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.

An Incomplete List of Oddball Zombie Movies I’ve Enjoyed

I finally caught the companion film to South Korea’s Train to Busan, the animated Seoul Station. It wasn’t nearly as affecting as its live action antecedent, but I completely appreciated how Seoul Station went in unexpected directions, and focused on relationships not normally detailed in either zombie movies or, like, regular cinema. This got me thinking about more obscure zombie movies I have known and loved, stuff that either goes straight to video, or only hits a theater or two in LA or New York. Many of these movies hail from other countries and cultures, which lends grist to my pet theory about zombie movies being largely about national character, much more so than other monsters.

The vast majority of zombie movies, high or low budget (but mostly low budget), are produced in the United States. There’s a lot of reasons for this: the US produces many more films, in general, than the rest of the West. Also, the United States (and Pennsylvania more specifically) is where the modern zombie was created in Romero’s game-changer, The Night of the Living Dead. I know there were zombie films before this, but Romero so utterly changed the landscape that they’re as different as chalk and cheese. In the same tradition, yes, but it’s like comparing the ghouls in the 1932 film Vampyr to modern vampires: similar in name only.

The ways zombie fictions ruminate on class, race, consumerism, and the nuclear family was set within an American film tradition, and not always or often in a good way. So much of the long tail of American zombie movies — the sort of thing found in deep dives into “if you like this, then” on your streaming platform of choice — is fucking trash. Americans can’t help but America, cinematically speaking, so the instinct to fascism, spectacle as unearned catharsis, and violence as morality pervades a lot of American zombie movies, regardless of budget. TL;DR: many American zombie movies are Libertarian (if not outright fascist) garbage fires, with a sideline in diseased gender roles. (This is somewhat ironic, given how Romero’s zombie films were always brutal social commentary against exactly that.)

Apocalypses in general are local affairs, once the lights dim and the communication systems blink out. The world narrows to the distance you can travel on foot — at least once the gas runs out, and you leave the car behind — the skyline streaked with the smudges of burning urbanity. But zombie narratives go a step further, reanimating strangers, neighbors, family, and friends in the subtle tweaks and twists of national character gone feral: slow or fast, cunning or mindless, diurnal or nocturnal, contagious or endemic. These monsters show what we become in the 24 hours and three meals from the end of it all.

Warning: possible spoilers in the film descriptions.

USA:

Maggie

What makes Maggie notable in the context of American zombie movies, a film that collects together Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, and Joely Richardson, is its taunt, Gothic rumination on the parent-child bond. It opens with Arnold traveling into a disease-ravaged LA to collect his daughter, Maggie. She’s infected with a zombie-ish plague, half-dying and half-alive in some overrun city hospital. All the small cues tell you she left because they were estranged — hard to say whether it was the normal estrangement that finds children growing into adults, or a deeper one. When they return home to the family farm, it’s clear it’s both: she’s a normal teenager fed up with her Boomer father, and then also he’s got a new wife and small children who have supplanted her in some ways. I have some autobiographical reasons for why this resonated hard. Anyway. 

Maggie muses in a sometimes overly self-serious way about coming home. Maggie, the character, does a retrospective of her adolescent relationships — complete with teen party with a bonfire on the beach — just short years, or long months, after she leaves home. When her step-mom leaves with her half-siblings, it leaves her alone in the house with a dad who can’t even begin to understand, but is turning himself inside out trying. The ways they never quite connect, right up to the bitter end, are shattering, the kind of thing that set me sobbing, an outsized emotional response to what is largely an understated and grayed out emotional landscape. This the best, most finely detailed work Schwarzenegger has put to film in his latter day career. 

UK:

The Girl with All the Gifts

When I first learned they changed the race of Miss Justineau, the living teacher of an undead classroom in The Girl with All the Gifts, from black to white, I was worried. In the novel by M.R. Carey (aka Mike Carey, for all you Hellblazer heads), Miss Justineau was black, and the undead child who cleaves to her white. The film reverses this, and it actually works really well, almost better in places. Making Helen Justineau a non-malignant version of the Nice White Lady ministering to children whose humanity is completely denied, and who are black [same/same] says something very different from the reverse, especially with how it shakes out in the end. (And unrelated aside: it’s notable to me how many of the films on this list started life — or undeath muahaha — on the page, and how successful their adaptation. Not everything is World War Z: The Less Said the Better.)

The Girl With All the Gifts is one of a teeny tiny trend of fungalpunk horror, of which maybe the most successful was the Area X trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. Carey’s story found inspiration in the nightmarish real world story of zombie ants infected by a fungus which drove them to uncharacteristic behavior, after which the fungus would fruit out of their ant heads. The images of ants with fungi protruding from their head carapaces legitimately freaks me out, and I don’t necessarily empathize with insects all that often. The film hews closely to the plot of the novel, a road trippy rumination on a ruined Britain. The girl who plays Melanie is wonderful, playing her smitten child with a sense of resigned sobriety that gives her an out-sized presence. Glenn Close delivers a quietly seething version of the amoral scientist, which is an interesting twist on a trope that tends to oily bombast (e.g. Stanley Tucci in The Core, which is hands down the best version of this ever put to film.) I love both iterations.

Canada:

Ravenous (or Les Affamés)

Sometimes I find the cultural context of specific foreign films so baffling as to render the “meaning” — insofar as that’s a thing — quite opaque. The French-Canadian Les Affamés falls into this category for me, but in a still strangely satisfying kind of way. Much of Ravenous falls into the mode of the zombie road trip, stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on the dead and their inscrutable machinations, or to enact the living’s more visceral conflicts. (And the dead in Les Affamés are truly strange, piling up teetering obelisks of domestic stuff in a clearing in the woods, or here, or there.) There’s this old saw for writers that “dialogue is action” and that almost reductive aphorism maps onto zombie narratives in this weird way. The drama in Ravenous is all in its dialogue and tense standoffs between survivors; the zombie attacks are almost a relief.

Pontypool

The source material for the film Pontypool, Pontypool Changes Everything by Tony Burgess, is both typical and an exemplar of his work. Burgess excels at either elevating pulp to high art, or elevating high art to pulp — because he somehow manages to write deeply philosophical works using absolutely sick imagery, while not prioritizing either. (See also: The Life and Death of Schneider Wrack by Nate Crowley.) This is not an easy thing to do! In fact, I can only think of a couple writers who successfully use the vernacular of both highfalutin literature and pulp styling without denigrating either.

Anyway! Point being: Pontypool is somewhat loosely adapted from the source novel, and in the very best ways. I can’t imagine a film version that somehow cut that impossible middle distance between high and low art that the book does; this will not translate to the screen. Instead the film is a taunt, almost stagy locked-room drama which focuses tight on a couple few characters. Some aspects of the film have become quaint — the whole concept of a “shock jock” has been superseded by media twisted into propaganda by authoritarianism — which takes a little sting out of the proceedings. It’s still an excellent film.

Denmark:

What We Become (or Sorgenfri)

Many of these movies — at least before they are translated into English — have locations in their titles, like the aforementioned Train to Busan. The Danish zombie film Sorgenfri — named after a Copenhagen suburb — was retitled in English What We Become. Sorgenfri means “free of sorrow”, in an almost obnoxious irony, but we will give writers some latitude to be obnoxious when place names are this on-the-nose. I fully expect places like Minneapolis suburb Eden Prairie to become hellish pit stops on the way to apocalypse because come on.

Anyway, What We Become makes full use of its suburban locale, which I don’t necessarily see all that often, Dawn of the Dead notwithstanding. There’s some hot-neighbor-next-door, community-cookout action before the infection locks the suburb down. Each McMansion is swathed with plastic, (almost like in the quick-and-dirty Spanish film series [rec] — more on this later), and if they try to push back against the impersonal authorities in their gas masks and machine guns, quick and brutal violence ensues. If this was an American film, I’d accuse it of 2A essentialism: we need guns to fight teh gumment!!!! But … it’s Danish, so that can’t be what it’s about. Or … not entirely anyway.

Much as Americans like to paint Denmark as some sort of socialist utopia (and don’t get me wrong: America’s fucked), there’s the same cultural, social, and economic stresses like any other part of the EU. I have Danish cousins, and the amount of chauvinism I’ve seen expressed about, say, Turkish immigrants is notable. And that’s not even getting into what they say about straight up Muslims, Turks or no. What We Become taps into a very (white) middle class, very (white) suburban fear of intrusion by the other, and also the fear that the other is already there, hidden within. These kind of insular communities are always predicated on fear: on the other, on themselves — what have you got, I’m afraid of it. In Night of the Living Dead, Romero murdered what should be the romantic survivors, in addition to the nuclear family. What We Become lets some of its characters survive, but only after putting you through some brutal familial self-annihilation.

France:

The Horde (or La Horde)

When I first saw The Horde not much after its 2010 release date, I thought to myself, there is going to be a real and bloody reckoning in France about how the treatment of France’s immigrant population. I knew just a very little about the French attempts to legislate the bodies of Muslim women — for their own good, natch — and it was years before the Charlie Hebdo shootings. But the bloody spectacle on display in The Horde was enough to make me prognosticate doom. Pulp fiction tends to tap into the societal hindbrain, and The Horde was doing that in the goriest, most bloody way possible.

The Horde follows a group of corrupt French police on a vendetta into what reads to me like the projects — low income housing that warehouses the poor and undesirable (same/same). There’s some back story about some drug dealer or whatever killing a cop, but none of this really matters. The fight is between two rival gangs, one of which wears badges and speaks “good French”, and the other have accents and dark skin. There’s a racist old codger (I think maybe even a veteran, but it’s been a while) and a couple other residents to round out the group. The combatants end up trapped in a old apartment building while the horde presses against doors and windows. And of course, several end up bitten, turning at the worst possible moment.

The Horde‘s zombies are faster than Romero zombies, and often a lot fresher, the blood still red and the zombie vigorously intact. As we approach the endgame, one of the cops is given a lovingly detailed last stand, and even more intimate horrific death: standing on the top of a car in a basement parking lot, he shoots and hacks until he’s overwhelmed by hundreds of zombies, and boy howdy do they not pan away. I know this was shot later, but the framing of this sequence reminds me of the season three ender of Game of Thrones, which found Daenerys Targaryen crowd-surfing a horde of anonymous browns. It’s notable to me that the image of a white lady receiving adoration for liberating brown people and a white guy heroically hacking at a mob until he’s overwhelmed are shot virtually identically. I’m sure something like The Pedagogy of the Oppressed has something to say about this, but it’s been some years since my theory-reading days.

The Night Eats the World (or La nuit a dévoré le monde)

The Night Eats the World begins with a musician dude, Sam, coming to his ex-girlfriend’s flat to retrieve some cassette tapes he left after the breakup. The sequence at the party with its byplay and character development between the people marked as protagonist and the inevitably disposable partygoers reminds me of the opening to Cloverfield (and, weirdly, the Netflix series Russian Doll.) Sam crashes out; when he awakes, there’s blood on the walls and everyone is either gone or a zombie.

The Night Eats the World is light on zombie kill thrills, if you’re into that sort of thing, much more focused on Sam’s solitary existence and worsening metal state as he holes up in his ex-girlfriend’s for months. The film manages to find some unexplored corners in the zombie apocalypse: this portrait of fearful loneliness in a teeming city. When I first saw The Night Eats the World, I have to say it didn’t affect me much. My enjoyment was largely intellectual: oh, huh, this is almost a silent film; who even does that? But almost two weeks into my family deciding to shelter in place, the detailing of Sam’s mental state as he rattles around the same couple hundred square feet and considers the death just outside the door: well, this is suddenly, horribly relevant.

Germany:

Rammbock: Berlin Undead

Like The Night Eats the World, Rammbock opens with a dude going to his ex’s apartment to transfer some stuff, and also maybe sorta to rekindle their relationship. She’s not there, but two plumbers are; when a zombie outbreak overtakes the neighborhood, ex-boyfriend and the plumber’s apprentice ride out the zombie apocalypse in the apartment. With other monsters, writers can get a little schematic. This is especially true with vampires. You often see complex list of rules about what a vampire can and cannot do, and then, of course, inevitably how to break those rules. (The most recent Dracula limited series, first from the BBC and now on Netflix, exemplifies this sort of thing.)

Zombies, though, they don’t tend to go this way. The rules are simple: a person dies, they reanimate, then they hunger for the flesh of the living. Oh, I suppose there are some other conditions that may or may not come to bear: does killing the brain kill the zombie? are we all infected or is it contagious through a bite? fast or slow? But these are more set-dressing than, like, necessary for the storytelling. Rammbock‘s zombies, by contrast, are photosensitive, a detail it takes the principles some time to work out. Then when they do, they work towards exploiting this detail in order to save their own lives. Rammock is, again, maybe not the most exciting zombie film ever made, but the location, relationships, and the weird taxonomy of zombies make it worthwhile.

Spain:

[REC]

This scrappy Spanish found footage horror film was so successful it spawned a movie series and an English language remake (which was retitled as Quarantine.) (The Spanish series has diminishing returns: the second relocates to an airport, which is fine, while the third goes eschatological in a way I did not appreciate at all. Oh, and there’s apparently a fourth I never saw, REC 3: Apocalypse which is by the filmmaker of the first two, but not the third, which is promising. ) REC follows a Bridget Jonesy reporter on a ridealong with some firefighters. They head out to a call in an old apartment building with six or eight units. One of the residents has gone murderously feral; they contain her, but not before one of their number is bit; when they panic-run to the exit it turns out the building’s on some sort of horrible lockdown.

The film ends up being a locked room horror show as various people get infected and infect others. There’s also apparently a plot where it turns out the authorities are evil, but who even cares. It’s obvious they were evil when they locked an entire apartment in to die. Again, this film had certain meanings back when I watched it whenever, but in the middle of a global pandemic, things read a little differently. The willingness to sacrifice first responders stands out, as does the bickering in the doomed apartment building about the motives of those that locked them in. That the outbreak is legible, with known origins and therefore, potentially, a cure is another fun aspect of fiction. It turns out that real life is much more bleak, which is saying something, given the end of REC.

Japan:

One Cut of the Dead

Frankly, One Cut of the Dead is the best godamn zombedy produced since Shaun of the Dead, and in some ways it exceeds Edgar Wright’s most excellent film. Filmed on a budget of $25,000 (JFC), the film relies on what could be a gimmick, but ends up being just a beautifully written script. The first half hour or so of the movie is one continuous take, telling the story of a low budget zombie movie lorded over by a tyrannical director which is then attacked by real zombies. (Not dissimilar in setup to Romero’s 5th outing into his formative zombieverse, Diary of the Dead, but that reads pretty Boomer-y these days.) After this impressive feat of film-making is a crazy bananas twist that had me all-capsing to my viewing partner, the indomitable sj, for at least the next half hour. It’s just … the whole thing is so well done it makes me tear up a little.

The trouble with talking about One Cut of the Dead is the several spoilers in serial that happen in the second act. All that aside, I can say that the shifts in tone in One Cut are masterful, running from comedy to terror and back again without even a blink.

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.

Review: Embassytown by China Miéville

This was originally written in July 2011.

When I was a kid, I played a lot with other neighborhood kids, and it was all politics and skinned knees. My best friend was a girl called Alicia, and it was was a yawning difference in age between us, two whole years. We made friends when I was running a lemonade stand more or less set up by my parents. I had a cigar box full of change, and a pitcher of lemonade, and she swindled me out of the lemonade and into friendship. We played a lot of Spaceman, and various forms of tag, and played her father’s records. We had to be really careful with these, cleaning the black plastic with some kind of solution and a fuzz-covered block made for the purpose. We wore out a couple of Prince albums, the needle wearing down the grooves that transferred shape into sound vibrations. I can still do a pretty good Prince-y AHohAH, the signature trill in a lot of his songs. We cut up magazines and had projects, like one where she was building this huge eye out of all the eyes she could find in ads. Once I was in a dentist’s office, and I surreptitiously pulled out this whole page image of an eye and brought it to her, like an offering. Stealing that image made me feel like a criminal, and it thrilled me, because I’ve always been a bit of straight edge. I was never, ever, the ringleader. I was too weak for that. 

I was the kind of kid who was pushed by bullies until Alicia noticed and sent a group of girls to kick the shit out of the bully bothering me. No 4th grade bully boy wants to own up to getting razed by a bunch of girls, so the year went well for me after that. But she didn’t coddle me at all. She set to making me tough, but off-handedly, simply because she was tough and wanted people to challenge her. She would make me wrestle her – we’d used her Dad’s big waterbed which heaved and sloshed, and it’s a wonder we never popped it – and try to pin each other down. There were no spoken rules, but by tacit consent we didn’t pull hair, or bite, or kick, or choke. It was mass and motivation, and all about the angles, trying to pin her legs with mine, learning to break a handgrip on my arm with a sideways movement through where her fingers touched, the weak part of a hold. She mostly won. She was a good winner. She’d just get up, and say good game, and then we would scrounge for change and head to Kenny’s.

Kenny’s was a corner market that was dingy and owner operated. He both did and didn’t like us, because he suspected we were shoplifters – though we weren’t – but we were there all time. He kindly acquiesced to the kid folklore that if you got a Tootsie Pop wrapper that had an Indian shooting a star on it, in entirety, with nothing cut off, then you got a free sucker. Getting a wrapper like that was like Christmas. We never had any money, because we were so young as to be allowance-less, but Alicia developed all kinds of schemes to make money, so we could go and consider whether to get the Strawberry or Grape Crush, or the Tahitian Treat. We (tried to) sell rocks, or stuff we’d found next to the trash, or pictures we’d drawn. Once, a very stoned hippy bought a picture of a flower off of us for $5. Five whole dollars! Bear in mind this was very early-80s, and we were kids, so this was an unthinkable amount of money. We were sick on Pixie Stix for a week. 

Are you bored yet? Hoping I’ll get to my point? It’s possible you are not, but after over 100 pages of this sort of thing, it would weary. Then imagine you are reading this a hundred years hence, where all of my casual references to products and people and cultural stuff has been rendered alien and opaque. Hell, even now, it’s likely a bunch of you whippersnappers have no idea what a record is. (It’s a giant CD. And get off my lawn.) I think people have been saying this is Miéville’s first foray into hard science fiction, or space opera, or more just standard alien v. humans style sf, and that is true to an extent, but I believe the primary mode of this book is memoir. Don’t let the aliens distract you, this is an individual telling her life, in the way that people tell their lives. Which is to say confusingly, with emphasis on details that are meaningless to others, or have only sense in retrospect, or the retroactive understanding is bullshit. 

As a mode of writing science fiction, memoir is frakking brilliant, because nostalgia is largely the purview of fantasy, to largely ugly results. I’m quoting myself here but: nostalgia is memory without shame, and even fantasy series that don’t mean to — A Song of Ice and Fire, cough — the pining for outmoded and awful social systems gets baked into the proceedings, because the pageantry, dress, and material culture is presumed to arise from the shit precepts of the culture at large. To put it more simply: Gosh, but those costumes are sweet, let’s assume they arise from whatever fucking bullshit I assume went on in history because I can’t imagine a past different from the present.

But, here’s the interesting part, for me, I think there’s a nostalgic component to science fiction as well, though it is ancillary, residing in the reader, or the writer, and not the text. At least not exactly. If you are a science fiction nerd, likely you have been one from youth, scarfing down both Golden Age classics and media trash without much differentiation, dreaming the way children do, playing let’s pretend with space ships and adventure, which mirrors our own desire for the adulthood ahead, and trains us on a mode of telling that future. Often we age out of the silliest of science fiction’s offerings – though maybe silly is too strong a word – maybe I mean formative? Just try reading something like Asimov’s Foundation series as a hardened genre reader, not having read it as a kid, and you will see what I mean. You will not like it. It will not blow your mind. You will see how it influenced later writers, and you might appreciate the ideas, but you will think it is hamstring by horrible characters and a sort of naiveté. 

For the record, I freaking love Foundation. It did blow my mind, unformed as it was, and the reading of that series was an education in science fiction. The first three books are loosely connected, dealing with the same idea, psychohistory, a sort of science-based prognosticating tool, a meta-psychology of culture, and how something like that could be used, and then subverted. Those first books were written all together, an album of books riffing on the same theme. Then later, when Asimov was in his dotage, he decided it would be a great idea to resolve all of his various universes together – and dude wrote 500+ books, so this is no small task. Then come the later Foundation books, where R. Daneel Oligraw shows up from the Robot series, and some folk from the Empire series, and likely people from series I never read and couldn’t identify, ’cause I’ve only read a dozen or so books by Asimov. It was a nuclear disaster of galactic proportions, and spent a lot of my nostalgic coin for the series. Those books straight up pissed me off, because they fucked with my childhood reading. Because, even with science fiction, nostalgia is the coin of the realm, even though it’s regulated to a grey market. Maybe it is for all genre fiction. 

Anyway, so now that I’ve had this huge digression, onto why memoir is bloody perfect for a sfnal work: it makes that nostalgia manifest. It resides the nostalgia in a character telling her past, in the confusing, unsettling, almost solipsistic way of the autobiographer, not infodumping you about how culture works because an enculturated person, a situated person, with her own limited view, with her own limited knowledge, can’t even see where the story is opaque, hard to grasp, alien. This is not to say, as a reader, I found the first over 100 pages anything but tough sledding. That was work to read that, hard work, and likely many people will throw this book down in frustration, and that is completely fair. But holy hell, once the gears caught, once all the terminology and references to the children’s folklore of an imagined culture, and the slow understanding by the memoirist, of how the whole show works, or doesn’t, and then shit gets dire and pear-shaped, that’s when I loved this book. The last two thirds tear along, all of that boring anecdote resolving into action and stakes, and I loved every minute of the way it unfolded.

Which is not to say I don’t call bullshit on some of the ideas presented here. The central story has to do with Language, something spoken by an alien culture living with a group of humans (mostly) in the titular Embassytown. Language is this strange, antediluvian language, where the speakers can’t lie, can’t even conceive of lie. I don’t even want to get into it more than that, so sorry. It’s too hard to explain without a page of anecdotes, like an early life story, and that’s what Miéville does. I call bullshit on a lot of the ways Language functions, but I don’t know that that matters to my enjoyment of this book, in the end. I was trained up as a reader on all kinds of science fictions that I think have flawed premises, like psychohistory. But let’s pretend. Let’s play this out. Let’s take this as a given, and see where this goes. 

Memoir’s aims are similar, I think, let’s take my life and make it make sense. I don’t think Avice is intended to be a damaged narrator or anything, except insofar as we are all damaged narrators. I honestly can’t remember if when I stole that picture I was with Alicia or not, though I have the vague sense that I was, but I can’t even figure where we were other than a doctor’s office, and that doesn’t make any sense. I went to the doctor’s with my folks, not 8-year-old friends. But I wrote that bit of the story above with a decisiveness I don’t feel. So maybe the stuff I’m calling bullshit about how Language is exactly that. Avice is bullshitting herself & us, but not because she’s damaged or floaking, but because we all bullshit ourselves into being. 

Embassytown is a science fictional study in nostalgia, though I don’t want to imply that it’s all soft-focus and dreamy; more the kind of nostalgia where you can only understand what you’ve lost once you lose it. You didn’t even dread losing it – whatever “it” is, your childhood, that person – at the time because you never understood it. Though I get the sense this book is being pushed for a general audience, I don’t think it will appeal for people who aren’t pretty solid scifi nerds, with our dim rememberings of the spacecraft flying out of our youth. As one of those, it was a great freaking read.

Octavia E. Butler’s The Parable of the Sower: The Opera

Maybe two months ago, I became aware of a musical version of Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower which was being staged at the O’Shaughnessy theater on the St. Kate’s campus in St. Paul. I pretty much blacked out and bought tickets on the spot, figuring I’d find a way to the Twin Cities for the show somehow. That show was last night. What an altogether moving staging.

I feel like Parable of the Sower has been popping up again and again for me. I write a series for B&N SciFi and Fantasy about the Nebula awards, reading through the nominated books and trying to handicap who’s going to win. A book I read for that series recently reminded me of Parable — reminded me that Butler took home the Nebula for both Parable of the Sower AND its sequel Parable of the Talents. I wrote a listicle about religiously motivated missions to the stars, and included Parable of the Talents, because of Lauren’s Earthseed. (The never-published third in that series, Parable of the Trickster, which takes place on the alien planet, would have been a better fit … but of course it was never published.)

I read both books years ago. Reading through the plot summaries to jog my memory bolted me down, ran a wire up my nerves: the camps for reeducation, the separation of families from their children (often permanently), President Jarret’s Make America Great Again rhetoric as he perpetrates the most inhuman cruelties. Butler was a godamn prophet, and it’s a cold feeling to read her warning while the dystopia is in full swing.

The opera version is fully aware of the icy inevitability of Butler’s classic, but wraps up the narrative in a warm call-and-response, in a call to arms. The staging was less like a traditional stage play — I’m fairly sure if I had no familiarity with the text, I would have been at sea. Instead, the character beats of the novel are jumping off points to explore the various ideas — and characters — in song.

This didn’t really register for me when I read the novel because it isn’t my lived experience (an altogether precious way of saying I’m white), but the opera centers the religious dialogue between Lauren and her father — which of course is centered in the church in Black America. Much of the first section — in the walled neighborhood before the walls are breached — is staged like a pulpit and pews. Her father preaches, and then Lauren responds. From him: “God don’t never change.” From her: “God is change.” The music touches gospel, the rhetorical style of Black preachers, old spirituals.

Oh, but another thing: the chorus. I don’t necessarily see this that often in either film or theater, because it is weird and old school, but: Parable of the Sower kinda had a Greek chorus. The chorus in Greek theater kinda functioned as a social superego, like an intrusive narrator who interjected on the events of the play, or ran the gloss, or gave you whatfor.

Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.

Romeo and Juliet

You can find choruses in Shakespeare, real minimally, but that was almost half a millennium ago, which, even factoring his long shadow, was a long ass time ago. In Parable of the Sower, there are three people noted in the liner notes called “The Talents”: two singers, Helga Davis and Kenita Miller, and one of the writers, Toshi Reagon. I’m going to go ahead and presume that “talents” refers to the sequel — The Parable of the Talents. (There’s a pause here where I go to brush up on Jesus’ parable, and find that it’s one of the messy contested ones where different gospels have different takes, which is altogether perfect.)

The talents in the play are a modern take on the chorus, especially when Toshi Reagon — folksinger, writer, singer, musician — cut in. Near the end of the first act she broke through the music just to talk to us, to tell us about her vision of Butler’s vision and her place in the world. At the end she called us to action. It takes as voice as strong as Octavia’s own to sing her story, and Toshi Reagon has it.

Book Review: Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

History is weird, right? I mean, our lives and actions pass through this lens of the now, and then are magically transmuted into then, and rendered both complete and imperfect, all by the passage of immaterial time. Complete because it is over and done; imperfect because it’s not-whole, artefacted, metonymous. One of the oddest sensations I can think of is that overpowering feeling of “No, no, this can’t have happened this way; there must be a way of wishing this away,” when I screw something up. Not just kind of screw up, but screw up in that soul-rending way; the regretful way. Yeah, yeah, I know one shouldn’t wallow in regret, and we learn best from our mistakes, and all that cheerful shit, but sometimes being confronted by the sheer thickness of my own skull can be mortifying enough to wish for time travel. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, may you live long enough to plumb the depths of your own thoughtlessness. I mean this in the best possible way. 

My grandfather suffered from senior dementia in the last decade of his life, and we first knew something was wrong when he began telling stories about WWII. He was doctor attached to the Marine Raiders in the South Pacific, and due to his temperament and generation, he never much talked about the things he saw during the war. But before the stories vanished into the cruel forgetting of senility, they shook loose and came pouring out of him. We learned about several brushes with death, the insanity and shelling, the bad times and panic. We also learned about good things: the Australian doctor he befriended; the times he spent at the other doctor’s farm which reminded him of the Iowa farming community where he was raised. He said he loved Australia so much that he would have moved the family there after the war, had his elderly father not been living and in need of care. I never knew this, and it kind of blew my mind: how many times he nearly died; how if the wheel had been spun differently, my grandma would have been a widow with a war baby, or if he had lived and they had moved, there’d be an Australian not-Ceridwen, the daughter of my father but not my mother. 

I know, I know, this sort of musing is somewhere near the pinnacle of self-involvement, a personal strong anthropic principle. But I think this sort of thinking can be found in the unconscious assumptions that underpin all manner of historiographies. Is history long or short? Does it cycle, pulse, or is it flat like ticker tape? Are we at the end of days, or the beginning, or is that the wrong answer to the wrong questions? I’m fascinated by how many religions have a get-me-out-of-history lesson as their central idea: the Hindus and Buddhists are both trying to get out of the cycle of rebirth, but they disagree as to methods; the eschatological Christians viewing the world as a giant Rube-Goldberg-like device: if we can just move these people here and those people there, then Christ will return and end history. What’s up with this? I mean, sure, life sucks, except for when it’s insanely cool. Why do we make historical suicide sacred? But I’ve pined for the screw-up changing time-machine, so I guess I get it. 

So, wait, what the heck am I talking about? I haven’t even started talking about The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson. I’m so completely suffused with love and admiration for this book that I feel and dreamy and half-lit. (I mean that both in the inebriated sense and the illuminated sense.) Several people recommended this book to me after I freaked out about how awesome plague narratives were. While this book peripherally deals with the Black Plague, in that the story is a thought experiment that resets history when the 14th Century plague wipes out almost all of the population of Europe, instead of only (only) the 30-50% most historians estimate. Did you know that the population of Europe, didn’t rebound to pre-plague levels until well into the 1800s? This is in the real world, not the world of the book. Although, man, I feel mind-blown enough to see that both histories are constructed, our internalized values of historiography subtly or not so subtly influencing what we accept as real, as fact, or as important. Do you know what I mean? 

I’ve been reading a fair amount of alternate history, authors re-spinning the wheel to different results: what if? what if? I haven’t quite figured out what all this messing with history is about in contemporary lit, but I bet it’s related to magical realism in some way. Magical realism has often re-told personal, familial, and national histories with the metaphors made manifest; the alternate history folks seem to be doing something similar, sort of. I haven’t figured it out yet. (Hey, let me know if you have any ideas.) Sometimes this spinning is comic, sometimes an excuse for some ass-kicking. How do events inform ideas? If there was no European history, it if bled out into ruins and bleached bones, who would Galileo be? Are we going to go down the ugly road of European superiority, and claim that medicine, technology, electricity, modernity, all the shit by which we measure progress, could only be developed by Christians/Europeans? Spin the wheel again: who makes contact with the New World? 

So, okay, this sounds super boring I bet. This sounds like a droning history class. Then the so-and-sos did this, then they did that. This is not how this book is. It’s grounded in character, written in really lovely language, moving and real and determined not to fall for the easy answers. It’s a frame narrative, using the form that Boccaccio developed in the 14th C to tell his own story of plague and history: the Decameron. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this particular frame before, which is kind of interesting, because once you say it out loud, it seems too obvious: it follows the same collection of souls who are reincarnated together in the 700 hundred years since the plague.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the whole concept of reincarnation makes me itchy. I mean, gah, how can be be understood to be ourselves when we’re someone else? Also, I hate the whole idea that we’re here to “learn something” in each life, plunked into a hierarchy of being that strikes me as insanely arbitrary. No, strike that, arbitrary would be better. Men above women; human above animal; the rich above the poor. But, don’t listen to me. Pretty much the Buddha has already articulated all these ideas to better and more poetic effect. This is the way I would put it: fuck your dharma. (That’s one for embroidering on a pillow, I tell you what.) Dharma is playing the shitty hand you’ve been dealt with a smile, because them’s the rules. And what bastard made those rules? Don’t ask! Does a dog have Buddha nature? Well, you get to find out. (Or like the character in the book who has my same problem with dharma: tiger nature.)

That’s why this book is so awesome: it is discomforted by its own frame narrative. “Oh Gods, I’m so sorry,” it says, as it reincarnates an African eunuch into a Hawaiian girl. There are no ridiculous birthmarks that endure from incarnation to incarnation; the names don’t start with the same letter; none of that cheating literary bullshit. Robinson rolls the threads of continuity between one character and the next using, and I know this is avant garde, compelling characterization and culturally specific signifiers. Hard to believe, I know. There’s other awesomeness as well: a sensitivity to women’s history, poetry written for the novel that Robinson need not be embarrassed by, unlike many novelists who dabble in poetry, and remarkable restraint when it comes to exposition. 

I’ll complain a bit, just to let you know I haven’t been paid off or something: the section that deals with the peoples of the New World is totally weak. I was kind of obsessed with the history of Native America for a while, and one of the reasons we have this idea of indigenous Americans chilling in the empty forest passing the peace pipe around is that Old World diseases wiped out as much as 90% of the population of North America before the people of the interior even knew the anglos were coming. Talk about your plague narratives. There was enormous upheaval going on, before whitey showed up to pass around beads and smallpox blankets, and the groups that we like to think of as static from time immemorial were either the remnants of larger groups who synthesized based on similar languages, like the Catawba, or wholly remade by the introduction of new technologies, like the Lakota/Dakota/Sioux. But whatever, I have an embarrassing lack of knowledge about the histories of the Muslim and Chinese worlds, so I’ll let Robinson slide on his rosy portrait of the decimated and traumatized cultures that peopled this fair continent in the century after Contact. But measles lacks ideology; I don’t care who passed it who the New World first. 

I’m trying to figure out how to wrap up; a regular problem for me. I’m no good at plot, as I’ve been told before. Maybe because of this, I like when novels are open-ended. There’s nothing wrong with a puzzle-box: the plots that snick and fold into the origami of meaning. But novelists that capture the zig-zag-whatever of the way my life is actually lived, without being boring or lazy, are often my favorites. So there’s this, from about halfway through the novel, when the reincarnated group, the jati, have just been cut down uselessly by an outbreak of plague. They sit, huddled and demoralized, waiting for their next incarnations:

“Looking back down the vale of the ages at the endless recurrence of their reincarnation, before they were forced to drink their vial of forgetting and all became obscure to them again, they could see no pattern at all to their efforts; if the gods had a plan, or even a set of procedures, if the long train of transmigrations was supposed to add up to anything, if it was not just mindless repetition, time itself nothing but a succession of chaoses, no one could discern it; and the story of their transmigrations, rather than being a narrative without death, as the first experiences of reincarnation perhaps seemed to suggest, had become a veritable charnel house. Why read on? Why pick up their book from the far wall where it had been thrown away in disgust and pain, and read on? Why submit to such cruelty, such bad karma, such bad plotting?

The reason is simple: these things happened. They happened countless times, just like this. The oceans are salt with our tears. No one can deny that these things happened.”


Kim Stanley Robinson, Years of Rice and Salt

I can’t deny it, mired in my own chaoses, subject to the bad plotting of my own life and unrelenting happenstance. I happen, and I continue to happen in this seemingly random way; a way that occasionally, just occasionally points to greater meaning even while it dissolves on closer inspection. I’m not one for big philosophies; I don’t have an overarching theory of history and the world that can account for our cosmic obscurity balanced against individual self-importance. Neither does Robinson, bless his soul. 

Bray House by Éilís Ní Dhuibhne

There my be something about the experience of writing in Ireland that drives writers into exile. For every Yeats who holes up in a castle in County Sligo at the end of his days, there’s a Joyce or Beckett or Shaw or Wilde who leaves Ireland and doesn’t so much not look back as look back with love and pride and revulsion and irritation, look back compulsively and minutely. (Although, arguably, Yeats didn’t really live in Ireland either. He lived in a magical place called Yeatsland.) The Irelands of these writers are mirages of the retreating horizon, full of equal measures of hate and longing. Like the bragging protagonist in “Playboy of the Western World,” Irish writers conjure and murder their Irish father again and again, but the joke’s on them when Ireland continues to plug along in its Irish way, spitting out more exile-artists from the fertile ground of lost and sublimated languages, religion, peat smoke, and god knows what all. 

Éilís Ní Dhuibhne is not just Irish, but the kind of Irish that has an unpronounceable Irish name with the little thingy over some of the vowels. When she looks back, she doesn’t turn into a pillar of salt, Ireland does. She nukes it to a hard uninhabitable crust of ash and loss, and then catalogs its innards with the fine and almost-loving hands of an anthropologist scrying meaning from a collection of everyday objects and unfinished lives. Set in an ecologically devastated future, The Bray House is the first-person account of a Swedish academic, Robin, who organizes a expedition to return to Ireland and excavate one house out of the nuclear wasteland that is now Ireland. (When I said Ní Dhuibhne nuked Ireland, I wasn’t being funny; a series of nuclear accidents some time before the events of the book utterly destroyed the British Isles.)

It seems very rare to me that writers create truly horrible, unlikeable characters. Now that I say that, I realize that statement needs some clarification. There are plenty of unlikeable sorts in lit, but they’re usually shot through with some kind of redemptive humanity, some moment where they stand below the prostitute’s window and realize she’s a better person, and has been all along. (Having read Lolita, I understand that HH can bring the serious lulz, even while where his soul should be is radioactive sludge.) I can see why authors wouldn’t want to do this. Not because they shy from the unlikable and dishonest, but because who really wants to bring a creature like that into being, think like them, craft words they’d use? Blech. It was bad enough listening to Robin spin her entirely untrustworthy narrative of what happened on the expedition, what things she lost and found, what the events meant. I wouldn’t want to be the one who had to craft her voice, construct her guts and her lies. 

I don’t care much about plot, and I get the impression that the author didn’t either, but someone told her she should. This is too bad, because there are some things that happen that felt unnecessary or overly metaphoric, simply for the sake of having some events. The ending shows a restraint that many authors can’t muster though, although I won’t say too much more for fear of spoilers. The part that absolutely killed me was the little anthropological whaling section in the middle, written in dry academicese, that details the contents of the house they excavated, divines the characters of its inhabitants, and conjures the culture of Ireland in the moments before it vanished. It’s like the cast of the lovers from Pompeii, encased in ash and burned away, found later when archaeologists poured plaster into the voids. Robin isn’t a plaster person; she’s worse than this. She’s real and talking back at us from the void. It’s not a plaster Ireland, it’s sadder than this. 

When Americans annihilate our home country in fiction, we get Jerry Bruckheimer to direct, pack the White House with gasoline and a timer, and hire Charleton Heston and Will Smith to pose heroically in the foreground. It’s not a conflagration so much as a cook-out, a chance for neighbors to gab while the neighbor’s house burns to the ground. Such a pity! I envy the way the Irish return to their Irelands, a concrete and shifting mirage of conditional statements: might have been, was possible once, could be soon. As a nation of immigrants, we Americans are always arriving, finding new Americas when we cast off the old. Ireland is written by a nation of artists in exile, who keep trying to set the plaster while the dust shifts.

Wrong Ways Down: True Thing

Writing fictions from a dude’s point of view after a long series of books written from the woman’s is a very difficult thing to pull off. The most famous example is probably Midnight Sun, which was to be Stephenie Meyer’s Twilightwritten from the point of view of vampire love interest Edward Cullen. Twelve chapters in, someone leaked the manuscript, and Meyer quit writing it, saying, “If I tried to write Midnight Sun now, in my current frame of mind, James would probably win and all the Cullens would die, which wouldn’t dovetail too well with the original story.” (Honestly, I think this alt-history Twilight sounds amazing, but ymmv.) Like when writing a sequel, the writer is constrained by a timeline of events that are inviolate (or fucking should be, George Lucas), and cannot strike out in new territory (such as murdering all the Cullens, or having Anakin meet his step-brother Owen for like 15 minutes even though Owen said out loud that he’s had a much longer and more fractious relationship than talking to Anakin once after Anakin committed genocide). (Not that I’m bitter.)

So it was something of a surprise to me that I enjoyed Wrong Ways Down as much as did. Wrong Ways Down by Stacia Kane is from the point of view of Terrible, sometimes partner and sometimes love interest of Chess Putnam, who is the principle of five (and counting) books in the Downside Ghost series. The series takes place in an alt-history where murderous ghosts rose up and killed roughly half the population of the planet in 1997. I could get into the exact backstory, but it’s not necessary, given that the books themselves aren’t too fussed about history. Chess is a junkie with a respectable job; Terrible works for her dealer as a knee-breaker; they both inhabit the wrong side of town called Downside.

Wrong Ways Down occurs somewhen between the first book in the second, and is written mostly in the Downside patois Kane invented for the neighborhood. Being the other reasons this book could fail, or could fail to hook readers. I myself like the street lingo of Downside because it manages to run a local idiom without being racist or relying too heavily on eye dialect. But I know this kind of stylistic choice can be difficult for people. I was just recently reading a book that spelled the word blood “blud”, which made me snort a little. Like spelling magic “magick” or fairy “fairie” (with apologies to Spenser), these are stylistic choices that can rankle readers inordinately. The occasional snort aside, I do not think these choices are errors. I, personally, think flipping out about punctuation choices in, say, The Road, is pedantry, but then I also know that the heart wants what it wants. Sometimes it wants capital letters, I guess.

But all this sort of positioning shit aside, the real reason I liked Wrong Ways Down was that it didn’t diminish Terrible, relegating him to a bit player or an appendage in his own story, nor did it put all kinds of psychosis in his head, because sociopaths are rrrrrromantic. There are a lot of dude-perspective fictions — like Midnight Sun, or that short story by Moning from Barrons’ point of view, or Walking Disaster — which run the thought processes of their heroes like serial killers. Admittedly, a lot of these dudes looked like serial killers from the woman’s point of view, but as the old saw goes, better to remain silent and be thought a serial killer than to speak out and remove all doubt.

We know Terrible is a leg-breaker and enforcer — this is not a surprise — just like we know Chess is a fuckup and a junkie. How does he rationalize his own cruelty? What does he get out of violence? What does he think about Chess’s addictions? What does he do when he’s aloneWrong Ways Down addresses these sorts of questions, which I find incredibly satisfying. Much more satisfying than serial killer sociopaths growling about how the love interest lady is MINE ALL MINE and obsessing in the most rote way possible. I do not want hair-smelling scenes; gross. Sure, there’s something inert about fictions between this thing and that, which are constrained and cannot truly surprise. But sometimes the interstitial can be an exploration, a character study, a story from someone you thought you knew but didn’t. I thought Wrong Ways Down was pretty fucking deft, true thing.

Built Ford Tough: Brave New World

I have this little theory — a “little theory” being one of those half-assed ideas one has that won’t stand up to scrutiny — that a person can have either a Macbeth English major or a Hamlet English major. I myself had theMacbeth kind, having read the Scottish play three times for various classes during undergrad, and never once Hamlet. (In fact, I have never read Hamlet, though I’ve seen it maybe a dozen times.) That Macbeth was the thing when I was in school says something about the pulse of that moment in time. Maybe it’s too histrionic to see something in my profs choosing the Macbeths and their overreaching pas de deux over Hamlet’s leaderly meltdown during the Clinton era, but then again, maybe not.This little theory falls apart once I factor in the twice-read Tempest or King Lear— it’s silly to decant ones formative Shakespeare into two plays, and then roshambo — but like all little theories, I do cleave to it inordinately.

To stretch this little theory a bit, I see this kind of small theoretical split in a bunch of sub-genres: The Yearling or Old Yeller, in the dead animal department; Monty Python or Hitchhiker’s Guide, in ye 70s British humor department; and for the purposes of this essay, 1984 or Brave New World in your classic dystopia department. People tend to have read one or the other, and if both are read, the one you encountered earliest is the one you prefer. I had a 1984 childhood, finishing that book on a bus back from a school trip to Quebec, and feeling that bullet right in my brain. [spoiler alert] It’s entirely possible that I would feel the same way about Brave New World if I’d read it at the time — the adolescent brain being what it is — but I didn’t. Instead, Huxley’s classic had to contend with dreary old me, a me that couldn’t ever get a leg over. Which is not to say that I didn’t enjoy many facets of Brave New World, but just that much of my enjoyment was at arm’s length — ironic, critical, or historical — and not in the moment of narrative. It was worth reading to be read, and not in the reading of it. Ah, my lost youth.

I was honestly surprised at how science fictional the opening was. There’s a whole lot of technobabble and der blinken lights, mouthpiece characters yammering on about how the axlotl tanks work and embryonic division and sleep hypnosis and the like. I feel like — and this could be certainly another “little theory”, but bear with me — contemporary literary fiction tends to avoid hard science trappings, lest one get genre cooties all over one’s magnum opus (cf. The Road, Zone One, et al.) Huxley’s got no squeamishness about that, and his future has the hard patina of 30s futurism, all aeronautics and chemistry. I was recently regaling a friend about Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuum”, and its elucidation of the semiotic phantom of  “American streamline Moderne” that gets the story’s narrator so twitterpated. Which, whoa.

The future of the past is a detritus we all live with — in our nostalgia and anxiety dreams — and it’s odd to see such an early one, such an embryonic one: 1932, before the Great War that informed 1984, before any of the other condensed catastrophes of the world we inhabit now. I found the way Huxley is taking aim at American consumerism — the social engineers are called “Fords”, and there are a variety of almost funny jokes about this — and Soviet authoritarianism — Lenina is our almost heroine — just touching. I can’t imagine a contemporary writer cutting these two things together; they’ve been too solidly set as a dialectic in the interregnum. Plus, none of these things mean the same anymore anyway. I mean, the first Stalinist purges had just happened a few years before Brave New World, but these early purges didn’t involve arrest and death like they would later, starting with the Great Purge of 1936. They were ideological litmus tests, sure, but Stalin had not yet begun to dream of the gulag and all the other nightmares that have since been associated with (at least) Soviet communist. And Ford had not yet begun collaborating with the fucking Nazis, because the Brownshirts were still just vigilante skinheads. Anyway.

The part that made me lose my shit was when our cheerful fordians spend a weekend in the “human reservation” somewhere in the American southwest, probably Arizona, which is peopled with folk who look a lot like the Pueblo people of the American Southwest. Americans certainly have a kinky view of the native peoples of North America: in historical contexts, there’s this spiritual largess afforded conquered people, and in modern ones, an irritation that aboriginal Americans continue to exist. Why do you still keep making claims to shit we legit conquered you for, noble savage? It’s not dissimilar to a British view of colonial artifacts: certainly the Greeks cannot be trusted to caretake the Elgin Parthenon Marbles. Huxley’s description of the reservation hews to this, with an irritation towards pagan “superstition” and general backwardsness, married to a strange in-the-reverse satire of sterile “progress”.

The story of John the Savage — the Englishman born in the reservation — ends up being this completely bananas expression of an inherent Englishness. Though born into the community, he somehow has problems with the language and never quite fits in. (Though, admittedly, some of this is his mom being the town drunk and whore, if you’ll excuse the expression.) I’ve known a lot of children of immigrants, and they know English as well as I; it’s their first language too. He’s given the collected works of Shakespeare at some point, and, like Frankenstein’s monster lurking at the edges of English society, somehow manages to divine the history of Christianity, all the trappings of traditional gender roles, and Romantic love. Which he then hews to when confronted by fordian society, like British culture is something that can be activated by a book, regardless of where you were raised. At least given the right blood quantum, to filch nomenclature from the American reservation.

It’s a trip watching John freak out when the woman he’s decided to courtly love propositions him sexually: omg, good girls don’t even do that!! Casual sex is super bad for you!! I get the impression I’m supposed to agree, and put in context of the fordian society which constantly describes women as “pneumatic” I kinda do, but I really don’t. It’s a false binary: harsh traditionalism or completely freewheeling sluttery. I’m not even going to go into all the feminist virgin/whore stuff, and you are welcome to fill it in yourself. Suffice it to say when John meets his inevitable end [uh, spoiler, except not really, because we can all see where this is going] in a welter of OH DO YOU SEE, I couldn’t do much more than laugh cynically. I was happy just to be done with all the fucking speachifying that typifies the end, good Lord.

I’m just going to note here, briefly, that the racial categories in the fordian society are completely fucked. While there are moments when I felt this was meant satirically, there are at least as many, if not more, where I felt it was not. Emphatically.

So. Strange New World is a trip, and I recommend a pass at it if you’re into the history of science fiction or the social satire, or where those two things connect, but I’ve gotta say it’s not aging too well. While I appreciate the ways Huxley anticipated the soporific effects of media on labor — and, weirdly, the horror of the paparazzi — his satire is bound by the rules of the day, as all satire is. That’s the sad thing about satire, which bites best when it’s specific, situated, in the moment, but then the moment moves on and it’s left as a relic, a joke that has to be explained to get the punchline. Same goes for horror and comedy, which says something about all of them.

My Nebula Predictions (2014)

I managed to pull this stunt off last year where I accurately predicted which book would be awarded the Nebula in the novel category. I’m not sure I can do it again, but I’m going to give it a shot. Unlike last year, I haven’t actually read all of the books on the list (though I’ve hit samples of all of them), but handicapping who will win the award isn’t about my preferences as a reader. I think it’s a dead heat between Neil Gaiman’s Ocean at the End of the Lane and Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. When I started writing this, I predicted a Gaiman win, but in the process of writing, I think I’ve changed my mind.

I almost just went with Ancillary Justice for the win — the novel just won the Arthur C Clarke, BSFA and a whole raft of other awards — but I flinched when I learned it was a debut novel. Very few debut novels have won the Nebula, though there is some recent precedent with 2010’s Windup Girl. Nebula voters are professional writers, and I think there’s a preference for writers who have paid their dues, so to speak. (A joke, you see, because you don’t actually have to be a member of SFWA to be nominated. Bad joke.)  Ancillary Justice really has Nebula written all over it. It’s solidly science fiction, but isn’t wanking about tech too much, letting the reader experience the futuristic dislocations as the character does. It’s got the right mix of conceptually interesting science fictional ornament, with dazzling near fantastic explorations of culture to charm the New Wavers and the fantasists. It’s a strong novel with a broad appeal to very different kinds of science fiction readers. Plus it’s fun and cool.

I adored A Stranger in Olondria, which set off all the heart fireworks I have for Ursula K Le Guin. If I had a vote, this would be mine. But this is also a debut novel, again. Nebula voters also seem to have a clear preference for science fiction over straight fantasy, unless your name is actually Le Guin or Bujold. (Which goes back to the debut author thing, somewhat circularly, because both Le Guin and Bujold were well established writers of both sf & f when their fantasy novels won. ) The other fantasy novels that have won are set contemporary, like American Gods, or Among Others. This will become a refrain of sorts in this essay, but as much as I loved Olondria, I just don’t think it has broad enough appeal to the more science fictionally minded of the voters.

Two of the nominees are historical fiction of a sort: Helene Wecker’s The Golem and The Jinni, which is set in turn of the 20th Century New York, and Hild by Nicola Griffith, which is about a 7th C British abbess. I enjoyed The Golem and the Jinni, partially because I have some unhealthy obsessions about the Gilded Age and the rise of labor movements and the like — ask me about the Panic of 1893 and I will bore. you. to. death. — but that’s ultimately a boutique interest. Fair or not, I also think The Golem and The Jinni will be dismissed by some as “just a romance.” My two cents: the inclusion of romantic elements is less worrisome to me than the rushed and unsatisfying conclusion.

I haven’t read Hild, so I went rolling through reviews to get a feel for reader response, and this line in an io9 review struck me as ominous for its chances: “Call it skeptical fantasy, or an epic that treats magic as politically-charged superstition rather than an otherworldly power.” Now I happen to think that’s really neat — a twisting of the genre conventions — but I think it’s going to result in readers wondering how this story is fantasy at all. Either way, I think historical fantasy is a long shot to win the Nebula. Historical science fiction, sure, like Blackout/All Clear which won in 2011, but not fantasy. Again, the bias towards science fiction novels is clear when you look through the past winners. Throw in historical fiction as well, and I think a fair number of readers are going to nod off.

The question of how the novel fits into the science fiction genre dogs We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves as well. Set in contemporary America, with a set up that, while unusual, is not unheard of, the book more explores the intersections of scientific theory, culture, and the family. I would argue that it is science fictional, in that it’s fiction about science, but not everyone is going to agree. The familiar is sometimes the most alien thing we know. That I feel compelled to make this argument means Fowler’s book is likely too much of an edge case to win. It is a really lovely novel, by a well established writer in clear control of her craft, just not science fictional enough.

There are two more space opera-ish jaunts like Ancillary JusticeFire With Fire by Charles E Gannon and The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata. Fire with Fire is kinda cozy in a way: conventionally plotted, with a Golden Age sensibility from prose style to its philosophical concerns. That will invoke a lot of nostalgia for many voters. But, as I’ve said before, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America is a coalition government, and I don’t think Fire with Fire will resonate for people who prefer fantasy. It’s conventionality is also a mark against it; Fire with Fire feels like a period piece, which is weird considering it’s set in the future.

When I went to order The Red: First Light, I was surprised to discover it wasn’t stocked in my library. This lead me to the revelation that The Red: First Light is an indie title. I didn’t even know you could do that! While I don’t think there’s a real war going on between indie and traditionally published writers — Tor.com, for example, posted a glowing review of The Red: First Light — but the SFWA membership leans heavily to the traditionally published, and a lot of writers know each other from their professional ties under the same imprint. (And it should be observed that Nagata started out traditionally published.) I’m bullshitting here a little, because I haven’t read The Red: First Light. That it isn’t even stocked in my (very good public) library makes me think it’s pretty well screwed though.

I’m sure there’s some complicated formula which would account for The Red: First Light’s indie status versus the debut novel status of Ancillary Justice, but then when you throw in yet another science fiction novel set in the future with space ships and a lot of military/politics like Fire With Fire, the math gets too complicated. Part of the problem here is that there are too many novels that I think fit into the same broad sub-genre, and I think it’s going to diffuse the voters that are inclined towards that sub-genre in the first place. In other words, it’s going to split the vote. (People haven’t been throwing awards at either Nagata’s or Gannon’s novels though, so I’m thinking they don’t stand a chance, just that they’ll draw away from Ancillary Justice.)

Maybe that gives Ocean at the End of the Lane, which is not so closely matched with other nominated novels, a leg up. (And I’m not trying to imply that the writers of SFWA are all huddling in their narrow sub-genres or something, but the heart wants what it wants.) Even though Ocean at the End of the Lane is a fantasy, it’s the kind of fantasy that Nebula voters seem to embrace: set in the here and now, but with a fantastic twist on the everyday that disrupts the readers perceptions. Gaiman is clearly at the height of his powers as a craftsman of words, and his prose is tight as a drum. Like Among Others, which won two years ago, it’s also got a nostalgic component, as the main character reminisces upon his childhood with a dewy sense of wonder. There’s also a lot of fan service to readers and nerds, like long descriptions of the main character reading and panegyrics to the wonders of literature.

I actually found this fan service somewhat tiresome in The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it calculated, but there was definitely a part of me that thought, how easy it is to make your readers (who are, after all, by definition readers) love your main character by having him perform obeisances to the act of reading. The Ocean at the End of the Lane’s protagonist is also an artist of some stripe — writer, maybe — and I think all the ruminating on art and memory and storytelling is going to play to voters who are artists themselves. Writers writing about writing is always a good bet when writers vote on writing awards.

I’ll be clear: I don’t think Gaiman is pandering, even though I’m making fun a little here. The themes of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, including Gaiman’s tendency to insert characters who are artist-observers, are right in line with the themes he’s been exploring his entire writing career. I think Ocean at the End of the Lane sits quite merrily with Graveyard Book (which won the Newbery) and Coraline (which won the Nebula for the novella) in a triangulation of the themes of violence and childhood and memory and matriculation, traversing the uneasy border that separates us grown ups from our childhoods. This has heretofore been a winning mix of themes for Gaiman.

I think my real reticence to call it for Gaiman comes from the slight what the fuck angle to what all happens in Ocean at the End of the Lane. The crisis of the novel is real…let’s say metaphorical, and I would be hard pressed to tell you what exactly that all meant. I’m assuming someone with a more writerly perspective might appreciate this more than I did, but it’s entirely possible that the opposite is true. (Or both; whatever.) The fact that this novel reiterates common themes to Gaiman’s work is also a strike against it: Ocean is sleepy, safe, and treading familiar ground.

Ancillary Justice, by contrast feels energetic and ambitious. Even if it has the occasional first-writer misstep, the book feels like a leap into the black. No, of course Leckie isn’t reinventing the wheel here — nerds more exacting than I can create the list of antecedents (like the Culture novels) — but she is inventing her wheel, and it’s just a kick to be along for the ride. Nor was Ocean nominated at all for the Hugo, which indicates there isn’t this critical whiteheat around it like Ancillary Justice. Given that voting closed last month, maybe that’s not quite a factor, but I do think it’s an indicator.

So, anyway, there you have it. I’m predicting Ancillary Justice for the win. I won’t be a bit surprised if Gaiman wins, just to hedge a little.

Now I’ll have to start reading the novels up for the Hugo.

 

Just kidding, we all know Wheel of Time is a cincher.