Alpha Night by Nalini Singh

I went back and forth about even reviewing Alpha Night, the most recent Psy-Changeling Trinity novel, because it didn’t quite work for me, but for the usual reasons that Psy-Changeling books sometimes don’t work for me. At a certain point it’s on me that I keep reading books that have general themes that can bug me. But then I also want to noodle around and figure out why so few of the Psy-Changeling Trinity books work for me so far, when the last 4 or 5 of the Psy-Changeling installments are my most favoritest of any of them.

So, a quick rundown of the series: Psy-Changeling is a 14-book series set on an alt-Earth where there are 3 kinds of humans: regular humans, like you and me; the Psy, a psychic race who have subjected themselves to brutal anti-emotional conditioning called Silence for the last century; and the Changelings, animal shifters who cluster in packs of Changelings and who shift to similar animals. Changelings can be insular about other changelings — like wolves and cats won’t get on — but humans intermix fine, and do fairly broadly. Also, the Psy often treat humans like shit, as humans have no natural defense against psychic interference. Because the Psy actively repress emotion, child-bearing and rearing is a contractual affair, and the whole race has been cut off, both socially and genetically speaking, from the other two under Silence. The larger arc of the series shows the slow dismantling of Silence, as it turns out repressing emotion in a psychic race is debilitating to the point of species-level collapse.

As a romance series, this larger arc was seen through individual novels that focused on a specific pairing, and gave the background arc a really broad, global sense, like this really was fate-of-the-world stuff, but seen though the eyes of individuals. Mostly the individual outings focused on Psy/Changeling pairings (hence, like, the name of the series), but there are also plenty of Psy/Psy or Changeling/Changeling couples. As a huge nerd, I just went through and counted up: there are 5 Psy/Changeling pairings, 3 Changeling/Changeling pairings, 3 Psy/Psy pairings, and 3ish that include a human. (I say 3ish because one of the “humans” is a member of the Forgotten, a sort of rogue Psy population who submerged into humanity once Silence was initiated.)

On a personal level, I always much prefer a Psy-Changeling novel which focuses on the Psy. On a racial level, they are dealing with profound trauma and abuse, and I think romance novels, with their focus on emotional connection and physical pleasure, can be a perfect environment in which to explore recovery from trauma, especially body trauma. Singh is especially good at this kind of plot, as she never succumbs to the Magical Vagina, those ladyparts whose simple application can heal the most traumatic of injuries. Trauma is real, recovery is often slow, and sometimes people don’t heal completely. The Psy narratives often detail the beauty of the most simple pleasures, anything from burst of sweetness and warmth when you take a sip of hot cocoa, to the feel of silk on the skin. I’m a pretty big sucker for Beautiful Life philosophies.

I’m less interested in Changelings because I find the pack construction frustrating, and the dominant/submissive stuff actively annoying. There is nothing uniquely annoying about the way Changeling culture is constructed compared to other UF/PNR, so I’m not trying to single Singh out. In most shifter narratives, the animal shifters organize themselves around an alpha who is the mostest dominant. In Changeling packs, the dominants act as the government/cops of the pack, while the submissives and maternals, you know, act as healers or school teachers or whatnot. Of course, as you can see from the nomenclature, this is all highly gendered. Occasionally the dominants will talk about how terrifying it is to be called up in front of the maternals, but this strikes me as more of a joke situation: haha, look at the strong dude afraid of his mommy! I literally can’t think of a single maternal named character. (ETA: Wait, that’s not true: I can think of one, and it’s one of the very few female Sentinels. Having her be a maternal solves the problem of her love interest’s fragile ego when he thought she was more dominant than him. Which, that’s pretty fucked up.)

Anyway, The Psy-Changeling books reach a crescendo with the fall of Silence, which then necessitates a global change on all levels of society, and including all three races. During Silence, the three races seemed largely to govern themselves. The Psy were subject to the Psy Counsel, a collection of a dozen or so complete psychos. Psy who showed any kind of emotion were subject to reconditioning or rehabilitation: the first was painful and cruel, and the second resulted in a vegetative state. Changeling packs were organized around an Alpha, as I mentioned before, though there is some law regarding the interaction of the members of Changeling packs with each other. (There was apparently a series of disastrous Territory Wars in the previous century.) Humans seem to have the usual human systems, but then I can’t tell if the nation-state exists, or if there is a global body that advocates for their rights. That doesn’t really matter, I just bring it up because a lot of the legal structures in this world are very lightly sketched, which gives Singh a lot of latitude to bend the world to the characters.

Anyway, after the fall of Silence, and therefore the dissolution of the Psy Council, there are a few books showing the messy interim period until they get their new government systems off the ground. I positively live for this period, in fiction, as I think it’s hard to pull off, but incredibly rewarding. And Singh positively shines given a situation where individual relationships mirror real and important changes in the larger world. By the close of Allegiance of Honor (which honestly read like a clip show, because we check in with literally all the couples from the previous 14 books), global government has been realigned under the Trinity Accord. Trinity, as the name suggests, brings representatives of the three races together, in addition to various important factions within the larger groups: the E-designation Psy, the Forgotten, the Human Alliance, the Arrows, &c &c.

The Psy-Changeling Trinity books are absolutely a continuation of Psy-Changeling, so it’s more like season two than a whole new series. That said, I’ve been kinda bored by them. The first Trinity novel, Silver Silence, I was pretty excited about because it followed a major supporting character, Silver Mercant, who was aide to Kaleb Krychek. Alas, I find bear changelings annoying, which is who the Psy Silver falls in with. (Though, honestly, after spending time with the Moscow wolves in Alpha Night, who are all self-serious bores, I’m more than ready to hang out with the dopey drunk bears again.) Ocean Light also follows a long-running character, the guy who was the head of the Human Alliance, but it recycled the “medical tech might kill me” plot that was way better deployed in Vasic’s book, Shield of Winter, plus the hero was not the kind of asshole I appreciate. (Kaleb Krychek being the ❤️️asshole❤️️ standard.) I did enjoy Wolf Rain, which complicated the E-designation in a really cool way, though the heroine was a million times more interesting than the hero.

Alpha Night follows the alpha of the Russian wolf pack who lives in Moscow along with the Silver Silence bears and Kaleb Krychek. (This is a not dissimilar set up to San Francisco which has cat and wolf packs, and also major Psy players Nikita Duncan and the NightStar family.) Selenka Durev is not the only Changeling alpha who is also a woman — the ocean-wide pack of BlackSea’s First (basically an alpha) is also a girl — but she’s the first we’ve focused on. At a conference of E-designation Psy — who act as a bulwark for the PsyNet, a psychic plane which is necessary for all Psy to, like, continue being alive — Selenka has a fateful meeting with Ethan Night, a member of an insular Psy military unit called the Arrows. Mating at first sight is not supposed to exist, but that’s exactly what happens.

Which, this is right up my damn alley. I dig the narratives that complicate or otherwise rough up tropes of whatever genre, and the mating bond one finds in shifter stories especially makes me itchy. A really fucking fascinating series which does this particularly well is Elizabeth Hunter’s Irin Chronicles, specifically the third in that series, The Secret. That story features a woman who is permanently bonded to another supernatural creature as sort of experiment by that being, which results in both of them locked into both mutual need and mutual antipathy. It’s tragic as hell, and completely, horribly abusive. Alpha Night, unfortunately, doesn’t really do anything with this mating-bond-at-first-sight situation. It’s not supposed to be a thing in the Psy-Changeling universe, so it’s remarked on a lot by the characters, who then often reference genre fiction. Singh also includes excerpts from publications supposedly written in-world. (For example, there’s a soap called Hourglass Lives that I think is a riff on Day of Our Lives, which is so adorable.) I get a kick out of genre fiction commenting on the genre through showing their characters interact with in-world media. (For robust examples of this, check out the Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells, or Yoon Ha Lee’s Revenant Gate.) It could have been an easy thing to interrogate instalove in this context. Alas.

The interpersonal conflict instead is largely the one between Selenka and her father, who was passed over as alpha when her grandfather died. He’s whiny and entitled, and gives Selenka no small amount of grief. I really love when Singh writes about shitty Changelings who have shitty relationships, because sometimes they’re just a little too perfect. Mating bonds render things like spousal abuse impossible, and they’re so full up with protective instincts that they can be incredibly high-handed and high-and-mighty. (And, honestly, sometimes the way those protective instincts are portrayed looks pretty overbearing to me. The loudest example I can think of was Jenna’s brothers’ behavior in Caressed by Ice. She managed to get them to stand the fuck down, but she had to be really, really assertive in a situation where they were almost physically restricting her. They don’t own her, and nothing about that was healthy.) Selenka’s relationship with her father is heartbreaking, especially because its based on real, longstanding resentments and disconnects. And legit, her relationship with her mom is pretty fucked up too.

Her relationship with Ethan, by contract, is remarkably frictionless. He snaps into his role as the alpha’s consort pretty easily. He even interacts with pack mates with exactly what the situation requires, something which stretched credulity when coming from a scarred and traumatized member of an insular paramilitary unit. Like, how? Even his relationships with other Arrows heretofore have been bad. Most of the frisson in their relationship had to do with his bizarre and sometimes out of control psychic powers, which isn’t a conflict but a situation. I really could have used a little more conflict between these two, because suddenly being bonded to someone you don’t even know sounds kinda nightmarish, and that isn’t really acknowledged.

So I don’t know! I think my sense of malaise with the Trinity novels is that I don’t feel an especial sense of danger anymore. Unless they’re singular psychos like Ming Le Bon or the serial-killing Psy Council member, Singh’s evil organizations are often cartoonish. I don’t credit their motivations, so I don’t feel that much tension. The Trinity series has had really remote antagonists, so the overt plot doesn’t really resonate with the romantic plot for me. You’ll notice I didn’t even mention the overt plot of Alpha Night, because it really made no impression. In comparison, I can remember both the advancing mythology and the interpersonal relationships in, say, Heart of Obsidian, with perfect clarity, even years later. I think I read somewhere that the next Trinity book is going to deal with the PsyNet breaking apart, which is the kind of BFD that might really provide some grist for the main couple. Here’s hoping! I legitimately love this series, and I don’t like feeling on the outs.

Review: Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith

I feel like every time I turn around, some nickel-plated idiot announces that the zombie genre is dead, har har. And while I don’t have a lot of time for this notion, I will grudgingly admit that we’re definitely out of the flurry of excellent zombie narratives that were published about a decade ago. Every time has its monster, and I think the zombie in the Obama years largely stood in for some pretty nasty undemocratic and racist stuff seething under the surface. I want to be clear that when I say this, I am not smearing all zombie narratives of this time period as right wing agitprop or whatever — that would be stupid and reductive.

But there are also certain inescapable through-lines to this era of zombie narrative. So many zombie narratives of the early 21st century position a white dude, often with a military or police background, and his capacity for targeted violence as the savior of domesticity and the world. World War Z (movie version), Walking Dead (both versions), Zombieland, etc. (Zombieland especially hasn’t held up so great: the character Cleveland, played by Mark Zuckerberg, ends up reading as an incel, and his murder of his hot neighbor after describing what a bitch she is for not noticing him is, as the saying goes, problematic.) It’s the old line: “You’ll be begging me to use my guns when the mob comes,” where the mob is generally coded as not-white, not-us, the ultimate dehumanized them.

Obviously, there are a lot of zombie narratives from this period which invert or subvert this trope. Take something like 28 Days Later, which turns the white military savior into anything but, the Mister Kurtz of his own sterile fiefdom. But 28 Days Later, no matter what it does with the trope, is still in dialogue with it. It’s just kind of baked into the premise: a small group end up having to organize their society balancing individual autonomy with group safety, in the most extreme environment possible. This era of the zombie narrative tended to pit the Spartan encampment against the Athenian mob, and violent expedience was the name of the game.

Since Trump’s election, Brexit, and most certainly since the Time of Covid, these tropes have become confused and messy, the coherence of the metaphor rotten. It’s just not mapping right anymore. Observe this, from a viral photo of Covid-deniers storming the Michigan capitol:

[Image description: A photo taken from inside a building looking out through windows. Several people press against the glass, most with their mouths open mid-shout. American flags, a red Trump hat, and the Guy Fawkes mask are visible. The image is captioned “World War Q”.]

Here we have a mob ostensibly fighting for personal freedom. The party of law and order tacitly condones the attack on the capitol and the murder of a policeman, if not explicitly. Authoritarianism rides to power on populism. This is ultimately what many zombie novels were presaging, but we’ve lost our taste for the fictional meat of it. I don’t know what the next monster will be, but zombies aren’t quite the zeitgeist anymore.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Spec Ops Z by Gavin G. Smith. When I came across it in the Netgalley catalog, it struck me how long it’s been since I read a zombie novel. I think probably the last was Last Ones Left Alive, a musing, elegiac novel set in Ireland. (Oh, I also reread World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, and that book was so accurate in its depiction of the societal and governmental responses to a global pandemic it ended up kind of hurting my feelings. ‘Sure didn’t get a laugh out of it like when I re-watched Contagion, boy howdy. ) I’ve been watching tons of zombie movies still — their low budgets all but ensure zombie movies will be cranked out forever — but the publication of zombie novels seems to be thinning.

It’s clear from the description that Spec Ops Z is more on the hardware nerd side, a kind of military sf that’s constructed like WW2 band of brothers movies starring John Wayne. In the interests of full disclosure, this isn’t particularly my bag, but I can be up for a bit of rowdy. True to form, Spec Ops Z is fast paced — except for a beginning which drags — and includes the kind of mayhem and gore I prefer in my zombie smash and grabs. The action isn’t always clearly blocked, but mostly it’s credible. Maybe most importantly, Smith doesn’t slip into pretentious philosophizing about the Nature of Man and Probably Evil Too, something I tend to find in these soldierly stories.

Spec Ops Z follows a group of Soviet Spetsnaz commandos from their posting in Afghanistan to a secret mission in NYC. It’s set in 1989 (if I remember correctly), when the Soviets were in the Afghani quagmire, not the US. (The Soviet-Afghan conflict is often called the Soviet Union’s Vietnam War, fwiw.) The members of the team all have pilot-style nicknames — Gulag, Mongol, Princess, etc — which I found somewhat precious: they were all walking around labeled with their single character trait. I couldn’t decide if this was lazy or brilliant, because it’s not like I’m reading this sort of thing for the articles, and I didn’t have to try to keep straight a dozen people with similar-sounding Russian names and patronymics. I’m leaning toward brilliant.

I was perked up at this beginning part because I actually was in the USSR in 1991, just a few months before the August coup attempt which lead to Yeltsin’s rise. Spec Ops Z appears to be a mild alt-history, in that a hard line KGB guy has deposed the reformist Gorbachev in the very recent past of the novel. As a consequence, relations are much shittier with the rest of the world. (Like, I kind of can’t imagine what might have happened if they had a hard-liner in when Reagan delivered his evil empire Star Wars nonsense. They were apparently pretty close to first striking us at that point as it was.)

The Spetsnaz team are pulled from combat in Afghanistan and sent on a secret-even-to-them mission to NY, where they set off a bioagent in Grand Central Station, one that turns everyone into zombies. Most of the team are killed, but miraculously reanimate with their reasoning intact, though the gnawing hunger to savage the living is always present. The pov character theorizes that this is because they’re all so hardened and have such great discipline and iron will from being Spetznaz soldiers. This I thought was the kind of self-aggrandizing BS a commando unit would tell themselves, so didn’t credit it overmuch. Unfortunately, later, when another character reanimates, it’s made clear this is the actual in-world reason, which, whoo boy.

The Spetsnaz are pretty pissed they ended up unwittingly bringing about the end of the world — the US retaliated with nukes, so there’s that to worry about too — and decide to go back to the USSR and revenge murder all the people involved, if they are not already shambling corpses. From then on it’s set pieces — through NY, onto a ship, etc — and largely what one expects from this sort of thing. What I really want to talk about happens in the last quarter of the novel, and therefore constitutes a spoiler according to most people. Fair warned.

SPOILERS BELOW

Like seriously I’m not kidding.

Not even a little.

When the Spetsnaz arrive in England, they come across a bunch of people dressed in Nazi uniforms. This is seriously fucking upsetting for most of the team — the leader grew up in Stalingrad during the Siege (which was fucking horrible), and others had their brushes with Nazis. It’s sometimes hard to remember now, but the USSR, the UK, and the US were all on the same side of WWII; what the hell are Nazis doing on British soil?

Turns out, these Nazis are a bunch of reenactors who started cosplaying a little too hard once the zombie apocalypse happened. They’ve set up their own little Reich in Zombieton-on-Wye, complete with a Joy Division (not just a band name) and cage matches between brown people and zombies. (I am completely tired by the zombie cage match trope, but it’s not lingered on overmuch, more’s the better.) (Also, I was fully expecting to have to grit my way through some sadistically detailed description of sexual assault, but Smith doesn’t go there, to his credit.)

I don’t think such a thing could happen in England in 1989, the scars of the War being what they were. Maybe in the States where we didn’t have to deal with the Blitz and … all the rest of it. But I legitimately don’t mean to nitpick plausibility here. For one, it’s a book about physics-defying cannibal corpses; I think I can allow a little latitude in the British national character. (Which, also, I’m not British, so.) This book was not written by someone living in 1989, and it is not being read by people in 1989 (barring time travel or whatnot.) Not even a month ago, Americans wearing the signs and emblems of both Nazis and Confederates stormed the capitol of the United States of America. Seeing Nazi cosplayers pop up in zombie fiction is pretty relevant to our times, considerably moreso when you consider that the Russians unleashed the zombie plague in both the US and UK in the book. What is zombiism but the ultimate DDOS attack?

I have occasionally been accused of overthinking pulp fiction, and it’s possible that’s what I’m doing here. However, I get the impression that Smith is really not messing around with his historical research. Much of it was spent being a total nerd about 1980s era Soviet & American weaponry — the firearms and armaments all lovingly described and detailed — but for sure he also has a detailed alt-history of the USSR. He goes so far as to name the hard-liner in charge of the country, and I suspect if my Soviet history were better, I could point to when exactly the timeline diverges. So I’ll assume Smith isn’t just writing pulp nonsense with no meaning, themes, or goals. It’s set when it is, with these specific people as protagonist, for a reason.

Given that this is a retitled reprint of a novel first published in 2017, there’s no way it’s directly addressing the Capitol Insurrection, but the rise of militant white supremacy has very much been a thing in this here age of Trumpism. But because of its placement at the very end of the novel, and the relative ease by which the ersatz Nazis are dispatched, I do kind of wonder what that sequence is trying to say. The Soviets riding in to save the British (and their America captives) from both the zombie plague they themselves unleashed AND white supremacy is also a little odd, and I’m not sure what to make of it.

I started this essay blathering about how zombies fit into a certain Obama-era ethos — before Brexit, before Trump — both anticipating and, in some cases, justifying both Trumpism and the Brexiteers. Just cut the bridges and retreat to your island in order to keep the shambling horde from overrunning those who really matter. I think Spec Ops Z ends up kinda perfectly encapsulating the ambivalent and shifting sense of meaning in zombie tropes in an America where violent white supremacy is ascendant. I’m not sure what exactly to take out of Spec Ops Z, but that could be said about every single aspect of my life at the moment: we’re all groping our ways forward.

So. An enjoyable novel with enough gory set pieces to keep me reading, and also deliberate enough to allow me to sharpen some of my favorite pet theories on it. Класс.

I got my copy from Netgalley. Spec Ops Z goes on sale February 2.

Origin Stories: The Day After

This is going to be one of those deep dives into my own bullshit. Fair warned.

A while ago I had a slightly wine-five conversation with a friend of mine (hi sj!) where we tried to parse the origins of our zombie obsessions. I know I have roughly eleventy million reasons why I keep seeking out zombie narratives – from a love of horror/comic gore that no doubt has roots in the body trauma I experienced birthing babies, to a static-shock kind of irritation I have with common, even prevalent, constructions of domesticity I find when the dead rise – but the reasons why I started picking up fictions of the undead are maybe a little murkier. I believe there are two formative experiences. I’ll start with the most recent.

There’s this half-joking definition of Gen-X that posits that it is the generation just too late for atomic bomb drills, but too early for Code Red. When we hit the school basement, our heads down and our fingers interlaced over our necks, it was because of the most prosaic tornado. (Or at least in the Midwest, where we had such a thing.) At a family function recently that put together my Boomer parents with my Gen-whatever kids, I was keenly aware of this divide. The Boomers and the kids rightly bonded over the trauma of the drills they are subjected to, whereas Richard and I just shrugged. This was not a part of our experience, this exact civic trauma baked into our primary educations. But we were still on the tailing edge of the Red Scare, even if the civic authorities had kenned to the ridiculousness of the bomb drill. My go-to nightmare before the zombie shambled into my psyche – and after, often in a confusing jumble – was one of nuclear devastation.

The Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, just days after my 12th birthday. I’ve been watching the HBO series about the disaster, and kind of freaking myself out with how clear my memories of the event were, even though I was just a tween in the 80s. I remember Sweden sounding the alarms: where in the fuck is this radiation coming from? I remember all the Russian dissembling, and the slow leak of information. I remember once the disaster was contained, the propaganda they released about the brave and noble workers who sacrificed themselves to encase the reactor in concrete; as if. Seeing how close they were to meltdown — to the poisoning of Central Europe for the next several millennia – retroactively validates my schoolgirl fears. I had a fallout dream a week ago; I haven’t had one in years. Add in the fact that I spent a month in Minsk five years later – 400ish kms from Chernobyl, very roughly the distance from New York to Boston – and my schoolgirl fears look awfully credible. It’s completely crazy we didn’t quite clock the reality of that danger. But then, the whole goram Soviet Union was shuddering apart, so dying of wasting cancer seemed very fucking remote compared to possibly having to yeet off to Poland once all the unrest started in earnest. We were there in April. By August, the Soviet Union had shattered.

But I think the event that caused my zombie thing happened three years earlier.

This is the scene, as I remember it (which is a fairly huge caveat, because I’m regularly interrupted by family members telling me that’s Not How It Happened): I was at my grandparents’ house in Munhall, PA, a post-War suburb outside of Homestead, PA, birthplace of Carnegie Steel. Everyone was gathered round the television to watch “The Day After“,* which was a Television Event of the kind that my kids won’t ever experience: 100 million people watched that broadcast. The internet tells me there were 224 million people in the country at the time, which means that Jesus Christ that was a lot of people. (I think maybe Game of Thrones may be the last big tv event, but even that was a series – not a Big Deal TV Movie event. “Bird Box” this was not.) Or not everyone was gathered round; I’m fairly sure my five year old sister was already abed. We slept in the same room — which used to be our mother’s — in 30 year old twin beds. There were mourning doves who roosted in the eaves and woke us up in the gloaming with their sadly loud laments. Grandpa Ed was in His Chair, my parents and Grandma Fran were on the couch, and I was fists on chin on the plush carpeting. I was allowed to stay up because I was a worldly nine.

The first whatever hour of “The Day After” is just interpersonal bullshit as it plays out in Laurence, Kansas. Nothing about it is particularly memorable or interesting: it is just a day in the life. Some of the actors involved had established film careers, like JoBeth Williams, who had just starred in “Poltergeist” and “The Big Chill”, or Jason Robards, who had a pretty storied career at this point. John Lithgow had been nominated for an Oscar already, for “The World According to Garp” – which, gah, that movie is due for some reassessment – and would pick up another shortly for “Terms of Endearment”. (Steve Guttenberg wouldn’t make it big until a year or two later.) This wouldn’t be notable today – things are pretty porous between the big and the small screen – but back then actors tended to be relegated to one or another. I mean, maybe some second tier movie actor would cameo on Happy Days when they were deep in the junket, but that was about it.

Once the bombs fall, though, that’s when it happens. Or maybe that’s when it doesn’t happen, because the absolute worst thing about “The Day After” is how matter of fact it is about the fallout, both emotionally and physically. A couple of characters just simply vanish, never to be heard from again. Most try to carry on the only way they know how – like Jason Robards’ character, who continues doctoring despite the death of his family, his neighborhood, and his city. When the inevitability of his radiation poisoning becomes clear, he returns home, to find a bleak and blasted landscape with people picking the bones. He breaks down when he’s offered the barest kindness, weeping in the arms of a stranger. He presumably dies in the rubble. It’s a lot of people dying watching other people dying, at least until some of the dying start to kill. A woman delivers a godamn baby. They are all going to die.

I didn’t see this ending in 1983 because I freaked the fuck out so hard my parents carried me bodily to bed, where I presume I eventually slept. As a parent now, I can just see my parents’ slowly dawning awareness of my freakout: glued into the narrative, until my brain starts screaming with momservation, and I turn and see that look on my kid’s face. Sitting in the darkened bedroom and shushing quietly why I rub a back, trying to quiet the tears. I watched “The Day After” all the way to the end much later, and it was zero to the bone how closely the post-nuclear landscape aligned to my nuclear dreams, how the visual language of my nightmares is cribbed from just the barest glimpse of the end of this film. My mind goes to rubble, to the shadows on the wall, in the cold sweat of nightmare. The zombie shambles out of this landscape, its ataxia like radiation burns.

In retrospect, my viewing not much later of “Night of the Living Dead” at a slumber party would only act as cement on my personal horror landscape, setting the bleak nuclear winter as my discontent. My dreams tend to redress the houses I have lived in as the set for both the tedious and the terrifying, so my terrors tend to be the familiar turned strange: a sink full of blood, a doorway half-shattered but holding, a hatch in the floor above me raining down debris as someone – something – treads the boards.

*This is stupid and doesn’t matter, but I’m having a hard time deciding how exactly to deal with television/movie/episode names. AP and Chicago style are at odds, so I’m going with Chicago because they actually say what to do with series television names vs. episode names.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories

I am coming down with something bad. I could feel the cement hardening in the cracks in my skull all day, and now my brain is both solid and lacy with an underwater stupidity. I had started reading some trash fiction this morning, as usually illness sends me crawling to comforting junk, but it didn’t suit this time. It turned out my misery wanted miserable company, which made There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Lyudmila Petrushevskaya more or less the perfect companion. 

Sometimes short stories can be really constructed things, like a spring-loaded trap that snaps down hard on form or concept or what have you. These short stories are instead morbid and wry anecdotes, told with a sort of uniformity of structure, in a uniformity of locales. Which isn’t exactly true: when I could tell the time period, these stories ranged around from just post-War Soviet state to the now Russian Republic grumbling about New Russians. But poor, miserable, drunken, bureaucratic assholes are a time-transcendent fixture, as are the drear cabbage-redolent apartments and disconnective, though central, family structures. At a point, the whole collection started feeling like an extended rake joke, and I kept stepping and stepping on the tines that would aim the handle straight for my cement-filled head. Whether this will work for other readers is, as usual, up in the air, and it’s possible my single-sitting reading of this work helped my sense of the dark humor. 

One of the best set of classes I ever took was a Russian Literature and History two-fer in high school, and we decided to stage a reading of The Cherry Orchard. We didn’t know much about it, and the teacher (in a very interesting and, ultimately, rewarding choice) didn’t read up on The Cherry Orchard‘s very long history on the stage; she was not directing our impressions. It’s a pretty dire story, in terms of plotting, a family broken up and sold off, dashed hopes, dissolution. And we couldn’t stop laughing as we read, not at all. It got to be a pain in the ass because we couldn’t even get our scenes completed as the giggling took up from on to the other like an infection. Then we would all wonder, why the hell are we laughing at this? Though there are elements of farce, The Cherry Orchardisn’t unserious in its treatment of its characters, not running them as some kind of broad parody. 

Turns out, Chekhov intended it as a comedy, but its tragic aspects are inescapable. The laughter it provokes is uncomfortable, the burst of laughter after a startle. Many folk smarter and better’n me at theatre history have droned on about this at length, so let’s have an end to that and get back to Petrushevskaya, who manages to hit a Soviet version of the Chekhovian tragicomedy in a blur of miserable similarity. And who manages to do it turning Tolstoy’s famous aphorism on its head: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” “Here, this is what happened,” so many of these stories start, and then not quite tragic but nonetheless inconsequential lives continue inconsequentially until they end, or the narrative does. 

The whole business reminded me of the Grandma Dory’s ironic anecdotes of her childhood, her Bestamore locked in by a stroke for the last 20 years of her life, left minded by teenage granddaughters who had better business to attend to. Bestamore had a tendency to push herself out of wherever she was propped, rolling down hills and gurgling in a way my Grandma would imitate. I guess she was trying to say something, Grandma would shrug with an old woman’s shoulders, laughing past her childish cruelties. Grandma’s lessons are always subtle. Petrushevskaya has an almost dismissively reductive narrative voice – “There once lived a girl who was beloved by her mother but no one else. The girl was used to it and didn’t get too upset” – but the opening dismissals are almost always belied by strange, glancing connections and the fact that she is focusing on these dismissed lives at all. 

I often try, when I’m writing up collected short stories, to sort them individually: this one, this theme; this other, its voice. I’m not going to do that here because I think this functions best as an album, in the old school records-slotted-in-a-cardboard-box sense, but also in the sense of family album, all those nameless and half-remembered ancestors, sitting in a row of schoolchildren or dapper in their military swag or holding armfuls of children destined to die before the age of five. Here are the stories of unremembered lives lived in squabbled over apartments and stupid jobs. Amen.

a line of people in a black and white photo in front of building, one of which is my great-grandfather (though I don't know which) on the eve of his running from Lithuania during the Revolution
One of these men is my great-grandfather, on the eve of the Revolution which will send him out of Lithuania. I don’t know which one.

I received my copy from Netgalley.com

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 


 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

I once got in a huge argument with some friends when they uttered the following statement in my presence: “The post-Soviet economic system is a much purer form of capitalism than our own.” In addition to being vague to the point of meaninglessness, this idea, which I’ve heard several times in different contexts, is such a ridiculously American piece of twaddle, uttered in comfy American living rooms while outside government continues to function and basic services are rendered. Adam Smith’s sherry-snorting little capitalist would piss himself yellow when confronted by a New Russian when he came to shake down the widget factory for protection money. Before you jump down my throat, yes, I am aware that the US is a total kleptocracy, and that for many Americans, basic services don’t even exist. But what bridles me about this statement is the almost wistful idealism – in the classic sense of the term – that goes along with this statement: look at those lucky Russians living out the American dream of a total lack of government! Think of everything we could get done if we dismantled public education, a state-maintained infrastructure, and even the pretense of a impartial court system!

In 1991, I went on exchange to the Soviet Union, to Minsk in Belarus specifically. (Although, it was called Byelorussia in those days. I can see why the name change – Byelorus means White Russia, but spoken aloud by English speakers, this sounds like Yellow Russia.) I was 16 years old, and typically naïve, although not in a particularly precious or nasty way. We were exhorted by the exchange leaders and chaperones to be mindful of not becoming the dreaded ugly American. We all very earnestly took this to heart, but in some very real way, there was nothing to be done about what a complete mindfuck was coming our way. Turns out, the Soviets viewed history entirely differently than Americans. I mean, duh, of course they do, but it’s one thing to say this, and another thing to walk around in place entirely steeped in an alternate history. It’s like someone took all the regular labels, and, I don’t know, rendered them into Cyrillic or something. 

I’m being flip, but here’s an example: I know it may be hard to remember, but the Soviet Union and the US were both Allies in the War. When I say the War, I mean WWII, which the Russians would call the Great Patriotic War. The War sucked for the States, absolutely: rationing, tons of people dead, Japanese internment  etc, but this is a completely different kind of sucking than the Russians experienced: cities laid siege, the countrysides burned to ash, the lack of basic munitions for the soldiery. (And this is assuming the soldiery were even, in the strictest sense, soldiers. There were tons and tons of statues in Minsk – rightly so – to the partisans who fought the Nazis with absolutely no military training or back-up of any kind.) So when Russians speak with pride about their part in War, it’s a fundamentally different kind of pride than an American would understand. It’s personal in a way an American transported on government ships, outfitted with government weapons and generaled by American military leaders cannot begin to understand. Again, caveats all around about your Grandpa and how he got screwed this one time, or LeMay and what an idiot he was or whatever. My point stands: your Grandfather didn’t have a gun to both his front and back when he went to war. I’m not saying his service is less valorous or whatever; I’m saying it’s entirely different. If it weren’t for this experience, I might have been able to go along with the statement above, because I would have understood the word “capitalism”, with it’s embedded widgets and labor and markets and all that crap in a very specific way, and then thought I could export those ideas with their nomenclature intact. Wrong. No way. 

I have roughly seven thousand different anecdotes about how my mind was blown by this country that was filled with humans, flesh-and-blood recognizable humans, and how their sense of history, community, and individuality was entirely different from mine. Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in this Soviet Union, and I’m afraid a good deal of my pleasure with this novel is intensely personal. Which is not to say it isn’t good, because it really, really is. Frankly, I’m a little pissed off I had never heard of Adam Roberts before Mike’s review turned me on to this. Yellow Blue Tibiais a thoughtful exploration of the idea of alternate history, both in the literary and the cultural senses, in this po-mo meta way, but don’t let that dissuade you. It’s also maybe the first example of the Soviet Noir, in this incredibly funny way that zips the California flat-foot backwards, but don’t let that dissuade you either. 

I’ve started this review a couple of times, but each time I get into the swing of things, the freaking battery on my lappy fails, and I lose it all. I wised up at some point, and started saving regularly, but the whole thing has been so frustrating with lost passages and I feel so sick and irritated with trying to recreate them that I’ve decided to chuck it all and start over. It’s kind of perfect, in way – although this may be the sour grapes talking – because this book is partially about history and the ways it is perceived, the way those perceptions are enacted and enforced. For whatever reason, I’ve been reading a lot of fiction recently in the mode of alternate history, and then also stuff about the paranoid conspiracy. I’m beginning to think maybe history is a paranoid conspiracy. Seriously, don thine tin foil works of millinery and gather round for this one.

As I’m writing, I’m sitting on the back porch while firecrackers bang around me in the dark. It’s Forth of July weekend, and we Americans are reenacting our big F.U. to taxes and England and whatnot. Our country was founded on an oppositional basis: we are not a monarchy, we are not British, we are something other, and that other is not-you. The Brits kind of fell off as our bad-guy of choice, but we’ve always found another other, which probably reached it’s societal pinnacle of othering with the Cold War. And the reason our conflict with the Soviets was so freaking perfect was that at the very same time, they were writing themselves as not-us. (I guess when I say perfect, I mean horrible and infectiously engulfing, but you know what I mean.) 

Yellow Blue Tibiatakes place in the Soviet Union in 1986, mostly, when the Soviet narrative was beginning to crack and fail, on a collective level. (Har har?) The same could be said about that time in the States: the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany was nervously approaching reunification, and we were all kind of losing interest in the whole thing. Meh, it’s done. Reagan’s “Star Wars” speech was in ’83, but this was pretty much a punchline on the era – for cripe’s sakes man, clearly you have been reading too much science fiction! (Although, that little chestnut was dusted off after 9/11, as you may recall, just another piece of evidence of how un-charmingly Cold War Era our “security systems” still are/were.) Anyway, the protagonist, along with a number of other science fiction writers, was called by Stalin after the Great War to script the war-after-the-next-war. After the Soviets put down the Yanks, they would need a new enemy to fight, and that enemy, my friends, would be aliens.

They beaver away at it, script the entire invasion, until they are told to stop and never to speak of it again. Unlike an American in the same instance, this actually means something, so they don’t. I’ve always laughed my ass off at American conspiracies, because the idea of governmental competence on that level is a real knee-slapper. If there’s one thing a group of Americans can’t do, it’s shut the fuck up on an institutional level. A Stalin Era Soviet, however, knew the true murderous power of an effective government, at least when it came to shutting you the fuck up. So he shuts up, drinks roughly 8 million cubic shit-tons of vodka, dries out, and manages to make it to ’86 more or less intact. Then the real fit hits the shan. He’s contacted by another of the writers from the group, who pitches the idea that all their fictions are beginning to come true. 

There’s a lot of snicker-snack and some zippy plot-driven origami at this point, and I won’t go too far into it for fear of spoilers. But woo-ey, it’s fun, and more mindful of character than your usual high-concept exercise. There are parts that got a little to expository for me, especially near the end, but wow is that first several hundred pages worth reading when compared to the only partially lumpy infodump near the end. And even though I’m complaining a little bit, I still thought the ideasworked and they worked well, reconciling all kind of craziness into a neat pile of half-smoked Russian cigarettes. Roberts is the most fun sci-fi writer you’ve never heard of. Sci-fi nerds, get out and read this as soon as you are able.