Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Bookpost 11

 Previous installments found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 , 7, 8, 9, 10

Children of Ruin, Adrian Tchaikovsky

He's done it again, folks! A pitch-perfect sequel, where it builds on both the themes and plot of the first book while expanding the scope AND offering meaningful change to the status quo by the end. That's how you do a fucking sequel. He's building a Star Trek space opera in his own image and I am ride-or-die for it. Unfortunately, being so ride-or-die means that I can't say too much (as you really should read it yourself), but I can say this - over the course of the book, Tchaikovsky manages to play some very standard sci-fi tropes in ways that go well beyond a fresh coat of paint. And the octopi! Not much of a spoiler to say there are octopi in this one, gotta mention the octopi - they are written so well, so simultaneously alien and understandable, empathetic and frustrating, that it has entirely overturned my ideas of how uplift as a concept can and perhaps should work in fiction. It's fucking revolutionary. The man can do a POV from an octopus and present the thought process of an octopus! The brain feels and desires, the arms work automatically to fulfill the directive. I make it sound simple, and it certainly is not.

And as with the first book, Children of Ruin is a very clear declaration that the good ending is possible - not easy, not without incredible difficulty and considerable pain - but it is possible. And that is the kind of meaningful optimism I think we all need in this age.

Something About Eve, James Branch Cabell

DNF 50%

Every Public Domain Day, I scout out the pickings to see what has been freed from the tyranny of Sunny Bono and The House of the Rat. Nothing in particular really caught my eye this year, at least of the lists that I saw circulated, but I remembered an entry in The Dictionary of Imaginary Places of some book featuring a city of wizards and a sphinx with writer's block that that was soon to be liberated from copyright.

Several sessions of flipping through the book later (as I could not remember the city's name, only the image of the sphinx), I was able to track down its source: James Branch Cabell's Something About Eve. Listed in the Dictionary as being published in 1929, I was disappointed to have to wait another two years, and so googled the book for any additional information

Turns out, it was a misprint. It had been published in 1927. Gutenberg had uploaded its ebook version literally the day prior.

So of course I began reading it.

This is a weird goddamn book. It is an immensely frustrating book that shines with brilliance on occasion. it is a very good illustration as to why time has buried Cabell.

Cabell's strain of fantasy is one of near pure farcical allegory, and thus I find that it means nothing. Subtext is and remains a tool for cowards, but Cabell seems to loathe the idea of writing about a place and time with any substance. He has made something less substantial than a dreamscape, for a dream will be content to leave some beautiful images simply because they are beautiful: Cabell sees no value in anything that does not feed back into the Point he is trying to make. He repeats the same subjects again and again. He barely describes things of importance and rambles on about shit that doesn't matter. He will use words that I have never seen before, are never explained, and when I try to google them I end up with a results page of another one of his books - which contains the word only twice, one time being the title! (The word is "Dirghic", used in reference to a mythology - I presume it is some fantastic culture, the one reference I could find that was any help described it as "pre-Ciceronean Latin" so maybe it's fantasy Etruscan?) Some of the wit has remained sharp (if quite groan-inducing), and quite a bit I can't discern if it's even supposed to be a joke.

And what is the point? "Men like chasing the idealized women they construct in their heads and that's pretty silly." It's not even a bad point! That is, indeed, a good point! There's also something in there about spirituality vs materialism but like with the first point it is so ham-fisted and inelegant that it is rendered farcical of itself.

I had wanted to pull some interesting inspirational fuel from it, but the many fantastic lands and mystic portents mean nothing, on the whole, and thus lacking substance I come up empty. What a waste.

Monster vol 1 (Viz Signature Edition), Naoki Urasawa

Monster opens with one of the best ways to make an engaging narrative - have a character with strongly-held ideals get thrown into a situation that directly challenges them. The story is just picking up speed by the point I am at, but it has remained very tense, very tightly plotted, and kept me extremely engaged. Will definitely be continuing. You can tell it's good because the review is very short.

Uzumaki, Junji Ito

I read it months ago and forgot to put it in the prior posts.

Book good. There are many good reasons it is famous - the art, the grotesquery, the pace that starts slow and dreadful and keeps picking up momentum that you can't escape from. You're already in. Cosmic horror gets bandied about a lot nowadays, mostly for stuff that doesn't deserve it. Uzumaki depicts an encounter with the impossible and unnamed, of a power that has no point we can discern. No history, no backstory. Just itself. Just its own existence.

Also it's got that very Shinto thing of "hey this natural feature that has been polluted is now a nexus for Bad Shit" and I am always a fan of that.

A Billion Wicked Thoughts, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam

DNF pg 105 / 246 (plus 148 pages of notes and bibliography)

"Ogi Ogas recieved his PhD in computational neuroscience..."

"Sai Gaddamn conducted his doctoral research...on biologically-inspired models of machine learning."

And both of them are excellent supporting arguments for the importance of shoving nerds into lockers at every single opportunity. And / or mandating thorough education in the humanities for everyone.

This book is a fucking wreck. Sloppily collected data, absolute lack of actual science going on, terrible contradictory writing, lots of baseless hypotheses put forth to support some truly wretched essentialist conclusions. Absolutely no space whatsoever given to the social, political, religious, or cultural influences on sex and sexuality. Everything must be biological, but please note how neither of these jackanapes are biologists. Or sociologists. Or psychologists. They have no idea how to talk about people, and thus end up treating people like machines. They presume their data is accurate to reality when they are working with anonymized search engine data and then extrapolating from there on extremely shaky grounds.

And, I will reiterate, they entirely ignore social factors. They cite the Hatfield and Clark research paper where there is an enormous - we're talking like 50% point difference (which, granted, means jack shit because there were only nine participants) between willingness to accept invitations to sex from a stranger. Ogas and Gaddam are convinced, utterly convinced, that the only possible explanation is that men and women must have some innate biological function determining the way they feel desire. And no other factors could possibly apply.

There couldn't possibly be the influence of systematic sexism at play here. Humans are perfectly rational meat machines, right?

(Occam called, he'd like his fucking razor back, because you aren't certainly using it.)

Their conclusions are caricatures, divorced from lived experience or any humanity at all. "Men are like X, women are like Y, and we take it at face value that the porn people search for is a direct representation of how they interact with other people". Major demographics entirely disregarded (Lesbians? fugettabooudem Bi folks? Under the bus. Ace spectrum and demi friendos? Enjoy your new superpower of utter invisibility. Straight dudes who don't like watching hardcore or het women who don't like the dynamics of romance novels? Might as well ask to see Martian bigfoot!)

I know it was 2011 but their choice to quote Louis CK and Joe Rogan is... mildly telling.

Also these dumbasses unironically use the word "alpha" and that was the real breaking point.

Voyage to Arcturus, David Lindsay

Reversing the trend of the previous public domain allegorical fantasy, this one is good. It is very much an allegory of the sort-of-gnostic variety, not a narrative, don't expect cause and effect to work as if these are real people.

The book is, in many ways, incomprehensible - but I say that with affection. It is very clearly the work of a man trying to sort out some very Big Ideas of great personal importance, and wonky as it may be I find expressions such as that to be the goal of art. There are moments of episodic profundity or striking image - Lindsay works very well with colors (and not just the famous jale, ulfire, and dolm) and landscapes (well, until the last quarter, which is mostly mountains) and alien life, often in greater vividness than modern sci-fi authors. He had images in his head and needed to share them, and on the whole I think he did very well. The Big Ideas are shared less clearly, but I applaud the attempt. It's art that's fucking weird in ways that don't give a shit about what anyone else thinks, and I'll drink to that.

And for a book from 1920, I find that, while it's got a non-zero amount of old-timey sexism involved, it's less than it could have been, and he gets some bonus points by the inclusion of a character who is not only neither male nor female, but gets neopronouns - ae/aer - In 1920! (He does say that he uses them because no language on earth had the proper form of address, which is hilariously incorrect, but I'll forgive him for not knowing. He was a Scotsman in the early 20th C, we'll grade him on a curve). There's also a point where he mentions that a character's racial prejudices prevented him from seeing something clearly, which is also appreciated. Does help that this is an allegory set on a magical planet far away, difficult to be racist when the entire population of the planet is under 20 people.

Two things entertain me greatly: the use of specific, but entirely inappropriate intervals of time (two minutes is a long time!) and Maskull just saying "Thanks!" instead of the "Thank you" I would expect.

But yeah. I think Lindsay would be a fascinating author to talk shop with over lunch.

Etidorhpa, by John Uri Lloyd

DNF 15%

This book features FOUR PREFACES, followed by a prologue establishing the frame narrative (That the 'author' is one Johannes Llewellyn Llongollyn Drury who entrusted the publication of the account to J.U.L.) Llewellyn meets a strange man who appears out of nowhere, there's a bet or something, strange man disappears for a year, Llewellyn goes to a doctor who spends pages reading excerpts from other books at him all to say "get some exercise". Old Man returns again to say "hey I will now tell you a weird story of my life", and we go into the now THIRD layer of frame narrative, only to get interrupted again as the Old Man recounts a letter he received and we achieve FOUR LEVELS of rambling, senseless, directionless, and utterly dull frame narrative. Lloyd has managed to make a secret brotherhood of alchemists boring.

Leave it to the Victorians to drain any possible excitement out of a story. There's a weird hollow earth story in here somewhere, supposedly, but at 15% of the book I have seen nothing of the sort. Would be a hell of a challenge for editing practice, though.


  1. Public domain trawling is such a mixed bag.

  2. I also just recently read Children of Ruin and Voyage to Arcturus (I think I already told you that)! Children of Ruin was amazing! Your explanation of Voyage to Arcturus is spot-on. It makes no sense but in the best ways, it's very philosophical and definitely has a gnostic element, moments of beauty and brilliance, and it was surprisingly progressive for its time and place.

    1. He manages to pull of the gnostic bits rather elegantly by weaving up his own cosmology whole cloth - dodged a lot of potential yikes scenarios that way

  3. not gonna lie-- "a billion wicked thoughts" is one of the best titles for anything I've heard in a hot minute. absolutely heartbroken that it's wasted on some bioessentialist garbage instead of, like, a story about an AI who wants to be a Disney villain or something. fucking rip.

    1. For real. What a waste of a fantastic title

      They also never considered how their data was skewed towards search engine queries and thus was completely blind to people who know what they're looking for already and how to find it.