A Shadow in Summer: The Cotton Djinn

Regularly, I spend maybe too much time agonizing about star-ratings, because they are dumb and evil and should be abolished. There’s a lot in A Shadow in Summerby Daniel Abraham to love – a lot – but I cheated on it with no less than three other books, profligate that I am, and usually when I get to cuckolding it is Not A Good Sign. But now, a week or so past when I finally finished this novel, I think the cheating was vital to my enjoyment. (Look at me justify the sluttiness!) No, seriously, this book is weird. It’s difficult to sum up the plot; the ideas are subtle, textured, and more intimate that the usual OMG SMASH SMASH of science fiction or fantasy.

And now, a random digression into genre. I fight Richard tooth and nail about the distinction between fantasy and scifi, because he’s always saying thing like, “I hate fantasy. All those godamn elves.” And then I point out that he totally hearts Neil Gaiman and Tolkien, so what is he talking about? And he says if it doesn’t have elves in it, it’s not fantasy. And then comes the name calling and taunting. When I went to class this book on my admittedly bullshit shelves here on GoodReads, I realized I’d internalized his hard line in the sand between genres – a book is either one or the other, with no meeting in the middle.

This book meets in the middle. There’s magic, but it is so tightly circumscribed as to be just a mind-blowing metaphor for the ways in which a technology encompasses a world view. Tolkien, in all of the snore-inducing extra-biblical writings about Middle Earth, re-writes God’s Divine Logos as a song, each life adding a note or chord into the chorus of history. Le Guin’s Earthsea books use word-magic, the idea of a pre-Fallen language, to sketch her ideas about the Tao. Even crappy young Christopher Paolini, not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as having a piggy-back ride, sees magic as resting in language, even if his magic is stupid and pointless.

In A Shadow in Summer, the magic is language-based, but language-based the way my computer is programmed. I have a really bad background in math, so I took a lot of logic classes in college because they count as math credit – it’s all, like, symbolic, man! So I’d translate an argument into a proof – all of those neat symbols adding up into incontrovertible proof of God’s existence one page, or His divine non-existence the other, and eventually that translation seemed as slippery as fish, as cold as fish, as fishy as fish. The proof is not proof, as they say. The argument can be watertight and wrong. “And” and “but” are both translated into the same symbol – & – but they do not have the same connotation.

Anyway, what I’m trying to get at is that in this book, a group of people called “poets” call into being beings called “andats” who are slippery folk, fishy folk, complex non-persons who embody an idea. Much of the plot of ASIS deals with the andat Removing That Which Continues, who is commonly called Seedless. He’s person-like – he walks and talks but doesn’t really breathe – but he was called into being by a poet for the purposes of continuing the monopoly on the cotton trade that his culture enjoys. The previous andat ripened cotton; this one removes the seeds. As an almost unintended effect, Seedless also presides over the Sad Trade, as abortion is called in this reality. The andat are called and bound by poets after long study, and the failure to bind the idea results in the death of the poet. Released after the death of their poet, the andat returns to the great-unbeing, and calling them up again becomes harder and harder for later poets. 

Ideas are tricky; technology, magical as it is, is tricky. The pocket watch made of gears is rendered obsolete by the digital watch, not only because digital information is more useful to culture – arguably, arguably – but because the pocket watch was invented to compute longitude, and that’s simply not a concern in the digital age, because the digital is an analog for the analog, and we’ve harness the digital to entirely different ends. And now I’m talking nonsense, but I’m sure there’s something to my nonsense. Abraham’s andats are technology manifest – the way a new invention, a new idea, insinuates into our history almost compulsively – reworking what we think about society and people and the order of those things. How much of our ideas of the nation-state are dependent on the Bomb, the machine gun? How did the printing press reorder Medieval notions of God – and would the Enlightenment have happened without it? 

I’ve been blathering pseudo-metaphysically, but the beauty of this book is in how careful the character sketches are, how concise the language is. There were moments when I would ah-ah-ah ah ah – the way Abraham would describe the skin on almost-frozen water, or the moment of revelation when you see the possibilities blooming like blood into water, and I would be stopped cold by the power of his language. I’ve got some problems with the multi-volume fantasy/sf “trilogy”, and this is no exception: the first half is almost inert, stagy, setting the players very carefully on the playing field like little green army men about to work out their inevitable battle. But (and?) then in the latter half the characters come to life and start moving unexpectedly – not in violation with their characters, but in the way people make stunning choices that make sense only after the fact. Like logic, Abraham translates a technology into a person, a person who speaks back, who schemes and plans, and his translation turns on the subtle distinction between “and” and “but” – the diction of culture. 

There’s other clever things in this story – Abraham alludes to a language of posture that exists in the culture he’s created – how someone can say something, and then raise their arms to mean welcome or irony or gratitude. This takes some getting used to, but this is subtly done, the way some characters use this body language easily, and others don’t – how any ritualized behavior has implications as to cultural status and placement. My most giggle-producing moment was when I realized that Seedless is a Cotton Djinn – sound it out – maybe this is funny to me and maybe just me, but I wonder even now if that’s what Abraham intended, this sly pun that turns on the way translation is both funny and sad, bound by language that is untranslatable.

Next book 

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