The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #3)

I love this series.

Regardless of what I’ll write next about the good or the bad and what worked or what didn’t, I’ll start by stating how pleasing it is to open these books and be surprised. This is part of why I read in the first place. Not for comfort or for safety, but to experience new ideas, to be taken to new places, to encounter characters whose journey I find dear while also illuminating human experience out in the real world. I’ll read a few books a year that deliver this pleasure. They’re rarely sci-fi or fantasy, which is too bad, because if I’m honest with myself, then I know that’s where my heart lies.

Following the events of the first two books, the global conspiracy enacted by the Humanists to prevent world war by systemically assassinatinating persons that will increase global unrest has become public knowledge. Most of the planet is in an uproar over what to do with the perpetrators and their trial is a significant plot point, finally revealing the meaning of ‘Terra Ignota’, the series title. Ironically, this serves as yet another trigger point for that very same theoretical, now actual, War. War that puts all of humanity at risk since technology has so rapidly increased in the two hundred years since the last big one, wherein we barely scraped by.

While the previous books were already heavy on conversation (& The Conversation), The Will to Battle is nearly entirely dialogue or summary of dialogue, at times going so far as to abandon narrative conventions (“he said”) entirely and become transcript:

I: “Lied to you? How?”
Kosala: “They said they’d help me work for peace, while all that time the two of you were training your private army.”
I: “That was no lie, Chair Kosala. Achilles wants peace, more than anything.”
Kosala: “You both believe the peace movement is doomed.”
I: “All mortal things are doomed: you, me, this peace, the Empire, this planet. Achilles doesn’t choose sides based on how likely things are to succeed, only whether they’re worth dying for.”

The straightforwardness of this is warped by our narrator’s madness, wherein characters who couldn’t be present in the scene are included. This includes recently dead fictional characters, metafictional characters (The Reader), and long-dead real world characters (Hello again, Thomas Hobbes). There’s a brilliant sequence early on where Mycroft takes the newly resurrected Achilles to meet all the world leaders and the setting shifts from one capital to the next and one Emperor or President to the next mid-conversation and without warning. This allows us to be many places at once without transition and cement clear contrasts between the great leader’s opinions and motivations in this almost-war period.

The structure of these novels requires our slate of main characters be an incestuous bunch of world leaders, who at times leave me praying for the series to end with a Hamlet-esque purge of the entire cast (especially Cornel fuckin’ MASON). This means it’s difficult to see regular people, with their riots, looting, or food hoarding as real actors. Given that a major plot point involves running census numbers to determine how likely unrest and outright war are, this is far from a world of individuals. It is a world of data and Great Thinkers instead. This is necessary to focus on the big questions Palmer wants to ask, or at least necessary for the means she wishes to ask them: People arguing about grand questions of philosophy, what lengths are worth going to for peace, and what means are justified, and being able to act on the conclusions they reach. Would you destroy this word to save a better one? How much is one life worth versus the future of humanity? And who gets to choose?

Quoth Fyodor Dostoevsky:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me:  imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, [one child], and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears—would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?. . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

This passage is also imagined as an SF story written by Ursula Le Guin, “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”, which is also quite good. It’s a topic always sure to cause great debate at the bar.  The Will to Battle isn’t quite the same, since the decision is calculated killing of innocents vs. bowing under the yoke of an alien god, but it raises many similar questions.

The series is not without flaws. Since the cast is so large and the scope so wide, Palmer must resort to quick characterization schemes. I think we have several people now whose shorthand characterization is a metaphorical familial relationship (i.e. the Mother of the World, the Grandpa/ma of the Senate, etc). Perhaps because of the immense labor of introducing all these characters, Palmer is loathe to let them go and introduce too many new ones, but there is no good reason for Merion Kraye to potentially be around nor for Head Sensayer Julia to not be imprisoned (or for another jail-bound character to escape). Conversely, I wondered what the point of spending so much time with Carlyle Foster in the earlier books was if they were barely going to be featured here at all.

A blurb on the back of the book from Jo Walton gushes:

This is the kind of science fiction that makes me excited all over again about what science fiction can do. Lots of books can knock you over and leave you reeling and dazzled when you’re fifteen, but it takes something special to do the same thing to you at fifty.

I’m not fifty but the same still applies. I wish it happened more but I treasure it when it occurs at all.

Persona 5

Post election day 2016, San Francisco assumed a state of mourning. People seemed lost, heads lowered. Collective defeat was palpable, almost physical. Like a noxious, marshmallowy fog you could part with your hands. Outrage would be a ways coming. For adults, anyway.

First signs of resistance came the following morning: hundreds of angry high school students marched down Market St, wielding the now familiar mantra: NOT MY PRESIDENT. As I listened to the loudest words from those who couldn’t even vote I thought of all the bullshit young people are peddled about respecting their elders, about adult responsibility. I thought of how it might feel to watch this proved wrong over and over. Then in the most drastic fashion and final verification of this: Trump.

Persona 5 wants to engage with our broken society, which has reached this sordid state, as your best-bud Ruyiji oft repeats, “because of those shitty adults”. School systems with corrupt administrations that care little for their students. A broken political system. A reactionary public eager to be abused. I don’t know much of Japan’s political and social situation, but it’s easy to guess they’re facing many of the same issues most of the rest of the world is in recent years.

You, a high school student on probation for “assault” after shoving a man trying to force a woman into his car, are transferred to Tokyo under the supervision of a family friend. Various supernatural events occur, as these things do, and soon you’re the leader of The Phantom Thieves, righteously toppling corrupt leaders in society while living your normal high school life and assisting others to embrace the “wings of rebellion” and break “the yoke of thy heart”. In other words, hanging out with outsiders and helping them overcome their personal demons. From a doctor ostracized for innovative practices to a young woman winning in a male-dominated sport, they’re people shunned for being different.

So far, so good. Persona 5 even avoids the fallacy of many sci-fi/fantasy stories of laying blame on one big, bad villain. It knows there’s bad people in positions of power, but it also knows they only reached that position due to the complicity of the public. Corrupt politicians don’t simply materialize from the ether. Sure, it fails to reach an answer and lays the blame of society’s ills on the malevolent influence of an evil god that had sabotaged the better nature of humanity from the start, but I appreciate it choosing complete nonsense over an easy answer.

The strong and relatable moral impetus behind the plot only makes the places where it fails so acute. Indeed, the premise of “rebellion” is poisoned from the start. For starters, the social aspect of the game allows the protagonist to date every single woman in the game, including several adults, but refuses to allow even the idea that the main character might be gay. Instead, it treats us to stereotypes. Upon entering Tokyo’s red light district for the first time, there is a gag where the protagonist and his buddy are immediately preyed upon by flamboyant men on the hunt for pretty young boys. It’s terrible. 

Worse is how the game consistently treats one of your party members, Ann. She’s introduced by the conflict with the game’s first major antagonist, Kamoshida, the school gym teacher. Kamoshida is physically abusing the boys on his sports teams as well as sexually abusing the girls. Ann’s friend is a victim of the latter, in part due to her (Ann’s) refusal to give in to Kamoshida’s advances. This leads to Ann’s persona awakening. It’s heavy stuff. I wouldn’t say it’s handled perfectly but it works and Kamoshida is the game’s most hateable villain by a long shot.

Immediately following the defeat of Kamoshida, the gang takes on a corrupt celebrity painter. Their cringeworthy plan involves using Ann as bait with the painter’s apprentice, who is obsessed with painting her nude. It’s played for laughs and said apprentice eventually joins your party. It’s creepy as hell and majorly dissonant following the sequence we just played through. From sexual abuse to an endless laugh-track of teenage girl as nude bait.  Will she do it??? Will the team infiltrate the palace before she’s fully undressed??

Ann will continue to be objectified throughout the game, especially in the anime cut-scenes which seem to exist at least in part so the male cast can ogle her. Occasionally the other female characters too, one of whom apparently exists simply to say “I’m sorry” every other sentence.

In the end, it’s not about rebellion, it’s about maintaining the status quo, treating recent political and social decay as a cancer to be excised so we can return to the norm.

A History of the World in 10 1/2 Chapters by Julian Barnes

When I was a kid, there was this religious family in the neighborhood, real devout and sheltered, that I would visit on any pretense simply so I could play their suite of Christian Nintendo games. Specifically, the Noah’s Ark one, where you took control of Noah and scoured the 2d landscape seeking two of each 8-bit animal, stacking them one by one on your head, and heading back to the ark. Check it out.

Also when I was a kid, my parents forced me to attend catechism, which was mostly a disaster. Except this one sequence where each kid was tasked with creating a paper bag animal to perform an Ark presentation, wherein each kid was supposed to mimic the call of their assigned animal in all its cacophonous glory. I was assigned the horse. I had a mean neigh. I came down with an awful flu, barely able to crawl out of bed, mere days prior to the big event and could not participate.

Further kid tales: My aunt, religious in a way no one else in my family was and cognizant of my early love of reading, purchased a series of kids’ bible stories, wherein this little girl I’m pretty sure was named Alice could turn her bible into a magic portal that allowed her to experience various Old Testament tales in-person. Or maybe it included the New Testament too but I forgot about those dull morality lessons in favor of fire and brimstone. Given the format of this piece, you’d expect my favorite story to be Noah’s Ark. But actually it was #2, behind the Tower of Babel, which captures my imagination still.

While it’s unclear if I ever truly believed the Ark existed, it is otherwise crystal clear that the story of Noah fascinated me from a young age. Think about it for a second: God hit the reset button and basically wiped out the entire planet, tasking Noah with the incredibly dubious task of somehow getting two of every single animal into a single ship. There’s barely any mysticism to back him up. Yeah he had a much longer lifespan than regular people, so what? He lived most of it after the adventure. What is the lesson here? There is none. This is one. Don’t fuck with God or you’ll be made extinct in an arbitrary yet precise fashion.

Thus when I picked up this novel at a used bookstore in Fort Bragg and discovered the first chapter was an account of the voyage of the Ark, recounted by an illicit stowaway, I bought it immediately without bothering to consider what the other 9 ½ chapters were about. Not only was it a well-written story about the Ark, but it puts to the forefront many of my practical issues with the story: How do all the animals fit on the ark (there’s more than one), how does Noah find every single animal on earth (he doesn’t), what do they eat while on the ark (the animals), and so on. Barnes’ tone is wry, cynical. Noah is a harsh master commanded by a harsher master and the animal passengers face the consequences.

Then, following the close of chapter 1, what joy to discover that nearly all the rest of the stories have some allusion to arks, to boats, to epic and impractical journeys! Whether they be eighteenth century travelers to Mount Ararat, seeking the Ark’s wreckage, to an art history lesson on The Wreck of the Medusa and a meditation on misrepresenting reality in art to better communicate that very same reality. Other, Ark-less chapters, include Barnes’ rumination on the love, triggered by observing his wife sleeping in the middle of the night: What’s the point? Why love? Is it the answer or the question?

I was surprised to find how much this book has in common with two of my favorite writers, David Mitchell and Italo Calvino. I’ve heard of Barnes but never in relation to those two. Other than the uncommon structure itself, Barnes is clever with language and has clearly considered deeply the various injustices humans lay upon one another.  But where Calvino is playful and insightful and Mitchell is honest but optimistic, Barnes is far harsher, his wit expressed as  bemused cynicism. Humanity is far from a great steward of this planet, as the stowaway of chapter one details, and it’s been a series of self-inflicted misfortune since the flood. Especially in the late 80s, written deep in Cold War terror as this book was. Men especially are oafs. Women, like the animals to Noah, must suffer them (there’s one story as problematic at this sentence).

And in the bleak future to this history, humanity’s next extinction will be self inflicted. As the final chapter details, we won’t even be satisfied with heaven.

Testimony by Charles Reznikoff

Okay. OK. The first thing this book will teach you is that…

…between the years of 1885 and 1915, an enormous amount of industrial accidents occurred in this country. Limbs caught in belts or spools and torn off, bodies crushed by debris or collapsing mine shafts, slick and poorly constructed scaffolding leading to great falls into chasms or machinery or boiling fat.

Also, a whole lot of people, a whole lot of children, were killed by trains.

All of this illustrated in sparse, evocative verse:

“In the good old summertime,”
Ellen, all of fourteen, worked in a steam laundry
as a “feeder”:
put collars through the machine that pressed them.

The feeder sat on a platform,
collars on the small table in front of her;
the lower roller hot enough to iron collars as they were passed through,
while the upper roller pressed down upon them
with a pressure of two hundred pounds;
the heated roller was hollow and revolved around gas jets–
so hot that if a collar stopped on it for a minute
It would be scorched.

Ellen saw a collar with a lap on it–
the buttonhole part lapped back on the collar–
put her hand out to pull it away
and her finger was caught in a buttonhole
and she could not get it out
before her hand was drawn between the rollers–
burnt and crushed as she screamed.

(Typing this extends my appreciation of Reznikoff’s precision. The punctuation is so carefully chosen and communicative of the story’s pace.)

Poetry is not my forte. I’ve read very little of it, voluntarily, in my adult life. Certainly not cover to cover. Testimony may be cheating a bit since it’s almost as much short story as verse, but still: now I read poems. I read several vignettes, which ranged from a few lines to two pages, before bed every night and hoped not to dream of getting my arm caught in a belt (I worked on a belt for a long time…) or my torso rent in half by a runaway mine cart. It became somehow soothing.

Racism is another key factor explored here, some verses illustrating the plight of post-reconstruction blacks, written in a time of segregation without the foreknowledge of the civil right’s movement, still thirty years in the future.

Several white men went at night to the Negro’s house,
shot into it,
and set fire to his cotton on the gallery;
his wife and children ran under the bed
and, as the firing from the guns and pistols went on
and the cotton blazed up,
ran through a side door into the woods.
The Negro himself, badly wounded, fled to the house of a neighbor–
a white man–
and got inside.
He was followed,
and one of those who ran after him
put a shotgun against the white man’s door
and shot a hole through it.
Justice, however, was not to be thwarted,
for five of the men who did this to the Negro
were tried:
for “unlawfully and maliciously
injuring and disfiguring”–
the white man’s property.

Only a portion of the “Negro” sections follow this kind of tract. Many, perhaps most involving black people, are about the violence they’re enacting, which is nominally no different than the ones about whites, had not every single passage referred to each man or woman as “the Negro” or “the colored woman”, like they’re another species.

The back of the book references the poet William Carlos Williams, who wrote Paterson, which influenced a movie of the same name I enjoyed a great deal. Williams will be the next point I continue delving into poetry.

The Familiar Volume 4: Hades by Mark Z. Danielewski

famililar4This far in, my reviews will become much more specific. Previous entries: One Rainy Day in May, Into the Forest, Honeysuckle and Pain.

I’m starting to get worried here. The series has gone from front and center in the new section of Green Apple Books to requiring a kind of sojourn where I have to ask multiple people and look all over for the latest episode. “Looks like there is no review copies this time”, says the clerk. I fear for the series reaching 25 or whatever.

Which is a shame, because Volume 4 is excellent. It finally, finally, begins to get over the issue I had taken in the past few volumes: Too slow. Characters treading water. Hades drives the characters together, develops plot and mystery. Even Shnork, our most aimless character, coughing and driving his cab around for 3 volumes, receives the character development he sorely needed.

Nearly every chapter has some relationship to the greater plot. Anwar is still job hunting, but this thread now takes him down shadowy corporate wormholes. Most of the characters have now converged on LA. Ozgur meets half the rest of the cast, previously isolated. It’s all tense and well connected. Though not flawless. Erstwhile and supremely creepy hitman Isandorno spends most of the book with a mysterious woman, whose identity is heavily hinted at (and it’s intriguing), and then spends his last chapter doing nothing.

Indeed, there’s still quite a bit of teasing — we leave one character with a warehouse full of guns and an idea of what they’re going to do with them. Actually now that I think of it, there’s two characters with cliffhangers involving separate gun mysteries. But with the next volume referred to as the “Season 1 finale”, this feels appropriate, and I’m seriously looking forward to this fall.

The series has flirted with horror and continues to do so. Danielewski achieved notoriety through House of Leaves, of course, and his grasp on spatial horror remains sharp. Xanther’s little sisters are plagued by nightmares (surely the kitten is to blame…), and in one scene, one of them is crying and pointing at a corner, repeating “There is a ladder in the floor.” Instant chills.

Dreamland by Sam Quinones

dreamlandHeroin like pizza and pills like candy.

This fascinating piece of long-form journalism details the simultaneous rise of heroin-dealing entrepreneurs from Mexico’s west coast and the gross spread of misinformation and corporate greed that led to doctors massively over prescribing oxycontin in the United States.

The scale of this problem, heroin/pill addiction, can’t be overstated. Largely white areas of the country have astounding levels of addiction and overdose death, well beyond deaths caused by car accidents. It can be easy to avoid if you live in a large city, but out in the suburbs and rural regions, it’s hard to find someone who doesn’t know someone addicted to heroin. I traveled to Michigan for work last month and there were commercials and billboards everywhere about treatment. Unlike a bunch of other drugs, a heroin addict needs their fix everyday, or they risk crippling withdrawal symptoms. This combined with the cheap potency of the drug make overdose a constant reality.

Quinones outlines two major triggers for this:

  1. Until some time in the 80s, prescribing opiates, the fruit of the poppy seed (along with heroin) was anathema. Doctors and other medical professionals were concerned with the very real risks of addiction. Slowly, as ‘patient-centric’ care became more of a focus and pain-management became an important aspect of medicine, this stance was relaxed, particularly for those with terminal illnesses (where addiction is less of an issue anyway, for obvious reasons).

The problem arose when a confluence of factors led to the completely baseless notion that somehow opiates were actually not addictive. Purdue, the manufacturer of oxycontin jumped on an oft-misinterpreted editorial claiming only 1% of patients have a risk for addiction from opiates and marshalled their enormous sales and marketing engine to drill that number into the heads of all the doctors they showered with gifts. (This was before the laws of the early 2000s put a stop to the worst marketing practices of pharmaceutical companies.)

Somewhat predictable result: Unprecedented numbers of people are suddenly addicted to painkillers.

2. Heroin, like all hard drugs, used to have the perception of something you’d need to brave a dangerous ghetto to acquire. Maybe you’ll get shot. Dealers from the small village of Xalisco changed this business completely. By cheaply farming poppy in their native mountains, they carried it over the border and sold it from their cars, using customer-friendly marketing techniques not unfamilar to US corporations: an easily accessible phone number that triggered door-to-door service (Uber for heroin), manned by savvy and eager young men who would offer discounts or drill down on those who seemed ready to quit.

Put these two together and now you’ve got patients addicted to oxycontin who easily make the switch to heroin because it’s cheaper to buy than oxy (or no one will prescribe it to them anymore).

It’s a ghastly business.

While a stunning tale, the book does have its problems. Namely, it’s extremely repetitive. Quinones repeats the same point many, many times. Sometimes in very similar language. I understand he spent five years of his life on this and wants to insert everything he learned but many chapters are retreads of another. Still, it was a startling and detailed read that I’d highly recommend.

Lilith’s Brood (Xenogenesis trilogy) by Octavia Butler

liliths-broodThere’s a peculiar quality in media produced during the Cold War, especially the late five-minutes-to-midnight era. Not just the fear and hopelessness — that’s present in plenty of time periods and cultures. Instead, it’s the near-certainty that humanity had reached its apotheosis. That mutual self destruction was indeed assured. This is the end of the road. 

So when, prior to the events of Lilith’s Brood, the US and USSR have blown each other apart and the rest of the world is succumbing to the after effects, it’s no surprise. It’s a simple inevitability. But it’s what follows that I find truly peculiar to the time.

An alien ship approaches Earth, scooping up any surviving humans it can find. These aliens, the Oankali, spend generations seeking out new life to integrate with and mate/merge genetically. Starting with our heroine, Lilith, they plan to train squads of humans to return to a primitive earth and produce children with them. Any humans who refuse this offer are either permanently locked in stasis (to be experimented on) or allowed to return to Earth, but sterile. No more true humans are to be made.

Why? Science! Genetics! The Oankali are so fine-tuned at examining genes that they’ve concluded that humans are genetically inclined to eventually blow themselves up. It is the conflict of both intelligence and hierarchical behavior in all of us. Destruction is inevitable. This isn’t an alien conceit either — the narrative never challenges it. In the world of Lilith’s Brood, genes are everything, including the extinction of the species. Even when book 2 flirts with the notion that humans could have a future separate from the Oankali, that future too would eventually be doomed.

Sitting from the vantage of 2016, where we’ve averred mutual destruction thus far and managed to survive the catastrophic world-breaking powers we gained in the 20th century, the moral center of the book is off-kilter and never truly believable. Not that humans can’t be prone to violence. Certainly we see that is still a world-spanning problem every day. But basic behavior being purely guided by genes? Not just violence but gender roles, sexual assault, etc. The behaviors Butler takes for granted as genetic truths is what we would deride as biotruths today. In other words: mistaking cultural habits for genetic ones.

This whole set of notions is more of an attraction than a repellent. Butler is a great writer. Her prose is crisp and leads to a comfortable story flow. The Oankali are a wonderfully realized and believable set of head-tentacled, three gendered aliens. It’s science fiction that exists without the shackles of genre trappings. If it feels dated, well, it is 30 years old.

That is, until book 3 anyway. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I’d suggest skipping it entirely. The first book is the aftermath of destruction. The second is the rebuilding. The third is a smaller, first person alien story lacking any of the greater human conflict. It’s very repetitive, repeating many of the same alien biotrait stories we’ve read before. My opinion, not supported by the narrative voice in any way, is that the Oankali really are just galactic parasites. That their promise of human-oankali hybrids was a lie, because we can see from a first person perspective that their children are simply Oankali with a slight human veneer.

As you can see, even when describing what I dislike, it’s within the context of the story, rather than “the writing was bad” or “the plot didn’t make sense”. It definitely sucks you in.

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:

20160811_210545

Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

sixtystoriesI’m not sure what the hell POSTMODERNISM actually means, but I do know that some of my favorite authors or novels are classified as such. David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo. I’ve occasionally heard another name bandied about, less well-known but highly influential. That would be Donald Barthelme.

I want to say that Barthelme’s relation to those other guys is quite shallow, and he does feel entirely unique, but in places it hews very closely to what will become Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He also deals with themes of alienation and changing cultural epochs like some of those other guys do, but it always feels secondary to what he’s truly after: some silly literary alchemy based on clever use of language, humor, and an understanding of how dialogue ought to work. It results in a very specific feel. Barthelme seems far more interested in what language can do, what one word placed next to another can make, rather than communicating any theme or point. 

There’s a mention somewhere on the exterior of the book that Barthelme once wrote a popular children’s novel. This is hardly a surprise when half the stories read like some kind of warped, adult Dr. Seuss novel (with a similar amount of words). If the Seuss comparison isn’t convincing or compelling, take instead one of the best stories in the whole collection, The Emerald, wherein a witch is seduced by the moon and seven years later gives birth to a talking emerald, much sought after by various ne’erdowells including one evil wizard seeking to extend his life. Tell me that’s not a Roald Dahl pitch.

In addition to The Emerald, I’d include my other favorites as City Life, where two women move to a city as roommates and engage in all sorts of social hyjinx/satire while involving themselves in virgin births and magical bards. And A Manual for Sons, which, among other things, is a bizarre list of various kinds of fathers. Take for instance, the ‘leaping father’:

The leaping father is not encountered often, but exists. Two leaping fathers together in a room can cause accidents. The best idea is to chain heavy-duty truck tires to them, one in front, one in back, so that their leaps become pathetic small hops.

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that some of the stories are repetitive. Barthelme has an iconic style and it’s pretty sweet, but it’s all he does. It’s not quite the same story, but a few variants of 3 or 4 types: nonsense conversation between two people, written account of confidante of famous person (say, Robert Kennedy or Montezuma or the phantom of the opera),  or quirky explanation of something (fatherhood, songwriting)  reproduced over and over.

He even re-uses character names so it feels vaguely like an improv troupe switching clothes and plotlines but performing basically the same show. It’s worse when the topics for these are really obvious/banal (There’s two stories based on ‘The Conservatory’ that just repeat the same tale about fabricated elite class clubs). But once you start to feel a little bored or fed up, you end up bumping into a brilliant story two pages later.

Good stuff.

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson

sevenevesThere’s a golden rule in science fiction and fantasy that goes something like this: Don’t infodump.

Instead of spending paragraphs or entire chapters explaining the rules of this fictional world — the breeding habits of the native Grew, the intricacies of the spacecorn trade, the atmospheric pressure of Planet X — have that information roll out gradually through character action and dialogue. It’s simply a genre specialized version of fiction’s holy paean of SHOW DON’T TELL.

I’m telling you all this to make sure we’re on the same page when I say that Seveneves feels something like sixty percent infodumps. Or more. The moon explodes and all life on earth is doomed. What follows is lengthy descriptions of how, in the brief span of time we have left, humanity builds a set of vessels in space to survive our five thousand year exile from earth, waiting it out until the surface of the earth stops being bombarded by lunar debris and cools down. So the meat of Seveneves is technical explanations of the the structures humans are building in space, and how it is possible to build them. This is coupled with a primer on the science — with a particular emphasis on orbital mechanics — required to understand how space works.

Don’t get me wrong: There are characters, and they’re not poorly developed, though many are stand-ins for real life people. A Neil Degrasse Tyson stand-in named Doob is central. Hilary Clinton and Jeff Bezos analogues make appearances. But we’re talking about a 900 page book here. Characters and plot are not the focus, which is sort of counter to popular theory of what a novel ought to be.

Anyway, I thought it was great. I’ve never been partial to golden rules. Or rules of any kind really.

By attempting to encase the novel in real science, either what we can already do now or what we think we can do in the very near future, there’s an authenticity to the theory that makes it sing. I’m not a scientist. I have zero idea how much of this came from Neal Stephenson’s imagination and how much of it is solidly based in fact. But he sells it well enough that the novel feels like a legitimate merge of non-fiction science text and fictional adventure.

It does take a leap in the last few hundred pages, literally, time jumping to five thousand years in the future wherein humanity is terraforming earth in hope of returning full time. While the science theory is still there, sort of, it morphs into a second-rate fantasy novel that feels vaguely like Stephenson trying to create a setting for a video game RPG. It’s not bad exactly. Still a fun beach read. But a dramatic step down from the first two sections of the novel.