Sunday, July 9, 2017

Things I've Read: May-June 2017 Edition

I read a bunch of books in May and June while traveling outside of Taiwan. I dipped a bit into non-fiction, including two by Bill Bryson. (Summary: Bill Bryson travels around and does a fair bit of complaining, sometimes unfairly, but he’s funny and entertaining so all is forgiven.) But when it comes to fiction, I read:

1 um, fantasy? Urban fantasy? Magic realist?
1 space opera SF
1 near-future techno-thriller
1 absurdist comedy romance
1 hard SF horror

The Gray House
by Mariam Petrosyan
Translated by Yuri Machkasov

The Gray House was first published in Russian in 2007 and it became a cult classic in the Russian-speaking world long before the English translation I read was published in 2017. Mariam Petrosyan is Armenian, and I read her book as I traveled in Armenia and Georgia. The Gray House is not explicitly set in any specific country, but it seemed fitting to read it in the author’s homeland.

The eponymous House is a boarding school for physically disabled children and teenagers. These young people are isolated from the wider world and neglected by the system, and so they have developed their own miniature society within the walls of the House. Petrosyan’s 734-page epic exploration of this world was not only engaging, it practically colonized my brain during the two weeks or so I spent reading it, as my mind would keep working through the complexity and to try and untangle the plot long after I put the book down. The worldbuilding of this quirky little community is intricate, and it is very gradually revealed to us readers. Once we’re comfortable in this little world, we begin to get hints that something supernatural is going on. This thread gradually grows to become the main element of the story. We’re in full-on fantasy territory by the novel’s latter chapters.

The story switches between “present” and “past” chapters. The novel kicks off in the present when a disgruntled boy called Smoker leaves his conformist dorm in the House for more freewheeling surroundings down the hall where eccentricity is tolerated, but Smoker’s place at the center of the narrative is soon overtaken by his oddball classmates. They are all known by nicknames: Sphynx, Tabaqui, Vulture, Noble, and so on. (I write “classmates”, but I’ll be damned if I know what, if anything, these kids are taught in their classes.)

There are also chapters that take place half a dozen or so years before the main story, setting up the present-day situation. As the story moves back and forth in time, the elusive details of the House, its inhabitants and its history gradually come into focus.

The plot meanders and takes its time to unfold, and much must be inferred by the reader, but I was eager to delve deeper into the mysteries of the House and its inhabitants, to figure out how things worked. This is one of the very few novels I was tempted to begin rereading immediately: I felt I could get just as much out of it the second time.

A Google search of the book’s Russian title, «Дом, в котором...», reveals a devoted fan community, comparable to that of Harry Potter, which was in place well before the novel ever penetrated the Anglosphere. Linguistically I can’t comprehend what these fans are saying without the unreliable help of Google Translate, but the gorgeous fan-made artwork helps me see how it all came across to those readers who experienced the story in the original language. Obscure in the English-speaking world but not so elsewhere, The Gray House not only provided me with a rich, original world to explore, but also made me thankful for translators who help literature cross boundaries.

The Player of Games
by Iain M. Banks

Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a celebrity player of strategy board games, said to be one of the finest in the galaxy. Because he lives in the Culture, an immensely wealthy and powerful interstellar anarcho-socialist state, he has the luxury of living a life of leisure, surrounded by material comforts. But Jernau is dissatisfied with his life; he feels ennui. Seems like the right person for the Culture’s ruthless, shadowy Special Circumstances division to recruit for a mission that requires mad board game skills…

This was my second of Iain M. Banks’ exceptionally well-regarded Culture novels, after Consider Phlebas. I am stubbornly determined to read the Culture books in order, even though most Banks fans don’t recommend it. I think I see why. Consider Phlebas, the first one published, had lots of neat ideas, and there wasn’t anything wrong with the storytelling. But I felt worn down by page after page of action scenes that I think would have worked much better on a movie screen, or perhaps in a cable TV miniseries.

By contrast, The Player of Games had me utterly enthralled from beginning to end. It actually made me think “Perhaps I don’t play enough board games” -- I don’t know if Banks himself was into strategy gaming, but his descriptions of Jernau’s experience as he put his whole self into games not only seemed plausible enough as the way a master gamer thinks, but also presented board games as a fun intellectual challenge.

The book was fun enough that it didn’t matter that the board-game-centric culture of the alien Azad race, the novel's antagonists, didn’t strike me as terribly believable. I think I subscribe to the theory that Azad was meant to be a satire on us Earthlings, and their weird alien biology was thrown in there as a red herring (note that for all the attention paid to their tripartite sex differentiation, when all was said and done it was irrelevant to the plot). Whether you believe that or not, one book is exactly as long as the Empire of Azad need to stick around to be a foil for the Culture, and not to overstay their welcome.

by Genevieve Valentine

Near-future technothriller. Our heroine Suyana Supaki is a Face. As far as we schlubs sitting on the couch in front of the TV are concerned, she is the living embodiment of her country, and its main representative on the world stage. In this world, geopolitics has just gone ahead and adopted all the vapid, shiny aspects of celebrity culture. Viewers at home know the countries of the world through their Faces: beautiful, stylish young people who hobnob at trendy bars and clubs, working out international alliances. No presidents or prime ministers even rate a mention; I suppose no one pays attention to them anymore. Meanwhile, the paparazzi lurk outside, hoping to capture some unauthorized images of Faces, possibly causing great diplomatic embarrassment and making big bucks.

One of these paparazzi is Daniel, who manages to snap some pictures of Suyana in central Paris just as she’s wounded in an assassination attempt. Despite his clearly muddled ethical situation, he throws his lot in with Suyana, getting her medical attention while hustling her away from those who would cause her harm. Suyana is no damsel in distress: even as she’s bleeding across half of central Paris, she remains the main decision-maker and driver of the plot. She herself does not have squeaky-clean hands, as not even the government she represents (the “United Amazonian Rainforest Confederation”) is aware that she owes allegiance to a shadowy radical environmental group.

Persona is the first volume in a trilogy, so I don’t know how the story eventually turns out. I can say that it’s a very fast read: I polished it off in a few hours.

Still Life with Woodpecker
by Tom Robbins

Tom Robbins is an oddball. It’s not just his knack for appearing half his actual age in all photographs taken this century, but also writing oddball books.

Still Life with Woodpecker is the earliest Robbins novel I’ve read -- it’s as old as I am, and full of fun dated 1980 details (though it’s good to know satirical takes on left-wing activism haven’t changed much in nearly 40 years). It is a love story between a radical anarchist-eco-terrorist and an heir to a deposed European royal family, and it’s full of odd takes on sex, bits of goofy humor, and long asides on whatever Robbins happened to be thinking about at the time (these three things are not always distinct from each other).

You’re not going to read this for the plot; you’re going to read it for Robbins’ authorial voice and style. I read Robbins whenever one of his books happens to cross my path (which works out to about once a decade), and whenever that happens I find I appreciate it greatly.

by Peter Watts

Peter Watts’ brand of science fictional horror is ruthless. He makes George R. R. Martin’s reputation for killing off main characters seem naive and adorable. His Rifters trilogy probably overdid the darkness, despair and death at the expense of the cool, mindblowing ideas, but his 2006 novel Blindsight achieved a perfect balance and won a well-deserved reputation as one of the best SF novels of the decade.

Echopraxia takes place in the same universe as Blindsight, with a different cast of characters. Daniel Brüks, who is probably the most psychologically normal and well-adjusted protagonist Watts has ever created, is a field biologist who gets caught up in a conflict between rival groups of posthumans which he can barely begin to comprehend. He soon finds himself in space with a motley assortment of humans and near-humans who treat him with varying degrees of contempt and condescension. Many people die. This is a harsh universe. Along the way, Watts works in a ton of ideas taken from cutting-edge science; many of these are elaborated on in the book’s lengthy Afterword.

In the late 21st-century world of Blindsight and Echopraxia, we humans have been forcibly made aware that powerful extraterrestrials are monitoring Earth. We don’t know what they want, we can’t do a damn thing about them, and their existence has given the human race a collective neurosis that we really can’t afford as political instability and climate change are wreaking planetary havoc. Also, vampires are real. Yes, literal vampires are actually real. In Blindsight’s best and most well-known bit of worldbuilding, Watts made vampires scientifically plausible, and the result is even more horrifying than the supernatural creatures of legend.

Echopraxia expands on Blindsight’s worldbuilding. We learn far more about this word’s posthuman societies that have modified themselves to dramatically boost their brainpower. We normals can’t comprehend them, let alone compete with them! Vampires are expanded upon as well. It’s true that Valerie the Vampire in Echopraxia seems much weirder than Sarasti the Vampire in Blindsight, but my explanation is that our narrative is filtered through our point-of-view characters’ impressions, and since Daniel Brüks is much more of a normal human than the posthuman cyborg who narrated Blindsight, it’s not surprising that he’s far more weirded out. (Or maybe Sarasti just worked harder to acquire human social skills.)

When all is said and done, the theme of this book is manipulation. Everybody is being manipulated by powers they cannot comprehend, to fulfill agendas they do not understand. (You can go look up the dictionary definition of "echopraxia" if you like.) Watts definitely likes to put cheerful nihilism into his fiction, and while I wouldn’t want to read a steady diet of it, it makes for a fine bracing occasional read.

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