Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer (Terra Incognita #1 and 2)

This is a review of the first two books of the Terra Incognita series. I suspect they might have even been one book originally, given the title of the first does not make sense until the conclusion of the second.

Forget Sci-Fi. While taking place in a utopian future, amidst self-driving flying cars, smartphones embedded in people’s’ ears, and innovative forms of government, this series only dimly feels like it occurs in the 2400s. It feels unstuck in time. Most of the characters are immersed in Enlightenment philosophy. Several even dress like they’re from the 18th century, speak like it!

The story, written from the first person perspective and in the reader-aware style of the eighteenth century, follows Mycroft Canner, a convict. In the future, convicts must travel the land providing service (“Servicer” Mycroft) in exchange for food. Like many aspects of Palmer’s future wherein liberalism has spun out of control, it sounds nice and humane at first but is gradually revealed as borderline slavery. Anyway, Mycroft narrates the story, told over a few days. There’s various hi and lo-tech tricks that allow us to see the points of view of other characters, but Mycroft is our primary point of contact. It makes the eventual reveal of why he is spending the rest of his life in servitude all the more chilling and impactful.

Too Like the Lightning, by necessity, must spend a good deal of words setting up the universe, with its combination of future tech, Enlightenment worship, extensive social and economic cause-and-effect chains, etcetera etcetera. This new government-nation evokes ancient Rome and its notions of citizenship and rule.  Europe is run by a Parliament… but also the King of Spain. Here’s five other world governments too.  P.S. since the planet has been geographically decentralized (flying cars at impossible speeds), nobody is tied to their birthplace anymore but can choose whom they owe allegiance too.  

While fascinating, it does make for rather slow reading. Characters are developed and the plot put in motion in between lengthy segments of world building (and philosophy). While I liked it from the start, book 1 became dramatically better once I understood the basic tenets of the world and the last quarter of the text rockets forward, the dominoes falling rather than being stacked up.

What is stunning about book 2, Seven Surrenders, is that despite being action-packed, there’s very little action at all. The pacing is driven by conversation, by political upheaval, by personal vendettas between powerful people and their world-spanning fallout. Dialogue-as-action spouted by characters 400 years in the future dressed as characters 200 years in the past! It’s weird! And really good.

Ada Palmer, as she notes in the afterward, is interested in continuing the great Conversation, as started by Voltaire. The events and characters of Terra Incognita are set up so that questions asked are either timeless: what level of sacrifice or violence is acceptable to preserve the safety of the whole? What freedoms and forms of expression ought to be given up to prevent violence and division?

Other questions point more directly at our current moment. Gender is crucial to both the understanding of the world and the plot itself. Gender is a topic of high-interest in science fiction currently. We’ve seen a mass revival of the themes from Ursula’s LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, wherein a people (or all peoples) of the future have only one gender. It’s typically interesting but feels highly reactionary to the present moment of history wherein hard-right institutions, both legitimate and not, are on the rise. Don’t get me wrong, this is far from a bad thing. But it can also feel overly simplistic, too desperate to demonstrate how wonderful a gender-less future would be that it doesn’t feel genuine. I noted this when I read Anne Leckie’s Imperial Radch series, which left me wondering if everyone in the future is bisexual.

Terra Incognita seems like this at first. Everyone is a ‘they’. If not outlawed, overt genderism is seen as unethical or at least highly distasteful by the population at large. It slowly becomes apparent, however, that by acting like gender does not exist the people of the future just buried the problems of the past rather than truly unpacking and understanding them. This isn’t shoved in your face (at first) but gradually unrolled, like most of the series’ best points.

If it wasn’t clear yet, I thought these books were excellent. The best series I’ve begun in a very long time. I never rush out to get the next book but I did here, eager to find what happened next in this weird utopia on the brink. It was innovative and original and I wish every science fiction novel I picked up was such an opportunity to journey somewhere new.

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Bear by Marian Engel

bearWhen you read the back of a book and it outlines some charming tale about a librarian who spends a summer on a northern Canadian island, digging through old books and cataloging them. When you note this blurb describes her as ‘mousy’. Yes, when you take these things and you read the sentence they sneak in at the end about this being one of Canada’s most controversial novels, I believe that like me, you can only come to one conclusion about what this mousy librarian does with that bear.

What is with Canadian women going wild on remote northern islands? This happened in Surfacing by Margaret Atwood too. Sans the beastiality, but with plenty of dirt and madness. But who am I to complain? I liked both these novels a good deal.

Engel has a pleasant, readable style. The pathos of the protagonist is real. It’s easy to get into her head even as she constantly reveals deeper layers that unveil a very different character by the end of the book. The descriptions of the wilderness — from the very specific feel of the cold morning air to the shape of the mushrooms — is immersive and well done.

So I guess we should spend some time doing some analysis on bearsex. What our librarian (who is not actually a librarian, she’s an archivist), Lou, comes to find out in the wilderness is not any particular useful bit of sexual or personal discovery. I read reviews or descriptions that attest to that and I’m confused. It’s more like she affirms what she already knew: that being an intelligent woman in the so-called liberating 70s was still to face stifling, society-wide misogyny on a daily basis. Lou can’t find love but she desperately wants a man: emotionally and sexually. It’s this sort of yearning I can match to 60’s/70s lit (The Golden Notebook for sure), but I see it much less in contemporary texts. Perhaps times have changed or perhaps it’s just disempowering to say that out loud.

Here’s where the bear comes in: with his musk and his enormous masculine presence and his phallus-like tongue, he’s the physical embodiment of strength/protection/power/etc that men are supposed to be. But he’s also impotent and can’t reciprocate Lou’s love. Bear is like the polar (ha!) opposite of the over-intellectualized but useless human men she encounters. Lou imprints a personality on the bear only to find it empty and wrong. It’s just a bear. Wilderness retreats, regardless of what taboos they break, can’t fix society or human relationships.

There’s my take on a woman-bear love.

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins

library-mt-char-jacketThe Library at Mount Char is about a family of librarians. Sort of.

Sort of a family, because I guess that’s what you become when all your parents are simultaneously murdered and you’re adopted by a timeless demigod (not-so-fondly known as ‘Father’).

Sort of librarians because while they are caretakers of shelved books, they’re more like the X-men; The books serve as fonts for their themed superpowers. In other words: If you study something long enough, say medicine, you gain larger-than-life abilities, like healing any wound or bringing people back from the dead. The librarian in charge of the animal books can speak to and live like animals, learn all their rituals and hierarchies. The guy whose catalog is War has mastered every sort of weaponry, can read his enemies thoughts, and mows down armed soldiery faster than you manning a turret in the latest Call of Duty game.

Yes. This is an extremely, extraordinarily goofy book.

It is Carolyn, whose catalog is language (of which she can read or speak any variety, both modern and ancient, both human and animal, both worldly and out-of-space) that we follow through most of the novel. Now in their thirties, the librarians’ ‘Father’ is suddenly missing. It turns out that despite being a colossal hardass who more-or-less constantly tortured and abused his adoptive children, Father was the catalyst who kept all the entities who are even worse from descending on the earth, turning people into tentacle monsters and extinguishing all life on earth and whatnot. But Carolyn has a plan. The plot is the realization of that plan.

Did I mention this book was goofy? It embraces it. The God of War guy runs around in a blood-caked Tutu killing people en masse with a pyramid attached to a chain, gifting his victims’ heads to his girlfriend. I mean, like, total eradication of a police station. Intestines hanging from the ceiling, cops chopped in half, don’t slip on the blood! This is only the tip of the iceberg. The novel is consistently weird. I think it’s supposed to be dark and brutal too, which I guess it kinda is, but the ruminations on abuse are difficult to take seriously within the scope of tutu guy assaulting the White House. The violence falls somewhere between a Tarantino movie, a slasher flick, and a video game. Somewhere in me I have a thesis about how video game violence altered book and especially movie violence in the past decade. Another time.  

This book has some great ideas that only half-happen. They’re a tease. We have this intriguing set of superpowered librarians but we only get to know maybe 3-4 of them. There’s 12 total but not even all of them are named, which is baffling honestly. Likewise, partway through the novel when the world threatens to end and eldritch beasties are unleashed across it, I anticipated the second half of Cabin in the Woods but received barely a glimpse of the outside world. Instead: repeated conversations by the same two characters wandering the library. There’s a whole lot of talking and explaining in this book.

Fantasy/Sci-fi pet peeve: While it’s understandable when confronted with the fantastic and seemingly impossible that modern day humans react with disbelief, after a while, I think I’d get used to it and stop asking. This one guy, Steve, spends half the damn book going “Bluh? Carolyn, lions can’t talk!” “60,000 years old? People can’t live that long, Carolyn!” “Carolyn, despite seeing this before my very eyes, it’s impossible for this library to be bigger on the inside than the outside, surely it’s an underground bunker?”

I threatened to skim Steve. Anyway, despite problems like these, or the way the pacing unravels in the last third of the book or the fact that the final answer of “Why? Why does the library exist! Why did Father kidnap and train these people!” is a tired cliche, I sort of loved this book. It’s ridiculous but inventive and creative and fresh in a way I wasn’t expecting. I read it in a handful of sittings. I want fantasy to take me somewhere I haven’t been before, and The Library at Mount Char did just that.

Dictionary of the Khazars by Milorad Pavić

200px-Dictionary_of_the_KhazarsThis is the first book since Infinite Jest which led me to using two bookmarks, and I could have used three. Many books claim to challenge traditional narrative, or traditional methods of reading — pages turned in chronological order, beginning-middle-end, etc. Some are more successful than others and most are gimmicks. On this front Dictionary of the Khazars is a legitimate success. It’s one of those rare books where form trumps story or craft. As the title implies, it is a dictionary (sort of). Three dictionaries.

The Khazars were an (actual) people living in the Caucasus, bridging the Christian and Islamic worlds in the first millennium AD, who later disappeared. The book is three color-coded dictionaries to match the three Abrahamic religions. They attempt to piece together the events that occurred at the Khazar court, shortly before the entire nation’s dissolution; all are writing with the assurance that the Khazars converted to their respective religion based on a scholar/philosopher of their faith presenting the most compelling philosophy and dream interpretation to the Khazar leader (khagan). Some passages repeat across two or three of the dictionaries and others appear in just one. Certain words have symbols — the Christian cross, the Islamic crescent, or the Star of David — to denote which dictionaries a definition appears in. Calling these books a “dictionary” is a bit misleading. There are not many entries. The shortest ones are a page or two long and some of them are 10-20 pages in length. It’s more like a collection of alphabetically arranged short stories than a traditional dictionary.

You can read the book in any order you choose. Front to back, jumping around, 5 pages in one dictionary, 5 pages in the next two and back. I jumped around and I think the book was better for it. The threads are designed to facilitate moving around, and in such a way that you are eased into it. There are three time periods the majority of entries take place in and one of the very first entries in the first (Christian) book is a story about a man who dreams he is another man every time he sleeps… and that man is an entry in the Jewish book (dreaming the life of the first man); by the time you’ve read both entries, you’ve been introduced to several different characters in the 17th century to look up across all three books. Once you get into the hang of this, it’s easy to follow the threads for the story arcs taking place in the 10th and 20th centuries. That said, the final entry in the final book is clearly best read last as it ties together much of what occurs in the rest of the book.

The stories/entries are uneven. The best ones are incredibly weird. Genuinely strange — this isn’t false praise like many so-called “weird” books receive. There’s demons who tie birds to their massive penises to keep them floating out of their way, Dracula impregnating women with killer plants, automatons whose authenticity is tested by whether or not zombies will confuse them for real humans and eat them. There’s not enough of these stories. The worst parts are those written in a faux-academic style, detailing the surviving records of the Khazar court. Fictional history can be done very well, just not by Pavić. Many of the history-book type stories in this book are just boring. And the conclusion, insofar as there is one, is not particularly poignant nor does it bring everything before it together in a satisfying way. This is hardly necessary for a book to succeed, but Dictionary of the Khazars does have a central mystery — what happened at the original Khazar court when the Christian, Muslim, and Jewish scholars came to interpret their khagan’s dreams?

There’s a male and female version of this book where a single paragraph is changed. It’s a weird and ineffectual gimmick. I think the mystery of what’s different about the other version? is far more fascinating than the reality. I read the male version and Alison is reading the female version. I looked at her copy after I finished mine and rolled my eyes at the paragraph in question.