Monday, June 29, 2020

Exhalation: Stories by Ted Chiang

I have had a really good reading year, but at the halfway point, this collection is among the best things I've read so far, not counting rereads (discounting for the fact I’ve read two of the stories before). There are five perfect stories and four others that are still very good, but suffer a little by comparison.

The opener The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate is one of the perfect stories. It has a 1001 nights structure and is about gates through time in the ancient Middle East. On one level it is a thought experiment about being able to time travel but not change history. One of the best things about this collection is Chiang’s knack for combining relatively high concept scifi, believable people and genuine self reflection. All this is on full display here. (This is one of the stories I had read before, or rather heard on the Levar Burton Reads podcast last summer. I highly recommend giving that a listen. Burton is a wonderful narrator.)

The title story is the first time in a long time that hard scifi moved me to tears.

The Lifecycle of Software Objects was actually the first thing I read by Chiang (it was published as a standalone novella). It is even better on a second pass. It posits the idea that if it takes 20 years for humans to be fully formed that's probably true of artificial intelligence as well. It takes AI and the idea of digipets and makes something incredibly moving and human out of them.

The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling is superb. It's a near future scifi parable of sorts that uses a technology that records all of a person's interactions as a tool of self-knowledge. It explores the idea of how our technology changes us by comparing those digital technologies to the introduction of writing. Seeing the actuality of your past would destroy the narrative you’ve created for yourself. It’s disconcerting to contemplate. I don’t throw the term wise around often, but this is a wise story.

The final novella in the collection, Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom, gives a resounding answer of yes to the question, “Could someone write a mashup of scifi con job and ethical Socratic dialog and make it a compelling story?”

The collection as a whole requires the reader to do some self reflection without being preachy. The stories are perfectly constructed in both conception and execution. Chiang's previous collection, Stories of Your Life and Others (the title story of which was the basis for the excellent movie Arrival), may be more consistent, but the best stuff in this collection is on par with it. I can't recommend this highly enough.

The Merchant and The Alchemist’s Gate- Canon
Exhalation- Canon Worthy
What’s Expected of Us- Recommended
The Lifecycle of Software Objects- Canon Worthy
Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny- Recommended
The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling- Canon Worthy
The Great Silence- Recommended
Omphalos- Highly Recommended
Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom- Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 43/75

Thursday, June 25, 2020

The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essay by Albert Camus

CW: Discussion of Suicide

I’ve been an admirer of Camus for a while. Years ago I read the title essay from this collection, but more recently I read The Plague a couple times and consider it one of the great 20th Century novels. I’ve enjoyed the other works of his I’ve read (The Stranger, Rebellion Resistance and Death, and The Fall) a little less, but still thought they were somewhere on the scale between good and great. Given how much I loved his other books I was a little surprised how difficult I found it to make progress in this book. I read the first couple pages several times before I actually got through it. That’s not because I thought it was bad or didn’t make sense. It’s because the first sentence of the first essay in the collection stopped me in my tracks each time and I spent so long thinking about it that I moved on to other books. His most famous line is “One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” but that makes much more sense in the light of the first line in the collection: "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide." Whether or not one should choose to continue living.

I haven’t ever attempted suicide, but there were a couple of periods of time in which I had serious suicidal ideation every day for months at a time. So this is a question that really hit home with me. This is a theme I’ve appreciated in other works as well. As I read this, I was reminded of Walker Percy’s bit (from Lost in the Cosmos, I think) about being an ex-suicide, that is someone who had fully considered it as an option and decided to keep living. It’s one of the reasons I love Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood, one of my yearly rereads. It’s in the subtext of the whole book, but near the end it’s more explicit when the fictional version of Isherwood says of the director Bergmann who is the other main character of the book: “There is one question which we seldom ask each other directly: it is too brutal. And yet it is the only question worth asking our fellow travelers. What makes you go on living? Why don’t you kill yourself? Why is this all bearable? What makes you bear it?” I appreciate the approach of facing the idea squarely and deciding to continue on. I don’t know what a therapist would make of these treatments of the topic, but I found them helpful over the years. It’s bleak and somehow hopeful at the same time.

Camus takes as his starting point what he sees as the endpoint of a lot of the “existentials” as he called the philosophers he’s usually grouped with; that life is absurd. In Camus’s telling they are attempting to prove that absurdity. He takes absurdity as obvious on its face. Given that, he wants to see if it is possible to live “without appeal” to transcendence or hope. In setting up this he talks about the phenomenologists, existentialists and proto-existentists (like Dostoevsky and Kierkegaard). I found this 60 page opening essay very bracing. Rather than trying to offer hope per se, his argument, to the extent that I understand it, is that living despite the meaninglessness of life is more meaningful than an appeal to transcendence.

The next couple of essays, The Absurd Man and Absurd Creation were also insightful, though I connected to them less. And then the first section closes with The Myth of Sisyphus which is the thing most people are apt to have read by him. In the context of the earlier essays, the idea of Sisyphus’s task being more onerous because he knows the absurdity of it and continuing on happily takes on more weight. I think one of the best expressions of this I’ve heard comes from an episode of the show Angel, “If nothing you do matters, the only thing that matters is what you do.”

And this is where the rest of the essays in the collection make more sense. The first four, dealing with absurdity and suicide seem to have been collected together previously. Three of the next four are nostalgic looks back at his time in Algeria. On first glance these seem glaringly out of place given the heaviness of the themes in the first section. But looking at them as an example of him trying to live well despite the absurd and it really makes sense. There’s a good essay about greek philosophy as well. And it closes with an interview of sorts in which he talks about art and what people should do in an absurd world, which takes the heady material of the earlier sections and makes it a little more practical.

For my money Camus would have earned his Nobel on the strength of this collection and The Plague alone. I’m not sure the extent to which I agree with everything he says here, but this and The Ethics of Ambiguity make the strongest cases I’ve read for existentialism. I think the closest I can get to defining my own ideology is to try to split the difference between existentialism whatever Wendell Berry and Annie Dillard are onto. There is a huge paradox there, I know, but it’s the closest I can get. This is a seminal book which I will be returning to, or at least returning to sections of again.

Canon Worthy

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 42/75

Sunday, June 21, 2020

The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances

About a decade ago (2011 and 2008 respectively) I read Peter Beagle’s two most famous books, his debut novel, A Fine and Private Place, and his cult classic The Last Unicorn, the basis for the animated film. Both were very good dense, beautifully written literary fantasies, though I don’t trust my memory of them to say much more about them other than I really liked them a lot at the time, and that I look forward to revisiting them at some point. In one of the intervening years I picked up a copy of The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances at the annual Wake County Library book sale based on remembering how well I liked those novels and the amazing title. The collection largely delivers on the promise of that title.

This is a retrospective, published in 1997 (though I have a 2003 edition with a new preface by the author) that contains four of his more well regarded stories, a new story, two stories he wrote in college and three essays he wrote for hire in the 60’s. I will break down my thoughts by story.

Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros- Canon Worthy
This is one of the best stories I’ve ever read. Beagle is famous for unicorn stories, so it makes sense that he would want to write one about the Indian Rhinoceros, scientific name rhinoceros unicornis. In this, a philosophy professor meets a talking rhinoceros who insists he’s a unicorn when he takes his niece to the zoo. What happens over the next 20 or thirty years I won’t spoil, but this is a legitimately great story.

Come Lady Death- Highly Recommended
Another beautifully written fantasy story. A noblewoman invites death to her ball, with unexpected consequences.

Lila The Werewolf- Recommended
This is one of his most famous stories and it is very good. A man moves in with his girlfriend only to discover that she’s a werewolf. As long as I try not to read this as a metaphor for menstruation, I really like it.

Julie’s Unicorn- Highly Recommended
Years after the events of Lila the Werewolf, the man from that story and his friend/sometimes girlfriend rescue a unicorn in a very odd way. Highly original.

The Naga- Recommended
Framed as a lost story recorded by Pliny the Elder, this tells the story of a king who falls in love with a mythical creature.

Telephone Call- Recommended
This is one of the stories he wrote in college. He classified it as juvenalia and as a pastiche of Salinger (or at least wearing that influence too heavily). Those are both true, but the story really did work well.

My Daughter’s Name is Sarah- Recommended
The other juvenalia story. Not as good as Telephone call, but still well worth reading

My Last Heroes- Recommended
It starts out talking about baseball, which I’m not at all interested in, but his tribute to Georges Brassens, a singer he loves, was moving.

DH Lawrence in Taos- Recommended
I haven’t read any Lawrence, but this was an interesting account of Beagle’s interviews with the surviving people who remembered the writer. I suspect I’d have enjoyed this more if I were more familiar with Lawrence.

The Poor People’s Campaign- Highly Recommended
This account of Beagle’s attendance as a journalist at the original Poor People’s Campaign in 1968 was never published prior to its inclusion in this collection as the magazine that hired him went out of business after he turned it in. In the climate of the past few weeks of protest, this resonates strangely. The concerns of that movement would not line up completely with the current concerns, but it is a fascinating look at the hopes for change of the time and how disillusionment set in with the assassinations that happened that year.

Beagle’s strengths are in his prose and his dense literary approach to fantasy. I really loved this book. Several of the stories and that last essay are likely to really stick with me.  And as I say above, Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros is an all timer for me. Even if I don’t return to the rest of the collection I will likely read that one many times.

Overall Collection: Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 41/75

Saturday, June 20, 2020

The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor

I am ashamed to say that I don’t remember much about the first Nnedi Okorafor book I read five years ago, Who Fears Death, beyond that I really liked it at the time and that it was a far-future science fantasy novel set in Sudan. After reading The Book of Phoenix, a prequel, I will be circling around to reread it at some point later this year or early next, I hope. I do remember the original well enough to say that one thing I love about this, is that Okorafor does not pretend that this is not the prequel to a dystopian, or at least a post-global catastrophe, story. She plays absolutely fairly in setting up the next book.

The Book of Phoenix, aside from being cold-blooded (in the best way) in not flinching from what the previous book implied, is an excellent, angry  superhero-style mix of science fiction and fantasy (magical futurism, says the promotional material, and that’s not a bad description) story in its own right. The framing story, which connects the two books, is set somewhere in far future Africa. There is some recognizable technology (handheld devices, etc.), but clearly the global infrastructure is not what it is now, and the human population is clearly made up of survivors of some catastrophe. A man takes a wilderness walk at the behest of his wife and stumbles onto a trove of old out of date computers. As he investigates an audio file is transferred to his mobile and he hears the voice of Phoenix begin to tell her story.

It starts in a research tower in NYC, also far in the future, but closer to us than the frame story. The world is already well past some climate catastrophe; New York is a tropical zone. Phoenix appears to be in her 40s, though in reality she is 3. She is the product of an extensive genetic engineering program, and, according to the company that keeps her imprisoned in Tower 7. Her intelligence is accelerated as well; she’s read tens of thousands of books on various topics in her three years there. There are many other people, mostly of African descent, or at least using African DNA, like her, who have various paranormal abilities. Phoenix herself runs hot, physically. Her temperature runs extremely high. I don’t need to spoil at least part of her powers for anyone who has read greek mythology and the title of the book. Inevitability, she escapes the tower. The story takes her to Africa and back to America for vengeance.

This is a very angry novel and a very good one. It deals with issues of race, unfettered capitalism, and cultural/colonial theft. These themes are baked into the story and are absolutely clear without didacticism. It is well written and plotted. I look forward to rereading the older book Who Fears Death to see how the framing story matches them up. I would love to see a movie or read a graphic novel based on Book of Phoenix. It’s great as is, but would also adapt well in the right hands.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread Unread 2020 40/75

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

The Man in My Basement by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley is primarily known as a crime writer, especially the first book in his series featuring a detective character named Easy Rawlins, Devil in a Blue Dress. I’ve previously only read that one book, and loved it. Around that time I picked up a few used copies of his books, including this one. I knew that he wrote outside crime fiction from time to time. Some mainstream fiction, some science fiction, and even erotica. I do want to go back and read more of the crime fiction, but I’m very glad I finally got around to this one. I guess it’s a mainstream novel, though you could squint and call it a psychological thriller, though both designations wouldn’t really prepare you for it. Whatever you call it, it’s a very good, maybe even great, incredibly unsettling novel.

Charles Blakey is an unemployed scion of a wealthy black family on Long Island. He owns the mansion in which he lives, but has taken out a mortgage on it and, at the opening of the novel, is approaching insurmountable arrears. He’s been fired from his job at a bank, accused of stealing/petty embezzlement and is edging into alcoholism. His house has an ample basement/cellar, and a white man named Anniston Bennet comes to him out of the blue to ask to rent that basement, offering him enough money that it overcomes his initial reluctance to accept. That would seem like a spoiler if not for the title, and that the offer is made on page two. The novel’s tension is primarily built through the relationship between the two men. It explores themes of race, power, capitalism, wrestling with identity and the uneasy business of what one’s personal ethics allow.

MODERATE SPOILERS IN THIS PARAGRAPH (shouldn’t ruin your enjoyment of the book, but it does reveal something that in the book doesn’t until a quarter of the way through):

Anniston Bennet is a sort of international fixer who does deals for nations and corporations ranging from ethically dubious to purely evil. He has Blakey set up a cell in the basement, in which he intends to be imprisoned as he contemplates, and in his mind atones, for his crimes. In order to make room, Blakey pulls out centuries of family objects/heirlooms that had accumulated in the basement over generations. He contacts an antiques dealer/cultural historian to help him sell some of this. Those antiques/heirlooms force Blakey into a reckoning with his past, especially a trio of ivory masks possibly brought to America by his ancestors. His family says these ancestors  were indentured servants and not slaves and they take no small amount of pride in that. The dual strands of Blakey’s reckoning with his past and how he’s separated himself from his culture and his conversations with the imprisoned Bennett in which they discuss Bennett’s crimes and philosophy form the backbone of the book. It’s going to take multiple readings to suss out all the complexities, but it makes for a powerful novel.


As an aside, I’d be remiss if I didn’t quote Mosley making a great observation about a scene in Moby Dick (my favorite novel), slightly edited to avoid a couple of spoilers:
“"You ever read Moby Dick, Charles?"
I had not and shook my head to say so.
"There's a cook in that book," [he] said, "a cook who lectures to sharks about their nature. He tells them that they could be angels if they just mastered their appetites. He preached to them, but they didn't understand. Our hearts are like those sharks. There's no curbing the appetite of a hungry shark."
"Maybe he was talking to himself." I said, not thinking really, just making up words.
But Mr. Anderson Bennet … looked up at me with something like wonder in his face. He wrestled with the words that I had already forgotten and then repeated them and then wrestled some more.
"Talking to himself," he said a third time."
This is a great reading on its own terms, but it really works thematically for the moment in which it appears in the book.

I know that I didn’t get everything that’s there on this initial reading, but it is a book that I will definitely reread several times. It is incredibly disturbing, but I absolutely loved it. I haven’t read anything precisely like it. It has one of the most chilling final lines I’ve ever read.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 39/75

Thursday, June 11, 2020

A Peculiar Peril by Jeff Vandermeer

I was fortunate enough to be gifted an advance reader copy of this forthcoming novel from one of my favorite writers, here writing his first book aimed at Young Adults. And while that young adult would have to have a serious vocabulary or a dictionary on hand, it is an eminently enjoyable fantasy adventure novel. I wondered what Vandermeer might do next after Dead Astronauts, which, while resting comfortably among my favorites of his work, is the book in which he is least interested in straightforward narrative; no mean feat from the author of City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek, An Afterward. That’s not to say there’s not a metatextual element to this; the main character, Jonathan Lambshead, is the grandson of the late Thackery T. Lambshead. Thackeray T was the ostensible editor of The Thackery T Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases and the ostensible owner of the Thackery T Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities, two humor/fantasy anthologies that Vandermeer edited around a decade ago. I haven’t read those yet, though I have copies. A Peculiar Peril has a much more straightforward narrative than Dead Astronauts, but does share other traits with it and his other work; the weird swampiness, the sense that nature is poised to take the world back, multiple dimensions and fungus.

The novel opens with Jonathan Lambshead inheriting his grandfather’s house with the stipulation that he catalog everything in the basement, which, having looked at the table of contents of The Cabinet of Curiosities anthology, contains many strange and fantastical items (The Thing in the Jar, The Singular Taffy Puller, Lord Dunsany’s Teapot). There are also three doors and some hastily written instructions not to use door two and three until he was sure he knew the way back from door number one. Soon his slightly older school friends, Danny and Rack (sister and brother) show up to help him with the task. But there is a strangely intelligent seeming marmot, and a couple of other skulkers. And of course they end up going through door number one, which leads to an alternate world called Aurora. And here’s where Vandermeer’s penchant for deep weirdness really kicks in.

In Aurora, Europe is in chaos. An Aleister Crowley from yet another alternate dimension has taken over much of Europe. He is nearly entirely insane and is an actual powerful wizard here, or at least, in conjunction with his familiar, Wretch, has tried to take control using powerful magic with the disembodied head of Napoleon as their military commander. Jules Verne is their inventor/weapons maker.* They have mechanically altered elephants and alligators. They have fighters who are people from other dimensions who got trapped and faded away. And those aren’t the wildest parts. Fighting against them among others are The Republic, various freelance magicians (or at least magicians with unclear motives), talking animals (particularly marmots) that practice the “old magic,”  and the Order of the Third Door. Thackery T. worked for this last, as did Jonathan’s mother. It is an interdimensional organization that tries to maintain some sense of order in the multiverse as the Builders (the mysterious beings who made the doors between dimensions). There is a widespread war and it is not at all clear initially who is fighting whom. There are celestial beasts who are nearly mythical beings. There is a Golden Sphere which starts seeming like a macguffin but turns into something else entirely. Jonathan and his friends are drawn into this fight.

That much information may seem like spoilers, but there is more than enough invention to go around. I mentioned earlier that a young adult reading this would need a robust vocabulary. There are also many historical and literary allusions. I’m certain that I didn’t catch them all, so that’s probably not a problem, given how much I enjoyed the book. The whole thing moves at a quick pace, and even if you took a “I’ll catch what I can” approach it’s an immensely rewarding experience. Vandermeer has always had a sense of humor, but here there is a playfulness that works very well for the most part. Vandermeer’s admiration for Vladimir Nabokov is apparent in his earlier work (Shriek: An Afterward is the most Nabokovian book I’ve read not written by Nabokov, which is one of the reasons it’s my favorite of Vandermeer’s novels.) Here he takes a Nabokovian playfulness around language, full of puns and allusions, to an extent I don’t remember him using before. He mixes that with a calculated silliness aimed at the younger audience. I don’t know how that would play to an actual young adult, but to this middle-aged man it mostly worked.* There are descriptions that amount to great silly sight gags. And underneath that silliness and the absurdity of the situations, Vandermeer’s gift for horror shines through as do his major themes, especially his concerns for the environment.

I go into every Vandermeer book expecting to like it, and he has not let me down yet among the 10 or so that I’ve read. As much as I love Dead Astronauts, I’m glad that he has not abandoned narrative. It’s almost as if he threw all the narrative he’s been holding back into this one! The world he creates here is as imaginative as anything he’s done before. And even though it is 600+ pages, he made it into a place where that felt lived in with more going on outside of the action of the book. This is the first of a duology, and I really look forward to the sequel. I would put this behind the Ambergris books, Borne and Dead Astronauts, but this is up there with the rest of his consistently excellent work.

Highly recommended!

Library Books, Gifts, Rereads Etc 2020 8/35.

*Kafka, Charlemagne, Alfred Kuben, and many more also put in appearances, though from various alternate dimensions and having lived drastically different lives.

**One character kept referring to his sister as “sister blister” which annoyed me every time, but didn’t ruin the book at all. Again, I don’t know how that would play to the age group this is marketed towards.

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

Shadows on the Rock by Willa Cather

I’ve been working my way through the novels of Willa Cather for several years now and I thought I had her pegged pretty well as very concerned with religion but chafing at its restraints. I got the sense that her characters wanted to live a more worldly/bohemian (sorry for the bad pun) lifestyle, to the extent that is even possible in the harsh environments they lived in. They chafed at the religion that constrained them, or at least were highly ambivalent about their relationship to that religion. Death Comes to the Archbishop shook that impression a little, but it still had enough of a struggle that I still largely maintained my impression. After reading Shadows on the Rock, and checking where it fell in her bibliography (near the end), I was convinced she was Catholic. I didn’t see this as a problem, as I’ve said on this blog many times, I’m a sucker for Catholic novelists, despite my agnosticism.  A quick google established that she was raised Baptist and later became Episcopalian. I really want to read a biography of her now to see how that tension between faith and its strictures actually played out in her life.

Shadows on the Rock is a slice of life novel, that slice comprising a year in the life of  Euclide Auclair, an apothecary in the city of Quebec in and his daughter Cecille, beginning in 1697. The year in the city of the time was apparently marked by the arrival and departure of ships from France bearing supplies, people and news from home. One theme that it definitely shares with the earlier books is that of people in a rough remote setting who have to make do for themselves. It also shares a mistrust of indiginous people which it’s hard to know whether to attribute to the characters, the author or both. I suspect both. It’s a hard life there on the rock (the cliff that comprises the city) and it narrates what happens to the Auclairs and their various neighbors. It seems like a fundamentally kind novel.Cecille is pious almost to the point of naivete, and yet is not off-putting at all. She, twelve herself, cares for another, younger child in need there, among other things convincing a bishop to buy him shoes. The biggest character arc is that of a self inflated bishop revealed to have been humbled in a fifteen-years-later epilogue.

Despite its relative lack of drama the book was compulsively readable. I found myself won over by it while not entirely understanding why. I would still cite My Antonia as my favorite among Cather’s works, leaving open the possibility that the Song of the Lark, Death Comes for the Archbishop, or My Mortal Enemy could supplant it upon rereading. But I will likely return to this one as well.

Recommended bordering on Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 37/75

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

I first heard of Use of Weapons, and maybe even Banks himself, in a comment section on Jeff Vandermeer’s old blog. This could have been a decade ago. While I didn’t get around to reading Banks until 2016, I always remembered the substance of that comment about Use of Weapons which was along the lines of “that really proved once and for all that war is unethical.” That could be why I didn’t get around to Banks for so long. It made it sound as if it were a lecture. And the major theme of the book is indeed the ethics of war and use of force, but it is masterfully structured, beautifully written and compelling throughout. It does make an ethical argument, but it doesn’t do that at the expense of the artistry of the novel. As such, the point is made that much more strongly. Banks wrote science fiction as Iain M and mainstream(ish, they still could pass as genre) novels as Iain. This is my fifth book by him, and third in the scifi category.

All of the scifi books save one were space opera set in the universe of the Culture, a leftist anarchist utopia in which the scarcity problem has been solved. Everyone has everything they need, and so, within the Culture at least, they live peacefully and build their ethics around that. The problem is when they encounter cultures other than their own. Their own citizenry consists of both humans who have genetically engineered themselves to be able to switch genders, cure diseases, give themselves focus or make themselves tipsy using intentionally induced hormones, and give them long lives (3-400 years) among other things, and of AI’s who usually reside in powerful drones or spaceships and are full members of the culture. Their problems with other cultures usually group around their proscription of violence and war, the modifications they’ve made to their bodies, their consideration of AIs as people, or their tendency to try to force other cultures into adopting their way of life. They have a special group, Contact, that works with other cultures. There’s a subgroup within Contact called Special Circumstances that the Culture uses when force is necessary to tip events in another civilization in the way they want.  And therein lies the major ethical dilemma that shapes the novels I’ve read in the series so far; if your ethics require nonviolence, how can you justify the use of force in your interactions with civilizations that disagree. Another major theme in the series is what gives life meaning if you don’t have to strive to survive. But this deals primarily with the first concern, particularly in the “use of weapons” to achieve these goals implied by the title. And while Banks clearly leans more toward the nonviolence and leftist anarchist government, he avoids didacticism, at least in the three I’ve read so far, by putting characters into stories that involve ethical dilemmas and spending minimal time soliloquizing about their philosophy.

The story is told in two strands moving backward and forward in alternating chapters bookended by a prologue and an epilogue that happen after the main action of the novel. Normally I don’t care for prologues in scifi and fantasy, but in this case it works. The forward moving chapters involve the efforts of Special Circumstances operatives, Diziet Sma, a human who is currently female, and an AI drone called Skaffen-Amtiskaw to recruit an operative they’ve used for covert operations before, Cheradanine Zakalwe to help tilt a political situation in a non-affiliated civilization toward their ends. Zakalwe is not of the Culture, though in an operation that saved his life, he allowed the Culture surgeons to give him some of their body modification ability. He is a master tactician, and was clearly involved in some major war before the series of jobs the Culture gave him through Special Circumstances. This in itself is an exciting story. These are juxtaposed against a reverse telling of Zakalwe’s life, moving backward through some of his jobs for the Culture, each good in their own way, to his travel to the system where the Culture recruited him and then back to his home world. The situations he’s put in make the reader, and to some extent, Zakalwe question his actions, particularly the use of force. He himself is a weapon deployed by the Culture and that question is even thornier. There’s a twist at the end that some people have found unnecessary, but I think it hammers home the themes perfectly.

This one of the best science fiction books I’ve ever read, up there with Light by M John Harrison and Babel 17 by Samuel L Delany at the top of my list for the subgenre of space opera. Banks writes great prose and structured the book perfectly. Despite having some fairly heavy ethical questions on its mind, the novel moves along at a great clip. I appreciate that, while the reader clearly knows where Banks’ political position lies, he does not pretend the Culture is perfect or without its contradictions. This complexity is another factor keeping it from tilting into didacticism. Once I got used to the way he names things, I really enjoyed the characterizations as well. This is easily my favorite of the five Banks novels I’ve read, though the incredibly disturbing The Wasp Factory is just as well written. I just prefer this one. I will certainly be reading more, if not all of his books. This can be read on its own, so if you’re only going to give him one sf book, this would be the one I’d recommend so far, though you’ll be adapt more quickly if you’ve read a couple already and are at least a little familiar with the Culture. Of the other two I’ve read I prefer The Player of Games to Consider Phlebas, but both are very good.


Owned But Previously Unread 2020 36/75

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I’ve put off reading this one for years, but, after reading Middlemarch last year, and The Jane Austen Book Club triggered a desire to catch up on 19th Century Lit. I moved it and Wuthering Heights into the read this next year queue. I enjoyed the Austin I’d read years ago, but hadn’t circled back around to read the rest or track down much by the authors she’s lumped in with.. I read Wuthering Heights earlier this year and was blown away; I had expected a slightly edgier version of Austen and was not prepared for a domestic horror novel with the melodrama dialed up to eleven the whole time. After Moby Dick and Middlemarch it is probably my favorite 19th Century novel. Now that I’ve finally read Jane Eyre I can say that I am firmly on team Bronte. I do like the three Austen books I’ve read (especially Pride and Prejudice) and I intend to read the three I haven’t gotten to yet, but I am far more likely to reread Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre again before returning to the Austen I’ve read.*

I’m fairly genre agnostic. While I tend toward the intersection of scifi/fantasy/horror with literary fiction, I’m open to most genres. I’ve generally added the caveat that romance was a genre that I’m not interested in. And, to be fair, it is on the lower end of the scale of my interests. That said, books like this, Wuthering Heights and the Austen and Eliot I’ve been reading demonstrate that I need to stop adding that caveat. I’m not headed out to buy a bunch of Harlequins any time soon, but it’s time I admit that, like any genre, there is great stuff to be found in it.

Jane Eyre is worthy of its reputation as a classic. I found it compelling from the very beginning, despite having the major plot twist spoiled years ago (speaking of which, spoilers for the rest of this paragraph). I enjoyed the characters, the writing and even the melodrama. The revelation at the wedding of the wife locked in the attic was well staged and, despite the spoilers, had an impact. The coincidence of her finding refuge with her cousins required some suspension of disbelief, but it really set up a very good final act. The men get off fairly easy in the book. St. John was a little over the top in his self righteousness, but I’ve met the type. And despite his disfigurement, I’m not sure if I like that he ended up marrying Jane after all. I’m still processing the way Jane’s faith played into that decision and Bronte’s approach to . Side note: Now that I’ve read this, I am looking forward to reading Wide Sargasso Sea. The story retold from the perspective of the locked away wife has a lot of promise.

While I prefer her sister’s novel, this is fully worthy of its reputation and I’m glad I finally got to it.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 35/75

*Of course, I know it’s unfair to pit the Bronte sisters against Austen in this way