religion

PKD’s Exegesis: it begins

I am about a month behind in the Exegesis read along, but I still want to post some thoughts. You can see my intro post about it here.

exegesisThe first fifty pages (and to be honest, I feel the pattern will hold for the entirety of the volume) are an odd mix of borderline unhinged pronouncements (of the ‘I’m getting messages from aliens’ type) and simply examples of someone trying to figure out where thoughts, visions, and creativity come from, and trying to explain it in terms both neurophysiological and mystical. At least for me, the beginning of Exegesis is peculiar but not outrageously so. Perhaps it is because at one point I myself lived on a somewhat steady diet of mystical literature, from myth analyses to Jungian alchemical essays. Perhaps it is simply recognition that this is another human mind trying to figure out itself, though PKD’s take on it might be more peculiar than most.

Peculiarity here is mixed with a dose of self-importance, which might be inflated because most of this was not written for others’ eyes. The idea that one’s novels are predicting the future, coming true, and, in fact, forming said future is a great science fiction concept. And therein lies the Exegesis rub. Is PKD living in a PKD novel? Is he writing non-fiction for some distant future? Are his novels, upon leaving his mind and typewriter, go on to change the fabric of reality itself? He seems to believe all or some of these things.

And for those of you who are wondering whether this volume is a slog: it isn’t. It is, oddly enough, quite readable, something which a few of us in this read along pointed out. I have a feeling we are all going to come after having reached page 300 or thereabouts and renounce our words, but we’ll see. Is it worth your time? It depends. If you think you will enjoy not-intended-for-publication self-examination ramblings full of religious and philosophical references, then I think you’ll have a blast.

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October reads: Witches of America by Alex Mar

witches of americaI just finished Witches of America by Alex Mar (out 10/20/15), and it gave me all kinds of nostalgic feelings for my pagany days. In the future I might write about those, but for now it’s enough to know that I used to be one of ‘Witches of America’ (or, more accurately, ‘Druids of America’).

Witches of America is not an exhaustive study of paganism today. If you want that, you might want to check out Ronald Hutton or similar. Mar’s book mostly deals with the Feri tradition and OTO (Ordo Templi Orientis) ceremonial magic practitioners, but it is not just an anthropological study either. It’s also a memoir and an exploration of Mar’s personal spirituality, which I found particularly interesting and also very familiar. Her doubts about the religious side of the Craft, her interest in a mystery tradition, both seemed to be precisely on my wavelength.

Mar’s approach to belief is similar to mine in that she is ‘compelled by the mysterious’ and ‘drawn to the outer edges, the fringe — communities whose esoteric beliefs cut them off from the mainstream but also bind them closer together.’ At one point I labeled myself a perpetual seeker because I could not settle. I kept chasing something that would give me meaning, almost initiate me into my own mind, if you will. I also always viewed magic as a path to self-transformation. When Mar finally starts training in the Feri tradition, she talks about seemingly enrolling in therapy through witchcraft. I was also looking for something that would help me make my own narrative, a story of myself. I now realize that a lot of my search was closely tied to my uneasiness with the gender I was assigned at birth and an attempt to find a place that would make me comfortable with my body, but my approach to religious belief remains much the same.

Mar’s view on large pagan gatherings and their ecumenicism is also spot-on. It is virtually impossible to make up a ritual that will not seem diluted and bland, if you are trying to make it for vastly diverse groups of people. The largest rituals I attended were always the least meaningful for me, even if the amount of power raised was through the roof. Mar says: ”Maybe this is my problem, evidence of damage to my own psyche, that i’m looking for something deeper, darker, more layered, harder to live with.’

If anything, Witches of America allowed me to take a look at paganism from a certain remove but not as a stranger. It also made me realize that my engagement with paganism was from a perspective of a completely different person. Mar’s chapter on Dianic (largely women-only) Wicca now raises in my mind an important question of inclusion/exclusion of transwomen (Mar mentions this concern very briefly in a footnote, but it is mentioned). People going skyclad and a very binary power structure of most rituals now make me wonder if I would feel comfortable in such a cis-oriented setting. That said, I like to think that if any religion would be okay with gender fluidity and bodies that do not conform to a standard, it’s paganism. I haven’t really participated in anything pagany in many years and certainly not since my transition, but now I have this urge to dip back in and see how it would feel now.

Plus, it inspired me to clean my house and find all my Tarot decks and a bunch of cloak clasps (though the latter are mostly for the Ren Faire outing next weekend).

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‘Like looking into glass’: not a review of City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

cityofstairsI’ve been rereading City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett for the past couple of days. Yes, rereading. The book is freshly out, but I had read the ARC back in April and wanted to read it again. I have terrible memory for books. I remember if I liked them or not, but plot details evaporate from my brain in mere days. It’s rather inconvenient, professionally speaking, because customers tend to not be amused by sales pitches like ‘You should read this book. It’s about things.’

I also wanted to read it again because I was going to write a proper reviewI even made notes and used post-it notes. But now that I’m actually sitting here in front of the screen, I don’t think I need to add to already enormous buzz that surrounds this book. There are many reviews out there (see, for example, this blog post on Bennett’s shiny new website, and while you are there, check out maps and images of Bulikov). You can read or skim them at your leisure, but one thing you will probably take away from this activity is that City of Stairs is amazing and worth your time.

I liked this book so much because it hit all the right notes for me. Deities in fiction, check (dead ones? even better). An Eastern European-esque culture, check (I could probably write another naming essay like I did for Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins). City as a character and great world-building, check. Mysterious artifacts, check. All of this is excellent. Pick it up.

Really, the only problem with this book is the hooded dude cover.

God is dead: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

Gods, like men, can die. They just die harder, and smite the earth with their passing. 

I am a sucker for gods and religion in my SF books. Maybe it’s because these subjects remind me of reading myths. I loved the Greek mythology tome I had as a kid. The gods in it were wise, petty, mighty, vain, all of the above, occasionally at the same time. Those myths were great stories to start with, so it’s no surprise that I later transitioned to reading strange and speculative fiction.

three-parts-deadThree Parts Dead has organized religion, worship, faith, and gods in spades. At its most basic, it is a mystery novel. It begins with the death of Kos Everburning, the god who keeps the city of Alt Coulumb running. His death is discovered during the watch of a novice priest Abelard. It later appears that Kos’s death might have involved some foul play.

Enter Tara Abernathy, a necromancer recently graduated from the Hidden Schools. She arrives in the city with her boss, Elayne Kevarian, and the two attempt to solve this case with the help of chain-smoking Abelard, a vampire, a servant of Justice (see: police officer), and even some gargoyles.

Gladstone writes a great tale, bringing all these characters together and feeding the reader details and tidbits that become important later, which makes Three Parts Dead a lot of fun to read. What he also does, however, is build a fascinating world and set out some interesting rules. Rules, for example, that govern humans’ relationship with their god. In essence, gods are business people. They operate by contract. You provide worship, they provide power (as my late teacher of Irish used to say, ‘there are no nice goddesses, only successfully propitiated ones’). And so gods can die by owing more power than they could provide. Something drained Kos of power and left him a lifeless husk.

But wait, not all is lost. You can, in fact, bring the god back to life. Or some semblance of life. It probably won’t be the same god, but it will be good enough for government work, as it were (Justice, in fact, used to be Seril, a goddess that had died in God Wars). Hence the summoning of Kevarian and Tara, both necromancers.

Gladstone’s worldbuilding offers many other cool things to the reader. The idea of Craft is fascinating. It sounds like ordinary magic, but its origin is quite interesting. It’s ‘half art, half science’, and it was born from ‘the awe at how well divine hands has made a thing, and the insatiable need to improve on that design’. It almost sounds like the origin of alchemy, an attempt by humans to improve on nature. The expression of Craft itself seems almost Harry Potter-like, theatrical. It’s not always clear how the Craft works, but it seems the kind of magic you want to have (you know, the kind that comes with the ability to levitate objects).

The characters, the rules, and the world make Three Parts Dead much more than just a SFnal mystery novel (as Abelard says, ‘could we please not talk about God as if He were a corpse on the floor?’). I already have Two Serpents Rise on my nightstand, and Full Fathom Five, Gladstone’s newest book, will definitely end up in my hands as well.

Reading in the genre and James Morrow’s Madonna And The Starship

I spent most of last week walking around town (with a brief detour to Baltimore), listening to genre podcasts, reading books, and making lists of more books I would like to read. I drafted a couple of posts and maybe even started a story. In other words, business as usual. All this reading and listening led to an examination of my own genre reading habits. In my weird mind, SF sub-genres are very loosely organized along a spectrum, with epic fantasy on one end and hard sci-fi on the other. Or maybe it’s a system of coordinates. Whatever it may be, it is not a value scale by any means. As I inspect my TBR stacks and books long overdue at the library, I realize that while I read quite widely in the genre, anything that belongs on either end of this spectrum does not get read all that much anymore. I used to read a lot of epic fantasy, and I went through the space opera phase, but now my tastes veer towards more nebulous books. Books that mix genres, the New Weird stuff, slipstream, just Strange Fiction (whatever that may be). Stuff that gets nominated for Shirley Jackson Award, which I simply call Disturbing Fiction. I don’t want just sword and sorcery, I want sword and sorcery and spaceships together. Or maybe sword and sorcery and meta-fictional twists. I don’t really want to start a genre nomenclature conversation, I just want to point out that my own tastes gravitate towards the less easily defined stuff.

Another category I don’t tend to read much is humorous or satirical sci-fi/fantasy. I’ve read my share of Sir Terry, but only when nothing else would do. I love Douglas Adams, but again, only when I really feel like it. Vonnegut is a wizard, but his books are not the ones I would just pick up. And yet when I sat down to write my not-yet-existent story, I realized that the resulting product was very much in the Pratchett/Adams style. I might want to write disturbing dark fiction, but what comes out on my screen has talking space shrimp and (probably) witty dialogue.

madonnaAnd so I decided I might as well read and re-read some funny books. I picked up James Morrow’s The Madonna And The Starship (you can see a full review by Michael Dirda here). It’s set in the 1950s, aka golden days of television, when every show was broadcast live, and its main character is Kurt Jastrow, a writer for one of those live television shows. The show, which includes a scientific demonstration for children, is apparently popular not just in the US, but also on Qualimosa, a planet inhabited by sentient lobsters (see, space crustaceans are always in vogue).  The lobsters are into all things rational and anti-religious, and so they are delighted by the science show, but also rather disturbed by a religious show aired on the same network. The Qualimosans therefore decide to eradicate this religious madness by killing everyone who watches the religious show during the next broadcast. Various hijinks ensue to persuade the lobsters not to vaporize millions of humans. The book makes fun of sci-fi kids shows (rooted in ‘bedrock implausibility’), sponsored broadcasts, blind adherence to any kind of point of view, depictions of aliens, you name it. It’s a delight to read: ‘heartless aliens, promiscuous death rays, casual slaughter — this was science fiction at its worst.’ It mentions all these things, plus it has giant genocidal blue lobsters from outer space. There is, perhaps, too much of what Dirda calls ‘retro-fun’. There are some in-jokes in the book, but I wonder how many people will get them (I certainly didn’t). It’s still a fun read, as a satire novel should be.

I leave you with a friend I made at the National Aquarium a few days ago. She is not a crustacean, and no, she is not from outer space, and she probably doesn’t care about your religious beliefs (she is also asleep in this picture). Might have anti-social tendencies, though.

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Not the Toronto I remember: Afterparty by Daryl Gregory

Work was quite insane last week, but I managed to work on my ARC pile demolition project by finishing Afterparty by Daryl Gregory. I loved his Pandemonium and sort of liked The Devil’s Alphabet (in that I thought it was interesting but not a particularly enjoyable book).

afterparty-cover-400x582I had really high expectations for Afterparty. Sometimes predisposition to like the book leads to actual liking, but ever so often it leads to disappointment. Afterparty wasn’t really a disappointment per se, but it wasn’t as awesome as I had expected it to be. That said, after a great start and then a somewhat lackluster second quarter it got much better about halfway through (and once again proved my theory that inclusion of a weird/eerie/genius/unsettling little girl character can only improve your novel).

It has neat ideas and interesting discussion of said neat ideas. Well, you have a drug that makes you a true believer in whatever god you now have as an imaginary friend. The question then becomes that if everyone has intimate connection and access to their own personal deity, will this make them crazy believers or actually better people? There are also all kinds of questions one can ponder about the nature of religious belief and the creation of such. If you are an atheist who is taking this drug, does this mean you now believe in god, or does this mean you spend the rest of your life fighting an exhausting battle trying to convince your own brain that your god is only imaginary?

Gregory always manages to put interesting ideas about humanity and consciousness into his books, and Afterparty is no exception. Plus, it starts in Toronto, which remains one of the best places in which to set your sci-fi novel. You go, hometown.

Here’s Afterparty on Indiebound if you want to give some nice indie your money for it.