accurate snapshot of the Hugo's interests and the direction it's been heading in for most of the last decade, and that is something that I find very worrying.  Like many people, I've been following Jo Walton's Revisiting the Hugos series at with interest, and though Walton doesn't usually spend a lot of time discussing the short fiction nominees, just seeing those ballots comes as a shock--the frequency with which I recognize iconic titles and authors who have stood the test of time.  There's a bias here, to be sure--I notice the familiar names more than the ones that have sunk into obscurity--but I don't think that's the only thing going on.  I doubt that anyone blogging the 2011 Hugos in a few decades' time will find much to get excited over, or impressed by, in the short story ballot.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, May 9-13

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro kicks off this week's reviews with his take on Paul Haines's collection Slice of Life, to which his reaction is a mixture of admiration and reticence towards Haines's use of outrageous, provocative plot elements.  On Wednesday, Michael H. Payne argues that the latest incarnation of the My Little Pony cartoon, Friendship Is Magic, has imbued the old Mattel marketing platform with depth of feeling and character.  In today's review, Jonathan McCalmont is impressed by Claude LaLumière's novella The Door to Lost Pages, a book about book-loving that goes beyond the self-congratulation that such a description conjures.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Recent Movie Roundup 13

A few more films before the full force of the summer blockbuster season comes upon us.
  • Winter's Bone (2010) - I was a little nervous going into this film, because the warm critical reception that a film might receive when it's a come-from-behind surprise from a virtually unknown writer and director can seem overblown a year later, when it's a universally lauded Oscar nominee starring one of Hollywood's up-and coming actresses (basically, the reason I was so disappointed by The Kids Are All Right), and because its description--Applachian teenager Ree Dolly must track down her meth-cooking, bail-jumping father or lose her family's house, and meets with resistance from the local mob--seemed so rife with opportunities for cultural tourism and poverty-chic.  It was this sense that I was being invited to gawp at the quaint customs and funny accents of poor rural folk that soured me on the second season of Justified, whose overarching plot borrows quite heavily from Winter's Bone (though the season improves towards its end), so it was a relief and, ultimately, a pleasure to discover that the film avoids all of the inherent pitfalls of its premise.  Though it is driven by the poverty and insularity of Ree's world, Winter's Bone neither romanticizes that world, nor does it make it exotic.  It achieves this by locking us thoroughly into Ree's point of view--to which end Jennifer Lawrence's unflinching performance is an integral component without which the film would have failed completely.

    Ree spends the film tramping up and down hills and through forests as she tries to determine where her father is and why the local criminal element wants to stop her asking questions about him, and an important subplot involves her teaching her younger brother and sister important survival skills--how to hunt, clean their kill, and prepare food from it--but Winter's Bone is subtle enough, and Ree, who takes the world she shows us for granted, is a powerful enough presence at its center, that the film never feels like a guided tour.  As she draws closer to the criminals who know where her father is, Ree is repeatedly confronted with the attitude that she has done something wrong by working with the law and going outside the community, even though that community is happy to see her and her siblings thrown out of their home.  What's interesting about Winter's Bone is that Ree herself doesn't dispute the notion that what she's done is wrong, but rather insists that her obligations to her brother and sister take precedence over her obligation to remain stone-faced in the face of threats from law enforcement.  The film, in the end, isn't one about a rebel or an outsider, but about a girl who plays by the rules and uses them to her advantage, even when those rules are designed to keep her down and seem cruel and restrictive to the audience.  The arc of the film is Ree's acceptance--as the abandonment of both her parents becomes more obvious, and as her dreams of escaping to the army grow more distant--that she will likely never leave her home, and this is depicted as neither a tragedy nor a triumph, more an acceptance of the fact that though Ree could have a better life, she is well-suited, through breeding and upbringing, to the one she has, and can even be happy in it, at least for a time.

  • Tangled (2010) - Disney's latest fairy tale film suffers from two comparisons--with 1989's The Little Mermaid, still one of the studio's finest films, to which it owes several conceptual debts, and with Stephen Sondheim's musical Into the Woods, which also imagines the story of Rapunzel as that of the relationship between a domineering and overprotective mother and a child who wants to see the world, but does so with greater complexity (not to mention much better songs).  Nevertheless, and despite a weak third act, the film is a lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be, and at points--mostly involving physical comedy on the part of animal characters, such as Rapunzel's pet chameleon and the palace horse who inadvertently sets the film's plot in motion when he chases Flynn, a thief, to Rapunzel's tower--it is absolutely hilarious.  Rapunzel herself is a wonderful character, a winning combination of naivete, pluck, terrifying competence, and fear of a world she's had so little to do with.  It's a surprise and a relief to discover that despite the much-derided decision to retitle the story in order to appeal to boys, and promises that the film would Flynn's story as much as Rapunzel's, that she is still its heart and that Flynn's story is really about his choice to put Rapunzel at the center of his life (in fact, I actually found myself wishing that Flynn were a little more central to film, since his growth from shallowness to openness felt a little perfunctory).  Tangled is still a long way from Disney's heyday of Aladin and The Lion King, but it's a step in their direction--the first one I've seen in a long time.

  • The Adjustment Bureau (2011) - This is one of those films that seem perfectly inoffensive while you're watching them, then become unbearable when you give them a moment's thought.  The story itself, in which an up-and-coming politician (Matt Damon), falls in love with a free-spirited dancer (Emily Blunt) only to be informed by agents of the titular bureau that their fates take them apart from each other, is well done.  The revelation of the amount of the control that the adjustment agents have over human existence isn't belabored, and the fact that Damon's character quickly learns the rules of how they operate, and figures out how to manipulate those rules and outsmart his pursuers, is quite entertaining, especially as it leads to some nicely done chase scenes.  The love story is affecting, though more on Damon's side than Blunt's, whose character is not quite a cipher but also not nearly as developed as his.  The problem, and the reason that The Adjustment Bureau's message is finally so self-contradictory, is that the filmmakers decided to make the film a story about free will versus predestination rather than one about choice.

    Damon's David is informed that he has the chance to become President and make real change in the world, but that Blunt's Elyse, who brings out his impulsive, immature side, isn't the partner who can take him to that august position (if nothing else it's refreshing to find a story that doesn't treat the Manic Pixie Dream Girl as an unalloyed good).  Elyse, meanwhile, could become a famous dancer and choreographer, but her career will die if she marries David.  This has some very potent real-world resonances--should you give up your career to enable your partner's?  Does the answer to that question change if your partner has a chance to change the world for the better (one of the film's interesting notes is that Elyse, for all that she affects David negatively, supports him politically and is distressed when he jeopardizes his political career on her account)?  Is it right to give up that chance to make a difference for love and happiness?  The Adjustment Bureau never really engages with any of those questions, and most unforgivably, for most of the film's run it's only David who is even aware of their existence.  Elyse only finds out about the Bureau's existence in the film's final minutes, and it's doubtful that she has the time or presence of mind to fully grasp what she'd be giving up by staying with David.  Instead, the film plumps for the same solution that Hollywood always chooses when it pits free will and predestination--it chooses both.  We want our characters to be destined for greatness, but also to have achieved that greatness on their own (for example, the sweeping romance between David and Elyse is revealed to have been just as predestined as the futures that they choose to reject, but the film encourages us to embrace it as a genuine expression of their "true" feelings).  The film's ending cops out by not forcing either David or Elyse to choose between love and their dreams, but also not offering any loophole to the obvious problems posed by their opposed paths in life, and its sense of triumph thus rings rather hollow.

  • Thor (2011) - Presumably thanks to Kenneth Branagh at its helm, the latest Marvel superhero film gives off a definite Shakespearian vibe, as Odin (Anthony Hopkins), ruler of Asgard (where, despite what the film's trailers might lead you to believe, the bulk of the story takes place) banishes his son Thor (Chris Hemsworth) for being immature and bloodthirsty, while his other son Loki (Tom Hiddleston) schemes against both of them.  That a superhero film tells something other than the by-now stultifying origin story comes as a breath of fresh air, but the similarities to Henry V are only a few microns deep, and the family saga quickly turns muddled and nonsensical.  If Odin thinks of Thor as an impetuous child, why is he getting ready to hand over the reins of Asgard to him at the film's opening?  And why does he want Thor to make peace with a race that the film treats, in its first two acts, as straightforward antagonists, then forgets about as soon as Loki emerges as a full-fledged villain?  Most problematically, the film can't decide what to do with Loki, who is alternately a conflicted antihero with legitimate grievances against his father and brother and an evil overlord, and who expresses loyalty to both Asgard and its enemies without giving any final indication of which side he's on.  It certainly doesn't help that for most of the film Loki comes off as more savvy, and a more competent ruler, than his brother.

    What saves Thor is first the fact that Hemsworth and Hiddleston are able to wade their way through the mess of conflicting motivations and illogical plot twists and get to the core of their characters--both come off as likable but very flawed, and their sibling relationship is believably loving yet fraught with competition and resentment.  Secondly, the film works because it intersperses the Asgard scenes with ones on Earth, in which a now-human Thor is a fish out of water who attracts the attentions of both SHIELD and a comely astrophysicist played by Natalie Portman.  These not only leaven the po-faced Asgard scenes, but are very funny in themselves, and make a much more convincing argument for Thor's heroism and his potential as a superhero than any of his posturing against Loki and the frost giants.  I don't want to oversell Thor, which is very silly and falls apart at the lightest touch, but for a movie conceived mainly as a lead-in to next year's Avengers film (by now so overstuffed with characters that it's impossible to imagine even Joss Whedon making something watchable of it), it's a lot more fun than it has any business being.

    Regardless of the film's modest but undeniable attractions, I also have to say a word about screening formats: if you're lucky enough to be able to choose the number of dimensions you'll be seeing Thor in--because of the greed of Israeli film distributors, I was not--I urge you to pick 2D, and if that's not an option then to wait for the DVD.  I can't recall the last time I had as unpleasant a viewing experience as I did with this film, which was so murky that I spent the whole two hours squinting at the screen, and left the theater with my eyes burning and tearing up.  The sooner this godforsaken and pointless technology dies yet another death, the better off moviegoers will be.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, May 2-6

The first Strange Horizons review of May is Adam Roberts's take on Harmony by Project Itoh, a Haikasoru book that Adam finds very impressive, and which launches him into wondering why modern SF has had so little to say about modern medicine and the experience of being in its care.  Niall Alexander is less complimentary to the BBC much-pumped, then quickly-dumped SF TV series Outcasts, whose failures Niall finds uniquely British.  Rounding out the week is Karen Burnham with a review of the Gordon Van Gelder-edited anthology Welcome to the Greenhouse, a collection of stories about climate change that Karen finds disappointingly wary of the unique qualities of that subject, more often plumping for pulp or for garden variety apocalypse.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Killer Kids(' Books) II: Four Novels

Late March and early April were very bad reading periods for me.  A combination of busyness, stress, and a rather dull book that I nevertheless insisted on finishing meant that I spent several weeks struggling with unenjoyable reads, picking books up and putting them back down after fifty pages, usually through no fault of their own, eying my enormous TBR stack with distaste, and in general feeling that reading had become a struggle.  The solution, I decided, was a YA binge.  Not so much because YA books are easier reads than novels aimed at adults, though a lot of the time they are, as because they work harder to hook the reader.  Books for young readers tend to be more purposeful, more obvious about their destination and their determination to reach it, than adult fiction, and when it comes to carrying the reader along with the story, they do more of the heavy lifting.  That seemed like exactly what the doctor ordered, so I've spent the second half of April running down the list of YA titles I've been meaning to get to.

Of course, if you're looking for a book that carries you along with the plot, a good place to start would be Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking trilogy.  A copy of the trilogy's concluding, Clarke-nominated volume Monsters of Men had been sitting on my desk for several months, and I'd held off on reading it less because I was concerned that Ness would fumble the conclusion of his high stakes narrative than because I was hesitant to expose myself, for the third time, to the sheer concussive force of these novels.  Even the series's most ardent supporters will gladly acknowledge that the Chaos Walking books are manipulative, and that they achieve that manipulation by launching what amounts to an assault on the senses.  Events pile one on top of the other at breakneck speed, life and death usually hanging in the balance.  Emotions are always pitched at the edge of hysteria, veering wildly between love, hate, rage, terror, and bone-deep frustration.  Dialogue is shouted and screamed, usually over the din of a battle, an explosion, or heavy machinery.  The Chaos Walking books are loud and fast and relentless, and though as soon as I turned Monsters of Men's first page I was committed to reading through to the end, it was a bit of a wrench to actually take that first step.

Monsters of Men picks up where the previous volume, The Ask and The Answer, left off, which is to say in deep shit.  No sooner have protagonists Todd and Viola managed to overcome their two antagonists--Mayor Prentiss, the genocidal dictator who has named himself leader of New World's human population, and Mistress Coyle, a politician deposed by Prentiss who has turned to terrorism in order to unseat him--than their situation is complicated by the arrival, on the one hand, of an army of the planet's native species, known as Spackle, bent on ridding their world of humanity, and on the other hand, of a scout ship from the convoy of colony ships carrying Viola's people, now only a few weeks away.  As Prentiss and Coyle squabble for supremacy and try to curry favor with the delegates on the scout ship, the humans on New World have to defend themselves against the Spackle's terrifyingly effective attacks.  Todd ends up back by the Mayor's side as Prentiss marshals the human forces against the Spackle, while Viola tries to help the delegates strike the proper balance between involving themselves in a war not of their making and standing back as the human population is slaughtered, while also introducing them to the concept of Noise, the projective telepathy that afflicts every living being on New World except human women.  As he did in The Ask and The Answer, Ness opens up the novel's perspective by adding, to Todd and Viola's narrative strands, one narrated by a Spackle called The Return who had been enslaved by humans and is the only survivor of the slaves' murder, ordered by Prentiss, and who bears a particular resentment towards Todd.

Monsters of Men is a war novel, with all the ugliness and messy compromises that entails.  The murderous, psychopathic Mayor is the only one who has the strategic acumen and command presence to fight the Spackle.  Viola, in order to save Todd, forces the hand of the convoy delegates when she uses their weapons to attack the Spackle.  Prentiss and Coyle, forced on the same side, scheme against and undermine one another, trying to gain hearts and minds as well as strategic advantages for the time when the Spackle are defeated and the colony ships arrive.  Viola, Todd, and The Return have to choose between their loved ones and the greater good, between vengeance and forgiveness.  The war story, however, is merely the latest and most effective lens through which Ness can examine the themes that have informed Chaos Walking from its outset, chiefly the tension between individualism and conformity, and the meaning of leadership.  Through The Return's eyes, we see Noise as it was meant to be used, as a facilitator of communication that makes of the Spackle simultaneously a hive mind and a closely-knit and harmonious group of individuals.  For humans, Noise brings about chaos, destroying privacy without creating unity.  Only the Mayor, who understands Noise better than almost any other human, learns to control his Noise as the Spackle do, but he uses that ability to shut down his noise, to weaponize it, and finally to control others--techniques that he teaches to Todd in Monsters of Men, to Todd's mingled horror and delight.  When Ben, Todd's adoptive, presumed-dead father, reappears after having been held prisoner by the Spackle, he has learned their way of using Noise, and tries to convince the other settlers that the key to living with Noise is not to tamp it down but to open themselves up to one another.  Though the novel ends with tentative peace between humans and Spackle and with a more sane leadership having emerged within the human population, Ben's approach to Noise is only beginning to make inroads among the colonists.  This is an appropriately open-ended, yet profoundly hopeful, ending to a series that has delivered such a merciless pummeling to its main characters.  Monsters of Men proceeds towards its ending with all the subtlety of a freight train, and the tragic events of the book's final chapters, as well as the way Ness finds to get around that tragedy, are easy to predict.  They also, however, make for a fittingly thorny conclusion to the series--enough of a happy ending to satisfy readers who want Todd and Viola to finally rest from battle, but not so happy as to seem out of place in the trilogy's grim universe.

When I wrote about The Knife of Never Letting Go, the first Chaos Walking book, I lamented that Ness's choice to give Noise only to men, as well as his choice to tell that part of story solely from Todd's perspective, had the unfortunate consequence of playing into well-worn stereotypes of women as alien and other.  The Ask and The Answer and Monsters of Men downplay the importance of the gender divide between those who have Noise and those who don't, to the extent that it seems likely that Ness had exhausted his arguments on the matter of gender in the trilogy's first volume.  By the time Monsters of Men draws to a close, the important division is not between men and women but between the Noisy and Noiseless, and between those who choose to tamp down their Noise and those who "open it up."  That the former division still falls along gender lines, however, means that there remain unfortunate implications to the trilogy's worldbuilding that Ness doesn't engage with, as in this exchange between Ben and Todd:
"I think it could be the way forward for all of us," he says with his mouth, croaky and crackling.  He coughs and lets his Noise take over again.  If we can all learn to speak this way, then there won't be any more division twixt us and the Spackle, the won't be any division twixt humans.  That's the secret of this planet, Todd.  Communication, real and open, so we can finally understand one another for once.

I clear my throat.  "Women don't got Noise," I say.  "What'll happen to them?"

He stops.  I'd forgotten, he says.  It's been so long since I've really been around them.  He brightens again.  Spackle women have noise.  And if there's a way for men to stop having Noise--he looks at me--There must be a way for women to start.
Ben has, quite literally, forgotten about half the human race, and when it's pointed out to him that his plan for peace and harmony leaves out that half, he essentially waves his hand and says that he's sure a solution can be found.  But that's where the novel leaves it.  What was needed--particularly in light of the fact that Viola, in a neat reversal of The Knife of Never Letting Go, reacts to Todd's tamping down of his Noise by saying that she doesn't recognize him anymore, and is rightly chided for wanting to have all the power in their relationship--was an example of a woman, ideally Viola, who develops Noise, but this doesn't happen.  Instead the novel ends with Ben's idyll--which might include women, but even if it doesn't will not be any less idyllic--held up as a desirable goal, which implicitly reinforces the "humans = men" message of the first book.  In the end I have to conclude that Chaos Walking would have been a much stronger story if Ness had dropped the gender divide between Noisy and Noiseless--if Todd had grown up believing that Noise was ubiquitous because the Mayor had killed all the Noiseless, men and women, in Prentisstown, then learned that some humans get it and others don't, regardless of gender.  As it stands, the gender division leaves an unpleasant aftertaste to what is, in all other respects, an enormously satisfying and important work of science fiction, one that deserves more attention and discussion within our community, not just the YA field.

If the people who have been obsessively following Chaos Walking and feel a little bereft at its conclusion are looking for a new trilogy, they could do worse than Holly Black's The Curse Workers.  Though Black's books proceed with less sturm und drang than Ness's, they touch on some of the same themes, and even have slightly similar male protagonists--both determined, fiercely devoted to their loved ones, wracked with moral quandaries while trying to do the right thing, and dumb as a bag of hair.  In the first Curse Workers book, White Cat, we're introduced to seventeen-year-old Cassel Sharpe, the only non-magical member of a family of "workers," people with magical powers who can, according to their innate skill, manipulate luck or emotion, take away memories, and even kill.  Just as Ness used an SFnal setting to tell a story that veered from classic Western to war narrative, Black uses her fantasy setting to tell a crime story.  In her world, prohibition of alcohol was accompanied by prohibition of working, a ban that has remained in force into the 21st century, and that like its counterpart helped to create an organized crime empire.  Cassel's mother, an emotion worker, is a con artist, his oldest brother Philip is a "laborer" for the Zacharov crime family, using his power to affect physical matter to break legs for his bosses, while his death worker grandfather is a retired assassin.  The association between working and organized crime has only deepened the public's distrust of workers--because working is done with the hands, going out ungloved is a major taboo, and people wear charms meant to ward off the different types of magic.  It's not only because of anti-worker prejudice that Cassel works so hard to seem normal and fit in at his prestigious boarding school, however.  Three years ago, Cassel came to holding a bloody knife over the body of his childhood sweetheart, Lila Zacharov, the crime boss's daughter.  His family hid the body and hushed up the crime, but Cassel remains wracked with both guilt and incomprehension, and determined to hide his true nature.

It will probably come as no surprise--though it takes him an absurdly long time to figure it out himself--that Cassel turns out to be a worker after all, that Lila isn't really dead, and that Cassel's family turns out to have been lying to him about many things.  At the most trivial level, White Cat is about Cassel learning to understand his nature on these levels--to recognize himself as a worker, learn to use his powers, and break his family's hold on him.  What both White Cat and its sequel, Red Glove, are really concerned with, however, is Cassel's struggle to understand what kind of person he is.  Raised to believe in a con artist code that sanctifies the bonds of family while viewing all outsiders as fair game, Cassel is stunned by the realization that his family has failed to stick by that code when they manipulated and took advantage of him, but remains sufficiently bound by that code that he can't find it in himself to take appropriate revenge on them.  Meanwhile, at his school, Cassel has to deal with a more normal, law and order brand of morality .  To compensate for his lack of magical abilities, Cassel has become a talented grifter and con artist.  While the kids around him tolerate and even make use of his criminal proclivities--for example when Cassel becomes the school's bookie--the narrative constantly makes us aware that Cassel and his family are on the other side of the divide that these fundamentally law-abiding kids draw between acceptable and unacceptable criminality.  By the same token, Cassel has trouble thinking about relationships in terms that are not exploitative or at least mercenary--in his world, kindness and affection always have an ulterior motive, and the people who claim to care about you always want something from you. 

An important sub-plot in both books is that anti-worker prejudice has boiled over into even more restrictive legislation mandating worker registries and mandatory testing for children, and Cassel's school is wracked by opposition between students who support the laws and those who insist that possessing magical powers doesn't equal misusing them.  There's a rich seam of irony in Cassel's support for the latter, and his anger at the politicians who despise him and his kind, even as he becomes more aware of, and involved in, the Zacharov criminal empire.  Throughout both books Cassel struggles with irreconcilable moral codes, and with situations that force him into shady and occasionally immoral behavior.  He also has to confront his own failures of conscience--when he discovers, in White Cat, that though he hasn't killed Lila he is responsible for others' deaths, or when he realizes, in Red Glove, that his resistance to the temptation of Lila, who has been made to love him through magic, has reached the breaking point.  In both books Cassel, who is starved for trust and genuine affection, finds himself reaching out to outsiders--non-workers and law-abiding citizens--and tentatively forming friendships based on something other than mutual self-interest.  Though Black takes advantage of Cassel's dimness and lack of self-awareness to make it clear that he is a better person, and that he is more loved and more worthy of being loved, than he gives himself credit for, the mistakes he does make, and the choices he is forced into, are heady enough to make for a rich reading experience.

If there is a major flaw in The Curse Workers it is Lila, who, though she makes for an intriguing romantic foil for Cassel--the two have definite chemistry, but they bring out enough of each others' worst qualities that it's hard to root for their happy ending--spends too much of the series being acted upon (for example the love curse that skews her relationship with Cassel in Red Glove, and which he high-handedly tries to fix at the novel's end by getting another emotion worker to remove all of Lila's feelings for him, real and magically-induced).  There are hints at the end of Red Glove that Black may be on her way to giving Lila a more active role, while folding her into the trilogy's overarching theme of moral choice, as Lila officially joins her father's criminal empire, though it remains to be seen how this will play out.  In fact, a lot depends on the series's final volume, and on how it resolves the issues of Cassel's moral conflicts and his uncertainty about the kind of person he is.  One question lingered over my reading White Cat and Red Glove and marred my enjoyment of them--how was Cassel compelled to kill, and what level of responsibility does he bear for those deaths?  Red Glove in particular sees Cassel, perhaps understandably, holding off from confronting that question.  Though the series's concluding volume will obviously center on Cassel finally staking out his own moral code, and coming to an understanding of the kind of person he is, I don't think that can fully be accomplished without this missing answer, and I hope that Black isn't planning to continue writing around it.  Judging by the strength of White Cat and Red Glove, however, I'm optimistic that Black can bring her story to a satisfying close.

Another similarity between Cassel in White Cat and Todd in The Knife of Never Letting Go is that they both start their stories as outsiders who are ignorant of the most important truths about their lives.  Because of their outsider status, Cassel and Todd develop worldviews and moral codes that the books' readers can, for the most part, sympathize with.  As part of their process of learning to understand their world, both Cassel and Todd realize that the people around them don't share their--which is to say, our--values, and that their entire community operates according to a code that they can't accept.  This is, of course, such a common trope of YA that it's nearly become a cliché, which is one of the reasons that I was so pleased to realize that Frances Hardinge's Gullstruck Island (The Lost Conspiracy in the US) rejects it so completely.  Gullstruck Island is a novel about, among other things, the unspoken codes that govern communities, and it depicts those codes, conventions, and worldviews as something that is imbibed at a very young age and on a very deep level.  Its characters are governed by the rules that don't need to be spoken but which are nevertheless perfectly clear, and it is only with some difficulty that they manage even a partial escape from their influence.

Gullstruck Island is a lush, jungle-covered, volcano-strewn paradise.  Two hundred years ago, the island was home to several tribes, the most powerful of which were the Lace.  When the colonizing Cavalcaste arrived on Gullstruck, the Lace counseled and guided them, among other things advising them not to build settlements in the area known as the Wailing Way, for fear of angering the volcanoes.  When this advice was ignored, the Lace priests began kidnapping and sacrificing people from the Wailing Way to the volcanoes, hoping to appease them.  Instead they were discovered, the priests were killed and the temples were destroyed, and for the last two hundred years the Lace have been relegated to an underclass, feared and despised by both the Cavalcaste the other tribes--who have since intermarried--and reduced to eking out a living by selling shells and fish.  Gullstruck is also home to the Lost, people who have the ability to send one of their senses, such as sight or smell, away from their bodies.  The Lost's abilities enable communication and commerce between the far-flung communities on Gullstruck, so the birth of one is a great boon to their community.  Gullstruck Island begins with a Lost inspector arriving at the Lace village of Hollow Beast to investigate whether Arilou, a young girl, is indeed a Lost, the first Lost born to the Lace in many years.  What we soon realize is that the entire village is pulling a scam.  Though Arilou was once genuinely believed to have been Lost because of the unresponsive behavior that might indicate wandering senses, it now seems more likely that she is simply retarded.  Unwilling to give up the advantages associated with possessing a Lost, the villagers have spent years perpetuating the lie that Arilou is one, to which end her younger sister Hathin has been pressed into service as Arilou's caretaker and "interpreter," and the person chiefly in charge of maintaining the charade.

Deception and concealment are thus quickly established as important themes in the novel, as is the theme of deeply ingrained customs that outsiders might find counter-intuitive.  The Lace, for example, have the custom of smiling at all times, which very nearly gets Hathin in trouble when, in times of stress or danger, she finds it impossible to keep a grin off her face.  This is also, however, a custom that we are likely to find as strange as the other inhabitants of Gullstruck, and it alienates Hathin from the readers.  It is therefore a perfect encapsulation of how Hardinge constructs the Lace and the other Gullstruck cultures--as something deliberately foreign and sometimes offputting (it is no coincidence, I think, that of the four novels discussed in this post Gullstruck Island is the only one not told in the first person) that nevertheless, upon closer examination, reflects the humanity of the people participating in it.  The novel's early chapters reveal that not only are all the Hollow Beast villagers in on the Arilou scam, but that, fearing that a stray Lost might send their sight or hearing their way, they never speak the truth that all of them have guessed about Arilou.  As Hathin runs around trying to cheat the inspector's tests, she talks to the other villagers in code, pretending that her sister is Lost with such fervent dedication that it becomes hard to tell fact from fiction.  When the Lost inspector dies suddenly, the Hollow Beasts are terrified that they'll be blamed for his death (and suspect that one among them is responsible for it).  They decide to concoct a story in which they are left blameless, but this backfires when it's revealed that all of the Lost on Gullstruck died at the same time--all except Arilou.  The Hollow Beasts find themselves blamed for murdering the Lost, and when an angry mob attacks the village Hathin is forced to flee, with Arilou in tow, even as anti-Lace sentiment begins sweeping the island.

One of the consequences of writing a novel driven by cultural differences, and a point of view character who is not ignorant of her own culture--who is, in fact, so steeped in that culture that she participates in it unthinkingly and has to make a conscious effort to suppress its customs and conventions--is that Hardinge spends a lot of time explaining that culture to us, the readers.  Though chock-full of events--the scam on the inspector and subsequent escape from Hollow Beast are only the story's first act, and are followed by Hathin and Arilou fleeing from a bounty hunter, joining up with fellow Lace and taking a vow of vengeance against the people responsible for the massacre at Hollow Beast, scamming a Cavalcaste governor into creating a safe zone for refugee Lace, and learning the true fate of the Lost, all before the denouement even starts setting itself up--Gullstruck Island spends a lot of time in what can only be called infodumps, explaining customs, traditions, and beliefs, and of course describing Gullstruck itself as Hathin makes her way across it.  Gullstruck is a such a fascinating and vividly drawn setting, however, and Hardinge's construction of its geography, cultures, flora and fauna, and mythology is so imaginative, yet at the same time consistent, that the novel might almost be worth reading just for those infodumps, but happily Hardinge is also quite skilled at packing a lot of punch into a single paragraph.  When Hathin escapes from Hollow Beast ahead of the bounty hunter, she recalls a folk tale about the island's volcanoes, into which have been encoded instructions for navigating the caves that are the village's emergency escape route.  The single scene thus provides the thrill of escape, a bit of background about Lace culture and Gullstruck's traditions regarding the volcanoes, which are revered as deities with short and explosive tempers, and reinforcement of the theme of concealment, as vital information is encoded in a seemingly meaningless bit of folklore.  These multiple levels of storytelling persist throughout the novel, resulting in a thrilling adventure, a magnificent feat of worldbuilding, and a chewy morality tale, all packed into a scant few hundred pages.

Another interesting aspect to the novel's worldbuilding is the fact that, despite telling a fantasy story in which magic obviously exists, Hardinge never comes down on the side of one or another of her invented cultures.  One of the major points of dispute between the Cavalcaste and the tribes is that the former practice ancestor worship, and set aside large and ever-growing tracts of land as cities of the dead where their ashes may lie undisturbed, while the latter scatter the dead's ashes, and the Lace even believe that a person's name should never be spoken after their death.  In the early parts of the novel we witness Lace and Cavalcaste characters contemplating each others' death rites with disgust--the Lace believe that the Cavalcaste's dead are imprisoned, while the Cavalcaste can't fathom life without the protection of their ancestors--while many of the Cavalcaste's actions, including their arrival on Gullstruck and persecution of the Lace, turn out to have been driven by the need to acquire more land for their dead.  At the end of the novel, these lands are returned to the living, but this is painted as a purely practical decision, not confirmation of the tribes' beliefs.  In fact, there is never any indication that there is an afterlife at all in the Gullstruck universe, and the novel leaves it as entirely plausible that both groups' beliefs are equally illusory.  Similarly, the Wailing Way, source of all the strife between Cavalcaste and Lace, turns out to be in the lava path of a nearby volcano, but though Lace characters speak to the volcanoes as people and make offerings to appease them, and though the volcano's eventual eruption is interpreted by many of the characters as its angry response to being encroached upon, Hardinge leaves room for us to disagree--to view these beliefs as folklore that the tribes have developed around the observed facts of their environment.  This, incidentally, means that though the Lace priests were right to warn the Cavalcaste about building in the Wailing Way two hundred years ago, their choice to enforce that edict with murder can't be so easily validated.

This ambivalent space that Hardinge builds around her invented cultures, and her depiction of them as something unspoken but omnipresent, creates a level of sophistication in Gullstruck Island that I'm not used to encountering in YA fiction, and that puts it head and shoulders above the other books discussed in this post.  Hathin, who has spent her life in a role that forces her to be as invisible as the rules that bind her, the enabler of a lie that no one will acknowledge, has imbibed that role so deeply that at the novel's outset she feels a profound sense of personal failure at events that she has no power to control, such as the inspector setting tests for Arilou that she can't cheat.  Over the course of the novel she comes into her own, but still within the confines, and using the tools, of Lace culture.  At the novel's end, however, she has to find a way to reconcile that culture--and the sacred vow of vengeance she's taken agains the person responsible for Hollow Beast's destruction--with her own values, which she has, at that point, learned to recognize and pay attention to.  If there's a flaw in Gullstruck Island it is that with everything that happens in it, with the enormous amount of information thrown at the reader, and with the distance that Hardinge's third person narrative imposes on us, Hathin's own growth can sometimes seem a little perfunctory.  In particular, her struggles with her desire for revenge and with her inability to kill are glossed over a little too quickly--especially when compared with Todd, Viola, and Cassel's struggles with similar issues.  That said, I can't help but feel that this is a less important--if only because it is so very common--lesson than the one that is unique to Gullstruck Island--that irrational traditions can still be valuable, that tradition shouldn't be allowed to rule our lives, that just because a belief is false doesn't make it less powerful, and that it's important to question your beliefs, especially when it comes to other cultures and your own.

All told then, I think my YA binge can be summed up as a success: I've finished a fascinating and engrossing trilogy, started another one, and discovered a wonderful new writer and a strong contender for one 2011's best reads.  Most importantly, I feel energized about reading again, and eager to branch out into other genres and modes.  There's never any shortage of talk about what it means that so many adults enjoy reading YA fiction, and what dire things this bodes for literary culture and culture in general.  But though I wouldn't like my reading diet to consist entirely, or even for the most part, of YA, I think that the experience of the last couple of weeks demonstrates why I sometimes find it necessary to return to these books--because they remind me of why and how I became a voracious reader in the first place, and give me the chance to once again lose myself in a book the way I did as a child.