Thursday, June 17, 2021

Books I've read, May-June 2021 edition

Since the beginning of May it seems I have read four complete novels, all of them existing in very different areas of a large, amorphously defined supergenre that we may call “speculative fiction”.

The Song of Achilles

by Madeline Miller (2011)

The story of the life of Achilles, told from the viewpoint of his lover Patroclus. A 3,000-year-old tale full of gods and warriors and heroic blood being shed, told as a modern novel with modern-day storytelling conventions.

First, just on its own terms this is a very readable and enjoyable novel based on Greek myth. An engaging quick read. 

But second, this sort of novelistic treatment is very helpful for me. The truth is that never at any point of my formal education did I get taught the Greek mythology that Western culture has been referencing ceaselessly for millennia, and although obviously I picked up bits and pieces over the years, I never got it to really cohere in my head in a memorable way. It didn’t help that I never had a clear entry point, just a mass of stories about gods or humans or both, existing in a world without clear rules.

Repackaging Greek myth as a concrete story told with the conventions of a modern novel helps me build a mental scaffolding that makes it much easier to keep things straight in my head. Miller’s novel has really helped in this regard, as did her novel Circe, which I read last year. (Mary Renault’s fiction is also good for this.) This version of the story does have its idiosyncrasies, but as even a cursory look at Wikipedia makes clear, the story has existed in multiple versions since ancient times.

One thing that even I knew about the Achilles myth was the origin of the phrase “Achilles heel”: the notion that his heel was his weak spot because his mother had dunked him in magical water everywhere except there, and then had thought “eh, good enough”. This always struck me as extremely stupid and I was gratified that Miller gave this part of the story exactly the attention as it deserved: none, save for a solitary bit of mockery.

Against a Dark Background

by Iain M. Banks (1993)

Sci-fi action adventure. Laser guns and spaceships. Iain M. Banks. This story of a wealthy noblewoman who gets the news that a religious sect that wants her dead has been granted a one-year period during which it can legally kill her is as much of a page-turner as any Banks thriller, and I pretty much raced through its nearly 500-page length on my Kindle.

This is some quintessential Iain Banks, set in a one-off universe: an isolated star system that’s been teeming with people and technology for tens of thousands of years, a palimpsest of wars and atrocities. In parts of the story he seemed to be channeling Douglas Adams, sometimes Adams in his more whimsical moods and sometimes in his existential angst.

Lincoln in the Bardo

by George Saunders (2017)

A very odd novel, full of historical tidbits and meditations on death, that I am frankly at an absolute loss as to how to describe. 

The plot could be described as a bit of supernatural-tinged historical voyeurism: President Lincoln’s young son Willie has just tragically died and his body has just been interred at a Washington DC cemetery where the spirits of the dead interact at night. These spirits inhabit the cemetery because they are still tied to the world of the living; they don’t even think of themselves as dead, only ill. Lincoln is so despondent over young Willie’s death that he visits the corpse at night, causing quite a commotion among the spirits.

I picked it up wondering if it would turn out to be unremittingly sad, but it’s not. The quirkiness of the point-of-view, alternating between the eccentric spirits of the dead, Abraham and Willie Lincoln themselves, and snippets from various actual nonfiction sources, is very lively and the fact that I genuinely never quite knew where Saunders was going with the narrative helped me deal with the morbid subject matter.

(Anyone who screams “but Lincoln in the Bardo is not speculative fiction!” gets a glare from me; I can make the tent as big as I want.)


by Claire North (2018)

Theo Miller works for the Company, the conglomerate to which the government has outsourced much of its governing apparatus. Theo’s job is to calculate indemnity payments that convicted criminals must pay to the victims -- for instance, murderers have to pay more if their victim was actively trying to improve their health by joining a gym, or if the trauma of the murder means survivors must attend expensive counseling sessions. If you can’t pay, it’s the “patty line” for you -- not necessarily flipping burgers, but some kind of menial work must be done to help pay off your debt.

The setting is a dystopian England, but one that doesn’t come across as a future so much as a different version of the present, in which certain qualities have been exaggerated to bring them into stark relief. The world we see here is one that already exists for many people, is the unspoken message as I understood it. This story is not rainbows and roses. Rebellion against the Company means that a lot of innocent people get hurt, and the narrative does not shy away from that. 

The plot is launched when Theo runs across Dani, an old friend and lover from before he was Theo -- his whole adult life he has been living with an assumed identity. He really has no choice but to help her in her plan to bring down the whole corrupt Company structure. Dani has a daughter, who may or may not be Theo’s and who has spent her life in indentured servitude, and suddenly Theo has something to live for that’s more than just keeping his head down and surviving.

From reading other people’s reviews, I’ve gleaned that apparently many people are put off by the slow pace of this story. I thought it was just right, but then I’m a sucker for stories that effectively dig into the characters’ minds and psychology. If done well, it’s as compelling to me as a fast-paced plot.

No comments: