I remember everyone on here recommending the Broken Earth trilogy but I couldn’t vibe with the story for some reason when I read the first chapter. The premise of The City We Became sounds up my street though, will have to add it to the list.
I read through the first one of the trilogy and left it there. It was fine and had a clever structure to it but just didn’t grab me enough. Plus I think it kinda makes some big claims about subversion of the apocalypse genre that it just doesn’t follow through on, or at least not in the first book.
This essay on Memory called Empire and Bringing Up the Bodies brings up a comparsion between the 2 in terms of fiction focused on court or high level politics I never thought of before but I think explains why I don’t like either genres with that focus.
I am always going to prefer Ulverton to Bring Up the Bodies. I am always going to prefer China Mountain Zhang to A Memory Called Empire
Finished Priory, actually tore through it once I was past the parts focusing on medieval royalty. Loved the climactic battle, what an incredible scene.
I’m back on Stephen King thanks to an excellent podcast I discovered, Kingcast, that focuses on a different King book and adaptation every week.
Re-read The Shining and watched the movie again. I have to say my younger self must have skimmed over a bunch of non-supernatural parts of the book because a bunch of really interesting parts were new to me this time. Mostly character development stuff for Jack (which Kubrick chose not to include).
Now re-reading my copy of Schismatrix which continues to be one of the best cyberpunk novels ever written.
Iain M. Banks’ Consider Phlebas. Pre-Covid I was having so much trouble trying to find his books in any bn or indie bookstores, it surprised me. Love the library though.
I read The Player of Games first, which on the whole is a pretty great thesis for his Culture setting.
Nina allan followed up her post in a Memory called Empire with one about China Mountain Zhang and what she likes about it and also references this old essay called “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction”
Just finished Jeanette Winterson’s Frankissstein yes its really all three s’s i double checked which turned out to be an interesting and very readable novel that maybe reaches a little beyond its own scope sometimes. Winterson is deeply interested in ideas about transhumanism, artificial intelligence and the future of our relationships with bodies - so much so that at times the novel becomes little more than a vehicle for these conversations to play out. But I found the conceptual level intriguing enough to pull me through the portions where the facade of novel wore thin.
First things first, the question of trans representation in this book is not one I feel fully qualified to answer. I’ve seen a review arguing that it presents an idealised/sanitised version of some physical aspects of FTM transition. The trans character Ry feels fully realised to me, with nuanced ideas about their own gender but trans issues are not really primary here, which is not necessarily bad. Being trans can and should be a fact about a character rather than their entire identity. However there is a lot of thematic meat to work with when thinking about trans bodies and Frankenstein’s monster and while Winterson does do some interesting work with this, I feel like she is often distracted with other ideas to the detriment of that exploration.
My main caveat is that this book does come with a major content warning for sexual assault in a scene that frankly felt unnecessary to me - it serves to illuminate a crisis about self-creation but I just don’t think it was a crucial part of Ry’s arc. The scene is very ugly to read and if you are sensitive to that content I would advise you to steer clear. Ry is also misgendered and deadnamed at various points by another character though the context is not particularly malignant.
What I think is most interesting about Frankissstein is its metafictional layering. Winterson has two primary narratives occurring - the life of Mary Shelley and her modern analogue, a trans doctor named Ry Shelley. The characters of Mary’s life (Percy Shelley, Lord Byron etc.) are all echoed into the present, including Victor Frankenstein himself as Ry’s lover, a “Dr. Stein” who dreams of transcending the body entirely and uploading his mind into a computer.
But these comparisons are complicated by Winterson’s choice to blur and move characters together across the centuries. Percy Shelley is portrayed as both lover and monster, and to Ry Dr. Stein is part Percy, part Victor Frankenstein. Mary Shelley herself plays the part of creator to her Dr. Frankenstein - he the creation and creator of monsters. We can look at Ry similarly - they are positioned as self-created, altering their body in transition they are both creation and creator, monster and doctor.
The book is constantly pushing at ideas of “reality,” and this reaches its apotheosis when Victor Frankenstein intrudes in the life of his author, complaining of being rendered flesh and blood - embodied and dysphoric - another twist in the knotted question of what makes up a human. This is a man made of text, a pattern brought forth into the world, the magical opposite of the modern Stein’s dream. Reality is emergent, Winterson says, it is a consensus reached, an invention.
It’s all a little complicated - partly because the book is rich with meaning and has depths worth plumbing and partly because the structure does not entirely cohere around the narrative. The book bills itself as a love story, and I think it very much wants to be primarily about that, though romance often ends up feeling tangential to the novel’s dense conceptual discourse. What the characters keep coming back to is “the human dream.” Which is perhaps about love, but I think it will mean very different things to different readers. For me it felt like a yearning for a certain type of immortality, an escape from death & the grief that is always entwined with living and dying.
The metafictional structure creates a complex blurring of monster and doctor, of body and mind, creator and creation. More than once, a character remarks, “I do not know if I am the teller or the tale.” That superposition is where the crux of the novel lies for me - the characters are both creator and creation, echoed and reflected and reborn in new bodies and new forms. The character of Percy Shelley describes it when hearing of a protest of labourers at Manchester,
We are many, he said. Many Shelleys, many Marys. Many stand behind us tonight in spirit, and we shall do the same when we are done here. The body that must fail and fall is not the end of the human dream.
Winterson undercuts this idealism to an extent, exploring the all-too-recurrent misogyny of male idealists, but that was still the compelling idea within the text for me. It is the collective will of the downtrodden rising up, the multiplicity of being of the common man, of the human living within and through the cause. The reflection shows a new face, the echo resolves into one.
Harrow the Ninth is being released in a few days! I hope the library gets a lot of digital copies.
I just finished In Persuasion Nation by George Saunders and while I found it to be wildly uneven, I also found it to be largely effective socio-politico-economic horror. It’s definitely suffering from a degree of zeerust by virtue of how broad some of its consumerist satire is. We are living in a capitalistic hellscape, but part of what makes it so deeply frightening is how easily we’ve allowed brands to weave themselves into the fabric of our everyday lives.
In at least a couple of the stories, George very much does not bury the lede, but then follows those very clear themes home to logical conclusions not far-removed from where they begin. There is one story, for example, that I think is essentially just an allegory for how fascism co-opts emotionally resonant tragedies to grow in size and momentum, and there is a character who is so obviously the demagogue type, who does things dishonestly and misrepresents things obviously enough that the people around him kind of acknowledge that he’s misrepresenting them, but nonetheless concede that his heart is in the right place and so dog fascism is, in this case, okay. It’s good actually. And the story never really goes anywhere beyond just kind being like… “hey look, this is how fascism can occur in a microcosmic scale.” Which is fine, I suppose, but when it’s bundled in with stories that cut to the quick of human experience a little more uniquely than “fascism is bad” it feels very… un-unique.
I also feel that Saunders undercuts himself by being a bit too in love with some of the science-fictional conceits he’s come up with; by never letting a gag die. Consistency is, as they say, king, but I’ll give you the following example and you decide:
In a particular story, a group of teens are essentially high-class focus testers for marketing material. They’ve been doing this so acutely for so long that they’ve essentially lost the ability to emote using unique language, and instead express strong feelings by directly citing the ISBN look-up number of a commercial that expresses a similar feeling. What grates is that… since this story is a love story, featuring loss, and grief, and puberty (and all that is contained therein), this gag is executed constantly, and it becomes more chafing (read: more difficult to comfortably read) than it is thematically resonant.
Since I’m back in the office and like a book I can zip through I’ve picked up the first couple of books in The Expanse series which are fine but give me an extra appreciation for the television series and especially the casting. Extra props go to Thomas Jane for adding a melancholy to Miller who just comes across as a bit of a creep in the novel and more props to Shohreh Aghdashloo for toning down the “lol epic sweary grandma” vibe I get quite a bit from Avasarala in the novel. Remarkably Holden is even more annoying and righteous in the book. All that said though, they are very readable and I am enjoying them by and large.
The Expanse show is striking for me in that, thereabouts season 3, it turns into truly wonderful political television in a way that the books–with their devotion to single-character perspectives–fail to be truly impactful political literature for me. Also yeah, Thomas Jane and Shohreh Aghdashloo are fantastic, and Cara Gee and David Strathairn absolutely kill it as representatives of both Belter ideologies and as their own characters. It’s deeply ironic though, if nothing else, that a story fundamentally about capitalistic oppression writ large across space is funded as a kind of pet fancy by Jef Bezoar himself.
Wrt to the books, it’s interesting how Corey clearly learns how to develop both his characters and conflicts over time. Bobbie and Alex become truly fascinating characters in their own rights, and Corey not infrequently, as the series progresses, becomes more willing to experiment with the limits of his writing, which I think early on is workmanlike and in the service of plot and setting, and little else.
Got two I’m reading at the moment:
“How to Lose the Time War” by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar. Beautiful writing, sci-fi romance novella.
“The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great” by Harvey J. Kaye. Well written history Of FDR’s presidency.
Thought a lot of folks in this thread would appreciate this news:
More re-reads of some favorites, received some as gifts this summer.
The Wind Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K Le Guin, Delicious in Dungeon by Ryoko Kui and Children of Ruin by Adrian Tchaikovsky.
Also read two Stephen King books on kindle, Everything’s Eventual (short stories, wanted to read 1408) and If it Bleeds (novella collection). Both were ok, nothing as gripping as The Shining which I read earlier this summer.
I LOVED Children of Ruin it was the sci-fi that got me back into reading sci-fi. Wasn’t that keen on A Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (or Murakami in general) but thought the side stories in that book are among the strongest stuff he’s written.
It’s been so long since I’ve read it that I’m having a hard time explaining it, but All That You Love Will Be Carried Away (in Everything’s Eventual) is one of my all-time favorite short stories. It’s very unlike most of King’s work in that its not at all speculative, very short, and is super limited when it comes to plot, but it affected me really deeply when I first read it as a teenager. That theme of finding meaning in something most people find meaningless, and that character’s unwillingless to let go because without him, he knows that meaning would be not just lost but probably warped and misconstrued really gets to me even now. Might go back and reread it tonight.
I haven’t been reading much recently for various bad brain stuff, but I’ve been feeling a bit better so picked up Axiom’s End by Lindsay Ellis and it’s…good so far? Like not amazing but it’s fun and light and very Lindsay Ellis, which as a fan of her videos im into. It’s one of those books that is making me more interested for what Ellis will write in the future as she hones her skill more than anything else.
Very excited for Harrow the Ninth, it’s gonna be a good one.
Knocked over Ted Chiang’s short story collection Exhalation in about a week, which is a nice feeling. The stories have a very classic science-fiction structure to them - all of them are exploring a single premise, often to do with time-travel and/or free will, and puzzling out the consequences of the story’s conceit. And when he hits he hits - the titular story Exhalation is transportive, moving from the defamiliarisation of the alien scientist to the wonder and intrigue of the world they inhabit to the deft reveal of the story as universal, as being about entropy.
Unfortunately sometimes when he misses he also really misses, one of the (mercifully in this case) shorter stories “The Great Silence” felt clumsy, directionless and mawkishly sentimental. You can slightly see this tendency in Exhalation: the ending lingers a moment too long on its poignancy- instead of trusting the reader it asks you specifically to consider its moral implications. This penchant for moralising is also a familiar trope of classic science fiction so I suppose sometimes you have to take the good with the bad as far as stylistic inheritance is concerned.
The difference between understanding what a story is talking about & thinking about it and the story dictating it directly seems small but it always makes a big difference in how I experience and enjoy a narrative. I guess it’s kind of like a therapist gently guiding you to come to your own conclusion about a problem you have as opposed to just outright confronting you with the issue.
Which reminds me of a possibly apocryphal tale about Robert Frost who, when asked to explain one of his poems, responded, “You want me to say it worse?” His answer is particularly true for poetry which for me is very much about crystallisation of meaning, but it also holds true for more diluted art-forms. I think I could use reminding sometimes that art is more than just a didactic mechanism, it is not a thing that you feed into one end of a brain-machine for churning a moral or critical product out the other end. It’s vital to remember and esteem the experiential component of art.
Anyway this was supposed to just be a quick post but I got carried away thinking again sorry!
Reading through this thing:
On one hand, this book has convinced me that the ‘political commentary’ is going to be very surface level GTA kind of stuff… On the other, I’m curious to see if Capital G gamers get mad at all the details about how Global Warming will devastate the world.
That’s such a good post and series of thoughts! Thanks. I, too, thought that “Exhalation” was brilliant and I wished the rest of the stories held up to it. Nothing else quite matched it, though there were a bunch of gems within many of the other stories. The stories tend to walk right on that edge of telling the reader what they’re about and letting the reader come to understand, and I think Chiang is pretty good at making that have emotional weight even when being really, seriously, transparently allegorical. But when they don’t land, I thought they felt a little hollow. (I thought the VR story, “The Lifecycle of Software Objects,” was especially unsuccessful and was super too long.)