Tag: steampunk shenanigans

Review: The Children’s Book

What a lovely, rich novel AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book is!

It begins in the waning years of the Victorians and ends on the battlefields of the First World War: 1895-1918, roughly. It begins when the son of a curator at the nascent Victoria & Albert Museum finds a potter’s boy living in the basement, sketching wonders by day and sleeping in a sarcophagus by night. The potter’s boy is Philip, who’s run away from drudgery and ill-health in the factories of the north; rescued by the curator, he’s put up by a singular family, the Wellwoods, who live in a rambling country house in Kent. Olive Wellwood is a writer of fairy tales and children’s fables, and it’s largely her labour that sustains her large family’s sunlit, charmed existence in the breadbasket of England. (Her husband, Humphrey, is a lecturer, journalist and activist – none of them particularly lucrative professions.) In due course, the Wellwoods find Philip a position with a local potter, moody, unstable Benedict Fludd, an artistic genius who refuses responsibility for anything practical.

The family of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil rounds out this cast of characters: they are artists, thinkers, teachers, writers, activists, all of them people interested in engaging with the world meaningfully, through politics or art or theory. But as Byatt’s title suggests, what the novel is really interested in is childhood – more specifically (and per Rudd, in Reading the Child in Children’s Literature), how the concept of childhood is represented by and mediated through adults. Byatt’s said that the novel grew out of an idea that the children of many classic children’s authors have become suicidal: what does the commodification of a specific child’s experience do to the child in question? And, what does that child’s experience really look like?

It’s in service to this project that The Children’s Book exploits the gap between children’s literature and literature about children. The novel frequently inhabits children’s points of view – particularly those of Philip and of Tom, one of the Wellwood children. When it does so, it frequently touches on things you’d never find in children’s literature: nascent romantic longing, questions about a parent’s fidelity or otherwise. And in doing so, it points up how children are simplified, idealised, by adults.

A key motive for that idealisation is nostalgia – the longing for an Edenic golden age when we were responsible for nothing and ran carefree in the endless summer woods. Much of the novel is suffused with this Edenic quality, with many of its adult characters engaged in the work of planning or attending retreats, artists’ communes, exhibitions; creating, evoking or in some cases defending ideal spaces free from crass economic considerations.

And yet the novel’s ironising perspective on childhood makes it clear that such frozen, idealised bubbles of time did not, cannot, should not exist. The novel’s children do have real, “adult” concerns: poverty, parentage, the fights of adults around them, the shape of their futures. And attempting to “freeze” these children – to encourage them, like Peter Pan, never to grow up – has disastrous consequences for at least one of them. Even the titles of the novel’s three sections make it clear that Eden does not exist: Age of Silver, Age of Bronze, Age of Lead. There is no Golden Age.

What all of this is building up to, of course, is the apocalypse of the First World War – the conflict that irrevocably, inevitably shapes the lives of all these children (as we know it must right from the beginning of the novel), that puts an end to all thoughts of utopia once and for all. In Lacanian terms – also per Rudd – we can say that the war is the savage, uncontrollable irruption of the Real into the Imaginary, the ideal artistic Eden that Byatt’s characters have been striving towards for 600 pages. It shatters all illusions of meaning; in fact it co-opts Edenic meanings, as we see when a character starts collecting the whimsical children’s names men on the front have given to the trenches that become their tombs, grim travesties of the wonderlands those names are drawn from.

It’s the same kind of semantic breakdown that we see in T.S. Eliot’s great Modernist poem The Waste Land: “I think we are in rats’ alley/Where the dead men lost their bones.” Perhaps what Byatt is offering us here, then, is an evocation of our own golden age, the golden age that postmodernism looks back to – a nostalgia for a pre-ironic era when revolutionary ideals and ideas were sincerely held and the woods of England were still wonderful. In this reading, even the war is comforting: it is a telos, an ending we always already know is coming; even in its meaninglessness it gives these characters’ lives a meaningful shape.

But the novel’s layers of irony have already alerted us to the perils of nostalgia. There is no golden age. So this apparently nostalgic text ironises itself, in its final ultra-postmodern move: it becomes, like all the works of fiction and imagination it describes, unstable and contingent exactly where it seems most permanent, most ideal.

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Review: League of Dragons

So here it is: the last in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, an alternative history of the Napoleonic wars, with dragons.

League of Dragons opens with Napoleon’s forces fleeing through frozen Russia after a catastrophic defeat at the hands of the allied armies. It’s a major victory for everyone who doesn’t want to see Napoleon ruling over Europe, but it’s not the end of the war – especially when Napoleon’s dragon Lien steals a precious egg belonging to Temeraire (the series’ draconic co-protagonist) and fire-breathing Iskierka. The egg, and the creature that hatches from it, could be key to the war effort, and is in any case personally important to Temeraire and Iskierka – so of course it’s up to Temeraire’s Captain Laurence and his crew to get it back.

It’s actually a pretty episodic novel for a series ender. There’s the bitter trek across Russia at the beginning of the book; a stay in a peasant’s house; the rescue expedition itself; a spell in England while Laurence tries to win the allegiance of dragon captains who think poorly of him; and a lot of battlefield action, which involves plenty of military strategy and planning.

The theme running through much of the novel is that of Laurence’s unbending concept of honour: when is it useful, and when is it dangerous? For him, it’s one of the things that keeps military society together: having strict social codes and hierarchies avoids dangerous dissensions in military units, and that’s something Laurence struggles with when multiple dragon captains are placed under his command despite his historical trial for treason. But it can also lead him outside the very social codes it’s established to protect – as when he becomes involved in a duel with a pampered aristocrat; duels are frowned upon for dragon captains because it potentially robs the army of a valuable weapon (one dragon being much more valuable than one person).

This is a discussion that’s been happening throughout the series, though, and I’m not convinced League of Dragons advances it particularly. The episodic form of the novel is potentially more interesting – although, again, previous novels have done this (notably Throne of Jade, one of my favourites). I see lots of Goodreads commenters complaining that League of Dragons isn’t very climactic, but maybe that’s the point? For me, this isn’t a series whose best points are made by big battles and military strategy – it’s about relationships and the different kinds of allegiances people have to each other and their countries and societies, and how and where those allegiances clash. So it makes sense that this last novel would focus on putting its protagonist in all sorts of uncomfortable situations and seeing how he copes with them.

I do think that this novel has less of a focus on colonialism and other social justice issues than the series as a whole does. We see comparatively little of Laurence’s female crew member Emily Roland, and still less of her mother, Admiral Roland. Having said that, we do get flights of Chinese dragons and Napoleon’s wife, the Incan Empress Anahuarque – if not the detailed engagement with their societies that some of the earlier novels have delivered. It’s still great to see these cultures written into Novik’s universe in such a fundamental way, though.

I don’t know that this series particularly stands out for me. I’m fond of it; I love the gentle, caring interactions we get between Laurence and Temeraire (even if I think Novik infantilises the supposedly sentient dragons a little too much to make their case for independence and self-governance entirely credible). And I like the way it engages with Europe’s colonialist history and rewrites marginalised groups into what is in part a military comedy of manners (Laurence’s crew features at various points in the story a Black boy, a female crew member and a canonically gay man). I enjoy its discussion of honour and Novik’s careful depiction of her characters’ various relationships. I think it’s working hard, and largely succeeds in what it’s trying to do. Which – well, I don’t think there’s that much more you can ask for from a series.

Review: Feet of Clay

Feet of Clay is the nineteenth Discworld novel, which (astonishingly, when you think about it) puts it relatively early in the series. It’s the third novel about Ankh-Morpork’s City Watch, a police force which is slowly regaining relevance under Commander Samuel Vimes.

As with all of the Discworld novels, the plot is so encrusted with wordplay and humour and rich vital detail that it’s pretty much vestigial, but it is, more or less, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing old men. Somehow, the golems of the city are involved: giant clay people without voices, who are feared at worst and ignored at best, although they’re highly prized as workers because they don’t need to rest or eat or sleep. There’s also a plot to depose Ankh-Morpork’s supreme ruler Havelock Vetinari, because there’s always a plot to depose Vetinari. And there’s a dwarf who defies convention by openly identifying as female, in what is possibly Discworld’s closest approach to a queer storyline.

There is, in other words, a lot going on. That’s one of the great joys of the Ankh-Morpork novels, though: how full they are of life and incident, of the anarchic and wonderful energies of the archetypal city. (Ankh-Morpork is pretty obviously a mirror of London, with its great curving polluted river, its Isle of Gods, its defunct city gates.)

Much of that energy is generated by the social tensions the novel lays out, conflicts between old and new: the centuries-old vampire who manipulates short-lived humans like pawns on a chessboard comes up against the newly-relevant Watch and its stubbornly working-class Commander Vimes, fast rising to prominence; the brand-new concept of dwarf femininity attracts the opprobrium of much of dwarf-kind; the idea of golems suddenly having rights and thoughts and plans of their own is abhorrent, even terrifying, to Ankh-Morpork’s citizenry. But there’s nothing schematic or straightforward about this broad pattern of tension. Cherry Littlebottom, the lipstick-wearing, skirt-clad dwarf, harbours a commonly-held prejudice against werewolves, which she expresses repeatedly to her friend Constable Angua, who is herself a closeted werewolf. Vetinari, despite being the best ruler the city has ever had, despite being despised by aristocrats and generally on the side of justice, is an unelected tyrant with the capacity for occasional cruelty. The golems aren’t really new, they’re old, much like the Watch: so old they’ve become invisible. It’s this seething complexity, this web of allegiances and relationships, that makes Feet of Clay one of the very best of the Discworld novels: its view on the world is not simple.

But there is an arc, of course, and it is the long arc of justice. Discworld, and especially Ankh-Morpork, is founded on a vaguely Victorian idea of progress: the idea that things are getting better, slowly, by degrees, but inexorably. Things tend to be slightly better for people at the end of a Discworld novel than they do at the beginning.

Which is what makes these novels so comforting to return to, over and over again, in a time when things seem to be going backwards, when civil rights campaigns are appropriated by the interests of capital. That reassurance that things will get better, coupled with that acknowledgement that the world is messy and complex. The energies of a city slowly climbing to the light.

Review: Maskerade

This review contains spoilers.

Maskerade is the eighteenth novel in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, so Wikipedia the Fount of All Knowledge tells me. I tend to think of it as one of my favourites, because there are some habits that are hard to shake: I was distinctly unimpressed with it on my last read over Christmas, but here I am again, going, “Maskerade! That’s a good one!”

To be clear, that’s not because I actually think it’s a good Discworld novel, as Discworld novels go. It sees a pair of formidable witches, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, heading down to Ankh-Morpork, the big city, to recover a young woman called Agnes Nitt. Agnes has run away to join the opera, with the help of her literally preternatural vocal abilities: she can sing in harmony with herself. Only, Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg want her to join their coven in the benighted, mountainous country of Lancre.

When this merry cavalcade reaches the Opera House, though, something is amiss: performers and staff alike are being terrorised by a mysterious masked, cloaked figure who makes improbable demands punctuated by far too many exclamation marks. The opera people know him as the Ghost: until recently he’s done nothing worse than demand a box to himself on opening night, but now he’s killing people. And yet: the show must go on…

And go on it does, with Pratchett’s customary humour, wit and humanity.

There’s something very Twelfth Night about this novel: the Opera House is a place where people experiment with their identities, slip into new roles, as it were. Agnes reinvents herself as Perdita X. Nitt (“Perditax”, as Nanny Ogg insists on calling her), a person she feels is more interesting and thinner (more on that later) than Agnes is. Nanny Ogg becomes A Lancre Witch, bestselling author of a cookbook that puts Nigella Lawson’s innuendoes to shame. A painfully shy young man finds confidence and grace when he puts on a mask.

It’s good fun seeing the witches confronted with this chaotic role-play: Pratchett tends to put them in stories about stories anyway, about how stories shape our perceptions of ourselves and others, and how we perform those stories. But I think Maskerade is a weaker example of the type: I’m not convinced that its anarchic performative play has a point beyond itself. It’s just fun. The Opera House, and its particular superstitions and narratives, is important in that it allows for this kind of experimentation, but it is ultimately a closed world, beholden only to itself. When people leave, things go back to normal. Nothing changes, outside in society.

Comedy is at its roots a conservative genre, of course, and Pratchett is a small-c conservative writer: his Discworld novels mostly involve something going wrong in the body politic, and that something becoming redressed by the end. (The Rincewind books are notable exceptions, as is Small Gods.) That conservatism also finds its way out in some slightly, uh, old-fashioned views. In particular, Maskerade has a bunch of fat jokes that haven’t aged well, and like Pratchett’s early writing relies on some humour with subtly sexist undertones.

I still like it, of course. Some habits are hard to shake. Besides, visiting Ankh-Morpork, this wonderful vibrant world of Pratchett’s, pragmatic yet hopeful, is always a joy. Just. Maybe don’t start with this one.

Review: Washington Black

I am, for once, writing this review too early rather than waay too late. By which I mean: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black is a high seed in this year’s Tournament of Books, which has not happened yet, and thus I miss out on the kind of fascinating, thought-provoking discussion that would allow me to formulate an actual response to this novel instead of a stream-of-consciousness ramble.

I have, however, been in time to nominate Washington Black for a Hugo Award, on the basis that the WSFS effectively defines SFF as “whatever you think it is”, and the novel (briefly) has an airship in it, and is, therefore, steampunk, QED.

Some context might be nice, yes? Washington Black‘s eponymous hero is a plantation slave in Barbados when the novel opens. At just twelve years old, he’s selected by his owner’s brother Titch as an assistant: Titch is building an airship/hot air balloon/thing called the Cloud Cutter. After a series of events put Wash in the frame for murdering a white man (a murder he didn’t commit), he and Titch escape together in the Cloud Cutter, which promptly crashes into a merchant ship, and then…

Well, it’s the kind of novel where a lot of things happen one after the other for perfectly good, logical reasons, only where you end up is quite different to where you began. It is, in fact, picaresque. Ever since Henry Fielding wrote Tom Jones in 1749, the picaresque in English has been a social novel, in explicit opposition to the personal, confessional novelistic tradition exemplified by Samuel Richardson’s contemporaneous Pamela (seriously, don’t read either of them, Tom’s very sexist and Pamela’s a wimp). The picaresque is interested in the roles its characters take with regards to the people around them. Hence the endlessly various situations picaresque heroes tend to end up in: you don’t particularly believe that they would all happen to the same person, but that’s really beside the point, which is to interrogate how a person formed in a specific way responds to different social roles or situations.

It’s interesting that Edugyan chooses this genre – which is usually satirical, larger than life, funny – to talk about the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, which is none of those things. I think it works because of the way Wash’s former status follows him around: it doesn’t matter where he goes or which roles he takes on, he can’t escape the fact that he was once a slave, and that he’s been deemed a murderer. There’s this remorseless focus on the physicality of Black bodies, even in the genteel parlours of Georgian England. A “rope of blood” is a recurring image. We are reminded constantly of the processes of dehumanisation that enabled the slave trade, the reduction of people to nameless bodies and their labour. We are reminded, constantly, of the many-formed ubiquity of racism.

Is it steampunk, though? I’d call it anti-steampunk: it subverts all the ideas that steampunk holds dear. The Cloud Catcher crashes out of history, never to be seen again, on about page 20. Its only narrative function, maybe, is to get us to look for other steampunk tropes. Wash has a talent for drawing, which evolves into an interest in the biology of sea creatures and then into invention. He draws and designs and writes and never gets credit for any of it – a rebuke to the unexamined steampunk ideal of the lone inventor. Unexamined because culturally specific: that lone inventor is always, and because always, invisibly, white. Or, rather, the ideal is founded in white privilege: the ability of a white person to ignore the nuances of cultural specificity.

So, yeah. I like how this novel repurposes genres essentially created by, and for, white men, and forces us to think about how those narrative structures fail people who aren’t white men. I don’t think it’ll win the ToB: it’s got neither the overwhelming weight or the broad likability that between them characterise most ToB winners. But I am looking forward to what people think about it.

Review: Trigger Warning

If there is one thing I would like to happen in 2019, it is for us all to agree that Neil Gaiman’s work is nowhere near as edgy, dark or interesting as his public persona is.

(Actually, there are a lot of other things I would rather happen in 2019 – sustained action on climate change, the impeachment of Donald Trump, a second Brexit referendum – but, you know. Neil Gaiman’s also quite annoying.)

How did I end up reading Trigger Warning? The marketing for his work promises twisty, thorny fairy tales, urban fantasy from the underbelly of modern life, stories that are fun and yet meaty, and that was what I was hoping for from this collection of “Short Fictions and Disturbances”.

And once again, I found it lacking that indefinable something. Depth. Nuance. Resonance.

To me, the most satisfying fantasy, the best fairy tales, are built on a paradox: they describe something that is indescribable. Through omission or metaphor, they talk about the numinous, the earth-shattering intrusion of the Real into our lives that lie under layers of story and symbol; they are about things that cannot be narrated. They resonate because they contain lacunae.

Perhaps this is why Gaiman’s Sandman series of graphic novels works so much better for me than his novels and short stories do: the images supply that resonance; wordless, they speak the unspeakable. There is nothing in Trigger Warning that does the same.

If you’re looking for an example of the collection’s lack of depth and nuance, look no further than its red-flag-to-a-bull title, based on a deliberate misunderstanding of how the phrase “trigger warning” is actually used. In his introduction to the book, Gaiman muses, with reference to his title:

Are fictions safe places? And then I ask myself, Should they be safe places?

And then, later on, he talks about stories he read as a child:

they…taught me that, if I was going to read fiction, sometimes I would only know what my comfort zone was by leaving it; and now, as an adult, I would not erase the experience of having read them if I could.

This romanticising of story and having grown up through fiction, as so many of us readers did, is of a piece with Gaiman’s authorial persona: the mysterious storyteller/bard warning us that fiction is never just fiction, that it can lead us into the mire and through the dark forests of the night, and that this is, mystically, a good thing. But, you’ll notice, it’s not actually very well-argued. For a start, note how paying heed to a trigger warning becomes conflated with not leaving your “comfort zone”. No. Staying in your comfort zone is, like, never watching anything apart from Doctor Who on TV, or having the same sandwich every day for lunch. Whereas, as I suspect Gaiman very well knows, encountering a trigger unannounced can be for a PTSD sufferer a matter of life and death. Comfort zones are formed by habit, and, mostly, there’s nothing actually unsafe about leaving them. (Although, as a sidenote, what’s wrong with staying in your comfort zone at least some of the time?) Trigger warnings are about not destabilising someone’s entire mental health. Fiction doesn’t need to be a safe place, but neither should it be radically unsafe. There’s a world of difference between the two, and it says nothing for Gaiman’s power as a writer that he misses, skips over, that nuance.

As for the stories themselves: they are mostly quite ordinary. There are sub-Twilight Zone-ish stories with trick endings and nothing much else, like “The Thing about Cassandra” and “Click-Clack the Rattlebag”; very inferior verse offerings like “My Last Landlady”; riffs on other people’s work like “The Case of Death and Honey” (Sherlock Holmes) and “Nothing O’Clock” (Doctor Who). There’s an entire “Calendar of Tales”, all of them very short and very minor.

I’ve written about Gaiman’s squicky fetishisation/aesthetisisation of dead or unconscious female bodies before, and sure enough, it turns out here in force, marring particularly the better stories in the collection. Take “Diamonds and Pearls: A Fairy Tale”, which Gaiman originally wrote to accompany a photograph of a dead woman. (Actually it was his wife pretending to be dead for an art project, which actually makes the whole thing more troubling.) And the dramatic reveal at the end of the otherwise standout “Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” is founded on the remembered image of a red-haired female skeleton.

I enjoyed “The Return of the Thin White Duke”, which feels like something that’s wandered out of a Mechanisms fanfic, but, once again, its sole female character is aesthetisised for the male gaze (although not dead, so that’s some improvement).

We can probably tie this aesthetisisation of women to Gaiman’s deliberate misuse of the phrase “trigger warning”, which originated in feminist spaces. In too much of his writing, women don’t get to have voices, and they don’t get to have agency: they exist to be looked at, to bear children, to inspire men to revenge or fulfilment. Their images and their words get co-opted by a highly influential white male author – an author whose public persona and reputation in the press exudes progressiveness.

My favourite story in the collection was “Black Dog”, a companion story to Gaiman’s novel American Gods. I’ll probably end up reading that too at some point. And I’ll probably finish it feeling disappointed and a bit angry.

Review: The Golem and the Djinni

This review contains spoilers.

Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Djinni brings together two supernatural creatures in New York City, late 19th century: Chava, a golem created as the perfect wife for a Jewish man from Poland, who promptly dies during the passage to America; and Ahmad, a djinni bound to human form who’s been shut up in an oil flask for centuries and is unwittingly released by a Syrian metalsmith.

Although they assimilate into communities that are completely separate – in fact, Wecker hints at actual animosity – their mutual loneliness, supernatural beings trying to pass as human in a city full of eyes, brings them together. It’s no great surprise when this evolves, eventually, into romance (although not before both of them have embarked on other romantic entanglements with humans). In the best traditions of romance, the novel is interested in harmonising elements of society that are at odds, bringing together worldviews that oppose each other: so while Chava is prudent, compliant, supportive of her friends and hyper-aware of the needs of those around her (literally; she’s been designed to be telepathic), Ahmad is self-involved, hedonistic and resentful of the restrictions belonging to a community places on him. Their relationship is thus ultimately about finding a middle way, about compromise: the kind of compromise that is necessary in any multicultural city, and in any romantic relationship.

So far, so schematic. But: why does The Golem and the Djinni need to be fantasy? Abigail Nussbaum asks the same question in her review of the novel for Strange Horizons:

…would the novel had [sic] been any worse, or even that different, if the cover stories concocted by its protagonists and their guardians were actually true, if Chava had been a young, naive Jewish widow newly arrived in New York City, and Ahmad a headstrong, self-absorbed Bedouin happy to take his pleasures where he could and not think about what they cost others?*

I agree with her assessment that the use of the fantastic allows Wecker to write a fairytale of New York (ha), rather than a warts-and-all representation of what life there was really like at the turn of the twentieth century; and that the novel’s epic fantasy ending does too much violence to the sepia-tinted melancholy of the rest of the tale, generating too easy a conclusion for Our Protagonists. In fact, the general trend of the novel is towards simplification: the fairytale quality of the text, charming as it is, demands clarity, a moral, a single meaning, from a novel that wants to be capable of multitudes. For instance, the novel is interested in the constriction of female lives and desires in history. It shows us several women who are at the mercy of men, who cannot be all they want to be because society prevents it. Chava herself is driven nearly to the brink of a disastrous breakdown because to pass as a respectable woman she must restrict herself to specific domestic activities. And yet, one of the key questions that drives the novel is: who will Chava end up with? And so the text itself does the violence it describes. And not with cute self-awareness, either.

I don’t think that Wecker’s sepia-tinted nostalgia is, in itself, a bad quality for a novel like this to have; it’s just that The Golem and the Djinni is muddled and unsure of its project. Its melancholy doesn’t work with the clear-cut, schematic lessons it asks us to take away. It is neither complex enough nor simple enough to work properly – ironically enough, it strives for a middle way, a compromise. Compromises hold people together, but they sabotage novels. I liked Wecker’s book, but it’s not one I’ll remember.