Recent Reading Roundup 39

After a couple of lean years, 2016 is shaping up to be a great reading year.  If things continue at their current pace, I will have read more books in the first four months of the year than I did in all of 2015, and while there's a bit of cheating involved in that--my numbers this year have been padded by a lot of quick reads, such as comics or standalone novellas--it's also good to be back in the swing of reading regularly and even voraciously.  I've just returned from a two-week holiday during which I read a great deal (though of course I ended up buying more books than I read), and more importantly, reading a lot of satisfying, interesting work.  I don't know if I can keep up this pace for the rest of the year, now that my time is more encumbered, but this is certainly a good start.
  • Nimona by Noelle Stevenson - It doesn't come as much of a surprise to learn that Stevenson's standalone comic is based on strips she originally published online, because the story--in which the title character, a shapeshifter with a mysterious past, attaches herself as the sidekick of the supervillain Ballister Blackheart--is simply swimming with the sort of tropes that online fandom tends to fall head over heels for.  You've got your funny, punkish heroine with awesome powers and a tragic backstory.  You've got your subversion of the traditional fantasy notions of right and wrong--despite his villain status, Ballister turns out to be a bit of a fuddy-duddy who balks at schemes that carry the risk of collateral damage and may actually be trying to protect people from the sinister and authoritarian Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, and the relationship he develops with Nimona is fatherly and protective.  And, of course, you've got a forbidden, unspoken love between two taciturn, emotionally repressed men, Ballister and his opposite number Ambrosius Goldenloin.  Happily, Stevenson almost immediately makes all of these tropes her own by imagining a distinctive world, half-medieval and half-modern, in which the deeds of knights and dragons are reported on the evening news, and peopling it with characters who similarly straddle the gap between modern and archaic.  Nimona, Ballister, and Ambrosius are winning characters whose relationships are easy to get invested in, and the book doesn't shy away from exploring the darker aspects of their personalities, particularly when it comes to the full extent of Nimona's powers and where they come from.  Stevenson's distinctive artwork also helps to give the book its own personality, as does her raucous, almost absurdist humor.

    If I have any reservations about Nimona, they center mostly around the romance between Ballister and Ambrosius, which is great in principle but whose execution has some issues.  The book is marketed to young readers, and works in this field will often feel the need to downplay same-sex romance or make it only subtextual (see Korra, Legend of).  But somehow I thought that written fiction would be better on this front than kids' TV, and it was therefore disappointing to see the book hold back in places where there should obviously have been at least a chaste display of physical affection between the two men.  And if that's more a case of my personal preferences (and perhaps also an issue of being outside the target audience for the book), I'm more troubled by the way that the book leapfrogs some of the obstacles that lie between Ballister and Ambrosius and their happy reunion.  Near the end of the book it's revealed that the break between the two men happened after Ambrosius, lashing out in anger, caused serious, permanent physical damage to Ballister.  While it's obviously possible for people to overcome something like that, it's not something that should just be waved away with an apology, as Nimona does, and I think that if Ballister were a female character, it would be more obvious that there's something wrong with how blithely the book expects him to forgive Ambrosius, and us to root for their reunion.  While neither of these problems are enough to scuttle my enjoyment of Nimona, they are sour notes in what is otherwise a delightful, highly recommended book, one of the best comics I've read in some time.

  • Fair Play by Tove Jansson - How lucky are we, to be living in the middle of a Tove Jansson revival?  As more and more of the Finnish author's work, and particularly her writing for adults, becomes available to readers in English, it just becomes clearer how essential she was, and what a wise and distinctive voice she had.  Fair Play, Jansson's last novel, is actually a series of vignettes about an elderly lesbian couple--clearly stand-ins for Jansson and her partner Tuulikki Pietilä--in their life on a secluded island and in the city.  Both women are artists, and Fair Play is concerned with their need to balance the demands of their art--and their desire to give themselves fully to it--with their support for one another and the maintenance of their relationship.  The book is thus a welcome and indeed highly necessary counterpoint to every story ever written about a genius artist who neglects his long-suffering wife so that he can dedicate himself to his art.  In this story, both women are artists, and both are wives.  They both feel the urge to be alone with their thoughts and their work, which is essential to their full existence as human beings.  But they also love each other deeply, support one another, and need each other.  The balance they manage to strike between love and work is aspirational without ever making them seem inhuman--the two women are, on the contrary, crotchety and acerbic, making cutting comments about friends and acquaintances and occasionally giving in to selfishness and anti-social tendencies.  But in the end they always come back to one another, realizing that just as they can't live without their work, they also can't live without each other.

  • All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders - Anders's novel feels a little like a reworking of her much-praised, Hugo-winning novelette "Six Months, Three Days."  This time, instead of a doomed romance between a man who can see the future and a woman who can see all possible futures, the irreconcilable differences between the novel's protagonists are rooted in more conventional genre tropes--and perhaps for that reason, are a little less evocative than they were in the story.  Patricia, who we first meet as a little girl, is a witch, and her childhood friend Laurence is a mad scientist.  They live in a world in which both magic and almost-magical technology exists--Patricia can talk to animals and trees; Laurence proves his worthiness to join the ranks of the uber-geeks by building a "two-second time machine," whose schematics he found on the internet--and it's the tension between these two forces, and their conflicting ideas of how to save a world even more troubled and damaged than our own, that drive the novel. 

    All the Birds in the Sky is told in dry, knowing, genre-savvy tone that reminded me of Lemony Snicket and, a little more esoterically, of Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter's The Long Earth.  In the book's early chapters, which veer a little too much towards tweeness, this can be a bit hard to take, but even in these chapters there are things worth reading for--the sequence in which Patricia slowly crumbles under a relentless campaign of abuse and bullying at her school is all the more powerful for the matter-of-fact way in which Anders describes it.  Later in the book, when the tone settles down a little, Anders comes up with some interesting uses for her genre-awareness, for example the fact that Patricia's magical school is divided into two campuses, one a Hogwarts-esque recreation of an English private school, and the other a wild, constantly changing realm of trickery and danger, the better to reflect dueling traditions in the magical school sub-category of the fantasy genre.

    There are, in fact, a lot of interesting ideas in All the Birds in the Sky, which is primarily concerned with how individuals--especially those with power and privilege--can try to fix the world, and where the line falls between doing what you can, and arrogating too much authority to yourself.  The magic that Patricia is taught, for example, is divided into the disciplines of healing and trickery, both of which carry the danger of falling into the arrogant assumption that one is entitled to order people's lives for them.  Laurence, meanwhile, finds himself working for a genius billionaire tech mogul, who has him researching pie in the sky technologies that could move a tiny portion of humanity off the planet once this one is used up.  Both of them are driven by the need to do good, and troubled by their strong sense that the methods they've chosen, and the people they've allied themselves with, are turning them into villains. 

    The problem with all this is that the book's handling of these issues often verges on glibness, using both magic and magical technology as get-out-of-jail-free cards rather than serious topics to be explored (this is particularly true of the book's conclusion).  The story verges on seriously questioning the assumption--which crops up in superhero stories, Silicon Valley, and neoliberal politics--that the fate of the world lies in the hands of unique and uniquely qualified individuals, who have the right and moral authority to make drastic decisions on behalf of all of humanity.  But in the end, it's too indebted to the conventions of its genre(s) to treat that questioning as seriously as it deserves, resolving its central dilemma by positing a more powerful, more perfect unique individual who can save us from ourselves (think the ending of Age of Ultron, though admittedly much better done).  The star-crossed romance that develops between Patricia and Laurence is intended, I think, to distract from the fact that they can only achieve heroism by abdicating responsibility for the world, but though they are very sweet and compelling together, this also has the effect of making All the Birds in the Sky seem more than a little trivial.  Anders has constructed a world in which the problems of two people don't amount to a hill of beans, but she ends by asking us to focus almost exclusively on those problems, instead of the greater problems of her world.

  • The State of the Art by Iain M. Banks - It's somehow unsurprising that short fiction was not Banks's natural length.  This slim volume--half of which is taken up with the titular novella--comprises his entire short fiction output, all of which was published in the late 80s and early 90s.  Most of the stories here feel like proofs of concept for ideas that Banks would go on to explore more fully in his novels, for example in "Descendant," in which a stranded human trudges across a desert towards the slim hope of rescue, with only his sentient spacesuit for company.  They are also rife with a cynicism, even a nastiness, that works in the short form--for example in the delightfully perverse first contact story "Odd Attachment"--but feels a little childish when compared to Banks's work in novel length. 

    The most substantial story here is the novella "The State of the Art," which describes the adventures of Contact agent Diziet Sma (better known from Use of Weapons) as she participates in the Culture's observations of Earth (this is the only time in the Culture sequence in which Banks suggests that the Culture is not an offshoot of humanity, and I'm not sure that this is entirely congruent with later books) and tries to deal with a fellow Contact agent who has decided to stay there, because he finds life in the Culture sterile and meaningless.  There are some nice details in this story--Sma's conflicted reactions to Earth, part fondness and part horror; the relationship between her and the ship that is actually running the Contact mission--but in the end I found its premise limited, falling far short of the more interesting uses to which Banks would go on to use the Culture in his novels.  The notion that life in the Culture lacks something because it doesn't involve danger and risk (which also drives the main character in the early Cutlture novel The Player of Games) is frankly a little whiny, the sort of thing that rich, privileged people complain about because they don't have any actual problems.  The Culture novels are much better when they get at the actual thorny issue of whether the Culture should interfere in civilizations that haven't yet achieved its peace and prosperity, and this is not a subject that "The State of the Art" touches on.  This is a worthwhile collection if you're a Banks completist (as I am) or if you'd like a glimpse at the development of the central ideas in his work, but it's not Banks at his best.

  • Familiar by J. Robert Lennon - Driving home from her annual visit to the grave of her older son, Elisa Brown suddenly realizes that her clothes, her car, and even her body have changed.  When she arrives at her home, she discovers more differences.  Her previously inert marriage is now very much alive.  She has a different job.  She's estranged from her surviving son, while the one who died is suddenly alive.  Familiar is constructed in such a way as to suggest a genre story about parallel universes--it takes a very long time for us to seriously consider the possibility that Elisa's alternate life might only exist in her mind, so real is it to her, and to the narrative that presents her to us--but in the end, its purpose is not to solve that mystery, but to explore the inner life of a woman who suddenly finds herself living a life she doesn't recognize, and doesn't really want.  Elisa's investigations into the twists and turns that have brought her alternate to such a different place in her life double as an exploration of the subjectivity of memory and experience.  Was Elisa's dead son, as she remembers, a borderline sociopath who made his family's life miserable before dying in a stupid accident?  Or were the tensions in the family merely the result of parents and children who didn't understand one another, with Elisa and her husband as much sinning as sinned-against?  Elisa herself is the sort of character of whom we might think that there isn't much to say--she abandoned her career as a scientist to raise children and dedicate herself to a marriage she no longer cares for, and her life revolves around a very small social circle, and a string of lovers with whom she never fully connects.  But in Lennon's hands, she is a rich and fascinating creation, whom it is impossible not to root for even as we begin to suspect that she was a terrible mother and wife, and that her life has amounted to very little.  Familiar elegantly straddles the divide between genre work and character-driven litfic, its intensity actually increasing even as we realize that it isn't going to pay off the weirdness of its opening chapters.  In the end, it's a story about a woman remaking herself, as much as such a thing is possible, told in an intriguing and enticing way.

  • Version Control by Dexter Palmer - Palmer's novel, which touches on such topics as social media, the gap between real personality and how people curate and modify their identity online, the politics that govern scientific research and its funding, race relations, and time travel, will probably turn out to be one of the most interesting genre novels of 2016.  But it's not a book that I particularly enjoyed reading.  The spine of the story concerns Rebecca, a housewife whose husband, Philip, is researching something that might lead to a kind of time travel.  Even as Philip's experiments keep ending in abject failure, Rebecca begins experiencing something odd, perceiving a world different from this one--one where her son Sean is still alive.  The actual form of time travel that the book posits is extremely interesting, worked through with rigor and with careful attention to its implications, and the twist that comes halfway into the story is neat and fun to puzzle out.  But Version Control is about so much more than just time travel that the book's central conceit can end up being drowned out, and eventually feels a little beside the point.

    In addition to being a time travel story, Version Control is is also a vision of a near-future near-dystopia, in which online dating companies moonlight as political messaging services, creating CGI versions of the president in order to send each citizen a personalized message about the importance of continued consumption even in a time of austerity.  And it's also a meditation about race relations, focused mainly on the security guards in Philip's lab, who quite pointedly observe that time travel is something that only white men could possibly be interested in.  Most of all, it's a portrait of how the internet has changed the way we see each other, and ourselves.  Certain parts of the book segue into discussions of self-driving cars, or how dating websites reveal underlying but still-present racial prejudices, or the use of personalized algorithms and applications in schools, or any number of other fascinating, well-handled topics that don't really seem to connect to the novel's central plot strand.  The result isn't exactly bitty or baggy--Palmer convincingly argues that these are all coherent aspects of the same slightly nightmarish world--but the book's myriad concerns can make it hard to work out just what the point of the exercise is.  This feels especially relevant because the novel ends with Rebecca changing the world in ways that we, for the most part, don't get to see.  It's hard, therefore, not to feel that all of Palmer's strange, sometimes-fascinating and sometimes-frustrating worldbuilding was all for naught, that his novel has impaled itself on a nifty time travel McGuffin.

    Still, this might have bothered me less if Version Control's characters were not so annoying and frequently uninteresting, sometimes in ways that feel deliberately and almost unbelievably flat.  These include Rebecca, a bored alcoholic with nothing to fill her days, and Philip, a genius who treats his wife, on his good days, as a problem to be solved, and on his bad days, as a distraction from his work.  In addition, we have Alicia, Philip's brilliant colleague who is abrasive and mean, and allowed to get away with this because of her confidence and competence, and Kate, Alicia's best friend, an aging party girl who is also dating Philip's other colleague Carson, which unfortunately leads her to indulge in some latent racism.  That these characters are unpleasant is clearly part of the point of the book, but they often feel unrealistically and exaggeratedly unpleasant--in one scene, Rebecca complains to Philip that he doesn't think about her, so he writes a computer program to send her flowers at random intervals, and then asks her to marry him so they can save on taxes; in another scene, Rebecca walks in on Philip and Alicia having sex, and instead of fleeing or apologizing, Alicia attacks her for not having the decency to look away.

    Rebecca herself, meanwhile, might have been an interesting creation--it's actually a rather bold approach to center your story around a person who is incredibly boring--but once again, her boringness is out of all proportion to reality.  We learn, for example, that Rebecca is an English major, whose parents, a librarian and a minister, are accomplished, interesting people.  And yet Rebecca herself has no interests, no holdovers from her college career, no inner life--it in fact seems rather unlikely that she's ever even read a book.  Palmer's argument is that Rebecca is a member of a lost generation, who came of age just after the 2008 financial crash and were unable to transition into adulthood after college, but even those people usually have a favorite movie or video game.  For someone who spends most of her life online--and for a novel about how life online affects life in the physical world--Rebecca seems to have very few interests.  The only thing she does online, in fact, is look for dates.  The fact that Rebecca is so boring is clearly designed to build up to her increased role in the book's second half, and by the end of the story she is extremely sympathetic.  But in order to get there Palmer has to engage in some exaggerated and unconvincing character work, which draws attention to a certain artificial, schematic quality in the novel.  Even with all its flaws, Version Control is a fascinating, thought-provoking novel that touches on a lot of interesting ideas and will no doubt be a lot of fun to discuss.  But there's a certain sloppiness to its details that, to me, makes it rather unsatisfying.

  • My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante - Yes, I too have succumbed to the lure of Ferrante, this year's litfic it-girl.  And as it turns out, My Brilliant Friend, the first volume in Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet, is just as brilliant and special as all the praise heaped upon it would have you believe.  It is the closely-observed, minutely-detailed narrative of Elena and Lila, two friends who grow up in a poor neighborhood in post-war Naples.  Spanning about ten years, from their childhood to their mid-teens, the narrative observes how the girls grow, first together and then apart.  Though both girls are academically gifted, only Elena is allowed to stay in school past the first few years, while the self-willed, determined, and furiously intelligent Lila is left to make her own way in the world, desperately trying to claw her way out of the neighborhood by concocting business schemes or attaching herself to up-and-coming young men.  The premise doesn't sound like much, but Ferrante's evocation of the neighborhood and its families, the undertone of violence, misogyny, and long-simmering feuds that rules the characters' lives, and the complicated web of relationships stretching back to the parents' and grandparents' generations, is immediately gripping.  Her characters are complex and multifaceted, and Elena and Lila in particular are something more complicated and interesting than the familiar girls coming of age of so many other novels.  They are intellectually curious, politically active, desperate to get out of their narrow, proscribed world, but also so completely innocent of anything outside that world that when they finally get outside, it shocks them. 

    My Brilliant Friend is that rare thing, a social novel that takes women, and particularly girls, seriously as participants in that society.  Though sex is omnipresent in the girls' lives, and inextricably mixed with violence and a ruthless patriarchal culture--they are at the mercy of boys starting from childhood, and in their teens are already expected to marry--Ferrante's narrative does not, as so many other stories do, punish them for being sexual beings.  Nor does it assume that being sexual, or becoming wives, makes it impossible for Elena and Lila to be anything else.  Though the book ends with Lila's wedding, to an unsuitable man who quickly proves not to be the escape hatch she thought he was, its framing story quickly makes it clear that this is not the end of her story.

    My only problem with My Brilliant Friend--and even this is not exactly a problem with the book itself--is that having finished it, the prospect of reading three more books in this sequence feels positively exhausting.  The book is so detailed, full of so many different characters and subplots, and proceeds so slowly through Elena and Lila's life (the framing story takes place fifty years after the end of the first volume), that I don't know if I can handle any more of this--especially since I've read reactions that suggest that the later books are less accomplished.  Much as I'd like to know what comes next for Elena and Lila, I think it might be a while, if at all, before I try to find out.

  • The Book Collector by Alice Thompson - A rather disappointing end to a period of excellent reading, Thompson's short novel looks like it ought to be a Gothic delight, a mixture of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and Crimson Peak in which the heroine marries a mysterious man and begins to worry when he starts to hide from her a book that belonged to his late wife.  But the execution, unfortunately, is listless and underpowered, as if Thompson were content to merely gesture at the tropes of the Gothic genre, without doing any of the things that actually make a novel Gothic, namely create a sense of tension and dread.  For a novel that features sinister asylums, a usurping nanny, women killed and posed like characters out of fairy tales, and books bound in human skin, The Book Collector is surprisingly and disappointingly dull, plodding through these plot elements as if dutifully ticking items off a list.  The heroine herself never becomes more than an amalgam of other, better characters--the most exciting thing about her is figuring out which one of them she is currently mirroring--and her growth over the course of the story is unconvincing, just as perfunctory as everything else about it.  When I picked up The Book Collector, it was because I was eager for a modern work of Gothic fiction that could combine an awareness of the genre's history with new approaches, but it looks as if I'm going to have to keep looking--Thompson has very little to add to the genre.


Chuk said…
I have several of these books in my recently read pile. I liked All the Birds in the Sky more than you -- I can't really disagree with the glibness, but that is part of what I liked about it. It didn't really feel like any other book I've read. I think I've read so much genre fiction that doesn't question the assumption about "unique and uniquely qualified individuals" that I was happy just to see something that takes it on even a little. (Also I really like her prose.)
I also agree with you about the Ferrante book -- it was great and all but it feels like the rest of them will be a lot of work. (Also, not only did the first book not end the story but if I recall correctly it didn't even get back out into the framing story!)
Version Control reminded me a bit of Vonnegut (especially older Vonnegut like Player Piano). I think Rebecca sounds like she would be boring if you describe her, but in the book I was interested in her. Or at least in what was going on with her. Possibly because it seems like my kids might go through a similar phase with that 'lost generation' thing. I thought the time travel was well handled and the characters and dialogue were more lifelike than you'd usually see in a genre novel. (I haven't read Familiar but it sounds like it has a lot in common with Version Control.)
I think it's very likely that at least some of my exasperation with Version Control, and with the character of Rebecca in particular, comes from having read it immediately after Familiar. Rebecca and Elisa have very similar lives and personalities, and they're both people who you wouldn't expect to find very interesting. But I thought Lennon did a much better job of giving Elisa an inner life and a personality than Palmer did with Rebecca. Like you, I wanted to know what would happen to Rebecca, but when I read Familiar I wanted to find out who Elisa was and how she would change, and Palmer never achieved that.
Stanoje said…
"this is the only time in the Culture sequence in which Banks suggests that the Culture is not an offshoot of humanity, and I'm not sure that this is entirely congruent with later books"

Do you mean humanity as in Earth's humans, or as in "roughly human in body plan"? The second is how the term is used in the Culture books.

Assuming you mean the first: Consider Phlebas, the first Culture novel, has an appendix describing the first Culture-Idiran war as taking place in 1267 AD. It's difficult to see how the Culture, which had been active for a very long time, measured by human standards, could be an off-shoot of Earth's humanity.

Also, I'm pretty sure that some of the Culture novels mention the Culture's history - how it developed as an amalgam of multiple human species (what are generally called humanoid races in SF). The one with the hunt for the ancient character from the founding of the Culture, maybe?


Your mention of Age of Ultron in the All the Birds in the Sky review: Consider that at the end of the movie, the more perfect savior character acknowledges that humanity is doomed. Vision is absolutely not a character who will save us from ourselves, and he acknowledges this fact on screen. He is critical to solving the immediate crisis, but he has no hope for a lasting humanity. That seems a bit different from what you describe in your review.

Anonymous said…
And it's also a meditation about race relations, focused mainly on the security guards in Philip's lab, who quite pointedly observe that time travel is something that only white men could possibly be interested in.

Which is a pretty stupid observation, frankly. If you want to go that route, you might as well throw off the nostalgia goggles completely and note that pretty much all of history sucked for pretty much everyone. I'll grant you, there are a few decades of the twentieth century that were better for white guys than today is, because there was still most of the modern conveniences and there wasn't quite so much pollution and ultra-capitalism, but go back a few decades more and there was even more pollution and ultra-capitalism. Go back another century, and the white women can stop complaining about not having the vote, because white men don't have the vote either, and the capitalists start turning back into feudal overlords - twice the oppression, ten times the self-righteousness. And the further back you go, the worst it gets.

And if you're going to ignore that sort of thing and assume that you're going to be in the position of a rich guy with good health, then Spivey just isn't looking far enough back. Yeah, everything from the Age of Colonisation and forward kind of sucks for black men, but how about the middle ages, when northern Africa was the height of civilisation? How about ancient Egypt? How about, in point of fact, most of human history, through which black guys and white guys had it pretty much the same and was mostly unaware of each other's existence anyway?

A woman, it's true, would have to ignore the whole "you're probably going to die in childbirth" thing in order to think it was cool to live in another time. But then we're back at the whole "the past sucks" point again. Hell, Alicia even mentions her husband having died from some unknown disease as one of the woes she'd have to endure if she lived in the past, and while it's unclear if that's part of her point or not, it's hard not to notice that that means that the past sucks for him, also. (and I have in fact heard women talk about wanting to live in other time periods, and yes, they imagine that they'd have happy marriages and easy pregnancies in addition to having the money and status that men who talk about wanting to live in other time periods already must assume that they'd have)

To be honest, I'm not sure that we're supposed to take Spivey's assumption that history was one big party for white guys as the objective truth. Most things in the novel are less clearcut than that, so I'm guessing it's more supposed to be a thought-worthy point which is nonetheless full of holes and born of one person's idiosyncratic way of looking at things.

Still, this might have bothered me less if Version Control's characters were not so annoying and frequently uninteresting, sometimes in ways that feel deliberately and almost unbelievably flat.

Funnily enough, I actually liked all the characters. Oh, they all fail at life in one way or another, but they all seem to try, bless their little hearts. And it also helps that they're usually pretty funny - both the scenes you quote as examples of characters being awful are certainly that, but they also made me laugh at both how over the top they were and how weirdly appropriate they were to the characters involved.

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