Apr 23 2017

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

There are lots of reasons to commit suicide, but most of the people I know who’ve done it or attempted to have had a lot of Really Bad Shit going on in their heads from Really Bad Shit that comes from their past, or from a present so at odds with their perception of self that self-obliteration seems the only way out of this existential conflict. And the raison d’etre for this book, the character whose Thirteen Reasons Why she committed suicide propel the narrative, just wasn’t one of these people.

I feel that Jay Asher meant well. The subject matter is thought-provoking and there’s a lot of nuance and intelligence. It’s just not a very well-written novel. The dialogue is clunky and overwrought and there’s too much assumption of emotional atmosphere instead of actual reflection, particularly in the present day. I didn’t like the guy narrator, Clay, enough to feel bad for him, and I couldn’t help but feel impatient at the girl, Hannah’s, self-destructive streak. I felt bad at all the horrible things that happened/were done to her, but I also didn’t like her enough to care about her. And I think that’s entirely a function of the writing, that it couldn’t make me care despite what is easily a highly sympathetic situation.

Other reviewers with far more experience than I in this matter have noted that the book glamorizes suicide and that Hannah’s death is more performance art than escape. That’s worrisome. It’s hard for me, personal morality aside, to pronounce on whether someone has a “good” reason to kill him/herself, so I couldn’t tell you if Hannah’s reasons were believable. They definitely weren’t written in a way that made me care about her, tho.

Anyway, I’m glad if this book reaches people and teaches them that suicide is not the answer (tho it bothered me that the version I read didn’t include any information on what to do if you’re having suicidal thoughts,) and if it encourages people to be nicer to and look out for one another. But I did pick up this book thinking that I’d read it before watching the Netflix show… only now I don’t think I’ll watch. There’s something depressingly shallow about this book despite its attempt at meaningfulness, and I doubt the show would be able to fix its shortcomings. I could be wrong, but I suspect that a dramatization would just make me dislike the characters and story more.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/23/thirteen-reasons-why-by-jay-asher/

Apr 23 2017

The Man In The High Castle by Philip K Dick

Okay, so I came to this book from the very excellent Amazon show, and it almost seems unfair to review it now when I’ll always have the comparison in my mind. As source material for the very excellent show, it’s very rich in subject, and I was impressed by Philip K Dick’s ability to get the mindset and cadences correct, of living — or having lived — in a nation that is essentially an Asian colony. Childan is easily the most interesting character here, a man whose inner rage at being seen as lesser is perverted into both a lusting after Japanese culture and a hatred of, paradoxically, both Japanese people and his own background. Frank is the most sympathetic, a man seeking his destiny while realistically and humanely viewing his circumstances. I liked Tagomi a lot and thought his struggles with his conscience were more profound than Frank’s. Juliana is at once the smartest person in the book and yet the hardest to identify with. She is not a stable person, or a very likeable one, yet Mr Dick clearly meant her to be the heroine of the piece. I’m still trying to wrap my brain around her. I don’t know if I don’t like her because I kept being told I ought to, instead of persuaded, or whether it had to do with her casual racism and, to a certain extent, a misogyny that permeated the writing of her. It’s just that, compared to the richness of all the other (male) main characters, she seems more like a sketch, more an unmedicated bundle of neuroses than a real person. I don’t think Mr Dick meant to make her lesser than the men, but I don’t think he knew how to make her the heroine he wanted her to be.

He does an amazing job of writing alternative history within alternative history, and this definitely ranks as a sci-fi classic. And yet, and yet. Once you watch the Amazon show, you realize how broadly and deeply you can go with what was begun here. Essential reading, yes, but if you can, you should really watch the show.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/23/the-man-in-the-high-castle-by-philip-k-dick/

Apr 23 2017

The Foundation Pit by Andrey Platonov

Where to even begin with The Foundation Pit? The author, Andrey Platonov was born in Russia in 1899, the son of a railway worker, and later worked as a land reclamation expert. He was a fervent supporter of the Russian Revolution; during the 1920s he supervised the digging of wells, construction of ponds, and draining of swamps in Soviet Ukraine; he was a war correspondent during the Great Patriotic War. Stalin, who read some of his work pre-publication, reportedly called him “scum” and urged that he be beaten. Platonov’s son was arrested as an enemy of the people and returned from the Gulag with terminal tuberculosis. Platonov contracted the disease while nursing him, and died of it in 1951. Much of his work, including The Foundation Pit, was not published in Russia until the time of glasnost; some of it was not published until the 1990s.

The Foundation Pit takes place during the time of the first Five-Year Plan and Total Collectivization. It begins with the mobilization of various people to dig out the space that will serve as the foundation for a gigantic and grand edifice. What should be built is never specified, but the characters are led to believe that it will be shining and splendid, a monumental achievement at the edge of their otherwise unremarkable town. In the meantime, work brigades are rushed here and there, ever more people are brought in for the collectivized effort, even as the available tools remain utterly inadequate for the task at hand. Things get stranger from there.

As the translators write in their afterword, “All these works appear at first glance—especially to a reader unversed in Soviet history—to be highly surreal. This impression, however is misleading; thy contain barely an incident or passage of dialogue that does not directly relate to some real event or publication from these years. Platonov’s focus is not on some private dream world but on political and historical reality—a reality so extraordinary as to be barely credible.” (p. 157)

Read as a surreal and symbolic parable, The Foundation Pit is unsettling; read as something more literal, it is even more troubling. It’s also funny in parts, poignant in others, and just plain strange in yet others. Platonov’s Soviet Russia of the 1920s is far, far more alien than Asimov’s New York millennia hence.

Even with the notes provided by the translators, I am sure that I just skimmed across the surface of The Foundation Pit. There’s a lot going on in the book; I wouldn’t want to try to calculate its fractal dimension. (Indeed, a German journal of East European studies, Osteuropa, devoted an entire issue to Platonov’s work in 2016.) The translators again:

One day, no doubt, someone will publish a commentary listing the abnormalities in each sentence of The Foundation Pit and the expressive power of each of them. Platonov used language more creatively than even the greatest of the great Russian poets who were his contemporaries, and there is no simple answer to the question of why he wrote as he did. Sometimes, as we have seen, he deviates from the norm in order to summon up a biblical, cultural, or political allusion. Sometimes he orders the most common of words in an uncommon way so as to bring out in full the meaning of a word that we normally take for granted. … Sometimes Platonov puts something in an unusual way in order to bring out how trapped his characters are in a crushingly materialist view of the world. … At other times, however, this materialism shifts into an equally extreme idealism. (pp. 172–73)

This is a journey to another world, recognizably human, but seen through the veils of history, language, culture and the author’s own imagination to make it more distant than what is found in much of science fiction. “The reality of life in Stalin’s Russia will always remain hard to understand. No sources of information—no memoirs, no diaries, no reports by informers for the secret police—are entirely trustworthy. It is easier to be sure of the true beliefs of such distant figures as Chaucer and Dante than of the true beliefs of many of Platonov’s contemporaries. Even against this background, however, the degree of uncertainty around Platonov himself is extraordinary. There is hardly a single important work of Platonov’s, or important event in his life, that is not veiled in ambiguity.” (p. 162) The Foundation Pit gets deeper, but no nearer completion.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/23/the-foundation-pit-by-andrey-platonov/

Apr 22 2017

The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov

The Caves of Steel is really the first of Asimov’s robot novels, as I, Robot was short stories stitched together by a tiny framework narrative. In the introduction, Asimov relates that the conceit of the novel came out of a conversation with an editor: a science fiction mystery that didn’t use technology to cheat and come to a solution too readily. When it was published in 1954, it may very well have been the first science fiction mystery. There’s a lot to like in The Caves of Steel, though more than 60 years after its publication it is also now more a part of history. The story concerns a human policeman and a robot partner trying to solve a murder in a far-future New York. Three thousand years in the future, the city is fully enclosed, and people spend their entire lives in the artificial environment of towers and rolling sidewalks (why did people think these would work?). Life is regimented, with space and food tightly controlled as Earth struggles to support a staggering population of 8 billion. Robots are increasingly replacing human labor, and people are unhappy but don’t know how to fight back. The protagonist, Lije Baley, is strongly but not violently anti-robot. He also fears for his job, as robots are even coming onto the police force.

At first, I was annoyed with the book. Asimov has moved all of the story’s furniture into the distant future, but relations between the characters are still those of 1950s America with a smattering of collectivization laid on top. Coming up with a temporally distant human society that reads like a distinct thing takes considerable historical imagination, and Asimov doesn’t have it here. On the other hand, he was expanding the boundaries of the field as it existed at the time. Dated innovation is an odd thing.

Then I thought about what was happening in America in 1954: the year of Brown v. Board of Education. Society around Asimov was being challenged to integrate a minority it had previously considered inferior, sub-human. The Caves of Steel might be something like an integration novel, from the point of view of a person whose unthinking segregationism is challenged by what he sees. Baley also makes his way to the place where the Spacers (humans who have colonized other star systems and established a return embassy on Earth) live, segregated from and feared by the rest of New York, and thus analogous to black neighborhoods in Asimov’s time, but also a place where humans and robots live in harmony, and thus a possible model of a new society. Baley, whose food in the city is all processed, is offered a real apple during his conference with the Spacers. He eats of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and … begins to change his mind. It’s not a Fall, but the beginning of a change.

The integration story that I had envisioned halfway through the novel never really materializes. Instead, Asimov substitutes some hand-wavy social engineering that reminds me of what I dimly recall from his Foundation series, so I guess it’s all of a piece. The mystery gets solved, and it’s both reasonably clever and not a technological cheat, so that’s a plus for this book. The Caves of Steel stretched the genre for its time, but it’s also very much of its time.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/22/the-caves-of-steel-by-isaac-asimov/

Apr 17 2017

Bohemian Gospel (Bohemian Gospel #1) by Dana Chamblee Carpenter

Readable, if highly problematic. And usually when the word “problematic” is bandied about, reviewers are considering subject matter or character/authorial point of view. My use of the word comes more from the way Dana Chamblee Carpenter has treated actual history in the service of her tale: abusively, to be blunt about it.

Going off on a bit of a tangent here, I used to edit a fan fiction site, that I also wrote for. Good fan fiction takes its setting and not only respects it but tells a terrific tale that makes you look at the world it’s set in a little differently, with more depth, perhaps, or color. It is good, solid writing and nothing to be sneered at. Bad fan fiction, on the other hand, comes in many shapes and forms. We’re all familiar with bad writing, or narratives that are clear wish fulfillment with no actual plot involved. But the really bad fan fiction, I always felt, was the stuff that bent the setting to the whims of the main character instead of using it to provide a framework for the imagination.

And in no setting is this more upsetting, I feel, than in actual recorded history. Granted, medieval Bohemia is not the best known of all historical epochs, but for fuck’s sake, it’s well-known enough that the liberties Ms Carpenter takes with actual history seem lazy to the point of being offensive. I could forgive her Nicholas’ parentage, I could forgive her the entire ridiculousness of Lady Emma and her subsequent marriage, but that final battle scene was a huge fuck no. That’s not what happened. You don’t get to fuck with history on that large a scale.

The best historical fiction imagines why actual people did what they did, or puts imaginary people into important times and situations in order to explore the milieu. It does not bend history in order to suit the entirely nonsensical story of a goddamn Mary Sue. Everything up to Houska was pretty good, but it all went downhill rapidly after that, and soon lost any pretense of having a meaningful plot (much less deep characters or suspenseful revelations.) There was just a lot of “and this happened, then this happened, then meander meander oooh climactic battle that makes no goddamn sense.” It’s almost like Ms Carpenter wrote each chapter according to how she was feeling that day, as a series of barely related sense impressions. Like with the wolf and the sculptures in the forest. I gave no fucks because none of it felt like organic plot growth but more like scenes shoehorned in to make a word count, or in this case, to fill in fifteen years till our irritating protagonist could do something else monumentally stupid.

And the ending was so annoying! My initial reaction was “oh gosh, I need to read the sequel” (to which, kudos, Ms Carpenter, your writing style is indeed engaging) but after reading the first chapter of The Devil’s Bible, I was just… repulsed. Bohemian Gospel plays fast and loose with history in order to set up a crappy modern-day “I’m so lonely and misunderstood” heroine. What a waste of an interesting premise. I should have paid more attention to the comparisons to Kostova’s The Historian, which was another exceedingly over-rated book, and skipped over this one.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/17/bohemian-gospel-bohemian-gospel-1-by-dana-chamblee-carpenter/

Apr 16 2017

Rules of the Game (Endgame #3) by James Frey & Nils Johnson-Shelton

So I’m not in this book so CLEARLY it is a huge disappointment.

Jk, that isn’t why it was disappointing (tho I could have forgiven my omission had the book made up for it otherwise.) It’s hard to go into why the book failed to reach the levels of awesomeness that the first two books in the series easily reached without going into spoilers, but I think that if you’ve gotten this far and are hesitating about reading the book itself, then what I’m about to say isn’t really a spoiler since it doesn’t discuss anything that happens, but instead a very huge thing that doesn’t happen, and that is this (and you can stop reading any time if you’d rather not find out anything about the book, tho if that were the case, I’d imagine you wouldn’t even have read this far):

The game ends but you’re never told why the game was begun, or who the Keplers are or why they’ve done anything up to this point besides provide a Deus for the plot machina. It’s… weird. You go through all this exciting story but you’re never told why any of it is happening. Which is a valid plot for a certain type of book (Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon comes to mind as a successful example) but Rules Of The Game is not that kind of book. It should be the slam bang conclusion of a terrific action trilogy set against an apocalypse put in motion by manipulative, powerful aliens. Instead, it’s a weird little coda that kills off characters willy-nilly (tho not necessarily unexpectedly, if you’ve been following the trilogy) and gives us no answers about the game itself. If it’s meant to be an existential display of the futility of finding answers to the question of life, it’s gone about it in a way that’s guaranteed to disappoint its existing fans while winning it no new ones. If it’s a brazen ploy to stretch out the suspense over the course of a new set of books, well, that’s both condescending to its fans and indicative of a lack of self-confidence in the authors’ powers of imagination.

So yeah, I was disappointed by the fact that I never materialized in this book’s pages, despite being promised a bigger role than in book two. But mostly I was disappointed by how this book didn’t bother answering any of the questions it successfully, suspensefully raised in the prior books. And that’s a shame, because I really enjoyed the first two novels in the series.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/16/rules-of-the-game-endgame-3-by-james-frey-nils-johnson-shelton/

Apr 10 2017

Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun #1-2 ) by Gene Wolfe

At the end, I put down the book and said aloud, “That was a goddamn waste of time.”

I get that this is just the first two books in a four (or five, if you’re a completist) book series, but damn, how can you reasonably argue that a reader has to slog through 400+ pages of pretentious bullshit before finding even the prospect of intellectual satisfaction, much less entertainment? There was promise in the first two hundred pages, but at no point did either book feel like a complete story, much less one worthy of awards. I am honestly mystified by people who think this was well-written. Gene Wolfe’s impressively vast vocabulary is no substitute for actually being able to string words together in a way that conveys both meaning and style. His constructions are unnecessarily elaborate while also somehow being unevocative: a feat of the most groundless pretension I have ever seen. I get that there are some people who fall for this bullshit (I’ve railed against other books written in this irritating manner) but this is the first time I’ve seen that pool of people drawn from hardcore genre fans, who usually see through literary pretensions and shy away.

That aside, the story is garbage. Again, I’m willing to concede that Mr Wolfe may well pull a narrative feat out of his ass some 400+ pages from now, but these first 400+ pages were about dull, unlikeable people thrown into increasingly unbelievable and uninteresting circumstances. This felt less like a story + plot and more like a fever dream I was expected to scry meaning from. And I certainly don’t mind putting in the intellectual work if there’s anything of actual interest to go through! This, however, was all scenes plucked from better, more entertaining fiction, inelegantly cobbled together with words words words and I couldn’t for the life of me care about any of it (a variation on the Eight Deadly Words, yes. Hi, Doug!)

And I was willing to give Mr Wolfe’s personal peccadilloes the benefit of the doubt till I read that extremely stomach-turning discussion of rape as part of torture. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a realist and understand that rape is an instrument of humiliation, so have no objections to that as part of a discussion of torture. What made me go full-on pearl-clutching was Severian’s reaction to his master’s showing him the drugs and instruments of rape: Severian’s contempt of his master felt very “you’re not a real man if you can’t rape with your penis at will.” This is toxic masculinity at its most unapologetic, tho Severian does chase his contempt with pity, so at least he can condescend to other men? Coupled with the way the women in the book are continuously represented, it’s hard not to believe that this disgusting, rampaging misogyny is not Mr Wolfe’s actual worldview. I, who love Nabokov and indulgently view GRRM’s writing as the stuff written by a person who’s still surprised and proud that he’s finally having consistently loving heterosexual sex, find myself viewing Mr Wolfe’s character extremely dimly. I will never be in a room with him willingly, much less alone. I don’t think I’ve ever said that of an author from his or her books alone. Congratulations are in order, I suppose.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/04/10/shadow-claw-the-book-of-the-new-sun-1-2-by-gene-wolfe/

Mar 21 2017

The Immortal Iron Fist, Volume 1: The Last Iron Fist Story by Ed Brubaker (Writer), Matt Fraction, David Aja et. al.

I got this for free a while back (thank you, Amazon!) and decided to read it before hunkering down to watch the problematic Iron Fist Netflix series.

So. Let’s talk about the good stuff first! Fraction/Aja are terrific, and Danny and the Heroes For Hire (and the way they fit within the Civil War framework) were really cool and fun. I very much like the super hippie, loose Danny Rand of the books, partly because you know if someone pointed out that the entire premise of his fictional life is racist, he wouldn’t get all defensive about it but would be all “dudebro, shit, yeah, we should work to make everything cool.”

But Jesus Christ, Orson Rand.

I’m assuming that his character and his really shitty, occasionally racist history are redeemed — or at least overtly condemned — in future volumes, but he was given way too much rein in this one. I’ve really enjoyed Brubaker’s work on DC’s Gotham properties, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on not making it hella obvious that Orson’s behavior is unacceptable, but it was really uncomfortable to read, so much so that I likely won’t bother with more. Tbh, I doubt I’m missing out. Plus, there is the entirely awful (4 episodes in so far, and the writers are completely oblivious to how they are playing themselves with each storyline) Netflix series to contend with, and there is only so much self-torture I can endure.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/03/21/the-immortal-iron-fist-vol-1/

Mar 20 2017

Soviet Bus Stops by Christopher Herwig

There are not a lot of words in this book of photography, and the subject is laid out right there in the title. Soviet Bus Stops sounds like it could be terribly dry, almost a parody of narrow history, but no, it’s a glimpse into an interesting and vanishing world.

Photographer Christopher Herwig bicycled from London to St Petersburg in 2002 “with the challenge of taking one good photo every hour.” (p. 9) He noticed details. Beginning in 2003, he lived for three years in the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia. He found what was expected, but also “eccentricities that defied Soviet conventions.” (p. 9) He noticed bus stops in particular:

In Canada, where I come from, bus stops are all the same. But in the former Soviet republics, many were unique, imaginative, and sometimes a bit mad. … Behind the Iron Curtain were millions of individuals who liked to daydream, wanted to push the limits of creativity and needed a way to share it. (p. 9)

As part of the introductory material, Vera Kavalkova-Halvarsson explains part of how these oddities came about. One architect from Belarus who designed nearly 100 “bus pavilions,” as they were known, says that tight regulation, limited technology and competition for major projects meant that there was very little room for creativity. Artists seized whatever opportunities were available, even a humble bus pavilion. “Designing a bus stop was often one of the first independent projects assigned to students of architecture departments. Students were encouraged to produce designs never seen before.” (p. 11) Limited budgets, often about one-third the cost of a car (p. 14), meant that designers and artisans had to be creative to do anything different, but the small scale also meant that bureaucrats with stifling rules did not pay attention to such minor matters.

In very small villages or remote locations, though, they were not minor matters at all. Bus links were crucial connections to the larger world. “The bus stop was a public space and could be used to bring art to the people and to brighten up the surroundings. (p. 12)

After a dozen pages or so of introduction, the rest of the book is given over to photographs of these unusual artifacts. Some are whimsical, like the stop in Kyrgyzstan that’s shaped like a local traditional hat. Some may have double meanings, like the mural of agricultural combines whose silhouettes could be mistaken for rows of tanks. Some are poignant in new ways, like the one shaped like a light house, in a desert near where the Aral Sea used to be. There are giant waves or clam shells from the Black Sea coast, there are abstract crowns in Armenia or yurts in Kazakhstan. There are unexpectedly colorful mosaics from Ukraine. The pavilions from the Baltic republics look like EU money has recently been invested in their upkeep. The poverty of other republics can be seen in the stops’ state. Russia is conspicuously absent from this survey (Azerbaijan does not appear either), and the author does not mention any reason for this choice. On the whole, though, it’s a very interesting glimpse of how much an unregarded object can reveal.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/03/20/soviet-bus-stops-by-christopher-herwig/

Mar 18 2017

Red Rising (Red Rising #1) by Pierce Brown

I don’t know why I expected something lesser than what I read. I think I’d heard too many murmurs of “derivative” and “boy Katniss” but this really isn’t any of that at all. Sure, Red Rising and The Hunger Games both have dystopian settings featuring underdogs who rise to the top via brutal competitions, and both are excellently written, but that’s like saying all sci-fi is the same, which is stupid and reductive.

Anyway, Red Rising? Is an amazing novel. Pierce Brown isn’t afraid to take the rawest emotions and situations and put them on full display. I did have reservations about the whole Eo situation (it was clear that she was going to get fridged, but I was won around to what actually happened because she was the agent of it all) and the whole adoption of martyrdom as a winning tactic made the pragmatist in me recoil, but I was swept up in the drama of it all, that never, thankfully, teetered over into the maudlin. By the end of it, I wanted to go out and binge read the rest, which is pretty much the highest recommendation I can give of a book in a series. Alas, I have too many other books in the way, but soon!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2017/03/18/red-rising-red-rising-1-by-pierce-brown/

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