Sunday, November 27, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

So China Miéville has written a science fiction novel, and it is... well, it is many things, but perhaps we'll start with "Old School."  Miéville is the author who took the top off fantasy ten years ago, and his next to last novel, The City & The City, was so sui generis that it won awards for both science fiction (the British Science Fiction Award, the Clarke) and fantasy (the World Fantasy Award, the Locus Award for best fantasy novel), despite containing no non-realist elements whatsoever.  But Miéville's latest novel, Embassytown, though in many ways as dazzlingly original as anything he's written, is positively retro.  It's a planetary romance, a far future SF story about a time when humans have spread through the galaxy with the help of vaguely explained FTL technology, a story of contact with winged, eye-stalked aliens.  It is, in short, that increasingly rare, increasingly unfashionable artifact, a core SF story, and its tropes are pure Golden Age.  Perhaps the avant garde has simply come full circle.

The titular town is a human colony at the heart of an alien city on the planet Arieka, a trading post on a backwater notable for two things--lying at the very edge of known space, and the bizarre linguistics of its native inhabitants, colloquially known as Hosts.  The Ariekene language--called simply Language, its own thing unlike all others--is not simply a collection of phonemes assembled into shapes and given meaning by consensus.  To understand Language, Ariekei must hear it spoken by a sentient person who understands its meaning and imbues their speech with it--"Where to us each word means something, to the Hosts, each is an opening. A door, through which the thought of that referent, the thought itself that reached for that word, can be seen."  This has two implications.  One, the Ariekei can't conceive of any abstract concept unless there exists an embodiment of it somewhere on their world, and therefore they also cannot lie.  Two, because Ariekei speak simultaneously from two mouths, a single human can't communicate with them, nor can two people speaking in tandem, because the singular intent isn't there.

Embassytown has thus adapted to both serve the Ariekei and position its staff as their sole alien interlocutors.  For generations, it has been breeding Ambassadors--cloned pairs who are psychologically molded to think of themselves as a single person, and whose empathy is enhanced by technological means to enable them to speak to the Hosts.  And, as the Ariekei become exposed to new concepts through their interactions with offworlders, they require physical manifestations of those concepts in order to speak them.  This is one of the earliest experiences of our narrator, Avice Benner Cho, who as a girl is turned into a simile--the girl who was hurt in darkness and ate what was given her, an image of making do--by playing out that experience.  Later in her life, Avice leaves Arieka to become an "immerser," one of the few who can crew spaceships through the subspace that makes interstellar travel possible.  As Embassytown opens, however, she's been back for a while, at the behest of her offworlder, linguist husband Silce, from whom she is now estranged for reasons that Miéville spends much of the novel's first hundred pages explaining.

Embassytown is a smart, well-written novel that constructs its world, plot, and central concepts with impressive panache.  But of all the many things it does well, perhaps the best is its recreation of the company outpost in outer space.  The small town politics of such postings, the battles for supremacy between local authority and the government back home, the oligarchy of clerks and lifelong staffers who actually run the operation, the carefully stratified social structure--all are recreated on an alien planet.  Embassytown resonates with its canonical, 19th and early 20th century antecedents, complete with swanky staff parties where everyone is trying to search out a juicy bit of gossip or political leverage, and long-held, impossibly baroque feuds in whose wake the bitter losers bide their time until they can stick the knife in and maybe even regain the upper hand--but all with good manners, and with half an eye on the canapé tray.  (In addition to being quite funny, these references elicit the company outpost's associations of Empire, of corruption, and of course of exploitative colonialism, which the remainder of the novel both plays with and contravenes.)  But Embassytown also makes sense within the futuristic, far-flung setting that Miéville has created--for example, the ingrained taboos against referring to paired Ambassadors as individuals rather than a single person or trying to tell them apart (which extend to cutesy, portmanteau names like CalVin or MagDa), and the deference that ordinary Embassytowners (called "commoners") like Avice feel towards them.  Avice, who is both an insider and an outsider to this community, provides the perfect viewpoint on it.  She's seen enough of the outside world to know how small Embassytown is and how parochial its habits and conventions are (and is therefore often perversely driven to defy them), but she's also a native, capable of understanding those habits and conventions in a way that Silce, or the new government representative Wyatt, can't.

It's Wyatt who sets the novel's events in motion when, as a power play against the local embassy staff, who have been parlaying their control over the Ambassadors into a power base and a possible bid for independence, he brings in his own, non-native Ambassador to Arieka.  EzRa--a seemingly impossible pairing of two genetically different individuals rather than clones--defy Embassytown politesse by referring to themselves as distinct persons rather than a singular entity, but all seems to be going well until they speak to the Ariekei for the first time: "The Hosts were swaying as if they were at sea. One spasmed its giftwing and its fanwing, another kept them unnaturally still. One opened and closed its membranes several times in neurotic repetition."  EzRa's connection, it transpires, is close enough to singularity that the Ariekei can understand them, but far enough from it that their essential separateness registers.  The impossibility of this contradiction, that there-not-there unity, intoxicates the Hosts, and they transmit that addiction to others.  Before long, Embassytown is surrounded by addicts, craving a drug that will eventually kill them, and willing to kill for their next fix.  The colonists must trade poison for their survival, but when some Ariekei find way to escape their addiction and march on Embassytown intent on its destruction, the slaughter of all humans seems imminent.

For a novel that loads itself up with so much meaty material--the very concept of Language, the way that it shapes the Ariekei's habits of thought, the way that humans' thoughts are shaped by their own use of language, the thorny moral dilemma the Embassytowners find themselves in when the scope of the Ariekei's addiction becomes known, and, in flashback chapters that chart the reasons for Silce and Avice's breakup, the emergence of a fascination among Ariekei with lies, and of a group who try to train themselves to do so--Embassytown is a curiously weightless exercise.  Not bad, but nowhere near as dramatic and impactful as these plot summaries suggest.  Partly this is down to Avice, whose voice is too flat and too impersonal to give the novel emotional weight.  Over the course of Embassytown Avice loses her husband, her lover, and her best friend, witnesses the collapse of her community, the breakdown of Ariekene civilization, the exposure of the lies that have underpinned Embassytown's way of life for generations, and seemingly endless amounts of death and carnage, and spends long stretches utterly convinced of her impending death.  Some of this registers--in particular, the collapse of Ariekene society, right down to their infrastructure (the architecture and technology are all biological, and they become addicted along with the Ariekei), and the despair that sweeps through Embassytown and especially the Ambassadors when the full scope of the disaster becomes clear, are deeply horrifying--but not enough, and a lot of this emotional battery seems to bypass Avice, who keeps functioning for no apparent reason other than that Miéville needs her to.

Avice is a good viewpoint character--clever, observant, and as I've said, perfectly situated between thoughtless adherence to Embassytown customs and ignorance of them--but Miéville never really bothers to make a person out of her.  It's never clear, for example, just why she works so hard to insinuate herself into the upper echelons of Embassytown's staff when the novel's events kick into gear.  A self-described "floaker"--someone who does just enough to get by without becoming burdened with unwanted responsibility--Avice seems content, after returning to Embassytown, to live off her savings and accrued coolness points as a former immerser and someone who has been offworld.  And yet when the plot gets rolling, she's constantly at the center of it, or trying to get there.  Her efforts to find out the meaning of EzRa's effect on the Ariekei at the beginning of the novel, and to manage the situation when its full extent becomes clear, are only explainable if we think of her as Miéville's stand-in, someone who can witness or set in motions the events necessary to get the plot where it's going, but not a person in her own right.  (There are, however, instances in which Avice's emotional flatness feels gratifying.  Her marriage to Silce is matter-of-factly introduced to us as a sexless, but nevertheless affectionate, union; later in the novel she becomes sexually involved with another character, and though the relationship is obviously important to both of them, it is only mentioned as an aside.  It's nice, especially for a novel with a female lead, that Miéville has managed to write sex and romance in a way that recognizes their importance without making them the crux of the story.)

Another possible reason that the stakes in Embassytown never seem as high as they ought to be is that Language never feels as believable, or as thought out, as Miéville and his characters insist it is.  Miéville hangs a lantern on this early in the novel, when he has Silce exasperatedly exclaim
"Does it ever occur to you that this language is impossible, Avice?" he said. "Im, poss, ih, bul. It makes no sense. They don't have polysemy. Words don't signify: they are their referents. How can they be sentient and not have symbolic language? How do their numbers work? It makes no sense. And Ambassadors are twins, not single people. There's not one mind behind Language when they speak it..."
But raising the question only serves to draw attention to the fact that Embassytown can't come up with a persuasive answer.  How can the Ariekei be sentient without symbolic language?  How can they have created a vastly advanced, technological society with complex social customs when they have to struggle towards even the simplest of abstract concepts?  It doesn't help that in constructing Language Miéville piles one implausibility on top of another with only the most tenuous connections between them: not only the double mouth, but the seemingly psychic ability to detect whether a speaker is sentient or not, whether they understand Language or are simply mimicking its sounds (Miéville compounds this by deciding, in order to make the plot work later in the book, that Ariekei can understand recorded speech, so long as it was originally spoken by a person who knows Language), and on top of all this, the inability to lie or express oneself symbolically, to see words as more than their referents.  I'm not sufficiently versed in the philosophy of language to say whether these attributes naturally flow from one another, or whether there's even a persuasive argument that they should, but building that argument feels like something the novel ought to have done.

In his review of Embassytown at the London Review of Books, Sam Thompson argues that this isn't the novel's concern: "like H.G. Wells in The Invisible Man or The Island of Doctor Moreau, Miéville takes an impossible proposition and works through its implications with rigour."  But that isn't actually an accurate description of the novel.  Rather than working through Language's implications, Miéville's preoccupation is with the way that humans change it--the Ariekei's fascination with lies, which extends to festivals in which they compete to see who can come closest to uttering a non-truth (one Ambassador describes this to Avice as "an extreme sport"), and later on, the way that EzRa corrupts it.  Language itself, and its implications, are obscured by these effects, where a less event-laden novel might have developed them into a more believable--and thus more engaging--central concept.  (In contrast, the reason that The City & The City worked for me despite having an equally implausible premise is that that novel was dedicated to rigorously working through its premise.)

But the main reason, I think, for Embassytown's centerlessness is that, like the repeated scenes in which wannabe liar Ariekei struggle to stretch similes into something broader and less literal, reading the novel is an exercise in recognition and contrast--of the novels, the touchstones of SF, that Miéville is echoing and recalling, and of the ways in which he diverges from their tropes.  Embassytown is like Mary Gentle's duology Golden Witchbreed and Ancient Light, another story of well-meaning human colonists who royally fuck things up, but its aliens are less differentiated, and their personalities less vivid.  It's like the work of Ursula K. Le Guin (whose The Left Hand of Darkness also feels like the inspiration for Golden Witchbreed) in that it looks at a supposedly soft science like linguistics through SFnal glasses, but unlike Darkness, human interference on Arieka disrupts its society rather than being subsumed into the planet's existing political matrix.  The novel's middle segments, in which social roles and conventions break down under the stress of the colony's peril, feel like a siege novel along the lines of J.G. Farrell's The Siege of Krishnapur (which is itself both a comment and a complication of siege novels published in the immediate wake of the Indian Rebellion in the mid-19th century), but here the besiegers are unambiguously the victims, and the besieged clearly complicit in their predicament and morally compromised by their attempts to survive it.  In the religious fervor that Silce develops towards the Ariekei, and his conviction that those among them who are learning to lie are agents of evil, Embassytown is like A Case of Conscience, but reversed--here the aliens are angels, not devils, and humans are the serpent offering forbidden knowledge.  At no point does Miéville resort to outright cribbing--recognition, here, is always mingled with contrast--but these moments are jarring nevertheless.  I found myself constantly thinking of what Embassytown was like, rather than what it was.

It's hard to know how much of this recognition is a product of deliberate references by Miéville (though the siege novel reference feels quite deliberate given how much Embassytown is made to resemble a colonial outpost), and how much the result of Embassytown's being, as I've said, a very Old School novel treading on familiar ground.  Nevertheless, the effect is that Embassytown often feels more like a virtuoso mimicry and recombination of familiar tropes than a thing in its own right.  Which may be intentional.  The process of storying, of altering and repurposing story, and of recognizing one story in another, is something that Embassytown is very concerned with.  It's what Avice is doing--what she admits to doing on more than one occasion--in her own narrative (when she explains her plan to save the day to another character but conceals it from us, she justifies doing so by saying that "Revelation was spoiled for him, but I can retain it here, for you").  It's what she resents another simile for when he tells the story of what he had to endure at the hands of the Ariekei--"I hated that when he took his own turn, described terrible things done to enLanguage him, Hasser, who had been opened and closed again, modulated his voice and timed his delivery and turned it, true as it was, into a story."  During the siege, the humans rifle through their cultural archives and find what is clearly recognizable, even through Avice's garbled description, as Dawn of the Dead, into which they pour their own meaning--"We read the story as ours, of course."  Turning uninflected truth into story, and one story into another, is an artifact of our ability to use symbolic language, metaphor, and imagery, of the "slippage between word and referent" that Language lacks.  At the end of the novel, when the Ariekei discover this space, one of them tells the others a story of how that change came about and what it means, and through that telling, makes the story--and the vision for the future couched in it--true.

But perhaps the most important comment on story, storying, and the way that they can affect and shape reality comes relatively early in the novel, when Avice visits Wyatt shortly after EzRa's first, disastrous meeting with the Ariekei, and wonders if the Embassy hasn't committed a disastrous faux pas.
"This isn’t one of those stories, Avice. One moment of cack-handedness, Captain Cook offends the bloody locals, one slip of the tongue or misuse of sacred cutlery, and bang, he's on the grill. Do you ever think how self-aggrandising that stuff is? Oh, all those stories pretend to be mea culpas about cultural insensitivity, oops we said the wrong thing, but they’re really all about how ridiculous natives overreact." He laughed and shook his head. "Avice, we must have made thousands of fuckups like that over the years. Think about it. Just like our visitors did when they first met our lot, on Terre. And for the most part we didn't lose our shit, did we? The Ariekei—and the Kedis, and Shur'asi, and Cymar and what-have-you, pretty much all the exots I've ever dealt with—are perfectly capable of understanding when an insult's intended, and when it's a misunderstanding."
What's interesting here isn't that Wyatt is right, which of course he is, but that even as he's making this thoroughly logical, persuasive argument, we know that he's wrong.  Not because of anything that's happened, or even because of Avice's dubiousness of his assurances, but because we know what kind of story we're reading.  The setup is too blatant, too calculated to recall Empire and its excesses.  The references to the Fall and the temptation of knowledge overlaid on this setup only cement our conviction that the humans are going to damage the Ariekei horribly.  That awareness, of the inevitability of a catastrophic fuckup, of some insurmountable cultural difference that is going to lead to disaster, permeates Embassytown.  It has the effect of leeching it of much of its tension (Avice, for example, takes nearly half the novel to figure out what EzRa's effect on the Ariekei is, but anyone who is a little genre aware will have figured it out after their first or second meeting).  But it also has the very strange effect of obscuring, or maybe dampening, the fact that this isn't what ends up happening at all.

Miéville is known for playing with genre expectations--the ending of Perdido Street Station famously relies on both the readers and the main character having imposed a fairy tale narrative on another character, only to discover a gruesome, un-fairy tale-ish truth--and in Embassytown he seems to be playing with the gruesome, tragic expectations of all the novels that this novel recalls.  Human presence on Arieka does have a disastrous effect on its inhabitants, cultural contamination does occur, a horrible misunderstanding does send humans and aliens to the very brink of annihilation, Adam and Eve do eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge.  But this disaster turns out to be survivable, maybe even, ultimately, a good thing.  Ariekene society is irretrievably altered, the Ariekei learn to speak lies and will never be the same, but this opens their minds to new possibilities, and lays those possibilities before humans as well.  The novel ends on a note not merely of hope, but of staunch belief in the bright future and humans and Ariekei are going to build together, now that they've left the Garden of Eden.

Along with the mindbending concept of Language, this hopeful confounding of our expectations is where Embassytown is most its own creation, rather than a repurposing of known tropes.  But like Language, it doesn't quite work.  Perhaps because Miéville has, somewhat manipulatively, constructed his premise so that the eradication of Language, of the Ariekei's unique cultural heritage, by alien interlopers is ultimately held up as a good thing.  Or because the means by which Language is done away with stretch that already implausible concept well past its breaking point, suggesting that an entire species can be taught to think symbolically in a matter of months.  Or simply because I'm a cynic, and more likely to accept corrupted fairy tales than averted tragedies.  Whatever the reason, the result is a novel that never quite manages to overcome its referents.  Embassytown is a smart, engaging novel and a fine read.  There's no part of it, aside perhaps from a slow beginning and a dull narrator, that even comes close to being badly done.  But when all's said and done, it feels like less than the sum of its parts.

For the last few days I've been engaged in a very frustrating conversation over at The Millions, where Kim Wright has followed up her article Why Are So Many Literary Writers Shifting Into Genre? with The Genre Games.  In both pieces, Wright tries to address her frustration at a publishing industry that seems to arbitrarily impose genre labels on books for pure marketing reasons--an understandable frustration, and something that authors might reasonably be concerned about--by arguing that genre doesn't actually exist.  I've tried, again and again, to protest that this is a dismissive approach that, in the name of so-called inclusiveness, effaces entire literary traditions, but so far I've met with little success.  Embassytown was the perfect accompaniment to this discussion.  On the one hand, it's a reminder, if one was needed, of the unique perspective that the science fiction genre offers authors and readers, and of the richness of the tradition that Wright dismisses, and that Miéville so joyfully revels is.  But on the other hand, it's a reminder of the danger of reveling in that tradition too much.  Embassytown is Golden Age, Old School SF.  It's Big Idea SF.  It's social SF.  It's a smart and thought-provoking novel, but it doesn't quite work.  There's too much mimicry here, too much recalling of earlier work, not enough emphasis on developing new ideas.  The avant garde, as it turns out, can't come full circle.  That doesn't mean that Embassytown isn't worth a read, but in a way, maybe I like it better for what it signifies than for what it is.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, November 21-25

The week's first review is by Matt Hilliard, who looks at Rob Ziegler's debut novel Seed, a post environmental collapse novel.  Though he questions Ziegler's environmental model, Matt finds much to admire about Seed's depiction of a slowly collapsing world.  Lila Garrott is disappointed with Lisa Goldstein's The Uncertain Places, arguing that it does little that is new or original with its fairy tale components, and that its characters are unconvincing.  Nathaniel Katz is ambivalent about Robert McCammon's The Wolf's Hour, a reprinted novel from 1989, and The Hunter From the Woods, a collection of stories starring the same main character.  Though he admires the pizzazz of this character, a werewolf James Bond who kills Nazis, he finds the execution, and particularly the two books' frequent sex scenes, rather tedious.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Snuff by Terry Pratchett

After six years of writing about him, it feels as if I've developed a certain patter where Terry Pratchett, and particularly his Discworld novels, are concerned.  Though I've liked some of his novels better and others worse, my reaction to them in the years since I've been keeping this blog has been a near-uniform mix of fondness and exasperation, the former in recognition of the sheer breadth of accomplishment that is Discworld, and of the inventiveness that still goes into it, and the latter in sad cognizance that the series is growing increasingly stale, and that its inventiveness is, more and more often, watered down with recycled themes, gags, and character arcs.  This has been especially true of the books featuring Sam Vimes, arguably Pratchett's most enduring, most iconic character.  More than any of the other Discworld series, the Vimes novels stick closely to a formula, which sees the erstwhile policeman thrust into unfamiliar settings to investigate murders that just happen to shed a light on prejudice and regressive social practices.  In recent years, Pratchett himself seemed to realize that he'd gone to this well too many times, and Vimes has been relegated to supporting, if not entirely supportive, roles in novels featuring newer characters, like Making Money, Unseen Academicals, and I Shall Wear Midnight.  So when I heard that Snuff, the latest Discworld novel, was another straight-up Vimes novel, I couldn't suppress a sigh, anticipating a by-the-numbers plot, familiar character beats, with just the barest hint of newness to justify them.  I wish I'd been right in my expectations, because sadly Snuff is something so much worse than familiar, recycled Pratchett--it's just plain bad.

By that I mean, first and foremost, badly written.  Pratchett has never been a great stylist but he's always had a distinctive style, a sardonic, wildly inventive, and of course quite funny narrative voice with which he establishes a setting, a character, and a mood in a few quick sentences or a line of dialogue.  That sharpness is missing from Snuff, and particularly from its first hundred pages, in which its scene and premise are established.  Instead we get long, belabored paragraphs that lay their information before us inelegantly and with little flair.  Take, for example, the following bit of dialogue:
"I have no objection to people taking substances that make them feel better or more contented, or, for that matter, see little dancing purple fairies--or even their god if it comes to it.  It's their brain, after all, and society can have no claim on it, providing they're not operating heavy machinery at the time.  However, to sell drugs to trolls that actually make their heads explode is simply murder, the capital crime.  I am glad to say that Commander Vimes fully agrees with me on this issue."
There are a number of things wrong with this paragraph.  First, and most obviously, it's not funny, and what little bit of joke there was to begin with is smothered to death by the long, circuitous, increasingly pious route that the argument takes on its way to the punchline, piling sub-clause upon sub-clause in its haste to establish the Correct position on drugs.  Then there's the completely overblown, overemphasized conclusion--did you know that selling people a substance that kills them is murder, and that murder is a crime?  And that this is a stance on which one would be glad to find others in agreement with one?  And then the obvious deck-stacking involved in the implausible, economically untenable concept of a drug that makes its users' heads explode (later in the novel we're told that this only happens after several hits, but that's still a pretty shoddy business model when you consider that trafficking in these drugs is punishable by death), which is paid off later in the novel when the villains turn out to be drug dealers, whom we can now hate without compromising our libertarian principles.

But what's really wrong with this paragraph is that it is spoken by Vetinari.  The man who in other Discworld novels conveys volumes with a word or even a raised eyebrow is here reduced to so much empty drivel.  Nor is he alone--Snuff is characterized by a tendency to use fifty words where ten would have made the point so much better.  When we first see Vimes, he is miserably trying to alleviate the itching caused by his socks.  A previous Discworld novel would have deemed it sufficient tell us that "For the hundredth time he considered telling his wife that among her sterling qualities, and they were many, knitting did not feature" and leave us to draw the obvious conclusion from the fact that Vimes doesn't.  Snuff not only feels it incumbent upon it to explain that to malign her knitting would break Sybil's heart, but goes on to explain that
Samuel Vimes, who had never gone into a place of worship with religious aforethought, worshiped Lady Sybil, and not a day went past without his being amazed that she seemed to do the same to him.  He had made her his wife and she had made him a millionaire; with her behind him the sad, desolate, penniless and cynical copper was a rich and powerful duke.
Even if we take this as a potted introduction to both characters, it's terribly awkward and creates an impression of them that is sadly borne out by the rest of the book, in which the Vimes marriage, delicately established in previous books as a loving bond between two complicated people who value and respect each other's individuality, is turned into a no less loving, but much more aggravating, stream of marital clichés--Sybil is "a higher power," Vimes muses that there is "no point in arguing with Sybil, because even if you thought that you'd won, it would turn out, by some magic unavailable to husbands, that you had, in fact, been totally misinformed" while Sybil "took the view that her darling husband's word was law for the City Watch while, in her own case, it was a polite suggestion to be graciously considered", and much is made of her ironclad control over Vimes's diet.

Snuff begins with Sybil having exerted her Little Woman powers to shanghai Vimes into a vacation in the country, where she is a major landowner.  Or rather, where Vimes is the landowner, Sybil having transferred her estates to him upon their marriage.  At first glance, this is actually a rather brilliant premise.  Vimes's trajectory throughout the Discworld series has been one of meteoric ascent, from Captain to Commander, from Commander to Knight, from Knight to Duke.  These last two should pose a problem for the staunchly republican Vimes, but Pratchett has been careful to use his elevated circumstances to bring Vimes in contact with an increasingly prominent class of criminals.  Every time he rises in rank, his opponents rise as well--as Sir Samuel, he bumps heads with the Ankh Morpork aristocracy; as His Grace, the Duke of Ankh, he deals with foreign heads of state--and they treat him with the same familiar disdain, thus validating Vimes's self-image as an underdog, and justifying his participation in the aristocratic system by arguing that the title opens doors and enables his police work (from which, to Vimes's mind, his only true authority stems).  Snuff reverses this trend.  It strips the vacationing Vimes of his policeman's badge and confronts him with people who are not only his social inferiors but his actual tenants.  Which is obviously a very meaty, fresh angle on the character, and when Jethro, the local blacksmith, confronts Vimes, who is gingerly trying on the role of magnanimous landlord, with the simple fact that he has become something he used to hate, and challenges him to explain by what right he should have so much while others have so little, it really seems as if the novel might do something new with the character.

Unfortunately, doing something new with Vimes doesn't seem to be on Pratchett's to do list.  He undercuts Jethro by depicting him as a bullying oaf, and by showing us that many of the people he claims to speak for actually value the feudal system (which is, obviously, an important part of the debate about class, but not when that debate is as one-sided as it is in Snuff).  Later, when the novel's actual plot emerges, the class issue is shoved to the side.  Jethro is kidnapped, Vimes rescues him, and it turns out that his dislike of nobility stems from a run-in with the other, bad aristocrats, who just happen to be the villains of the novel and the people Vimes is about to arrest. True, at Snuff's end, Jethro is still distrustful of the aristocracy.  But he's also become a local constable and accepts Vimes's superiority as a policeman.  The message seems to be that as long as there is a law, and that law is applied equally to rich and poor alike, it doesn't matter if one man lives in a castle and the other in a hovel, or if the class system tells both that one is better than the other.  This is iffy in itself, but it also has the effect of making Vimes seem like a smaller, pettier person than he used to be.  He spends the early portions of the novel halfheartedly poking at the injustice of the feudal system, but it soon becomes clear that what's bothering him is the possibility that someone might mistake him for a willing, rather than grudging, participant in it.  When a tenant recalls his grandfather's gratitude to the former lord for giving him a half-dollar, Vimes "squirmed inside, knowing that the supposedly generous old drunkard would have had more money than you could ever imagine, and here was a working man pathetically grateful for a hand-out from the old piss artist." The rage that characterizes Vimes is replaced with this squirming embarrassment, which prioritizes his own ability to feel good about himself over the question of whether there actually is something to feel good about.

In light of this, it's perhaps fortunate that the class warfare angle is dropped almost as soon as it is introduced (nor is this the only plot element in Snuff to be so unceremoniously discarded; an early scene acts as an extended Pride and Prejudice parody and even involves Vimes inspiring the Discworld equivalent of Jane Austen, but all the characters involved disappear until the novel's epilogue, where their sole purpose is to be part of an especially clunky joke).  This is in favor of that perennial Discworld, and particularly Sam Vimes, theme, A Reviled Non-Human Species is Oppressed, Now Let's Learn That Prejudice is Wrong.  Having gone over this ground with dwarfs, trolls, golems, vampires, werewolves, zombies, gnomes, orcs, and even women, Pratchett seems content to throw a few of the template's greatest hits at the page, and the result is muddled and contradictory.

The Reviled Non-Human Species this time around are goblins, who are apparently viewed as vermin for their disgusting superstitions about bodily fluids.  Or maybe they're viewed as vermin because their desperate conditions force them to live in squalor.  Several characters comment on the goblins' downtrodden demeanor, the way that they've bought into society's disdain for them, but then a local author informs Vimes that they actually have a rich, complicated culture that they conceal from humans (naturally, she disappears from the narrative after imparting this information).  Slavery comes into the story at one point, but so halfheartedly that its sole purpose seems to be to make the rather obvious point that Slavery is Wrong, without exploring any of the reasons that it is nevertheless tolerated--despite drawing a connection between slavery and luxury goods like tobacco, Snuff avoids the question of society's complicity in slavery, and by embracing the canonical, 18th and 19th century form of slavery is lets its readers, most of whom benefit from slave labor, off the hook.  Instead, Snuff roots slavery in the dehumanization of the goblins, who are viewed so universally as un-people that it is necessary to pass a law that makes it illegal to enslave them.  But then it tells us that it is possible to reverse this prejudice in a single night, when Sybil arranges for a concert of goblin music, which is apparently ethereally beautiful.

It would have been possible, I suppose, to weave these contradictory strands together into a whole, but Pratchett doesn't seem terribly interested in creating a coherent, compelling goblin culture (there are, for example, very few speaking goblin characters in the novel, and most of the ones we get are rather bland).  The goblins are merely an excuse, a justification for Vimes to do his thing, and a means of his further glorification.  Most of Snuff is spent extolling the virtues of Sam Vimes--her simpering adoration of him is one of the many ways in which the novel lobotomizes Sybil--and many insufferable passages are given over to achieving this end.  In a particularly galling instance, the local constable, Feeney, arrives at the hall to arrest Vimes on a trumped-up charge.  Vimes responds with what is essentially "do you know who I am, boy?" to which Feeney responds by quoting a speech by Vimes to new policemen telling them exactly where that kind of statement should be stuffed.  And yet somehow, Vimes not only feels no shame at having been called out in this manner, but manages to wrest the moral high ground away from Feeney, and is later validated in this by both the young constable and the narrative.  Pratchett seems to feel that he can counteract this celebration of all things Vimes by stressing Vimes's awareness of the darkness that lies within him.
It was just his own human darkness and internal enemy, which knew his every thought, which knew that every time Commander Vimes dragged some vicious and inventive murderer to such mercy or justice as the law in its erratic wisdom determined, there was another Vimes, a ghost Vimes, whose urge to chop that creature into pieces  on the spot had to be chained.  This, regrettably, was harder every time, and he wondered if one day that darkness would break out and claim its heritage, and he wouldn't know ... the brakes and chains and doors and locks in his head would have vanished and he wouldn't know.
The problem is that we've heard this too many times before.  It wasn't terribly believable the first time--Pratchett almost certainly wasn't going to drag his favorite character so low--and by now we know that Vimes isn't going to give into his darkness, and especially not in a novel in which that darkness, and Vimes's signature rage, feel so muted and so paper-thin.  The effect is to make both Vimes and Pratchett seem like posers, who like to talk about darkness but have no real idea of what it is.  And, of course, it means that there's no contrast to the entirely pro-Vimes slant of the rest of the novel.

As that paragraph demonstrates, Snuff's prose stabilizes quite a bit after its first hundred pages--with fewer infodumps and character and setting introductions, Pratchett settles into a by-now familiar rhythm.  But this doesn't make Snuff a particularly funny novel.  The main recurring gag involves Vimes's manservant Wilkins.  Originally introduced as a caricature of the proper English butler who could just barely suppress his sneer at Vimes's uncouthness and his gauche insistence on doing things like shaving himself, Wilkins was transformed into a gung-ho soldier in 1997's Jingo, and in Snuff he's a former street tough whose propriety is a thin gloss concealing terrifyingly inventive killer instincts, and whose main function is as Vimes's bodyguard.  Though I found the Jingo-era Wilkins more interesting than the effortlessly lethal Wilkins in Snuff, I might have been willing to tolerate him on the grounds that this sort of drift is common to secondary characters in Pratchett novels.  But on top of being overused as a plot device (particularly as a way of allowing Vimes to avoid ethical quandaries without letting the bad guys get away unpunished), Wilkins is overused as a joke.  When you consider that the first "proper English butler is actually a berserk street tough" joke about this character was made three Vimes books and fourteen years ago, harping on it again and again throughout Snuff just seems lazy.  The freshest jokes in Snuff revolve around Young Sam, here a scientifically-minded, poo-obsessed six-year-old, but they have the effect of recalling the superior use of this character in the previous Vimes novel, Thud!, where another of his obsessions (with the picture book Where's My Cow?) drew roars of laughter where Snuff's repeated scenes of Young Sam searching out exotic specimens of excrement elicit only chuckles.

I fell in love with Terry Pratchett's writing nearly twenty years ago, but that infatuation has faded, and for the better part of the last decade I've felt a little like someone who lets fondness and the memory of better days blind her to the fact that the spark isn't there any more.  I don't know if Snuff is my breakup novel.  Maybe I'll stop reading Pratchett entirely.  Maybe I'll stop reading Vimes novels.  And maybe by the time his next book comes out the good memories will have won out over the bad.  What I do know is that after this book I'll never be able to approach a Pratchett novel with the same expectations--modest as they were--that I did before, and that there's a part of me that wishes I'd given him up before this book, and left myself with rosier memories.

Strange Horizons Reviews, November 14-18

This week's first review is by T.S. Miller, who takes a look at Future Media, a collection of stories and essays by Rick Wilber examining the ways that media has and is changing.  Tim finds much to enjoy but wonders if Wilber and his contributors might have more to say about the past than the future and the shape that future media might take.  Sarah Frost reviews Infidel, the sequel to God's War by Kameron Hurley, and like Dan Hartland with War, is impressed with what she finds.  Rhiannon Lassiter reviews two books by Philip Palmer, last year's Version 43 and this year's Hellship, and, though she expresses admiration for Palmer in general, is more enamored of the first than the second.

This month also sees the latest installment of John Clute's column Scores.  This time John's subjects are Vortex by Robert Charles Wilson, the sequel to Spin and Axis, and Daryl Gregory's latest novel, Raising Stony Mayhall.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, November 7-11

This week's reviews kick off with disappointment.  First, Phoebe North is unimpressed with Daniel H. Wilson's Robopocalypse, lamenting its dull plot, poor prose, and flat characters.  Maureen Kincaid Speller is no more won over by Mira Grant's Deadline, the sequel to Feed, which she finds suffering from many of its predecessor's flaws, chiefly an unwillingness to examine the dishonesty and narcissism of its supposedly brave, truth-seeking blogger protagonists.  Shaun Duke's Friday review of Leon Jenner's Bricks, meanwhile, is more ambivalent.  A history of the Roman conquest of Britain told from the point of view of a seemingly immortal Druid, Shaun finds Bricks promising and difficult, but ultimately a bit of a letdown.  Nevertheless, he finds much to recommend about it.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Strange Horizons Reviews, October 31-November 4

Strange Horizons's Halloween review is Farah Mendlesohn's long, detailed look at the essay collection 21st Century Gothic, edited by Danel Olson.  Farah finds the collection extremely variable, containing excellent pieces alongside terrible ones, but her review also acts as an introduction to several titles that one wouldn't necessarily associate with the Gothic descriptor, some of which sound very enticing.  My own review of Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus appeared on Wednesday.  Friday's review is by Erin Horáková, who takes a look at Tansy Rayner Roberts's collection of linked stories Love and Romanpunk and is quite disappointed by what she finds, wondering if Roberts has prioritized Girl Power over a more thoughtful type of feminism.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Review: Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Over at Strange Horizons, I look at two of this year's circus-set fantasies, Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique and Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus.  These two books take very different approaches to very similar premises, and I found things to like and dislike about each of them--so much so that I think they might work better as a paired reading than on their own.

You can also read Niall Harrison's thoughts on The Night Circus at the Strange Horizons blog.