Recent Reading Roundup 29
Some of the books I never got around to writing about in the women writing SF project, and a few of the ones I've read since then.
- Moxyland by Lauren Beukes - I found a lot to be impressed by in Moxyland, one of the most talked-about debuts of the last few years. What I didn't find was a novel. The book feels like a demonstration of Beukes's talent--for worldbuilding, for constructing interesting and flawed characters, for bravely taking her story to its dispiriting conclusion--but its pieces don't come together into a greater whole. Which is not to say that Moxyland isn't worth reading. The setting--a future South Africa in which corporations and government have become indistinguishable--is a nice blend of cyberpunk tropes, real-world problems taken to the nth degree, and the strangeness of a foreign country with a troubled history. A lot of the devices Beukes deploys are familiar--cell-phones are necessary for everything from buying food to using public transport, so the police uses the threat of temporary or permanent disconnection to keep troublesome citizens and anti-establishment protesters in line, and breaks up demonstrations by using them to deliver electric shocks; advertising is ubiquitous and, in many cases, illegal to block; employment contracts more closely resemble indentured servitude, and seeking alternate employment is very nearly a criminal offense--but she uses them with aplomb and makes them her own. Moxyland describes the intersecting lives of four characters--a naive artist who has sold her body as a billboard to a drinks manufacturer; a narcissistic, bed-hopping, shock-jock blogger; an activist being drawn towards increasingly dangerous but no less futile acts of protest; and a corporate employee ruthlessly trying to maneuver her way into a better job. These are unpleasant people in unpleasant situations whose stories end unpleasantly, and Beukes isn't afraid to take any of them to the depressing places her premise demands. At the same time, she doesn't let gloom overwhelm the novel, which for all its hopelessness is an energetic, engaging read. There is, in short, a lot to be impressed by here, but despite the faint intimation of change at the novel's end (which gives the impression that it is a prologue to a very different story), Moxyland feels more like a snapshot than a story, more like a promise that Beukes can do great things than that promise's fruition. I'm certainly planning to seek out more of Beukes's fiction, though--most obviously, her second novel Zoo City, recently nominated for the Clarke--in the certainty that she can achieve that greatness.
- When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead - I first heard about Stead's Newbery-winning children's novel when it participated in School Library Journal's Tournament of Kids' Books last year, where its description as an homage to both A Wrinkle in Time and Harriet the Spy intrigued me. Though the book skews a bit younger than most of the YA fiction I tend to read, it tells a resonant story--growing up in New York in the early 70s, narrator Miranda is distracted from humdrum problems such a single mother who is frustrated by her job and afraid to commit to her boyfriend, a best friend who has stopped talking to her, and a snooty rich girl at school, by notes that seem to predict the future and ask her to carry out certain tasks in order to prevent an unspecified calamity. Miranda is well-drawn as someone who is both intelligent and believably limited, and part of the pleasure of the novel is watching her realize how many of she assumptions she makes at the beginning of the book were mistaken--the break with her best friend turns to have been the right choice for both of them, the girl she hates turns out to be smart and cool. The time travel aspect of the story, however, is less successful. It relies on Miranda being so unfamiliar with the tropes of the time travel story that she can barely wrap her mind around them. That may be believable for a child growing up in the 70s, but surely nowadays even children are so familiar with time travel as a story element that they can understand, for example, how you can arrive at a place before you left it. For an adult reader, Miranda's slowness in figuring out what's happening to her, while not an insurmountable obstacle to enjoying When You Reach Me, makes the book a lot harder to get lost in.
- Origin by Diana Abu-Jaber - I chose this book for the women writing SF project not so much because Origin is science fiction (though as a mystery it is a genre novel, and it raises the possibility of being SFnal very briefly) but because I thought it might be interesting to add to that project a mimetic novel about a female scientist--the narrator, Lena, is a fingerprint analyst in Syracuse who is called upon to help investigate a series of suspicious crib deaths. What I found instead was a novel that put me very strongly in mind of Kit Whitfield's Benighted, which, if you've read my review of that novel, you'll know is no great praise. Like Benighted's Lola May, Origin's Lena is a neurotic who, at thirty, has barely any grasp of how to function in society or how to deal with people on any but the most basic level. There's an interesting story to be told here, obviously--Lena might suffer from serious mental health problems, or the novel could point out the responsibility she bears for cutting herself off from human interaction (or both)--but like Whitfield, Abu-Jaber chooses to portray Lena as a hard-done-by victim, whose social phobias are solely the fault of wicked people around her--unloving parents, conniving colleagues, a domineering ex-husband--and easily remedied by a love interest who seemingly has no other goal in life but to pursue Lena in a respectful but relentless manner, break down the walls of her social maladroitness, and dedicate his every moment to her happiness. Even the science part of the novel turned out to be a dud--Lena is a sought-after crime lab technician despite having no formal education not because she's a good scientist, but because she has insights into crime scenes that not even she can fully explain, and the novel is a lot more interested in her emo narrative than in science and rational enquiry. The mystery itself, despite the irresistible hook of a serial killer who targets infants, fails to ignite--at one point Abu-Jaber has to posit that the victims' families somehow convince the press that their children's death are an act of terrorism in order to keep the tension from flagging--and its conclusion arrived long past the point where I had ceased to care about it.
- I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett - Fans of Pratchett's writing have long ago learned to ignore the author's occasional proclamation that the next book would be his last, or the last in the Discworld series, or the last to feature a certain character or setting. Somehow, once the manuscript was turned in, there always turned out to be another story in the tank. Nevertheless, there is a feeling of finality about I Shall Wear Midnight, and not just to the YA-oriented Tiffany Aching series, of which it is the fourth volume, but to the whole world of the witches of Lancre and the surrounding regions. For one thing, Tiffany is no longer a young adult. Though she's only 16 at I Shall Wear Midnight's outset, there is nothing childish or juvenile about her. She's been carrying a woman's load for quite some time, caring for the sick and elderly, resolving disputes, and acting as an official arbiter and figure of authority in her native Chalk. I Shall Wear Midnight sees Tiffany coming into her own as the head witch of the Chalk, to which end she must earn the respect and acceptance of the new Baron Roland, her former friend and almost-paramour (Pratchett handles this near-miss with delicacy, remaining true to both characters but also making a persuasive argument for their incompatibility; it is frankly refreshing to see, in YA fiction, childhood sweethearts who realize, upon reaching adulthood, that they really shouldn't be together). Throwing a wrench in those plans is the spirit of a dead witchhunter who awakens anti-witch sentiment in Roland and the people of the Chalk. Which is how I Shall Wear Midnight manages to cap off the whole sequence of witch-centric Discworld novels--it is a story about the nature of witchcraft and its necessity, and its climax brings to Tiffany's side not only familiar figures such as Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, and new ones such as the young witches she discovers and trains on the Chalk, but reaches all the way back to Equal Rites, the very first witch novel, to let us know what became of its heroine.
The problem here, and not for the first time, is that these are very familiar beats. I Shall Wear Midnight wants to be a crescendo, the definitive statement of Pratchett's take on the role of witches in his world--as quasi-magical social workers, simultaneously leaders and servants of their community--and on the evils of human nature that make them necessary. But instead of a crescendo the novel is a repetition of what most of the previous witch novels have said already. The first Tiffany Aching novel, The Wee Free Men, was one of the freshest, most engaging Discworld novels of the last decade, giving us a new and entirely different perspective on the nature of witchcraft and its practitioners while telling an exciting and funny story. But perhaps because it rested on a foundation already six books deep, the series very quickly descended into familiarity, and into the same tendency to prioritize message over plot that has marred most of Pratchett's writing in the last half-decade. I Shall Wear Midnight also confirms what the previous volume in the Tiffany series, Wintersmith, had suggested--that though Tiffany herself is a wonderful character, her series's premise has a lot less give in it, and a lot less room for expansion and for new kinds of stories, than the regular witch novels. Tiffany's pixie protectors the Nac Mac Feegle, for example, have gone from a hilarious invention in The Wee Free Men to a tired joke, and their role in the novel feels forced. I Shall Wear Midnight is by no means a slog, but it rather persuasively argues that even if Pratchett doesn't intend it as the last witch novel, it probably should be.
- The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman - It's a piece of rather bad luck that after two months of reading thought-provoking, evocative, beautifully-written genre novels, my first foray back into literary fiction should be Rachman's snide, unfunny, inexplicably well-received novel. I find myself wanting to rant, like the most partisan of genre enthusiasts, about the worthlessness of a critical scene that elevates novels like this one. Set in and around the offices of a Rome-based international paper during the second half of the last decade, The Imperfectionists charts the death throes of the paper--and of the print journalism industry--by visiting the people who make it work, from the managing editor to stringers in Cairo and Paris to the chief financial officer to the paper's most loyal reader, dedicating a chapter to each and weaving through them the paper's history and the steps that lead to its demise. The problem is that none of these people are characters--they're caricatures, whose behavior is, at best, trite and predictable (the Paris correspondent is so desperate for a byline that he sells out his estranged son by naming him as a source; the corrections editor has spent a lifetime romanticizing a childhood friend as a free-spirited artist, but discovers when they meet again that his is the adventurous, cosmopolitan life while his friend has happily settled into bourgeois mediocrity). At worst, they are simply unrecognizable as human beings.
Rachman seems to be aiming for humor, but he more often hits something so broad and obvious that it turns leaden. In one chapter, a grad school dropout is angling for a job as a stringer in Cairo, but is so completely lacking in backbone or any sense of how the world works that he not only allows himself to be scooped by his opponent, a walking stereotype of the man's man, globetrotting, war-zone reporter, but ends up giving the guy a place to stay, paying for his cabs and meals, and letting him carry off his laptop and house keys. Possibly the worst chapter in the novel involves the paper's chief financial officer, who finds herself seated on a plane next to an employee she's just fired. As the two struck up a flirtation, magically discovering how much they had in common, I said to myself that not even Rachman could possibly be aiming at a conclusion as juvenile and preposterous as the revelation that the fired employee is playing a cruel prank of seduction and revenge, but this is exactly how the chapter ended. There are one or two readable chapters--the best, which sadly comes rather early in the novel, tells the story of the paper's obituary editor, who has let his career fester in order to spend time with his daughter only for her to die in an accident; it is probably telling, however, that Rachman must reach for a dead child before he can elicit genuine emotion--but for the most part The Imperfectionists is a clomping, cliché-ridden novel. I can't help but wonder whether the ecstatic reviews I've seen for the book--which have almost uniformly called it nuanced, well-observed, and, most incredibly, funny--aren't tinged by their authors' being print journalists themselves, and perhaps too caught up in the excitement of seeing their own profession captured in fiction, and elegiac fiction to boot, to notice how little humanity there is in the novel. Whether or not I'm right, neither The Imperfectionists nor its critical reception leave me feeling particularly heartbroken about the death of print journalism.
- The Fortunate Fall by Raphael Carter - This is three quarters of a truly excellent novel, sadly undone by its last fifty pages. To put it another way, The Fortunate Fall works really well as a piece of worldbuilding, but falls flat on its face trying to tell a story in that world. The world, however, is very nearly worth the price of admission, combining cyberpunk and transhumanism with third world and post-genocide politics into a setting that I would have loved to have spent more time in--albeit with another author. Maya is a journalist several centuries in the future, in a Russia only a few decades past a brutal, genocidal conquest (by Americans, though the novel makes very little of this--we don't find out anything about the American "Guardians," their philosophy, or the reasons for the slaughter they carried out, and in the novel's present the US is mentioned only briefly as a wasteland that none of the characters are particularly concerned with) which was only overcome through the force of another atrocity--a computer virus that turned millions of the Guardians' subjects into the single-minded, relentless Unanimous Army. In the present, the same brain-chip technology that allowed the Army to come into existence, now heavily regulated, is used for entertainment. Maya doesn't report the news but allows her viewers to experience it through her networked sensorium. In the post-Guardian world, the new superpower is Africa, which largely escaped the Guardians' and the Army's ravages, where mind-sharing technology is used freely and the definition of human is rapidly evolving. In the former subjugated nations, remnants of tyrannical rule are still in place, and Maya in particular is fearful of being arrested for her sexual orientation.
There is, obviously, a hell of a lot that could be done in this setting, and though it is understandable, given its intricacy, that Carter spends most of the novel simply explaining its world to us, once that setting is established the story he chooses to tell in it is a let-down. Maya is investigating the little-documented Guardian period and the Unanimous Army, and stumbles upon a former dissident and present-day enemy of the state who promises her the story of a lifetime. "Stumbles," is, in fact, exactly the right word--Maya does little investigative work on her own and the story seems largely to fall in her lap. That this turns out to be deliberate, a plan by Maya's source and her new screener--the person who edits Maya's thoughts and emotional state for public consumption, and also doubles as her research assistant--doesn't truly justify how shapeless and cobbled-together the novel's plot, and Maya's progress along it, feel--though again, for most of the novel, when Carter's energies are directed towards having Maya explain her world's culture, politics, and history to us, this is not a problem. When the long-awaited interview with the mysterious source finally occurs, however, it turns out to be a chance for him and for Maya's screener to speechify for 50 pages, elaborating on the subjects that underpin the novel--the changing nature of personhood in the wake of mind-sharing technology, the effect that that technology has on human capacity for empathy, and the morality of doing evil for the sake of achieving good. Important and interesting topics all, but not when they're delivered as a lecture that more than anything else put me in mind of the Architect scene in The Matrix Reloaded. The tragic love story in Maya's past, which is supposed to humanize these chapters, is too thinly sketched--too drowned out by worldbuilding--so that when Maya finally finds herself forced to choose between accepting her lover as an altered, possibly evil transhuman, and living alone, we know so little about either character that it's hard to know which outcome to root for. Despite its tedious conclusion, The Fortunate Fall is worth a look for its setting and the ideas that have gone into it, but it is ultimately a failure.