Tag: animals

Review: The Alchemaster’s Apprentice

I found thinking about Walter Moers’ The Alchemaster’s Apprentice hard, and not very rewarding, work.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy it, exactly: it was fine, and occasionally quite entertaining. It’s more that it did a few quite interesting things which failed to go anywhere.

Take, for instance, the first line of the novel:

Picture to yourself the sickest place in the whole of Zamonia.

This is an instruction that’s impossible to follow. First: where is Zamonia? (Readers of Moers’ other books will know the answer to this, but The Alchemaster’s Apprentice plainly doesn’t expect you to be such a reader.) Secondly: what does Moers mean by “sickest”? Cruellest? Best? Most disease-ridden? It’s a sentence that destabilises the author/reader relationship from the start; it unsettles us, it invites us in.

The sickest place in the whole of Zamonia, it turns out, is Malaisea. Everyone is ill in Malaisea, with all manner of exciting diseases ranging from the common cold to tuberculosis. This is the doing of the town’s resident alchemist, the titular Alchemaster, Ghoolion, who creates noxious fumes in his noxious castle above the town to oppress the people of Malaisea.

The story follows Echo, a talking cat. His owner has recently died, and he’s close to death from starvation, until Ghoolion offers him a terrible bargain: he’ll be fed the most luxurious meals for a month, at which point Ghoolion will murder him and use his fat in his alchemy.

Echo takes the bargain, goes to live in the creepy castle, and spends the rest of the novel trying to find a way out.

Now, Moers’ Zamonia is a place at once whimsical and dark. It has talking cats. But it also has Anguish Candles: candles that have been made (by Ghoolion) to experience terrible pain when they’re alight. And what use is a candle if it’s not alight? Ghoolion provides lakes of milk for Echo, but he also renders down rare and innocent creatures for their fats. Zamonia is a world that contains vampire bats called Leathermice and trees that can move and a city made entirely of iron and steel.

The novel’s full of lively pen and ink illustrations by the author which contribute quite a lot to how this world feels: just familiar enough that the whimsy destabilises us, pulls the rug out from under our feet. It’s also full of plot reversals: the characters tell stories within stories in which star-crossed lovers are separated for ever, pointlessly, in which plucky underdogs are crushed by powerful monsters. Moers wants to keep us on our toes. He never gives us quite what we expect.

And yet. For all the work the novel is doing upfront to destabilise us, defamiliarise us, bring us to a place that’s cruel and unsettling, there doesn’t seem to be a coherent project underpinning all of this. There’s no point.

Well. There’s something of a theme about “the miracle of love”, but Moers’ “miracle of love” is…well. Everything that is wrong with Western conceptions of romance, for a start. There’s a grand total of two named female characters in The Alchemaster’s Apprentice, and both of them exist only to have pointless and doomed romances with Ghoolion, of all people. One of them tests his love for her by telling him she’s going to marry someone else, only to be heartbroken when he disappears off forever. The other is a witch who is Ghoolion’s literal opposite (she cultivates nature rather than destroying it) and whose people have been relentlessly persecuted by Ghoolion since the word go – only she finds his cruelty and complete disregard for other people’s feelings alluring rather than disgusting. She abandons her whole moral system because she’s in luuurve. And then she feeds the object of her affection a love potion to make him love her back.

So “the miracle of love” is beginning to look more like “the miracle of manipulative, not to say self-destructive, behaviour”. Which would be fine if I thought that that was Moers’ point, but the novel literally ends with Echo heading off to the mountains to seek out this miracle.

In other words, Moers is deploying all that destabilising potential, the talking cat, the darkly whimsical villain, the first line you cannot obey, the stories that end in unexpected tragedy, just to repeat old stereotypes. Which, I’m sorry, is just lazy storytelling. It makes for a novel that’s much less than the sum of its parts; a fantasy set in a secondary world that’s only superficially different from our own. And what’s the point of that, really?


Ten Books That Would Make Good TV

  1. The Dark Tower series – Stephen King. A Dark Tower TV series is already in the works, but given it’s associated with the decidedly lacklustre film I have basically no confidence it will be any good. The whole series is crying out to be televised, with a prestige TV budget: the battle of Jericho! Blaine the Mono and the waste lands! The desert, and the man in black. Roland of Gilead weeping. It would be fucking fantastic. Someone get it done, please. (I can’t believe there wouldn’t be an audience for it, given King’s readership.)
  2. The Silmarillion – J.R.R. Tolkien. Does Peter Jackson do television? Yes, I know he made an unholy mess of The Hobbit (STILL NOT OVER IT), but The Silmarillion is another kind of beast altogether: properly epic and wonderful in the way the Lord of the Rings films are. It wouldn’t work as a film (please don’t do this, anyone, or I will cry) because there’s like a million characters and no overarching plot except for “everyone dies and everything is shit”, but it could make for beautiful TV.
  3. Lirael – Garth Nix. Only, I’m imagining like a version where Lirael stays in the Library and has magical monster-of-the-week adventures with the Disreputable Dog and gradually learns to make friends and accept herself and it would be wholesome and wonderful and full of books.
  4. Perdido Street StationChina Mieville. I know, I know, I wrote a whole post a couple of weeks ago about how Mieville doesn’t work on TV and it should never happen again, but on a purely superficial level I think New Crobuzon would be amazing on screen, if it was done properly. Plus, the novel has that sprawling Dickensian quality that would give a TV series time to explore the world properly while, y’know, having a plot.
  5. The Discworld series – Terry Pratchett. There was a series called The Watch that was happening a while ago. Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge claims it is still happening. I’m hoping a) that it does happen and b) that it is not shit. (The films are fairly shit, but it is pretty fun seeing Discworld come to life, however underfunded it is.)
  6. A Madness of Angels – Kate Griffin. This is another one that would work really well as a monster-of-the-week show, carried by its wise-cracking protagonist and BBC special effects that are dodgy enough to look a little bit real. (See also Doctor Who.)
  7. Soulless – Gail Carriger. Steampunk and vampires and werewolves, oh my! (Seriously, this book is obsessed by scenery. If anything was written for TV it’s this.)
  8. The Temeraire series – Naomi Novik. Temeraire is adorable, and the books are really fascinated by relationships in a way that I think would work well on TV. You could flesh out the arcs of some of the supporting characters, and it would be like Downton Abbey but with dragons. And naval battles.
  9. Night Film – Marisha Pessl. For obvious reasons, this would work well on screen: I mean, it’s literally about film. And you could translate some of the novel’s narrative tricks pretty well into TV. I can also see how a TV adaptation could be disastrous, though.
  10. Green Earth – Kim Stanley Robinson. It would be like The West Wing, except with climate change! And lord knows climate change could do with raising its profile.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Film Review: Isle of Dogs

Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs is a film that deliberately, designedly invites questions about meaning and intent. It feels like it’s set out to leave its audience puzzled; to make you go, “what the hell was that?” as you leave the cinema.

(I mean: I am a very occasional cinema-goer, so it doesn’t take much to make me go “what the hell was that?” as I leave the cinema. I am, perhaps, not quite the intended audience for Isle of Dogs. But then I’m not sure who is.)

A stop-motion film, Isle of Dogs‘ premise is this: after dog flu sweeps Megasaki City, Japan, the disturbingly Trumpian Mayor Kobayashi orders that every dog in the city be exiled to Trash Island, a vast rubbish dump a short plane-hop from the mainland. Kobayashi’s twelve-year-old ward Atari, bereft of his beloved bodyguard Spots, steals a plane and flies to the island to rescue his companion – during the course of which heartwarming mission he meets a quartet of lovable canines, including the actually-not-very-lovable stray Chief, and hatches a plan to bring the dogs back to the city.

The film’s main gimmick – almost the only thing I knew about it before I saw it – is that the Japanese human characters speak mainly unsubtitled Japanese, while the dogs and a couple of white characters, including an American transfer student dedicated to uncovering corruption in Kobayashi’s government, speak English. This makes the film sound more difficult – in the sense of “inaccessible to Anglophone audiences” – than it actually is: much of the Japanese is “translated” (or so we can only assume) by those white characters, or, much less commonly, by an AI translator.

Obviously, there’s a wealth of identity politics to unpack in all that, but before I dive into those murky, weighty waters, a couple of other ways Isle of Dogs resists audience expectation:

Mainly, this is an animated animal film that’s not aimed even indirectly at children. I can’t put my finger on exactly what makes it Not a Children’s Film: there’s no sex, no gore (well, a bit, but I am a wimp compared to most six-year-olds), no swearing. There is a scene where we’re told that a dog has starved to death in a cage, which is pretty upsetting, I guess. But, mostly, there’s a kind of hard-bitten bleakness to the film that makes it feel distinctively adult. These dogs are not cute dogs – not in the way that children’s animal films like Madagascar and Ice Age (both franchises filled with animals – woolly mammoths, penguins – who have no business being cute but which nevertheless manage to be) have primed us to expect. They are wiry and cynical, like gunslingers (the film makes the comparison explicit). Their muzzles are scarred. They sneeze unpleasantly. They bite. And Trash Island? Trash Island is a place not even the most dedicated salvagepunk could love. Think the polluted Earth of Wall-E, without Pixar’s sentimental, softening touch. Think mountain ranges of rubbish and rusting, polluted factories where nothing grows that isn’t poisoned. Think the real Trash Island, the great floating rubbish patch in the Pacific.

In other words: this is a film that capitalises on all the jerky uglinesses of stop-motion animation to look a the uglinesses of what human cities do to their environments and to the animals who coexist with and depend on humanity.

But it’s also a film problematised by its ending – in which Mayor Kobayashi admits that he’s suppressed evidence of a cure for dog flu in a sentimental re-election speech to his supporters, and passes the mayoralty to Atari on the basis of an obscure and frankly incredible piece of legislation. It’s a fairytale ending that undermines the cynicism of the film. It gives us an easy way out of environmental damage and irresponsibility.

That’s particularly disappointing given that Isle of Dogs is, I think, particularly good on the irrational politics of hate. Demagogues like Kobayashi (*cough* Trump *cough*) build on, or magnify, a specific threat – in this example, dog flu – and, instead of addressing the root causes of the problem (by, for instance, devising a cure), make a solution of exclusion. In other words, they make the problem the fault of an other, a social scapegoat, because it’s easier to blame the scapegoat, to exclude the other, than it is actually to solve the problem. Which means it’s also eventually easier to ignore scientific evidence (the existence of a cure) than it is to deviate from the position of hate – because such deviation would involve admitting that the problem lies within society, not outside it in some circularly-defined other.

And so, it’s a problem that the solution to the politics of hate, the solution delivered by the film’s ending, is un-nuanced and undemocratic – and a fairytale. We have to imagine better ways out.

Speaking of others: the film’s failure of imagination extends, I think, to its Japanese setting. Monstrous demagogues exist in the West already. Isn’t it too easy a get-out for Western audiences to make a film about a Japanese demagogue – a demagogue, that is, in a part of the world much of the West already views with distrust? Isn’t it, precisely, othering?

Doesn’t it exorcise the ghost of Western racism by putting it into the mouth of a cultural other, where we can safely ignore it because it’s half a world away? Where we can exclude it, in fact, from the everyday circles of our own lives?

Relatedly: why do none of the Japanese characters speak English? Why do we need white characters to interpret for us? Why can’t the transfer student be (for example) Japanese-American?

(Because that would make the Japanese characters no longer other, and we’d no longer be able to project our own racism safely onto that other.)

I’m not, of course, saying any of this is deliberate. It is brilliantly ironic that a film can be so spot-on thematically about how the politics of othering and hate work while being apparently oblivious to its own potential othering effects. And: hey, I know nothing about Japan and Japanese culture, I don’t speak Japanese; I might be spectacularly wrong about all this. I’d like to read a review of Isle of Dogs by someone who does speak Japanese. I haven’t made much of an effort – enough of an effort – to find one.

I just feel sure there’s something excessive about Isle of Dogs: something more complex is going on than its feelgood plot about a boy rescuing his dog would suggest. It’s puzzling. I am puzzled. I’m trying to work out what the hell this film was.

Review: The Bees

Laline Paull’s The Bees has been on my radar for a while. It’s the story of a worker bee, Flora 717, as she navigates the dystopian power structures of her hive; there’s something about the miniaturisation that implies, a large world contained in a small one, that appealed to me.

For me, though, The Bees is a sad symptom of when speculative fiction leaks into mainstream literature: the critics rave about shocking originality, while actual SFF fans know the genre’s been doing work ten times subtler and more interesting since about 1970.

One of the things the novel seems to be going for is that quintessence of fiction: empathy with experience that is other than our own. In this case, experience that’s quite literally alien. It wants to ask the question: but what’s it like being a bee?

Which is an interesting and valuable question, especially given the crisis that bees are facing at the moment (which the novel does touch on). And bees are undeniably fascinating, as a species: they have complex social structures of their own, they can communicate fairly involved information, they pollinate our crops. But it’s not a question The Bees ever approaches answering, because it insists on reading bee experience through Western human norms. Why, for instance, would Flora find her hive dystopian, when existing in a hive is the very heart of bee-ness? The actual biology of the novel is apparently all accurate – it’s a shame that all that research has gone into retelling a not-very-interesting and thoroughly human story.

It was interesting to read The Bees straight after N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky: both novels discuss environmental concerns, and both are about motherhood (one of the many apparently exceptional things about Flora is that, despite being a worker bee, she lays eggs, which is apparently blasphemy to bees). That’s an interesting linkage, and a powerful one: it sets the personal, focused experience of love against catastrophe so vast and inevitable it can’t really be comprehended. It’s a kind of defiance: human connection thrown in the teeth of apocalypse. But The Bees just can’t match the Jemisin for emotional intensity, or the urgency that climate change and species collapse demands. The threat the bees face feels strangely remote – something the novel’s feel-good ending does nothing to solve. Combined with Paull’s workaday, wooden prose, that makes The Bees inconsequential, a curio rather than a call to action.

Some things that are better at experiencing the alien than The Bees is: if you’re able to and are interested in bees, I strongly recommend the Hive at Kew Gardens in London, which genuinely does make you feel like you’re standing in a beehive. Ursula Le Guin is great at imagining societies constructed entirely differently to our own: try The Left Hand of Darkness. Greg Egan’s The Clockwork Rocket looks at an alien species whose biology is very different to ours, and has feminism. (You can skip the fictional physics.) Ann Leckie’s novels are good at thinking through the implications of different cultural and gender norms on what everyday life looks like: Provenance is particularly good for this.

Don’t read The Bees. There are so many better things out there.

Ten Characters Who Should Have Their Own Novel

  1. November – Palimpsest, Catherynne M. Valente. November is admittedly one of the protagonists of Palimpsest, but there are also four of them, so we don’t get to spend that much time with her. I’d love to know more about her past, or even her future in Palimpsest.
  2. Balthamos – The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman. It could be called THE ADVENTURES OF A SARCASTIC GAY ANGEL. (Except it couldn’t, because that’s a terrible title.)
  4. Innon – The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin. I couldn’t remember his name when I was brainstorming this list, so I called him “that bisexual pirate from The Fifth Season“. Which just about covers it all, really.
  5. Belladonna Took – The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien. Because there’s a point when Gandalf refers to her as “poor Belladonna”, and as far as I know nobody ever explains why. Also, The Hobbit uses the word “she” once. Once.
  6. Lieutenant Tisarwat – Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie. What’s it like being half-tyrant? Not really knowing who you are any more? Tisarwat is a fascinating character who deserves more screentime.
  7. Foaly – Artemis Fowl, Eoin Colfer. Foaly is hands-down the best supporting character in Colfer’s series: sarcastic and paranoid and clever and brave in his own way. How did he end up as LEPrecon’s version of Q?
  8. Catherine Harcourt – Temeraire, Naomi Novik. What’s it like being a woman in the Aviator Corps? Does she experience sexism from her fellow officers? Her crew? How does she feel about being completely and irrevocably cut off from genteel society? Does she want to get married? Did she always know she was going to be an aviator? SO MANY QUESTIONS.
  9. Mogget – Sabriel, Garth Nix. We know that Mogget gets up to all kinds of mischief between his appearances in the books. How does he manage that? And why? There’s also an opportunity here to explore the morality of enslaving Mogget: on the one hand he’s a highly dangerous Free Magic creature; on the other hand, he’s a sentient being, and definitely unhappy with his situation. The books don’t really go into this, but there could be a rich seam of storytelling here.
  10. Miranda Carroll – Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel. Miranda gets one of my favourite lines ever: “You don’t have to understand it. It’s mine.” I’d like to know more about the comic she’s writing about Station Eleven, about her marriage to Arthur Leander, about her life before the flu comes.

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Ten Books That Were Hard for Me to Read

  1. High-Rise – J.G. Ballard. There’s a certain kind of dystopia I find really hard to read: anything where society breaks down on-page, where people become less than people. I read High-Rise recently, so it’s still reasonably fresh in my memory: it’s set in a modern high-rise building, designed to be a self-sufficient vertical city, where people start to turn on each other. There’s animal cruelty and sexual violence in bucketloads, and I came quite close to putting it down (which I never do).
  2. Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler. For many of the same reasons as I found High-Rise difficult to read. There’s just this overpowering sense of loss and hopelessness to Parable of the Sower, an idea that everything we think of as normal can all become undone in just a few years.
  3. The Book of Phoenix – Nnedi Okorafor. This is a very necessary book. It’s also a series of really awful things happening to the main character – things that (and this is going to sound trite, but) have direct parallels to what people of colour in the West really do experience every day. That’s its power and its horror.
  4. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever – Stephen Donaldson. I mean. There are things I like about the Covenant books, but the prose is really, really dense, and some absolutely terrible things happen, and overall it’s really not a light read.
  5. The Dark Tower – Stephen King. Just for That Scene with Randall Flagg and Mordred. No. Please, no.
  6. Consider Phlebas – Iain M. Banks. The cannibal cult on Vavatch is just awful. And the rest of the novel is incredibly dark and chilly and hopeless and violent. (I’m still toying with reading the rest of the Culture series, though.)
  7. On – Adam Roberts. Like Consider Phlebas, I found On just quite barren? The concept behind the novel is precariousness; the idea that “the centre cannot hold”, that there’s nothing to cling to that doesn’t change as soon as you think you’re sure of it. It’s cleverly structured, but it’s also very dark and very violent, without any vitality to set that darkness off. Plus, I really wanted Roberts to stop calling penises “wicks”. (Yes, really.)
  8. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline. I literally wanted to throw this book out of a train window. That’s how fucking awful I found it: actively sexist, racist and homophobic, and poorly written to boot. (Lord help us, I see from the internet that there is going to be a film next year.)
  9. Age of Godpunk – James Lovegrove. See above, basically, only with bonus transphobia. HOW DOES THIS SHIT EVER GET PUBLISHED
  10. The Dice Man – Luke Rhinehart. If you could do anything without fearing society’s judgement you would…have lots of dubiously-consensual sex and be a dick to everyone, apparently. (Really?)

(The prompt for this post was suggested by the Broke and the Bookish’s weekly meme Top Ten Tuesday.)

Review: The Familiar Volume 1 – One Rainy Day in May

Mark Z. Danielewski’s One Rainy Day in May is the first of a projected 27 (!) volumes about a 12-year-old girl who rescues a kitten.

I wish I was joking.

I love Danielewski’s seminal House of Leaves; I honestly think it’s the best Gothic haunted house novel out there, and what’s more it’s supremely aware of itself as haunted text, and I’d better stop there because otherwise I’ll fall down the critical-theoretical rabbit hole that is Thinking About House of Leaves. The point is: the postmodernism in House of Leaves is fascinating and thought-provoking and scary; whereas just reading a review of One Rainy Day in May makes me feel exhausted.

There are a handful of frame narratives to the book, including some Youtube mock-ups that remind me more of Marisha Pessl’s Night Film than anything else. The meat of it, though, is made up of the points of view of nine different people – I’m going to quote from the Strange Horizons review here, because writing them all out is just too tedious:

Xanther…a 12(ish)-year-old girl who has epilepsy. Her parents, a game designer and a psych-in-training, have a surprise for her one rainy day in May…Meanwhile: a gang pretends to initiate a new member only to kill him; an older couple is on the run from someone for the possession of an Orb which seems to have some connection to a possible alien intelligence; someone in Singapore steals a bunch of chocolate coins and takes a bunch of molly while working as a translator; a cop investigates a case; a man goes to court against a cop and helps a professor move some boxes; and someone practices superstitions and helps deliver some crates.

There’s more to it than that, of course. Danielewski uses typographical and stylistic tricks to represent the unique and digressive nature of thought as opposed to narrative: so, for example, Xanther’s mother Astair’s narrative is full of nested parentheses; her father Anwar, a game designer, thinks in square brackets and >>s and {}s; Singaporean Jingjing’s thoughts are rendered in Singlish; a different font is used for each character’s sections. What’s interesting about this is that the typographical choices aren’t just used to reflect who each of the characters are, as might be the case in a lesser author’s work; they also reflect how the characters think of themselves – their Second Thoughts, as Pratchett might have put it. It’s that level of self-reflexiveness that saves Danielewski from the rather uncomfortable fact that an Armenian character’s thoughts are rendered in broken English – it’s not because he can’t think fluently in Armenian, but because he chooses to see himself as someone who speaks English.

As we might expect from the author of House of Leaves, a novel ultimately about meaninglessness, Danielewski’s well aware of the irony of the fact that he’s using language to try and represent thought, the unrepresentable. Language, and, more specifically, text, is tricksy in One Rainy Day in May; unreliable and threatening, as when the question “How many raindrops?”, repeated tens of times, falls rain-shaped across the page, the onset of one of Xanther’s seizures – an overload of text that brings not meaning but meaninglessness, because the question can’t be answered; or when the thoughts of Cas arrange themselves on the page to outline the shape of the Orb she’s deliberately not thinking about. In other words, by formally innovating to better imitate the patterns of thought in text, Danielewski’s also revealing the exact inadequacy of text to do just that; a (Post)Modernist paradox if ever there was one.

There’s also the over-arching SFnal “plot”, for want of a better word, which further underlines the artificiality of narrative: it becomes clear as we read that the nine characters are actually being narrated by what seems to be a storytelling artificial intelligence, TF-Narcon9. This device serves to defamiliarise the act of reading; to highlight the alienness of having apparently omniscient access to another person’s mind, the point of view we as readers are so used to.

It’s clever. I’m not going to argue with the fact that Danielewski is probably a genius, and that he’s doing work that will probably be studied in universities in two hundred years. (His work actually reminds me quite a lot of William Blake’s: their texts have a similarly deliberate visual quality, an interest in how a book looks as well as what it says.) But it’s also a bit – sterile?

I’ve never been a fan of Modernist novels. Ulysses annoys me with its meandering, unreadable pretentiousness. Virginia Woolf bores me. Don’t talk to me about D.H. Lawrence. Formal innovation is important, of course, but it seems to come so often at the expense of any reason to care about what we’re reading. As with One Rainy Day in May, there doesn’t seem to be a point to showing up the falsenesses of narrative, beyond revealing that it’s all a lie. And that particular point’s been made before, over and over again (I mean, Chaucer did six hundred years ago in his Parliament of Fowles, did you really think there was anything new under the sun?).

This is definitely a personal thing, and it may be that I just prefer the consolations of traditional narrative to the excitement of formal innovation. But, to me, One Rainy Day in May, though not a slog by any means, feels more than a little like sound and fury signifying nothing much.