Oct 20 2017

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Doors sometimes open from the mundane world into more fantastical, miraculous realms, and sometimes children find their way through these doors to sojourn a while among the fae, with the King of the Dead, with scientists creating life from dead tissue and electricity, with forms and dreams stranger still. Many of those who return from such a journey understandably feel out of place in the mundane world. Rent from worlds full of magic, where they were often favorites of those worlds’ rulers, they are expected to get on with the normal business of homework, piano practice, and pestering siblings. Their parents or guardians are generally at a loss; they do not know what to with these sometimes beloved children who return from being missing, but still seem gone in crucial ways.

Some fortunate fraction find their way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Chilren. Upon meeting a child’s family, West

explained, so earnestly, so sincerely, that her school would help to cure the things that had gone wrong in the minds of all those little lost lambs. She could take the broken children and make them whole again. …
She had been working on this routine for a long time, and she knew how to play upon the fears and desires of adults. They wanted what was best for their charges, as did she. It was simply that
they had very different ideas of what “best” meant.
To the parents, she said, “This is a delusion, and some time away may help to cure it.”
To the aunts and uncles, she said, “This is not your fault, and I can be the solution.”
To the grandparents, she said, “Let me help. Please, let me help you.”
Not every family agreed on boarding school as the best solution. About one out of every three potential students slipped through her fingers, and she mourned for them, those whose lives would be so much harder than they needed to be, when they could have been saved. But she rejoiced for those who were given to her care. (pp. 7–8)

Every Heart a Doorway begins with the matriculation of a new student, Nancy, who at first cannot believe that Eleanor is speaking so calmly about such important matters. She meets her roommate, Sumi, who has been to a nonsense world. Sumi is hardly the soul of tact, saying that Nancy is too boring a name for someone at the school, and then setting off the first conflict by calling her stupid for believing that she will go back to the world she visited. Just as quickly, mercurial Sumi takes Nancy under her wing and starts to introduce her to other students at the boarding school: Kade, “the most beautiful boy Nancy had ever seen” (p. 26), but then gets bored after one exchange and flops out of a window. Eleanor announces Nancy to the rest of the student body at dinner. She spends her first meal with Jack (“short for Jacqueline”) and Jill (“short for Jillian because our parents should never have been allowed to name their own children” p. 36). More interesting characters appear at group therapy, including the therapist who made a bad bargain with some fae and is now ageing in reverse.

It’s a perfectly cromulent story, engaging, with the right mix of strangeness and familiarity to pull a reader along. I remember zipping right through it back in mid-June. The introductions seem a bit long for a work that only reaches 150 small pages, but that makes more sense now that I see Every Heart a Doorway is first in a set of three. The pace picks up considerably when the first student is killed. From then on, Nancy’s task of learning how to live in the world (or how to return to the one she visited! — so preferable from her point of view, so terribly unlikely) is supplanted by having to make sure she lives at all, and trying to find out what is happening in her unusual school.

On the whole, though, I’m not really who this story is aimed at. I’m closer to the mystified parents, worried to death about a child who was missing, relieved beyond words at the return, puzzled and concerned at the transformation that occurred in the meantime, the parents implicitly dismissed by the story as either cruel or stupid. The rituals of new roommates, of lunchroom hierarchies, of teachers one wants simultaneously to please and disdain are things that I recall, but no longer feel much urgency about. It’s a good story, well told, it’s just not for me.

+++

Every Heart a Doorway was the thirteenth bit of Hugo reading I did this year, and the eleventh I have written about. It won this year’s award for best novella.

The second book in the series, Down Among the Sticks and Bones was published in June 2017. The third, Beneath the Sugar Sky, will be published in January 2018.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/20/every-heart-a-doorway-by-seanan-mcguire/

Oct 19 2017

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home by Catherynne M. Valente

The setup at the end of The Boy Who Lost Fairyland — intimations that all is not well in the balance between our world and Fairyland; and Something Must Be Done — could have set up the last book in the sequence as a heavy quest, not least because Catherynne M. Valente’s characters are growing up. Instead, and better, The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home is mostly a lark. The pleasures of a fast-paced, bouncy, good-hearted outing should not be underrated.

September, the protagonist of the series, starts the book as the newly crowned Queen of Fairyland. But not the undisputed Queen, for all of the previous rulers have been reassembled in the same room, and most of them would be more than happy to try their hand at it again. The royal Stoat of Arms appears to tell everyone the solution: a Cantankerous Derby, with each claimant to try to find the Heart of Fairyland and bring it to a particular location.

September is not at all sure she wants to be Queen. She is human, after all, and would like to go back to the mundane world at some point. On the other hand, many of the other potential rulers would be dreadful, so she joins in the Derby. The Stoat of Arms informs everyone of the rules, gets all of the participants lined up, and promptly sets about changing the rules.

What follows is a fun romp, all the way through. There are clever reversals, a duel fought with Latin conjugations, and real dangers to September and her friends. Complexities also intrude; the changelings from the previous book decide to participate in the race. It’s not that they mind having September as Queen, it’s just that she will eventually go back to the human world, and they think they would be better rulers anyway. It’s not enmity, just rivalry, though they would not hesitate to elbow September aside.

Nor are all the dangers obvious. One of September’s closest friends sustains a small injury during one of their escapades, it’s practically brushed off at the time. Only much later do they see that the small hurt is having much graver effects, lending their search for the Heart of Fairyland more urgency.

On the whole, though, it is wildness and wooliness all the way through.

“Curse all bicycles and little girls!” screeched the bird-king. “I ate the sun! I’ll do it again if I get peckish, just you watch!”
“Hush now, Hushnow [the bird-king’s name],” chuckled Blunderbuss [a combat wombat made of yarn], nosing at the cover of Detective Mushroom and the Case of the Peculiar Pooka to see if it seemed tasty. [Wombats read books by eating them.] Greenwich Mean Time [a testy security system] gave her a look so dark even the Ancient and Demented Raven Lord clammed up. The scrap-yarn wombat let Detective Mushroom lie. “You’re meant to referee, you daft parrot!” she yelled. “On you go!”
“Oh! Er. Yes. A duel. That’s a fancy word for wedding, is it? All right, all right, don’t get your feathers mussed.” He cleared his throat. “We have gathered here together to join the Headmistress [another past rule of Fairyland] and Queen September in holy matrimony…”
“No!” cried everyone together. (p. 123)

There’s three hundred pages of adventure, silliness, and a little bit of seriousness. The ending is splendid. And the part that isn’t an ending, that’s splendid, too.

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home is the fifth and final book in the series. It is seriously not a good place to start. Begin at the beginning.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/19/the-girl-who-raced-fairyland-all-the-way-home-by-catherynne-m-valente/

Oct 16 2017

The Gates of Europe by Serhii Plokhy

The first argument of The Gates of Europe is its existence: a history of Ukrainians as a people, a nation separate from others; a history of the Ukrainian lands that is not a subset of another history, whether that other history is Russian or (less probably) Polish. In his very first sentence, Plokhy cites the Scots as an example of a people for whom it is self-evident that histories would be written about them. Scotland has, of course, been part of a larger polity for more than 400 years, as Ukraine was for a similar period. Whether the Scots will follow the Ukrainians into national independence is a much livelier question now than it was in 2015 when Plokhy’s book was published. Just as it is self-evident that there is Scottish history, so there should be no question that there is Ukrainian history.

The second argument locates Ukraine in broader contexts of Europe. “The title of the book, The Gates of Europe, is of course a metaphor … Europe is an important part of the Ukrainian story, as Ukraine is part of the European one.” (p. xxi) Sometimes Ukraine proved a barrier to invasion in one direction or another. In contrast to other European countries, notably Poland, Ukraine did not develop an ideology of being antemurale christianitatis, a bulwark of Christendom against invaders. Sometimes the region was a “bridge between Europe and Eurasia, facilitating the interchange of people, goods, and ideas. (p. xxi) The interplay of these two arguments forms much of the substance of the book. “Nation is an important — although not dominant — category of analysis and element of the story that, along with the ever changing idea of Europe, defines the nature of this narrative.” (p. xxi)

The Gates of Europe presents a history that is mostly, but not entirely, political in its focus. He sets out the geographical scope of the work: “This book tells the history of Ukraine within the borders defined by the ethnographers and mapmakers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which often (but not always) coincided with the borders of the present-day Ukrainian state.” (pp. xxi–xxii) He then briefly sketches his thoughts on the relationships among politics, culture, and history.

Politics, international and domestic, provide a convenient storyline, but in writing this book, I found geography, ecology, and culture most lasting and thus most influential in the long run. Contemporary Ukraine, as seen from the perspective of longue durée cultural trends, is a product of the interaction of two moving frontiers, one demarcated by the line between the Eurasian steppes and the eastern European parklands, the other defined by the border between Eastern and Western Christianity. The first frontier was also the one between sedentary and nomadic populations and, eventually, between Christianity and Islam. The second goes back to the division of the Roman Empire between Rome and Constantinople and marks differences in political culture between Europe’s east and west that still exist today. The movement of these frontiers over the centuries gave rise to a unique set of cultural features that formed the foundations of present-day Ukrainian identity.

Plokhy adds a perspective on the complexity of history within these Ukrainian lands. “One cannot tell the history of Ukraine without telling the story of its regions.” (p. xxii) Rule from different imperial capitals — Moscow, Warsaw, Vienna, Istanbul — left differences in institutions, demographics, historical ideas, and forms of cultural expression. He works to tell his stories chronologically, keeping details of, for example Russian- and Austrian-ruled Ukraine together to develop a comparative perspective. The approach shows how contemporaries in different regions addressed similar questions, and how the separation of the people into different polities affected leaders and ordinary people. It also shows the interplay across imperial frontiers.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/16/the-gates-of-europe-by-serhii-plokhy/

Oct 13 2017

Her Nightly Embrace (Ravi PI #1) by Adi Tantimedh

Okay, I love the idea of this book. And when I started reading it, it was just as charming as advertised (and who doesn’t need more Sendhil Ramamurthy in their lives?) The twists and turns are entertaining (with one very large exception that I’ll get to in a minute) and Adi Tantimedh’s inclusion of a diverse cast of characters lent for some great humor and set pieces. But towards the end of the book, it started to feel less like a novel and more like a screenplay. I kept having to envision actors adding nuance to the words with expressions, gesture and inflection. As a former actress myself, I found this very distracting because it felt less like reading for pleasure and more like reading for my former work, ironic considering the work I do now. I wanted to start scribbling in the margins as if this were a script, with questions for the writer a/o director as to motivation, interpretation etc. It all felt very thin of everything but dialog and action. Tho perhaps Her Nightly Embrace might have benefited from being a graphic novel instead, with an artist to draw panels? It certainly did not work well as just prose.

Anyway, that’s all well and good, and HNE might have just been a promising first installment of a series that definitely needs work, but then something happens in the book about a third of the way through that left me acutely uncomfortable with the rest of the novel. You find out that the guy being visited by a seeming succubus is actually being raped (with a little help from the Rohypnol he’s been prescribed by his doctor as a sleep aid) by his dead fiancee’s sister Julia, who is a sex addict who subbed in his bed while her sister Lou was dying because something nonsensical about Lou having cancer but still wanting the guy to get his rocks off. Jesus fuck, Lou, tell the idiot you don’t want to have sex because YOU HAVE CANCER. If he can’t deal with it, dump his stupid ass. Don’t have your sex addict sister fucking impersonate you! Anyway, even tho the guy forgives Julia when she’s found out, I thought it was extremely gross that she used her sex addiction as a reason to (continue to) victimize the guy once her sister died. But fine, feelings and family and forgiveness are all complicated beasts, and I would have been okay with it if it had been left at that, but then Julia fucking joins the Golden Sentinels detective agency that Ravi works for and becomes his girlfriend and I’m just all “no, hell no.” I cannot be made to root for her and their relationship because she is a rapist. Her redemption is so matter-of-course as to feel completely unearned, and godfuckingdamnit, sex addiction is not an excuse for rape. She is awful and I hated having to feel like I should care about her because what she’d done was treated like not that big a deal when, in fact, it is.

Anyway, I’m still going to read the sequel because I have to, for work, and will likely pretend that all that ^^ never happened so I can be objective about Her Beautiful Monster but oh, man, HNE was not a great book, with some really bad messaging. Plus, the Hindu gods Ravi sees are never used in an interesting manner, another thing I’m hoping improves in the sequel. I just… ugh. This should have been so much better than it was and I’m just so appalled that it wasn’t.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/13/her-nightly-embrace-ravi-pi-1-by-adi-tantimedh/

Oct 10 2017

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

How to review a book by one of the most polarizing politicians of recent memory describing an election campaign and aftermath that still elicit strong feelings from large swathes of the electorate? If you think Hillary Clinton is the devil incarnate, I’d be very surprised that you’d even consider reading this book, and then I’d commend you for trying, and hope that maybe What Happened will help you see that she’s a real person, flaws and all. If you’re on the fence about her for whatever reason, then I hope that this book gives you a deeper understanding of why millions of people love her, and perhaps draws you in that direction, as well.

Because I’m one of those people. I still have a Hillary poster in my (admittedly obscured) front window: it’s a bit sour grapes to flaunt it, I feel, but you can see it if you’re looking for it, and know that you have an ally in this house. When Hillary lost the election, I spent a good portion of the next day crying, not only for what it meant for me as a brown Muslim immigrant woman but because I know what it’s liked to be kicked in the teeth by people you’re not only trying to help but are the person best qualified to help. What Happened is Hillary’s examination of the factors that led up to her loss, including a lot more self-reflection than most people would have the courage to perform. It’s a warm, humorous, honest look at what she did wrong and what she and others could have done better to prevent this disaster that is 45’s administration (and if you don’t think 45’s administration is a disaster, then I am very sorry for you because you are in for a very rude awakening once the reach of his authoritarian kleptocracy snakes its way into your life and wallet. Or you’re a neo-Nazi and you can go fuck yourself forever.)

But more than that, it’s a clarion call to action, for those of us who grieved to become more active in politics and in our communities. It’s a warning against the insidious influence of Putin’s Russia in our political culture. And it’s a tender affirmation of her belief in the power and goodness of our civil society.

I cried a couple of times reading this book. And ordinarily I refer to most authors as Ms LastName but after reading What Happened, I sincerely hope she doesn’t mind me calling her Hillary, because she feels like family. What Happened is a terrific book that likely won’t win over any haters, but is a necessary document of our times that will hopefully help point the way to a better future, if we’ll only heed its warnings. I’m #StillWithHer. I hope you’ll read this book and feel the same way, too.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/10/what-happened-by-hillary-rodham-clinton/

Oct 09 2017

Revolutionary Russia 1891–1991 by Orlando Figes

Orlando Figes’ title presents the essence of his argument: The Russian Revolution should be looked at over a much longer period than historians, and the interested public, usually give it. Revolutions succeeded in February and October of 1917 because they had been brewing for a long time; the Soviet Union claimed to be a revolutionary state of one kind or another throughout its existence. In his previous book on the Russian Revolution, A People’s Tragedy (where I started learning about the revolution), Figes chose Lenin’s death in 1924 as his endpoint. For a narrative history focusing on the revolution itself, that’s a reasonable time to run down the curtain. Revolutionary Russia is less of a narrative and more of a polemic. He wants readers to take a longer view of who and what wrought the revolution in Russia, and what the revolution wrought in Russia and the world. “In this telling the Revolution starts in the nineteenth century (and more specifically in 1891, when the public’s reaction to the famine crisis set it for the first time on a collision course with the autocracy) and ends with the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991.” (p. 1) As part of his argument, Figes considers the Cold war as, in a sense, “a continuation of the international civil war started by the Bolsheviks in 1917. … Until the end of their regime, the Soviet leaders all believed they were continuing the Revolution Lenin had begun.” (p. 3)

“International civil war” is an unfortunate choice of words, not to say an apparent contradiction in terms. On the one hand, it could mean “a series of civil wars within various nations,” which is certainly one of the ways that early communists hoped that the world revolution would come about. It might also mean that the leaders of the Soviet Union considered Europe as a whole and thought of class war within Europe as a civil war. In that sense, it’s telling that Figes has chosen Revolutionary Russia rather than, say, The Russian Revolution for his title. He wants to consider Soviet Russia and then the Soviet Union as a state actor that remained, or at least claimed to remain revolutionary long after the Bolsheviks had consolidated power in most of the remains of the Russian Empire.

One advantage of Figes’ approach is that it lets him reach reasonably far back for the stirrings that would become the Russian Revolution in 1917. He chooses the famine year of 1891, when meteorological catastrophes brought a harvest failure, and starvation came to Russia’s southeast “from the Ural mountains to Ukraine, an area double the size of France with a population of 36 million people.” (p. 7) Cholera and typhus followed, killing half a million by the end of 1892. Government attempts to cover up the extent of the disaster convinced the public that there was a conspiracy to keep the facts hidden. Worse, the government waited crucial weeks to ban grain exports, so food that could have lessened the famine was sold abroad. Unable to meet the burdens of the crisis, Russian autocracy turned to the public for help. “It was to prove a historic moment, for it opened the doors to a powerful new wave of public activity and debate which the government could not control and which quickly turned from the philanthropic to the political.” (p. 8) Much of this activity was coordinated by the zemstvos, local councils that were largely run by liberal gentry. Chekhov and Tolstoy joined the relief campaign. “Tolstoy blamed the famine on the social order, the Orthodox Church and the government: ‘Everything has happened because of our own sin.'” (p. 8) The critique echoes in Father Dmitry’s assessment of Soviet society decades later. During the famine crisis, professionals such as doctors, teacher and engineers organized and began to demand influence over public policy. Marxist ideas entered Russian discourse. At the same time,

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/09/revolutionary-russia-1891-1991-by-orlando-figes/

Oct 09 2017

The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin

I put down The Obelisk Gate for about three and a half months when I was four-fifths of the way through. One of the main characters, a girl not yet in her teens, did something horrible, and I just couldn’t anymore. I haven’t had that strong a reaction since Elric killed Moonglum near the end of Stormbringer (spoilers, sorry), and I vividly remember teen me throwing that book clear across the room. And I hadn’t planned to pick up The Obelisk Gate again. I figured I would start writing about it by saying that it was ok not to finish difficult books, that it was ok not to read all the way to the end of a book that is good, that is strong, but puts a reader out of it for one reason or another.

The action that the younger character takes isn’t even that awful in the context of Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. The first book starts with a powerful magician tearing a hole in the world’s crust, an action that will kill many thousands nearly instantly, and a significant share of the world’s population as the after-effects spread. I wrote that The Fifth Season is a bleak book, and The Obelisk Gate continues in a similar fashion, though of course neither book is unremittingly bleak. I wanted to believe that Nassun, the daughter of Essun, who is one of the main viewpoints introduced in The Fifth Season, was not as damaged as the other people around her, that the apparent sanctuary she had found was a place that might be hard but was not as corrupt as the others shown on the Broken Earth. I had not fully faced that she brought corruption with her in a relationship that a friend described as being set up like Luke and Yoda, except it turns out that Yoda is Palpatine.

And yet I was never able to set The Obelisk Gate fully aside, to put it physically with the books that I have finished and don’t expect to come back to for quite a while. I wondered where the story would go, what the characters would do. I wanted to know.

The end of The Fifth Season resolved why the first book was told from three points of view. The Obelisk Gate begins to resolve why parts of both books are told in the second person. It hints, but does not completely reveal, who is doing the telling. One of the two principal storylines follows Essun, who has fled her community in search of both her daughter Nassun and refuge from the effects of the Season that follows the cataclysm that opened The Fifth Season. She eventually finds a place in a hidden, underground community that appears to offer an alliance between orogenes and humans without their powers. That community faces external and internal threats, and coming to terms with them forces Essun to reach for abilities and connections she had not known she could make, while also causing her to question her assumptions about the earth-shaping powers that have defined her life. The other follows Nassun who flees far to the south with her father, eventually coming under the tutelage of a Guardian, one of the people who kept orogenes on a leash before civilization collapsed (again).

The world is immersive, and both storylines urgent. The world is bleak, but people in it wish to hell it didn’t have to be. They’re doing the best they know how, most of them anyway, in times that will force harsh choices from even the gentlest of natures.

There’s also a political context for anyone who cares to look.

“Crazy” is also what roggas who obey choose to call roggas that don’t. You obeyed, once, because you thought it would make you safe. [Alabaster, the rogga who broke the world] showed you — again and again, unrelentingly, he would not let you pretend otherwise — that if obedience did not make one safe from the Guardians or the nodes or the lynchings or the breeding or the disrespect, then what was the point? The game was too rigged to bother playing. (p. 159)

You know you’re right. The belief that orogenes will never be anything but the world’s meat dances amid the cells of you, like magic. It isn’t fair. You just want your life to matter. (p. 296)

It’s an intricate book, full of rounded characters. It’s engaging, readable, difficult to put down. It’s also difficult to keep going.

The Obelisk Gate was the fourteenth bit of Hugo reading that I completed this year, and the tenth I have written about. It won this year’s award for best novel.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/09/the-obelisk-gate-by-n-k-jemisin/

Oct 07 2017

The Delirium Brief by Charles Stross

The Delirium Brief, the eighth book in Charles Stross’ Laundry series, returns Bob Howard, the series’ main protagonist, to center stage. As you know, Bob had been out of the spotlight for most of the last two books — The Nightmare Stacks and The Annihilation Score — for various plot and structural reasons.

The Laundry series began as a mash-up of British spy thrillers, Lovecraftian horror, and The Office (UK, of course). In the books’ world, certain branches of advanced mathematics produce effects that are topologically equivalent to magic, bending space and dimensions in unusual ways, opening portals to worlds beyond usual notions of time and space, and, annoyingly enough, attracting the attention of unearthly beings that like nothing better than to feast on conscious minds. If that weren’t worrying enough, the effects of bending space are cumulative, so that ruptures in the fabric of reality become easier the more they are performed. And if that weren’t worrying enough, computational power plays a role as well; the more computations are undertaken, the more the other effects of mathematical magic are magnified. With hundreds of millions of people walking around in the early 21st century with enough computing power in their pockets to have driven the Apollo program 50 years previous, it’s clear which way the feedback loops are spinning.

The Laundry was a secret arm of British intelligence devoted to cleaning up supernatural threats, hence the name. In The Nightmare Stacks, one of those supernatural threats invaded England, leading to airborne battles between jet fighters and, not to put too fine a point on it, dragons, to say nothing of pitched battles that left much of downtown Leeds a smoking ruin. The Laundry is obviously no longer secret. In fact, The Delirium Brief opens with a designated person from the Laundry going on the BBC’s most famous news program to try to explain what happened. Bob, who was conveniently out of the country when the events too place, finds himself nominated.

“Let me tell you a bit about myself. As I said, I’m Bob Howard, age 39, position: DSS Grade 1, that’s short for Detached Senior Scientist or Deeply Scary Sorcerer or something, nobody really cares (in the Laundry they’re more or less the same thing), and my life sucks right now.” (p. 9)

Bob would still like to think of himself as a slacker mathematician with a weird job and an occasional sideline in interdimensional skulduggery. But fifteen years into the agency, he’s a senior figure. He’s management, and he’s the human front for a monstrous entity that eats souls. He’s also terribly unhappy that he is about to become the face of the agency, by way of being grilled on national television.

“But one final question for you: can you explain to the viewers why you are reportedly known to other members of your agency as the ‘Eater of Souls’?”
For a moment I see red: blood spattered all up and down the blue-screen back wall of the studio. But no, that would be bad, and worse, it would be unprofessional. Also, the ward he’s wearing under his shirt collar is powerful enough that I could break it, but I’d probably set fire to his hair in the process. It would look bad on camera. And also-also—I suddenly realize this is the wrap-up question. I get the last word in so I can select what to give him.
I summon up a sheepish smirk: “When I was junior, I used to put my foot in my mouth rather a lot. The nickname stuck.” (p. 16)

The ward on the television host is a sign of several things, none of them good for Bob or the Laundry. It’s a sign that they are fighting not only the feedback loops pointing toward apocalyptic singularity, not only multiple menaces from beyond the stars, but most certainly other factions within Her Majesty’s government. That last may be the deadliest, because when all is said and done the Laundry is a public agency, established by the customary law of the land and duly constituted to defend the realm. But what if the Crown’s ministers are themselves subverted?

That’s the thorniest issue of The Delirium Brief, a book that is much more inwardly focused than either of its two immediate predecessors. It’s fast and furious, and it’s got funny bits, too like this description of Bob’s time before a committee of Parliament:

“My interrogator is the Right Honorable Lord Swiveleyes of Stow-on-the-Wold, a retired Big Cheese from MI5 who is eking out his political afterlife in the Lords.” (p. 111)

It’s good to have Bob back, and it’s interesting to see him step up into a bigger role. On the whole, though, The Delirium Brief feels a bit like a bridge book, or a breather after the large-scale fireworks of The Nightmare Stacks. The main villains have appeared before, and I was a bit uneasy at their portrayal. I thought that Stross comes close to heavy-handed caricature in his portrayal of televangelists from Colorado Springs, that they’re not as convincing as they were the first time around, and thus not good menaces for Bob and his allies in the Laundry.

By the end, the world has unraveled even further, although not as visibly as happened in The Nightmare Stacks. As the eighth in the series, The Delirium Brief is not a good place to start; begin at the beginning. The ninth book, The Labyrinth Index, will likely be published in 2019, though it is no longer clear that that will be the last one. This apocalypse is too much fun to finish too soon!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/07/the-delirium-brief-by-charles-stross/

Oct 06 2017

The Last Man in Russia by Oliver Bullough

Oliver Bullough’s first book, Let Our Fame Be Great, examined the encounters between Russia and the smaller peoples of the Northern Caucasus. They generally ended badly for the smaller nations. In his second book, he looks at how the larger nation has fared. (At the time he wrote the book, he was Caucasus Editor for the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. I have never met him, though in the way of things, we probably have mutual acquaintances.) If the title didn’t give the prognosis away, the subtitle of The Last Man in Russia And the Struggle to Save a Dying Nation certainly does.

As long as foreigners have been writing about Russia, they have been commenting on Russians’ propensity for alcohol. Bullough opens his book with a story of a fellow journalist, Misha, who called him in the middle of a four-day bender to ask, “What is the meaning of the word zombie hedgehog?” (p. 1) Asked later, Misha had no recollection of the call. On a trip to Chechnya a few months later, Misha had downed a liter of brandy before nine in the morning and collected a bottle of vodka shortly after breakfast. “This is not one of those stories of journalistic excess that end with the drunkard doing his job despite being barely coherent. … By evening, he was comatose and a few of us cobbled together some material to send to Moscow under his name.” (p. 2) Individually, the stories range from hilarious to tragic, the stuff of travelers’ tales or the colorful parts of a magazine article. Added together to encompass the entire nation, looked at demographically, they become something else entirely.

Done once, it is an amusing anecdote. Done daily and it is a disease, and it is killing the nation. Between 1940 and 1980, Russian consumption of all alcoholic drinks increased eightfold. The natiion decided, apparently as one, to go on a huge zapoi [a multi-day bender], and the consequences have been disastrous.
In 1950 — when Stalin was at his most erratic, when the country was still half destroyed by World War Two, when terrible sacrifices were being demanded from the population — births outnumbered deaths by 1.7 million.
In 2010, deaths outnumbered births by 240,000, and that was the best year for a couple of decades. In 1991, the country was home to 148.3 million. In 2010, that number had fallen to 141.9 million. The Russian nation is shrivelling away from within.
And it is not just that Russians are not being born. Russians are dying. The average Russian male born in 2010 was calculated to live less than sixty-three years. Russians of both sexes taken together are almost four times more likely to die of heart disease than a Western European, and more than five times likely to be killed by an ‘external cause’ — murder, suicide, drowning, poisoning, car crashes. (p. 5)

In the late 1990s, when I worked for a think-tank in Munich, I looked at this from the perspective of global comparisons. Russia was the only developed country for which external reasons were in the top five (maybe even top ten, my recollection is not complete) causes of death. Alcohol is the reason.

It is widely assumed that the drinking and the population crisis are a post-Soviet problem. It is true that the problem accelerated with the collapse of communism and the extreme economic dislocation that followed. … Russians drank to blot out the times they were living through. In truth, however, they were drinking before.

Bullough talks about Russia’s shrinking population from two ends. First, lower birth rates. He notes that Russia dropped below replacement-level total fertility rate (TFR) in 1965. That’s not actually so unusual among industrialized countries. Japan was below replacement TFR in 1965, rose just barely above it for 10 years, and then slid steadily to a nadir of 1.26 children on average in 2005 before rising to 1.46 in 2015. In Western Europe, the fall below replacement happened slightly later than in Russia: by 1970 for West Germany, 1975 for France, and 1980 for Spain. In the former Eastern bloc, Hungary teetered around replacement from the mid-1960s, rising noticeable above it in the mid-1970s, before sliding gradually to its 2015 level of 1.44. (All figures from World Bank data.) On this measure, Russia is not faring badly, with birth rates that have risen steadily from around the year 2000 to the 2015 level of 1.75. (On the other hand, Bullough argues on p. 216 that the post-2000 rise is an echo, at reduced level, of the rise in the early 1980s when Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign raised both life expectancy and fertility.)

Russian people are having children at rates not too terribly different from their peers in other industrialized and European countries. It’s the other end of demographic measures where Russian differences appear. “In the early 1960s, the average Russian and the average Austrian both lived for about sixty-nine years. By 2005, the Austrian was living for an extra decade and a half, the Russian for four years fewer.” (p. 7) The main difference is alcohol.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/06/the-last-man-in-russia-by-oliver-bullough/

Oct 02 2017

Akata Witch (Akata Witch #1) by Nnedi Okorafor

It was so nice to read something really new for a change, a fresh perspective, to me at least, on the traditional fantasy coming-of-age novel. The Nigerian setting is terrific, and I loved the magic systems and cultural information that came bursting out of this book like the delicious, nourishing flesh of a perfectly ripe mango. It was so great to read of Sunny’s day-to-day life, told as casually to the reader as if everyone had a Nigerian upbringing: it’s an excellent reminder that for the vast majority of the world, a Western upbringing isn’t the norm. As a novel of ideas and an ambassador for Nigerian and African culture to the rest of the world, it’s a superlative book.

But I really did not like Nnedi Okorafor’s pacing. There was so much random deus ex machina stuff, with things that weren’t explained regarding her otherwise really cool magic system, that it was as frustrating to me as a lot of early 20th century sf&f works, which require that the reader suspend all disbelief and accept that things happen just because the author says so. I didn’t understand about 50% of what happened in the climactic battle because Ms Okorafor doesn’t explain any of the spells except Chichi’s. I get that there are all these really cool things you want to pour onto the page, but please, God, don’t be like Steven Erikson. It’s especially annoying because this is a coming-of-age tale and we should be learning alongside Sunny: instead, things just happen in fits and starts and very little is explained and it’s all very frustrating to follow.

I do have high hopes for Akata Warrior coming out soon and remedying some of these shortcomings, and I’m planning on eventually reading some of Ms Okorafor’s more acclaimed works. But this one was oddly disappointing in its craft, tho absolutely mesmerizing in what content and context it had to display.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/10/02/akata-witch-akata-witch-1-by-nnedi-okorafor/

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