speculative fiction

Readings: Bakewell, Aziz

I feel like I am finally getting my life back. Might even go running today, if all goes well.

existentialistAfter fairly reading-deprived March, I now seem to be devouring books at a steady clip. I have belatedly dived into Sarah Bakewell’s At the Existentialist Cafe, which is very very good if you are looking for non-fiction. I find myself drawn to these types of ‘group biographies’, wherein a certain time period or theme is explored through lives of several people. In this case, philosophy and existentialism in particular are explored through lives of people who started the whole wonderful mess: Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Karl Jaspers, and a whole host of others. Bakewell does a fantastic job connecting both philosophy and biography elements of the book, so the volume is both a great intro to existentialism and a fascinating look at some interesting lives.

I also finished The Queue by Basma Abdel Aziz (translation by Elisabeth Jaquette). I have woefully enormous gaps when it comes to Middle Eastern literature, so this is filling some of those. The easy description of it would be 1984 mixed with Arab Spring. This is the kind of book reviewers would describe as ‘chilling’, I suppose. It is firmly in the ‘disturbingly true dystopia’ camp. Something called the Gate appears after a failed uprising. The Gate controls all of citizens’ lives, including their access to doctors and healthcare. One must submit applications to have life-saving surgery (which obviously means one does not get said surgery in time to save life). Mind you, the Gate is never open, and so the action takes place almost entirely in the queue that forms in front of it. It is a rather grim little book, but worth reading. Out May 24th.

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Readings: John Wray

Last week was pretty damn trying, both personally and work-wise. Routine disruption made it even worse. There were a couple of days where things I usually do at certain time of the day did not get done, and for some reason it really became an issue by the end of the week. Yesterday I found a nice reading space by the National Gallery of Art and tried to catch up on both reading and writing.

wray I started John Wray’s Lost Time Accidents a week or so ago and then realized I could only read it on days when I had stretches of uninterrupted time. It is a novel that I guess would be described as ‘literary genre’. In this case, it is a genre novel both because it is a historical novel and because it speculates on the nature of time. Charles Yu wrote a review of it for the Sunday edition of the New York Times Book Review, and I am glad that NYT chose a sci-fi author to do the review of what is not a strictly sci-fi novel. He is pretty on point in his review – it is a complex novel, and by virtue of being extremely sprawling, its complexity does not always work, but I am enjoying the novel’s messiness and detail (besides, it is far from a plodding read). I am a sucker for long historical novels with weird things in them, particularly if they include elements from both history of science and science fiction. There is also a fictionalized version of a sci-fi writer named Orson Card Tolliver who might be an amalgam of Ron L. Hubbard and Andrew Offutt.

It’s unusual for me to stretch my reading of a fiction book over a number of weeks. I think the last time I did this was with Nicola Griffith’s Hild (for much the same reason, I needed uninterrupted time to pay attention). I am now more than a halfway through, and unless it really goes down south, I recommend this one if you are a fan of big books full of family sagas, physicists, possibly time-traveling Nazis, and narratives that attempt to cover both decades and infinities.

 

Readings: Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome by Serge Brussolo

brussoloSerge Brussolo’s mind must be a fascinating place. The best and possibly only way to describe his Deep Sea Diver’s Syndrome, now published in English by Melville House, is weird. It’s probably not the New Weird, seeing how it’s decades old (funny how something published in 1992 can now be described as such), but weird nonetheless. The book is about mediums, people who ‘dive’ into dreams, steal artifacts within, and bring them into the real world as art objects. The quality of this art depends on how dangerous and daring the theft was. Some people bring back enormous sculptures, some bring what might better be described as trinkets.

 
Here’s why this book is amazing: the imagery. Brussolo is so good at descriptions and details, that when he describes nausea, you feel queasy. He throws a lot of bizarre details at you, and occasionally they miss, but mostly this barrage of sur-reality is incredibly immersive and thus makes you wonder what it’s like to have a mind that comes up with this.

Here’s why I have a problem with it: it has a certain dated aesthetic, mostly in how it treats characters. All women in it are either there for sex or are not particularly nice and at the same time needy. This didn’t really hit me until about halfway through the book because I was just so immersed in the fantastical minutiae, but when it did, it soured the book for me quite a bit. Basically, what could have been a five became a three.

Readings: Theodora Goss and the wonderfully strange

Here in our nation’s capital we are heading into that time of the year when it’s already dark at 4:30, the evenings are interminable, and one can barely get out of bed in the mornings. We don’t get a lot of snow, so winter is essentially a bleak parade of cold and disgusting days. They aren’t cold enough for fur hats and multiple layers, but they are too cold for anything more vigorous than drinking wine and reading under blankets.

It’s also the time of the year when I feel like reading something weird and strange. The problem with weird is that it is a spectrum, and it’s not always clear where on it the exact weird you need lies. Do I feel like Jeff VanDermeer-style weird? John M. Harrison? Catherynne M. Valente?

Occasionally one feels like finding something that could be described as ‘wonderfully strange’. I guess that’s what I needed, and I eventually found it in a book I bought a year ago on a whim. It’s a collection of stories by Theodora Goss called In the Forest of Forgetting.

DNOA4910The first story in the collection is a retelling of The Sleeping Beauty, and while I am normally not very much into fairy tale retellings (I like them when they are well-done, but I do not seek them out), this one was great. The second story pretty much hit the ‘weird’ I had been seeking, and so I by the time I read the incredibly beautiful third story, I was thoroughly in love with Theodora Goss and her wonderfully strange tales.

Short stories are my wavelength right now, mostly because I’m writing my own and I need to read other people’s to learn from and be inspired. I am trying to write every day, and I am hacking my brain by using Habitica to do this, because apparently doing tasks for fake gold works. The next step is to also draw every day. I don’t think it’s possible to have a more than full-time job, write, draw, read, and also get enough sleep, so something has to give. I’d like to hope it’s not sleep.

Incidentally, my next read on the ‘weird’ stack is John M. Harrison’s Light. I know a couple of people in my blog feed have been reading Harrison’s stuff, so let me join the collective subconscious that is obviously hungering for something truly odd this time.

Radiance by Catherynne M. Valente

There is naught on Pluto but magicians, Americans, and the mad.

It seems that most of my favorite authors are the ones with whom I have an uneven track record of book enjoyment. I think it’s a sign that they try something different each time they write a book, and sometimes different works for me and sometimes it doesn’t. I love China Miéville, but I don’t love all his stuff. Same for Murakami. Same for Guy Gavriel Kay.

Same for Catherynne Valente. My favorite of hers is still The Habitation of the Blessed. I did not like her Deathless as much as I had hoped to. For some reason, I could not get through her Orphan’s Tales books (even though it seems that for most people, these are the books that got them into Valente’s work). Her novella, The Bread We Eat In Dreams, blew me away. And now there’s Radiance.

radianceRead the first sentence on the flap of its dust jacket: ‘Radiance is a decopunk pulp SF alt-history space-opera mystery set in a Hollywood – and solar system – very different from our own.’ It’s the type of novel that in book reviews earns descriptors like ‘experimental’ or ‘audacious’, which is code language for ‘too hard to read and sell to customers’.

I like those ‘audacious’ books that are many genres at once, mostly because if you want to write a mystery set in an alternate Solar system, then what does it really matter whether it’s mystery, or sci-fi, or alternate history? I like when people write in ‘whatever the fuck’ genre.*

I also really like stories that are non-linear or stories that try unusual formats, and in that sense Radiance is rather perfect. There are film scripts, interviews, transcripts, newspaper clippings. To use this method of storytelling for what appears to be a murder mystery is actually not that unusual or far-fetched (Jesse Ball’s Silence Once Begun is told largely in interviews, to use one example), but it is a neat way to avoid omniscience when unraveling a puzzle and deliver emotional punches using seemingly unemotional narration.

And there’s also the setting. I never doubt that Catherynne Valente can work magic with the setting. Her words build amazing worlds, and this one is no exception. The planets are habitable (and Pluto is back on the roster), and Hollywood has moved entirely to the Moon to make their silent movies with starlets whose skin is turning blue because of silver in the water. How is it that we are suddenly living on Mercury? Does it matter? This is not the time to complain about handwavium, suspend your disbelief and be immersed.

And yet how is it that I cannot gush about this book? Maybe there were too many things going on at the same time, or maybe the format got a little too audacious. At one point I had this eerie feeling that I was endlessly watching the Tevye’s dream scene from Fiddler On the Roof that I so dislike. I could not tell what was going on. I think that perhaps for me, Valente’s style of writing occasionally gets in the way of the story. It seemed perfect in The Habitation Of The Blessed, but here it was not on my brainwave length. Perhaps this multitude of formats and time jumps required a tighter grip on the pacing of the story, and Valente’s own genius and not being afraid to play with her own creation did the story itself a disservice.

But in the end, you should try it. Who knows, maybe alt-history space decopunk mystery is exactly your jam.

*What is even genre? Wait, let’s not. Rhetorical question. Moving on.