Archives for category: books

Sheri S. Tepper – The Song of Mavin Manyshaped. Recommended by my friend Tim. Proper fantasy, great examination of sexual politics, fantastic fantastical creatures, and really enjoyable.

George Simenon – The Late M. Gallet. Enjoyable early Maigret. Nice twists at the end, as one hopes for in detective fiction.

Seneca – Letters from a Stoic. Recommended by a colleague. Great advice for life in general.

‘I know that intuition is a poor argument; I know that it is presumptuous to touch even the fringe of the Russian problem without cognizance, economical, political, historical, of all the facts;I know that intuition is a poor argument [].’
Vita Sackville-West, Passenger to Tehran

In this discussion, I’m referring to four works: Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry, Vita Sackville-West’s Passenger to Tehran, Alfred Jarry’s play Ubu Roi, and the album Lament by Einsturzende Neubauten.
Red Cavalry is a cycle of thinly veiled short stories covering the Soviet-Polish War of 1920-1921. I say thinly veiled, because Babel did not change the names of the officers he showed in a poor light. In later years, these officers rose to prominence in the Soviet Union and in the Stalin years, Babel would pay for these portrayals with his life.
In Passenger to Tehran, Sackville-West documents a journey she took from England to Iran in 1926. The purpose of the journey was to join her husband Harold Nicolson for the coronation of Reza Shah Pahlavi. Nicolson at the time was the chief of mission at the British embassy. Following the coronation, she returns to England by way of Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. (Reza Shah, a creature of both British and Russian interests, was placed on the Iranian throne as a puppet. Come World War II, The British and the Soviets combined to depose Reza Shah and put his more tractable son, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi [the one later deposed by Ayatollah Khomeini] in charge.)

Ubu Roi covers a war in the same region, but he’s working on a more universal indictment of the warring classes. The intersections and divisions in how we talk about war and the waging of war are pulled into high relief when we consider the satire Jarry is trying to pull off. He names his main characters Mama and Papa Turd and Buggerlaus and has them engage in the most dreadful acts of murder. The fact that Papa Turd is greedy and incompetent is a reflection of the ruling class’ image that people already recognize. A century before Jarry, Europe fought the age’s first wars over the incompetence of the French royal family and continued for much of the century. While Jarry was writing before World War I, the path the various nations were on might have been clear. That the battlefield is Poland is key for what came next in the 20th century.

Barely established and World War I barely over, the Russians (or newly branded Soviets) roll in with a journalist named Babel who takes copious notes and writes some very popular stories about the Revolutionary takeover of Poland.
And while Jarry and Babel are writing about the same place, at a remove of almost thirty years from each other, the dynamics of leaders and soldiers are the same.
And shortly after that, a well-traveled English woman is waylaid in both Russia and Poland in the aftermath of that war, just trying to get home from a visit to Iran. Each has interesting words for what happens at the various levels of society in a battle for ‘a place that is nowhere.’ These words close Jarry’s introductory statement to the only performance of his Ubu Roi, a reference to the fact that Poland was partitioned into three sections belonging to Russia, Austria, and Prussia. From 1795 until 1918, Poland did not exist.

Sackville-West wasn’t sure what her journey home was going to entail. She traveled relatively easily from Teheran to Baku, Azerbaijan, but required intervention from the Persian consulate to secure seats on a train to Moscow. The intervention was the clearing out of a train car of those already aboard so that she might have an otherwise unavailable seat. “There is nothing further to be said in favour of the journey from Baku to Moscow, for it is exceedingly monotonous; the names of the Caucasus, the Sea of Azov, Rostov-on-Don seemed full of suggestion, but it very quickly evaporated: the Caucasus was reduced to a few foothills, the Sea of Azov looked much like any other sea, and of Rostov one sees only the railway station, unrelieved even by the presence of a Don Cossack.” Babel describes the region similarly in one of his diary entries.
Ukraine depressed her, for she’d enjoyed its pre-war feudal elegance. This one paragraph is probably even more pertinent to what Babel describes of the Polish-Soviet War:
“I remembered how before the war I had stayed there in the magnificent hospitality of Polish friends, riding, dancing, laughing; living at a fantastic rate in that fantastic oasis of extravagance and feudalism, ten thousand horses on the estate, eighty English hunters, and a pack of English hounds; a park full of dromedaries; another park, walled in, full of wild animals kept for sport; Tokay of 1750, handed round by a giant; cigarettes handed round by dwarfs in eighteenth-century liveries; and where was all that now? Gone, as it deserved to go; the house razed to the ground till it was lower than the wretched hovels of the peasants, the estate parcelled out, cut in half by the new Polish frontier, the owner dead, with his brains blown out, and his last penny gambled away in Paris. I had not realised that we should pass so near.”
As it deserved to go. The reasons behind revolution are both unique and astoundingly common.
After waiting a few days in Moscow for a train over the frontier to Poland, ‘civilized Europe again,’ Vita was met with the next aspect of the revolution. The train stopped miles from Warsaw where the revolution was in the streets. The waiting and the travel were simply difficult, but she, like those under the boot of the Red Cavalry, hadn’t planned on being behind the frontier. No one does, not even the revolutionaries.

Poland claimed parts of Ukraine and Belarus as part of its empire prior to its partition – though in 1896 Poland ‘didn’t exist’ according to Jarry. It’s a weird agglomeration of history and fiction, made even more relevant by the daily reports out of Ukraine and the assertions that Ukraine has always been Russian.
Nearly a century later, Blixa Bargeld and his band Einsturzende Neubauten produced Lament, a kind of inquiry into the experience of World War I, and first performed on the 100th anniversary of that war’s opening salvos. In the album’s notes, Bargeld notes that World War II was a result of the unfinished business of World War I.
Lament opens with a macro view of the war from the point of view of Tsar Nicholas and his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm. A family tree in the CD booklet reminds us that all of the European royal families were intertwined (in much the same way that monetary powers are today). Bargeld and band mate Alexander Hacke read the texts of telegrams sent between the two rulers, overlapping their words to the same degree that the telegrams themselves overlapped in transit.
Another top-down representation of the war is a percussion piece simply called Der 1. Weltkrieg. The instrument is a set of pipes named for each country in the war. The powers are named as they enter and each day they’re in the war is represented by one beat. It takes 392 4/4 bars to represent the entire war.
A rendition of Sag Mir Wo Die Blumen Sind (Where Have All The Flowers gone) reminds of the human toll of war in terms of the people we may know, but as archetypes, whereas In De Loopgraaf, How Did I Die, and All Of No Man’s Land Is Ours tell war’s experiences quite literally from in the trenches.
These take the contrasts between Jarry’s satire on war and Babel’s nearly amoral accounts of what was happening in battle and around it from the points of view of the people who fought and forge them into one song cycle.

I read Raybearer, the first book of this duology over the summer and immediately preordered the sequel which arrived a few weeks later on my e-reader. In the afterward Ifueko notes that she spent twelve years creating the first book and nine months, as the pandemic was beginning, on the second. It came in such a rush that she says that she didn’t recall writing swaths of it. With a score of great characters ready to take on the task described at the end of Raybearer, she knew where it was going, I think.

There’s a lot to be said for this work and its intricate world. The blends of magic and mythology and world building are effective (and mind bending, sometimes). There’s a lot in the first book that grounds you in the world. Pretty early on she explains all the kingdoms that make up the empire and the very interesting ways in which power is passed between generations. We then meet the Abiko, demons who, under treaty, take hundreds of children each year into the underworld as the price of not overrunning the empire. The trick is that some early emperor agreed that only children of one kingdom, Songland, would receive the mark indicating they were to go into the breach between the worlds.

I don’t want to give away any of the key plot points. Our narrator, Tarisai, is set up by her mother in the first book to join the prince’s council to undermine the empire. She’s able to subvert her mother’s will but finds that she’s the only one who wants to change the way the redemptors are chosen (from only one kingdom), and later who wants to change the way the empire as a whole is run. No one else seems to find the traditions of court life so repugnant that they’d even examine how to change them.

Ifueko makes Tarisai’s struggles and emotions real, and we feel a three-dimensional character experiencing them. And she’s created a hero who looks like the people fighting today’s battles against establishment oppression. The fantasy world’s elites bear strong resemblances to those of our world.

If there’s a downside in the story, and I’m not sure this isn’t just the nature of such heroes – the ones who take on the big tasks that no one else can do (or, in the words of Norton Juster, will do), she doesn’t tell anyone of the one thing that’s driving her to distraction. The nature of the council she sits on is that the members have psychic bonds with one another, if they open themselves to the connection. So Tarisai’s reticence to share her experience moves the plot along, but it turns the conflict into Tarisai versus herself, rather than against external forces.

This is a trope of this kind of fiction, I think. In a world where the hero’s bond is a major plot point, and her establishment of a greater number of such connections is one of the drivers of the second book, her refusal to engage feels false. Not false, but an easy way out of creating a way through in which the character relies on the thing that the story hangs from as a whole. On the other hand, she’s the one with the insurmountable goal that almost no one else will take on.

On their own merits, Raybearer and Redemptor succeed admirably. My quibble doesn’t obviate my joy in Tarisai’s various successes, and in the beauty and terror of the worlds Ifueko has opened.

Learn more here: https://www.jordanifueko.com/books (and dig how gorgeous those covers are!)

The Infinite Noise is a slightly supernatural queer YA something that includes romance, but mostly not. I don’t read a lot of YA, so I’m not sure how to characterize it. The story follows two neurodivergent high school boys. Caleb is an empath – he can be overwhelmed by the emotions of others. He’s also on the football team. Adam suffers depression and is one of the stars of the debate team.

One thing that grabbed me about this book was the alternating first person narratives. Caleb and Adam are very different but have an endearing quality to their differentness. Adam’s depression has been known to lead to self-harm – it’s nice to read of a boy in this position because this is thought to be mostly a girl’s issue. We meet Caleb before a fight he has after which he blacks out. The fight is the impetus to put him in therapy. There are no spoilers in that – we learn these things about both boys in the first couple of chapters.

Note that this is released as a ‘Bright Sessions Novel’, Dr. Bright being Caleb’s therapist. I’m not sure how I came to this book – my guess is that it was a Tor.com freebie, but it might have been some other special offer. That said, it wasn’t until I read the afterward that I learned that The Bright Sessions started out as an audio drama podcast. This gives the book (and its place in a series that has two more books, both of which have different protagonists) more sense. Because the voices came out of audio drama, they had to be unique. Shippen succeeds admirably in bringing these differences to the page.

I also love the fact that the main characters are queer and that their varieties of neurodivergence are normalized in the context of the story. The parents are concerned, but their concerns are mostly for the health and safety of their kids, not any kind of homophobia.

Even the bully doesn’t have an issue with the fact that the two main characters are dating. It’s a little utopic, but I love how Shippen normalizes the nature of queer love – the focus on all the things they’re dealing with (including all the heavy emotions of the protagonists’ internal states, the emotions of just being adolescent, and some schoolyard violence) isn’t compounded by the fact that they’re queer. The queerness is simply adjacent. But the parents, who are most definitely issue-laden, are cool with the fact that their sons are boys in love.

As the story progresses, what we experience is a courtship and burgeoning relationship that captures adolescent angst about these things in a way that feels especially accurate. It certainly brought to mind the ups and downs of my own adolescence, in a bittersweet way.

The trick with stories like this, comprised of first-person internal monologues, is that you have to want to be in the characters’ heads, even when they don’t want to be in their own heads. It’s a feat to make that emotional rollercoaster attractive and inviting and Shippen makes it work.

I really like Caleb and Adam, so I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the other books in the series. I’m curious about the original audio drama that gave birth to the stories. A couple of episodes of The Bright Sessions are waiting on my phone.

I gave a lousy review to Spielberg’s film version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One at the time of its release*. I’ve recently listened to the audiobook version, narrated by the excellent Wil Wheaton. Yeah, excellent though he is as a voice actor (thumbs up to his narration of John Scalzi’s Lock In), he can’t overcome the problematic material.

One of the problems is the underlying trope’s hyper-masculinity. I know that that’s a buzzword these days, but protagonist Wade’s teenage trans/homophobia is hard to get away from. Especially when the character points out more than once that you don’t know what a person in The Oasis, the story’s virtual world, looks like in real life, with some variation on ‘she could be a 200 pound dude living in his mom’s basement.’

Wade (who goes by the name Parzival in the Oasis, a name which might be significant) is a nerd, but the Comic Store Guy from the Simpsons is Wade’s unnamed analogy for what any possible friendship outside the Oasis looks like and it’s the one thing that seems to truly disgust him. It’s Jim Carrey’s Ace Ventura shtick about possibly kissing a trans woman, and it makes most of the story kind of painful to follow. (Eric Molinsky discussed this in some detail in a recent episode of Imaginary Worlds.)

The object of Wade’s affection, Art3mis, falls under the trope of manic pixie dream girl. She’s a little older than Wade, smart, funny, prolific, and out of all of his leagues.

The opponent is Nolan Sorrento, the head of IOI, a classic Evil Corporation ™, but we know from the start that Wade wins. The problem with this is that its history is written by the winners. Wade can justify whatever he did to help his friends and to take out his opponents because his was the righteous cause.

He also has all the cool and all the cultural knowledge that it takes to win. I think the 80s cultural milieus that make for the story’s back drop are its main attraction. Movies and books and video games people of a certain generation (mine) grew up with, even though Ready Player One is set in the future and its heroes are all of a later generation. (The developers of the Oasis, however, are children of the 80s.)

The cultural references don’t make for much of a story, though. They’re a wrapper for something resembling a quest. Hence the sort of significance of Wade’s Oasis handle. As a hero, he’s as flawed as any you’re likely to come across. He’s destined to win because he’s the eternal champion in his youth and his heart is in the right place (name a revolutionary whose heart isn’t, in that one’s own telling, though), and everyone else is inferior in some way, or missing the key white male privilege that he’s got. Cline could have stepped up his game and Spielberg could have done the same, but it’s the same pasty white hero who has to save the day. (Louder for the folks in the back: Not the woman, not either of the Japanese characters, not the one I’m not gonna detail because, spoilers. The white kid.)

In contrast with the other listening and reading I’ve been doing lately, it also fails key tests of relevance. One could say that Cline was writing precisely what he knew and couldn’t do any differently, but the fact is, he could have represented his hero as more heroic, there’s no reason to repeat the fat 30 year old in his mother’s basement line multiple times. One friend of mine pointed out that it’s okay for the protagonist to be unlikeable, but I think the problem here is that he’s unlikeable because his creator didn’t think the character needed to be any different. And perhaps the character is so close to the creator’s heart, that those flaws don’t seem like flaws. I’m not sure.

The real world vs. the virtual still winds up being about schoolyard taunts. The guy living in his mom’s basement is one of two or three that set my teeth on edge. The less said about them, the better.

There’s so much better SF/F out there that doesn’t give the game away from the opening. Because the competition in Ready Player One is based on video games and is (on one level) a quest, the fact that it relies on the quest token trope might be forgivable. Quest tokens are a way fantasy writers have historically gotten their characters from the starting line to the finish. You know the story line: The prophecy states that only the person with the characteristics of our hero who brings these hidden items to the meeting point will prevent ultimate doom. Think of Harry Potter collecting up the various deathly hallows. But it’s a motif that’s played out. Back when Michael Moorcock was getting paid by the word, it was fine. Again, I forgive RP1 this because the video games and tabletop role playing games that are the backdrop for the quest in this story all depend on these.

Looking at the story from the Arthurian quest motif may have some merit. As I said, I don’t want to give Cline too much credit in this department, but the book turns on a sequence in which Wade sacrifices himself in such a way that he might be out of circulation for a very long time, or very dead. While he planned carefully for the move that put him in IOI’s control, knowing that they killed his aunt and uncle and very probably one of his friends, the risk he takes is huge. In the world of Grail quest legends, there’s a pattern of the hero setting off in a rudderless boat in order to leave all in G-d’s hands. A quest can fail because the hero does something to take control of the situation. One could identify Wade setting himself up to be captured by IOI in this way. Was he leaving it all to fate? Not really, but the chances against the plan working were high.

Quest token

From that point forward, I was far more invested in what happened even though I didn’t feel there was any real growth on Wade’s part. It’s not as though everything is handed to him – he grows up in lousy surroundings, raised by people who don’t care for him, and finds his refuge in the Oasis. Where he thrives. The problematic aspect is that he sets his mind to things and generally succeeds. And keeps winning. When he’s behind, he finds a way to win. I never felt invested in his struggle, because there is no struggle. There’s no point at which he’s in true despair (except when Art3mis rejects him).

This combination of jumbled pop culture from a previous generation and detailed social structures that are both two steps ahead of now and two steps from the Middle Ages makes for a compelling setting. And the goal of preserving what’s good and moving it into something better is worthy. Another part of the Arthurian quest motif is bringing back a boon to society. As a knight in pixelated armor, Wade doesn’t start the game with any altruistic motive. He wants to get off planet Earth entirely if he can. It’s not amusing to me that this self-centered, immature use of great wealth is what currently drives Bezos, Musk, and Branson. Three overgrown, too-privileged white boys. As result of Art3mis goading him to think differently, he determines to make good use of the fortune winning will bring him.

On a certain level, the story has merit, but my saying this is like realizing there are songs by the Killers I actually like. I’ve actually looked for a translation of von Eschenbach’s Parzival, which I haven’t read in 30 years. (Interestingly, the freebie found on archive.org is Jessie Weston’s translation. Her volume From Ritual to Romance was one of the key influences on TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ which brings us around to Arthurian legend again.) The fact remains that Ready Player One is pure popcorn and the references to things that aren’t 80s pop culture are as paper thin as those that are. And the relationships are flimsy excuses for how actual humans interact.

Does it fail on its own merit (or lack thereof) or only in comparison with other books I’m reading these days? There’s so much good SF and fantasy coming out these days, that it’s a shame that stuff like this does so well. I had similar things to say when everyone was reading Dan Brown novels. There’s better popcorn and there’s stuff that actually makes you think. I say that it not only fails to live up to what it could have been, I feel somewhat had for the time I’ve spent on it. I wish Cline weren’t so enamored of his own cleverness. The possibility that there’s an emotional depth to his characters, grief and joy that are separate from simply leveling up or failing to, seems lost on the author.


* And I watched it again last weekend, and find it only slightly less troubling than I did a couple of years ago. It’s still fluffy. Spielberg still gave up the opportunity to make it better, but it’s different enough from the novel, that I was amused by it. And the whole Shining section is still mindblowing.