The Rifles by William Vollmann (Seven Dreams #6)

the riflesThis is the sixth of the Seven Dreams of William the Blind, but both the third in publication order and the third I’ve read. After the Vikings crashed through Greenland into the New World, amidst saga and song, to encounter The People in The Ice-Shirt, and later the French Jesuits too meet The People in Fathers and Crows, we now journey to Canada and follow three distinct but interwoven threads.

  1. Doomed John Franklin and his quest for the Northwest Passage.

Why did Franklin go north again? We who are interested in him mainly for his gruesome death believe that he did it to die, that he possessed a morbid lemming’s heart whose ventricles were rimmed most dismally.

2. William Vollman’s obsession with the Arctic and the self-actualization it supplies for him. Captain Subzero, Vollman’s alter-ego, is the main character, the “grave-twin” of John Franklin himself. Just how much is fact and how much fiction in this portion is murky; I hope the times Subzero is being a creep to teenage girls is fiction.

3. The plight of the Inuit in the face of white colonialism. In a ploy to ‘claim the Arctic’, among less malevolent but equally destructive notions, the Canadian government force relocated dozens of Inuit living in northern Quebec into Resolute Bay, in the far north. Look at this goddamn map. They lived in tents in the first years. Up there.

They would nearly starve. They would be sexually abused. They weren’t allowed to leave. Some would kill themselves rather than relocate. It took until 2010, twenty years after this novel was written and about seventy five since the relocations began, for the Canadian government to apologize. Forget reparations.

Above all these story threads, the Arctic looms. Dangerous and beautiful and cold. Very, very cold. The Seven Dreams are a tale of North American landscapes and none are as well realized as the impossibly vast North. My favorite part of the novel is Vollmann’s account of the twelve days he spent alone in an abandoned weather station on Isachsen island, some sort of necessary test of masculinity and self-endurance, wherein the weather plunged to -40C and he seemed to almost die each night. It’s almost astounding how many times the point of “It’s really fucking cold there” can be made and shock me all the same.

The arctic is merely Vollmann’s obsession; surely it had to have some kind of special appeal to John Franklin — he came to his death on his fourth arctic voyage afterall. The novel fills in the blanks of what happened to him and his men, though I’d say I found this the least compelling plot thread. Of major interest to me was that it was not poor planning or the cold itself that doomed them, but the new tinned provisions they brought with them, which spoiled well before they should have and also gave the entire crew severe lead poisoning. Franklin himself fell long before the crew attempted their last ditch effort of land-based escape. 

Not simply the title, The Rifles is the chief metaphor of the novel as well. The introduction of rifles by Europeans pretty much annihilated the traditional Inuit way of life. Plus they became dependent on the whites for ammo. The old ways of hunting, which required actual skill and patience, fell to the wayside in favor of quick and effortless rifle kills. Worse, it meant that they could kill many more musk-oxen and carribou and Canada became just about devoid of them in a dramatically short time. Many starved. Franklin’s expedition among them. Vollman lists a dozen quotes by whites on the subject, wherein people seem to be somewhat aware of what’s happening. It’s all very ominous, he notes, but also we can only say this in retrospect. The whites delivered plenty abuses unto the Inuit (and still do), but like any situation where modern mechanization disturbs peoples not privy to their development, what should they have done? Jealously kept the rifles to themselves?

I’m avoiding the last topic I’ll address here because it makes me somewhat uncomfortable and I’m not really sure how to address it: Reepah

Far better realized than either Franklin or Subzero is Reepah, listed in the glossary as “a woman with a beautiful heart”. The mistress of Subzero or maybe Franklin or maybe the Fulmar of Inuit myth, she spins through the narrative as various characters, typically being both loved and exploited by the former characters. Possibly impregnated by them. Maybe William Vollmann/Subzero brought her to visit him in New York. Maybe she killed herself. It’s here the fact/fiction divide is most maddening. Is Reepah real? If so, how bad was she exploited by Vollmann? Is she a metaphor for Inuit exploitation? If so, that kind of sucks too. Whatever or whoever she is, she’s magnetic and I’m sad she’s dead, real or not.

Odin Sphere Leifthrasir

odinsphere

Somehow, Odin Sphere, a cult classic from the PS2 era, was lovingly remastered.  I didn’t even know people bought this game back then. And it’s not just a remaster in the commonly used sense of new HD graphics, but a total rebalancing and update of the game that should make other remasters curl their toes in shame.

The narrative, with its Princess Bride-esque framing setup of a girl and her cat reading old books in the attic, follows the interweaving paths of several archetypical characters: the valkyrie, the cursed prince, the brooding warrior, the elf queen, the witch. You play out each of their campaigns one by one. Each character swap means you view events through their eyes from the beginning, which means that the end of the first character’s plot coincides with the end of the last character’s plot.

Sometimes it’s charming — most of characters are likeable, effecting earnest solemnity in the face of goofy plot. Other times it’s tedious as the characters, especially Oswald the shadow knight, prattle on about their feelings and o woe is me my soul is misery take me death. Occasionally it’s bizarre and hilarious, like when prince-turned-cursed-rabbit-man Cornelius declares I have a magic sword in the middle of a conversation without context or reason. Other times it’s troubling, like when you just want Valkyrie Gwendolyn to realize her dad, Odin, is kind an asshole, but she never does. Later, she’ll trade patriarchal controlling figure Dad for husband Oswald, whose totally okay with bargaining with Odin for her life&love. Maybe you can guess my feelings on Oswald.

This game displays the beauty of hand drawn and animated 2d graphics (and how technically taxing they can be — this game was notorious for slowing down the framerate of the PS2 and I even got it to slow down the PS4 once, when fighting a full screen full of enemies and throwing magical potions in a frantic effort to clear them all out). You guide your character from one battle arena to the next, juggling various elves and goblins and dragons, and then planting fruits and vegetables fed and watered by the essence of their souls. After harvesting this grim bounty, your character eats it to gain experience, stats, and health.

Leifthrasir greatly improves the combat over the original by making it far more fluid, easy to combo, and giving you much greater customization options. It makes the game easier, so playing on hard mode felt right to me. Though you’re never punished for lowering the difficulty and if you’re fighting an annoying boss on a less ideal character (like, say, Oswald, who is basically a slow, low-damage joke until you build up enough damage to go into ‘berserk’ mode), you can swap it back down to normal without penalty.

Playing it felt like a sort of blast to the past* of the PS2 glory days, but there was also a feeling of newness to it, because despite being a decade old, there’s never been much else like it.

 

*I even busted out the pen and paper to record every meal my character ate (for a trophy). Check it out:

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The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1) by N. K. Jemisin

fifthseasonThis book took me all over the place. I couldn’t decide if I hated it or admired it or was utterly bored or wanted to read the next book in the series right now.

In a volatile, volcanic world, civilization is destroyed every so often by cataclysmic geological events (Seasons). Thrust into this world are three different characters vying with the various conflicts that mark living on an unstable planet with specific prejudices against them in particular. The characters are linked, though initially it is a mystery just how. I guessed the reason about halfway through the novel: it’s a pretty cool twist! The plot is based around these three, and my enjoyment of the novel varied so greatly between them, that I will go through them one by one.

Damaya is a child taken from her family for developing superpowers. In this world, some people are born as orogenes, which means they have devastating seismic abilities to literally move mountains or burst volcanoes. Naturally they’re feared and persecuted, and when children are found (and not killed in ignorance), they’re taken off to a wizard boarding school called the Fulcrum.

The reason I couldn’t wait to be done these chapters is simple: I’ve had it with magic schools.

They’ve suffused popular fantasy novels and media for too long. I feel like there’s a generation of creators who are around my age or usually a little older who grew up with the same media I did. Before Harry Potter, we had The Wheel of Time, with its Aes Sedai and magic reduced to science that can be learned in a classroom, greatly influencing all of epic fantasy. Even the rise of immersive, narrative video games have left their mark. I’m thinking Bioware games like Mass Effect/Dragon Age for sure. Not only does The Fifth Season’s magic users and subsequent prejudice have much in common with Dragon Age mages, tonally it is similar. Perhaps because Bioware was in turn greatly influenced by Joss Whedon. Maybe this is all an oversimplification but pop-Sci-fi/fantasy media of all stripes are feeling tightly entwined.

Another reason magic schools and I don’t mesh is that a) I went to a commuter college and b) I always hated school. Harkening back to college life is a key nostalgia element for the many people I know that speak of their college experience with such fondness (and certainly it would have been cooler if they were learning magic). If not nostalgia, I imagine there is still some appeal for those that actually enjoy classroom learning. 

The next point-of-view character is You, a woman named Essun. It’s written in the second person, following the account of a woman who found her small son murdered at the hands of her husband. This plot immediately grabbed my interest — distinct narrative point of view, jarringly awful event — and then promptly lost it. For starters, it’s glacially slow and Essun seems to barely cover any ground compared to the other two. Certainly the husband plot isn’t resolved.

Jemisin’s narrative style is something I’m going to call blogversation because I as far as I know there is no useful term for it (yet). What I mean is that the narrator is present and speaking directly to the reader in accessible, conversational language that reminds me of blogs. Many sentences start with “Well,” and end with “, actually” or “, anyway”. It means you can end up with prose that looks like this:

“Wow.

Really. That’s what you’re thinking. You’ve got nothing better. Wow.”

It’s not awful exactly, but I’m not a big fan. I feel like it puts a layer between me and the characters because the modern author writing in such modern language makes me start thinking about N. K. Jemisin writing that to me and not the actual character. This happens throughout the entire book but it’s especially bad with Essun. There’s a point very early where she ends up killing a whole bunch of people and the following chapter begins with:

“You’re so tired. Takes a lot out of you, killing so many people.”

There’s a sort of flippancy in that sentence that just kills it for me. If you can speak like that about killing people, how much does killing people actually matter?

Another major gripe I have with the You of Essun’s chapters is that, despite the intent of being so personally linked to this character, she spends near zero time contemplating what I figure nearly anyone would if they found their husband killed their child. Namely: how could he do that? We know nothing about husband Jija by the end of this book.

This brings me to Syenite. A college-age student/prisoner of the Fulcrum, Syenite is sent on a routine mission to help a coastal town, but the whole operation is just a front to be forced to have sex with and be impregnated by a senior orogene. 1 + 1 orogene = 1 more orogene for society to collectively control. 

I like this. I liked it quite a bit. It’s a good ‘ole back-and-forth, twist-and-turn adventure story. It still has some of the prose and thematic problems of the other two characters, but I forgave them easily because I was invested in the story. Even the secondary characters are superior to the other arcs.

I feel like the part of the novel I actually enjoyed is just a footnote at the end of this review here, but as they say, it’s easier to point out what you don’t like than what you do. Also, while Syenite is only one of three characters, it feels like her chapters are about half the book. So it’s at least as much good as bad or lukewarm.