January 2017 Reading Review

For the past few years, January has been Potential Shortlist Catch Up Month for me, when I try to read all the big name books I overlooked the year before, in preparation for the 10-month SF book award season that’s about to kick off. So that I may have opinions on things. So that I may nurture my FOMO. So that I may mock the system I continue to participate in. So that I may mock myself.

This year is no different, though, to be honest, I’m not really feeling it this year: It all feels trite and meaningless compared to more important things going on, so I’m basically just going through the motions. I mean, why bother seeking out contrived experiences of estrangement and repulsion by reading SF when I see it played out in the political arena every day? I need respite, but books feel false. I experienced a similar plummet in enthusiasm after the 2000 election and 9-11 fallout, and it took me over a decade to recover interest in anything that involved critical engagement with the world, so… if this blog isn’t an interesting space to watch, at least my wobbling dedication to it might be.

Fortunately, things are coming up… BIG THINGS… and that’s enough to keep me active for at least another season. The kindly prods from other people have been unexpected and welcome.

I must say, though, it does feel nice to just sit down and get all this out finally. There is that.

Eesh, and it is a lot. I read an average number of books this month, but a collection of mini-reviews can be a big task. On we go…

2017 BOOKS I READ LAST YEAR Continue reading

Iron Council (2004) by China Miéville

ironcouncil1The road is a sentence written on the ground… (p. 199)

And in Iron Council, that sentence is a manifesto. A tale where quest meets unrest, an unexpected journey, there and back again, not to destroy or retrieve a magical talisman, but to unshackle the working class. Told from the third-person narratives of three male revolutionaries, we see the effects of revolution on the individual: how it inspires, how it transcends, how it corrupts. Continue reading

The Scar (2002) by China Miéville

TheScar(1stEd)There’s a scene in China Miéville’s The Scar where the enigmatic Uther Doul, the sinister strongman of Armadan politics, is surrounded by Crobuzoner troops. He blasts his antagonists away with multiple guns, and then, when the swarm grows again, he activates his physics-defying porcelain blade, the Possible sword, and annihilates his combatants:

His sword blossoms.

It is fecund, it is brimming, it sheds echoes. Doul has a thousand right arms, slicing in a thousand directions. His body moves, and like a stunningly complex tree, his sword arms spread through the air, solid and ghostly…

He is like a spirit, a god of revenge, a murderous bladed wind. He moves past the men who have boarded his ship and sends up a mist of their blood, leaving them dying, limbs and body parts skittering over the deck. His armor is red [465 – 466].

Fantasy physics is what you’ll get in The Scar. But that’s not even the best part. Continue reading

Perdido Street Station (2000) by China Miéville

perdidostreetstation1There is no doubt that China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station is an acquired taste for the uninitiated, and even for the initiated—those of us who were raised on the strange and squishy, green-tinted worlds of Roald Dahl animated features, and the obstructive prose of Lovecraft and his buddies. At times, it’s bumbling and immature, while also being rich and immense. But it almost always overwhelms as an ambitious sensory experience that not all readers will be prepared for.

Isaac Dan derGrimnebulin, a brilliant yet erratic theoretical physicist, is approached by a wingless garuda who seeks his help to regain flight, providing ample opportunity for Isaac to tinker with his passion for chaos theory. Isaac’s lover, the avant-garde artist Lin, a self-imposed exile of the Kepri community, whose insectile anatomy forces her relationship with Isaac into the unacknowledged shadows, is vetted by the mobster kingpin Mr. Motley to produce a life-size statue of his monstrously modified physique. Both lovers are offered a level of challenge and compensation that they cannot resist, which lures them deeper into the dark and dangerous underworld of New Crobuzon.

[WARNING: Semi-braggy personal disclosure in the next two paragraphs. Detour if you want. feel like sharing today.]
Continue reading

The City & The City by China Mieville

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Can a fantasy novel truly be a fantasy novel if it lacks traditional fantasy elements like magic, myth, and the supernatural? Does it matter?

The Hugo voters don’t seem to think so.

The City & The City by China Mieville takes readers to an imaginary eastern European urban landscape, at an unspecified (but likely modern or near future) era where a mysterious murder has just occurred. Written in familiar crime-noir style, it’s up to Inspector Tyador Borlu to solve the mystery, which quickly escalates into a touchy international incident.

So what about this qualifies as fantasy, you ask?

Nothing, yet everything.

The two international cities entwined in this murder are physically and geographically entwined upon each other. Not just adjacent to one another, but overlapping each other. (At first, I thought the two cities were inter-dimensionally overlapping, in some sort of parallel universe-type story, but, no, they physically overlap one another which, if you think about it, is actually more fantastical than a run-of-the-mill parallel universe plot.)

Seriously, try to imagine geographically overlapping, yet independent, city-states. Now, try to imagine the political and social ramifications of such an arrangement.

Two cities. Beszel and Ul Qoma. Separate cities with their own citizenry, cultures, and political and economic structures, but located on the same latitudinal/longitudinal coordinates somewhere in Europe. Some areas are strictly Besz, other areas are strictly Ul Qoman, while some areas are “grosstopical” or “crosshatched”– belonging both to Beszel and Ul Qoma. In many areas, there may be one street with two different names, resulting in next-door neighbors who live a nation apart, threatening an international incident if they so much as look at one another. And it’s all policed by an unseen, yet responsive power that enforces these geographically permeable, yet politically and socially impermeable borders.

Are you imagining the ramifications now?

The City & the City addresses social compliance to inexplicable, yet unquestioned taboos. It presents a border situation that seems so ridiculous, so fantastic, until it starts to sound a little too familiar. It also addresses the absurdity of disjointed urban life where, even without unreasonable, politically imposed borders, multiple cultures can share the same street, with the smells of their ethnic foods intermingling in the air, while the people themselves weave around, never raising their eyes to acknowledge one another. It’s a story about society– the ultimate law enforcement squad.

And it’s all wrapped up in a dark, shiny package of crime-noir drama.

And it’s pretty fantastic.

If you’ve shied away from China Mieville in the past, either because of his “weird fiction,” verbose language skills, or you prefer to read authors who don’t look like they could beat you up (seriously, this guy is probably no stranger to a fight), this might be a good place to give him a try. He stays true to the crime-noir genre, with pared down language and a distant, but active narrator, but injects social commentary and an imaginary, fantastic landscape. Some may say that The City & The City does not qualify as true SF/F, but I have to disagree. Any story that can capture my imagination, twist it into something unfamiliar, and introduce new and impossible possibilities meets my criteria for SF/F fiction.

Next read: the other 2010 Hugo best novel award winner, The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi.