“Second Journey of the Magus” by Ian R MacLeod

September 25, 2010 at 8:35 pm | Posted in Short Stories | Leave a comment

Most speculative fiction dismisses, vilifies, or satirizes established religion, but a few stories explore its implications using the genre’s formidable set of tools. I’m not sure what this subgenre is called. Religious speculative fiction? Although as subgenres go it’s not very popular, there are some very famous stories in it, like Arthur C Clarke’s “The Star”, Mary Doria Russell’s novel The Sparrow (which I reviewed here in January), and Ted Chiang’s stories “Tower of Babylon”, “Hell is the Absence of God”, and “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate”. Ted Chiang’s stories (like almost all of his stories whether religion is involved or not) are about free will, but most are about the problem of evil.

I’m sure I could be forgetting something, but I think that this week’s short story club story, “Second Journey of the Magus” from Subterranean Magazine, is the first story of this kind I’ve read that is principally about the role of faith. The magus of the title is one of the three magi (sometimes translated as kings or wise men, words the story awkwardly drops in to make sure the reader has caught the reference), returned to the Roman province of Judea thirty-four years after Jesus’ birth. This is a sort of religious alternate history, and it seems that Jesus has used his power to make himself king of the Jews and is now leading a rebellion against Rome. The point of divergence is when the Devil tempts Jesus on the roof of the temple. While the other temptations asked Jesus to use his power to escape suffering and to reign on earth, this one was about dispelling doubt. If Jesus flings himself off the temple and is caught up by angels, everyone who sees this will know beyond a shadow of a doubt he is sent by God.

In the story Jesus throws himself off the temple, and the result is a world without doubt. Angels train armies who fight with flaming swords, the righteous dead are visibly preserved for their later resurrection, and the streets of Jerusalem are paved with gold. Still, the magus is not satisfied. All his life he has struggled with doubt, and seeing all these signs plain before him does not end it. In fact, it seems to intensify it. The supernatural powers of this alternate Christ are not in doubt, but to follow him still requires faith: faith that he is good. There is, in fact, plenty of reason to doubt this. The magus makes the usual appeal to the problem of evil, citing Herod’s infanticide as an example, but there is the small matter of Jesus’ original mission. The devil is described as being present and Jesus himself references sacrificing his own life as what he “could have” done. The magus wonders why this new Jerusalem needs walls given the power of its leader, but the implication is pretty clear: having thrown in his lot with the devil, Jesus and his new earthly kingdom are eventually going to be fighting God, not Rome.

“Hell is the Absence of God” also posits a world without doubt, but where Chiang was exploring the implications of modern Christian doctrine, here MacLeod seems to be trying to present counterfactual justification (note “seems”…I don’t actually know the author’s beliefs). “Second Journey of the Magus” is one answer to those who would question why an all-powerful God would keep in the shadows. MacLeod’s answer is that if God’s presence is undoubtable then there’s no more room for us. The kingdom he depicts offers wealth and happiness but there is no more room for human agency. Jesus makes this explicit when he disparagingly describes what humans will do if left to their own devices and implies he has made a better world. Better for him, but in the face of such power humans can only be slaves.

This is obviously an idea story, but it’s a pretty good one if you are interested in religious questions. It doesn’t have the elegance of Chiang’s best work, but it’s subtle and thought-provoking. I might like it even more if I understood the ending, which I confess somewhat eluded me. At first I thought the magus was summoning the devil, but since he’s already spoken to Jesus, I don’t see what the devil would add. Given that it’s the site of at least part of Jesus’ temptation, I then thought perhaps he was somehow changing history to get Jesus to choose differently and thus produce our timeline, but that seems vastly beyond his capabilities. If he’s summoning an angel or some aspect of the true God then why did he need to come all this way to answer his questions?

Kraken by China Miéville

September 20, 2010 at 3:55 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 5 Comments

Kraken coverWhen Iron Council was published, I thought I had a handle on what kind of writer China Miéville was. While the themes of the three novels set in the Bas-Lag universe varied (as did their quality), they had such a distinctive voice that people essentially used them to define the “New Weird” subgenre. That King Rat had a somewhat different feel was noted, but that was a first novel, written when Miéville was quite young (although, incredibly, he was only 28 when Perdido Street Station was published…not written, mind you, published). I haven’t read Un Lun Dun yet, but I gather it was a departure, but it was a YA novel so some changes were understandable. But with The City & the City, there finally could be no mistake: Miéville isn’t content to settle down and churn out similar books. I think this is fantastic, incidentally, and it means I am always interested in his work. However, it also means that just because you liked one of his books, you can’t count on liking the rest. For my part, I really liked Perdido Street Station, absolutely loved The Scar, was disappointed by Iron Council, and felt The City & the City was an interesting failure.

That brings us to Kraken. The title refers to a giant squid kept on exhibit at a London museum. One day this prize specimen is stolen and the biologist who was responsible for studying it finds himself investigated by the police, named as the prophet of a cult of squid-worshipers, and pursued by a mostly disembodied underworld kingpin. It seems that the secret magic-using underground of London feels the squid is the foundation of an onrushing apocalypse, but no one knows how or why. In the course of discovering the truth behind these strange events, the protagonist and the reader are taken on a whirlwind tour of this shadow London.

As you can probably tell from my synopsis, this is an urban fantasy novel. To put it a little more crudely, I think this is Miéville trying to write a Neil Gaiman novel. Like Neverwhere, the normal everyday guy protagonist finds himself pulled into a parallel London where the supernatural is commonplace. Like American Gods, the novel’s metaphysics seems oriented roughly around the idea that believing something exists gives it some degree of power and even agency, even if it doesn’t (or at least didn’t previously) actually exist. Having already stated my feelings about previous Miéville novels, I guess I should now declare my position on the relevant portions of Gaiman’s work: I really liked Neverwhere and have reread it several times, but American Gods left me cold and I haven’t revisited it.

Kraken is about the end of the world and the feelings of unease and eventually despair that precede it, but despite this it is the least serious of Miéville’s novels (at least of those I’ve read, namely all of them except Un Lun Dun, although King Rat was quite a long time ago at this point). It couldn’t be more different than The City & the City in this respect. That novel was grim and unrelentingly focused on its one central idea. Kraken is light hearted and, while it never strays too far from how immanent the apocalypse is, veers wildly from one conceptual sidetrack to another. I suppose this is the China Miéville version of a fun and accessible novel, although this is still Miéville so it never quite abandons traces of horror and his characteristic dense prose.

But is it any good? Well, it’s pretty good. I think most would agree Miéville’s strongest asset is his formidable imagination and here he gives it free reign to populate London’s theological underworld with all manner of bizarre cults, weird creatures, and unusual magic. He never nails down any rules to the magic being used, and while that weakens the ending slightly, it means he can have people invoke magic in all sorts of different ways. The light tone gives him a chance to deploy a variety of jokes and puns, and while these are of course hit and miss they are, on the whole, an asset.

However, for me Kraken fell short of the mark it was aiming for. Part of the problem may be with me as a reader. Many characters in Kraken speak in British slang dialects that, as an American, were a little difficult to parse. It’s not that I didn’t know what was going on, but I think a lot of lines intended to be humorous fell flat for me because I was spending too much time decoding the slang. British readers and others more familiar with the London vernacular will probably have a better experience.

Along similar lines, I thought the depiction of London was lacking, but my experience of the city is unfortunately limited to Heathrow airport, so scenes set by unexplained reference were lost on me. Throughout the novel, however, the world building felt shallow and a little flimsy. There wasn’t a sense, as there was in Neverwhere, that this secret London could possibly coexist with the real thing. Neverwhere‘s London Below was safely out of sight and its interactions with the mundane world were mediated by homeless people, whereas there’s no metaphysical division between Miéville’s two Londons. The police are part of the real police force, the organized crime seems like it’s supposed to be like mundane criminal organizations, and everyone else just uses the occasional glamor to prevent anyone from noticing their unusual activities. How does all this work? Does Baron write reports to senior management like an ordinary officer? Does the Tattoo’s gang sell drugs and bankroll extortionate loans? For such a long novel…far longer, if I’m not mistaken, than Neverwhere…very few such questions are ever answered.

The characters are an even bigger problem. The protagonist, Billy Harrow, is nice enough, but seems inadequately motivated for the difficulties and extreme dangers to which he subjects himself. He tells Dane that he wants revenge for Leon’s death, but he otherwise almost never mentions Leon. He constantly wants to get word to Leon’s girlfriend who he barely knows, but doesn’t seem to think his family might want to know as well. Marge, meanwhile, accepting that Leon is dead, quits her job and immerses herself in the London underworld to…well, by her own admission, she doesn’t know what she wants to accomplish.

Dane at least has very understandable motivations throughout, but I had a different problem with him: I just didn’t buy him as a cultist. In fact, this is a problem with all of Miéville’s cultists. They’re people like you and me, just trying to get through the day, it’s just that when they go home they worship a giant squid, or something even less likely. The absurdity of an upper middle class Londoner kneeling before a giant squid beak is humorous, but it’s humorous because it’s out of place. In interviews Miéville identifies as an atheist, and I guess to him believing in virgin birth or reincarnation is just as fanciful as his squid cult. But there’s an important difference: established religions have the weight of tradition and, to varying degrees, society behind them. Giant squid do not. That doesn’t mean no one would worship a giant squid, but it does mean that someone who would do so has fallen pretty far out of step with society, to the point they really aren’t like you and me any more. There’s a reason cults keep their members sequestered and radicalized.

Of course, Miéville actually takes his cults-as-normal conceit a step further and has them all mix and associate. So not only do these cultists pass as normal in London society without difficulty, they interact with each other the same way rival political activists might: they argue, they share drinks, they make temporary alliances, and occasionally come to blows. Again, this seems like a misunderstanding of how cults view the world, or else, more likely perhaps, just a failure to apply any real-world psychology to the setting.

If all that wasn’t enough, there’s still one final barrier to making sense of Miéville’s cults: magic. At first, it might seem like this would make cults more likely. After all, instead of being stuck with mere rhetoric and charisma, a would-be cult leader can in fact perform supernatural feats to convince people to sign up. But the magic depicted in the novel is ubiquitous. You can’t walk five feet without seeing teleportation, a talking animal, or else people using Jedi powers. Somehow all of this is shrouded from mundane London, but once pierced the curtain falls away entirely and every magic user sees everything that’s happening around them. Since there seem to be no rules to the operation of this magic, everyone accepts that virtually anything is possible if someone is powerful or clever enough. All this seems very difficult for a cult worldview to integrate, given they must assert that they alone have access to truth and power. Surely the response to all this ill-defined magic is not faith but science? The scientist-thaumaturge protagonist of Perdido Street Station seems like a better fit than cultists like Dane.

This becomes particularly glaring at the very end of the book (if you are spoiler-averse you should skip this paragraph). For the ending to work, we have to believe several very outlandish things. First, we are asked to believe that removing Darwin would prevent evolution from ever being discovered, which is nonsense. Maybe the idea of evolution will be permanently blocked somehow, but this isn’t consistent with how the time fire was shown to work. Second, with no supporting material since his character was a cipher up until the final scene, we are told that the villain is a former creationist who, believing now in evolution, nevertheless wants to fool everyone into being creationists. I guess most readers won’t have a problem with that, but I needed a lot more reasons to buy it. Fundamentalism stems from the enlightenment and is motivated by, almost to the point of obsession, a belief in absolute truth. It would make more sense for the villain to try to create the God of his childhood, but this would highlight another weakness of the setting: if believing in things give them power, shouldn’t the major world religions be producing effects infinitely more powerful than tiny cults and minor criminals? The last issue, and perhaps the most odd, is way the book takes it for granted that eradicating knowledge of evolution somehow equates to the end of the world. Billy Harrow is a biologist and can be forgiven for feeling this way, but everyone else in the London underworld, including everyone who predicted a horrifying apocalypse, has almost no connection with science and seem unlikely to miss it. If this was Star Trek-style history manipulation then you could make the case that changing something so far back on the timeline would basically wipe out everyone alive today, but the history changes depicted in the book seem to work by altering the present rather than the actual past.

Kraken was an enjoyable read, but I felt that almost every facet of the story, from character to plot to world building, didn’t quite add up. I’m glad that Miéville is trying different things, though, rather than sticking with the “brand” that made his name. Apparently his next novel is a space opera, and I can’t wait to see what he does with it.

“Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi

September 18, 2010 at 10:37 pm | Posted in Short Stories | 5 Comments

This week’s story is “Elegy for a Young Elk” by Hannu Rajaniemi from Subterranean Magazine. Despite the rustic name and opening scene, it turns out this is a post-singularity story. Last week Evan complained about characters “straight out of steampunk central casting”, but using stock material doesn’t bother me too much. It’s a good thing, because this story’s plot feels like it’s the only story anyone ever tells about the singularity. Vaguely described transhumans fighting vaguely described self-replicating “plague”, all right out of Fire Upon the Deep. I’m not sure if the story is even comprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the tropes involved. The family connections between the three categories of post-singularity life were a bit of a new twist, but also a twist that felt fairly contrived.

The star of the story, for me, was the magic lamp genie nanomachine device commanded by poetry. Generally I have a tin ear for poetry, but I actually was pretty impressed by the narrator’s train poem. But the poetry business was also the biggest disappointment since it was only used once. Well, once, and then sort of at the end, which almost ruined the story for me. In a great story, Esa would have been trapped and died, but his father would have used an epic poem to recreate something like him out the magic bean nanoseed. In this story, Esa uses magic quantum something or other to hide from the city’s magic guardian firewall. This was an enormous cop out of an ending. If this firewall was so easily duped, why couldn’t he escape before? I suppose the story implies his mother is helping out from her end, but come on.

So in conclusion…hmm, give me a minute here…let’s go with number five…so, in conclusion, I enjoyed this story despite my complaints because it didn’t try to do too much (like last week’s story) or too little (like the first two stories). It probably was not as well written as some of the previous short story club stories, but I liked it more. I guess this could just be evidence I have a greater affinity for the setting and tropes involved, but unlike most of the previous stories, this one paired its chosen subgenre with a narrative that had a clear beginning, middle, and end. I think it’s useful to contrast this with last week’s steampunk story. That story was much more expansive in its worldbuilding and the ideas it was trying to work with, but for me, at least, there wasn’t adequate resolution. This story aims much lower, but I came away feeling much more positive.

“A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald

September 12, 2010 at 12:55 am | Posted in Short Stories | 2 Comments

It appears the Short Story Club story list is taking a tour through the different reasons I don’t like short stories. Last week we had a story that had some interesting things to say but little in the way of plot or characters. This week’s story, “A Serpent in the Gears” by Margaret Ronald from Beneath Ceaseless Skies, has some interesting characters and a lot of action and excitement but only started to say interesting things. A fun story, in other words, but a tease.

In one sense, I liked the story a lot, as evidenced by the fact that after I finished it I looked up the author to see if she’d written a novel in this setting. Had one been available, it would have gone on my to-read list. However, this reaction is also reflective of how unsatisfied I felt by the story itself. Yes, there is a basic crisis that is set up and then resolved, but the basic crisis wasn’t itself too interesting. Meanwhile the narrative sets up several much more interesting issues and leaves them hanging, like the nature of the changes to the narrator’s homeland, the conflicted feelings of the narrator about his homeland and the society in which he lives, and the details of the nature of magic and its effects on society. Not to mention, while I didn’t find this as immediately compelling, the discussion at the end of a future invasion makes the story seem more like a prologue to a novel than a standalone story.

Is this just a matter of taste? To some extent, it must be…in the past I’ve noted I expect more out of short stories than a lot of people seem to. But I think in this case, at least, I can point to story-specific reasons for my reaction. The story provides closure on two issues: the Regina‘s mission and the nature and origin of the narrator. The narrator’s unique circumstances are strongly hinted at all the way up to where it is confirmed about halfway through, so it wasn’t really a twist. I think my ambivalence about the Regina‘s mission comes straight from the narrator, who summarizes it in a paragraph or two and then goes back to the stuff I came away from the story interested in. If the narrator doesn’t care whether the mission succeeds or fails, why should I?

It doesn’t help that “Aaris Valley” was the thinnest part of the world building. We’re told it’s an insignificant backwater, but then it turns out that multiple countries have spies aboard the Regina with objectives we assume (for they are not actually given) are sinister. And then at the end, a militant and expansionist Aaris is a thought to be a grave threat. Just how big is this valley? None of this is clear, so neither are the stakes of the mission.

I should mention that although this type of setup with no payoff is most common in short stories, there are a fair number of novels that suffer from this as well. One of my major complaints with Steph Swainston’s series of novels beginning with The Year of Our War was how parsimonious the books were (at least the ones I read) with developing the fascinating world. I actually think having a short story function as a sort of gateway drug for a novel in the same setting is a good idea (I think Ken Scholes’ “A Weeping Czar Beholds the Fallen Moon” from last year’s Short Story Club had this relationship with Lamentation) but it works best if the novel actually exists.

“A Sky River Sutra” by Vendana Singh

September 5, 2010 at 12:56 am | Posted in Short Stories | 1 Comment

This is the second of my weekly write-ups for the Torque Control Short Story Club. The story this week is “A Sky River Sutra” by Vendana Singh, available online at Strange Horizons.

A month ago or so, Brian Slatterly wrote in a comment on Abigail Nussbaum’s blog that Inception was a film about filmmaking. Whether or not you agree with him about Inception, this is certainly true of a lot of sophisticated films (practically every movie Tarantino has made, for instance), and I’ve always been a little uncertain about how I feel about it. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with making a movie about making movies, and I really admire Adaptation, a film that is firmly within this tradition, but to me the whole business carries a disagreeable whiff of navel-gazing. After all, the creative act of filmmaking may be a big deal for a director like Quentin Tarantino, but it’s mainly a curiosity to most of his audience.

I bring this up because “A Sky River Sutra” is a story about stories. In fact, it’s probably accurate to call it a short story about short stories. Nominally it is a science fiction story, narrated by a poet of ancient India whose personality has somehow been reconstructed in a computer on board a starship. Ultimately this turns out to be a bit of a red herring. One reason is that an alternative framework is proposed toward the end: a fantasy story set in ancient India where the narrator drinks a magic potion that casts his consciousness forward into the future. But ultimately I would argue both the science fiction and fantasy glosses proposed by the narrator are conceits that the the story tries out and then abandons.

The final section of the story suggests, to me, that we are intended to think of the reconstructed Somadeva as being recreated not in a computer through some technobabble mechanism, but in Isha’s head through her reading of his ancient writings. Isha herself could also be a construct, part of a story thought up by Somadeva to convince Suryavati to stay alive, since he tells us he wants to put himself in a story as other authors of his tradition have done. And of course Isha and Somadeva are finally constructs in the mind of the reader reading Vandana Singh’s story on Strange Horizons. I believe this is also the meaning of Inish section with its talk of combinations of people and of unformed meanings. There’s you and there’s Vendana Singh, and the combination results in “A Sky River Sutra”. The crypto-physics stories within the story demonstrate how the reader (Isha, but also the the reader of “A Sky River Sutra”) contributes meaning, or at least interpretation, to an author’s story.

All of this is interesting, or at least I think so, but the story itself doesn’t really work for me. Part of the problem may be I’ve read a lot stories along these lines lately (Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, Kelly Link’s “Magic For Beginners” and “Lull”, and Inception too I suppose) and all of them were longer, more elaborate, more complicated, and ultimately more sophisticated. More seriously, the worldbuilding is essentially non-existent. Isha, Somadeva, and Suryavati feel more like variables in an equation than actual people. No attempt is made to convince the reader that Isha is a real person living in a plausible future (one reference to “memory raid” doesn’t count as worldbuilding), Somadeva’s own context is allocated a few sentences of description, and the cultures Isha visits are, well, teso. I’m sure someone could write a setting where the naming rules of the Inish actually make sense and result in a functioning society, but this story doesn’t do that. Proportionally, “A Sky River Sutra” is devoted almost entirely to its ideas about stories while its actual story remains little more than a schematic.

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