Tags: Ada Palmer
When Strange Horizons asked me to contribute to their 2016 Best of the Year wrap-up, I immediately knew my entry would have to discuss Too Like the Lightning, my favorite novel not only of 2016 but of the last decade. The natural question to ask me, then, one I certainly asked myself, is if it’s so great, why haven’t I actually written a review of it? Well, for a variety of reasons I haven’t reviewed much of anything in a while, so with the sequel arriving today it seemed like a great time to both reread Too Like the Lightning and actually write about it this time.
The novel takes place in a future where humanity has flying cars, a moon base, and robots that make full time jobs strictly optional. Humanity is also enjoying lasting world peace, having given up geographic nation states, organized religion, and even gendered pronouns. Our window into this world, the narrator Mycroft Canner, seems like an example of the best this future has to offer. Intelligent, erudite, diligent, sensitive, empathetic, and humble, he works as a sort of freelance analyst for world governments. However, Mycroft is not the paragon of this society but rather its monster, a criminal so feared and reviled that his name scares even adults. Secretly rehabilitated, Mycroft is now a Servicer, a convict doing forced labor. Most Servicers do menial tasks, but the world’s leaders recognize Mycroft’s gifts make him uniquely qualified to help protect the world that hates him. Silence of the Lambs made a cliche out of the scary captive criminal, but far from scary, Mycroft seems sensitive and even kind. You might then assume this is yet another novel where sympathy is stirred up for the narrator by making him the target of unjust accusations and hatred, but there’s something a great deal more subtle happening with Mycroft’s character.
The novel’s plot consists of two strands that at first seem unrelated. In one, Mycroft investigates the theft of a manuscript from a newspaper office, a seemingly simple crime that turns out to threaten both the stability of the political system as well as the computer systems that operate the world’s flying cars. The other storyline, which at first seems like a non-sequitur for a futuristic science fiction novel, concerns Mycroft’s efforts to keep secret a boy named Bridger who can perform miracles.
To understand what’s going on here, perhaps we should start by considering Mycroft’s own words as he opens his account:
You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Five Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.
This is not a mere preface or framing device. Throughout the narrative, Mycroft not only frequently speaks directly to the reader, he even allows a hypothetical reader to make italicized responses. He also is explicit that he is not just relating events but arguing a point. The “transformation” he describes is one Mycroft thinks is widely misunderstood and he aims to correct that understanding. This is a book much concerned with philosophy, and throughout the story Mycroft time for asides about and even quotations from eighteenth century thinkers like Voltaire, Diderot, Rousseau, De Sade, and others as he tries to show how their ideas have shaped his world. As the presence of miracles in the narrative suggests, it is also concerned with religion. Since religious gatherings and discussion are thought to produce hatred and discord, every person is assigned a professional spiritual adviser who helps them search for truth, a truth they are then forbidden to discuss with anyone except that adviser. This is justified by the assumption that religion is a subjective matter of faith, but a boy who can produce miracles on demand threatens to turn at least part of the religious experience into observable truth.
Even though Voltaire and other Enlightenment thinkers would be comfortable with this future’s religious skepticism, there’s another aspect to the novel’s future society that has greatly departed from eighteenth century precedents. Referencing gender is taboo, and only “they” is permitted as a third person singular. And so it is used in Mycroft’s story…in the dialogue, that is. In his actual narration, as part of his invocation of the eighteenth century, Mycroft insists on using gendered pronouns despite many objections from his hypothetical reader. Here is the first of many passages in which he discusses this decision:
She nodded back.
Does it distress you, reader, how I remind you of their sexes in each sentence? ‘Hers’ and ‘his’? Does it make you see them naked in each other’s arms, and fill even this plain scene with wanton sensuality? Linguists will tell you the ancients were less sensitive to gendered language than we are, that we react to it because it’s rare, but that in ages that heard ‘he’ and ‘she’ in every sentence they grew stale, as the glimpse of an ankle holds no sensuality when skirts grow short. I don’t believe it. I think gendered language was every bit as sensual to our predecessors as it is to us, but they admitted the place of sex in every thought and gesture, while our prudish era, hiding behind the neutered ‘they’, pretends that we do not assume any two people who lock eyes may have fornicated in their minds if not their flesh. You protest: My mind is not as dirty as thine, Mycroft. My distress is at the strangeness of applying ‘he’ and ‘she’ to thy 2450s, where they have no place. Would that you were right, good reader. Would that ‘he’ and ‘she’ and their electric power were unknown in my day. Alas, it is from these very words that the transformation came which I am commanded to describe, so I must use them to describe it. I am sorry, reader. I cannot offer wine without the poison of the alcohol within.
Yet even this explanation is not complete. You see, Mycroft does not use the gendered pronoun that matches the biology of the character in question. Rather, he assigns genders to his characters based on his idiosyncratic notion of how to apply eighteenth century gender roles to his futuristic milieu. Mostly this is left implicit, but from time to time Mycroft mentions as an aside a character’s biological gender, then rejects it and explains why. He even engages in debates with his hypothetical reader about borderline cases. I found the resulting effect quite remarkable. Mycroft socially constructs gender right there in front of us, in defiance of biology and at times strenuous imagined objections of his readership. By the end of the novel, I knew what gender Mycroft had assigned each character and this colored my perception of them, yet I couldn’t remember who was biologically what without flipping through the book for minutes to find if there was one spot where Mycroft happens to mention it. Often he never does.
This has been much remarked on by those writing about Too Like the Lightning, but largely lost in the debate is that Mycroft was making still more interesting claims. First, he is asserting that banishing something from polite conversation doesn’t make it go away, and that his society’s supposed victory over gender bias and religion may be far less thorough than claimed. Further, he is describing a transformation, and he says that gender is essential to understanding that transformation. That some readers have glossed over this is understandable, because unfortunately the novel is only the first half of Mycroft’s text and the transformation he alludes to has yet to take place. We won’t see whether he can justify his claim that the ideas of the eighteenth century generally and its gender roles in particular are somehow essential to understanding what’s happened to his society until the sequel, Seven Surrenders, which not coincidentally has been released the very day I’m posting this.
There’s another important element in that second excerpt that also has not attracted enough attention in the discussions of the novel I’ve read, and that is that Mycroft has been commanded to write this text. This shouldn’t be a surprise, for Mycroft is, after all, a convict laborer. The book is prefaced by many messages indicating the many censorship gates his text has passed on its away to publication: “Certified nonproselytory by the four-hive commission on religion in literature”, for example, and “Raté D par la comission européenne des medias dangereux”. Further, Mycroft occasionally describes several characters in the story as being sources for scenes in which he is not present and, even more occasionally, mentions a few as having read what he’s writing and asked that this or that detail be changed.
These metatextual flourishes are fun but become quite relevant to our understanding of the story when we consider the setting. Enjoying as it does world peace, voluntary citizenship, spiritual advisers that sound a lot like therapists, and little need for labor, Too Like the Lightning‘s future has been described as utopian. Yet there are many aspects to it that seem quite sinister. A few of these are obvious, such as the complete censorship of nearly all religious speech. Many science fiction readers won’t shed many tears for religious speech, though, which is why some may overlook more subtle warning signs. How exactly were the world’s powerful existing religions extinguished? Is it really true that seven “Hives” drawn mostly from European traditions are sufficient to categorize all the world’s cultures? Why is it that the leaders of these supposedly rival Hives are nearly all related by blood or marriage and seem to be on better terms with each other than they are with their people? Why do essentially no ordinary people even appear as named characters in the book? Why is it that in this supposedly tolerant and benevolent future, the ordinary people that do appear are violent xenophobes?
The answer to all these questions could, of course, be that Ada Palmer simply didn’t think things through. Interviews she has given suggest that in fact she has, but we need not resort to appeals to her authority. Here I benefited greatly from rereading the novel, for when looking at these issues from the beginning, all sorts of throwaway remarks by Mycroft or other characters add to the impression that there’s quite a bit rotten in this particular Denmark. For example, in exactly one brief anecdote we learn that the hive system was created by the world’s rich, the postnational Davos set (though that label is of course not used), and that it was imposed on the rest through propaganda and probably warfare. Another example is the way the current rulers of the allegedly democratic Hives got where they are through family connections with the previous generation of rulers and frequently make comments that assume their own children should have ready access “to the high offices”.
But the biggest reason why it’s hard to see the future as anything but wonderful and the governments as anything but beneficent is the way Mycroft describes the Hives and their leaders. He is effusive in his praise for their wisdom, intelligence, charisma, and even beauty. He frequently stops to comment on how enlightened his culture’s system of religious repression is, how much of an improvement Hives were compared to nations, and so on. It’s very easy to assume that Mycroft loves this society, and therefore Ada Palmer loves this society, and that you as the reader are supposed to love it too. But in fact none of these conclusions follow. Again and again it is emphasized that although the novel was written by Ada Palmer, historian and science fiction author, the text was written by Mycroft Canner, arch-criminal in captivity, writing at the command of some of the very leaders he is extolling. While a full analysis must wait until Seven Surrenders or perhaps even the following two books, it seemed increasingly likely as I reread the novel that Mycroft is an insidiously unreliable narrator. I wouldn’t put it past him (and Ada Palmer) to outright lie about some fact or other, but more likely his unreliability consists of his shaping the narrative to the desires of those forcing him to write it and, he even mentions, at times literally reading over his shoulder. So of course he describes them as the good and the beautiful, born to be the just rulers of this world. Mycroft’s true feelings might be evident from the fact he asks us to apply the wisdom of the eighteenth century, yet when it comes to the ruling order he leaves this as an exercise for the reader. The reason why should be obvious: far from the wise rulers Mycroft portrays, to any of the eighteenth century thinkers he valorizes, the elite that rule the Hives would clearly be an ancien régime, a bunch of nepotistic aristocrats fighting vainly against the tide of history to preserve their petty power and dignity.
A novel this gloriously complex has many influences, but for me it’s hard to look past one obvious one: Gene Wolfe, particularly his Book of the New Sun. This is not to say that Palmer is simply rehashing Wolfe’s work; quite the contrary, she’s taking aspects of his work and carrying them in new directions. Book of the New Sun is a masterpiece but it’s hard to recommend because of it’s unlikable narrator, its questionable treatment of female characters, and, most of all, its uncompromising refusal to give the reader any assistance in understanding what’s going on in a first reading. Too Like the Lightning doesn’t have Book of the New Sun‘s beautiful language or dreamlike atmosphere, but it does have a delightfully unreliable narrator, a subtle and complex story that rewards close reading and even rereading, and a constantly thoughtful deployment of philosophical ideas drawn from sources the reader is unlikely to be familiar with. Yet it takes these aspects and puts them in a novel with a likable narrator, a thoroughly modern (albeit unusual) approach to gender, and a surface narrative that doesn’t leave the reader at sea. I love Gene Wolfe’s fiction, but it’s long since time for someone to step up and beat him at his own game. Too Like the Lightning is a first wonderful step in that direction, but the job’s not finished. Apparently this too is a four book series, so a full verdict may have to wait, but today I’m going to eagerly start reading Seven Surrenders to find out whether lightning can strike twice.
Tags: Kameron Hurley
There is no better introduction to the Bel Dame Apocrypha trilogy than the beginning of the first novel, God’s War.
Nyx sold her womb somewhere between Punjai and Faleen, on the edge of the desert.
Drunk, but no longer bleeding, she pushed into a smoky cantina just after dark and ordered a pinch of morphine and a whiskey chaser. She bet all of her money on a boxer named Jaks, and lost it two rounds later when Jaks hit the floor like an antique harem girl.
— God’s War
From now on, I expect that first sentence will be mentioned whenever people talk about great science fiction opening lines. But while as a sentence it’s less shocking than the one that opens Steel Beach and with its proper nouns harder to remember than that of Neuromancer, I think it’s actually better than either of them. It’s not a stunt line, or rather not just a stunt line. It shocks and it strikes a grim opening note, but it also has real symbolic significance. Just this first sentence tells us something about Nyx’s relationship to motherhood, and by extension the traditional roles of women.
The two lines that follow continue to relate events in a way that tells us more about Nyx, though there’s a clever bait-and-switch. From these lines we conclude that Nyx is desperate and reckless, but in fact she has lost that money on purpose. Nyx is a bounty hunter, and we soon see that showing up drunk at the fight and losing that money was a ploy to seduce Jaks, and that seducing Jaks was, in turn, a ploy to help locate Nyx’s real target. So far, this sort of reversal is a common technique for beginning a novel. I call it clever because Nyx really is reckless and typically more than a little desperate. Getting drunk and blowing her money gambling on a boxing match is very much in character for her, even if in this particular instance she has an ulterior motive. Although the novel doesn’t ever make this explicit, it’s reasonable to conclude that she could have secretly followed Jaks or found some other way to ingratiate herself, but she chose this method because it’s what she wanted to be doing anyway.
When the book was on the last steps of its very long road to publication, Kameron Hurley’s concise summary of what made God’s War distinctive was: “Bugs. Blood. Brutal Women.” Again, it’s hard to outdo Hurley here, but each of those three elements deserves to be unpacked from soundbyte-level brevity and examined.
“Bugs” is a reference to the setting. The planet Umayma was colonized by humans many centuries before the trilogy (“Umayma” means “Little mother” in Arabic), but before anyone could live there it had to be terraformed. This was done not with machines but with genetically engineered insects. Unfortunately, some combination of a war amongst the human colonists and the inevitable fact that things don’t go according to plan meant that although parts of Umayma became habitable, it never became a garden world. Worse, humans have lost the scientific knowledge that allowed them to cross the stars and create climate-altering insects. Worst of all, the insects themselves are still around and almost completely out of control. The fact that the small minority of humans who remain able to exert some measure of control over nearby insects are called magicians is enough to indicate that Umayma has fallen, but its fall (to borrow Gibson’s famous line) is unevenly distributed. On one hand, they retain capabilities our society can only dream of, such as regrowing lost limbs, but in other areas they have dropped to our level and even below. Complicating matters is the fact that, since colonization, a tiny minority of people have developed the ability to shapeshift into animals. Some limits are placed on this, but the process has only a distant relationship to the conservation of energy. That alone is probably enough to disqualify the trilogy for the not-really-all-that-coveted label of “hard SF”, but despite the depth of speculative thought given to the world, as a matter of orientation the Bel Dame Apocrypha isn’t hard SF anyway. That is to say, although the setting is fascinating and plenty of thought has gone into it, in the end it always remains a complement to the characters and story, not an end in and of itself. I know that’s coming perilously close to saying these books are too good to be considered hard SF, but hopefully you understand what I mean.
As an example, let’s speculate as to why the author chose insects as the almost exclusive manifestation of the world’s biotechnology. Is there some speculative reason we can derive on graph paper for why insects are a better choice for manipulating the climate than bacteria or, say, marsupials? Maybe, but it seems much more likely insects were chosen for the estranging effect they have on most readers. In the antiseptic environment of the modern first world, insects are seen as inherently dirty. If a visitor to your home sees several cockroaches crawling around your floor, they won’t be comforted if you assure them you’ve thoroughly cleaned the cockroaches. A world whose high technology is embodied by insects is one that strikes most of us as irredeemably unpleasant. As literary effects go, it feels just a little cheap because it’s something that only takes place in the reader’s mind (Nyx and her contemporaries don’t have a visceral dislike for bugs). But that doesn’t mean it’s not enormously effective.
So given the use of bugs only makes the world seem unpleasant to us, we must ask: is it actually an unpleasant place to live? The answer to that question (“yes”) brings us to the second part of Hurley’s summary: blood. You might assume that means a lot of people get killed in the course of the Bel Dame Apocrypha, and you’d be right. As a bounty hunter, Nyx is sometimes tasked to bring her targets back alive, but more often she is told to just bring their heads for identification. Moreover, she operates on the Wild West fringes of her society, near borders and among criminals, places where laws are only occasionally enforced and order is kept only through the frequent application of deadly violence. And unlike some tough-protagonist books, she’s not even close to the only one spilling blood. Nyx’s enemies are even more willing to kill people who get in their way than she is, and that’s saying quite a bit. This isn’t one of those trilogies where everyone lives through to the end. Characters die. Most characters, in fact, die. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say this is the sort of trilogy where the more sympathetic a character is, the more likely they are to die. Nice folks finish last, if not everywhere than certainly in the sorts of places where Nyx operates.
But the huge body count surrounding Nyx’s misadventures is only the tip of the iceberg. As God’s War opens, Nyx’s homeland of Nasheen has been at war with neighboring Chenja for centuries. Whereas the horrible wars of our twentieth century drenched the world in blood but burned themselves out after a few years, a combination of culture and technology has allowed the war between Nasheen and Chenja to sit in a nightmarish steady state. Nearly the entire male population on both sides is drafted into the war and very few return. Yet both countries manage to replenish their populations through a combination of traditional (polygamy) and technological (artificial births, surrogate mothers) measures. Farah Mendlesohn criticized continuous bloodshed on this scale as impossible, and I am sympathetic to this argument. In our world such a conflict would indeed be impossible and ordinarily I am all for nitpicking novels to death over matters of sociology (despite my own complete lack of qualifications in the field), but in this case both the technology and the social mores were so different from any Earth precedents I was willing to give it a pass. In particular, the demographic and statistical details about how both Nasheen and Chenja produced children were left vague enough that I didn’t have a problem filling in the gaps with details I considered appropriate.
The war is in part responsible for the last, and most remarked upon, piece of Hurley’s equation, brutal women. With virtually no men present in civilian life, every occupation low or high in Nasheen is filled almost exclusively by women. These circumstances have caused a reversal of some of the standard gender stereotypes. Women are considered responsible but also dangerous, prone to drinking and getting into fights. Men are seen as precious and needing protection, almost universally referred to as “boys”, and are viciously ostracized if they are believed to have shirked their social duty to go to the front. I’ve read a number of stories that reverse roles in this way, but this is the first I’ve read where I had the sense that the difference arose naturally from the circumstances and not through authorial fiat. In particular, roles are not simply mirror-reversed. Most importantly, women are still mothers in this society and that still informs their thinking, even if this is complicated by Nasheen’s assembly line approach to childbirth. The bel dames alluded to in the trilogy’s name, for example, are a group that serves a function in Nasheen for which there’s no direct equivalent in our world. Bel dames are government bounty hunters, always women, who are responsible for tracking down deserters, almost always men. They have a license to kill that puts them almost completely above the law, and over the years they’ve developed into an organization whose aims no longer always align with those of the Queen they theoretically serve. Nyx was once a bel dame, still acts like she’s above the law even though she’s not any longer, and sometimes hopes to become a bel dam again. But there’s a tension in Nyx’s feelings about bel dames, and not just because she’s made so many enemies among them. Nyx’s brothers all died in the war, and Nyx’s most important formative experience was getting blown up almost beyond the reach of her nation’s miraculous medical science while trying to protect “her boys”. For someone with Nyx’s skills and background, being a bel dame seems like the highest station she can achieve in life, yet killing “boys” for the crime of trying to stay alive gives even the confident Nyx more than a little cognitive dissonance.
In this area and in many others, the trilogy presents a dissonance that it doesn’t resolve. Or, alternatively, it presents a dissonance but then leaves the resolution for it up to the reader. Are we to see the bel dames as strong women who don’t let anyone push them around, as monsters created but only barely controlled by their government, as victims of a system that denies poor young women a better life than hunting the system’s other victims in the desert, or some combination of all those? As an intelligent and thoughtful, yet also hands-off, piece of fiction, the Bel Dame Apocrypha can support many different kinds of readings. The choice is up to the reader, but I think it’s an illuminating exercise to consider how well the trilogy stands up to these different perspectives.
The most obvious is the surface reading, the gritty, action-packed adventure story. As an adventure–actually I should say three adventures, because although the books share most of their characters and should definitely be read in order, each tells a self-contained story. As three adventures, then, the books are good but not great, full of tense action and vivid characters who I’m going to barely mention in this review despite its length…but also some weaknesses. God’s War has an peculiarly disjointed narrative, with a strange time jump near the beginning and a plot that has a few too many reverses for its own good. Infidel is the strongest of the three, presenting a more cohesive story and sending its characters in new and interesting directions, but it’s not as effective as it could be because Nyx’s core motive is hidden from the reader until the end, a dangerous tactic that here undermines the reading experience because Nyx’s actions feel arbitrary (even though they’re not). Rapture seen on its own is probably the weakest story, ornamenting its desert travelogue with two new characters that don’t seem to go anywhere (Kage and Ahmed) and coming to a conclusion that doesn’t feel all that conclusive. Yet in terms of developing the trilogy’s setting, ideas, and themes Rapture is essential to the whole. It’s that whole that interests me, which is why I’m reviewing the trilogy together and not as the three separate books the way approaching them as merely adventures would have demanded.
Many would say that the books should be read as a character study of their protagonist, Nyx. I think I got halfway through God’s War before I really started to enjoy it, and that was mainly because it took me that long to really get my head around Nyx as a character. Where typical protagonists are distinguished by their ability to either fight or think their way out of virtually any problem (or both, which almost always makes for a dull story), Nyx surmounts most obstacles through endurance. Don’t get me wrong, she tries to fight her way out of problems, but she’s a bad shot in a world where many people have guns, she has no facility with her world’s Clarke’s law magic, she’s got emotional scars that prevent her from having (or at least keeping) any close friends, despite sometimes scoring big bounties she doesn’t manage her finances well enough to keep any of it, she often walks into traps, frequently gets captured, and the list goes on. This is all very interesting, I said to myself as I read, but how am I supposed to sympathize with a character who has low aspirations she’s barely able to accomplish? But Nyx won me over with her grim determination, her toughness, her desire to free herself from the scars of her past and her inability to actually manage it.
Until I really understood her, though, Rhys was the character who kept me interested. Whereas Nyx is brutal but strong, Rhys (at least in the first book) is good but weak. He takes up with Nyx because she can protect him from the rest of Nasheen, but there’s no one who can protect him from Nyx. Although he’s too meek to hold his own with Nyx in a conversation, he nevertheless represents a way of life she’s lost forever, if she ever had it: education, piety, morality, and idealism are all things Nyx has sacrificed to survive the war. They are as fascinating a pair as any characters I can recall not because they are opposites but because everything each of them does reminds the other of what they can’t ever become.
Initially, the most notable thing about Rhys is his religion, and from the titles of the individual books you’d be forgiven for thinking this was a trilogy that was somehow about religion, but…this trilogy is not really about religion. The setting is thousands of years in our future, and while religions are the one sort of human institution that can actually last millennia, they don’t do so without changing. Nasheen and Chenja practice something that has evolved out of Islam while other cultures on Umayma follow the descendants of other faiths, but nothing is quite like we know it today. I was very interested in this idea when I first started reading God’s War, but religion is left largely out of focus and in the background.
“Tell me,” Solome said, leaning in slightly now, suddenly a bit more animated. “This sixth prayer of yours, what is its purpose? No other followers of your book have a midnight prayer.”
“The midnight prayer–” Rhys began, but Nyx had had enough talk of religion.
“Tell me more about Nikoderm and her love of violence,” Nyx said.
— God’s War
I suspect that Kameron Hurley expected Nyx would be speaking on behalf of the reader when she cuts off Rhys and steers the conversation away from religion and toward matters directly relevant to the plot, but at this point a third of the way into God’s War I was much more interested in hearing about the religion. For the rest of the book I waited to hear more about the sixth prayer, but it was not to be. Rhys is an impressive portrait of one sort of religious experience, and in Infidel there is a moment that provides one the most devastating dramatizations of the problem of evil I’ve ever encountered and worth reading for that alone (and worth avoiding, too, if you dislike watching very bad things happening to a likable character), but the trilogy is content to present these things without comment. There’s a huge difference between this and The Sparrow or Flowers for Algernon, where questions of faith are central concerns of the story. The one point the trilogy makes about religion, a point that is implied in the worldbuilding but never stated directly, is that religion is an outgrowth of culture and not vice versa. To restate that with specifics, Nasheen isn’t run by women because there are few male priests in its religion. Instead, there are few male priests in its religion because Nasheen is run by women. Some people have claimed that God’s War endorses the idea that violence is inherent to Islam, but not only does the setting imply this is impossible for any religion, the story really doesn’t have enough religious characters to make any claims about Islam in particular or religion in general. Of the main cast, only Rhys is truly devout, and he is, of course, a pacifist. Well, all right, he’s someone who wishes he was a pacifist…that’s almost the same thing! A few other characters are reflexively religious, but really, if there is a criticism to be made it’s that given how religious their societies are it’s a little odd that so few of the characters seem to care about it at all. Having Rhys as the sole window into religious life on Umayma means that as an exploration of religion the trilogy is interesting but very much incomplete.
Perhaps the most common way to read the Bel Dame Apocrypha is as feminist science fiction. The trilogy has gotten a lot of attention for this, and God’s War was even shortlisted for the Tiptree award. I had read a lot of these reactions before I starting reading and that may have been why it took me so long to become comfortable with Nyx as a protagonist. She’s anything but a perfect role model and Nasheen is anything but the perfect society. In his original review of God’s War, Niall Harrison said the novel was “in dialogue with the tradition of feminist utopian writing”. I suppose he had in mind Nasheen as a sort of reaction to stories like Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country, since in Nasheen rule by women has resulted in just as screwed up a state as when men are in charge. The feminist reading is valid and the trilogy does construct its world based on modern feminist conclusions about gender essentialism (that is to say, the lack thereof), but there’s also an aspect that distances it further from utopian fiction: we never get the sense that Nasheen was planned with feminist ideas in mind. The relevant history is left vague, but the impression I got was that there was a scramble for power after which successive queens slowly made Nasheen into a matriarchy to shore up their own positions. The traditional utopia, feminist or otherwise, is planned according to allegedly enlightened principles, and therefore implies that if we readers would just become a little more enlightened ourselves, we too could have a perfect society. The world of Umayma, on the other hand, is the ruins of planned society, and not only is it a pretty miserable place, it’s been getting steadily worse since it was founded. In this sort of setting, a literally conservative worldview makes sense, and indeed Nyx doesn’t fight to change the world for the better, she fights to stop people who she assumes would make it worse.
The fight to make a better world, even the dream that such a thing is possible, is relegated to Inaya and the shifters. This is at least as problematic as the X-men movies deploying a heavy-handed homosexuality metaphor where it doesn’t really work. Homosexuals can’t kill people with lasers from their eyes, and if they could then it would be much more reasonable to be afraid of them. In the case of shifters, the persecuted minorities in our world can’t turn into animals with militarily valuable abilities. What makes it even more annoying is that the presence of shifters creates a tidy, unambiguous social justice problem off on the margins of a world with enormous challenges in gender relations that no one (except Raine, whose motives are suspect) seems to be trying to do anything much about. It’s a shame, because other than this and the unnecessary deployment of metaphysical novelty in Rapture‘s conclusion to her story, Inaya travels what for me is without question the trilogy’s most interesting character arc, moving from a denial of her nature to an unwavering crusade to liberate others like her. She also makes a conscious choice to put her cause over her family, presenting an interesting contrast to the other characters: Nyx more or less involuntarily gives up any hope of having a family, Anneke manages to go off and live the life of a stay-at-home mother, and, most tragically, Rhys defines himself by his family only to have it abandon him. Once again, the trilogy lets us draw our own conclusions about their choices.
But there is still another reading of these books, one which seems less remarked upon than it deserves, and that is to view the trilogy as an examination of the effects of war. The war is the source of every problem, in the background of each character, and central to each novel’s plot. We may not see the full spectrum of religious engagement, nor even a complete examination of gender relations (this would have demanded more time be spent in male-dominated societies and, especially, the divided Mhoria, not to mention a clearer discussion of how Nasheen came to be the way it is), but we do get a comprehensive look at the war from every conceivable viewpoint. Characters run the gamut from veterans to deserters, pacifists to mercenaries, government agents to rebels, plus those whose family members were all those things. We see how the war has affected not just Nasheen but also Chenja and even neutral Tirhan and Ras Tieg.
Yet, and take a moment to consider just how incredible this is, over three books we never see the war. The closest we come to seeing any fighting are nearby biological weapon detonations, and though at one point Nyx finds herself in the middle of a raid, she and her team stay inside and keep their heads down. The war is not shown, and yet the characters we meet, the events that happen to them, and the societies they live in are all the creation of the war. The war is like a black hole, invisible but made obvious by its effects on everything around it.
”Vietnam War films are all pro-war, no matter what the supposed message, what Kubrick or Coppola or Stone intended…The magic brutality of the films celebrates the terrible and despicable beauty of their fighting skills. Fight, rape, war, pillage, burn. Filmic images of death and carnage are pornography for the military man.” — Francis Swofford, Jarhead, as quoted in the New York Times
I don’t think Swofford is right that it’s impossible to depict war without glorifying it, but it’s definitely the case that the pleasing emotions of war (the excitement of battle, the feeling of power, the exultation of victory) are easy to convey in fiction while the negative emotions (pain, grief, despair) are considerably more challenging. Perversely, it’s those negative emotions (along with boredom) that dominate war as it is actually experienced. The Bel Dame Apocrypha could be said to accidentally glorify Nyx’s bounty hunting this way, but its all-consuming yet always off-stage approach to war helps convey war as it truly is: a vast engine of human misery that no one remembers how to turn off. In both God’s War and Rapture, Nyx stops elements that want to use what are essentially weapons of mass destruction to upset the balance of power, even though it’s that same balance of power that is prolonging the war. In God’s War, she justifies it by saying that peace through the obliteration of Chenja isn’t a peace worth having. It’s not at all clear that, seen from a utilitarian perspective, she’s right about this. In Infidel the thinking seems to be that adding a stronger weapon will just escalate the carnage further without solving the conflict, but really the carnage seems surely to be near the limits of what is possible for the societies involved to bear already. But Nyx is a bounty hunter, not a deep thinker. No matter what sort of ethics one favors, it’s hard to see any logical argument for continuing the war. Yet continue it does, in defiance of reason, senselessly continuing for centuries the way World War I continued for years. It might seem as though I’m wrong to praise the trilogy for this when earlier I answered the charge that the war was implausible by saying the details are vague, but this is why I depicts the effects of war, not war itself.
By Rapture, for reasons that are (to repeat myself) left somewhat vague, the incentives have finally shifted to the point where a truce has become possible. Here again we don’t learn anything about peace or how it can be accomplished. Instead, through the war’s absence (this time its true absence), we see what the war has done, for without the war Nasheen’s social order almost immediately falls apart. What will a whole generation worth of men do in a society that sees them as good for only fighting? And if their focus turns inward instead of outward, can anything prevent them from throwing down Nasheen’s oppressive matriarchy and replacing it with a government that swings, like those of Nasheen’s neighbors, too far in the other direction?
As always, the trilogy doesn’t present answers to these questions. But if the questions were easily answered, they wouldn’t be interesting or thought-provoking. It’s a big genre, and there are plenty of novels out there that claim to have all the answers. Those stories, though, are the opposite of thought-provoking. Thought-revoking, perhaps. Whatever you think, this is the real answer, they say, so stop thinking. Or, worse, what you already believe is absolutely right, they say, and people who disagree with us aren’t just wrong, they’re villains. Too often science fiction is portrayed as the genre that presents answers when it is most effective as the genre that asks questions. What truly distinguishes the Bel Dame Apocrypha is that it asks excellent questions.
Tags: Dorothy Dunnett
Dorothy Dunnett is considered, in some quarters, to be the finest writer of historical fiction, ever. I have only read a handful of such books so I certainly can’t make that statement, but I can definitely believe that it might be true. Dunnett is a formidable writer. While not nearly as opaque as Gene Wolfe, her work is if anything even more labyrinthine. As in her earlier six book Lymond series, this tells the story of a fictitious man living in a meticulously researched historical milieu mostly populated by real historical figures. Dunnett takes no liberties with history, instead allowing her story to take place in the margins of the history books. The stories she chooses to tell are both epic and personal, for House of Niccolo‘s main character, like the hero of the eponymous Lymond books, is something of an epic person. Dunnett has been accused of having Mary Sue protagonists (a term for characters whose traits are chosen with wish fulfillment in mind) but that was more true of Lymond. In both series, though, the protagonist is more or less another species in terms of his intellect and abilities. Sometimes Nicholas is so ridiculously smart (and his life so ridiculously complicated) that I was tempted to throw up my hands at how outlandish it all seemed. But it never quite happened, for Dunnett’s studied prose makes everything sound so reasonable. Other times I started to flag from the sheer bulk of the series and its unrelenting detail, but after taking a break from reading I would always find myself coming back, eager for more.
Although Dunnett is nothing if not a plot-heavy writer, ultimately her books are centered on characters. Fortunately her writing is up to the task in this respect, too. The characters are very finely drawn, very real, not just the protagonist but also the wide array of supporting characters that orbit Nicholas’ life. Like all great fiction this is ultimately about more than who wins or loses…it takes a while for the themes to manifest but ultimately Dunnett explores just what responsibility man has to family, friends, and society…especially a man of such great talents as Nicholas. If you are at all interested in historical fiction you must try Dunnett. Most (including Dunnett herself before she died) recommend starting with the Lymond Chronicles and I agree. I think the Niccolo books are superior and normally I say start with the best, but in this case an exception must be made for the Niccolo books are so overwhelming in scope it is best to start with the more manageable series. Note, there are some connections between the two series, but there is absolutely no harm done to either narrative if you read one or the other first.
Tags: Alan Moore
I had read Watchmen already, but I went back to it after seeing a discussion of it come up in an unrelated conversation. There are to my knowledge only a few recognized auteurs in the graphic novel field, and Moore is the only one I’ve read and Watchmen is the only thing I’ve read of his. Perhaps I should try to find more, because Watchmen is great work. I rated it 4 stars when I first made this site and thought long and hard about that rating. It was always on the top of my list of borderline 5 star material. On the reread I decided to bump it up.
Why is Watchmen so good? It’s unbelievably smart…maybe too smart for its own good. The discussion of it that prompted the reread was on whether it could be considered “fascist” or not, whatever that might mean. The people arguing about it couldn’t even decide which characters were supposed to be considered heroes. This could be considered a weakness, but I view it as a sort of objectivity. Moore lays out the options and lets the reader choose, and the choice he gives is not an easy one.
I don’t have the time to write a spoiler discussion of it, but I suppose I should mention just what Watchmen is about. It’s an attack–I hesitate to use a term I despise, deconstruction–on the superhero myth. The story is set in a sort of alternate history where the first superhero comics in the early part of the century actually convinced certain people to take up “customed vigilantism”. From there, Moore takes a brutal look at the effects of unchecked power on those who wield it and the world they create. I gave it five stars because it is not just full of very smart thinking on these issues, but also very well executed in terms of both dialogue and what passes in the graphic novel format for direction. Recommended without reservations.
Tags: Gene Wolfe
I have always found Arthurian lengeds to be rather distasteful. Generally when it comes to such stories I err on the side of favoring the harsh, grim reality, not fluffed up fables. How can one sit back and enjoy the story of a knight tromping around trying to do heroic deeds when you know he is supported by an oppressed and illiterate peasantry and following a moral code that has less to do with morals and more to do with chaining the knight to the nobility he serves? In any case, the core theme of those stories (like the Asian equivalent underlying most martial arts movies) are the twin ideas of warrior invincibility (that a warrior cannot be defeated, ever, by a warrior of lesser skill) and a correlation of skill and mental strength (that, depending on the story, morality, strength of will, or divine favor have more than a small influence on combat ability). Both ideas seem to result from the potent combination of wishful thinking and propoganda, not reality.
So why is it that I would not only like a two book sequence that explores what it means to be a knight and the code of chivalry, but consider it one of my favorite books? For starters, it’s written by Gene Wolfe. Those who have read his work will know his authorship means a book will not only be well-written but will have a few unforgettable moments and incredible ideas. Then there’s the borrowing of Norse theology. I’m something of a sucker for Norse mythology. However, upon reflection, although it seems to play a huge role, it is really the names, faces, and places of Norse myth without the ideas, and in truth it is the ideas I find so interesting. Odin is not interesting because he is blind in one eye and the father of Thor, but because he knows he will die at Valhalla but continues to prepare and try to win. However, ultimately Norse mythology has more influence on Lord of the Rings than it does on The Wizard Knight.
This is not Wolfe’s best book from a technical standpoint. The narrative has a peculiar lack of focus, even by his standards. Characters drift in and out and emotional setups seem to often go without payoff. However, lest you think Wolfe is asleep at the wheel, the intricate plot fits together perfectly. For a Wolfe book this is a pretty accessible story, but it wouldn’t be a Wolfe book if the reader could understand everything after a single read through. As in the past, Wolfe creates a world too complex for his narrator, or the reader on the first try at the very least, to truly understand, but he always leaves the firm conviction it is understandable and there are hidden rules governing it. And while this may not be Wolfe’s objectively best book, it at least for the moment is my favorite of his, and therefore one of my favorite by any author.
Tags: Gene Wolfe
You should read these books. I won’t tell you to stop reading this and run out and get them, because first you need to read the Book of the Long Sun books at least, and probably the Book of the New Sun books as well as Fifth Head of Cerberus just to be thorough. However, Wolfe’s (for now at least) climax to his “Solar cycle” of books represents–so far as I know–the greatest literary achievement in English-language science fiction, and (lest this sound as though I am damning with faint praise) probably one of the greatest in the modern era. Now that I’ve stuck my neck out, further blathering will just add to the hyperbole. I don’t want to spoil anything, so there’s not much more to say. I will say that, like Book of the Long Sun, this is more accessible than New Sun or Cerberus. The narrative structure is more complex (and to my mind more satisfying) than that of Long Sun as well. As with all Gene Wolfe novels, it has a story and characters that reward careful rereading and study. Whether the reader chooses to make this effort is (for Long Sun and Short Sun) optional, but those who do will find it well worth their while.
Recommended for everyone.
Tags: Gene Wolfe
I’ll write a more verbose review of this soon but for the moment it suffices to say that this is another Wolfe masterpiece, and (perhaps this is a sign of Wolfe’s experience and greater prowess) is much more accessible than Cerberus and New Sun while still being excellent. Strongly recommended. Reading Wolfe’s other work is not necessary to enjoy this.
Tags: Gene Wolfe
I’m beginning this review after reading this book once, but the fact is every Gene Wolfe book I have read has demanded rereading and this the most of any of them. The book is a collection of three novellas, but still very much a single work. The first novella, which lends the book its title, was published separately and won a Nebula. It’s obvious why–it’s brilliant, approaching “Fiat Lux” as my favorite novella. But unlike the second and third pieces of Canticle for Leibowitz, the other two stories in Fifth Head are profoundly different in content and style while at the same time elaborating on the same themes and issues. They also force a reexamination of the first story, which is one reason why I’ll have to reread it. Forcing a re-examination is a double edged effect…it can feel like a cheap shot, but here it’s not a “ha-ha” bit of misleading the reader but instead a situation where everything the reader thought and felt before was valid but now there are new layers.
I’ve only read a few of them but I suspect all of Wolfe’s books are puzzles. Fifth Head of Cerebrus is like a mystery novel, the sort where the careful reader can solve the mystery on their own, except the final chapter has been removed, so instead of being told they are right, the reader must piece it together themselves. Whether to not this is a “good” literary style is debatable. Ultimately it comes down to whether the book rewards the effort it demands. Fifth Head of Cerebrus is a great book and it is very rewarding.
December 2004 reread update: This time I felt I understood the book the entire way through. I know that the second and third novellas are sort of tough going the first time through, but I am perplexed that people whose opinions I respect (like Stephen Wu, who calls second and third sections “mediocre” and “terrible” respectively) don’t appreciate it. If you have read this once and didn’t like the second two novellas and can stomach another attempt I strongly encourage it. This isn’t massively cryptic; the suspicions one has at the end of the first read-through are almost certainly the correct ones unless you were skimming, and on the second read-through you will see how it all comes together so beautifully. At least, I hope so, because I love this book. There’s so little genuinely great work out there that it’s a shame when it goes unappreciated. I don’t have anything much to add to my review above…when I universally love a book (as I love just about every Wolfe book I have read) there’s little for me to say besides recommend it fervently.
Tags: Roger Zelazny
This is a brilliant book. As with most amazing books there’s not a lot I can say other to strongly recommend it. The premise is a new spin on the traditional SF colonization. When the ship arrives at the colony long before the narrative of the book begins, the crew uses their unique access to technology to make themselves the controlling elite. The unusual aspect comes when they choose the Hindu religion as their method of control. The technology the ordinary people (and indeed soon many of the “gods” themselves) no longer understand provides the gods their powers while a device for transferring consciousness to vat-grown bodies and further means to examine the memory of that person in the process allows them to create a karmic reincarnation system. This is all the backdrop for the main character’s struggle against the authority. The tricky bit is he does this by starting Buddhism, even though he is not really a Buddhist himself.
With so many religious elements and a complicated cast, most authors would make a real mess of this. Zalazny not only vividly draws the characters but does an absolute bang-up job with the religious aspects. Admittedly I am a westerner and have little direct experience with either of the two Eastern religions featured, but everything was really well-written. Very strongly recommended.