Traversing the scarce universe

Neptune’s Brood, the second of the Saturn’s Children novels by Charles Stross, is nominally a space opera. Set in a post-human universe, AIs have spread across the planets but the costs of doing this are crippling. The worlds are divided into those with slow and fast lives and currency.

Poking holes at the space opera, such as the failings of faster than light drives and the move into the stars, as the realm of the rich and impossible, Stross merrily converses with Clarke and Heinlein’s dreams. Of course, different times call for different dreams.

Post scarcity in a post-financial crash world leads to the less rosy picture of the world. The emptiness of the world is explored and the immorality of the founders who worked out how to manufacture ways of spreading the debt and costs around the wolds in largely invisible fashion. The laws of robotics are gleefully abandoned as the intelligences seek to create their own nests.

I wonder if I would have a different reading if I had read John Lanchester’s Capital and other post crash fiction. At the same time, this is a gleeful conversation with the space opera whilst also trying to see how it might work when the author’s world has changed. It no longer holds entirely true but perhaps Alistair Reynolds saw this in his current series.

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Lost in translation

As far as I remember the novel, which is rusty, the film of Horns is not terribly faithful to the novel and I am not entirely shocked by this. It does make me want to re-read Joe Hill’s novels though. The film echoes the Crow and Stand By Me.

Yet it reminds me of a conversation that was had this morning at Sarah Churchwell’s discussion of F Scott Fitzgerald and her book, Careless People. She talked about the need for a morality in satire and irony for it to work. For her that core is needed  to really make the Great Gatsby work.

A pillar of Hill’s work is the morality play of horror  – the horror of the small town world, be it the US or the UK. The supernatural echoes the secrets of the world around the outsider; even though the outsider is a member of their community. In part the world is fearful of itself and its inability to face up to its demons.

Alexandre Aja tries to get this but becomes lost in the supernatural and special effects, rather than the play being explored. The Gothic becomes lost in the spectacle and perhaps another film was created.

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A flame to a moth

I’ve been meaning to read Rachel Klein‘s The Moth Diaries for some time and, having made the time, I can only wonder why.

In true Nineteenth century style, the novel is told in the form of a diary kept by the narrator. Immediately we know that the narration is fundamentally unreliable as it the memory that it purports to tell us. More subtly it links us to stories such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and nineteenth century vampire literature whilst also being set in a boarding school.

The narrator becomes obsessed with Lucy and the new girl, Ernessa. Confessional posts would become more nervous and obsessive, the reality portrayed becomes increasingly frayed, hinting at the reason why the narrator is in hospital. It is a subtle book that is going to repay reading and also reading some of the potential source material.

The Gothic comes through the discussion of the madness; it is a safety valve in that respect for one of the taboos for our society. Teen female madness is a particular horror for society and this plays so well on it. It reminds me of the episode in Buffy where where she is in the asylum or perhaps the Bell Jar. We never know the reality but can guess it.

This is one of those books that slipped through my net originally which is frustrating as it is so wonderful and well written. It is a truly strange piece of Gothic fiction.

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Weeknotes: Bodies and texts

Reading this week seems to have followed self-referential texts. There is a sense that this has been done all before and so cleverly all before but these books seem to have the balance.

Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s Nemo: Roses of Berlin was a racy alternative history set in a 1930s Berlin. As Nemo races through the city, she comes across characters taken from German cinema, such as Maria or Dr Mabeuse. It is less frenetic than the Century books and coming together with an enjoyment that seemed to lack towards the last Century book.

I’ve also been Carey and Gross’s Underwritten: Apocalypse which is coming together really quite neatly with some simple but potent truths about stories and their power. It has moved from pastiching series such as Harry Potter or Narnia into something deeper.

The second book was Felix Gilman’s The Revolutions (Corsair, £8.99).

A final comic series that is intriguing me is Si Spencer’s latest, Bodies published by Vertigo. A time travel murder mystery, Spencer digs into London in a similar way to Iain Sinclair.

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The consolations of literature – The Revolutions by Felix Gilman

The Revolutions, Felix Gilman‘s latest book, reflects the Nineteenth Century novel with a position of respect and love. Like Cherie Priest’s Clockwork century novels or G Dahlquist’s Dream Eaters books, this is a world that immerses itself in its antecedents but is not slavishly bound to them.

In the great storm, Arthur loses his journalistic job whilst at the library. Finding a post as an accountant, he enters the employee of Mr Atwood and becomes embroiled in a strange work. Instructions come in that make little sense, as do the calculations. Meanwhile, he meets Josephine and becomes engaged.

Josephine becomes involved with a group interested in the Occult. During one of the rituals, she is psychically transported to Mars, whilst her body remains earthbound. Arthur takes care of her as Atwood’s Engine is rebuilt.

Gilman revels in the cultural and literary tensions between magic and science that exist in the nineteenth century. Authors such as Bram Stoker explore the boundaries of the belief in magic against the rationality of science in their novels and W B Yeats indulged in the mystical in private. As the century progressed, there was a stronger belief in power of science and its role for improving society, though in a way perhaps in a a way that Fritz Lang might satirise in Metropolis. The lost potential of the Babbage engine powered the Difference Engine and to an extent drives this novel, though perhaps with echoes of Stephenson’s The Diamond Age. The calculations echo algorithms with Atwood’s Engine being part of the great work of the century.

Against this rationality and move away from religious belief came a belief in the supernatural in terms of ghosts and the powers of the mind. The rise in mentalism and ghosts suggests wider fear of the unknown, the idea that death is not the end. The Revolutions plays this to good effect through the transporting of Josephine between the spheres. The novel’s structure suggests a more Mediaeval view of the heavens as a gateway to and from the divine. As the journey goes through the degrees, they become a little more like the Inferno or the spheres from which one might approach the divine, suggesting that this mindset was still strong in the nineteenth century, driving obsessions

Alongside Atwood’s Engine, other social notables becomes involved in a magical war, part of which manifested itself as the Great Storm. Gilman leaves it as a subtle social comment on the failings of the leadership which writers such as Kipling would begin to indulge in in books such as Puck of Pook’s Hill. This extends into the wry humour concerning the conspiracy theories such as the Tibetan masters and Atwood’s needing to be backed by them rather than leading naturally.

Josephine adapts to the new society, learning about their ways. Adapting to Martian culture, she works out how to communicate with them, in strong contrast to Andrew and Atwood. There is a wry humour to Gilman’s portrayal of the men and their colonial approach. Gilman begins approaching the question of the alien and who this might be in an anthropological sense. Blish’s A Case for Conscience explores this, as does Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, with equal critical view but the fact that this question needs to be queried again shows that it is still unresolved, that colonial attitudes still remain to be challenged.

In one sense this review appears to be arguing the nothing changes, that culture has not entirely moved on in many senses. The Revolutions is an exciting read that understands the literary culture that it comes from and builds upon it. As well as containing deep ideas, it rattles along with pace. Gilman’s critical love pulls together many ideas and explores them. It comes across as a love song to an earlier set of fantastic texts, in the same fashion as James Stoddart’s False House and High House books. One gets a sense of a writer having a fair amount of critical fun. He never loses his sense of wonder and enjoyment in reading and writing.

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Graham Joyce 1954-2014

So sad to hear of the death of Graham Joyce this week.

I cannot imagine what his family are going through. Each death is utterly individual for those around them.

I count myself lucky to have met him a few times and been engaged in in a shared group. I even took one of his writing classes. I was not his best student by a long margin.

One of his dictums was to “make every word count”. He did that.

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Houses within houses: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

Jessie Burton‘s The Miniaturist tells us what it is and yet becomes something that is odd.

Having married Johannes Brandt, Petronella Oortman enters a dark, cold house. Breakfasts of bread and herring await her. As does his sister, Marin. Marin maintains a cold hold over the house. Bound by a strong Protestant religiosity, she insists on the partitioning of their lives and church attendance. Coming from an impoverished, old wealth family, Petronella has had to be married off to stave off bankruptcy. She makes friends with the servants, Cornelia and Otto, who ground her in the new city.

Lost in a maze of secrets, she is presented with a doll’s house that mirrors her new one. In spite of the guild system, she finds a miniaturist to furnish it with items. After the first consignment of furniture, she starts receiving dolls and items that reflect her own life.

Sugar from Surinam: sweet and precious. Its sweetness masks the jealousy and insecurity of the Meermans’. Unable to sell it themselves, they have asked Johannes to bring it to market for them. Having sat in Brandt’s warehouse, the cones are beginning to spoil.

As well as the feud between the families, the Brandt’s secrets spill over. The scabs begin to break. Jack Fox, a chancer and runner, accuses Johannes of raping and stabbing him, leading to Johannes’ arrest. Meanwhile, Marin’s pregnancy is discovered and the baby delivered.

As the events unfold, Petronella continues to see the dolls arrive, magically reflecting the state of the house. All she sees is glimpses is a shock of blonde hair in the distance. Even the Meermans are affected. A story within a story, the chase becomes a novel within a novel. There are tantalising glimpses of her, how she affects the worlds around her, yet we never see her. Like an author, her dolls perhaps write the book. Burton creates an interplay between character and author that is unresolved, perhaps to its advantage.

Ratcheting up  the atmosphere with its tight timing that acts as chapters interspersed with the voices and perspectives, The Miniaturist is a rough gem of a novel. It has its faults but sets up a beguiling world that emerges from the doll’s house. Moving the location of repression, showing the first views are not always correct, the book becomes its own mirror in the vein of classic Gothic novels. We must wonder who the monster is and what it is afraid of?

Jessie Burton is interviewed on Radio 4’s Open Book on July 27th.

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Fantastic strangers in the city – The Golem and the Djinni

The Golem and the Djinni, Helene Wecker‘s debut novel, is a story of two strangers who find themselves with new lives against their wishes. It does tread the ground of old stories in a new land but does update it.

Otto Rotfeld asks for a perfect wife to be built, a Golem. Smuggled aboard a ship to the United States, the Golem is brought to life just as Rotfeld dies and has to find a way of making her own life. Taken in by a kindly Rabbi, she begins working in a bakery, hiding her true nature, and mimicking those around her. Taking the name Chava, she builds her own life in the community.

Meanwhile, Arbeely is given a lamp to repair and polishes it, allowing the Djinni to escape, though still bound by iron in human form. Learning a new trade, the Djinni calls himself Ahmad and makes a life in the small community, occasionally venturing into the larger city of New York. His metal work becomes known for its intricacy.

There is a story of hiding in plain site, of mimicking the world around them to continue their lives. The magical beings stay in their community and draw from them. Although there are some individuals who recognise them for what they really are, they are mostly seen as members of the community.

Wecker appears to be having a dialogue on two levels: how do immigrants become accepted into a community and how does the mythology translate? Unlike Neil Gaiman in American Gods where the tales live somewhat precipitous lives that owe their power to those who still remember them, let alone believe in them, Wecker’s fantastical beings join in the bazaar of stories. Any cycle of renewal has been broken. Her argument differs though in that Gaiman’s old gods fundamentally remain the same, waiting for their cycle to begin again but Wecker’s appear to change to the new circumstances. They learn to enjoy the uncertainty of their new lives and to accept that changes has happened. The Djinni fights this most all until he returns to his old life, realising what is lost and what might be gained.

There is a sense that Chava finds her own life on the voyage, apart from the literal magical awakening; that she is most able to define herself in spite of herself. Perhaps she never fully shakes off the idea of having a master but one wonders if she is stronger than the Djinni. Less flighty and volatile, she is grounded in the harsher realities of living the life that is there than the one to be dreamed about. Having fewer illusions of the world, she makes her own space and gains respect for that.

Wecker avoids the easy fairy tale ending: we see the slice of coming to the States but no further. There is an immigration strand to the novel that I do not fully understand but equally she looks at the notion of how the fantastic might thrive in a foreign land. It dies not change but becomes immersed or reflective of slightly altered customs. These are not cowed not bold and brash entities but rather ones that get on with it. Engaging and passionate, Wecker has an eye for the strange that is this side of romantic. There are issues that she does not engage with but what she does bring to the discussion is way of moving forward. She breaks those with illusions that the old world was any better than this with aplomb, reminding the reader that it is the same world where ever we are. It is what we and the stories make of it that really counts.

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Thoughts on Coffin Hill: Forest of the Night

I enthused about the first issue of Coffin Hill shortly after reading it and loved it. Now that the first arc of Coffin Hill has finished and that issue 7 is a brief breather whilst preparing the reader for the next arc.

I do wonder if I was a little harsh about the the trappings of the story: its East, old family history and the emo / punk  nuances. They still exist but Kitteredge has delivered a story that is more than about coming home and finding oneself in terms of school and partners, in the same way that Beautiful Creatures [DVD] (certainly the film) or the Fallen series by Lauren Kate, amongst others.

Different audiences for sure but Kitteredge comes out on her own with Eve finding herself as her own agent rather than as a need to find a partner. Coming back means that she has to deal with her own actions and its effects on her friends and family.

Of course coming back to a small town brings pressures, especially social ones. Long term inhabitants know each other’s business. Eve’s arrival stirs up older memories but she also reflects on the decline of the town’s world, as if there is a wider malaise going on. Rather than the idea of the numinous affecting only the wood, its tendrils seep into the wider life.

Kitteredge seems to be asking the question of “what are the Coffin family running from?”: is it history/mythology or themselves? Eve still has to resolve her own problems but questions are being raised about her own family mythology. This story, the Coffin Witch, overshadows them and those around them in the way that stories do and seems to be a staple. The central pillar of the story began as a Lovecraft style affair of the nameless horror in the wood but is changing and I don’t see how it is going to change.

Coffin Hill Issue 7

Issue 7, “The Sole Unquiet Thing“, gives us part of Eve’s mother’s story and takes the arc in a different way. The issue has two narrators and is unreliable. However it does challenge the presently accepted matrilineal notion of the witch story. It also sets up questions about the witch’s nature and the “harvest” that is being mentioned.

As a stand-alone in the way, it gives the reader some further information from the family and the world of the forest. The reader is challenged to question the ghosts and the father.

It comes across as a caesura, a breather.

I’m not a fan of the art in this story as it is not the usual artist. It is a little flatter than the Miranda work but captures the nature of memory in its slightly muted palette.

I’m sure that the pairing will come back in the next issue. This series is still showing promise and becoming a solid Weird tale and one that is trying to do slightly different things with the existing material. So far, Kitteredge seems to be looking at the notion of family and personal histories, how we react to them and touches on notions of space and time.

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Feeling exhilarated and annihilated by Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach

This is perhaps more note than review as the Southern Reach trilogy is to be published within a year and I would like to muse on it more fully then. At this moment, I can only guess what Jeff Vandermeer has written next.
Annihilation is the first volume of this trilogy but feels like it can be read as a single volume. There are hooks for later volumes but the short novel is so rich it is satisfying in its own way.

Like the City of Saints and Madmen[1]  which might read a fantasy or a symbolist tome, this book strikes me as a meditation on the notion of the weird.

Names are left at the border of both land and the book. Vandermeer strips each character of their name and just leaves us with their roles: biologist, anthropologist; linguist. As readers we are forced to ignore any humanity, any personality is stripped and denied us as it becomes them.

The way that the landscape changes and disorients (very Lucius Shepard-like) the characters and the readers. The territory is uncharted and one of the roles is to begin to chart and make some sense of it. So far, all who have ventured in have come out as a version of a zombie.

The central tower becomes mutable between various states of the fantastic genre. From the dark tower to which they come, it transmutes into a tentacle, becoming alive and grasping. Its change moves the physical artefact from the fantastic, and physical, building into something that comes out of the film Alien, itself a hybrid of science fiction, horror and the Gothic. Thinking of both as Gothic links both film and this book back to the one of the fantastic’s roots: the Gothic.

The heart of the Gothic lies with the traditions which were echoes of each other; the main difference being the emphasis between horror and terror. The changes in effect can be slight but that change of tone makes them being different before diverging and being developed into very different genres.

I do wonder if these novels might be part of a meta-narrative to bring the genre back to its roots and make it more aware of itself as part of a wider traditions. The genres need to be unknowable and uncharted again.

Unanswered questions remain and I am sure will be explored in intriguing ways by the end of the trilogy. Authority and Acceptance complete the trilogy this year. Even the titles suggest that the reader is in for surprises with the future volumes.

 

[1] Earlier article on City of Saints and Madmen

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