Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Third Queen: Thoughts on the Seventh Season of Game of Thrones

Well, this season of Game of Thrones was pretty shit, wasn't it?  That comes as a bit of a surprise, to be honest.  For years, I've taken an attitude of fond indulgence towards the show.  What's wrong, after all, with watching a bunch of generally quite fine actors enact a complicated plot with stratospheric production values and the occasional fantastic action scene?  Sure, the show wasn't actually about anything, and its writers had blind spots on issues of race and gender that were often glaring.  But if you're able to put that aside, what's left is a genuinely enjoyable, well-made soap opera whose main appeal is the desire to know what happens next.  It hadn't occurred to me that this was a formula that could be screwed up, but at the end of the shortened (and yet seemingly endless) seventh season, there's really no escaping the conclusion: Game of Thrones may not be a good show, but there is a palpable difference between good Game of Thrones and bad Game of Thrones, and we've just been served a heaping helping of the latter.

What makes the whole thing particularly disappointing is that at the beginning of the season, I actually thought it had tremendous potential.  The season premiere, "Dragonstone", was to my mind the strongest such episode the show had ever fielded.  Unlike previous premieres, dutiful affairs carefully going about the business of establishing who is where before the proper business of the story can start, "Dragonstone" felt like a thesis statement for Game of Thrones's final chapter.  After six seasons in which the show seemed defined by its impulse to withhold--to deny us the character reunion, the shared, crucial bit of information, and most of all the opportunity for characters to act rather than being forced to react--this hour felt as if there was a fresh breeze running through it, with characters finally moving forward.  It's an episode hard at work to remind us how many different stories are happening on this show at the same time, full of conversations in which characters express their conflicting, and yet accurate, worldviews.  On the battlements of Winterfell, Sansa and Jon discuss the war to come.  She looks to the south, and the Lannister army, while he worries about the army of the dead.  They're both right.  At King's Landing, Cersei Lannister reminds her brother Jaime that their only hope of survival is to grasp power as brutally and completely as they can.  He counters that they have no dynasty to fight for, and that the country in dispute is about to be consumed by the business of surviving winter.  They're both right.  At the citadel in Old Town, Sam Tarly tries to convince the archmaester that a world-ending catastrophe is coming, only to be informed that there's always some catastrophe around the corner, and that civilization survives by continuing to attend to the minutiae of existence through them.  They're both right.  At the end of the hour, Game of Thrones feels like something very different from what it previously was, a story in which people make decisions and take actions, but in which no actor has possession of a complete picture of the world.

This is, obviously, not the show that we got.  There are hints of that story still in the season's second episode, "Stormborn", when Daenerys, after six seasons of existing outside the narrative constraints that have directed the lives of all the other characters, suddenly finds herself inextricably tied to her name and family history, and the horrific associations that everyone in Westeros has with them.  When the mere whisper of the name "Targaryen" can make Cersei--fresh off the destruction of the Sept of Baelor and with it much of King's Landing's civic and religious leadership--look like the safe, reasonable option, the rules have well and truly changed.  And yet they don't.  Far from being forced to finally reckon with her family's history and function as a player equal to all the others, Daenerys simply slips out of the narrative's grasp, just as she's always done.  And, just as it always has, this tendency paradoxically makes her storyline feel the most airless and least engaging on the show.

Only now it's the entire show that feels airless.  The entire show where actions have no consequences except the ones the writers need them to have, and where characters make decisions not because it's what a person in their situation would do, but because their token needs to be on a particular spot on the board for the next bit of story.  Why does Jon set off on a foolhardy, Rube Goldberg-esque quest to retrieve a wight from beyond the Wall?  Because that's how the writers are going to give the White Walkers the ability to destroy the Wall, which they otherwise would apparently not have been able to do, despite Jon's repeated warnings that their attack was imminent.  Why does he knock on Daenerys's bedroom door when doing so is politically unwise, contrary to the norms of his society, and seemingly uninvited?  Because the writers want a bit of dramatic irony when they make their revelation that Jon and Daenerys are not only nephew and aunt, but in direct competition for the Iron Throne.  Why has Bran concealed the truth about Jon's parentage all season?  Because the writers wanted him to reveal it to the one person who has information that proves Jon's legitimacy--information that Bran, despite being all-knowing, doesn't have until Sam prods him to look for it.

What one finally has to admit is that Benioff, Weiss, and their writers seem to have no idea how to finish this story.  They did a good job embroidering around the structure that George R.R. Martin provided them, and even embellishing from it when the time came to push the middle game forward.  But going into the endgame, they appear to have no real plan.  The result, as Aaron Bady writes, feels like a Game of Thrones cover band, throwing out fan favorites and acknowledging beloved memes--Gendry is still rowing!  R+L = J!  Tormund and Brienne!--without ever really having a sense of a story to tie them all together.  We all know where it's supposed to end up, but how we get there feels increasingly schematic.  (Since I've mentioned him, if you're not reading Aaron's, and Sarah Mesle's, reviews of Game of Thrones over at LARB, you're missing out on what is hands-down the best commentary on the show.)

But then, the more I think about it, the less convinced I am that this is Benioff and Weiss's fault.  Without downplaying the failings of this season--the weirdly rushed pacing, the flights of irrationality and stupidity, the ravens that function like text messages--is it possible that there is no way to satisfactorily end this story?  That the traits we've identified as flaws, unintended consequences of a source material with no ending in sight--the withholding of resolution and forward momentum, the diffusion of the story into tangents and cul-de-sacs--are in fact the traits that define this story?  To go back to Aaron Bady, this is something he suggested a few years ago, when he argued that the series had reached not just its climax, but its natural ending point, with the Red Wedding, that quintessential denial of heroic tropes and storytelling conventions.  It's something I seem to have recognized in my dissatisfied review of the first book, when I pointed out that the story's heroic narratives, involving Daenerys and Jon, seemed to be in direct conflict of tone and intent with the more political, anti-heroic slant of the other characters' stories.  Is it possible that by trying to force a resolution to its story, Game of Thrones's writers are being untrue to what the show actually is?

Think of the fundamental questions that most fans will have gone into this season asking.  Who will Jon end up with, and does it matter that Daenerys is his aunt?  Will Jaime kill Cersei, or will Arya do it?  Will Brienne ride off into the sunset with Tormund or with Jaime (or neither)?  Who will end up on the Iron Throne?  They look like storytelling questions, but a closer look reveals that they're actually logistical ones.  That's a problem in a season that has thrown all basic logic and plausibility out the window, but it would still be a problem even if this season had been impeccably plotted, because the crucial difference between these two kinds of questions is that in the second type, you don't actually care what the answer is.  It's about how you get there, and that is what Game of Thrones has always been about--getting there, and the weird layovers, false starts, and distractions you encounter along the way.  Trying to tie it all up makes about as much sense as trying to put an end point on any soap opera, except that now we have the threat of ice zombies imposing an artificial end-point on the story.  Is it any wonder the result has been unsatisfying?

All of this has been a roundabout way of getting to talk about the only thing in Game of Thrones I actually care about: Sansa.  Sansa has been my favorite character since the second season, but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized why that is: because unlike everyone else on the show, Sansa doesn't know what she wants.  More importantly, what she wants changes dramatically according to her circumstances and level of understanding.  In the first season, Sansa wanted a fantasy, to marry a prince, become a queen, and rule beside him (this, to be clear, was a perfectly reasonable fantasy for someone of Sansa's class and background, and if the Baratheons weren't who they were it would probably have been a good life for her).  In the next four seasons, and in the wake of that fantasy turning into a horrific nightmare, Sansa's desires turned to survival and escape, and in the last season, they became about securing her safety and retaking her home.  Now ensconced as Lady of Winterfell, possessed of a reasonable amount of security, authority, and power, Sansa is faced with a dilemma that hardly anyone else on the show has had to struggle with: what comes next?  She can keep her head down and try to address immediate problems of changing weather and dwindling supplies, but then she might end up a minor player in world-changing events, or worse, swept away by any or all of the forces converging on her home.  She can aspire to total control and domination, but then she'd find herself in direct opposition not only to her family, but with characters whom the narrative has imbued with exactly the kind of reality-avoidant powers that she lacks.  Or she can dedicate herself single-mindedly to a particular, extraordinary goal, like Arya or Jon, but that would require skills that she has never developed.

The truth is, Sansa has no idea what she wants and what comes next for her, which makes her the quintessential Game of Thrones character--her story is all forward motion, with no end in sight--and the most exciting figure in the seventh season.  Nearly alone among the cast, she has no predefined role.  Her story in this season revolves around clearing the board of a leftover villain who should have been shuffled off three seasons ago, and while this is done with amazingly bad writing (I've tweeted about my issues with how this story weaponizes misogynistic complaints about Sansa and makes both her and us wade through them, but there's so much else to criticize there) it also leaves Sansa feeling more free, and more self-directed, than almost anyone else in the cast.  She could go anywhere and do anything.

To be clear, I don't expect Game of Thrones to realize this.  One need only look at the way Sansa and Arya's conflict in the latter half of this season--so understandable in principle, and so poorly executed in practice--is slanted towards a big heroic moment in which Sansa fools Littlefinger into presenting himself at his own trial and execution.  That moment is, quite frankly, ridiculous--it requires us not to think too hard about any of Sansa's decisions (why is she bringing up the murder of Lysa Arryn, when surely the fact that she vouched for Littlefinger immediately after it happened is a greater impediment to her than to him, certainly more so than the letter he left for Arya to find?), or Westerosi legal custom (how are Bran's visions admissible as evidence?  If they aren't, and Sansa's accusations are enough, why didn't she have Littlefinger tried ages ago?), or Littlefinger's own resources (remember when Brienne suggested that he might have soldiers loyal to him in the castle?  What happened with that?).  More importantly, just where the show should be delving into the psyche of one of the few people on it who still has the freedom to be a person, it pulls away, and leaves us wondering how Sansa and Arya could still have a relationship, much less each other's back, only days after Arya threatened to cut off Sansa's face.

But, just as she's always done, Sansa emerges from under the weight of crap the show throws at her a fully-realized, fully-human character.  And while I do not expect the show's final episodes to give her anywhere near the role she deserves, I do expect her to be interesting to watch, no matter what they do with her.  Sansa is our reminder that the real story of Game of Thrones is one that has no end, simply a long litany of births and deaths, marriages and divorces, wars and truces.  Occasionally, the show tries to pretend that it is aware of the tragedy this represents for anyone who is not a member of the nobility, and through Daenerys, gesture at the possibility of a better world.  But since Daenerys's plan for "breaking the wheel" involves burning people alive, I decline to treat her, or the rest of the show's stabs at political relevance, with any seriousness.  Game of Thrones will never be a show about breaking the wheel of injustice and inequality.  It probably isn't going to be a show about the forces of life defeating the forces of death (and the forces of nihilism, as represented by Cersei).  But there is a third queen on this board, one who has no idea what her story is but is determined to keep living it.  She's the one I'm still watching for.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Recent Reading Roundup 44

Summer is usually a dead reading time for me, the heat and dust making it difficult to concentrate on anything but the least challenging fare.  But this summer--which has anyway featured some interesting developments--has turned out to be very exciting on the reading front as well.  I didn't love all of these books--in fact one of them is easily my least favorite read in quite some time--but all of them broadened my horizons and took me places I wasn't expecting.  Here's to many more summers (and seasons) like this one.

  • The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro - I'm having trouble explaining to myself why I picked up The Buried Giant.  After all, the only other Ishiguro novel I've read, Never Let Me Go, left me feeling disappointed, frustrated, and genuinely puzzled at the love and admiration that so many other readers (including genre readers) had for it.  The only justification I have for giving Ishiguro another look is that it had been ten years since Never Let Me Go put me off, and in that time the ongoing praise for it made me doubt my own recollections.  Was it possible that I was being too harsh?  Did I miss the point of the novel's tragedy, seeing nastiness in what was intended as a soulful meditation on the human condition?  Add to that the conversation that developed around The Buried Giant's genre, and the fact that its premise and setting sounded intriguing, and it seemed like a good opportunity to give Ishiguro a second try.  Turns out, I was right the first time.  Ishiguro is a nasty piece of work; The Buried Giant, like its predecessor, is a mean-spirited, taunting bit of misery-porn that seems to hold its readers in actual disdain, and pretends to profundity without having anything to say.  And what makes it all worse is that I have no one to blame but myself.

    The story of The Buried Giant revolves around an elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, who live in a small English village some time after the collapse of the Roman Empire.  The setting is deliberately hard to fix, not just because the couple have a very limited view of their world, but because folklore and fantasy seem to exist side by side with established history--this is a world where Arthur was a historical king whom some of the novel's older characters remember, and where dragons exist.  (On the question of the novel's genre, I fall in with those who class it as a fantasy; though as a fantasy, it isn't a very interesting or original one.)  One particular dragon is breathing noxious fumes into the air, affecting the entire region and causing memory loss, passivity, and irrational behavior.  Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village to go on a visit to their son, whom they only vaguely remember, become increasingly aware of these effects as they travel, and fall in with a group of people--including an elderly Sir Gawain--who have various plans for the dragon.  As they journey, more and more pieces of their forgotten history start falling into place, as does the vicious, bloody conflict between Saxons and Britons, now curiously abated but bubbling beneath the surface.

    The Buried Giant is slow and meandering, and Axl and Beatrice's thought- and speech-patterns are halting, almost childlike (it's hard to tell if this is meant to be the effect of the dragon, since in flashbacks to the past they seem just as literal-minded).  That's not what put me off the novel, though--for all its blandness, The Buried Giant is an easy read, and in its own way engaging, as we watch its characters go out of their way to be kind and accommodating to one another, and slowly puzzling out their world and history.  But the simplicity of that world and that history mean that the reader will work out relatively quickly what the characters take until the novel's last pages to figure out--that the dragon's fumes, even as they suppress memory and intelligence, are also the only thing preventing ethnic strife and bloodshed from breaking out again, and that several of the novel's characters want the dragon killed so that the cycle of vengeance can start again.  So The Buried Giant is a long, terribly polite, terribly gentle trudge towards war and ethnic cleansing.  As if that were not enough, Axl and Beatrice's relationship, the only thing they have left to cling to in a world going slowly mad, is nibbled away at piece by piece as they regain their memories.

    Here's where a partisan of the novel might jump up to say "but that's the point!"  But the more I think about it, the more misguided that seems.  I don't think Ishiguro has written a book about the inevitability of human conflict and how remembering history can doom us to repeat it.  I think he's written a smug, sneering work whose primary purpose it to point and laugh at its readers for hoping that things might turn out better than that.  Throughout the novel, Axl and Beatrice are eager to end the dragon's influence because they fear that if they lose their memories of loving each other, they won't be allowed to go to heaven together.  But not only does regaining their memory reveal all the cracks and flaws in their relationship, as the novel's final chapter reveals, there's no amount of love they could have for each other that would ever allow them to go to the afterlife together--any expression of anger or hate, even momentary, in a decades-long marriage is enough to disqualify them.  In the hands of another writer, this might arouse compassion, the recognition that there is no such thing as a perfect love, or a perfect peace.  But underneath The Buried Giant's polite surface, there is a genuinely misanthropic heart, that sees the flaws in its characters as a reason to hate and punish them, not pity them.  The point of the novel isn't that war and conflict are inevitable, or that no love is perfect, but rather that it is foolish to hope otherwise, and that people who do--both the characters and the readers--are to be derided.  The only good thing that has come from my choice to read this novel is that I no longer have to wonder if I was wrong about Ishiguro ten years ago, and hopefully I won't make the mistake of picking him up again.

  • Broken River by J. Robert Lennon - Lennon is turning out to be one of those authors who never write the same kind of book twice.  I've seen him do family dramedy (The Funnies), and metaphysical slipstream (Familiar), and now he returns with Broken River, a thriller with more than a dash of the existential.  The house in the woods outside Broken River, NY was once the site of a horrible double murder.  Twelve years later, it is purchased by a wealthy, bohemian family--sculptor Karl, novelist Eleanor, precocious tween Irina--who move to the country in a last-ditch effort to recover from Karl's serial infidelity.  All the ingredients for a fairly standard thriller plot seem to have been laid out, including a mysterious young woman who may or may not be the daughter of the murder victims, a local man whose knowledge about the murders has been eating away at him for years, and a sinister stranger who arrives in town not long after Eleanor and Irina begin investigating the history of their new home.  And yet Broken River repeatedly zigs when you expect it to zag.  It often feels more interested in Karl and Eleanor's crumbling marriage, and particularly the way that it has been both sustained, and ultimately destroyed, by his monumental self-absorption.  Long stretches of the novel are told from the point of view of an "observer", an entity who came into being shortly before the murders, and who spends the years afterwards watching the house and then following the people who move into it, slowly developing its theories about why humans behave as strangely and inconsistently as they do.  Most importantly, though Lennon takes a while to reveal what actually happened on the night of the murders (to the readers, anyway; most of the characters never work out all of the details), he makes it clear from the outset that there is no grand mystery here.  That what happened at the house all those years ago was nothing but the confluence of mundane greed, cruelty, and foolishness, with no greater meaning or purpose.

    The result is that Broken River often feels more interesting for its parts than its whole.  The chapters in which we follow Karl in his relentless quests to gratify his most immediate desires--for weed, for his mistress, for artistic recognition, for some fleeting sense that he is not failing as a husband and a father (he is)--are a sort of horrifying comedy, a constant seesaw between disgust at Karl's steadfast refusal to be an adult, and amusement at the sheer audacity of it.  Eleanor's slow realization that she needs to disentangle herself from his narcissism, and Irina's childish conviction that she knows everything she needs to know about being an adult, are similarly well-sketched.  But at its core, Broken River is a novel about the folly of imposing a narrative on life, whether it's the murder mystery, or the murderers' belief that their victims' daughter is coming back for revenge, or even Karl's fantasies about masculinity.  Which inevitably means that the book refuses its own impulses towards a coherent plot.  When the story erupts into violence, it's not because the forces that exploded in the house twelve years ago were so malevolent and all-knowing that they've been lying in wait all these years, but because the limited people making limited observations of the family's actions jump to irrational, unsubstantiated conclusions.  That's not as frustrating as it sounds--a lot of the pleasure of the book comes from our ability to piece together what the rest of the characters don't realize, and to marvel over their foolishness.  But it means that Broken River ends less with a crescendo and more with an unraveling, and the feeling that as enjoyable as the components of the ride were, we weren't actually headed towards a destination.

  • Human Acts by Han Kang - I didn't know quite what to make of Kang's The Vegetarian, winner of last year's Man Booker International prize and generally beloved of literary folks, when I read it earlier this year.  It was obviously successful at what it was trying to do--chart the way that mental illness and a misogynistic culture combine to drive the main character to self-destruction, to the complete incomprehension of those closest to her--but for the life of me I couldn't figure out the point of the exercise, or even admire Kang's skill at pulling it off.  Human Acts, Kang's third novel to be translated into English, has finally made me realize what everyone has been seeing in her.  It is a riveting, shattering work, at once personal, philosophical, and political, dealing with the after-effects of state violence in a way that no novel I've read has come close to.

    Kang's subject is the 1980 Gwangju Uprising, in which students and factory workers in a Korean city staged a takeover in protest of the country's military leadership.  The uprising lasted ten days, and was finally brutally suppressed, with hundreds of citizens left dead or missing.  To Koreans, this is a defining moment in the history of their nation, but I had never heard of it before reading this book.  It was therefore fascinating to see how Kang dealt with the details of history.  None of the characters in the book infodump, and it's left to us to piece together the events of the uprising and its aftermath from their asides and observations.  To a foreign reader in particular, this has a strangely wrongfooting effect.  The first chapter, which takes place in the middle of the uprising, with the city holding its breath in anticipation of the military's return and the massacre that will be sure to follow, felt, to me, almost like a chapter out of an SFnal dystopia.  It seemed impossible that, in the real world, ordinary people could have found themselves, from one day to another, living in a war zone.  And yet the further one gets in Human Acts, the more that sense of alienation and unreality comes to feel like the point.  As the years pass, the uprising is folded into Korea's history, and into the lives of the people who survived it, a rupture in the expected order of things that is also horrifyingly mundane.

    What occupies most of the characters in Human Acts is the death of one specific Gwangju victim, fifteen-year-old Dong-ho.  We meet him in the book's first chapter, helping to tend to bodies that have been brought to a local gym, looking for the friend he was separated from in the protest that sparked the uprising.  Though it takes a while to learn exactly how Dong-ho died, that isn't the story's focus--it is, after all, fairly easy to guess, and the actual identity of the murderer doesn't matter with so many guilty parties to go around.  What is important, to Dong-ho's friends, his family, and the other rebels who managed to escape with their lives, is the violation that his death represents, and the greater violation that it comes to stand for.  Following these characters over the years and decades after the uprising, Kang finds them struggling with trauma, PTSD, survivor's guilt, and most of all with the knowledge that people are capable of doing such things to one another.  The violence that the state is capable of is ever-present in this book, from the uprising itself, to the torture of prisoners that followed it, to routine mistreatment at the hands of the police.  For all the novel's characters, the illusion that they are living in a civil society, that they can trust their government and fellow citizens not to hurt them, has been irrevocably shattered.  The question they keep coming back to, as they try to rebuild their lives, is: how do you participate in a society that has abused you?  How do you go on with your life in the knowledge that all of the things you've witnessed, the cruelty and the suffering, are a fundamental part of being human?  Throughout the novel, Kang's focus is on the corporeal--on dead bodies and how we care for them (or not); on abused bodies and how they heal (or not)--and through this most mundane of topics, she repeatedly drives home the point that what she is describing is ordinary, even, in some ways, normal.  It is that normalcy that gives Human Acts its horrifying force, and makes it one of the most powerful novels I've read.

  • The Girl With the Golden Parasol by Uday Prakash - I first heard about this novel, which caused quite a stir when it was originally published in Hindi in 2001, from Aishwarya Subramanian.  According to the introduction by translator Jason Grunebaum, one of the things that made it controversial in India was its discussion of caste and the effects that it still has on modern Indians, and to a foreigner that's one of the aspects of Indian society that feels most opaque--the subtle cues of language, name, and geographical origin that clearly identify caste to an Indian are invisible to most of us, and certainly to me.  One might think that this would make The Girl With the Golden Parasol incomprehensible to a foreign leader, but instead my reaction to Prakash's portrait was to think that he'd managed to capture currents and trends that are universal, present in any country and society, even as he depicts the unique ways in which they express themselves in his home.

    Both a campus novel and a romantic comedy, The Girl With the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a young student at a prestigious university, who falls in love with Anjali, a girl from the highest, Brahmin caste.  In order to be close to his crush, Rahul transfers into the Hindi department, which is simultaneously looked down on by the wider university community, as a hidebound discipline with little utility in the new, capitalistic Indian society, and ruled internally by a cabal that sees their mission as more cultural than academic, building a bulwark against the erosion of Brahmin superiority and control.  Being exposed to the internal politics and prejudices of the department gives Rahul (and Prakash--when the novel gets into its speech-making mode, it can get a little difficult to distinguish between the two) an opportunity to exposit on the currents affecting Indian society.  On the one hand, the influence of the West, which encourages capitalism, consumerism, and inequality.  And on the other hand, the form of Indian nationalism espoused by the Brahmins, which seeks to erase the cultural impact of less-privileged ethnic groups (Rahul is, for example, startled to discover that his syllabus in Hindi literature is composed almost entirely of Brahmin authors) and erect a philosophical model that treats Indian-ness and Brahmin superiority as interchangeable.  Despite the local details--and without downplaying Prakash's skill at conveying them, even to a foreigner like myself--these forces feel so familiar, especially right now with nationalistic movements all over the world identifying themselves with idea of cultural supremacy and the rule of the elite, that it seems impossible to believe that this novel was written almost two decades ago, in a very different world.  (One amusing and presumably unintentional touch is that the peak of the novel's action happens in the middle of September 2001, and yet 9/11 is never mentioned.)

    Prakash isn't shy about using Rahul as a mouthpiece, and a lot of the novel is made up of his speeches--to his friends, to his teachers, to Anjali.  But what should make the novel a bit of a slog ends up being delightful, not just because Rahul's perspective was new to me, but because of the way his imagery swoops from the mundane to the fantastical, from being rooted in the novel's narrative to a high-flying view of India as a whole, from completely naturalistic to combining elements of mythology, religion, and history to illustrate Rahul's take on India's core flaws and failings.  (If I have any problem with Rahul and his worldview, it is that, like so many campus leftists before and after him, he tends to view women as a means to an end, rather than actors and thinkers in their own right, and this also expresses itself in some of his politics.)  Even more impressive is the fact that, in such a short volume, Prakash manages to combine Rahul's philosophical and political musings with a fairly crackerjack plot, involving not only the blooming love story between Rahul and Anjali, but a student rebellion against the corrupt campus leadership, which is cahoots with local criminals.  The result is a novel that feels vibrant both for its politics and its story, and extremely funny and touching besides.  Near the end, Prakash demonstrates an obvious awareness of his genre by asking whether he can justify ending his story like any Bollywood romance between a rich girl and a poor boy, and it's a testament to the strength of his worldbuilding that he manages to find an ending that is satisfying on both the political and storytelling level.

  • Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi - Saadawi's 2013 novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and I'm getting it slightly before English readers (who will be able to enjoy it in 2018) because the Hebrew translation was a little bit faster.  Set in 2005, at the height of the chaos following the American invasion and the fall of the Ba'athist regime, its events are punctuated by a constant litany of gang wars, reprisals for long-held grudges, financial collapses, and suicide bombings.  In the midst of all this upheaval, an old junk dealer, shellshocked by the death of his friend in a bombing and by the sight of the dismembered bodies left after it, begins a macabre project of constructing a single corpse from orphaned bits of victims.  For reasons the book never elaborates, but which are clearly linked to the psychic charge of trauma and pain that lingers over the city, the patchwork creature comes to life.  He begins taking vengeance on the people who caused his body parts' original death--criminal gangs, militias, terrorist groups.  But as his quest for vengeance proceeds--and as tales of the mysterious, inhuman avenger spread through the city--the creature's body begins to fail, and he finds himself having to take the lives of innocents in order to extend his life.

    It's a fairly obvious metaphor, and Saadawi is almost certainly not the first to employ it (Victor LaValle is currently telling a very similar story in his comic Destroyer, to name but one example).  What makes Frankenstein in Baghdad original is its portrait of Baghdad itself, and the way the creature's story intersects with those of so many ordinary people whose lives have been rocked, not just by the current crisis, but by a legacy of dictatorship and ethnic strife.  Saadawi sets his story in a single neighborhood, whose residents have long-simmering currents of friendship and resentment shaped by Iraq's tumultuous history--one of the novel's protagonists, an old woman, holds a grudge against the former party member who hounded her son into enlisting in the army in the 80s, leading to the boy's death in the war against Iran.  Religion and ethnicity are also discussed--on a personal note, I was intrigued by the frequent references to Baghdad's departed Jewish community, whose echoes continue to linger in the houses and artifacts they left behind.  Perhaps most importantly, there is the tension between traditional ways of life, the order imposed by the fallen regime, and the new, more strongly capitalist society emerging after the invasion, which cause tremendous upheavals in the fortunes of many of the novel's characters.  (In light of all this, it's interesting to note how little Saadawi has to say about the American occupation force.  It exists as a grey eminence, a threat that backs the power of some of the novel's more connected characters.  But hardly any American characters appear, and the Iraqi characters are more concerned with the neighbors and enemies they can see in front of them.)

    If there's a weakness to Frankenstein in Baghdad, it is that it can't bring this tapestry of characters and stories to a definite conclusion.  Rather, the novel ends with one final act of destruction, after which many of the characters end up surrendering their grip on a city they no longer recognize, and moving on from it, leaving it to the creature's stewardship.  This, however, may very well be Saadawi's point; that in such chaos, with the ghosts of so many past victims emerging to claim their vengeance, Baghdad becomes unfit for the life of the community, and must be abandoned to those--human and inhuman--who are dedicated solely to violence.

  • Tove Jansson: Work and Love by Tuula Karjalainen - A visit to Finland felt like the perfect opportunity to read this biography of Jansson, and my reading was certainly enhanced by taking place within short distance of so many of the book's most important settings: the Ateneum, where Jansson studied art and displayed many of her works; the chief branch of the furniture and design store Artek, whose fine art competitions she entered; the famed department store Stockmann's, where one of many Moomin promotions was held.  But even divorced from these concrete reminders of Jansson's life, Work and Love paints a vivid portrait of its subject.  A lot of the details of Jansson's life were already known to me--I knew that she was the daughter of artists, that she had been a left-wing political cartoonist in the 30s and 40s, that she had a decades-long relationship with another female artist, Tuuliki Pietilä, with whom she lived part of the year on a remote island, and that she had written novels and stories for adults as well as the Moomin books.  Karjalainen expands on these bare facts, charting the development of Jansson's career along the many paths she took over the course of her life, as a painter, graphic artist, cartoonist, and author.  She discusses the dominant influences in Jansson's life, including her parents, friends, and early lovers.  And she identifies echoes of Jansson's life in her writing, from her fraught relationship with her father, to her open-secret sexuality, to the specific inspirations for various Moomin characters.  Her text is interspersed with many photographs and reproductions of Jansson's art, making the book a work of art as well as a fascinating biography.

    But the chief pleasure of Work and Love is the portrait it paints of Jansson, as a person who was first and foremost hardworking, curious about the world, and eager for new experiences.  You get a glimpse of Jansson's personality in many of her books, including Fair Play, The Summer Book, and The True Deceiver.  But Karjalainen offers a more rounded portrait, discussing Jansson's limitations (her political naivete, her resistance to modernist movements in the art world) as well as her strengths.  And, though the book touches on this fact only lightly (and mostly in discussing the more limited prospects of Jansson's mother Signe, whose career ended up taking a backseat to that of her husband), Work and Love is a profoundly feminist work.  Its depiction of Jansson as an artist rejects so many of the terms we're used to using when discussing male artists, whose careers often seem dedicated as much to curating their public image, and to taking up as much space as possible, as to their work.  Jansson was hardly shy and retiring, but she valued her privacy and didn't like to make herself, rather than her work, the focus of attention.  Her life was dedicated to working hard, supporting her friends, and making a comfortable existence for herself and the people she cared about.  This describes so many women I know--women who hold up the world with their care and attention, but who are also passionate, exacting, and extremely proud of their accomplishments--that it's not at all a surprise to learn that Jansson was one of them.  It's a model for life--not just of the artist--that I'd like to see lauded, certainly over that of the genius creator who must be coddled and protected from the mundane details of existence.

  • My Favorite Thing is Monsters, Book One by Emil Ferris - Ferris's monumental, breathtaking graphic novel presents itself as the sketchbook/diary of ten-year-old Karen Reyes, who lives with her mother and older brother Deeze in a basement apartment in Chicago, 1968.  When the family's upstairs neighbor, Anka Silverberg, dies under mysterious circumstances, Karen is moved to investigate, discovering tapes Anka made in which she narrates her life in pre-WWII Berlin, and her experiences in a concentration camp after the war breaks out.  This impulse towards investigation also branches out into Karen's own family and her other neighbors, as she becomes aware of the weight of history and secrets that so many of the adults in her life carry.

    My Favorite Thing is Monsters is probably weakest in its plot--it's easy to guess, for example, what dark secret Deeze is hiding about his past, and the book's use of the Holocaust in Anka's reminiscences verges on the sensationalistic, as when we learn that Anka, a former child prostitute, conceived a plan to rescue children from the gas chambers by recruiting them for her own brothel, and that her death may have been linked to this.  But Ferris's art elevates the material into something completely its own, moving effortlessly between past and present, fantasy and reality.  Karen's inspiration comes in equal parts from the schlock horror films and magazines she enjoys with her family, and the paintings she studies at her visits with Deeze to the Art Institute of Chicago.  Long segments of the book involve Karen recreating, analyzing, and in some cases entering the paintings that capture her mood or resonate with her impressions of the people she meets, but often in combination with elements from monster movies--including Karen herself, who is almost always drawn as a creature halfway into transforming from a human to a werewolf.  Alongside these fantastical elements, there is also a moving and carefully observed portrait of Karen's seedy neighborhood, populated by marginalized people, some of whom are still clinging to respectability, while others have been forced to let go of it, or have gleefully surrendered it.  Ferris's ability to combine this stark social realism with a sensibility that is part high-art, part cartoon--and do it all in the medium of cross-hatched pen-strokes and shaded pencil sketches--adds up to a stunning artistic achievement, all while maintaining the conceit that the book is a child's sketchpad.

    None of this, however, would work if it weren't for Karen herself, who is bold but naive, good-hearted but so determined to learn the truth about the various mysteries in her life that she ends up trampling over the feelings of people who are often already damaged and broken.  Matter-of-factly reporting on the hardships of her life--a sick mother, a troubled brother, a school where she is considered a "freak" and subjected to abuse by both the students and teachers, a growing awareness of being gay and of the social costs that will entail as she gets older--Karen's defense mechanism is the belief that she is on the verge of escaping this reality to become a full-fledged monster.  The recognition that she, as well as all of the people around her, are just humans (albeit ones who will always be marked as different and, in some ways, monstrous) is the painful cost of growing up, a process that, alongside the book's various mysteries, is only half-complete at the end of this volume.  As I've said, those mysteries are probably the least engaging aspect of Ferris's project, but between her winning characters, and her luminous, versatile artwork, there's a great deal here to marvel at, and a great deal to look forward to in the story's conclusion.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

The 2017 Hugo Awards: Well, That Happened

I am thrilled, overjoyed, and genuinely shocked to report that at the Hugo award ceremony held last night in Helsinki, I won the award for Best Fan Writer.

This came as a complete surprise to me.  I was certain that Chuck Tingle would carry the award away (and if you look at the voting breakdowns, it was a near thing).  At the same time, I knew that I had a chance, so the days before the award were spent in a state of anxiety.  I'm rather pleased with myself that after all that I managed to make it to the stage and deliver my speech in a semi-coherent manner.  For those of you who weren't there (and who weren't able to watch the live feed, which as I understand it failed early in the ceremony), here is the text of my speech:
Thank you very much.  I want to thank the administrators and voters, as well as my fellow nominees.

I was first nominated for a Hugo in 2014, as part of a ballot that was celebrated for its diversity.  In the intervening years, the Hugos were marred by interference from people seeking to advance their own careers and their bigoted worldview.

I am so, so proud to win this award in a year that has seen the Hugos return to the hands of the people they belong to.  I am proud that my fellow nominees once again represent so much of what our field is capable of.

Writing--whether fiction or non-fiction--is a solitary pursuit.  You put thousands of words into the world and hope they resonate with someone.  As a critic and essayist, I am enriched by a community of writers whose ideas I am in constant conversation with.

These include, but are by no means limited to: Nina Allan, Erin Hórakóva, Adam Roberts, Aishwarya Subramanian, Samira Nadkarni, Vajra Chandrasekera, Niall Harrison, and so, so many others.  My greatest thanks and appreciation go to them, for their inspiring, enlightening words.  Long may they continue.
Since I have you here, I'll also take the occasion to thank all of you, for reading, commenting, linking, and generally making this solitary pursuit feel worthwhile even in its loneliest moments.

I'll probably have some more coherent comments about the rest of the awards at a later date (I freely admit that I had trouble concentrating on the remainder of the ceremony after my category was called).  I will, however, say that the evening as a whole was delightful even in my extremely stressed state, with the chance to meet and squee over so many talented people, some of whom I've known online for years but had never had the chance to meet.  (Far from least among the people I was excited to meet was Hamilton star Daveed Diggs, whose band Clppng was nominated for Best Dramatic Presentation: Short Form, and who turns out to be just as charming and approachable as you could possibly hope.  Reader, I fangirled.)  Following the ceremony, there was the Hugo Losers Party, where, having had the nerve to show my face, I was both mocked and plied with drink.  It was, in short, a totally satisfying evening.

On a final note, I'd like to thank and marvel at the skill of Hugo base designer Eeva Jokinen, who made this year's trophy a thing of beauty (if also incredibly heavy).  There doesn't seem to be an official picture yet, but File 770 has a snapshot.  I've lusted over previous year's trophies, and I'm so thrilled that the one I get to take home is such a lovely piece of art, as well as an award.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

New Scientist Column: Yoon Ha Lee, Karin Tidbeck, and Nina Allan

Greetings from Helsinki!  I am briefly emerging from the chaos of Worldcon to link to my latest column in The New Scientist, in which I discuss Yoon Ha Lee's Raven Stratagem, Karin Tidbeck's Amatka, and Nina Allan's The Rift.  It was interesting to see how three novels that seemed so superficially dissimilar ended up being about very similar things, chiefly the way that humans construct their own reality even when it seems rock-solid. 

I was particularly struck by how similar the approach that Lee and Tidbeck took to their stories was, in both cases taking a well-defined genre with extremely familiar tropes--space opera/military SF in Lee's case, highly conformist future dystopia in Tidbeck's--and use the idea of humans' ability to shape their world through agreed-upon concepts to subtly distort their stories' conventions.  In both cases, I think, the authors end up boxed in by their genres, perhaps more than they intended.  But both books (and the Allan) are nevertheless extremely interesting exercises, and fun reads to boot.

And now, back to the convention!  If you're see me around, do come by and say hi.