Book review: Love, Lust and Zombies

I’ve been doing a crap job of keeping up with ye olde blogge. Some of it is the way the pandemic screwed up my reading, sending me straight to historical romance and lighter fantasy. Fantasy I could have probably pulled out some bullshitting about: it’s close enough to my wheelhouse, if not in it entirely. Romance, less so. I don’t want to be that dilettante dabbler in a genre talking out my ass, like every Valentine’s Day column of “romantic books which aren’t romance novels because cooties” which includes motherfucking Lolita. I’m better versed now, but, judging from how often I’m out of step with other readers when I check bookface reviews, I just don’t want the grief. Sometimes reading for pleasure is just that, and I’m not going to assign myself homework out of some misbegotten sense of staying current or whatever.

That said, I’ve recently been sidling back up to my old love, horror fiction, specifically zombie fiction. I reread both Severance by Ling Ma and Zone One by Colson Whitehead. They both only get better with a reread. They’re both the kind of lapping retrospective memoirishly close-third-person which doesn’t tell their stories linear-like, so during a second pass (or third), you already have the shape of things, and can really marinate on the details.

Like my experience with rereading World War Z at the beginning of the pandemic, it was kind of alarming how prescient they were, Severance especially. Also because I’d reread Severance after watching the series of the same name (no relation), I definitely took home some millennial ruminating about the nature of work that, while I’d noticed it before, became much more foregrounded this time. Even the indefatigable Mark Spitz from Zone One, whose musings cover that storied island, New York City, more than the workaday, presses his attention to the nature of work:

Hard to believe that reconstruction had progressed so far that clock-watching had returned, the slacker’s code, the concept of weekend. It had been a humdrum couple of days, reaffirming his belief in reincarnation: everything was so boring that this could not be the first time he’d experienced it.

Colson Whitehead, Zone One

Then I started reading an anthology of zombie short stories called Zombies! Tales of the Walking Dead edited by one Stephen Jones. (Not, as I’d mistakenly thought, Stephen Graham Jones, who is a very different writer.) After reading the introduction, I was afeared Zombies! was going to be a snore-fest. I was initially rebuked by a rollicking short story by Clive Barker called “Sex, Death and Starshine”, which was both sick and delightful. But then as I trudged on, my initial fears came true. Zombies! takes a kitchen sink approach to inclusion in the collection.

While this can be sort of fun for the completist — hey I didn’t know Edgar Allan Poe wrote a zombie-ish story! called “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar” — so many of the stories I encountered were dated, clumsy, or only peripherally about zombies, more in the vein of cosmic horror than the living dead. (Look, I get that arguing genre is a losing game, so I’m not going to do it, but things are about what they are about, and not other things, and cosmic horror has decidedly different concerns.) Anyway, I’ll probably hack my way through this eventually, as a completist, but it’ll be homework and not any fun.

Which brings me rather long-windedly to Love, Lust and Zombies, edited by Mitzi Szereto. I was poking around in the library catalog because I was looking for this book I know is about a thinking zombie, but couldn’t remember the name of. (It ended up being Dust by Joan Frances Turner, fyi.) My ears perked up when I saw Szereto’s name. She’s the author of The Wilde Passions of Dorian Gray, which I read a while back when I was into a bunch of literary monster mash-ups and continuations. Most of the continuations I read were kind of ok to fucking bad, but Szereto’s take on Oscar Wilde’s only novel was actually inspired. Wilde Passions is a catalog of the literary erotic, running from the Belle Epoch’s class warfare to Thomas Mann’s monastery to Anne Rice’s New Orleans, and while I don’t think it works, entirely, it’s definitely some of the most thoughtful sex writing I’ve seen in the genre.

Now, I’ve said this more than a couple times, but: my sister’s quip about vampire fiction is that “vampires are high-functioning zombies.” Which, if you read any vampire romance, feels accurate. There’s a lot of breathless description of cold, white flesh out there in vampire romance, about the intractability and immutability of the body of the immortal lover. On some level, I think this invokes deep-structure cultural ideas about the incorruptibility of sainthood. Flesh and spirit are one, and both flesh and spirit are perfectly and eternally static. Or to put it crudely, these vampiric love stories are literally about banging Jesus, the original risen dead man. Drink of my blood, eat of my flesh, &c.

After the success of Twilight and roughly one million iterations, it wasn’t a huge surprise when urban fantasy and paranormal romance trained its libido on angels and devils, beings who make this theological passion explicit. (Lest we not forget, the word passion can refer to the suffering and death of Jesus, not only sexual passion.) Since then, paranormal romance has taken on all manner of unsexy beasts, everything from ghosts to orcs to dinosaurs, but largely writers stay away from the humble zombie as a source of pants feelings. I think this is a notable lacuna — the lack of sex writing about zombies even in the gleeful perversity of monsterotica — and indicates something intractably unsexy about the walking dead, both metaphorically and physically.

I can think of two novels which attempt a romance between a living person and a zombie: Warm Bodies and Dearly, Departed. Warm Bodies ended up setting my back with its incorrect reading of Romeo & Juliet –and look I know I’m supposed to pretend that there aren’t incorrect readings, but I have something of A Thing about R&J, and I cannot listen to reason — but it’s decent, if a little dippy. Dearly, Departed is messy — it’s clearly a first novel — but it’s energetic and exuberant, which counts for a lot in my book. Obviously this worked for other people, but I could not get over the thought of these heroines making out with a decaying or desiccated corpse. And, to be fair, the courtship between the living girl and undead soldier in Dearly, Departed takes place through a wall, Paramus and Thisbe style, and is honestly emotionally affecting. Ultimately, neither novel really addresses sex anyway, maybe because of their YA designation, maybe because it’s too gross to contemplate. Which is why Love, Lust and Zombies is so fascinating: it’s dealing with sex and zombies head on.

While I joked earlier about vampires just being high-functioning zombies, that’s not actually the case, either metaphorically or practically. A zombie is characterized by its degradation, by its lack of personality and agency. By contrast, vampires are defined by the very opposite. They may both be undead, but the vampire is incorruptible, while the zombie corrupts everything it can get its teeth into. And while the rotting flesh angle may be a hard bar to clear when sex writing about zombies, the lack of agency makes actual zombie romance doubly difficult to pull off. Appetite is appetite, sure, but its tough to build sexual tension when at least one of the lovers is mindless carrion. I can think of a couple movies which feature the living fucking the dead, and it’s never the good guys wetting their wicks.

So. I checked out Love, Lust and Zombies with a swiftness, because all of this is in my wheelhouse, and hard. I’m not going to get up and ride my hobby horse about zombies, violence and domesticity just yet, but let it be read into the record that an anthology of short fiction which involves conflating the little death with the big one is right up my godamn alley. I read through the forward by Mark Onspaugh, which is good, trotting around both art history and psychology which manages a breezy profundity — no mean feat — and Szereto’s introduction, which is less good, more cringe-y Boomer joking than anything.

Without further ado, to the individual stories.

“Vanilla” by Janice Eidus

My first reaction was that I hated this fucking story, which seems to enact a bunch of stupid romance tropes in a way I find distasteful. But with some thought, it might actually be subverting said stupid romance tropes, so maybe I don’t hate its guts. A young woman who works as a librarian and characterizes herself as “vanilla” sexually falls into a relationship with a man who is surely the walking dead. He comes into the library and orders her around like an alphole, which makes her wet and compliant. By the end he announces “Vanilla is my favorite flavor” and she understands “that once he licks my vanilla clean, I will be a librarian no more”.

The librarian is a cliché romance profession, and our heroine’s protestations of vanillaness are entirely a doth protest too much situation. While it may be culturally common, I think the sexualization of dead flesh which one finds all over vampire romance is pretty freaking kinky. “Vanilla” taking that one step further and making the love interest a straight up zombie might be a cool commentary, but then it might just be an accident. Just structurally, this fetishization of dead flesh is almost inevitable when zombies and sex writing collide, and it’ll show up in a number of other stories in this anthology. Honestly, I can’t tell from the prose, which seems kinda weak, tbh. Shrug emoticon.

“In the Red Light” by A. M. Hartnett

The set-up is kind of like Romero’s third zombie movie, Day of the Dead, in which mad scientists and military personnel ‘speriment on some zombies to try to reawaken their humanity or whatever. There’s a mad scientist, a lady soldier, and a zombie called Bub. Being Romero, the zombie called Bud is basically the only character with identifiable human emotions in the whole mess; humans are the real monsters, &c. The zombie in this story is more fully cognizant than Bub, and considerably less decayed: He was a death row inmate bitten when the prison warden released the undead into the prison. There’s some kind of chip in his head to keep him from zombiing out. The lady scientist (this time a shrink) is tasked with seeing to his mental state when they’re not hacking him open to see how his guts work.

There is potentially a lot here to unpack in this scenario about the treatment of institutionalized people, how they are dehumanized by systems which see them as resources, not persons. Alas, I don’t think any of that was more than cursorily touched on. I doubly don’t think the writer fully considered the consent issues involving a therapist sleeping with someone who is both her incarcerated patient and an experimental subject. The writer avoids the usual consent problems with zombies by making the zombie fully cognizant of himself, then screws that all up by having a therapist bang her patient. Like, I get that in the zombie apocalypse, probably there’s no board to revoke her license and/or bring her up on charges, but that crosses alllll kinds of ethical lines. Not great, Bob.

“Smile” by Laura Huntley

Honestly, I don’t even get it. A young woman in the zombie apocalypse goes rambling around outside every day instead of staying holed up with other survivors. She thinks they’re a bunch of emotionally stunted losers. She’s sad she lost a sister, finds a hot zombie dude at the park who lost a daughter. They bang it out. He smiles. I think I’m supposed to take home some message about how living isn’t just surviving or somesuch, but it’s not particularly well drawn. I also have serious questions about zombie physiology, specifically how they get boners and ejaculate. It’s fine though, just a situation and not really a story. That can be ok too.

“Dead from the Waist Down” by August Kent

This one does address the boner issue! Thank the Lord. This story is kind of goofy and cute, set in a sort of monster high school attended by ghosts, zombies, vampires, harpies, and whatnot. Our zombie protagonist, Nicholas, has been pining for a vamp girl called Dani. Vamps appear to be the top of the heap, socially speaking, so Nicholas is dragged by other vamps for even looking her way. Dani is a MPDG though, so they get together at a party sort of. He’s not actually capable of getting it up, but she’s unfazed, and eventually announces to the party that they’re dating. Pretty cute little scenario, and I laughed every time the zombie narrator slagged harpies for no apparent reason. Good stuff.

“Sweeter Than to Wake” by Thana Niveau

Another strangely sweet one. A man takes his bitten, frozen wife and removes all of her internal organs, sews her mouth shut, and embalms her. Zombies (or the Woken, as they are styled here) break down just like any dead body, and he’s trying to draw out their last days together as long as he can. I’m not going to spoil the ending, but this is easily the most heartfelt, poetic, and romantic conclusion to any story in this collection. This is one of a number of stories in this collection which deal with couples where one is a zombie and one isn’t, which is probably the most emotionally fruitful scenario involving Romero-style or post-Romero zombies.

“The Wild Ones” by Erin O’Riordan

Oddball little story about a love triangle of sorts playing out in an enclave of living humans protected from the undead by a bunch of ghosts. The main pair is the community leader and her wife. The community leader wants the wife to have a baby with another survivor called Steven, so they can give hope to a demoralized and dejected community. This one felt like the kind of situation where the world-building took a back seat to the interpersonal scenario, because I have close to zero understanding of how anything works in this world, especially i/r/t ghosts. Maybe there was something there about living for the memory of the dead or something, but it wasn’t clear.

“So You Want to Date a Zombie” by Shane Vaughn

Repellent story about an unlikable asshole who goes on a dating show, and ends up getting paired with an old girlfriend, only she’s undead this time. Either misogynist or so jaundiced that I’m misreading a hatred for humanity for a hatred of women.

“Still” by Delilah Devlin

Another husband and wife trying to navigate what happens when one becomes a zombie and the other doesn’t. Felt like real emotional stakes and a legitimate dilemma. The way the couple had to evade the authorities because the husband was zombifying also felt like maybe you could read the couple as LGBT or other identities who can sometimes “pass”, but I admit it’s something of a stretch.

“The Dying Time” by E.C. Myers

Probably the stand out of the collection, as it is utterly unlike any of the other stories, its own little sealed world of strange magic. A loner blows into town just as they are are battening down for a kind of winter. He develops a tendre for the town sex worker, which she numbly thinks is naïve, sweet, and stupid as hell. This might sound bitcher than I mean it, but: This is maybe the only story in this collection which fully uses the stiletto sharpness of a short story. We are given just enough to think we understand both the world and characters: insular town, drifter, town whore. Then the very end of the story rearranges how we understand everything: world, plot, and character. It’s deftly done, almost like a fairy tale, the Grimm kind, where folk die and live on a whim, and the moral of the story is survival.

“My Zombie, My Lover” by Mitzi Szereto

I’ve generally found it to be true that if an editor contributes fiction to a collection they are editing, the story is going to be not great, and that’s the case here. The narrator lives a solitary existence in the Appalachian hills. She has a distasteful tendency to sneer at the community around her. Someone starts breaking into her house and eating her leftovers; it’s a zombie; they bang. It’s a situation, not a story, which is fine, but it’s not an interesting situation, which is not.

“Come Back to Me” by Chantal Noordeloos

Another real standout, just deeply alarming. This story deals with your old school zombie reanimated and directed by Vodoun magic, not the Romero kind which is a member of a mindless mob. A young woman whose grandmother is a Bokor (which the internet informs me is a practitioner of dark sorcery) has her heart broken by a feckless summer person (or whatever seasonal tourists are called in Louisiana.) Her grandmother gives her the means to compel his death and reanimation, with the admonishment to release him from her magic once specific conditions occur. (This is what we call in folklore a “narrative lack”, when the writer introduces conditions which will precipitate action. “Don’t feed them after midnight,” the man says, which, narratively speaking, means they will inevitably be fed after midnight.) Inevitably, she does not release her lover, and some super bad shit happens.

Like “The Dying Time, “Come Back to Me” absolutely gets right into the viscera of what animates the zombie, culturally and metaphorically speaking. I feel like a number of these stories try to tart up zombies so much they’re not even zombies anymore — there’s no guts — while these two revel in paradox of the zombie’s curious detachment and their voraciousness. Fucking great.

“Not Ready to Let Go” by Deanna K. Deavers

Another story about a couple, this time from the point of view of the dying partner spending her last moments with the man she loves, and then into her reanimation and the hungers that provokes. There was something unsettling to me about this scenario, something deeper than the obvious fucked-upedness of the situation. Maybe it was that the story was told from the zombie’s point of view? A common theme of zombie stories is the horror of the loved ones transformation from lover to killer. This can work well as a metaphor for how traumatizing it is to watch a loved one waste and die, and how our bodies ultimately betray us unto death. Death reaching out from the death bed to consume the living freaks me out, apparently. Nice.

“Night of the Lovin’ Dead” by Ashley Lister

A young woman goes with the elders of her village to perform a ritual which will conjure an undead army to protect them from a living one. She’s not sure what the ritual will be, but she’s been told it will be pleasurable, so she’s all in. Both the living and the undead end up pulling a train on her, which she’s super into. Honestly, while I was reading, I kept thinking of Men Write Women, which details the worst examples of dudes writing how women boob breastily. Like this line: “From the periphery of her vision she could see the rigid thrust of her erect nipples.” I think I speak for most breast-havers that I only notice my nips when I’m specifically checking to make sure I’m presentable. I sure as shit don’t see them from the periphery of my vision — however that’s supposed to work — while I’m walking in forest so dark I can barely see the ground I’m walking on. The entire situation was priapic male gaze nonsense, and the girl’s characterization ridiculous. No.

“Under a Perfect Sun” by Zander Vyne

“Under a Perfect Sun” concerns a group of people riding out the zombie apocalypse in the biosphere in Arizona. Before the inhabitants of the biodome figured out what was going on, one of the men is bitten. Before he turns, he locks himself in a closet and writes out detailed instructions on how to stretch food and power within the dome for as long as possible. Later, his wife has to decide whether to sleep with her zombified husband to get pregnant — apparently he’s technically still alive; it’s more of a rage virus — and if she’ll allow the other women to do the same, repopulating the planet-style. This one is the most stylistically interesting of the bunch — it skips through time and characters’ perspectives, including some epistolary passages.

This is one of two stories in this collection which deals with survivor communities grappling with questions of procreation. (“The Dying Time” also deals with pregnancy, but that is in a very different scenario.) On some level, I think this goes back to the fact that we’re kind of living through a slow-moving apocalypse right now, so an isolated community deciding whether to continue existing is going to resonate. I mean, have you seen millennial birth rates? But I think the thing to note about these stories is that both place the question of procreation solidly on the woman. Zombie stories often trade in questions of how to build and defend domesticity, but mostly it’s about how men are supposed to use violence to keep their families “safe”. (Rick Grimes is the absolute avatar of this.) So it was pretty dope to see a less 2A approach to society’s survival.

Anyway! So this was a fun little read because I have some feelings about zombies and domesticity, but this collection didn’t knock my socks off or anything. Mostly I’m glad it exists, because it’s cool to see that other people have the same dumb obsessions I do, even if we do our dumb obsessions in different ways.

Composite Creatures

Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker is the kind of book, and reading experience, I find very difficult to talk about. I know that, theoretically, I am capable of actual criticism of the book — like, maybe it’s not great how Hardaker keeps the reveal for the last pages, and then the coda is kind of a retroactive infodump — but then none of that actually matters. This book set me wailing around the house, absolutely distraught for no reason I could identify with precision. It’s like my interior state became too large, too full with the proceedings, and I end up this inchoate mess who has lost language.

I’ve had this experience a handful of other times, where I have this paralyzed, almost jealous feeling about a novel. Notably, they all tend to be debut or early novels by women in often claustrophobic environments: The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Cassandra Rose Clarke, Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng, Severance by Ling Ma, even God’s War by Kameron Hurley, even though that’s a bit of an outlier in terms of tone. They’re all a little messy, but have the viscera of an artist’s early work.

I’ve always been a fan of the Gothic, which can sometimes be almost cartoonishly large, in both literal and emotional spaces. Degenerate, aristocratic families rot in their crumbling manses, dead wives haunt the folly in diaphanous dresses, and hulking, Byronic figures silhouette themselves on the mountaintop, in the sheeting rain. The trappings of the hardcore, Victorian Gothic are so outsized they verge on comedy, if not deliberately, then in that blinking naiveté which is hard to discern from actual irony. Sometimes the satire can’t be told apart from its object, and Gothics often play with that ambiguity. I’ve been reading the Gormenghast books, for example, and that has both the gravidity and comedy of Gothic fiction in spades.

But Gothic that goes small — that details a cozy bungalow in some suburb, and the inconsequential denizens therein — absolutely catches me where I live. I’m completely susceptible to narratives of women locked in domestic environments which have been rendered inexorably, permanently strange. My outsized reactions might seem easy to psychoanalyze — look at mom, mommishly momming — though I think my affinities are probably at least as messy as the works that provoke them.

We meet Norah on a first date with Art, and everything about it feels jumbled and and wrong-footed. Their relationship with each other has been mediated by an ominous medical corporation called Easton Grove for inscrutble reasons. Though their first date feels no better than average, they are overly congratulatory of how well they got on, and seemingly rush into a cohabitation and marriage. Their first holiday party, to which Norah invites friends from her Life Before, is a master class in social anxiety and dangerous subterranean fault lines. The conversation always dances around some essential violation or transgression of Norah’s, one which must be worse than that Art is boring and American. Norah shies constantly from thinking of her previous lover, the one the friends knew, and this avoidance is a central lacuna, both in terms of narrative, and her personality.

Into this void, Easton Grove sends Nut, a mysterious creature who feels, at least in the beginning, like cross between a cat and an infant. They’re not supposed to name her, nor are they supposed to give her run of the house, but both things happen inexorably, even as these encroachments upend their lives. Art is a midlist writer of crime novels of some success, and Nut’s (and to a lesser extent, Norah’s) intrusion into his writing space disorders his ability to write. Norah more wholly embraces Nut, going against the edicts of Easton Grove, and her everyday companionship with the creature is shot through with anxiety and transgression. Norah often feels to me like Kat from The Mad Scientist’s Daughter: Both live with this inexplicable being in a cozy home in a dying world. Because the world is dying, quite literally, outside the windows of their small domestic spaces.

Norah’s relationship to art is all over this novel, and it would probably be easy to make some pat announcement about domesticity and its impact on creatively or whatnot. For one, her husband’s name is Art, and he is, indeed, an artist (though there’s a lowkey but constant denigration of his crime novels as unserious or lower order, both self-deprecatingly from him, and from others.) More importantly, Norah came into some money — the money that made it possible for her to enter into her relationship with Easton Grove, Nut, and Art him/itself — because of her artist mother. Her mother was locally influential painter, and after her death, her paintings acquired a posthumous cache, and sold for much more than they could have while she was living. Norah, by contrast, works some sort of corporate drone job, and even with Easton Grove’s meddling, is content largely to languish in the middle of the org chart. A large part of her emotional energies go to Nut, and though I think it could be possible to read this as the ways women are lanced of creative purpose by child minding — a sort of A Room of One’s Own where the room contains a fucking baby — but that’s too simple a reading.

I have two children — teenagers — on the cusp of becoming. I live in a comfortable house occasionally uncomfortably. Outside of our domesticity, the oceans literally burn. While I may (and do) struggle with my creativity — maybe some day I’ll finish that novel of Gothic spaces — I am absolutely paralyzed by how fucked up the world is, how terrifying it is to have brought people into this world, who then have to survive the coming cataclysm. Norah’s crisis is both creative and procreative, and I feel in my guts how they both consume and create one another. The old saw about both art and children is that they are a form of immortality. When the world dies around us, neither feels permanent, which is the whole point of immortality, n’est pas?

There feels like a line out from Composite Creatures to Wittgenstein’s Mistress in a weird and winding way. I know my appreciation of Markson’s po-mo novel is all ass-backwards — like, I couldn’t care less about whatever bullshit he’s going on about i/r/t philosophy, but I am gutted — gutted — by the overt plot of the novel. In Wittgenstein’s Mistress, a woman possibly named Kate is the only living animal left on earth. She writes Twitter-length missives on a typewriter in the basement of a house she’s occasionally inhabiting, about what she’s doing and Classic literature and only very rarely her past. It is a record that will be read by no one, not even the narrator, who eschews retrospection. Of course, it’s fiction, so it is read, and by thousands, but that’s not the point.

The point is a dead and dying world inhabited by a being self aware enough to worry about the future, and self-involved enough to cannibalize whatever is at hand to survive. Kate pulls down a house on a beach and burns it for warmth. Norah, well. Her response is what happens in Composite Creatures, isn’t it?

And you know what? I can’t even blame her, even if much of what she does is unforgivable. There but for the grace go I.

We go a-viking: The Long Ships

Original review, posted April 2012

So, this isn’t entirely a drunk book review, but it’s also not entirely sober. As such, I know I’m not going to bother checking my references and making sure I’m not making stuff up, so fair warning. 

Which is the thing. The Long Ships was written by a Swede (or possibly a Norwegian or a Dane) in the run-up to the second world war, drawing on his fiercely academic background in Old German/English/Norse semi-oral histories, stuff like the Icelandic Sagas, the Nibelungenlied, Beowulf, etc. Unlike certain crunchy Oxford dons I can think of, Bengtsson has a super sly sense of humor. He’s not trying to build an Anglo-Saxon mythology that works with his Christian ret-con. Seriously, why I am being so coy here? What I am trying to say is that Bengtsson and J.R.R. Tolkien were both writing at the same time, using the same source materials as their guide posts, but they came home with some seriously different narratives. That Bengtsson is in the dust bin of history, and Tolkien is wherever he is with his name recognition, I can’t say what that means. Something. 

Whatever, moving on. 

So, The Long Ships? I’m again not going to look this up, but I think that Michael Chabon in the introduction called this the “last Victorian novel”. Which is, like, super overheated blurb-fodder, but I get what he was at. There’s something un-psychological un-Modern here. These characters are all recognizably human, and they certainly have their thoughts and motivations, but there’s something charmingly without hand-wringing and deeper purpose in terms of The Psyche here. People are what they are, and things happen, and sometimes these things have anything to do with each other, but mostly they don’t. Plot isn’t discovery; it’s shit that happens. 

Which, can we talk about narrator for a minute? I’ve been reading myself some Anglo-Saxon poetry, and I loves how snide they are. The Beowulf narrator can’t help, when he’s introducing some dude he hates, but warn us that the dude he hates is going to slip on banana peels in the third act and die or worse. He’s gonna get it! But watch him be a jackass now so you can savor it when the banana peels rear up under his heels. The narrator here isn’t as entirely intrusive, but he’s going to let you know that while Orm is rowing as a galley slave, that Orm will get out of it in the end, and it’ll make a good story, don’t worry. And it totally does. This is all good story. 

So, wait, plot? Orm Somethingson leaves his home to go a-viking, gets screwed almost immediately, and in a series of reversals of fortune, ends up as a soldier in Muslim Spain. They he bails and heads back to England/Ireland/Scandinavia, where some stuff happens, mostly involving the Christianization of that area. The first section – and, apparently, this was published as two discrete novels back in the day – is much more rip-roaring, trotting all over Europe, meeting up with Jews and Muslims and Christians, holding turn of the first millennium convos about how god(s) work, getting laid, and plundering booty. Which, fuck yeah. It’s like what Skye O’Malley would have been if that didn’t suck rocks. And donkey balls. Almost literally. 

Book two, or the second section, this was tougher sledding for me. Orm converts to Christianity, and although his conversion is super funny – he’s part of a Viking mission that has England by the short and curlies, and the English king is this total cowardly dork, and I’m not going into it more, because, boring for you – the parts where Orm bolts down in Scandowhereveria and has some babies and fights with his neighbors….zzzzz. Or not entirely zzzzz, but it lacks that broad-stroke of the first section, and as an early second millennium reader, I give Christian converts the stink eye. There’s no fanatic like a convert, as my mother likes to say, though that’s not exactly what happens here. Orm isn’t above beating the holy spirit into folk, which is funny, and his theology, when it runs at odds with the priests’, is sweetly pragmatic. But then we go a-viking again! Boo-yah! There’s not lot of danger here, in the sense that the narrator is warning you that everything will turn out all right, and then it does! Squee! Go Orm and all of his descendants!

And now, off topic. Again, according to sources I am not looking up, Bengtsson refused to let the Nazis publish his books under their occupation (must have been Sweden?) and use them as propaganda. Which, interestingly, nor did Tolkien allow the Allies to use Middle Earth as a propaganda tool.* (Which I’m also not looking up, but I’m fairly sure it’s true. Jesus, can you imagine how effective propaganda based on his sort of Teutonic Christianity would have been? Shudder.) I mean, we probably would have forgiven Tolkien in hindsight, should he engage in propaganda for the winning (and non-Nazi, in all fairness) side, but, interestingly, I think Bengtsson’s work is less suited to propaganda. Orm is living in a much more pluralistic society than Middle Earth, regardless of the varying versions of Western Christian societies that peopled that realm: Rohan, Gondor, The Shire. (Which can be read as Anglo-Saxons, Renaissance Italians, and the bucolic English.) Orm’s latent paganism is all over everything he does, even when embraces the True Faith and all that. Orm abides. Dude. 

An interesting book, and I’m glad I’ve read it, although I’m not going to say it wasn’t trying at times. I’m still not through worrying the idea that this is a Victorian novel, because I’m pretty sure that’s wrong, but I’m not sure how to articulate why. Certainly this is no psychological journey, Freud’s grubby hand-prints all over the action and its meaning. But it’s not sentimental either, which I think you can see heaped in huge flowering beds all over (some) Victorian novels. There’s no moral to the story. No coda. No gloss. So I think I’m going to call bullshit on this being a Victorian novel. I can’t say this is Modernist or post-Modernist or anything else though, which makes it incredibly cool and weird. 

Also, there’s a lot of beards. If you like beards, this is for you. Beardo.

 

*Update, Jan 2015:

Not long after I wrote this, I realized my little tossed off comment about Tolkien and WWII propaganda cannot be true: Lord of the Rings wasn’t published into the early 1950s, though of course it was written during the War, and most certainly drew upon JRRT’s experiences in the previous world war. (What exactly that influence is, you may quibble amongst yourselves.  For sure the Dead Marshes, at the very least, are a WWI reference, as is much of the relationship between Sam and Frodo.)

In the interest of fact-checking previous drunken me’s assertions — I know I must have read somewhere about how Tolkien managed the political application of his Middle Earth, as far as he was able — I googled “Tolkien propaganda”. I got a lot of stuff in German and some other blather. Not looking too closely, I clicked on a link called “Tolkien, his Dwarves, and the Jews”. I’m reading through, getting more and more worried by the antisemitic tone of this thing, when I realize I’m on a white supremacist message board. Ye gads! What the actual fuck!? Get me out of here!!!1!

After nuking my browser and clearing any and all fucking cookies, I can’t quote exactly what these shitheels were saying, but suffice it to say it’s not good. They quote Tolkien saying that the dwarves were modeled after Jews, which surprises the white supremacist. Don’t the dwarves have honor and stuff? And Jews obviously do not, etc, gag. If indeed Tolkien modeled dwarves after Jews — which I don’t find hard to believe, shitty source notwithstanding — then there are a number of troubling implications of this equation.

I’ll try not to get too nerdy here, but let’s just realize how far down the nerd hole we are already. So, basically, Middle Earth is a religious cosmology — we won’t say allegory — in which the main deity, Eru Ilúvatar, creates the races of Elves and Men. The race of Dwarves is created by a demi-god — a sort of Hephaestian character — called Aulë. As such, they’re lesser order beings, imperfect copies of perfect creations. Like Ents or Orcs, who were also created by beings other than Eru Ilúvatar, they struggle with sterility and a bent towards beastliness, tending back to the non-sentient animism of their origin. Eru Ilúvatar eventually gives the Dwarves sapience, but this doesn’t really overturn their origins. Which is why the equation of Dwarves with the Jews is…let’s just use the bullshit term “problematic”.

I’m losing my point here, and mostly I’m just freaking out at Tolkien being used by violent racists to bolster their cause. Oh, I know what my point was! It’s one of those old hoary chestnuts of criticism that “you can’t judge literature from the past with the sensibilities of the present argle bargle”. To which I say, bullshit. I can do anything I want, motherfucker, and if what I want to do is decide that Tolkien’s “races” are treading dangerously close to racial biological determinism and its attendant social violence, then I can do that in the privacy of my own home. And I mos def have both the textual and extra-textual evidence to back that up. It’s not like I’m making shit up; even the white supremacists see it.

But! This determination is a slightly different thing than using Tolkien — or any other writer — and his (admittedly historically determined) blindspots and straight up prejudices as propaganda in perpetuating such diseased worldviews. There is a lot I love about Tolkien, from his shitty poetry to his linguistic ardor for English and a half a dozen other dead languages, but this 1) doesn’t make me blind to his failings and 2) doesn’t mean if I love the baby I need to drink the bathwater. After the LotR movies came out, a bunch of the actors, of myriad political inclinations, came out with various “Tolkien said this or that about politics” statements. To which I say, who gives a shit? I don’t base my political opinions on what my racist great-uncle said about the War, or Jews, or whatever — and dude said plenty, I assure you, and it was all awful — and I’m not going to base my opinions on someone else’s great-uncle either, even if I love his poetry. The personal is the political, sure, but not the other way around.

 

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.

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.

 

 

Sharcano!!!1!

There’s this dismissive, tautological quote that goes something like, “People who like this sort of thing will find this the sort of thing they like.” I can’t find a reputable source for this line — it’s been attributed to Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or a tumblr image of some cats — but it has the kind of epigrammatic pithiness that makes for great ad copy. I think you can fairly easily tell by the title whether you are in the audience of this book. Sharcano = shark + volcano!!!1! You know if this math is for you.

I guess I expected Sharcano to be a nod to pulp horror like anything by Guy N Smith, a journeyman writer who churned out well over a hundred novels, and, given that he isn’t dead yet, likely is churning them out still. (His wiki page notes that he is an “active pro-smoking campaigner”, which I find inordinately charming. I even smoke, and I know that shit ain’t good for anyone, mostly because I smoke.) I was expecting shoddy continuity, uproarious misogyny, and lurid bloodbath, the kind of thing banged out in two non-consecutive weekends with a lot of uppers in the mix.

But no, Sharcano is more a nod to big budget action disaster films, movies like Armageddon and The Day After Tomorrow. This is not a criticism; more an observation. There’s an estranged couple — one of whom is a massive television personality slash dillhole — so you’ve got your remarriage plot; a couple of moppets of various ethnicity; a priest at the focus of a shady Vatican conspiracy; some bubbas; sasquatch &c. There’s a lot of destruction that would work well better on the screen with Michael Bay-ish craptacular jump cuts, but then there’s a wry comedy aspect that would never be evident in a Michael Bay film.

What Sharcano reminds me most of is The Core, which is a silly disaster film complete with unobtainium and Stanley Tucci. The scene where Tucci is in a train car thing, about to die, bloviating into a tape recorder in his showboat way, and then starts laughing at the ridiculousness of such an act is one of my legit favorites. Almost as good as Samuel L in Deep Blue Sea starting into a monologue about how we’re not going to fight anymore! right before the supershark fucking drops the knowledge. Drop the knowledge, sharks made out of lava. We’ll catch up.

Here’s the thing: I’m not sure this book needs to be 400+ pages, and I’m seriously unsure that it should be the first in a trilogy. Sharcano is well better than it should be, a quality which gives with one hand and takes with another. Pulp’s got a certain energy to it, a rough, unedited pulse. Sharcano has a more arms-reach approach to the material, a half-ironic tone that tries to split the difference between straight up satire and gleeful homage. That’s a hard line to walk, very hard, and that Sharcano manages it at all should be seen as a win. If you like this sort of thing, as the cats of tumblr tell me, then this is the sort of thing you’ll like.

 

I received my copy from Netgalley. Thanks, dudes.

Nebula Nominees: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

When I was in my first (and, come to think, only) year in the dorms, I had a friend down the hall who was Swiss. By which I mean she had Swiss parents, and her first language was French; she was otherwise American. She was raised, however, in a small Wisconsin town, if not from birth, then from a very young age. She liked to tell this story about her parents taking her to the zoo as a young girl, her French still the primary language, and shouting at the seals, “Le phoque! Le phoque!” You can imagine the consternation of small town Wisconsin when confronted by a girl yelling, “Le fuck!” which is more or less what the French word for seal sounds like.

We didn’t have much in the way of video stores on campus — this is back in the dark ages, before Netflix, or even DVDs, come to think of it — so we were mostly stuck with the selection at the dorm kiosk (which I ran on Saturday and Thursday; a story for another time) which was not good, or the selections at the local library. The library mostly had art films, documentaries about The War, and early cinema weirdness. I can thank the lack of selection for my actually sitting down and watching stuff like VampyrMetropolis, and Battleship Potemkin. My Swiss friend went in for the French art house stuff at the libs, as she actually spoke the language, and knew more than your average bear about French cinema, her upbringing being what it was.

So I watched a series of French films with her — a trilogy, I think, but my memory is a little hazy. They were in an essay style popular (I think) in the 70s. French people chatted and had upheavals of the lunching sort, interspersed with cards that informed the viewer of the philosophical import of the scene. She and I also had a thing where we’d go in together on a bottle of liquor we’d never tried before, purchased by another friend’s upperclass boyfriend with a car and a sense of capitalist opportunity: Everclear (not legal in my home state), stomach-churning gin (which put me off a fine alcohol for years), or, memorably, peach schnapps (I didn’t drink in high school, so I hadn’t learned this lesson yet).

I have this vision, no doubt manufactured, of us sitting in her room sipping a tragedy in the making, watching French films and arguing. I remember quite vividly when she was yelling about some character in the essay film — you know, the Italian woman? — and I was like, what are you even talking about, Italian woman? She blinked at me with the slow blink of the inebriated. You know, the woman with the Italian accent? The one having an affair with the other guy, the husband? Okay, I said, I know who you mean now, but how did you know she was Italian? Couldn’t you hear it in her accent? She asked. No, I most decidedly could not.

She had an entrance into the nuances of the film that I simply did not, raised as I was with English only. I couldn’t hear the accent because all I heard was foreignness, concentrating hard on the philosophical placards and the translations over the lilt of another tongue in a character’s speech. Since then, I’ve caught this lilt in a couple of movie characters in languages foreign to me — Ah Ping in In the Mood for Love, who sounds so different from everyone else, for example — but I couldn’t tell you what this means, exactly. Someone who spoke Chinese — or maybe more importantly, was raised with an understanding of Chinese cultural politics — could explain the inexact, interpersonal meaning to me, but some of it would end up being “le phoque” shouted at seals.

Which is my long-winded, digressive way of getting at We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. There’s something about the narrator that’s off, which is not to say I didn’t completely love her wry, understated anecdotal style, or her loopy, sedimentary storytelling style. Her awkwardness and self-doubt were disarming and lovable. the way a story told by the gawky and odd can take the shine of comedy in retrospect. Comedy happens to other people, as they say; it’s tragedy when it happens to you. She knows how to split the difference between bathos and rhetoric like a champ. She takes the little philosophical placards, and doesn’t so much shred them as fold them into accented shapes that you can’t access through language.

Good gravy, what the holy hell am I on about? The tough thing about We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a spoiler which is so central to the book’s bookness that it stops me up, in any language. You have to meet the narrator and stew in her thoughts long enough to understand her accent and where it comes from, her foreignness despite being a fairly average girl from a flyover state. You have to get good and drunk and argue what all that accent might mean, whatever meaning means, and you have to do it grappling with the way personal anecdote, or even possibly memoir, is a slippery, personal delivery mechanism for whatever essayish philosophy, insofar as as any of our lives can exemplify an argument.

And I’m at it again, twisty sentence fuckery — or possibly phoquery — blathering and bloviating when I should just get to it. Here’s one thing: the plural of anecdote is not data, as the scientists rightly say. But as a talking ape, the force of the anecdote has its place in rhetoric. I read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves because it was one of the nominees for the Nebula this year. It took me a long time to accept this as science fictional. Doesn’t this all exist in the here and now? Isn’t this the experience of some few — some very few, admittedly; but still, it moves? I eventually looped around, after starting in the middle, the way the narrator does, into acceptance.

There are levels of foreignness beyond the dorm floor Tower of Babel  that occurs when we all get drunk on unfamiliar scotch — one girl lapsing into the Spanish of her native language, another’s Southie accent thickening to incomprehension, the French, the Wisconsin, all of us speaking the language of our homes at each other in some kind of bonding exercise that won’t be remembered with clarity the next day. But we’re all human, our accents notwithstanding. The Sapir–Whorf hypothesis has been thoroughly discredited. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t resonate at some level, the one that looks around after the party has ended and wonders at our profound miscommunications with those closest to us, let alone the strangers, the neighbors, the acquaintances. Alien isn’t just alien, in the end; it’s the familiar. Which is the worst and best thing about it, the end.

 

Review: Sheltered by Ed Brisson and Johnnie Christmas

Sheltered is a perfectly lovely nasty piece of work, a “pre-apocalyptic tale” about all the horrible things people do in preparation for the end of it all. I enjoyed Sheltered immensely, but the first collection (which collects #1-5 of the ongoing comic) has an expectant, waiting quality about it, unfinished, almost unstarted. This dovetails beautifully into the themes of the comic: all of the potential of adolescence untapped and unstable, and how that adolescence slowly, choice by choice, resolves into dreary, irrevocable adulthood. Boo yah.

Sheltered first introduces us to Victoria and her father David. They’re newish members to the prepper community of Safe Haven, which lives somewhere in the hinterlands of Montana. Vic’s not altogether happy with her new digs, hanging out with Hailey, another teen girl who has been in the community much longer. “At this point I’d kill for a mall,” Vic says ruefully, sitting in a deer blind with a flask. “I hate malls. That’s how desperate I am for any sense of normality.” Her dad — an engineer of some stripe — talks shop with the other adults, obviously not quite with the whole prepper community ethos. There’s a pretty wonderful conversation about pulling permits, which I admit might not resonate for other readers who do not have a contractor’s license.

After the slow pan of the first installment, rolling over the bunkers and principals, we get to it: blank-eyed teenage psycho Lucas somehow gets all the other kids to rise up and kill their parents. The supervolcano over Yellowstone is going to erupt soon, within days — according to Lucas — and the food won’t last the three years necessary to survive the nuclear winter with all the adults alive. Hard times call for hard choices. Lucas’s motivations aren’t lingered on, nor are we given much in the ways of his persuasive arguments for doing this.

I thought about this narrative choice for a long while. It could easily be seen as cheating, rushing this hard to imagine brutality; bang, blood in the snow. But I thought it worked, in the end: this unexplained outbreak of violence in a community that has been preparing for a more explicable outbreak of violence. Plus, I dunno, I like the irony of a community preparing for the worst not being prepared for the very worst. Other than the newcomer Victoria, I get the impression that these kids have been raised with a shadow of doom their whole lives, the constant expectation of violence, and I can almost feel the relief when it arrives. Boom. Here’s your apocalypse.

Some of the mid sections are a little slack, with maybe not the best sense of place. Victoria and Hailey are bunkered down somewhere on the campus, Hailey injured, and I couldn’t quite tell you where their building was in relationship to others. Lucas makes a lot of terrible choices, and tends to respond to even perceived threats to his leadership with violence and cruelty. It works. He’s got the shiny blondness of a cult leader, but he’s still a kid. He’s marshaled his charisma to get the other kids to commit this unspeakable act, but he’s not mature enough or wily enough to manage their grief and guilt. What if you were wrong? What then?

There’s a great sequence where Lucas mansplains to another boy about how he should stop hanging out with a girl because we can’t have any pregnancies and we all have to think about group morale etc etc. His mansplaination goes on waaaay too long, long enough for the other guy to be like, geesh, lay off already, mom, I was just talking. It’s hard to pin Lucas’s motivations here: maybe he believes what he’s saying, but maybe he’s also jealous and frustrated that he hasn’t got any easy joking friendships. He’s clearly cut himself into the loner leader role intentionally, but intentions at that age are mutable and jumpy. When he can’t admit he’s wrong — and he really never can, given the stakes — his only recourse is to double down.

The end of the last installment ends with a truck pulling up, the tall figure of a man flicking his cigarette off into the snow. “Hey kid,” he says to Lucas. “Your parents around?” Boy howdy, they are not. There’s been a lot of scrabbling and missteps by Lucas up to this point, and it’s going to be interesting to see where this situation goes. On some level, a new grown up threat is what Lucas needs, given that the younger kids — like the foul-mouthed little shit Curt — have been acting like kids without parents. (Or even acting like kids with parents, because impulse control is low, parents or not.) If he can cow them into submission with another threat, he might be able to keep this crapshow going long enough for the supervolcano to blow. That’s the American way, after all.

 

Thanks to sj at Snobbery for turning me onto this.

The Guardian announces a new prize for self-published books

Well, now, this is very interesting. The Guardian is launching a self-published book of the month prize, which I think makes them the first of the old guard reviewing platforms to grapple with indie publishing this closely. And good on that.

The Guardian and Legend’s new prize is open from today to self-published novels written in the English language – translations are also welcome – with submissions to be read by a panel of Legend’s readers. The panel will draw up a shortlist of up to 10 titles a month that will then be read by expert judges, with the winning entry to be reviewed in the Guardian, online or in the paper.

I’m discouraged to see the Guardian referencing the Hugh Howey “statistics” about indie publishing, which are more or less full on bullshit, but whatever. The rise of indie publishing is a thing, whatever the numbers, and I’m cheered to see a traditional review platform take on the world’s slush pile, because heretofore citizen reviewers have been stuck with the job themselves, to more or less terrible results. Terrible not because citizen reviewers can’t assess a book’s quality — especially in boutique genres that are largely ignored by professional reviewing in the first place — but because the average reader has been exposed to the myriad of batshittery that lurks in the slush pile.

I had a friend back in the day who worked at a very small press as a publicist. The small press had a fake employee who had a voicemail and an email devoted to taking all the crazy queries and unsolicited manuscripts. They did not want an actual person to have to field this stuff themselves — I think the unfortunate job of clearing the inbox rotated — and the imaginary person could take all the threats and blubbering to no ill effect. Unfortunately, my friend had the same first name as this imaginary slush pile reader, and would get a certain percentage of the crazy queries as creepers tried to socially engineer themselves into a meeting. “I talked to Elizabeth last week,” they’d lie. “Can you put me through to her?”

The publisher did actually look through the manuscripts that were not written in crayon — which happened, oh yes — but the small but tenacious percentage of weirdos made the imaginary reader a professional necessity. I think this is more or less happening writ large in the publishing world. Anne Rice wants to strip readers of psuedonymity to keep them from “bullying” writers with their negative assessments of the slush pile. The average negative review is no more bullying than a fake editor ignoring a crayon manuscript. The slush pile weirdos have been foisted on the world, and they have never liked being shunted into an inbox. They want to meet you at home so they can tell you how wrong you are, which publishers have been avoiding for years through pseudonymity.

Now that I’ve gone out into tangent, I wanted to wind up by saying that I’m glad that the Guardian is taking the indies on.This is partially because traditional press has to adapt or die, and self publishing is here to stay. But another more selfish reason I’m glad to see professional reviewers take on self-published works is that I hope that once they start grappling with the slush pile like the rest of us have, they’ll get a fucking clue and stop using STRGB as a reputable source. The bullying narrative has been parroted widely in the traditional press, and I think a good part of that is how completely insulated they’ve been from the whackadoos out there.They’ll get to see the inbox in all of its glory.

Which is not to say that I think indie authors are all a bunch of loons, just as being traditionally published is no guarantee of sanity either. My mother, for example, self published a historical novel, and she is not trolling the kboards as we speak. (God, I hope not anyway. Mum?) It is also not to say that professional reviewers taking on the indies will solve all ills in a rapidly changing publishing landscape. But professional is as professional does, and adding professional reviewers into the mix will go far in helping readers to assess works that have been up till now more likely reviewed by friends and family than…let’s call it a less subjective readership. I’ve enjoyed many an indie title, and I will take any help I can get separating the good from the bad. I’ll be glad to see someone else’s inbox take the hit. Thanks, Guardian.