Recent Reading Roundup 53

The end of the year will soon be upon us, which means it's almost time to sum up the year's reading. Before I do that, though, here are some reviews of books I read in the second half of the year. Also book-related: over at Lawyers, Guns & Money, I wrote about the miniseries The Good Lord Bird, and since I was able to track down a copy of the James McBride novel on which it was based at a used bookstore shortly before the miniseries ended, I added some comments about the book as well. Short version: both are recommended, though mainly for the window they offer on the fascinating, contradictory figure of John Brown.

  • Chosen Spirits by Samit Basu - In his afterword to this novel, Basu describes it as an "anti-dystopia". That's a bit of hard pill to swallow if you've just finished reading Chosen Spirits, which opens with its heroine, twenty-five-year-old Joey, frantically trying to keep her middle-aged parents from thoughtlessly handing out their data to malicious online actors. Or broadcasting their political opinions on an internet where such behavior is no longer tolerable, and can result in anything from loss of privileges to arrest to murder-by-drone. Or watching too much depressing news about climate change, vicious government clampdowns on civilian protests, and refugee crises. Or getting too down in the dumps over the fact that neither of them can get a job, after one of the most crippling economic downturns in history. And yet at the same time, things aren't that bad for Joey's family. They still have a house, a servant, reasonable prospects for their teenage son's education and career. They're a middle class that is being increasingly squeezed in a world that is getting messier, hotter, and more polluted, but as Basu points out, this is far from the worst-case scenario. 

    Set in New Delhi in the near future, Chosen Spirits follows Joey, a "Reality Controller", as she scrambles to massage crises and secure deals for her client and product Indi, a reality TV star slash influencer whose "Flow" channel broadcasts his exploits to the rest of India and, as Joey fervently hopes, soon the rest of the world. But Chosen Spirits isn't merely a critique of influencer culture. Rather, it is neo-cyberpunk in the vein of Lauren Beukes's Moxyland or Tade Thompson's Rosewater, using the lens of Indi's show (and Joey's increasingly conflicted feelings about it) to offer a panoramic view of an India that has supposedly been saved from the forces of fascism that are currently at its helm, but which is nevertheless rife with corruption, crime, caste prejudice, sectarian violence, and the rule of oligarchs who seek to undermine all our most fundamental assumptions about human rights. A secondary plotline follows Rudra, the younger son of old friends of Joey's parents, whom she hires to work on her show. Rudra is the black sheep in his family because he won't play along with his social climbing parents and brother's scheme to become part of India's elite by allying themselves with the most shady of businesses—clinics that craft designer babies; networks that operate a form of modern slavery, whose ultimate profiteers are protected by nested corporate layers and captured regulatory states. Like Joey, Rudra has been protected by his class and caste from the full extent of the turmoil rocking Indian society, but like her, he can't keep himself from peering at the chaos, making small stabs at addressing injustice in the midst of a system too big to be comprehended, much less fought against.

    Chosen Spirits is short but incredibly full of event, every chapter following various crises in Indi's ongoing drama—the selection of a short-term girlfriend as part of a promotion campaign for a sexual compatibility app (Joey seethes that the app's rollout in India was only made possible when its foreign designers locked out the same-sex compatibility option), a former employee who has bugged Indi's bedroom and is selling his sex tapes, a new investor who wants to align Indi with a more controversial, political Flow star, whose own motives remain inscrutable. Along the way, the novel talks about ubiquitous surveillance, the successive waves of #MeToo and how each one keeps leaving powerful abusers standing, the way that class structures keep reaffirming themselves even as technology and the transforming economy upend the established class hierarchy, the questionable rebellion of viral protests artists and rogue journalists, and the way that former (or even just wannabe) revolutionaries like Joey and Rudra find themselves subsumed into the corporate machine, largely because they lack the courage to walk away from lives of comfort and privilege. 

    It's all a bit much, to be honest, and by its end Chosen Spirits feels as if it's firing in too many directions to cohere into a single work. But this is also part of the novel's appeal, its attempt to capture a moment that is too chaotic and too multifaceted to be summed up. When Joey decides to rededicate her career to highlighting under-represented perspectives, it's clearly a tiny drop in a roiling storm. And by the same token, when Rudra commits himself to actual revolution, it's hard to know whether he will accomplish anything except to mark himself as an enemy of the state (and, more importantly, of the oligarchy). But those choices are also part of the churn of event and transformation of which the novel offers us only a brief glimpse, drawing hope not from any individual triumph but from the inevitability of change and the possibility that things will change for the better. It is this chaotic, disorienting, equally terrifying and hopeful portrait of the future that makes Chosen Spirits one of the most exciting SF novels of 2020.

  • Mary Toft: Or, The Rabbit Queen by Dexter Palmer - It's hard to imagine a bigger departure Palmer could have made from his previous novel, Version Control, a dense, chilly, thought-provoking near-future SF novel peopled with thoroughly unlikable characters and positing a weird version of time travel. By comparison, Mary Toft feels almost luxurious—a historical novel, fictionalizing a real incident in which the title character, a poor woman from a rural community, began giving birth to dismembered rabbits. It seems to court the reader in exactly the way Version Control didn't. Mary Toft not only expertly guides us through its historical setting, which ranges from a small English village to the less savory neighborhoods of London, and features such topics as early 18th century medicine and the fashion for cruel, animal-baiting public entertainments around the same period, but its narrative positively flows, and its characters are deeply sympathetic, as they try to puzzle out the mysteries of nature, to distinguish between what is impossible and what is merely unknown, and to behave decently to one another. I almost feel a little guilty for liking this book so much after struggling with Version Control a few years ago, but taken together they show Palmer to be a writer of not only great range and varied interests, but an expert control of his material.

    Our point of view character to the public sensation that is Mary Toft's rabbit births is Zachary, a young apprentice to John Howard, the country doctor who originally attends to Mary, delivering, every few days, the body parts of a rabbit. Thoroughly befuddled by an event that calls into question all of his knowledge and experience, John writes to several luminaries of the English medical profession, and in so doing unwittingly unleashes the 18th century version of a media sensation. The case captures the attention of the king himself, and several superstar doctors descend on the village, some in skepticism, some in genuine scientific curiosity, and some in a naked quest for publicity and fame. The village, and Mary herself, become a draw for sightseers and trend-chasers, and when Mary is moved to London, a crowd gathers outside her window, awaiting the birth of the next rabbit as if they were pilgrims in search of a miracle. Zachary, bold and curious but also naive, is thus given the opportunity to take his first steps into adulthood in a tumultuous, uncertain environment: standing up for his master against the stronger personalities of the doctors who try to take over Mary's case, rubbing elbows with the nobility who visit Mary's bedside, making friends with sophisticated, London-born children whose ideas about class and fashion are completely different to his, exploring the city's demimonde and witnessing a cultural fascination with freaks that Mary has tapped into, and even being disappointed in love.

    Though Palmer plays it a little coy when it comes to the truth of what's happening to Mary, he also leaves the reader more than enough space to come to the obvious conclusion—which is also the conclusion that several secondary characters come to rather quickly, though most of them remain silent for their own reasons, or express their skepticism off-page. What he's interested in, instead, is what the willingness—the eagerness, really—to believe Mary means. For the people who gather under her window, she represents proof of the numinous in a world that is growing increasingly complicated and terrifying. But at the same time, she also represents a rebuke to expertise, a way of tearing down an educated elite that has set itself as the ultimate arbiter of fact and fiction. In an early scene, John treats a patient with scrofula, listening with impatience as the boy's mother complains that not so long ago, she might have taken her son to London to receive "the royal touch" from Queen Anne. Though we, as modern readers, are inclined to sympathize with John (and to feel grateful that even his knowledge and treatments, which are at the forefront of medical expertise for his era, are hopelessly primitive from our perspective—who even gets scrofula anymore?), we can also see that that the loss of magic and royal privilege, and their replacement with science and empirical knowledge, might feel unsatisfying. Mary's condition strikes at the very heart of the medical profession's claim of expertise—and it thoroughly destabilizes John, who retreats into himself the more the case and the media circus around it slip out of his control.

    What's missing from this tale is the voice of Mary herself, an absence that is so pointed that it can only be deliberate—as observed, for example, in the way that Mary's doctors ask her husband for permission to physically examine her, but not the woman herself. When we finally get to hear Mary's voice, it's clear that Palmer has been holding it back as a pointed demonstration of how their indifference to her humanity has helped blind Mary's doctors to the simple truth of her case. Not only does she confirm what we've already suspected, but it eventually turns out that most other women in the novel, chiefly John's wife Alice and Zachary's crush Anne, have already taken as a given what it takes the male characters most of the book to figure out. Still, the fact that this was the point doesn't quite make up for how thoroughly male-dominated the novel is. The closest thing to a compensation for this is the fact that John and Zachary and both thoughtful, sensitive people (while also being, as they eventually come to admit, complete dupes). Their experiences—Zachary's alongside Anne in the cruel freakshows of London's underbelly; John's at Mary's bedside and alongside the doctors who view her as a means to an end—build up to the novel's true fascination with the way that reality is so often derived from consensus, and how that consensus determines the answer to several fundamental questions—who is human, who deserves dignity and respect, what is real. These are the sorts of questions that make Mary Toft the best kind of historical novel, the kind that reminds us that people in any era were always trying to figure out their world and how to live honestly and well within it.

  • The Wall by Gautam Bhatia - For two thousand years, the city of Sumer has been surrounded by an unbreachable wall that stretches into the heavens. All the necessities of life exist within the wall—fertile land, nutritious crops, fresh water from the river that bisects the wall's circle. But where the wall came from, and whether it could ever be traversed or destroyed, is unknown. The city's priests, the order of Shoortan, teach that the the wall was erected by the gods, known as the Builders, as punishment for the transgressions of one of the first humans. By ancient agreement, the city's law ends a hundred meters from the wall, after which the order takes precedence, dealing vicious punishment to anyone who tries to damage or transcend the barrier. The prohibition is necessary because residents of Sumer are prone to a type of malaise they call smara, a despair over their trapped state that involves fevered dreams and an equally fevered determination to get past the wall. Though most Sumerians outgrow smara, some are afflicted with it for life. The Wall, Bhatia's debut novel, opens with several of them, a group of young free-thinkers and revolutionaries who secretly plot to tunnel under the wall, and meet with disaster instead. The novel then skips ahead two years, rejoining the survivors of this abortive attempt as they reckon with a city and an establishment hostile to their cause.

    It should be noted at the outset that The Wall doesn't answer most of the questions raised by its premise. Though various theories are raised—the novel's chapters are interspersed with excerpts from different creation myths that offer alternative explanations for the wall's existence and purpose, while the head of the city's scientific academy calmly concludes that the only possible reason for Sumer's combination of restriction and survivability is that the city is a millennia-old experiment—none are verified, and the greater questions they raise are never answered. The novel is the first of a projected series, with some suggestive hints littered throughout it, and an ending that implies an opening up of the story's world in the sequel. But in the body of The Wall itself, the focus is very much on Sumer, and on the way that our revolutionary protagonists—chiefly, the indefatigable Mithila—relate to it and chafe against it. In fact, despite the echoes of epic fantasy that run through the previous paragraph, The Wall reads much more like social SF, and reminded me of novels like The City & the City and The City in the Middle of the Night (and, for that matter, of the entire subgenre of generation ship SF). Like them, it is a story about how people and societies react and shape themselves to their environment, and how those methods fail and, in turn, spur social change.

    Through the eyes of Mithila and her fellow revolutionaries, the reader is given a grand tour of Sumer's institutions and history—a period of despotic rule, multiple revolutions, cherished rituals that give the populace the opportunity to vent their frustration at being stuck with one another for reasons they can't understand. In its current state, Sumer is nominally a democracy, but entrenched social structures undermine its alleged freedom in ways both subtle and overt. These include prohibitions on journalism and publishing—allegedly because of paper shortages—that leave most Sumerians ignorant of their history; a caste system that determines access to education, employment, and housing; and restrictions on marriage between castes that make social mobility all but impossible. Though The Wall features resistance to all of these structures—everything from labor activism to an apocalyptic religious cult that challenges both the Shoortans and the city's scientific elite—Mithila and her anti-wall group are orthogonal to these movements, joining forces in some cases, fighting on opposing sides in other. They're all certain that things need to change, but in a vast array of ways that often contradict one another, a confusing polyphony of voices that is one of the novel's most familiar and believable touches. Against them stand the city's authorities, who argue that the restrictions they've placed on freedom and social mobility are necessary to maintaining stability in Sumer's unique situation, and the novel leaves room for the idea that democracy might look very different in a bounded space, where no one can enter or leave, and where survival depends on maintaining a delicate balance of resources and consumption.

    Fascinating as it all is, there's also a certain thinness to The Wall's worldbuilding, as if the whole thing had been set in motion a few minutes before the novel started. The confluence of so many different social movements emerging at the same moment feels staged, as does the fact that Mithila and her compatriots happen to be on the spot when each of these groups set their plans in motion, and end up stumbling on so many secrets that no one besides them has discovered for centuries. It's possible, though, that this slight sense of unreality is part of a greater point that will be revealed in The Wall's sequels, and even if it isn't, it's more than made up for by the richness of the novel's world and the complexity of the questions it asks. Chiefly: what does the individual owe society, and vice versa? Throughout the novel, Mithila is asked to justify her determination to get past the wall. What if in doing so she upends what is, for all its problems, a stable and prosperous society? What about the people who are happy within the wall, or who believe in the Shoortans' teachings? Mithila's answer—because it's there—is both sympathetic and, as she herself is occasionally made to admit, insufficient. It's a tension that runs through the novel, and helps to make it a complex and gripping SFnal experiment. Whatever answers are delivered by its sequels, this volume is worth reading in its own right.

  • Do You Dream of Terra-Two? by Temi Oh - I'm finding it difficult to write about Oh's debut novel. On the one hand, there is the novel Oh wanted to write, about a group of young astronauts who have been training since their early teens to be part of the first, decades-long mission to the titular planet. Discovered over a century ago in the novel's timeline (an alternate present in which humanity has made greater headway in exploring the solar system), Terra-Two has liquid water, a breathable atmosphere, and a vibrant ecosphere full of flora and fauna (but, for some reason, no higher lifeforms), and is thus a prime target for off-world colonization. The novel's protagonists have been selected from a group of hundreds of youngsters recruited for a rigorous program of study and training, six of whom are chosen as the "Beta" team. During their twenty-three-year-long journey, they will learn from the more experienced astronauts crewing and maintaining their ship, arriving on Terra-Two as seasoned scientists and explorers, ready to found a human outpost and welcome the waves of colonists who will come after them. Do You Dream of Terra-Two? takes place over the first year of this mission, a period in which the ship is still close enough to Earth, and moving slowly enough, for the Betas to change their mind. During this year, the young astronauts are challenged, almost to the point of breaking, by the hardships and unexpected dangers of space travel, forced to mature and, more importantly, to ask themselves whether they've chosen this life out of their own free will, and whether they're truly willing to sacrifice any chance at a normal life on Earth for the possibility of colonizing a new world.

    This is a solid coming of age premise, and Oh executes it gracefully, showing us the Betas' halting progress towards adulthood, and their conflicted but increasingly thoughtful attitude towards their mission. But while reading the novel I was repeatedly, and ultimately fatally, brought up short by the implausibilities and impossibilities of its worldbuilding. A common pitfall of fiction about astronauts is that while, in the real world, astronauts are almost universally modest, intellectually-curious, team-oriented people, in fiction they tend to be depicted as moody assholes who often seem to resent the opportunity they've been given to go and do things that no one else has done before. Oh's astronauts at least have an excuse for being unpleasant and anti-social—they're not only teenagers, but emotionally-stunted teenagers, who have dedicated their lives so monomaniacally to the goal of being chosen for the Beta team that they've failed to mature in crucial ways, chiefly the ones that would allow them to question their mission. But even accounting for that fact—and for the novel spending most of its length so locked into its juvenile characters' perspective that no space is left to wonder, for example, whether the "send teens to space" plan isn't a spectacularly awful idea—there's much about the novel's premise and worldbuilding that leaves one unable to suspend disbelief.

    Almost every aspect of the program the young astronauts have been subjected to seems to have been designed to produce docile swots who judge themselves by their grades and class rankings, not independent, goal-oriented thinkers. No effort appears to have been made to teach the young astronauts teamwork or foster a healthy, productive chain of command—the candidate designated as the crew's future commander, for example, is a sadistic jock who likes ordering people around, but has no idea how to lead or inspire. No attempt is made to screen for mental illnesses—at least one of the candidates selected for the mission seems to have some manic tendencies, another has an eating disorder, and two others have major depressive episodes once their mission gets underway—despite the fact that such disorders tend to emerge in young adulthood, among people who have just left home and are experiencing new and unfamiliar stress conditions. Even the practicalities of the mission raise eyebrows, from the foundational—none of the young astronauts are given any experience of space travel before being launched on a twenty-three-year mission—to the mundane—while the senior crew are each given their own quarters on the ship, the Betas are assigned shared barracks, an arrangement which is apparently expected to suit them even when they're all forty.

    Towards the end of the novel there is—finally—some acknowledgement that very little about the training the Betas have received actually prepares them to be real astronauts—it turns out, for example, that human rights groups have been protesting their school for years. It's clear that Oh intentionally obscured these criticisms of the program in order to put us in her characters' headspace, and produce the same shock in us as it does in them when they learn, for example, that some scientists rate their mission's chances of success at only twenty percent. But this still feels rather thin. We know what makes a good team and a good leader, and we know that it's not what pop culture teaches us to look for. Astronaut programs today look for people who can put aside ego for the sake of the mission, work together without seeking their own glory, and give and receive orders like mature adults, not wannabe-martinets and cowed subordinates. The idea that a program could have been constructed from the ground up to achieve the exact opposite is, well, not impossible, human nature being what it is. But it needed more explication than the book gives. One can even imagine a version of Terra-Two told from the perspective of the program's designers and observers, an exploration of how human folly can cloak itself in the guise of noble exploration, and achieve nothing more than to fuck up a bunch of young people's lives. That, however, is not the novel Oh wanted to write, and though she ultimately succeeds in her goal for Terra-Two—a unique coming of age story about people who are faced with an impossible and irrevocable choice, and have to make it as mature adults rather than brainwashed children—the highly implausible edifice required to hold up this premise keeps peeking through and distracting from it. For me, it made Terra-Two a frustrating read.

  • A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth- Among the many things I find fascinating about this brick of a novel—at just under 1500 pages, quite possibly the longest single book I've ever read—is how it both trades in and complicates the structure and conventions of an Austen-esque novel of manners. A Suitable Boy begins (and also ends) with a wedding, and with the mother of the bride, the unstoppable Mrs. Rupa Mehra, informing her younger and still unmarried daughter, Lata, that she now plans to seek out a husband for her. Like Mrs. Bennet before her, Mrs. Mehra has one good-natured, biddable daughter, and one sardonic, quietly independent one, whose quest for a husband—which sometimes proceeds in concert with her mother's efforts, and sometimes on its own accord—gives the novel its backbone. Recruiting her vast social network to the task, considering and discarding every eligible young man of her caste and social set, and micromanaging Lata's interactions with all these proposed possibilities, Mrs. Mehra is a force of nature, at once infuriating and lovable, and most of all, extremely familiar to anyone who has an overbearing relative who just wants what's best for you. Before long, three suitors turn up to vie for Lata's hand: Kabir, with whom she falls deeply in love, but can't marry because he's a Muslim; Haresh, an enterprising manager at a shoe company who is himself still pining for a woman he was separated from because of religion; and Amit, a jovial, quip-happy poet who seems to be a stand-in for Seth himself, and who is writing a novel about the history of India that has ballooned to more than a thousand pages.

    But if Lata's marriage plot is the scaffolding upon which A Suitable Boy hangs, the structure that the novel erects on that scaffolding extends in many different directions. Almost at once, the narrative leaves Lata and Mrs. Mehra, at first exploring the lives of people directly related to them—their new son-in-law's father, a prominent local politician, or his brother, a wastrel who falls in love with a famous courtesan—and then expanding further outward, until whole chapters of the novel take place away from the Mehras and their extended family, and involve events they're never even made aware of. Each chapter of A Suitable Boy feels almost like its own story or novella. Sometimes this is a comedy of manners, when it follows Lata or other members of her family as they navigate changing social mores and influences, from Lata's thoroughly Westernized older brother, who is embarrassed by anything that seems "too Indian", to the profound faith and elaborate rituals of her older relatives. At other points it is a political novel, following local minister Mahesh Kapoor as he tries to navigate political enmities, to shepherd a law that will break up large hereditary landholdings, to tamp down tensions between Hindus and Muslims, and to find his place in a party that is moving increasingly to his right. And at other points still, it is a social novel, traveling away from the urban, middle class enclaves of Lata and her social set and setting itself among rural landholders and their tenants, focusing on characters—a young socialist horrified by his family's determination to cheat their faithful retainers out of the land that the new law should have made theirs, or a civil servant whose affection for his assigned region makes him an enemy of local politicians—whose concerns might be entirely foreign to the novel's putative protagonists. 

    The period is the early 50s, only a few years past India's independence and partition from Pakistan. The trauma of the latter, and the challenges of the former, linger over the novel, which charts convulsions both intellectual and visceral. Some segments visit the chambers of the local assembly, where sharp-tongued representatives trade barely-concealed barbs whose crux is the widening gulf between the forces that brought about India's independence—Hindus and Muslims, secularists and traditionalists, socialists and capitalists, caste abolitionists and essentialists, pro- and anti-Western. Others depict the quick conflagration of sectarian violence, which erupts almost at random—the wrong people saying or doing the wrong thing at the wrong moment—but once it begins, proceeds with a horrifyingly inescapable logic. As impressive as Seth's construction work is in this wide-ranging, panoramic work, it's even more impressive that he manages to sustain and excel at these wildly varying tones. Some scenes are inevitably more exciting than others—a family squabble, a romantic rendezvous, or a violent encounter can't help but capture one's attention more effectively than a blow-by-blow description of Jawaharlal Nehru wresting control of his party back from its right flank—but the fact that all can exist side by side in the same work and feel not only coherent with one another, but inextricably linked, is remarkable. Nehru's success affects the political career of Mahesh Kapoor, which affects his relationship with his ne'er-do-well son Maan, whose ill-advised romance culminates with a violent attack on one of his father's chief supporters, which in turn affects Mahesh's career and the state of the local and national party. Taken together, they create a grand novel of India, without ever losing sight of smaller stories like Lata's romantic travails.

    Tying all these storylines together is the theme of patriarchal violence and oppression, not only when it comes to Lata and the expectation that she marry someone suitable, but everywhere from the corridors of power to the hovels of the poor. Everywhere Seth looks in his widescreen version of India, he finds the strong bullying the weak, who then turn around and find someone below them to abuse. At every level of society he discovers characters (mostly, though not always, men) who believe that power is its own justification, and perceive any attempt to level the playing field or run society on a system based on rights and freedoms as a personal affront, one that must be viciously, violently countered. Though a few characters manage to rise above their hierarchical, autocratic conditioning—an imperious musician forgives a man who had previously insulted him, and finds in him the pupil he had been searching for; the victim of a violent assault forgives his attacker and helps him escape the gallows—the trend the novel identifies is towards authoritarianism, sectarianism, and violence (a prediction that has more than borne itself out in the 27 years since the novel was published, in India and many other parts of the world). It's perhaps for this reason that the conclusion of Lata's marriage plot is a bit of a damp squib, not the grand romantic climax we might have expected from the novel's frequent references to Austen and other classical love stories, but an accommodation with reality that may end happily, and may be an unmitigated disaster for everyone involved. That said, it's hard to imagine a novel as gargantuan and far-ranging as A Suitable Boy coming to a conclusive, satisfying ending, because the subject of the novel is all of India. All it can do, after the gripping, exhilarating (but also a little exhausting) ride it has taken us on, is find a spot from which it can bid its characters farewell, as they set off towards a promising but extremely uncertain future.

  • Harrow the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir - The second volume of Muir's much-lauded, award-nominated Locked Tomb trilogy follows its titular character, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, anti-social necromancer and heir to the ninth ruling "House" in a far-future solar system in which the sun has died and is being kept alive through dark magic by an immortal emperor, as she attends magic school. Harrow achieved immortality at the end of the previous volume, Gideon the Ninth, and is now being trained as a "lyctor", one of the emperor's chief advisors and magical practitioners, who help him fend off attacks from Resurrection Beasts, the ghosts of the solar system's dead planets. There's just one problem: Harrow is only half a lyctor, unable to access some of her core powers. We, the audience, realize quickly that this deficit must be connected to Harrow having forgotten her cavalier, the irreverent, smack-talking Gideon Nav, who at the end of the first volume sacrificed her life to save Harrow and give her the powers of a lyctor. She seems, in fact, to remember a completely different version of Gideon the Ninth, peopled with different characters, in which Harrow appears to be unstable and prone to hallucinations. What's more, the author of this change to Harrow's perceptions and memories appears to have been Harrow herself.

    I didn't write anything about Gideon the Ninth when I read it earlier this year, mostly because there didn't seem to be much to say. I found the book, which was riddled with knowing humor and whose characters often had more attitude than sense, enjoyable and gripping, but also rather hollow, as glib as it was fun. The pleasures of the novel seemed to have been summed up by its outrageous logline—lesbian necromancers in space!—with little to back up that outrageousness in terms of character or ideas. There's nothing wrong with fun, of course, but the further I got into Gideon and Harrow's adventures, the more often I found myself thinking "I don't believe any of this". Not the necromancy or the ghosts or the immortality, that is, but the characters. Muir had taken the magical school story at its most sardonic and Mean Girl-ish and cranked up its disaffectedness to eleven million, seemingly paying more attention to putting the day's hottest meme in her characters' mouths ("Hi Not Fucking Dead. I'm Dad", the immortal emperor says at one point in Harrow the Ninth) than to crafting characters who felt like actual people. Even the moments where the characters dropped their oh-so-cool facades and tried to speak from the heart felt calculated, designed to achieve a certain reaction at the right moment, rather than emerging organically from the characters. I found myself wishing that the book had been a TV show, so that actors might have imbued the characters with a personhood and a presence that the quippy cutouts on the page never achieved. A similar shallowness seemed to afflict the novel's worldbuilding. We were repeatedly told that Gideon and Harrow were at the upper echelons of a wide-ranging space empire, but most of the time I found myself having trouble believing that anyone besides them and the people in their direct line of sight even existed, so monomaniacally focused was the novel on their overheated relationship drama.

    All of these criticisms hold for Harrow the Ninth, even as it purports to delve deeper into Harrow's damaged psyche. But reading it also served to remind me of the talents Muir brings to the table that make up for the hollowness at the center of these books. Chiefly, this is her skill at writing mysteries. Gideon the Ninth had a fairly conventional mystery structure, executed with tremendous flair and in an unconventional setting, as Gideon and Harrow arrived at a crumbling, gothic mansion where they joined teams from the other houses to compete for a chance at lyctorhood. That competition quickly turned deadly as, one by one, the necromancers and their cavaliers were picked off by an unknown assailant. Harrow's mystery, in contrast, takes a turn for the existential, with the readers constantly straining to see the things that Harrow can't, or won't, acknowledge. It's a novel that asks a lot from its readers—to piece together the reason for Harrow's altered memory, to work out the changed past she has crafted for herself and garner clues from it, to wade through several alternate histories of Harrow and Gideon's lives, to sift through the instances of Harrow's apparent insanity for clues to its source—while all the while, Harrow is navigating her new environment, meeting new and unfriendly people, and trying to understand why her process of ascending to lyctorhood has gone so wrong, even as she overlooks the crucial piece of the puzzle. Oh, and Harrow's present-day point of view chapters are narrated in the second person, adding yet another question: who is the speaker? The reader is constantly working, and it's Muir's job to dole out information at just the right pace to make that work seem worthwhile.

    It's a thrilling high-wire act, and one that very few writers even attempt, much less succeed at with as much panache as Muir does here (I am making allowances here for the book's scattered ending, which is made up of several different cliffhangers, because this is still the middle book in the trilogy; but the mysteries that are the meat of Harrow the Ninth are all put to bed quite satisfyingly). While I perhaps wouldn't go so far as to say that Harrow the Ninth puts us in its disoriented heroine's headspace—this is still, when it comes down to it, a glib work that never entirely convinces you of its characters' humanity—it nevertheless makes for a more compulsive read than most middle-volumes-of-a-trilogy, by doing things that most such books don't dare—chiefly, tear down the edifice erected by the first volume. Once the dust settled and the book's mysteries had been resolved, however, there remained the fact that the aspects of Harrow I found most interesting were right at its margins—the hints, which often appear just outside of Harrow's point of view, that there is an active resistance against the emperor. Such a development would bring the Locked Tomb trilogy in line with most of the major works of space opera of the last decade, but it's hard for me to imagine how a series that has thus far been so solipsistically obsessed with its (extremely privileged) core characters could successfully pivot to a wider perspective on their world's geopolitics. What's left, then, is the fun, the outrageousness, and Muir's skill with a story, and taken together these are more than enough to bring me back for the final volume, even if I will never be a dyed-in-the-wool fan of this series.

  • A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes - One of the hot literary trends of the past decade was feminist retellings of the Classics, chiefly The Iliad and The Odyssey, and I somehow seem to have entirely missed it. Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles and Circe, Pat Barker's The Silence of the Girls, Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad—without really meaning to, I skipped them all. A Thousand Ships, Natalie Haynes's third novel, which was shortlisted for the Women's Prize earlier this year, feels like an appropriate place from which to start catching up, because instead of focusing on a single character or trying to retell a single story, it offers a panoramic view of all of them. Haynes, a popularizer of the Classics whose knowledge of their stories and characters feels encyclopedic, stitches together not only Homer's two famous epics but lesser known works, as well as plays and her own invention, to create a multifaceted take on the Trojan War. More specifically, its aftermath, as seen through the eyes of women. Her heroines are Trojan and Greek, young and old, mortal, nymph, and goddess, each giving us their take on the cataclysmic event that has reshaped—and in some cases, destroyed—their lives.

    Though most of the chapters in A Thousand Ships are self-contained, they also proceed along distinct storylines. In one, we follow the Trojan women who have survived the sack of Troy. Led by the embittered but still imperious Queen Hecabe, they try to maintain their dignity despite their utter hopelessness—as the spoils of war, all they can expect from their future is to be enslaved, raped, and possibly murdered—while also trying to figure out where it all went wrong. Who, if anyone, is to blame for the fall of Troy? Another storyline is told in the form of letters from Penelope to her husband, Odysseus, as she awaits his return for ten long years. In Haynes's version of the story, Penelope is being kept abreast of Odysseus's misadventures by a visiting bard who, somewhat shamefacedly, sings to her of her husband's unnecessary detours and dalliances with other women. Her narrative voice grows increasingly dismayed and waspish as she fruitlessly reminds her husband that he has a wife and son waiting for him back home. 

    But the most impressive accomplishment in this novel is the way that Haynes travels back in time to find the root causes of the war, from humans to gods to titans to Gaia herself. Often, these stories are told by those who have been left by the wayside, like Paris's first wife, the nymph Oenone, or Creusa, the wife of Trojan survivor Aeneas, who dies in the Greek assault on the city. But each one travels back up the tree, from the stuff everyone knows, like the Trojan horse, the abduction of Chryseis and Briseis, the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and the apple of discord, to more hidden causes—who created the apple in the first place, and gave it to the goddess Eris to cause mischief with? What interests did the gods and titans have in the war? (Interestingly, the alleged cause of all the fighting, Helen, is given relatively short shrift, seen only from the outside, and by people who are resentful of her.) Running through all these stories, at every level, are the concerns of women—philandering husbands, wayward children, a lack of power that leaves them able to act only obliquely.

    It's an impressive structural achievement, and Haynes's knowledge of her sources and setting is apparent on every page. But it also feels rather mechanical and over-obvious. No character here ever feels deeper or more interesting than her wikipedia summary, even the ones—like Iphigenia's mother Clytemnestra, who waits ten years to avenge the murder of her daughter, or Andromache, the wife of Hector, who endures not only horrific losses but is forced to become the concubine of Achilles's son—whose stories should move us deeply. Haynes describes them as human beings, but never finds anything new or particularly interesting to say about them. Still, perhaps this was her intent. The point of the novel feels less like its characters, in all their ordinary humanity (even the ones who aren't human), and more the exploration of how war warps the world around it, far beyond the men who die on the battlefield. Throughout A Thousand Ships, we visit with women who have been widowed, children who have grown up under siege, young men resentful of having come of age too late to fight, and most of all, the survivors, who do what they can to keep living even if it disgusts them, and who are sometimes able to find a semblance of happiness in their after-life. Though its pieces left me a little cold, the whole of A Thousand Ships feels both weighty and important, a reminder that beyond the scope of epic poems, there are real people whose worlds were shattered, and who either fell by the wayside, or had to figure out a way to keep living nonetheless.

Comments

Brett said…
A common pitfall of fiction about astronauts is that while, in the real world, astronauts are almost universally modest, intellectually-curious, team-oriented people, in fiction they tend to be depicted as moody assholes who often seem to resent the opportunity they've been given to go and do things that no one else has done before.

I think they're just telling the wrong story. They want a space story with characters like described, but a plausible astronaut story would gravitate towards stories centered around some external challenge - think Apollo 13. You can still have character drama in that situation, especially if people die and the planned order of things goes awry under difficult circumstances, but it's more challenging to write than "moody, difficult person is difficult".
Yes, and what's frustrating is that there's so much inherent drama in space travel. Even absent an Apollo 13 style disaster, so many things can go wrong or simply unexpectedly. There should be no problem writing character drama that emerges from these situations, but instead so many writers opt for jerks in space.
S Johnson said…
Song of Achilles seemed to want to be about a heterosexual couple where the woman's innate moral superiority imbued her life with pacifism, ending in a decisive judgment against the innately warlike husband. The mythology made it a male couple in a Homeric war. As a character study it was a little odd, but the impossibility of taking Homeric war serious helped the novel leap over the bar, so to speak. Circe plausibly imagined a suffering heroine taking revenge on random men, but Eileen Jones tells us everyone loves a good revenge story. Again, the impossibility of adoring Helios helps the novel leap over the bar. It's very hard to make fantasy work as quasi-political commentary, but Miller's novels are interesting, readable (I am no judge of style ordinarily, except for special areas like fictional science,) and demanding a programmatic manifesto instead is a very bad idea. Both are recommended, especially if you are interested in Greek mythology.

I found McBride's novel unreadable, for the kind of reason many working scientist find SF unreadable, namely it just seemed ridiculous. Willing suspension of disbelief just does not work when plausibility is spat on. John Brown worked as an animal breeder noted for the ability to judge, for instance, the grade of wool from sheep. The conceit that this man wouldn't recognize a boy as a boy is nonsense like The Favourite. Equally absurd about people is the notion that Brown was a crazy overbearing coot. Some of his sons were freethinkers, nonbelievers. which is not something the crazy Brown beloved of pacifists and conservatives.

Most of all of course, the really crazy thing about John Brown was the insane belief that slaves would rise up, if given a chance. Every treatment of Brown that focuses on how he was crazy is affirming, like the opening of that Tarantino movie, they (or most) would not. And the men with Brown were just misled by Brown.

Dissing Brown is a thing in the movies of late. There's The Good Lord Bird, the book, at least. I cheated and leaped to the end to find the dramatic climax, the final indictment (though not the denouement...epitaph?) was when the boy told off Brown. The movie Harriet almost completely excised Brown, fleetingly glimpsed as a bewildered, irate man in a crowd, even as it gave Harriet supernatural powers, rather than show that if anyone in the saga showed "crazy" behavior, it was Harriet Tubman. This is a commentary on how "crazy" can be a disguise for a political judgment. The movie Emperor was the friendliest to Brown in one way. But in the end, the magical survival of Emperor, as a manifestation of the will to agency or something, works for people who don't believe in magic more to diminish the whole raid (and Brown with it) than to affirm Emperor's greatness.

Sorry to run so long, but several topics were very interesting.
Kate Nepveu said…
I haven't read any of the recent retellings but I did read Emily Wilson's translation of _The Odyssey_ which I would recommend strongly.

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