Sunday, February 2, 2014

Hild: A review

"Hild" by Nicola Griffith is a phenomenal epic set in 7th century England - the growth of an empire from the perspective of the protagonist, who is both a seer and a female.

I find the portrayal of both of these aspects of her character fascinating, but for two entirely different reasons. The first is what another reviewer has called the 'skeptical fantasy' novel. 
http://io9.com/hild-and-the-rise-of-the-skeptical-fantasy-novel-1505421852

The argument made, is that it give a 'skeptical' interpretation of the fantasy genre, debunking the mystical elements of the story, even as they are presented. But to me, this means it's not a fantasy novel at all, that instead, it's historical fiction. Hell, it's Literary Historical Fiction. - it reminds me more of Hillary Mantel's "Wolf Hall" than anything else. That same deep understanding of the politics of the time, the same meticulous research and the same view of the world through the lens of one character. Not a king, but an advisor, or more specifically here, a seer. Of course there is mysticism and religion, but any novel of the period would require this - it was a fundamental aspect of the time.

But it get's labeled as fantasy for one good reason, and one bad. The bad reason, is that Nicola Griffith has written Fantasy and SciFi in the past. And despite the fact that she's written in a variety of genres, there's a tendency in publishing to try and box writers into neat packages. This is why Margaret Atwood's novels are seen as LiFi (Literary Fiction), even though her forays into SciFi, are not particularly strong examples of either genre, despite the worshipful reviews and interviews she's had on the books.

The good reason, and there is one, is that if you do enjoy a lot of fantasy set in medieval or pre-medieval settings, you'll enjoy this. The characters view a world filled with the otherworldly, and their relationships with their gods are more visceral than intellectual. And of course, there's the same sense of honour, passion and adventure. And like Mantel it's beautifully written. The plotting and motivations are flawless, insanely complicated (especially if you have trouble remembering names, as I do), But its easily worth it, Hild is fascinating and deeply engaging.

The other aspect of the novel that I find interesting, is what it is not. I think of this novel in contrast to what I remember of "Mists of Avalon". I never did finish that novel - I found the female characters, frankly, unbelievable. Driven by barely understood passions, lacking (as far as I could tell) any intellectual aspect, they lacked a grounding in the fundamental truths of their world. It seemed to me, fatuous, overly romantic, and deeply annoying. The women in Hild's world are smart, practical and ambitious, but they are still deeply human, more than capable of having their reason swayed by desire, or passion, anger or fear. Like any of us.

Hild, of course, is a bit different from the rest of the women - she's seen as something deeply unworldly, capable beyond her years (like, "Ender's Game" capable) but that's, arguably, no surprise. She's the heroine - it what makes her the focus point of the story. But the other women (and it is predominately a woman's view of the world throughout) are like any women. Some smart, some not so much, some daring, some cautious. In some ways, it reminds me too, of a recent TV series, "The Bletchley Circle". Though frankly, in that series, all the women are exceptionally smart.

So, if you enjoy straight up Historical Fiction (like Mantel) or an altered history (like Kay) ore hell, any fiction at all, give it a go.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Book Review: Aping Mankind

So I've done a book review on: Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity by Raymond Tallis. It's a book that supposedly illustrates the fallacies around the neurological interpretation of the mind. I didn't care for it. I did a full review at goodreads.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Literary Fiction as a Tool of Oppression


Every good story is an act of rebellion. Indeed, I believe that this is at the core of why we write; a defiance of the world as it is, our stories give voice to our frustration and anger. And because I’m politically obsessed, I am exceedingly fond of stories that  include the political, especially those with an (un)healthy dose of byzantine scheming 1.
My own writing reflects this; while most of my stories start out as strictly personal journeys, eventually, some political reality intersects with the characters' lives, and their struggles are transformed. Their conflicts come to have a significance not only to their own fate, but also to their world's. And this, as it is with most people who write Speculative Fiction, is a central theme. For in Speculative Fiction, not only does the world affect the characters, but the characters also fundamentally affect the World, be that outcome heroic or nihilistic. 
I’m endlessly fascinated in how this process plays out with my own characters; in my stories I've created rebel fairies, subversive machines and a post-punk  engineer, all of who play a significant role in shaping their world. 
Nor am I am alone in this - one of my favorite examples is the Vlad Taltos series by Stephen J.  Brust. His central character is, initially, simply struggling for survival in a feudal society, but as he succeeds, he comes to see - hell, has his face shoved in - the systematic injustice of the system he lives in. And, despite his best efforts, he is drawn into the earliest stages of resistance. But even as he sidesteps the conventions of a ruling elite, that courts and despises him in equal measure, he is equally uncomfortable with the 'cause' that  defies the system of injustice that surrounds him. Consequently he never lets go of that space between the two worlds. For Vlad, this is part of what  constantly places him near the fulcrum of decision, even though he is not a major player in the politics of his world. 
Now, this theme - that of being torn between two world views - is scarcely exclusive to Spec Fic; it is found in many genres, including Literary Fiction, from authors the likes of Mordecai Richter and Anne-Marie MacDonald. But the idea of conflict and choice plays out very differently in Literary Fiction than it does in Speculative Fiction, due to a fundamental difference between them. And that is the role of the World in the story. 
Literary Fiction presents the world as, well, the world.  A setting that is socially and physically immutable, a force of nature; something that the characters must deal with or work around, but never truly change. By contrast, Speculative Fiction presents the world as World. Another character in the story2 - one that can both affect, and be altered by, the other characters as much as they are altered by it.
This simple shift in perspective yields profound differences. Without  the World as a character, Literary Fiction must focus on the personal, and the world lived in is accepted as fait accompli. Consequently, while the story may expose and explore society's attitudes and injustices, it does not offer characters who can change their world. Instead it explores how the world affects those characters. And when there is a shift in the world, be it societal or technological, the characters are buffeted by those winds of change. 
There is a great advantage to this approach to writing; because you do not have to explain the world, you can focus more on the relationships between the characters and their relationship to a world that we all understand. Not to say that Speculative Fiction doesn’t explore these relationships, but these explorations must take a different direction because they involve the defining of the World as a character. 
In Literary Fiction, one of my favourite examples of this is Hillary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, which explores the profound changes occurring during Henry VIII’s reign. It is a world we all know, to some degree, and she familiarizes us with it further as we go into the story. But all in all, it is still familiar ground. Because of this familiarity, Mantel's focus can shift, minutely, away from the profound changes in  Henry’s England and towards the people and processes that made those changes possible. She does this through Thomas Cromwell, a fascinating character in his own right, but one who also acts as a powerful lens with which to examine the world. This ability of a character to act as a lens is one of the hallmarks of Literary Fiction. We understand the world differently, due to the perspective of the person observing it. But some aspects of this perspective are only possible if the world does not look back.
In Speculative Fiction the world must be explained, and while a character can act as a lens, almost invariably, there has to be a place where the reader can learn more about the world. In this case, a  character must become less like a lens, and more like a simple pane of clear glass - transparent. 
The use of a familiar world in Literary Fiction also, to my mind, creates an inherent bias in the novel. For if the reader already understands the fundamentals of the world, then that world cannot change. The story may show an aspect of the world that the reader has not previously explored - the seedy underbelly, the academic grind, or the rat-race, these are all are tropes we already have some rough familiarity with, and we expect the author to provide us with greater insights to these, already existing, places.  But fundamentally it is the world we know, and it remains the world we know. 
This means that the world in Literary Fiction, inherently, endorses the status quo. Look at the novels of Jane Austen: we cheer the heroine's happiness in a world built on inequality. Nor is Austen's work a historical artifact - consider A Suitable Boy, The English Patient, A Complicated Kindness. All books I love, but their worlds are immutable, as far as the characters are concerned. Indeed, part of the core message of these books is the very fact that the world is fundamentally beyond the characters control. That the idea of control is almost absurd.
In contrast to this, Speculative Fiction is based in a world where there is a core assumption that there will be change in the world - and that this change happens as a consequence of the choices and actions of the characters in play. That is not to say that Speculative Fiction is inherently progressive; often it is not. One only need to take a look at the underlying messages in Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings, especially Return of the King.
 Nonetheless, the underlying message in Speculative Fiction is that the world can be changed, often by surprising people. People who take risks. It is the kind of story where the rebellion isn’t simple defiance, but a defiance that ends in an outcome that actually addresses the source of that frustration. 
I think that it is this, not the odd names or the technobabble or the invented worlds, that makes the literary establishment contemptuous of Speculative Fiction. It is the very idea that the world is as changeable as the characters who inhabit it. 
And they are called the literary establishment for a reason. These are the chattering classes, the gatekeepers of culture who define what kind of culture has ‘value.' They are tools of the publishing industry, judging what is ‘good’ literature and what is not. And by attempting to ghettoize  Speculative Fiction, to relegate it to the realms of pulp, they are able to accuse Speculative Fiction of being mere adventure stories, rather than contemplations of society. They are frightened of good Science Fiction and Fantasy, because those stories tell a new truth, that now, we are like gods - capable of changing the world, simply by choosing to. It is a reality that few recognize, and even fewer want us to.
Is it any wonder they prefer stories of helplessness and despair?



1 Those who know me would be profoundly unsurprised given that  I'm always arguing (and occasionally lecturing the hapless) about politics.

2 I first heard this idea of World as character presented by Karl Schraeder at a talk organized by the Toronto Public Library a couple of years back as part of a series on SF and Fantasy. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Wallowing in Nihilism

I have to admit, I'm positively gleeful about the latest arctic ice extent data. It's a stupid attitude really, but I'm helpless before that savage joy, that anticipatory thrill of watching the crows circle just before they sink their oily black beaks into the soft, vulnerable parts of our hydrocarbon addicted society.


http://nsidc.org/arcticseaicenews/

It's not like we didn't see this coming, I mean the Star Trek (TNG) series, spoke about it, and what was that? 1990? But whatever, what I find more interesting are the first glimmerings of 'global warming is a good thing' meme. How it's opening up the North for exploitation and development. 
http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/politics/reviving-arctic-oil-rush-ottawa-to-auction-rights-in-massive-area/article4184419/

I particularly like the quote: 
"The North is in the midst of change, as melting ice promises more open northern shipping routes, which might help companies bring northern oil to global markets."

And given the time scales involved in resource development, we (our collective humanity) is obviously more than  capable of long term planning. But generally, we only tend to do it, when we see some specific, potentially personal, gain.  

And in global warming, there is personal gain to be had, it's all about the collective good. For the individual there's the realization of the NorthWest passage for shipping and the investment potential in areas that may quite possibly be a new frontier of sorts - areas  with a  a harsh climate becoming productive, pleasant and appealing, while the land is still cheap. 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqD0pqDOAtk&feature=youtube_gdata_player
(No, I'm not saying Global Warning causes earthquakes, I just thought it was a fun case study)

And with a certain morbid anticipation I am looking forward to the Op-Ed articles that will be written when Global Warming, and its consequences, are eminently self-evident and irreversible. How they will argue that, all-in-all,  in hindsight, really, it was  a good thing. Don't ya think? And really, those hard hit areas were kinda write-offs before anyway, weren't they?

And never will they accept any culpability, they will accept no responsibility, our economic elite. If anything they'll blame the consumer (who they enabled) or the worker (who they subcontracted) just as they did with the fisheries. Of course it is us, the electorate, that let them get away with (or voted for) this bullshit.
http://press.princeton.edu/titles/7929.html

In the end, those that lament the loss of the old climate are nothing but a bunch of Luddites. Smelly hippies standing in the way of progress. Pathetic really. 

Don't ya think? 

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

To hell with Marx, I follow the Qun.

So I just finished playing Dragon's Age II, and let me tell you, it was awesome. One of the reasons I got the game was to play some DLC starring Felicia Day. Who is awesome, and a redhead, so I'm totally crushing on her geeky self. But it was the game itself that enthralled me. Great voices, great story, amazing world building.

And the Qun.

Imagine Marx as a desert prophet in the Middle Ages and you end up with the Qun. By comparison to serfdom, and a world controlled by a nobility (no equality before the law, that's for certain), well, wouldn't it start looking pretty good? Regular Meals, a respected Place in the Order. An existence defined essentially, by the principle,"From each according to their  ability to each according to their need."

Beats the socks off bowing and scraping to some inbreed with an inherited title, don't it.

All this from a video game (with Felicia as the sexy Russian Qun agent).

Gotta  love it - time to write some fan fic.