Monday, September 22, 2008

With Anticipation

The credit card bill (if not, just yet, the convention itself) confirms that I am a paid-up member of Anticipation, the 2009 WorldCon. This does not quite mean that I will definitely be in Montréal next August, but that is certainly the plan, finances and life events permitting. Long-time AtWQ readers will perhaps have guessed just what kind of bind this puts me in. It's a little difficult, after all, to decry the degraded, provincial tastes of Hugo voters when you are one of them. Not impossible, obviously, but it would be nice, if and when the time comes to complain loudly about next year's Hugo nominees, to have a list of alternative nominees which I had actually cast my vote for. And since I rarely read stories or books in the year of their publication, I find myself, with less than four months left in the year, somewhat overwhelmed by the wealth of material available.

So, my question to you is, what genre stories have you read since January that you think are award-worthy? Obviously, precedence will be given to stories available online, though I've also been checking the tables of contents of 2008's Big Three issues at Fictionwise (and, in the process, getting a close look at what had been, up until now, only a mathematical fact--if I read only these magazines in my search for Hugo-worthy stories, I will have sampled only a handful of female authors), and given their prevalence in the last few years I suppose I should give original-story anthologies a look too. Note that I'm asking for story recommendations, not novels--it's a little late in the game, not to mention a little expensive, for me to start seeking out 2008 novels just in case they happen to be Hugo material, and at any rate I'm much more interested in the short fiction categories, if only because it's in these categories that a few votes can make a real difference.

Over to you, then.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

James Crumley, 1939-2008

When I finally caught up with Abraham Trahearne, he was drinking beer with an alcoholic bulldog named Fireball Roberts in a ramshackle joint just outside of Sonoma, California, drinking the heart right out of one fine spring afternoon.  Trahearne had been on this wandering binge for nearly three weeks, and the big man, dressed in rumpled khakis, looked like an old soldier after a long campaign, sipping slow beers to wash the taste of death out of his mouth.  The dog slumped on the stool beside him like a tired little buddy, only raising its head occasionally for a taste of beer from a dirty ashtray set on the bar.
These are the opening sentences of The Last Good Kiss, still the finest mystery novel I've ever read, though ultimately it is far less concerned with solving a mystery than with cataloguing the sadnesses and disappointments of its characters' lives in a way that makes your heart ache for them (which is one of the reasons why the ecstatic praise for Kate Atkinson's fine but nowhere near as good Case Histories has left me baffled).  Of Crumley's other novels, I've only read The Wrong Case, which still leaves me a small but promising bibliography to go through.  What distinguished Crumley for me was his ability to delve into the squalor and grime of 70s America, his stories taking place in towns gutted by drugs and the erosion of industry and wealth, while still feeling a profound compassion for his characters, no matter how damaged.  Violent, brutal, and ultimately hopeless as they were, his novels are among the kindest I've ever read.

(Report from The Missoulian of Crumley's death.)

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

"Stories for Men" by John Kessel

One of the effects of a magazine-and-award-oriented short story culture is that I often remember stories but not their authors. I admired John Kessel's writing, therefore, long before I knew his name. His two publication in SciFiction, "The Baum Plan for Financial Independence" and "It's All True," both made my best of SciFiction lists for their respective years, and "The Invisible Empire," which I read in Conjunctions 39, has lingered in my mind for several years. Once I put the three stories together with a single author, I knew that I had to give his collection, The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories (available under Creative Commons License here), a look. I wasn't disappointed. Baum Plan is an excellent collection, full of smart, playful stories, which cover every genre, sub-genre, and quasi-genre under the speculative fiction umbrella, but the best of the bunch is undoubtedly the novella "Stories for Men."

The second in a sequence of four stories called The Lunar Quartet (it is preceded by "The Juniper Tree," and followed by "The Lunchbox Tree" and "Sunlight or Rock"), which were published between 2000 and 2006 in Asimov's and Science Fiction Age, "Stories for Men" is set in a colony on Fowler crater on the far side of the moon. Established some 60 years before the story's beginning, the colony is the home of The Society of Cousins, a matriarchal group whose founders sought to rid themselves of violence and the fear of it by drastically reducing the roles and rights of men. Family among the Cousins is centered around the mother. Children are raised by their mothers and aunts, and whatever male happens to be around--who may or may not be their father. Property is passed down the maternal line, and partner-less men are the wards of their mother, sisters, or the state. Men receive a stipend which allows them to pursue their interests at leisure, but if they accept it they have to live under a woman's roof and forfeit the right to vote. Men who want to vote must leave their mother's house, live in communal housing, and do menial labor. As "Stories for Men" opens, a male Cousin has begun agitating against the status quo, and the story is told from the viewpoint of 17 year old Erno, one of his admirers.

If "Stories for Men" were simply a depiction of a gender-flipped version of pre-feminist societal norms, it would still be a powerful, if perhaps broad, social commentary. Kessel holds up a distorting mirror to inequalities common in our society a century ago (and in some cases even more recently) and his reimagining of them is flawless, effortlessly finding the middle ground between familiarity and the demands of his invented setting. Erno is repeatedly told not to complain about his lot in life, that he is protected and pampered while women face the hardships of the real world, have to make a home and a life for themselves and the men and children they support--a perfect mirror-image of the argument which has been put to women when they demanded the vote, or the right to study and work. Erno's mother, a policewoman, is described like so many antagonists of women's self-discovery and empowerment: "She was comfortable in the world; she saw no need for alternatives." Hers is the role of the narrow-minded, rule-bound parent, which in naturalistic fiction is almost invariably the father's.

At the same time, "Stories for Men" is cognizant of its premise, and of the ways in which a straight-up reversal of familiar gender roles would suit it poorly. So, though historically the subjugation of any group has tended to have economical underpinnings--if you need slaves to make your economy run and guarantee your wealth, you're bound to find some group which strikes you as naturally predisposed to the role--among the cousins it is a philosophical decision, a violent reaction to the prevalence of violence against women, and violence in general, in male-dominated society. Other unique touches include the diabolical choice forced on male Cousins, between self-actualization and enfranchisement, which rather neatly prevents men from ever gaining a substantial voice in the running of the colony while allowing its female members to claim that men choose to be voiceless, and the Cousins' attitude towards sex, which can best be described as 'yes, please.' The vilification of sex, of women's sexuality, and of promiscuity are all foregone conclusions in a patriarchal society in which property and titles are passed down the male line and yet one has only the mother's word as to who a child's father is. If property is passed down the maternal line, these attitudes and restrictions vanish, and consequently the only sex the Cousins outlaw is the non-consensual kind. Men take on a role that is just this side of sex-toys, and relationships are easily entered into and just as easily gotten out of.

There is more to "Stories for Men," however, than just this reversal, however sophisticated its execution. The novella is a drawn-out exercise in frustrating its readers' sympathies and expectations. Our initial response is to recoil from Cousin society, its inequalities and codified prejudices, but Kessel's choice to set the story in our own universe, and to stress that outside the Cousins' enclave everything is business as usual, divides our loyalties. The Cousin women aren't simply exploiters, as they would be in a story whose author had simply posited a wholesale reversal of gender roles, but people who have fled exploitation, or their descendants. Kessel never lets us forget that what they are reacting to--the casual acceptance of violence towards women, the twisted attitudes towards sex and sexuality, the ceaseless condescension--is real, and still going on just outside their door, so that even as we abhor their chosen reaction we can't help but wonder whether they might not be onto something. (There is also something almost whiny about Erno's dissatisfaction with his situation, which on the whole is so much better than what women in equivalent situations have endured--he enjoys the protection of the law, after all, and is free to pursue an occupation rather than being expected to drudge for his mother and sisters until he marries. One is reminded of the old joke that, if men were responsible for childbearing, the artificial womb would have been invented decades ago.)

For all these misgivings, however, there is no doubt that Cousin society is rooted in a grave injustice, and that the people seeking to address that wrong have a solid case. Kessel gives our moral compass another good rattle, therefore, in his choice of the champion of this cause, a stand-up comedian and social agitator who uses the stage name Tyler Durden ("I think it's historical," one character says). Brilliant as this allusion is, the novella's first segment, in which Erno attends one of Tyler's performances, which leads to a riot, and escapes with him through the colony's forgotten tunnels, is reminiscent not so much of Chuck Palahniuk's novel as it is of the Tom Cruise segments of the movie Magnolia. Tyler's rhetoric is just the kind of vile, misogynistic, poison that character, a self-help guru who holds seminars for men who feel downtrodden by their inability to succeed with women, pours into his listeners' ears when he urges them to "respect the cock, and tame the cunt!" Like him, Tyler blames women for his misfortunes, and accuses them of using sex to subjugate and confuse men. The problem is that in this particular setting, he isn't entirely wrong.

Racism (or any other kind of -ism), we're told, is prejudice + power, and in the setting of "Stories for Men" women hold all the power. Does that mean that Tyler's invective is harmless, perhaps even justified? When we first meet Erno, he's described as "a seventeen-year-old biotech apprentice known for the clumsy, earnest intensity with which he propositioned almost every girl he met"--an off-putting description that recalls the infamous Nice Guy, who can't conceive of any reason to interact with a woman except in order to have sex with her. But in Erno's society, his social position is determined by his mate, and for him not to have one means his continued immurement in his mother's home. Does this not justify his desperation?

For a time, Kessel's Tyler Durden follows in the original's footsteps. Like him, he pulls off daring stunts that tweak the noses of those in authority without endangering or hurting anyone, while playing games of trust and dominance with this followers meant to help them become his idea of what a real man is like--people who stand tall and make their mark on their surroundings, who embrace the moment and disdain caution, comfort, and compromise. Where the two characters diverge is in their attitude towards women. Kessel's Tyler is, for all his grand rhetoric, a misogynist. "Men put their lives on the line for every microscopic step forward our pitiful race has made." He announces at a town meeting. "Nothing’s more visible than the sacrifices men have made for the good of their wives and daughters. Yes, women died, too—but they were real women, women not threatened by the existence of masculinity." This last shows a laughably poor grasp of history, and puts me in mind of a similar passage from Richard Morgan's Black Man, in which a character concludes that 20th century American society was 'feminized' because of the crisis it posed for 'traditional' (or perhaps imaginary) manhood. In the end, Tyler shows his true colors by urging Erno to procure for him a virus that would quickly kill the next generation of Cousin women while allowing the men to live--something the 'real' Tyler Durden would never sink to.

Of course, the real Tyler Durden doesn't have much of an opinion about women in general. There is one female character in Fight Club, and though she is hardly marginal or a plaything, neither does she affect Tyler's choices or philosophy. Tyler urges his followers to be men, to revel in each other's company, in violence for its own sake and for the sake of feeling their strength and vitality, but he never says anything to them about women. The closest he comes is a quip about "a generation of men raised by women," but his problem here is not with women but with the absence of men, and specifically fathers. Though it's never stated in these terms, the original Tyler Durden's philosophy seems to be the one expressed by Erno's father when the boy tracks him down:
"The genius of the founders, Erno"—Micah opened another drawer and started on the next rack of tomatoes—"was that they minimized the contact of males and females. They made it purely voluntary. Do you realize how many centuries men and women tore themselves to pieces through forced intimacy? In every marriage, the decades of lying that paid for every week of pleasure? That the vast majority of men and women, when they spoke honestly, regretted the day they had ever married?"
Palahniuk's Tyler Durden lives in a world of men. His interest is in masculinity, which to his mind has nothing to do with its relation to femininity. Unlike Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Tyler Durden's beef isn't with women but with society (and unlike the character twisted by his frustrated sense of entitlement in Black Man, he doesn't conflate the two) and its expectations from him. The social contract dictates that Tyler live a small, boring, unremarkable life, work in an office, have a family, and most of all buy things, and in exchange, he will be allowed to live safely and comfortably. Tyler rebels against this life. He wants neither its privileges nor its obligations. And this, for all their differences, brings Kessel and Palahniuk's Tylers back into agreement. Both of them are rebelling against safety and caution, against the conformity imposed by a society that offers this kind of extensive safety net. Kessel's Tyler, however, equates the suffocating protectiveness of Cousin society with femininity--men seek conquest and exploration, women crave security and stability.

It's an opinion expressed by other characters in the story. In an attempt to get through to him, Erno's mother tells him about an encounter with a security officer on another, non-matriarchal lunar colony, whom she reproved for wasting precious water: "He thought that invoking the free market settled the issue, as if to go against the market were to go against the laws of nature. The goal of conquering space justified the expenditure, he said—that they’d get more water somewhere else when they used up the lunar ice. ... The market as a law of nature? ‘Conquering space?’ How do you conquer space? That’s not a goal, it’s a disease." To Tyler's mind, the Cousins' choice to prioritize safety has doomed them. As in other stories about men encountering female-dominated, peaceful societies--Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?", Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland--he insists that the sublimation of masculinity equals the sublimation of struggle and growth, and that without the violence that men bring to society it will stagnate, "an evolutionary dead end" (but then, maybe it's just peace-loving utopias that bring this attitude out in those observing them--see just about every outsider's reaction to the Culture in Iain M. Banks's novels).

There's a boatload of assumptions driving Tyler's conclusions, and the most significant one--that men crave violence and women crave security--seems to underpin "Stories for Men" itself. I certainly would like to believe that this isn't true, but poised as we are at the very beginning of the long process of disentangling ourselves from millennia of absolute male domination, it's difficult to say one way or another. Like the best stories of James Tiptree Jr., however, "Stories for Men" is persuasive in its worldview, at least while one reads it.

The story's title comes from a book Erno finds, a short story anthology published in 1936, featuring authors like Dashiell Hammett and Ernest Hemingway, which he makes his way through as the events of Tyler's rebellion unfold. One by one, he is shocked by the violence and despair underlying these stories, which depict men being broken and undone by an uncaring society that rewards might and stomps on those in need. Erno's education in school has a distinctive slant to it--the authors he's read are, in another one of Kessel's brilliantly revealing reversals, "Murasaki, Chopin, Cather, Ellison, Morrison, Ferenc, Sabinsdaughter," so for him this may be the first time he encounters male protagonists, and certainly male authors (though in light of this extensive reading list it is perhaps surprising that the content of the stories in Stories for Men should have shocked him so). At the same time, however, the portrait it presents of these protagonist's lives is a grim and dispiriting one.

I think it's possible to say that "Stories for Men" boils down to this bitter choice--safety in a cage, or freedom in a dangerous, cruel world. Feminism (and most other forms of social activism) is, among other definitions, the demand to eliminate this choice, to give women the right to step out of their cage and yet live in a community that cares for its members and doesn't victimize them, but is the end result of this demand that society make itself safer and kinder the restrictive, exploitative Society of Cousins? Or was the Cousins' choice to turn away from the patriarchal world an abdication, which helped to ensure that, when Erno does venture into the outside world in "Sunlight or Rock," his experiences read like an entry out of Stories for Men? What came first, gendered predilections for and against violence, or patriarchal, strength-driven society? I don't know. Neither does John Kessel, but he pokes and prods at these questions, and the others that I've raised throughout this essay, and as a result "Stories for Men" is one of the most thought-provoking, consuming pieces of fiction I've ever read, and certainly one of the best short stories I've read this year.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

I've Been Here Before, Part 2

(Part 1 is here)
"of course, vengeance takes me all over the world. I was in Brazil yesterday. They love their soccer."
Jane Espenson, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "Same Time, Same Place"
At a panel at the most recent WorldCon, participants Charles Brown, Karen Burnham, Cheryl Morgan, Graham Sleight and Gary Wolfe were each asked to compose a list of 20 works of science fiction published during the last twenty years which they consider essential. Morgan has a write-up here, and Niall Harrison discusses the results some more here, both noting that the only book to merit a mention all five lists was Ian McDonald's River of Gods. Excellent novel though it is, I don't think River of Gods was singled out for this honor simply because of its quality, but because of the change it seemed to herald in SF's attitude towards non-white, non-Western cultures. Set in Varanasi several decades into the future, River of Gods follows nine characters over a period of several days, during which they experience personal, national, and global upheavals. It's an unusual SF novel in that it tells its story from a foreign perspective. Though there are white characters in the novel, they are clearly outsiders, and act mainly as observers. The movers and shakers in the novel are all Indian (or, using the Sanskrit name, Bharati, as the novel posits a breakdown of India's component states into sovereign nations) and the events it describes are driven by Indian interests--a water-war between Bharat and its neighbor Awadh, the debate over ratification of the Hamilton Act, a US-based piece of legislation outlawing AIs over a certain level of sophistication which is staunchly opposed in Bharat because its economy depends largely on producing these AIs, a maverick businessman's pie in the sky plan to develop a cheap and limitless source of energy. McDonald describes India as a country fluctuating between tradition and modernity, in which technology makes new ways of life possible even as it reinforces old ones. More importantly, he describes India as taking part in the future, shaping and being shaped by it.

It's a positive, vibrant, and persuasive description, but also one that gives rise to a feeling of unease when one recalls that McDonald is, after all, a white man from Belfast. What right does he have to write about India, much less to pretend to have captured its essence, much much less to imagine its future? When Nic Clarke of Eve's Alexandria reviewed River of Gods, a commenter disdainfully replied that the novel sounded to her like yet another cliché-ridden attempt by a Western writer to fetishize a nation that has become synonymous with exoticism. This was not long after the genre blogosphere became embroiled in what's become known as The Great Cultural Appropriation Debate of Doom, an offshoot of a WisCon panel discussing the depiction of cultures by authors foreign to them, and specifically non-white cultures by white authors, and the combination of these two discussions got me seriously reconsidering River of Gods and my, at that point, uncomplicated affection for it. McDonald's India feels like a real place, but I have no idea whether he's truly captured the country's spirit and described its driving conflicts with fidelity. He may very well have fictionalized a truth more complicated and nuanced than he was interested in depicting. What's kept me feeling positively towards River of Gods in spite of this realization is the fact that, as I noted above, his India is so strong and independent, so clearly its own entity directing its own fate. River of Gods may be a novel about India told by an outsider, but within the novel India is writing its own story.

When I heard that McDonald was going to follow River of Gods with another foray into a foreign culture, I was equal parts apprehensive and hopeful. Though the potential for fetishization and condescension was as great, I felt reasonably certain that the man who pulled off River of Gods could manage the same trick when it came to Brazil. I should stress that I think Brasyl is an excellent novel (and that I agree wholeheartedly with those who were shocked by its absence from the Clarke shortlist, which would have been a great deal stronger for its inclusion and that of The Yiddish Policemen's Union). It is beautifully written, thrilling, engrossing, and a hell of a lot of fun. But I can't say that it passes the test that River of Gods just barely squeaked past. Much as I enjoyed the substance of Brasyl, the experience of reading it was marked by an ever-increasing sense of unease at McDonald's treatment of the real country in which his story is grounded.

Brasyl unfolds in three alternating plotlines. The first takes place in Rio de Janeiro in 2006, and follows reality TV producer Marcelina Hoffman, who is in the early stages of developing a special about the Fateful Final, the decisive 1950 World Cup match in which Brazil, competing on its own soil against its neighbor Uruguay, lost the game by a single goal. Marcelina's despicable plan to track down the goalie who let the ball in and put him on trial on national TV is derailed when a person who looks exactly like her begins sabotaging her life, sending rude e-mails to her superiors, snubbing her friends, and offending her family. In the second plotline, Edson, a small-time entrepreneur in 2032 São Paolo, falls in love with a shady 'quantumista'--a programmer of quantum computers, which can reach into alternate universes and use their own doubles' processing power. When she's mysteriously murdered, and then reappears in the form of her alternate reality double, Edson scrambles to protect her while they try to work out who's after her. The third plotline takes place in 1732, along the Amazon and its tributaries. Jesuit priest Luis Quinn is dispatched to track down Diego Gonçalves, a member of his order who has set up his own kingdom deep in the jungle. On his journey, Quinn teams up with French scientist Robert Falcon, and encounters a native tribe who possess the secret to seeing into parallel realities. Armed with the knowledge gained from this ability, Quinn and Falcon, along with escaped slaves, establish their own jungle stronghold, and end up at war with Gonçalves.

Given the emphasis on alternate realities, it should come as no surprise that the three plotlines in Brasyl don't seem to belong to the same timeline--the present-day storyline isn't even set in our world, as the real goalie in the Fateful Final, Moacyr Barbosa, died in 2000. As Adam Roberts and Nic Clarke both point out in their reviews of the novel, there are far more than three Brazils in it--each character seems to have their own, slightly different version of the country. Rich and poor, male and female, white and black (actually, far more than that, since as McDonald points out in the glossary at the end of the novel Brazilian society distinguishes between 134 different skin tones, and many ethnic and national groups make up its population)--everyone has their own Brazil, and as Nic goes on to point out this superposition of different identities extends to the characters themselves, many of whom take on different personas in different settings. This is all very well and good, but what's lost in the shuffle is a sense of Brazil as an actual place.

There are many portions that moved and excited me in River of Gods, but the one that's stuck with me is the scene in which the character Parvati, a country girl who, as a result of a trend towards selecting for male children in her generation and the ensuing 'wife shortage,' has married well above her class, goes to a cricket match between Bharat and England.
Parvati Nandha keeps her eye on the ball as it reaches the top of its arc and gravity overcomes velocity and it falls to earth, towards the crowd, a red bindi, a red eye, a red sun. An aerial assault. A missile from Krishan, seeking out the heart. The ball falls and the spectators rise but none before Parvati. She surges up and the ball drops into her upheld right hand. She cries out at the sting, then yells 'Jai Bharat!,' mad on the moment. The crowd cheers, she is marooned in sound. 'Jai Bharat!' The noise redoubles.
There's a lot going on in this scene. Krishan is Parvati's gardener, who has taught her about cricket and with whom she is falling in love, and in a moment she will face the scorn of her fellow wives, who see her actions as confirmation of her uncouthness. But what's driving Parvati in this moment, and what connects her to the thousands of people who cheer at her, is national pride. It's a feeling that cuts across national and cultural barriers. Hell, it even cuts across indifference to sports--I wasn't even born at the time, and I don't give a damn about basketball, but I know what an important moment it was for Israel when Maccabi Tel Aviv beat CSKA Moscow in the European championship semifinal in 1977. In this moment, in River of Gods, India is entirely real, and as important to us as it is to Parvati. It is the place she comes from, the place that made her what she is. There's no corresponding sense of Brazil's reality, or of its importance to any of the characters, in Brasyl. The closest the novel comes to bringing Brazil, the actual country, alive is when it hands over the narrative to Marcelina's cleaner, Dona Bebel, who tells her the story of the Fateful Final:
The whole nation went into shock. We've never recovered from it. Maybe we expected too much; maybe the politicians talked it up until it wasn't just a game of soccer, it was Brazil itself. People who were there in the Maracaña, do you know what they call themselves? 'Survivors.' That's right. But the real pain wasn't that we lost the World Cup; it was the realization that maybe we weren't as great as we believed we were. Even in our shack on Morro de Pavão, listening to a radio wired into the streetlight with an oil drum for an amplifier, we still thought we were part of a great future. Maybe now we weren't the nation of the future, that everyone admired and envied, maybe we were just another South American banana republic strutting around all puffed out like a gamecock in gold braid and plumes that nobody really took seriously.
This is, however, one of only a few instances in the novel in which Brazil is considered as a nation. The question of its future--world leader or banana republic--isn't raised again, nor does it seem to matter to the rest of the characters. If River of Gods imagined India striding into the future, the future segment of Brasyl imagines a nation to which the future has happened. This might still make for a worthy story if there was a sense that Brazil having been left behind is something that McDonald thinks we should be interested in, but national identity, character, and direction are hardly even mentioned in the future strand. There isn't even anything uniquely Brazilian about the 2032 narrative--certainly not in the way that River of Gods immersed itself in Indian culture. It is, instead, a by-the-numbers, albeit impeccably executed, cyberpunk-lite future with a few Latin touches to distinguish it from thousands of others just like it. Brazil seems to have been sprinkled on, a backdrop rather than the point of the novel.

Of course, it may simply be that Brazil isn't the point of the novel. Both Adam Roberts and Nic Clarke argue that Brasyl isn't about Brazil per se but rather about the idea of Brazil, and through it McDonald's larger point about the multiplicity of identities--many places in the same location, many personas in the same body. This is probably true, but it seems to me like an explanation, not an excuse. Why should it be acceptable for McDonald to use Brazil--and not even the real Brazil but, as Roberts puts it, "a hyperbolically rendered, false-colour, triple-ply Brazil that is kept the right side of caricature only by McDonald's great skill as a writer: a Brazil that is genuinely as sun-soaked, pepped-up, vibrant, sexy, coffee-flavoured, samba-rhythmic and spontaneous as people like to think it is"--as a prop? How is this any better than the ubiquitous wise Native American guide or Magical Negro? That McDonald is, as Roberts notes, a fine writer whose portrait is lively and effortlessly persuasive doesn't change the reductiveness of this portrait. Brasyl ends with an epigraph by De Gaulle: "Brazil is not a serious country," and whether or not we're meant to read it ironically there is definitely a sense that, in Brasyl, Brazil isn't being taken seriously.

It certainly doesn't help that the same dismissiveness with which the novel treats its setting is extended to some of its characters, and that these characters are almost exclusively female and/or non-white. Marcelina is a great character, probably my favorite in the novel--she's a strong, vital person who has no scruples or taste, and has therefore chosen to dedicate her skills to the most odious cause imaginable. She's not even evil, which would at least indicate some moral conviction--just vain, and power-hungry for a specific type of power that means nothing by any realistic yardstick. Her ordeal transforms her, but refreshingly enough that transformation isn't redemptive so much as liberating. Marcelina never feels truly sorry for the things she did or wanted in her life as a reality TV producer, and she isn't humbled by her ordeal. Rather, it makes her stronger, and at the end of the novel she joyfully dedicates herself to a higher purpose.

And that, I'm afraid, is that for the novel's interesting female characters. Edson's love interest, Fia Kishida, is something of a blank, as one might infer from the fact that she appears as two different women in the novel, who are nevertheless treated by both the narrative and by Edson himself as the same person. Her first incarnation is one of the future plotline's most egregious dips into cyberpunk clichés, a mirrorshades-and-attitudes construct we've seen a million times before. Her alternate self is more approachable, but also more subdued--she spends most of the novel doing as she's told by either Edson or her eventual employers, and hardly seems to make a single independent choice throughout the story. Near the beginning of the novel, we learn that Edson is a cross-dresser, whose female aspect is called Efrim. Nic Clarke thinks that it's very refreshing that this proclivity is mentioned as a matter of fact, that Edson, having invited Fia on a date, shows up as Efrim without any trepidation or fear of her reaction, and that Fia herself takes the discovery in stride. In principle, I agree, but Fia is such a non-entity that her bemused reaction to Efrim feels less like her willingness to accept difference (or an expression of the very great likelihood that, in 25 years' time, proclivities and pastimes that we consider risqué will have gained mainstream acceptance) and more like a lack of opinion. Edson's on-again, off-again relationship with a man who has also acted as his mentor for years was also, presumably, introduced as an illustration of the permissiveness of his culture, but the contrast between their palpable affection for one another and the lack of any chemistry between Fia and Edson means that, once again, the device backfires and cheapens her character.

There are few other female characters of note, and most of them are playing a type--Dona Bebel and Marcelina's mother in the present-day strand are standard Ethnic Matrons, and in the 1732 storyline Falcon takes a native lover who is also a type, though admittedly the slightly more positive one of the spirited, uncomplicated native woman whose matter-of-fact attitude is a welcome balm to a cerebral, civilized white man. Though ostensibly dealing with Brazil's dark history and the enslavement of its native population, this plot strand is really about the two white men, Quinn and Falcon, who lead the slaves to salvation. When they arrive at their destination, a leader emerges from within the population, Quinn's servant Zemba, an escaped slave. Though the narrative regards him positively while he is in Quinn's service and loyal to him, remarking several times on his courage and burning desire for freedom, as soon as he's placed in charge of the 'City of Marvels,' Zemba is described as a tyrant. Falcon in particular resents him, considers him bloodthirsty and even, when Zemba tries to prevent him from leaving the city on a research expedition, sniffily replies that "I am not your slave." This transformation, from victim of exploitation to its perpetrator, is sadly not an unexpected one, and had the novel carried it through I might have less to complain about, but Zemba dies heroically for the City of Marvels, his previous excesses forgotten as he hands over the responsibility for his people to... Falcon, the white man. It's a story that might have been more palatable if the past storyline had had more room to breathe--if we'd gotten a chance to know Zemba as a complicated person, or to fully feel Falcon's dedication to the city--but this plotline is truncated, almost the highlights of a longer historical novel (such as Barry Unsworth's Sacred Hunger), and as a result doesn't seem to be aware of the skeevy statements it's making about the place of non-whites in the social hierarchy.

And that, I think, is what's most upsetting about Brasyl's treatment of both gender and race--that it leaves so much unexamined, reporting rather than commenting. When we first meet Edson, he's recruiting a new talent for his stable of entertainers, a young female football player. Edson tells the girl that she has promise, but that she needs to perform in a thong, and perhaps get a boob job, if she wants a future in show business. Later on he sells his contract for a women's volleyball team, tempting his buyer by noting that they play topless. It's impossible not to compare Brasyl with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which like it described a South American society mired in misogyny and racism, but whereas in Junot Díaz's novel it seemed obvious that the ugliness of such prejudices, of an outlook on life that sees women as nothing more than ornaments and accessories, was being thrown in our faces in a deliberate assault on our senses, I can't help but feel that in Brasyl McDonald is simply throwing in some local color, or worse, playing the misogyny for a joke. As I noted when I reviewed Oscar Wao, one the reasons that Díaz can get away with such sharp criticism is that he is a member of the society he's portraying. It may be that McDonald, as an outsider, didn't feel comfortable advancing that same critique--which, in a way, is an extension of the novel's reductive attitude towards the country.

By any technical standard, Brasyl is a much better novel than Spook Country, and I enjoyed reading it a great deal more. It has also, however, left a very bad taste in my mouth. The promise made by River of Gods, of a new science fiction landscape in which other cultures and other ethnicities were given their fair share of the future, has since been lived up to by other authors--Geoff Ryman's Air, some of Paolo Bacigalupi's short stories--but McDonald himself seems to have backslid. Once again, it's possible that I came to Brasyl with the wrong expectations. I wanted McDonald to do for Brazil what he had done for India, to consider it seriously and respectfully. I won't, however, apologize for this expectation--not when the result of its not having been met is so distasteful.

Monday, September 08, 2008

I've Been Here Before, Part 1

It's a tricky business, following up a successful, critically lauded, and innovative novel. Tricky for the author, of course, but also for the reader who comes back for that author's next effort. Expectations have to be carefully managed. Going in hoping for a repeat of the author's previous novel is a recipe for disaster, even if--especially if--those expectations are met. Innovation, after all, is rarely as thrilling the second time around. On the other hand, expecting too much change can lead to a jaded attitude that dismisses the very things that made that previous novel worth reading. What we want, in the end, is to recapture the pleasure of reading a truly excellent book, right down to the sensation that here is something new and unexpected. When I approach a novel by an author whose previous work has wowed me, I usually find myself hoping for something just like X, but different. A natural progression of the author's skills, themes, and unique characteristics. Some authors manage to strike this balance: China Miéville's The Scar is similar to Perdido Street Station in its breadth of imagination and meaty plot, but moves the action of the book away from its predecessor's setting, and its focus away from Perdido's adventure plot. It's not a perfect novel, but it's clear that with it Miéville was trying to move forward as a writer. M. John Harrison's Nova Swing is a distillation of many of the themes of his previous novel, Light, but it is also quite different to it, its setting both an expansion of one of Light's three plot strands and something all its own. In the last few weeks, I've read two follow-ups to two of the best-received SF novels of the last half-decade, and found them both impressive but ultimately wanting. One is too much like its predecessor; the other not enough. My original plan was to write about both of them in a single post, but the word count for the first novel alone is already nearly prohibitive. I'm splitting the post in half, therefore, and should have the second part, about Ian McDonald's Brasyl, up in a few days.

William Gibson was an important and influential name in SF literature before publishing Pattern Recognition, but with it he took his writing in a new direction, and did something that's yet to be fully replicated. Though set in the real world and the present day, and featuring absolutely no SFnal elements, Pattern Recognition is undeniably science fiction. It's a novel that takes a look at the present and describes it in SFnal terms. If one of the core aims of the genre is to look at the ways that imaginary technology might affect the human experience, Pattern Recognition looked at existing technology and charted the ways in which it had already changed that experience. In doing so Gibson also created what is surely the most lucid and thoughtful treatment of the internet, and of the ways in which it has altered human communication, in written fiction. Four years on, he's returned with Spook Country, and done the whole thing over again.

Like Pattern Recognition, Spook Country revolves around a young woman with an unusual first name (Hollis Henry matching the earlier novel's Cayce Pollard) and history (the former frontwoman for a briefly-popular rock band, Hollis is now trying to break into freelance journalism). As in Pattern Recognition, the heroine is recruited by Hubertus Bigend, founder of the advertising firm Blue Ant and all-around boy with too many toys, to track down something that's caught his fancy--in Pattern Recognition, the creator of an anonymous online film series known as The Footage; in Spook Country, a mysterious cargo container which for several years has been freighted back and forth across the world's oceans, and more importantly, its contents. Once again, the story is rooted in a new, technology-driven form of art--at the beginning of Spook Country, Hollis is writing an article about 'locative art,' installations visible only in VR which correspond to certain locations, an endeavor requiring an intimate understanding of both computer graphics and GPS technology, which brings her in contact with a man who may be able to track down Bigend's container. (The most significant deviation from Pattern Recognition is that there are two additional plotlines in Spook Country, whose protagonists are also pursuing the container. One of these follows Tito, a young Cuban immigrant and member of a close-knit crime family who has been dispatched to aid his family's former benefactor, a retired CIA agent; the other is told through the eyes of Milgrim, a junky who has been forcibly recruited as the interpreter for a shady government agent tracking the CIA agent and, through him, the container.)

Most importantly, with Spook Country Gibson once again uses a disjointed and borderline absurd premise as a jumping-off point for a discussion of present-day politics. Pattern Recognition was novel written in the missing shadow of the Twin Towers, whose characters were still reeling from that horror and from others, and just beginning to work their way through their respective traumas, usually through the creative medium--as Gibson himself was presumably doing when he wrote the novel. Even if the title weren't a massive clue, it is surely not a huge surprise to discover that Spook Country is Gibson's way of grappling with the indirect aftermath of the September 11th attacks and the actions taken in response to them, with those actions' effect on the nature of American society, the tone of public discourse, and, most importantly, the relationship between American citizens and their government. Spook country, as revealed towards the middle of the book, is a place in which surveillance is taken for granted, in which the simple trust that our leaders will not act in an underhand, untrustworthy manner has evaporated, and everyone has to look over their shoulder.

On the face of it, the fact that Spook Country and Pattern Recognition resemble each other so closely shouldn't be a deal-breaker. I liked Pattern Recognition very much, after all, finding it effortlessly engaging and nearly impossible to put down. So it was something of a surprise to discover just how little Spook Country managed to hold my interest. My complaints against the novel are, at least in part, technical ones. The thriller plot moves fitfully--Hollis doesn't even realize she's in a thriller until the novel is nearly over, and the other two plotlines are so deliberately opaque--neither point of view character truly understands what their handlers are after, and what little information they are given is usually parceled out off-page and only obliquely referred to--that it is frankly impressive that they don't devolve into unintentional comedy. I can't pretend, however, that Pattern Recognition was an impeccably plotted thriller, or that it didn't suffer, though perhaps to a lesser extent, from just these flaws (which anyway are clearly deliberate choices on Gibson's part). In fact, the similarities between the two novels have got me reconsidering my response to Pattern Recognition. Given Spook Country's overall dullness, it's a little difficult to recall why I found the earlier novel so compulsively readable in spite of its flaws.

What's missing, I think, is the weight of philosophy and social observation that made Pattern Recognition such a meaty novel. This is not to say that Gibson has deliberately served up a straight-up thriller, but rather that what underlies his thriller plot in Spook Country is rather poor fare. The fact that Americans now find themselves distrusting their government is, after all, a rather flimsy premise on which to hang a novel, an obvious statement which Gibson can shore up only with ambiance--the emotionally flattened, claustrophobic effect of his prose. There's nothing like the brilliant connection Pattern Recognition drew between art and atrocity, or the cycle it charted, in which that art is commodified and made into a product, which in turns feeds a system that creates other atrocities (a cycle which, we learn in Spook Country, persisted after the end of Pattern Recognition when Bigend used the technique used to create the Footage in order to create a massively successful ad campaign for shoes). Instead, Gibson's thoughts on the surveillance society are served straight up, the same fare one might find in a thousand magazine articles and a million blog posts (though, in the latter case, sans the righteous indignation, which frankly the novel would have been only the better for). What's left is a retread of Pattern Recognition without a fraction of the earlier novel's immediacy and appeal.

The one thing Spook Country does well, the one way in which it builds on ideas introduced in Pattern Recognition, is in its treatment of objects. What Pattern Recognition did for the internet, rejecting simplistic arguments for and against it and depicting it as a complex, sophisticated, and above all human system, Spook Country tries to do for materialism. Its characters have complicated relationships with objects, which they use as status symbols, tools, totems, and emotional crutches. Whether it's the state of the art computer system used to create locative art and track down the shipping container, or the Blue Ant figurine Hollis carries around as a reminder that, in accepting a job from that company, she hasn't lost her playfulness, or the vase Tito uses as a shrine to the Orishas, the Santería deities whom, he believes, guide his steps and sometimes take possession of him, or the accouterments that Milgrim's jailer, Brown, gathers around himself--specially made flashlights, guns, and briefcases--to signify to others, but mostly to himself, that he is a man to be taken seriously, Gibson's characters are defined by the things they hold dear.
Brown passed Milgrim the flashlight, which was made of knurled metal, professionally nonreflective. The pistol Brown wore beneath his parka, largely made of composite resin, was equally nonreflective. It was like shoes and accessories, Milgrim thought: someone does alligator, the next week they're all doing it. It was the season of this nonreflective noncolor, in Browntown.
We've been taught, by a culture that claims to reject materialism even as it urges us to buy, buy, buy, to take a sweepingly disdainful view of such people, but Gibson recognizes a fundamental truth: that to accrue possessions and imbue them with emotional significance is a quintessentially human act, perhaps one of the founding blocks of human civilization. Spook Country, therefore, is a novel about the relationships--positive, negative, and everything in between--that people have with possessions. It looks fondly on characters who value well-made, useful, or beautiful objects, and treat them well. The characters it views most negatively are the ones whose relationship to objects is the one described in the passage above--thoughtless flocking after the latest fashion, motivated by the belief that it's the possession that imbues the person with its qualities, not the other way around. (It's mostly Brown who is subjected to this treatment, but it is so unrelenting--Milgrim hardly misses an opportunity to quietly mock Brown's near-endless accessorizing and the obvious fact that he is engaging in it in the belief that looking like a real badass will make him into one--that one can't help but view it as a general statement on Brown-like people.)

Of course, you can't talk about people's relationship to their possessions without dealing with that which enables them to accrue possessions, money. Hollis, who lost most of her rock star fortune in a series of bad investments, is constantly aware of its absence. The novel's opening finds her nagging her editor for an expense account and, once this is supplied, making use of it--and of the facilities provided by her lavish hotel--with a decisiveness that makes it clear that she is an experienced consumer of high-end goods and services. Hollis understands how money can smooth the rough edges off life and the pleasure of expensive, well-made things, but she is neither shallow nor greedy. She spends the latter half of the novel carrying around an envelope containing $5,000 dollars, a much-delayed return on a debt from one of her former bandmates, delivered several years after his death from a drug overdose. Though she needs the money, Hollis can't bring herself to claim it, but neither can she give it away--the same stain that makes the money unusable ties her to it. The concept of money stained with guilt or blood ties into the novel's conclusion, in which millions of stolen dollars about to be laundered into obscurity are tagged with a radioactive isotope. The fluidity of money is curtailed by this act, and it is tied irrevocably to the circumstances under which it was spirited away--to the world of objects. Materialism, so often held up as the evil in whose name many of the Western world's crimes are carried out, is, in Spook Country, a possible balm against that evil. If the anonymity of money is stripped away, so too is the anonymity that makes spook country possible.

Unlike Pattern Recognition, it doesn't seem at all obvious to me that Spook Country is an SFnal novel. In fact, in some ways--most particularly its yearning for a world of tangibles, in which relationships between objects, individuals, corporations, and governments are easily quantified, observed, and regulated--it seems almost old-fashioned. This in itself might be called a commentary on the present day, though to my mind it is also the reason that Spook Country's treatment of materialism is less successful than Pattern Recognition's meditation on the internet. It seems less like a searching examination of what the world is presently like and more like a lament for the world we no longer, and perhaps never did, live in. Perhaps that's a clue to the false expectations I was nursing when I turned the first page--I was hoping that Spook Country would deliver the same disorienting sense of viewing the mundane world through a fantastic lens that Pattern Recognition did, that it would look at the present as though it were the future. Instead, Spook Country is a novel tied to the present, and rooted in the past. This may very well be a natural progression of the themes and ideas Gibson introduced in Pattern Recognition, and thus exactly what I try to hope for when I come back to an author whose previous novel has greatly impressed me, but in that case I'm afraid Gibson and I are going our seperate ways. Or it could be that Spook Country simply isn't as good a novel as Pattern Recognition. Now there's an expectation that can't, and probably shouldn't, be managed away.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Making Sport for My Neighbors

It's always funny to see what does and does not gain traction online. When I posted my review of the October/November issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction, I expected that responses to it would revolve mostly around the general negativity of my reaction to the issue. Instead, it was my response to the magazine's nonfiction content, and specifically to Lucius Shepard's review of Iron Man, that's got some folks talking. Early yesterday someone on the Night Shade Books bulletin board, where Shepard is a participant, posted a link to the review, sparking a discussion which has, in turn, led to a, shall we say energetic, post by Shepard on The Inferior 4, the LJ he shares with Elizabeth Hand, Paul Witcover, and Paul Di Fillippo.

I seem to have raised Shepard's ire firstly by calling the Iron Man review mean-spirited, which he has taken as a personal insult. I'm frankly puzzled as to how the trip from point A to point B was achieved, but obviously I'm sorry to have given offense. (It's interesting, however, that both Shepard and the person who initially drew his attention to my F&SF piece have fixated on what was actually an ancillary point rather than on my main complaint against the review, which is that it is dated, tired, and contributes nothing new or substantial to the conversation. If I had a time machine I'd go back and delete that sentence, just to see whether, though such an alteration would change very little about the post in general or my criticism of Shepard's review in particular, the current tempest would still have erupted.) Secondly, Shepard is irate because "People who try to intellectualize their opinions about pop culture piss me off. The truth is, pop culture is shite and the most effective way to undermine it is to lampoon it viciously."

The belief that there is something wrong or at the very least wasteful about taking pop culture seriously is hardly unique to Lucius Shepard (hell, it often seems to characterize every professional television critic out there), but it is somewhat perplexing to hear it stated so baldly by someone who has just recently published several thousand words on a pop culture phenomenon. That Shepard's Iron Man review is as insubstantial as it is, I must therefore conclude, is entirely intentional, and in fact if I take his meaning correctly it is only permissible to write about Iron Man, The Dark Knight, Deep Space Nine or any other pop culture artifact if one isn't trying to engage seriously with it.

"if we want to see more good movies, then we ought get nasty with criticism." Shepard says in the comments to his Inferior 4 post. "Nasty and cheap and down in the dirt just like Hollywood's gotten with us. That's been my agenda since day one...not that I'll effect much, but maybe somebody with a more populist voice will dig something I say and run with it, and maybe a good movie will result." I agree wholeheartedly with the first part of this statement. Pop culture reviews should get nasty. The mainstream press has been letting Hollywood get away with ever more stinky piles of manure, and serious reviewers should call creators and producers to task for this, but I don't care for Shepard's variety of nastiness, which is dismissive, thoughtless and shallow. To my mind, it is no more constructive than the kind of review that gives films like Iron Man a pass because they're just populist entertainment. Both approaches assume that popular culture isn't worth getting invested in. I've written nasty, indignant, and irate pieces about pop culture before, but in each one of them I've tried to engage with the work in question. In each case, the reason for my anger was that I truly believed, and still do, that there is no excuse for such failures, that pop culture can and should and will be better.

The idea that the kind of vicious lampooning Shepard champions could ever lead to an improvement in what's coming out of Hollywood strikes me as absurd (please note, I am saying that the attitude is absurd, not the man himself). Sure, it would be nice to think that one day Aaron Sorkin or Ronald D. Moore will read my blog, fall to their knees crying "she's right! She's right!" and fly me to LA or Vancouver or wherever they make the magic happen to act as their personal arbitrator of quality. In the real world, however, the only people I'm ever going to reach are consumers of pop culture, and the only thing that the kind of reviews Shepard calls for can possibly achieve within that group is to maybe get some of them to turn away from pop culture. And where will that lead us? If smart, thoughtful people stop watching TV or going to blockbuster movies, the stupid or inattentive viewers will simply become a larger majority, and Hollywood will have an even greater motivation to cater to their degraded tastes. Refusing to engage--either by turning away or by obviating any chance of a meaningful conversation--will never change anything.

I write seriously about popular culture because... well, because I love popular culture, and writing about it makes me happy, and this is my blog and I'll post whatever I want on it, and there's a whole internet's worth of other options to choose from if that's not something you care for. But on a more intellectual level, I write seriously about popular culture because I hope that my thoughts can persuade other people to take popular culture seriously and to expect and demand more from it. I truly believe that studio-produced films and network television have the potential to be good and even great--that there are, in fact, many examples of good and great films and television shows out there--and the only way that I can see to encourage quality and intelligence in these media is to encourage the perception that quality and intelligence are possible, to take pop culture seriously in the hopes that some of its creators will begin to do the same.

This, I imagine, makes me the enemy, as far as Lucius Shepard is concerned, but of the two of us he's the one who's drawn a paycheck for deliberately substandard work on a subject he feels nothing but contempt for. If you think pop culture isn't worth writing seriously about, then don't write about it. But if you choose to put pen to paper about a certain subject, then have the decency to write to the fullest extent of your abilities. Your readers deserve nothing less.

UPDATE: Shepard responds.


My review of Karen Joy Fowler's Wit's End (The Case of the Imaginary Detective in the UK) appears today in Strange Horizons. As you can see on the Strange Horizons main page, this week is borderline-genre, weird fiction week in the reviews department. I'm looking forward to Dan Hartland's take on The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, a novel I adored, on Wednesday, and on Friday David McWilliam will take on Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, which I've been curious about for a while, and hopefully will do a better job than this woeful New York Times review.