Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

Come to a place like this, far from the estates and the ring roads and the car parks and the black fields of beet and the screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West around the pedestrianized precincts. Come to a place like this, shut your mouth and your mind and walk on the moor, walk in the wind and the sun, and you will understand that this world is a great animal, alive and breathing, that we walk through it, we breathe with it, we are its breath, that when we stand on a mountain overcome by the sunset and all that it brings, or fall to our knees in front of an altar in the presence of something greater than ourselves, then we are sensing the animal shift and turn beneath our feet. Then it is calling us home.

The place like this our nameless protagonist has come to, thirteen months past abandoning his wife and newborn daughter, is a ramshackle house amid the English moor. Here, he spends time contemplating the universe, comparing primeval nature to industrial humanity, and plunging his body into freezing water to surpass pain and selfhood alike. It’s good. Well-written, interesting, and posing uncomfortable but thoughtful questions such as: is it better to live as a miserable, suicidal person or abandon your entire family for over a year to potentially return as a better one?

There’s something primordially compelling about ‘man alone in nature’ type stories. Whether it be reading of this guy patching up a house, heating some sprouting potatoes on an old stove and living in thought and silence or something like William Vollmann living several days in obscenely low temperatures simply to experience it and learn something about himself, I follow along, rapt. I then brush it all off, knowing that I never would go live alone in the woods for years nor spend two weeks in the Arctic, but maybe, even being sure in that knowledge, I am closer to the allure that has captured these men than I give credit to. In any case, I certainly like reading about it and wondering how I would fare in their place. Indeed, the ‘reading’ part is key here. I generally don’t care for movies or reality shows of a similar stripe. I don’t need to see the tree fall, I want to delve into the realm of thought accompanying it. 

Alas, this premise only persists for the first 15-20 pages of Beast. Early on, a storm threatens the patchwork roof of the roughshod house. The protagonist climbs up to fix it. Next, we find him waking up, seriously injured, and more importantly, knocked senseless. The novel shifts, embracing a mixture of vague sentiments and surreality. He no longer thinks in specifics: his family, his former life, or even the saints and martyrs contemplated earlier. We abandon context and specificity, not to mention commas. It’s an encompassing vagueness — foggy landscapes, unclear physical sensations, and yes, a beast.

i had always thought that if i were to jump off a cliff i would be able to fly to control myself with my arms somehow to crash elegantly onto the rocks but no nothing works i flail and flap like i am boneless down and down and i will be eaten and if you have never been eaten then what are you.

While the newly christened refrain “if you have never been eaten then what are you” is kind of funny, it doesn’t hold up like anything the first dozen pages promised. I have never been eaten and honestly I just don’t find it a crucial component to self-actualization. On the other hand, I have observed/been one of those “screen-dumb people pacing out the slow suicide of the West”. Even though the writing remains strong, it’s impossible not to be disappointed by the content.

I picked this up because I loved The Wake. Beast forms part two of a loosely related trilogy, despite there being a thousand years between them, and even for all of its faults, I’m still greatly anticipating the next one. Kingsnorth’s grasp on a distinct kind of English wildness and the prose he uses to elucidate it transports me. 

Ancillary Mercy (Imperial Radch #3) by Ann Leckie

ancillarymercyWait, this is the last one?

As another episode of Spaceship-Turned-Person gallivanting across space, this one is pretty good. It doesn’t really blaze new ground, but it’s a satisfactory wrap-up of the Athoek Station plotline from book 2. As a conclusion to a trilogy sparked from a galactic civil war between warring factions of a thousand bodied ruler? Left me a bit wanting. Because it’s doesn’t really conclude the overaching plot; because it introduces new characters who seem like they’re going to do something important and then they don’t; because the crucial showdown is resolved by a specific take on legal interpretation.

But I guess I’m kind of putting the end of the review first here. Ancillary Sword ended with Breq solidifying her influence over the planet of Athoek and its space-bound, AI-controlled Station, where most of the action took place. It barely touched the plot threads from the first book, with an empire at war with itself, due to its many-bodied emperor, Anaander Mianaai, reaching a moral quandary and splitting in half. Ancillary Mercy combines these two story arcs. A unit of the ‘bad Anaander’ warps into Athoek space, seriously pissed off at Breq and looking to seize control of Station. Book 2 and 3 could almost be two halves of the same book — they’re very similar in plot and tone. Book 1 is left floating out in space as our hero’s origin story.

Ancillary Mercy is enjoyable. It has almost entirely the same strengths and weaknesses as the previous books. i.e. Breq is still a great character, noble and inscrutable, but the secondary characters are forgettable or baffling unbelievable  (I’m astounded to find that Seivarden, the worst part of book 1, who was mercifully absent in book 2 gets a whole section based around her because she’s a fan favorite; why is emotional immaturity is a staple of Radchai military personnel?). The social justice piece is occasionally interesting, but reductive. A tyrannical plantation owner is replaced by a co-op and apparently everything is solved, and we move from near slavery to perfect bliss.

A new thematic element is investigated: The personhood of machines. It’s relevant seeing the main character was formerly a spaceship, but sort of half baked. AI Ship’s are programmed to be fond of their captains and take care of their crew. This doesn’t mean they have to do everything to the best of their ability — a captain who is kind to her ship is going to get better treatment than one who treats ship and crew poorly. Ships do have their ‘favorites’. Your average human can’t compel ships to do anything but certain people with closely guarded access codes can force ships to do whatever they want. Ancillary Mercy declares that last sentence is morally repugnant and weaves that notion into the plot. I call this half-baked because like, if you initially program someone to only find joy in doing some things, and those things revolve entirely on servicing you and your army, then saying “OH! We’ll stop forcing you to do things.”, doesn’t mean shit. What happens if a Ship decides it doesn’t want to be a space-taxi shuttling around your army goonsquad anymore? What if it declares itself a pacifist and discards its guns? The book doesn’t ask.

So final verdict: As an episodic sci-fi tale that is at least somewhat nonstandard in narrative and characterization, with a swift moving prose, and frequent forays into modern socio-political issues, it’s a good series and well recommended. As a complete space operatic trilogy that concludes its main threads satisfactorily and doesn’t needlessly introduce loose ends, it’s not quite there. Still, I’m on board for more Ann Leckie.