My Engine Summer: Lost Utopias

This book lit up all the parts of my brain that love Ursula K. Le Guin. The story takes place in a far-future American landscape, long after the end of modern life, so long that the world is green and pastoral, its people living out their lives in small, knitted communities, their concerns more of the soul than the rat race. It’s not dissimilar from the people and places in City of Illusions  or Always Coming Home, and much of my reading pleasures converged here: the Road, crumbling and cracking under the thrust of the roots of new trees, the skeletons of bridges both dangerous and beautiful, a generation from falling to orange dust, the quiet nosings into the past (our present) with a kind of wonder and dismay. 

The image of the mobius recurs in this novel, the strip of paper twisted and then bound so that if you trace your finger, there is no end. Perfect, because this book ends in such a way you must, you absolutely must loop back around and read the beginning with fresh eyes, with the knowledge you have picked up along the way. It kills, this reversal, absolutely slays. It’s morose and sad and hopeful all in the same. Jesus. 

This is the thing I noticed when I read this book: we’ve lost our taste for utopias. Because even in all of the sadness and grieving in this book, there is a very earnest attempt to imagine livable societies, societies that work, societies that are decent. I went just now and looked up all the publication dates for the books I just mentioned, and they are solidly all before the turn of the millennium. You could, probably without much thought, rattle off a dozen dystopias – which, why the hell doesn’t spellcheck recognize this word? – but utopias? We don’t even try anymore. 

The utopias here aren’t perfect, and by needs any (good) story has to find the fracture in the societal system and widen it, but, I guess I’m just wistful for writers, and readers, trying to find hope in these apocalyptic ashes. The best of us is as important as the worst of us. Which is not to say that I didn’t smile bitchily about a lot of the assumptions about human nature here. There’s a chasteness about human sexuality I found puzzling – the main character is a boy between the ages of 14 and 17 through this novel, half-chasing a girl who makes choices he can’t, or won’t – and I couldn’t figure out how far their relationship went, in concrete, carnal terms, which seems an notable lacuna. Seems chivalrous in a way I find politely repellent. 

Crowley walks you through three societies, and a fourth in the oblique: the warren-bound Truth Speakers, the people of Dr Boots’s List, and the avvengers. The Truth Speakers are the soul of this book, and as you as reader pass through the others, you see it. Truth speaking is never defined, but emerges in the edges of the narrative, a felt truth. It’s both beautiful and hopelessly naive, the way these things are, and absolutely cut with how truth won’t get you happiness necessarily, and right living is maybe only understood in its absence. 

The sad thing is most of the way through this review, I haven’t even talked about what I wanted to talk about when I was reading: all the groaning puns and funny translations of modern terms – Nu Yeork – one of which informs the title here. Or the long winter spent by the protagonist under the effect of a drug that induces hibernation, or the alien plants harvested and smoked, or the rings on Mbaba’s toes. This is a book for the experiencing of it, all these long sentences and these repeated refrains, like a song. The best of us is as important as the worst of us, and so are the rest of us, in the middle. Hot damn.

God’s War: Merciless Badasses Kick It

I have so deleted so many openings of this review. Objectively, if there is such a thing, God’s War by Kameron Hurley is probably a three-star outing – there’s an ugly, badly handled time transition about a quarter of the way through the book, and the central mystery is maybe less mysterious and more perfunctory than it could be – but whoo boy, what a world. And more importantly, what a girl. Nyxnessa is a failed bel dame, which on this dusty, war torn planet is something like a Bene Gesserit crossed with Han Solo, but more badass than the sum of her parts, and that is saying something. She burns with her whiskey-fueled near-honor, getting by with something more terrible than will. And will is a pretty terrible thing in my book. This is a sticky, bloody little smash-and-grab that rang my bells in just the right ways.

So, can we talk world-building for a minute? I usually make the ward against evil when world-building is invoked, because the term can be code for infodumps up the ass and a coy, heraldic sense of history. Lo! You remember, Bob, how this rock, which is called Tdfkdhkasjja in the old tongue, was the site for the Blahblahblah of K’thizzle. But, when you get down to it, genre exercises that take place on other planets have to let you know the parameters of their cultures, have to set them up and knock them down, and this does so, with feeling. The smart way to go is to drop the reader in the middle of confusing terms and brutal realities, and then assume your readers have access to wikis that will explain what a bakkie is, and if they don’t, then for sure they can figure it out. Go, smart readers, go. The language here is stylistic genre, not afraid to cuss or drop a bunch of undefined terms on you, letting you catch up. The planet in question has been colonized by post-Muslim societies – I say post-Muslim because there’s a lot of ornament from other religions – like the prayer wheels I associate most strongly with Tibetan Buddhism. 

The world itself is Dune-ish, unsuited to humans to begin with, but then even more so because of the holy war that’s been raging for who knows how long. Nyx is the brutal daughter of this environment, a scriptured place where the men have been killed for so long, and so thoroughly that these patrifocal cultures have had to come to terms with almost entirely female populations – at least in the two cultures that are at the center of the conflict. All of the central players in this story are on the outs with their cultures in one way or another: too gay, not enough gay, orthodox, believers, non-believers, alien, and so on. 

In another mood, this might have felt like the usual suspects school of character development, a Venn diagram of needs and aversions, one overlapping the other – too schematic. I guess even in the right mood it is, because I’m saying this out loud and believe it, but I didn’t really care as the story was unfolding. Nyx is such a towering badass, such a bitch, that I was wide eyed watching her cut a swath in the most profane, bloody and personal of ways. She’s so shuddering and intimate in her brutality – there was this moment when she freaks, and calls her – for lack of a better word – love interest, and orders him to read to her – she’s functionally illiterate – and it twisted my insides. If she’s scared and doubting, and she’s the scariest, undoubtingest thing ever, then I have cause to fear. Whoo boy. 

Did I say love interest? That is not what I meant. She’s certainly got a strange watchfulness with her relationship with Rhys, an orthodox man who out-classes her in most ways, his straight, dark-skinned, controlled body and mind in contrast with her sloppy, heterodox brutality. It’s godamn sexy to watch them hate each other, need each other, read to each other over their flaws and weaknesses, strengths and wills. As a smash-and-grab, this plot moves over acres of land, into palaces and out into the desert, through disparate cultures, and the way their bodies are read and changed, their sexualities coded and re-coded – hot damn, this is some interesting stuff. This is a world full of people who tape up their knuckles and brawl, and the brawling is like sex and death, and as important as both. 

This claims to be the first in a series, and even though the ending is downbeat and uncompleted – almost frustrating as it shakes the central characters loose like water off a shaking dog’s back – I see how you are setting it up for the next – I find it almost impossible to imagine coming back to this place, and I mean that in the best way. I don’t want completeness from a character like Nyx. I don’t want her to sort it out and find peace. I want to keep imagining her cutting this bright, bloody path across the world, drunk and high, tumbling with boxer girls, pining. She’s la belle dame sans merci and amen to that. 

(I received an ARC from NetGalley.com) 

In the Garden of Lost Children: A Review of Frankenstein

I first read Frankenstein in a British Survey class when I was nineteen. I’d just hacked my way through the 17th and 18th Centuries, bolting down huge chunks of the raw meat of “Paradise Lost,” the Romantic poets, and early novels. It was perfect time to read Frankenstein, as all of her source material was still digesting in my brain. It was also perfect because Shelly herself was nineteen when she wrote this. This precipitated a sort of pre-life crisis for me. Here’s this book, this amazing, flawed book, formulated while she chilled with the original Vampire Lestat and the luminous, otherworldly Bysshe Shelley during maybe the most famous rainy day in the history of novel creation. The problems of technology, divinity, education and creation that she made manifest in the awesome and awful hulk of the Creature keep reanimating and lumbering through all kinds of fiction, and while the later movies almost uniformly get everything wrong, the trope of the Mad Scientist and his Flawed Creation have been thoroughly set as a modern archetype. What the hell was I doing [edited for content] and [edited for language]? Why didn’t I have dreamy, Romantic boyfriend?

I decided to read this again because of my backyard conversations with a friend who has children the same age as my own. I’ve inadvertently traumatized my boy with Frankenstein’s monster, which is too bad, because I could really get behind a zombie phobia. Talking about this with my friend, I unwittingly unleashed an amazing depth of knowledge and love of Frankenstein from him, and he spoke articulately and at length about Frankenstein, its themes and conclusions. My memory of this book was almost gone: the creature hoping  from ice to ice in the arctic and his education with the deLaceys were the only things that had any solidity anymore. He urged me to read it again, using a parental lens this time. It’s different when you have kids, says he.

So, okay, I thought, how hard could it be? It’s only 200ish pages long and I’ve read it before. Then comes the massive clusterfuck of book-loss, reading Twilight and the total incongruity of reading Gothic on the back porch while late summer in Minnesota stretches out its finery of grass, the drone of cicadas, and one perfect day after another. I was reading the copy of Frankenstein that I used in class, and I kept having this unsettling sensation of my younger self: her little notes in the margins alluding to knowledge that is only theoretical to me now, her strange penchant for underlining passages in a series of increasingly distracting pen colors, culminating in hot pink for the last couple of chapters. Dammit, Younger Ceridwen, you need to sort some crap out.

So, I feel like I know what YC would say about this book. She’d go on about theology, myth, and technology, a reading Shelly made explicit in her sub-title of “a Modern Prometheus.” Frankenstein is Promethean in that he has stolen the gift of life from God(s). The creature himself is often surrounded by the fire, a deliberate marking of him as Promethean as well. He finds fire in his early, John Lockian period living off of nuts and berries in the wilderness; when the creature’s attempt at education and society with the deLacey’s goes wrong, he burns down their house, and at the very end, he describes the pyre on the ice that will be his funeral fire. Frankenstein is both stealer of technologies (the flame) and God himself, making the creature either Man (as the recipient of Prometheus’s gifts) or Promethean in turn. It’s a complicated metaphor, one that works in an uneasy quantum uncertainty of either both things at once or a fissionable synthesis. And one, that for the most part, leapfrogs over Christianity into the earthier moralities of Greek mythology and the Hebrew Yahweh. Yes, yes, there’s a ton of talk about “Paradise Lost,” but Milton’s work, while avowedly Christian, doesn’t much concern itself with Man, Jesus, or the divine sacrifice. It’s all about creation, the creation of beings that are not Man, and their Fall. I was actually irritated when Frankenstein invoked Jesus near the end, when in a last ditch attempt to get someone to help him hunt down the creature, he goes to a local magistrate. The magistrate thinks he’s nuts, and kindly tells him so. Frankenstein yells, “Man…how ignorant art thou in thy principle of wisdom! Cease; you know not what it is you say.” My pink pen in the margin says, “Jesus?” I hate when writers use JC as a tack-on (see also: the later Matrix movies.) Although, wait, it’s altogether likely Shelly was putting his words into Frankenstein’s mouth to show what a messianic twit he was. Then that’s okay.

Which brings me to another thing. This book is written in the style my mother not-so-affectionately refers to as “the epistolary nightmare.” It opens with a ship captain writing his sister about his heroic attempts to sail to the North Pole, and also about his serious longings for some bromance in his life: if only there were some hep cat to talk to and share his manly feelings! (YC also notes that the sister of the captain, the recipient of his letters, has the same initials as Shelly herself: MWS.) Frankenstein appears, the embodiment of Captain Walton’s pining for a tragic, ruined, beautiful hunk of burning manhood. The letters then shift to Walton writing Frankenstein’s narratives in the first person, which then shift again in places to the creature narrating his life and feelings in the first person.

I suspect that Shelley is doing this mostly because it’s a Gothic convention, used by early novels to lend a sort of verisimilitude to the proceedings. (This is like the “based on a true story” that gets glossed onto horror films, whether they are true or not.) I don’t think Shelley intends her narrator to be a damaged narrator; I don’t get that vibe at all. So I end up feeling really weird about the whole thing, because Walton has this big beautiful boy-crush on Frankenstein, but everything Frankenstein says about what he does makes me hate him. I truly and perfectly hate this man. It’s one of those resounding, continuing ironies of the world that Frankenstein’s creature is referred to popularly as “Frankenstein,” because, of course, the creator is the monster, not the creation. (Parenthetically, I’d like to point out that one of the first things Yahweh tells Adam to do in the garden is give names to all the creatures. (Hyper-parenthetically, I now have the Dylan song in my head.) Frankenstein manages to screw this up as well; the creature remains nameless for the entirety of his existence.)

So, okay, this is all stuff that the younger me would love to talk about, and I’m sure she could give you some better Classical references and actual quotes from Milton, instead of just magical hand waving and allusions to things I can’t quite remember. I couldn’t currently Milton my way out of a wet paper bag. Of something and its loss…Sing Muse? Older me thinks this is all great, and fun, and is probably the stuff Shelley was consciously going for in her book. However, my friend is right, reading this as a parent, I walk away with some really different stuff. I undertook to have me some kids, and the great swooning insanity that overtakes Frankenstein in his quest to create the monster felt very true to the somewhat selfish, unconscious biological fever that underpins my otherwise conscious decision to procreate. I can give you all kinds of reasons why I decided to have kids, but ultimately, they all fail. I did because I did. The reasons are written in the children themselves, but I, of course, didn’t know that until I brought them to be.

Family relationships are all over this book: the captain writing his sister, the complicated relations of the Frankenstein family, Frankenstein’s relationship with his cousin/sister/wife, the deLacey bother and sister, their blind father, the Turkish fiancée. But in all of this, Frankenstein never refers to the creature as his son, nor the creature to him as his father. This is an amazing lacuna, on par with the fact that while we see Captain Walton’s letters to his sister, we never actually hear from her. But Frankenstein’s creation is a sort of changling, a fairy creature born out of the inferno of Frankenstein’s mind. He even behaves like a brownie, when being unwittingly educated by the deLaceys, chopping their wood for them while lurking on the outskirts of their hearth-fire.

I’ve been reading At the Bottom of the Garden, which, although I’m not done, has spent the first part of the book talking about fairy stories as related to children, women and men. With all due respect to Prof. Tolkien, I think his assertion that fairy tales have been relegated to the nursery in modern times is full of shit. The nursery is where, historically, the shit has gone down: the intersection of men and women, in very concrete carnal terms, the strange, liminal period of pregnancy, the danger and expectation of birth, the poopy, funny project of raising children into people, into society. The stories are warnings and portents about all the things that can go horribly wrong: the baby who is still-born, making the mother a not-mother, the child who is born wrong, screaming with colic or god knows what, the horrible sensation, almost completely unspoken of in polite company, that this person I’ve brought into being is not mine, is unlovably weird. My grammar has almost completely broken down, but I’m going to leave it. I suffered from a mercifully brief bout of the baby blues, but I still recall the feeling, as I lay down on the bed next to my daughter after changing her pants for the hundredth time that day, that nothing would ever be right again, that I was unequal to the task of raising her. I looked at the ceiling and felt her move in the the irregularity that characterizes the movements of infants, and thought, this is not me thinking this. This is where fairies are born, in the desperate moments of desperate parents, undone by the creatures they have brought into being.

Frankenstein’s great sin, in my estimation, is in his turning away from the creature when he first brings it into being. I’m struggling as to how to talk about this without betraying the privacy of close friends, but I have the honor of friendship with a child with Down Syndrome. I don’t think I’m going to tell her story, or the story of her parents, because it’s not my place. But it’s one thing to talk about my early desperation in my relationship with my daughter, but I’ve never had a child born into a community of the socially damaged, the stigmatized by sight. I’ve never had to confront what it means to have a child others point at and whisper about, one that will always, no matter how strong the safety net, be outside the hearth fires in some ways. My friend’s trajectory toward accepting her daughter, all of her, was not linear – this was not a Hallmark card, but a life – but it was the exact opposite of Frankenstein’s for his creature.

The creature is horrible to look upon. Everywhere he goes people heap curses on him and drive him out with stones. He eventually goes to his creator, his absent father, and begs for a mate, a community that that will nourish and love him. Frankenstein agrees, for a time, until he doesn’t. YC notes this, from when Frankenstein decides to stop the Bride of Frankenstein project:

“I had resolved in my own mind, that to create another like the fiend I had first made would be an act of the basest and most atrocious selfishness; and I banished from my mind every thought that would lead to a different conclusion.”

YC notes: really? Here’s Frankenstein, at the cusp of his own wedding, denying his child the succor of community, as he has all along. What Frankenstein says here is exactly backwards: the creation of the creature was selfish, yes, while furnishing him with a community would not have been. The plot of the book is irritating as all get out, to me, because it’s closer to psychomyth and fairy tale than it is to reality. Walton wishes for a man-friend and poof! He appears. Frankenstein suspects the creature of killing his brother and poof! There’s the creature silhouetted on the mountain. But imagine the creature to be a child, an abandoned child, and the whole thing gets horribly sicker and weirder. Stigma has long been a theological term: the mark of God’s unmercy written on the body of the damned, their sins made manifest in their perceived ugliness, their damage. This can be mitigated by the beauty of parental hopefulness and the wild, unknowable potential of all children. The manifestation of our biology in all of its forms, even the strange ones, may not always be a gift, but it isn’t always a curse. Frankenstein makes it a curse. The creature deserves a helluva lot more than the callous selfishness evinced by Frankenstein, because the changeling of the damaged is still a child, and worthy, like all of us, of love.