Recent Reading Roundup 42
It's nearly time to sum up the year's reading, and I have a great deal to talk about on that front. Unfortunately, I've been felled by a flu, so I'm hoping I'll be back my feet and in a state to write meaningfully about, well, anything by the time the 31st rolls around (which, as everyone knows, is the only proper time to talk about the year's best anything). In the meantime, however, here are some thoughts about some of the books I read in the last third of the year, including some major genre publications.
- Before the Fall by Noah Hawley - Like, I suspect, a lot of people, I picked up Hawley's third novel on the strength of his work adapting the Coen brothers' Fargo into one of the most delightful and unusual television series of the last few years, arguably the best example of the increasingly popular anthology series format (Hawley is also the showrunner of the forthcoming Legion, which if nothing else bids fair to become the first MCU property with a sense of style). One of the things I like best about Fargo is its commitment to featuring characters who are complex and multifaceted, more flawed and foolish than evil, even when they're doing despicable things. That, unfortunately, is not a trait that Hawley has carried over to this novel, which takes place in the days following the crash of a private jet. The sole survivors are Scott, a down-on-his-luck painter, invited at the last minute as a random act of kindness from one of the millionaires on the flight, and this same millionaire's young son. The chapters describing the build-up to the flight, the immediate aftermath of the crash, and Scott's harrowing swim back to shore, towing his fellow survivor behind him, are breathtakingly tense and instantly compelling, but they set a bar that the rest of the novel can't reach. Once Scott and his charge are rescued, Hawley struggles to find a hook for the rest of the story. He tries to craft a mystery about the cause of the crash, delving into the pasts and psyches of the other passengers and crewmembers (hence the "before" of the title). But though the readers know, because of the kind of novel we're reading, that the plane must have crashed because of foul play, not an accident or pilot error, it's simply not convincing that all the characters in the novel would immediately leap to that conclusion--especially when they start pointing accusing fingers at Scott, as if being the sole survivor of a plane crash and then making an impossible, hours-long swim for your life is something a person could plan for.
Hawley's narrative has several interests, but at its core Before the Fall is a novel about masculinity, with many characters, on and off the plane, exemplifying diseased versions of it: arrogant bullies, weak-willed man-children, emotionless automatons with no communications skills, self-absorbed narcissists who expect women to save them from their own failings. That's certainly a worthy message, but Hawley is so bald with it, and gives these portraits so little shading, that it's hard not to feel that he's browbeating us with them. Where Fargo expects us to pity, and even on some level enjoy, its depraved characters, Before the Fall wants to be sure that we know exactly how we're meant to feel about each and every member of its cast. Even worse, its emblem of "good" masculinity, Scott, veers a little too close to Marlboro Man stoicness to really work as a counterpoint to toxic masculinity. The book keeps claiming that Scott is a screw-up, but what shows up on the page is a strong and silent type who is unthinkingly heroic and kind to women, animals, and small children. It's as much of a stereotype as any of the "bad" men it's meant to act as a counter to, without ever acknowledging that it's these simplistic, idealized portraits that often screw men up, as much as any of the diseases of the soul that the book does recognize.
- Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee - I've thought for a while that Lee is the closest thing we have to a successor to Iain Banks, and his debut novel confirms me in that impression. Like Banks, Lee specializes in a brand of space opera that tends to challenge our assumptions about the fundamental building blocks of the universe by detaching words and concepts from their accepted meanings. Ninefox Gambit is set in the same universe as Lee's previous short stories "Ghostweight" and "The Battle of Candle Arc", in which certain weapons and propulsion technologies rely on the consensus acceptance of a specific "high calendar". Under different calendars, different technologies either stop working or gain tremendous, reality-bending powers, and the ruling power in the novel's setting, the Hexarchate, is thus primarily occupied with brutally enforcing its own calendar, and constantly suppressing rebellions that support themselves by adopting their own timekeeping approaches. The metaphor for cultural imperialism is obvious, but beyond that, Ninefox Gambit is remarkable for how it builds a universe that is not only describable through math, but changeable with it. Military forces in the novel's world can affect reality--defend themselves against "calendrical" weapons, or impose their own effects on the fabric of the universe--by adopting "formations" that conform to the current mathematical paradigm. Breaking formation, meanwhile, can lead to disastrous, often grotesque results, which of course reflects in the governing values of the Hexarchate's military.
As in the short stories, this is a pretty neat concept, and one that presents a fun challenge to the reader, who must work out not only what is going on, but what the fundamental rules of the universe are. But the greater length and more clearly-defined structure of a novel make it easier to notice that beneath its unusual worldbuilding, the story that Ninefox Gambit tells is a rather conventional one. Faced with an infestation of "calendrical rot" in one of their key holdings, the Hexarchate deploys disgraced infantry captain Kel Cheris, whose main claim to fame is her facility with math, and particularly her ability to think outside the box when faced with calendar-based weaponry. Cheris is supplemented by General Shuos Jedao, the Hexarchate's most gifted strategist, who was executed for treason after turning on his own troops and killing millions of the Hexarchate's own citizens. Jedao is present here as a sort of ghost anchored to Cheris, a voice in her head whose attitudes, memories, and proclivities start to bleed into Cheris's the more she comes to rely on him. For all the bells and whistles, this is a rather familiar premise, and though Ninefox Gambit delivers several engaging set-pieces--both space battles and ground combat, after Cheris's troops gain a foothold on their target--it ultimately feels rather by the numbers, the triumphs and setbacks arriving precisely on schedule, and with very few surprises or genuine thrills. (The fact that the novel is setting up a trilogy is an obvious problem here, as Lee is clearly more concerned with laying out the history and culture of his setting than in doing anything particularly unexpected with them at this stage.) A lot of the novel's force is clearly intended to come from its character work--Cheris's conflicted feelings about the Hexarchate, her struggles to assert herself as a fleet commander, and the relentless mind games that Jedao plays with her--but here, too, what shows up on the page is strangely underpowered. Cheris's growing anguish over the cost of her campaign, for example--the troops that she sacrifices in brilliant but costly tactical gambits, or the civilians she exposes to horrific weapons--which is supposed to be the crux of the novel, never feels more than skin-deep.
It's particularly interesting to note that, when stripped of their respective central conceits, Ninefox Gambit strongly resembles Ancillary Justice. The structure of the Hexarchate's militaristic, doctrinaire society, the carefully regimented and manners-obsessed culture of its military, even a minor but clearly significant plotline about the Hexarchate's AIs and their desire to be recognized as sentient--these are all central elements of Ann Leckie's breakthrough novel, as is the fact that both novels' stories ultimately come down to a retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, centering on a deeply loyal innocent who is finally pushed too far by an abusive system, and swears revenge. Some of this, no doubt, comes down to the fact that both Lee and Leckie are telling stories about the crimes of empire, and about the near-impossible difficulty of dismantling such a system. But I also have to wonder if we haven't accepted certain tropes and conventions as de rigueur for a certain kind of space opera. To bring this back to Banks, one of the things that made him exceptional was his ability to imagine different and strange social structures, and then use them to reflect back on burning political questions. I have no doubt that Lee is capable of doing the same, but I don't think he's managed it with Ninefox Gambit.
- The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin - There's probably a longer discussion to be had about the current state of trilogies in SFF, and how to construct them so that the first volume isn't simply front-loading worldbuilding information in a way that, while engaging, leaves the later volumes without a shape. It's a problem that afflicted the Ancillary books, and one that I suspect will prove to be an issue for Ninefox Gambit's sequels, and it shows up in force in Jemisin's follow-up to the stunning, Hugo-winning The Fifth Season. That's not to say that there aren't things to praise in The Obelisk Gate, which splits its narrative between the heroine of The Fifth Season, Essun, now living in an underground community trying to survive the aftermath of a supervolcano explosion, and her daughter Nassun, who was kidnapped by her father in the previous book. The Nassun chapters are particularly powerful, charting the quick thinking and manipulation she has to deploy in order to survive in the company of her emotionally unstable father, who has already killed her brother for the crime of being an "orogene", people who can cause and quell earthquakes, who are reviled and hounded in the series's world. They also give us a different perspective on the relationship between Essun and her children. After an entire novel in which Essun obsessively pursued her daughter without ever giving us a glimpse of their family relationship, it's not really a surprise--and yet queasily disturbing--to learn that she repeated her own history of abuse in her "training" of her daughter. Nassun's resentment of this plays into the twisted, codependent relationship she develops with a former Guardian, Schaffa, one of the class of beings who abused orogenes like her mother, but who is the only person who offers Nassun unconditional love and support.
There are some similarly powerful notes in the Essun chapters, in which she tries to feel out the contours of a community in which orogenes live openly and are even in positions of authority, finally concluding that the peace she's been presented with is transitory. But it's here that The Obelisk Gate bumps up against the problem of its overarching plot, and the fact that Essun's primary task in this novel is to learn enough so that she can save the world in the next book. This leaves the novel feeling--like so many middle books before it--like scene-setting. And unlike The Fifth Season, which did the bulk of the worldbuilding for this universe, it doesn't have enough new and interesting information to reveal to make that process enjoyable. The Broken Earth books are at their best when they discuss the effect that living with prejudice, oppression, and abuse has on people within those systems--though it must be noted that after so many instances in which orogenes lash out and kill dozens, hundreds, and in some cases millions, the argument that the prejudice against them, and even the barbaric practices put in place to control them, are completely unjustified is starting to lose its force. I'm a lot less interested, however, in the mystery the novel teases about the source of orogeny, the mysterious obelisks that float in the sky above the planet, and the ways in which Essun can use them to save the world. The Obelisk Gate needed to lay out these elements as compellingly as The Fifth Season built this series's world, and it doesn't quite succeed at this--by the final set-piece, in which Essun uses her newfound control over the obelisks to defeat an army trying to invade her community, her powers feel ungrounded, and sharply contrast with the visceral depictions of day-to-day life for orogenes.
- Infomocracy by Malka Older - If nothing else, a reader turning the last page of Older's debut novel has to tip their hat to her for her prescience. Or perhaps a better way of putting it is that Older, while she was writing this book, had her finger on the pulse of issues and problems that have only recently come to dominate the conversation about how democracy in the 21st century functions, and of how it fails. Set in a near-future, Infomocracy imagines a world in which the familiar geopolitical rules have been replaced by "micro-democracy", with the world divided into "centenals", each containing one hundred thousand residents who are free to vote for any government they wish, be it nationalistic, ideological, or corporate. Different governments can thus have citizens all over the world, which can mean that neighboring streets can have different laws and government services. Every ten years, the world holds an election, in which the governments try to win over new centenals in order to cement their power, and hopefully make a bid for the coveted "supermajority".
There are, obvious, some glaring problems with this system that Older never fully address--we don't, for example, learn what the supermajority actually gives the government that holds it, and more importantly, it's never made clear how this system supports itself economically. But the focus of Infomocracy is less on these issues, and more on using its micro-democracy system to reflect on the problems of sustaining democracy in any form. Our heroes are Ken, an itinerant campaign worker for Policy1st, a group that claims to eliminate the personality-based aspect of representational democracy by focusing on heavily-researched and -tested policies, and Mishima, a high-ranking operative for Information, an agency tasked with fact-checking and policing the statements of public office seekers, which eventually comes to function as a sort of world police. They end up in each other's orbit when they begin to suspect that one of the governments vying for the supermajority is seeding its campaign messaging with dog-whistles promising conquest and nationalistic expansion--the very things that micro-democracy was created to eliminate. (A third character, Demaine, appears repeatedly but never quite seems to cohere. An anti-election activist, he constantly hints at potential arguments against the centenal system but never sufficiently emerges from the haze of smug self-satisfaction that surrounds him to fully articulate one. There are actually more convincing arguments against the micro-democracy system in the chapters focusing on Ken and Mishima, who after all see the system closely and are intimately familiar with its flaws and compromises.)
If you sum up Infomocracy's plot, in which Ken and Mishima are caught up in various crises, investigate challenges to the election, and try to navigate a budding romance, there doesn't seem to be much there. Even at its best, the story never rises above a competent but not very exciting technothriller. What makes the novel work are the ways it exposes the cracks and crevices, not only in its imagined and not very plausible democratic system, but in our own. Pretty much everything we've been talking about in the wake of 2016's multiple failures and collapses of democratic systems is here: the rise of the far-right and the allure of violent authoritarianism, even and perhaps especially for people who don't have it that bad but just want to feel powerful; the role of tribalism in voting patterns; the usurpation of government roles by corporations; the failure of the media to inform the public; the failure of the public to inform itself even when the information is made available to it. Above all, the sad realization that people don't behave any more rationally when they participate in democracy than they do anywhere else, and that no matter how hard you work to create a system that's fair and equitable, it can always be destroyed by people who crave power, and others who simply don't care enough to stop them. While not exactly bleak, Infomocracy is a sobering meditation on the truism that democracy is the worst system of government except for all the others.
- Everfair by Nisi Shawl - Shawl's first full-length novel has an intriguing but also challenging premise. It imagines that in the late 19th century, shocked by the human rights abuses of the regime of the Belgian king Leopold II in the Congo (which, in the real world, ended up claiming the lives of millions of people), a group of English socialists and African-American missionaries band together to purchase the land and turn it into a safe haven for refugees from violent colonialism. Making common cause with a local African king, and powered by advanced technology, the new nation of Everfair becomes a steampunk utopia in the midst of some of the worst abuses in human history. And therein lies the challenge, of constructing a utopia in a way that doesn't betray the novel's goal--using steampunk to address and ameliorate the racism of history, instead of papering it over--while still telling a compelling story.
Both on the personal and political level, Everfair raises some interesting prospects. The tension between the European socialists and the African locals plays out in multiple ways, which both highlight the former's frequent blindness to their own privilege and racism--insisting, for example, that making Everfair's official language English is a "unifying" measure--and the latter's vulnerability to exactly the same excesses as the white regimes they've escaped--when Everfair becomes embroiled in the first world war, its weapons manufacturers begin employing child labor in order to meet quotas, and the African king who becomes Everfair's military leader resents sharing power with democratic institutions that he sees as imposed on him by the same Europeans who abused his people. Some throughlines, such as the spiritual transformation of an African-American clergyman who finds himself drawn to African religion, or the tense relationship between a free-thinking poet and her lover, a mixed-race woman who correctly senses that her heritage is being tolerated rather than embraced, remain intriguing throughout the novel's length.
But taken as a whole, Everfair is too bitty to make much of any of its subjects. Shawl's approach is to make her story deliberately scattershot, jumping every few pages from one character to another, skipping long stretches of time, and eliding some of the important stepping stone along her story's path. A problem is often introduced in one chapter, and then in the next chapter we learn that it has been resolved, avoided, or simply endured, and it's now time to address the next issue. The result is that Everfair's title nation never manages to feel like a real place, in whose survival the reader can feel invested. The novel ends up feeling trapped, rather than buoyed, by its premise. As someone who lives in a nation that started out as a utopian pipe-dream forged in reaction to persecution and genocide, and which very quickly gave way to realpolitik, ugly compromises, and unacknowledged internal prejudice, I know that there's a vivid, complicated story to be told about such a place. Everfair never quite seems willing to delve into that story, preferring to skim its surface.
- White is for Witching by Helen Oyeyemi - One of the blurbs for Oyeyemi's third novel compares it to the writing of Shirley Jackson, which strikes me as incredibly apt. Like Jackson's ghost stories--most especially The Haunting of Hill House--White is for Witching imagines a haunting in which the haunted house is a character in its own right (one that, in this novel, even speaks), a malevolent entity that nevertheless perceives itself as protecting its inhabitants, or at least the ones it cares about. These last are largely confined to the women of the Silver family, who have lived in the house in Dover for four generations, unaware--or perhaps unwilling to acknowledge--how much its influence has affected their lives. The added twist here, unsurprisingly for an Oyeyemi novel, is the issue of race, with the house, having been primed by the original Silver matriarch, directing its malevolence towards people of color, immigrants, and anyone it defines as an outsider or an interloper.
A lot of ghost stories have racial animus or genocide at their root, but in most of them, the story ends up being about the "innocent" descendants of people who committed those crimes laying them to rest, or about unwitting interlopers into an ancient feud being targeted by the indiscriminately enraged ghosts of the victims of racism, who simply want someone to take their anger out on. White is for Witching takes a more hard-headed approach, finally revealing that it is the Silver women themselves who are made predatory and dangerous by their history of racism--that by refusing to acknowledge it and take active steps to counter it, they end up perpetuating it. The book's story revolves around the youngest Silver girl, Miranda, who falls in love with Ore, a Nigerian adoptee who senses both the danger in the house, and the fact that Miranda may lack the strength or the willingness to fight it. The storytelling here is, typically for Oyeyemi and true to the book's Jacksonian heritage, swimming in metaphor, soft spaces, and weird turns of narrative, not all of which are explained by the book's end. But the allegory underlying it all is blatant and undeniable: if Miranda wants to love a black girl, and wants that girl to be safe with her, she has to be willing to take responsibility for her past, and exorcise her own demons.