a suffusion of yellow

Wednesday, 11 January 2017 08:43 am
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
For some bizarre reason my morning Earl Grey tastes faintly of coffee. This seems both unlikely and a little unfair. I don't think there is actually any coffee in the house.

Today is my last day of leave, which I propose to spend doing entirely self-indulgent things which probably include comfort-replaying something hack-and-slashy. It's been a lovely three weeks of leave, which have been characterised by a nice balance of achievement and goofing off.
  • I examined a PhD thesis, for the first time ever, which was pretty terrifying going in but actually doable, and I think I've done a reasonably fair and conscientious job despite large tracts of it being in an unfamiliar critical field.
  • I should have written a paper, but three days in I examined my conscience and state of energy, thought "Hell no" and withdrew from the collection, which made me feel guilty for about three seconds, and then enormously relieved; the editor was nice about it and the world did not end. (I also have to say that if there's a silver lining to the student protest cloud, it makes a magnificent excuse for not being able to do stuff).
  • I finished Portal, Portal 2 and Firewatch, all three of which were highly enjoyable.
  • I've managed over the holiday period to get back into exercising, which means I've been walking for about 40 mins daily, and am feeling much better for it.
  • And, notwithstanding water restrictions, I have madly grown a batch of gem squash plants and a mango seedling from seed, by virtue of randomly planting the remnants of various meals, watering them at erratic intervals, standing back and let the currently rather fierce African sun and my predilection for compost do their stuff.

By way of some faint point to this slightly vague and wandering post, have some random linkery.

  • This is an obituary for Leia Organa, rather nicely done.
  • This is an Ursula Vernon YA portal fantasy, evincing her characteristic combination of whimsy and down-to-earthness, and featuring a particularly virulent toxic mother figure. I loved it.
  • This, on the other hand, is an entirely adult, very dark, very freaky, very good Ursula Vernon horror story, finishing which made me go "Holy fuck!" out loud. There's feminist fairy-tale rewrites, and then there's ... this.


My subject line is a random Dirk Gently quote for no reason other than a vague association with multiplicity, and the fact that Tumblr has a current sideline in gifs from the new Dirk Gently tv series. It sounds completely off the wall, has anyone seen it?
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)


Some Things About Doctor Strange:
  • I am resolved to be more organised in my movie-watching experience so I never have to go back to Canal Walk as the only place a film is still showing. Their sound is always cranked up too high, and their projection is always too dark. Even in a 2D version. This does detract from one's experience of the film, particularly the night scenes, in that really one can't see what's going on. Also, my ears hurt.
  • Conversely, on a Sunday morning, even the one just before Christmas, I was the only person in the cinema, allowing me to put my feet up on the chairs in front of me and to apostrophise the screen with some vigour at whim. I love doing this. It's the best possibly movie-watching experience.
  • Significant swathes of this film were tragically miscast. My love of the Cumberbatch is a pure and abiding thing, but he's just wrong with an American accent, it's seriously distracting. The perfect fit of the gaunt lines of his face with the magician archetype wasn't quite enough to carry it. And the character's weird mix of driven egotistical ambition and irreverent one-liners never really gelled. Also, while my love of Tilda Swinton's particular brand of individualistic androgyny is an even purer and more abiding thing, a white woman should not be representing Nepalese mysticism. However elaborate the backstory that claims the Sorcerer Supreme as a global figure, a whitewash in this context has profound implications for representation and it bugged the hell out of me all the way through. Mordo, on the other hand, was great. Chiwetel Ejiofor is always great.
  • My profound fondness for spaceships and exciting techie gadgets notwithstanding, it's clear that, however flawed a film is involved, by gum at heart I'm a fantasy creature. Magic does it for me. It really does. Memo to self, fantastic beasts, eftsoons and right speedily.
  • Notwithstanding which, the film was so busy going "whoo!" at the special effects team as they had at the fractal nature of visual reality with both hands and cool glowing spell diagrams, that it really wasn't paying much attention to the plot. It offered a weird degree of emotional disconnect. I never quite cared about anything. If done properly, an over-arching cosmic threat should explicate and resonate (shut up, stv) with the protagonist's own issues and arc, and... not so much. It felt patched together. I do not think that this was a good script.
  • The Cloak of Levitation stole the show. Flirty thing. Like the best cats - sleek, self-possessed, wayward and pleasingly homicidal when not being affectionate.
  • This film failed the Marvel Test, viz. whether or not I'd sit through the credits to see the final easter egg. In a word: no. Was not sufficiently interested. Tragically, more and more recent Marvel films are actually failing the Marvel test, because, regrettably, more and more they are rehashed, homogenised, money-making artefacts whose actual content is dictated by a marketing committee and thus lacks inspiration, spark or narrative coherence. Yet another in the Giant Commercial Superhero Line, ho-hum. Yawn. With a side order of tone-deafness to issues of race and gender and the like. It's enough to make me, an almost entirely Marvel-fondling comics fan, eye DC edgeways with an awakening interest. The whisper flies around the clubs, could they be worse? I fear they could, yet still I am tempted.
  • Marvel test, failed. Bechdel test, failed. Sexy lamp test actually not failed on the second go (the female doctor's first appearance arc could have been replaced by a sexy lamp with "Doctor Strange Is A Dick" stuck to it on a post-it note, but on the second try she actually did plot-relevant stuff. Her third appearance could have been replaced by a sexy lamp with "SPOILER is SPOILER" stuck to it on a post-it note.). Furiosa test failed in spades, good grief, this was a movie about a man's struggle with ambition and power, MRAs drool at it.
  • I was prepared to love this film, on account of its confluence of several happy buttons, but no. I am disappoint.

My subject line is what happens if your dodgy memory mashes up two Shakespeare quotes, namely "passing strange" (Othello) and "indifferent honest" (Hamlet). I stoutly maintain that the conflation was irresistibly conjured by the quality of the film. Also, while the quote is possibly orbiting my brain randomly as a result of having seen BC in Hamlet (he was great), now I want to see him do Iago.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
I am in the sweary stage of paper writing. It's fighting me; I'm wrestling it, it's largely winning. I hate it, and myself, and my writing, and African fairy-tale film, about equally. I am horribly bored by the need to finish the damned thing (it's now nearly a week after deadline) and the fact that I can't permit myself much in the way of socialising or happy domestic fuffling until it's bloody well done. Alarmingly enough, this is all familiar and status quo: never underestimate the extent to which the relationship academics have with academia is basically abusive. I'll finish it. This too will pass. Until then, swearing, and loathing, and hedgehoggy hermitting. But especially the swearing.

I did, however, track down the volume on African folklore which I'd randomly packed at the bottom of a whole box of Pratchett and Moorcock. This has led me, as a knock-on effect, to throw out more books, as I had to unpack and repack a bunch of them. I'm still obscurely enjoying the catharsis of the clear-out.

Photo0056 Photo0046

There should be an almost complete Elric in the Moorcock, and a couple of other series as well - Corum, and Dorian Hawkmoon? I have kept the Jerry Cornelius ones, because postmodernism, and the Dancers at the End of Time ones, because I don't do hallucinogenic drugs and a girl has to have some substitutes. I am forced to admit that I've pretty much outgrown Elric, I haven't read them since undergrad. The John C. Wright are buying it because the frothing homophobia of the writer's online presence is having the Orson Effect, namely an inability to read his fiction without a sort of Pavlovian response of annoyance and distaste. Also, he's a sexist sod, frankly; I really like some of what the Orphans series does, but its ideological irritations are now outweighing its enjoyments. Never trust a writer who feels impelled to spank almost all of his women.  I have retained only the remnants of my Heinlein collection which are (a) genre classics and (b) I am able to read without actually throwing the book across the room, which in the event turns out not to be many of them. I've turfed out the young adult stuff, because frankly there's better y.a. sf out there, but they're actually fun and comparatively inoffensive - Pam, you might like them for the young'uns? The Michael Scott Rohan are swashbucklery fun, but I've kept Scott Lynch for that.

If anyone wants to appropriate any of these, please let me know! So far only the Kay and the Aldiss have been bagsed from the previous group.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
gault library

I do like Tom Gauld's cartoons, they have a sort of wry, self-deprecating literacy to them which strikes something of a chord. If you haven't read his collection You're All Just Jealous Of My Jetpack, you darned well should, if only because its titular cartoon exemplifies so neatly my own stance in an uncaring academic world. The above cartoon is particularly relevant to my current interests as, while I am generally ensconced in my very own house somewhat ecstatically, I am still confronting the problem of the Library, which is approximately three times the size of my available shelf space. Unpacking my books has forced me to revisit the process of self-interrogation which led to my earlier exercises in Shuffling Off or Throwing Out books, with particular reference to Gauld's categories of "Saving For When I Have More Time" and "Will Never Read", because the usual processes of self-deception lead to an over-easy conflation of these categories. I am thus embarked upon a secondary literary weeding, with particular reference to the above categories and my new, idiosyncratic one, which is not so much "Wish I Hadn't Read" as "Am Reluctantly Forced to Admit I Will Never Read Again Because Really It's Not That Good."

In short, I have more books to throw out, and the next few posts will probably give alert readers a faint sense of déja vu. As before, Capetonian witterers are please to tell me if you want any of these and I'll shunt them your way before hauling the leftovers to the charity shop.



Guy Gavriel Kay, alas, is buying it, because I am way too old and ornery an English academic to survive another dose of flights of portentous emotionality. I've kept the interesting Tanith Lee short stories, I'm mostly throwing out her young adult stuff and the more over-the-top erotic horror. Some of the classics - Anderson, Aldiss, Lieber - I was keeping out of a vague sense of academic completeness, in case I ever needed to refer to them, which I really won't. I've kept some MacAvoy, thrown out the ones I don't flat-out love. The Kurtz has only survived thus far out of a vague nostalgia for my neo-pagan phase.

My Book Discards: How I Grew Up. Have at them.


The subject line is Pratchett, Rule 3 for Discworld librarians. In hanging onto books it's not so much causality that I've been trying to interfere with, as the nature of time.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
It being Stv's birthday and all, we went out to Overture for supper last night. I feel that it is important and indicative that, if the Salty Cracker crowd could be said to have a favourite default restaurant at which to hang out and celebrate anything at all, it's bloody upmarket and one of the top ten in the country. The waitstaff know us. Stv got free champagne. At in excess of R600 a head for a four-course meal with a wine pairing, that's an expensive neighbourhood joint. (And a bit distant, too, being half an hour's drive away in Stellenbosch). It was a lovely evening, although slightly negative notes were introduced by the following:
  1. It's faculty exam committee season, which means I'd spent the entire day checking and annotating the 635 student records on a 364-page board schedule which is a fraction under 2.5cm thick. This puts me in a strangely zen state composed of equal parts of numerical trance, Machiavellian structural insight, advisor empathy and seething resentment, and incidentally renders me completely exhausted and glandular to the max. I was only really capable of conversation by the end of the first course and my second glass of wine. Overture was a kindly panacea to the day's ills, but conversely I wasn't really in the best state to enjoy it properly.
  2. We may be overdoing the neighbourhood joint five-star expensive restaurant thing to the point of over-exposure. The food was, as always, excellent, but I didn't think it hit its usual plane of dizzy high. Lovely tomato risotto (they always do great risotto), but slightly arb green bean salad with unidentifiable duck, and bland square chunks of mostly tender pork. Fellow diners' mileage may vary, you are perfectly free to blame my exhausted state rather than any diminution in quality, but I wasn't blown away. Beautiful evening on the terrace, though, exquisite dusk clouds, and as always the best sort of company.
  3. It is possibly fortunate that my tiredness was sufficient for me not to rise to the provocation offered by a fellow guest, who during the course of conversation incautiously offered a statement to the effect that she thinks Stephenie Meyer writes well. Them's fighting words, where I come from. It is my professional opinion that Twilight's stylistic and narrative infelicities are only marginally better than its gender politics in general loathsomeness. In default of the spirited debate and righteous suppression I would normally offer to such provocation, I present, as threatened, the blog which picks Meyer's grammar apart, with maximum snark. Fortuitously, today also gave rise randomly to this Slate article, which does statistical/linguistic analysis comparing three hugely popular texts - Twilight, Harry Potter and The Hunger Games. It's a fascinating comparison, and in particular the tables which look at adjectives are extremely telling. Viz:





    The thing which immediately strikes me: Collins's characteristic adjectives and adverbs are generally more sophisticated, but they also relate to complex states and actions and very frequently to abstractions. Rowling's are very action-oriented, but you can see her younger audience intentions in their comparative simplicity, with a focus on straightforward emotional states which tend to reflect action. Meyer's are definitely less sophisticated than those used by Collins, but they're also almost entirely emotional, and when they're physical it's physicality which largely reflects or responds to emotion. This echoes the frustration I feel when reading Twilight (and, for the record, I've read the entire series twice and supervised a couple of graduate theses on the books, if I diss them it's from full knowledge and exposure), because really, when you get down to it, nothing much happens in them. You drift passively around in Bella's head while she angsts and reacts and feeeeeeeeeeels. The language is not accomplished at the structural level, frequently obvious and clumsy and weirdly unfocused (my undergrads can do better), but it's the pacing, characterisation and plot which are really problematical, and which are heartily outdone by almost any piece of fan fiction I have read recently. I stick by my assertion. Even without getting me started on the gender politics, Meyer does not write well.

Rantage and random analysis brought to you courtesy of my really rather strong feelings about this, did you notice? And by the sure and horrible knowledge that in about twenty minutes I go to meet my four-hour meeting doom. Doooooom! At least the energy from all that ranting has my blood buzzing enough to mostly compensate for my state of over-fed, mildly hung-over sleep deprivation. Now with extra glands. Sigh.

Subject line is still Arcade Fire, "Wasted Hours", from The Suburbs. It's a ridiculously catchy, lilting, gentle tune which was playing in the car this morning and which has thoroughly colonised my head. It's curiously soothing, particularly after losing a day to board schedule checking. One feels they understand.
freckles_and_doubt: (South Park Self)
Bugger, I forgot to go back and do the May attribution thing. Excelsior!

  • 2nd May, "it's not about what you love, it's about how you love it". Quoting Wil Wheaton on being a geek, from a response at a Q&A (linked from that post). The man is very sane.
  • 5th May, "the same old painted lady". The Mandatory David Bowie Quote, this one from "Song for Bob Dylan", slightly mis-applied because I was talking about wearing make-up. You know, I'd never realised until I looked properly at those lyrics how involuted the imagery is. "Here she comes again / The same old painted lady / From the brow of a super brain..." The image is actually Athena (wisdom) emerging from the brain of Zeus, but the song snarls up the ideas so you're not sure if the painted lady is actually Dylan's wisdom, or if she's some sort of harpy-like figure to be vanquished by his songs. Typical Bowie flow--of-consciousness, in fact.
  • 8th May, "I'd much rather have a mansion in the hills". Crowded House, "A mansion in the slums". Somewhere round the third verse they stop trying to differentiate between a caravan in the hills and a mansion in the slums, and decide they'd rather have it all. Word.
  • 13th May, "the stars look very different today". Bonus Mandatory David Bowie Quote, this time clearly from "Space Oddity", appropriately enough since I was talking about Chris Hadfield covering "Space Oddity" from the International Space Station, and yes, it bloody still makes me weepy.
  • 24th May, "you may seek him in the basement, you may look up in the air". T.S. Eliot, "Macavity, the Mystery Cat", from Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. You should have recognised that one. And not because of Andrew Lloyd Webber.
  • 28th May, "one day will flash and send you crashing through the ceiling". From "Thank heavens for little girls", jolly old Lerner and Loewe, originating in Gigi, but I think I probably know the Perry Como version, FSM knows from what source. The aether, perhaps.
  • 30th May, "what she says is all right by me, I kinda like that style". Talking Heads, "The lady don't mind", and if you're anything like me the mere reading of this sentence will have infallibly ear-wormed you with the song in question, which will resist all exorcism for upwards of a week. Catchy little bugger.
This should be the last ever Giant Attribution Post, on account of how I've started footnoting posts with an attribution for the subject line, just because. It's remotely possible that my academia may be showing.

In other news:


I write like
Ray Bradbury

I Write Like. Analyze your writing!



I am deeply flattered.

Cat Valente, on the other hand, writes always and only like Cat Valente. The Shoot-Out at Burnt Corn Ranch Over the Bride of the World is a sort of weird mythic western thing which causes me love and despair and illuminating pain, like a crowbar inserted to the head and twisted. Read it and weep. (My subject line is her penultimate sentence, which I steal because, in its precise moment and context, it's perfect in the way that Mozart is perfect).
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
thorin-oakenshield

I fear it's official: I am Peter Jackson's bitch. He has me right where he wants me. It needs only the swelling strains of that Shire soundtrack, and I'm all misty-eyed and lump-in-throat and ready, once more, to be charmed. Which I was. I had very mixed expectations of The Hobbit, and it's a deeply flawed film, but I loved it nonetheless - why, yes, children, you can revisit Middle Earth, and it's just as beguiling as it was the first time round. I am down with this. I participate shamelessly in this shameless manipulation. It's fine by me.

Mostly, though, I left thinking, slightly weak-kneed, wow but this is going to be spectacular when all six films are done - a seamless, integrated storytelling artefact which even without extended versions will fling at us something over sixteen hours of loving, sprawling, coherent and unified vision. Unexpected Journey is so tightly woven into the LotR trilogy, it's basically meaningless considered separately. This is not a film version of Tolkien's The Hobbit, this is a structuring of a prequel to The Lord of the Rings around the backbone of Bilbo's story, but essentially and intrinsically fleshed out with history, backstory, foregrounding of minor story elements, wholesale ripping off of appendices, logical extrapolation of action for people from LotR, and other acts of gratuitous fannishness. This is a geek's film, built for the joyous recognition of those of us who have altogether too minute a knowledge of Middle-Earth.

This rather elevated project does some very specific things to the feel of the film. It's not about the children's book. It doesn't, other than in some slightly jarring moments, even try for the tone of the children's book: it's in a weird way rather more true to Tolkien's overall epic, rather dark-edged, elegiac Middle-Earth world-building than the children's book ever was. The violence and battle which are glossed with a certain childish innocence in the novel are here given the almost-full LotR grim and grit, and the broader implications of history and event which the book refuses to contemplate are damned well contemplated. If the result is a wee bit schizophrenic, I think that's inevitable, because the book is as well.

Above all, I am completely fascinated with what they've done with Thorin Oakenshield, who becomes the epic warrior hero counterpoint to Bilbo's little guy. Film-Thorin is a brooding, tormented, gothy figure with a Tragic!Backstory well upfront, prone to dramatic, solitary posing against interesting backdrops, à la Draco in Half-Blood Prince. He is an extremely compelling figure, and also ridiculously hot. Ridiculously. The sheer toe-wriggling appreciation of my own viewing experience (brooding intense men buttons firmly hit!) is backed up by a frothing online fandom frenzy approaching Legolas levels. (Fili and Kili are also incidentally firmly in the "wouldn't throw them out of bed for gratuitous bass-line part singing" camp). Most interestingly, I don't see this version of Thorin as in any way a betrayal of the book version. Book-Thorin always was fascinatingly flawed, a complex mix of heroism and dignity and focused intent and a chip on his shoulder the size of the Lonely Mountain which makes his avarice and defensiveness all too likely. Film-Thorin is something of a redemption of the Comic Dwarf elements of Gimli: no-one would dare to think of tossing Thorin Oakenshield, and I'm very happy the film picked up on the book's insistence on his dignity. He embodies "Tolkien Dwarf" both conceptually and physically in a way which at least partially compensates for the broad comedy of some of his brethren, for which, bitch or no, I will not really be forgiving Jackson any time soon.

While I loved the film, it was not an unmixed viewing experience: I don't think it's up there with the LotR movies in terms of absolute quality. It's a sprawling, self-indulgent piece, and some of its attempts to negotiate the clashes between childlike and epic elements are not wildly successful. While I'm still on a bit of a fangirly high, I'm also exceeding even Two Towers levels of slightly enraged incomprehension at some of the adaptation choices that were made. Therefore, a Swings and Roundabouts comparison seems called for. I shall also cut it in case anyone doesn't want to be spoiled for adaptation choices, although if you're spoiled for the novel as a whole I am shocked and horrified. )

All things considered, I am immeasurably relieved. The response to the film has been so mixed, I was rather afraid that Jackson-bloat would have crushed the life out of the world I love. But it hasn't. It's still Middle-Earth, and the visit is still magical. The kind of carping I'm doing is very much that of a fan, levied at the work of a fellow fan with whom I'm comfortable enough to wrangle affectionately when our visions differ. Thank the cosmic wossnames.

Also, hot dwarves. I'm just saying.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I've spent the better part of the last two weekends marking a Masters dissertation. It's on modern fantasy, specifically Stephen Erickson, who I hadn't read before and am very glad to have read now. (Probably more on him in a future post, when I've ploughed through more Malazan). The thesis makes some good points, but its sense of contemporary fantasy is rather limited; it argues that Erickson's gritty, realistic, non-romance-based world and plot is a ground-breaking departure from the classical fantasy genre.

The thing is, it isn't. The epic fantasy genre has been breaking madly away from heroic stereotypes for decades. Stephen Donaldson does it. Terry Pratchett does it. George R R Martin does it. There's a whole new crop of fresh works by China Miéville, Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Lev Grossman, which are gleefully standing the genre and its heroes on their heads. These days there's a well-defined and vociferous sub-set of epic fantasy which is resolutely postmodern, dammit.

And I find myself looking at that list and thinking, hang on, those are all men. What's with that? Is the postmodern mickey-take on heroic fantasy strictly a masculine thing, or am I just not thinking of the examples of female writers who do it? I suppose you could count Elizabeth Bear's Iskryne, but it's not strictly epic. So either there's an intrinsic testosterone component to postmodern deconstruction of heroic tropes (or, in fact, there's an intrinsic testosterone component to heroic dudes swinging swords on an epic scale) or my memory is playing up even more than usual. Who am I not thinking of, female fantasy-deconstruction-wise? Help out my fatigued and rapidly deteriorating brain.

Subject line, of course, courtesy of Goats. Read Goats. It'll put hair on your chest. Surreal, wayward hair.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
I've always wanted to use that for a subject line. Life Goal Achieved!

I buy, as I have many times confessed, an awful lot of books online. Mostly this is because I have a pitiful saving throw versus Literary Shiny, and actual disposable income with which to indulge it. However, a lot of this is also because I read an awful lot of blogs by science fiction and fantasy writers (viz. left sidebar and my Friends page), and they are forever mentioning either (a) books they read and enjoyed, and (b) books they themselves have recently published. Amid my burgeoning shelves in category (a) we find, for example, Lud-in-the-Mist and The House Called Hadlows, both courtesy Neil Gaiman, and Libba Bray, courtesy Sarah Rees Brennan, excellent recommendations all. In category (b) are a large number of burgeoning-shelves culprits, but also, courtesy Elizabeth Bear, my current reading matter. This is a suitably large and be-tentacled tome entitled New Cthulhu: The Recent Weird, and containing stories by her, among other luminaries including Neil Gaiman, China Miévelle, Charles Stross, Cheri Priest and Michael Marshall Smith. It is, in short, a High Status Collection.

It's been an interesting week or so of reading, and Cthulhu be praised, has not made my dream-life any odder than it is usually, although frankly that isn't saying much. I am struck, however, by the really strange variation in quality among these stories. I'd judge that about a third of them are somewhat pedestrian, slightly arbitrary, nothing special. Another third are clever, effective, chilling, nicely done. The final third are blow-your-socks-off-wonderful, with added TNT; mostly these are by the Big Names, but not always, to which I say, strength to your elbow, lesser mortals who are rising like R'lyeh, and whose other writings I shall now proceed to seek out and order online. It's the Circle of Books!

As an exercise in Upbeat, I shall now proceed to burble enthusiastically about the really good ones.
  • Neil Gaiman's story in this anthology isn't "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar", the one everyone knows; it's "A Study In Emerald", which I think I first read in Fragile Things, but the Victorian newspaper mock-up online version of which is perfectly marvellous. It's one of those stories whose twists and oddments sneak up on you, so I shan't say anything other than it's a combination of Cthulhu and Sherlock Holmes pastiche, it's desperately chilling, and, this being Gaiman, the voice is pitch-perfect. It was lovely to have an excuse to read it again.
  • Marc Laidlaw's "The Vicar of R'lyeh" is notable both for its oddly effective crossover between Lovecraftian horror and the mannered English countryside of Trollope, Austen and Hardy, and its ability to configure the crunches and compromises of the corporate coding environment as chilling Cthulhoid horror. It's the one story in this anthology I really enjoyed while feeling that the writer didn't quite pull it off, but it's still a striking piece.
  • Michael Marshall Smith's "Fair Exchange" is Innsmouth in urban London, its voice all lower-class Brit, its denizens lesser criminals and fundamentally anti-social dole drones. Evil, the story says, is no less evil for being really petty.
  • William Browning Spencer is no-one I'd ever heard of before, and sounds suspiciously like an overly-literate alias. He is responsible both for the story "The Essayist in the Wilderness", and for the fact that I've just spent forty-five minutes and several hundred rand on Amazon Marketplace to discover his other work and purchase same. This story is possibly my favourite in the anthology (OK, favourite after "Emerald"), because it's, once again, an immaculate exercise in voice, but also has a restrained, blackly funny, lateral sort of comic horror which creeps up on you very, very slowly and mostly by dint of being just very slightly wrong. I haven't had this much fun reading in a very long time.
  • Elizabeth Bear's "Shoggoths in Bloom" is deservedly a Hugo novelette winner; it's an example of that rare and wonderful thing, a Lovecraftian pastiche which is deeply and sensitively political, and which achieves the almost impossible feat of creating empathy for a Lovecraftian horror. It's also a late 1930s period piece, and its mythos elements are beautifully enmeshed in pre-war politics; its awareness of American and German racism is a thoroughly satisfying antidote to Lovecraft's own bigotry.
  • Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette's collaboration, "Mongoose", is a deeply weird and lateral sf story about Kadath Space Station and its infestation of weird other-dimensional raths and toves and bandersnatches, which you hunt with an alien phase-tentacled beastie called a cheshire. It made me very happy. Lovecraft/Lewis Carroll crossovers are as inevitable as all get-out.
  • Finally, China Miéville's "Details" is about perception. He's always about perception. Here, horror is about perception, which is really the nub of it, isn't it? Once you've seen the horror, you can't unsee it. You're screwed.
I am struck by how many times in the above list I've referenced voice; even when I haven't mentioned it specifically, these stories do voice, or at least perspective, very well. It seems to be one of the classic features of horror: the writer needs to be able to immerse you in the world and feelings of the protagonist for horror to actually be effective. It's why Stephen King is as good as he is. For all that the Cthulhu mythos is about unimaginably massive, alien, indifferent forces in a vast and uncaring universe, their effects must be personal for us to apprehend their power. It's why a lot of these stories are better than Lovecraft in some ways. No-one touches him for rendering the indescribable, but he didn't, ultimately, depict people particularly well, probably because he didn't like them much. I think really good writers do.
freckles_and_doubt: (Default)
Much as I enjoy noodling around on the piano reproducing pop tunes as my wayward fancy takes me, it's all too often that I encounter Actual Pianists who rub my nose inescapably in the fact that it would be extreme hubris to even think of myself as a two-bit hack. This is another Youtube discovery not entirely unrelated to yesterday's Piano Guys. Apart from being a rather fun piano piece all on its lonesome, as a distillation of a full orchestra it's quite something. (It's also reminding me of quite how much of the Skyrim music is ripped off from this, or from LotR). His Harry Potter version is also lovely, but I rather like the ending on this one.



It's also obscurely comforting to discover that the guy's a professional who does this sort of score-creation for Yamaha. I'm able to vaguely think "ah, corporate shill" and go my merry way with the inferiority complex marginally mitigated.

Apropos of nothing at all, a random concatenation of ideas has just reminded me of last night's Salty Cracker (La Boheme in Sea Point, lovely food) at which the usual wayward puppy conversation suddenly reminded me of a dream I had the other night. I dreamed I seduced C.S. Lewis at a garden party, more or less directly as a result of feeling horribly embarrassed. I'd just spent twenty minutes declaiming to this amiable bespectacled gent about fantasy novels, finishing up with a condescending supposition that he'd probably never heard of C.S. Lewis's Ransom trilogy, but they're very interesting books despite their overly heavy Christian bit, at which point I suddenly realised I was talking to the author himself. (I plead in mitigation that he's been dead for a while, I wasn't to know). Shamed and irritated, I seduced him, presumably as a form of distraction (or possibly a subversive attack on the overly heavy Christian bit). Memo to self: do not recount this one to therapist, I'm not entirely sure I want to know what it means.

Words cannot express how grateful I am that it's Friday. My exhaustion levels form an interestingly steeply-pitched graph that starts at "manageable" on Monday and then wantonly climbs to the weekend.
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I started reading pulp fantasy, as opposed to children's fantasy novels, at university. The role-playing crowd introduced me to people like Feist and Eddings, who I happily grafted onto the solid groundwork of a childhood spent reading Tolkien and Susan Cooper and E. Nesbit and Earthsea, and my grandfather's considerable, if rather random, collection of Golden Age sf.

Anne McCaffrey I stumbled on all by myself. I was perennially broke in undergrad, owing to non-wealthy parents and the horrible exchange rate between Zim and South Africa, and insufficient gumption for it to have occurred to me to go out and find a part-time job. I used to haunt second hand book stores, a habit picked up from schooldays. There was a little junk shop in Mowbray, just the Tugwell side of Shoprite, that had a single shelf of books. One Friday afternoon I wandered past there and found something called Dragonsong. There was also the sequel, Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern, but I was being too cautious with money to buy them both. I took Dragonsong back to my res room and devoured it whole that evening, in a state of suspended enchantment that I suspect was shared by a lot of you who are female and met McCaffrey in your teens. The wish-fulfilment elements of the fire lizards, the fascination of the setting, the whole musical element, Menolly's growth out of her marginalised life - I desired more, passionately.

I couldn't go back and buy the sequel because I left for the airport to go back home to Zim for the vac really early on Saturday morning. The desperate need for more of the same world led me to overcome the mouse-like introversion of my first year, and actually voluntarily speak to the girl in the res room next door, who was likewise a Zimbabwean. She was leaving a few days later. I gave her money for the book, and asked her to buy it for me and bring it up to Zim, which she cheerfully agreed to do.

I remember this all astonishingly vividly, given that it happened over twenty years ago. Her house wasn't far from ours in Harare, up on a hill; I remember finding my way there one evening, and having a perfunctory chat with the girl, whose name I can't remember; I have a vivid mental image of her rummaging around in her not-yet-unpacked suitcase to find the book for me. I must have hit her for it the instant she got back. The whole episode is outlined in my memory by the tense, thrumming expectation of actually getting my hands on that book, of continuing the immersion I'd started a few weeks before and from which I'd been horribly excluded. I don't even remember reading Dragonsinger for the first time, but boy howdy, do I remember desiring it.

A lot of Pern is, objectively speaking, fairly grotty: its world-building is prone to holes, McCaffrey's storytelling suffers at time from pacing issues, her prose is occasionally awkward, and she tends to recycle plots. A lot of the dragon/human interaction is frankly the stuff of adolescent fantasy, and the sexual politics are downright dodgy at times. Notwithstanding all of this, it's a world that for a lot of fantasy geeks has profoundly shaped our experience of the genre. The Elizabeth Bear take on animal-influenced sex may point to the huge problems with McCaffrey's over-romanticised version, but Pern's dragons perfectly encapsulate the profound human desire at the heart of a hell of a lot of fantasy, which is for an ideal of communication and connection with non-human creatures. The novels explore, transform and enable, at base, the traditional adolescent female love of horses, with all that that relationship allows in the way of validation and power. Pern's semi-medieval, semi-sf environments cunningly use elements of both discourses to both challenge and empower their protagonists, who tend to be real people, individual and compelling even when, like Lessa, they're not entirely likeable, and whose construction represents huge leaps for the representation of female characters at the time the novels were written. I subject my fantasy/sf collection to periodic weeding, lest the bookshelf crisis become critical, but there's still a row of Pern novels there, and every now and then I re-read them, because they're comfortable friends and still hold the resonance of their meaning to a much younger me.

Anne McCaffrey's recent death is thus a huge sadness. I can't always say that her books have unqualified literary value, but their unqualified significance to me, and to people like me, is never in doubt. She was an icon in the field. I'm sorry she's gone.
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The knell of blogdoom the internets over is the moment when one's mother asks, with polite parental concern, why one hasn't been blogging to the regular (slightly obsessive) schedule. Oops, busted. The reasons for my recent non-bloggery are many and varied, but mostly it's because I've spent the last week solid playing Skyrim, the sequel to Oblivion. It's probably fortunate that the inexorable roll of time sent me back to work this morning, only semi-fatigued and vaguely functional, otherwise I might still be spending twelve hours a day bashing my way around its Vikingoid, very beautiful and snow-encrusted haunts.

Skyrim and its immediate ancestors are the fantasy, sword-wielding, magic-slinging, hack-and-slash equivalent to a first-person shooter, but with far stronger RPG elements - character class specialisation, rather a nifty experience/level system, the occasional need for a moral choice in a quest outcome. As a substitute for the intricate companion interactions of Dragon Age it ain't up to much, not least because I really have no compelling desire to unpick it analytically via the medium of bloggery. However, some observations:

  • Glory, but its landscapes are exquisite. I love that I can bash my way off across the countryside in any direction, with only the minor impediment of meticulously-detailed precipices, canyons, fortress walls and those bloody ice trolls to prevent me, while stumbling over an apparently endless plethora of random mini-quests. The countryside is unreasonably beautiful, whether tundra or snowscape or forest or cave, and the level of detail on plants and stones and what have you is exquisite.
  • Its people, conversely, simply look weird. Possibly I'm over-habituated to the unreasonably beautiful visual aesthetic of Dragon Age, but somewhere in the bowels of the setting there appears to be a check-box labelled "Enable gnarly troglodyte people", and it's resolutely checked. Their Elves are ugly. Their Elves! How can you have ugly Elves? It's against all nature. But it explains why they don't employ a romance option. No-one's attractive enough.
  • Fundamentally, one makes a living in these settings by wandering around the countryside finding graves, ancient burial chambers and lost-civilisation ruins to rob, an activity rendered only mildly non-trivial by the screaming hordes of undead, bandits and renegade necromancers. However, I still cannot bring myself to steal things from the living. Fortunately the game labels all illegal theft objects in red, so they're easy to avoid.
  • The equivalent of the Morrowind cliff racer, i.e. "low-grade monster most likely to make me squeak by sneaking up behind me to attack unexpectedly", is the skeever, a sort of hefty rat thing whose tails are useful in alchemy. They're weeny, but nasty because they attack below knee level where I can't see them and have usually gnawed me for a reasonable total of Tiny Animal Crits (non-Rolemaster players move along, nothing to see here) before I've worked out what's happening.
  • I must say, publically and with resolute definition, that the mouse-controlled looking around is an abomination unto Nuggan. I seem to be hard-wired to key movement, which means I lack all control and finesse with the mouse. This isn't too much of an issue until I'm in a combat with multiple enemies, at which point I absolutely lose track of where everyone is and "wild swings" doesn't begin to cover it. There's a reason why I never hire hirelings. It's not worth the swearing as, yet again, I accidentally decapitate one. Also, the game balance is weird. I'm playing on the lowest level of difficulty, and still find certain combats horribly challenging, possibly owing to aforementioned lack of mouse skills. But killing dragons is easy. Go figure.
  • I love buying houses. And furnishing houses. And filling the houses up with random bits of stuff I procured during aforementioned grave-robbing expeditions and can't bear to sell because they look cool. (Troll skulls! The glowy axe I refuse to give to the Daedra lord on the grounds that he's evil and the quest pissed me off. Dwemer centurion dynamo! It glows!). Survey says I'm probably a girl. However, the logic and interface of putting things down, particularly in specific places, has been directly imported from Oblivion without any much-needed refinements, and consequently blows goats.
  • This game is craft-ridden to an extent which makes me ridiculously happy. You don't just pick up ingredients to make potions, you find ore to make armour, or tan the hides of the creatures you kill for leather, and then improve the items to increase their value and efficacy. Then you enchant them, at vast expense and difficulty. If you wander around with a pickaxe in your backpack you may stumble around veins of ore which you can merrily mine, before refining in a smelter. I think the SCA has infected me unduly, I adore this aspect of the game.
  • Skyrim bards only know three songs, one of them scurrilous and the other given to radical re-interpretation depending on whether the town/singer supports the Empire or the rebellion. You don't hear the third much, which is a pity because it's beautiful, hauntingly Nordic-sounding and, unlike the first two, actually good.
  • I am very happy with this game, but I have to say its habit of randomly crashing several times a day for no reason is rather mitigating the immersion experience. Dammit.

My first day back at work was, for some reason probably not unconnected to guilt levels, ridiculously productive. However, I'm dead. I think this fatigue thing still needs management. Probably by playing Skyrim self-indulgently. Alas.
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[livejournal.com profile] dicedcaret once incautiously asked me to explain structuralism, which inevitably led to a voluble email exchange from which he emerged dazed and staggering, and brushing Russian Formalists off himself like coat lint. (They're sticky). The Russian Formalists are the major big gun in my campaign to bring English literary criticism kicking and screaming back into the century before the Century of the Fruitbat, i.e. the one before postmodernism. (Yes, I just accused postmodernism of being a fruitbat). As represented by the distinct sub-school led by Vladimir Propp, the Russians advocate the structuralist analysis of literature, i.e. in terms of an individual text's participation in a larger structure of meaning, which rather often tends to be in terms of genre.

Since I deal with fairy tale, this is important: at the most basic level, fairy tale proffers itself as participating in a universal structure of meaning and form, however illusionary this universality might be. (This is where postmodernism comes in: it joyously explodes notions of universal structure in order to insist that all meaning is contextual and nothing is universal. I also enjoy this, particularly since if you use an interaction of structuralist and postmodernist criticism in your academic writing you can completely piss off two major and opposing schools of thought at once, thus giving yourself a really good excuse for a floundering career).

All of this is important, because it explains why I utterly fell for Catherynne M. Valente's Deathless. Cat Valente is still my literary girl crush: she's an intensely crafted and self-conscious writer, whose abilities with prose cause me to lie voluptuously on the sofa with her books for hours at a time while beautiful words work their way down my body like lovers and my toes wriggle in delight. Deathless is based on the Russian folk tale "Koschei the Deathless", which is a marvellous agglomeration of fairy-tale motifs: ogre hearts hidden in eggs, useless Princes called Ivan, bird-grooms, bride-thefts, Baba Yaga, and Marya Morevna, the princess who slays whole armies. Valente's retelling sets the fairy-tale amid the startling political changes of early twentieth-century Russia. (The bird-grooms respectively hail from the Tsar's guard, the White Guard and the Red Army, with the bulk of the novel set in a Soviet Russia which co-exists with a fairy-tale realm).

This shouldn't work. It works like whoa and dammit: it creates a brilliant, incredible, unlikely, inevitable creature which you can't help but desire hopelessly even while it kicks you repeatedly in the teeth.

It's not just the novel's sense of Russian cold and cruelty, which equally apply to its folklore and its politics. The thing is that communism and fairy tale are both structuralist paradigms. (You knew I was going to get back to Vladimir Propp). Both fairy tale and communism insist on a transcendent, structural reality, a sense in which meaning exists universally on a level above the real. The sparse, stripped-down, essentialist meanings of fairy tale have a dreadful resonance with the sparse, stripped-down, essentialist rigours of life under communist rule. Both encodings believe all too terribly in their own universal rightness, the inescapable inevitability of their narratives. In Valente's hands they don't even conflict; they speak the same language, and the story's protagonists drift from one paradigm to another almost without noticing.

The result is desperately illuminating. The story's viewpoint is that of Marya Morevna, not the annoying Ivan, which is a relief; the tale becomes one of agency, female and political, as well as a love story, one about the bargains and sacrifices of marriage. For all of its novel-length detail and complexity, it retains both the starkness of fairy-tale narrative and its sense of fairy tale's inevitable place in the starkness of Russian life. The result shouldn't be seductive - particularly given my rooted dislike of political writing - but it is. It's an implacably brilliant book. Read it. And, possibly, weep.
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The latest Discworld novel, Snuff, is out: my copy arrived yesterday, and I spent the evening flat on the sofa devouring it. It's one in the Vimes series, and my ongoing state of more or less drooling Pratchett fangirliness means I prepared for it by re-reading the entirety of the Ankh-Morpork City Watch novels over the last two weeks, from Guards! Guards! onwards, in mostly chronological order. (Strict chronological order is actually not possible, one of them being a time-travel novel, and in fact going back to Guards! Guards! after Night Watch was unexpectedly illuminating. But I digress).

For me Ankh-Morpork is Pratchett's greatest creation, the central trope of the Discworld - a multi-centuried, unabashed urban sprawl whose existence adds point and ferocity to his ongoing cultural critique. The city is the means by which he deconstructs not only the limp utopianism of mainstream fantasy, but issues of human fallibility, good and evil and the impossibility of their simplicity in a complicated modern world. I cherish an affection for the wizards and for Moist von Lipwig (partially, I think, because Going Postal has such an elegant plot), but Vimes is the sword-point of the Ankh-Morpork stories. He's an amazing construct, even more so than Moist because he's older, more experienced, the accumulation of a particularly driven and compelling experience of hardship, disillusionment and redemption.

He has also matured beautifully over the Watch series - reading them all together like that makes you appreciate not just the development of the character, but the development of Pratchett's style and punch; moments in the first couple of novels falter, but the voice and purpose are always strong and true. The Watch series steadily grows in sophistication and believability, peaking in the essentially political explorations of power and agency and race in Fifth Elephant and Nightwatch and Thud. (I also love the Watch presence in Monstrous Regiment, but it's an outsider perspective on a cameo appearance). Thud also dealt beautifully with Vimes's new fatherhood status, and I was really looking forward to seeing where that went as Young Sam grew up.

And yet that concentrated re-read is also a worrying perspective: my expectations of Snuff were tinged with concern even before I cracked it open. I also re-read Unseen Academicals, the last adult Discworld novel before Snuff; it's an Ankh-Morpork novel, but not a Watch novel, and it represents, I think, a drop-off. The story, and the fun poked at football and the University, are entertaining and real, but the novel feels scattered and overstuffed, its themes and ideas all over the place and not always properly developed. (The whole Jools/modelling/dwarf armour bit? very funny, but I'm not sure what it's doing there). It felt like Pratchett, though; the prose and bite and people were unmistakeable, clearly the master driving the stagecoach even if the horses were tending to shy and bolt and the whole equipage threatened at some moments to career off the road at a tight corner.

Snuff didn't actually feel like Pratchett. It was clearly a Pratchett plot, pillorying the aristocracy with verve and accuracy, and continuing the novels' ongoing exploration of race and prejudice. (One of its more amusing, if sadly under-developed, intertexts is Jane Austen). But the prose isn't Pratchett, and nor, more tragically, are the characters. I barely recognised Vimes; he has a hesitation, an internal lack of certainty which feel simply wrong, and his relationship with Sibyl, hitherto always a matter more of implication than of actual representation, is over-described, verging on the mawkish. Young Sam becomes an excuse for toilet humour, which the Discworld has up until now always mercifully relegated to glancing suggestion. I don't associate Pratchett with obvious fart jokes, nor do I wish to.

And this last, like the Vimes/Sybil relationship, comes down, quite simply, to writing: it's not the story elements that are the problem, it's how they're handled. Pratchett's prose has always been restrained and muscular, his comic timing dependent on perfect control, language welded to purpose. There's none of that here. The prose frankly wanders; characters go off into long speeches, which is the antithesis of the punchy and economical storytelling of earlier novels. We are continually given exposition which describes characters' internal life rather than, as before, being able to apprehend it through their actions. I itched, while reading, to go through a lot of these sentences and reduce them to actual Pratchett with a red pen. He's in there somewhere, but only in momentary glimmers.

And, of course, the giant world-supporting elephant in the room is Pratchett's illness. I love this man and his books. His world and ideas have given me enormous amounts of unalloyed pleasure and insight, as they have to his huge fandom at large. I have lost count of the number of times I have read the Discworld novels; I will return to them for the rest of my life. And it's precisely this affection and respect which make it difficult to simply say that the Alzheimers is, of course, making a difference: that this is not the Pratchett we knew. If you read across random reviews of the last few novels there's a reticence in them which skirts around the idea of a loss of control. He is no longer able to type now, he dictates to a typist; that has to, surely, change the nature of your relationship with the words? But to come out and say that he's losing his grip on the literary magic feels like a betrayal of the novels' comic status, an admission of the tragedy of his illness which, by being spoken, becomes all too real.

And I deny that. If the Discworld stands for anything, it's for using the twin lenses of fantasy and comedy to look reality firmly in the face. I will not pretend that this novel is up to Pratchett's usual standard as a way of pretending that, as his readers, we are not confronting the horribly unjust reality of his disintegration. We are. To deny that loss is to betray the integrity of the man and his creation.

I will continue to buy anything Pratchett writes for as long as he cares to go on writing. I will do it because he's Pratchett; I will read his books for the occasional moment when the unalloyed man shines through, when the prose and punch rise out of the wandering and click into place. I will mourn when he stops writing - hell, I'm crying as I write this - but the reality is that to read this novel is already to mourn.
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The tottering piles of unread tomes which festoon my study are reaching critical mass. On my to-do list for this six weeks of leave: read them into submission, by processes of stern self-discipline and rejection of distracting fluff. The problem is that in my current chronically fatigued state I'm really drifting inexorably into the fluffy, on the grounds that it's all my tired brain is really fit for. Any inroads into the Bookshelf of Unread Reproach are thus hard-won, spasmodic and somewhat few and far between. In addition, while most of the BoUR is composed of fairly worthwhile literature, some of it is downright intimidating (I still, for example, haven't dared crack open Anathem on account of the fear), so if I do finish something, it's because it bloody well gripped me enough to make me do the work.

This is thus already a point in favour of the two novels I've just finished, which are in the Iskryne series, a collaboration between Elizabeth Bear (whose lj, as [livejournal.com profile] matociquala, I very greatly enjoy) and Sarah Monette. I don't know Monette's writing at all; I know Bear's novels from the cyberpunky Jenny Casey series, Hammered et al, which are fun, and from her rather entertaining take on urban fantasy and mage/fay wars in Blood and Iron. (On my to-acquire list: the slashy Shakespeare/Marlowe ones). She's a deceptively solid writer - the prose feels plain and sturdy, until you look at it more closely and realise how carefully crafted it is and how hard every word is working. She's also deceptive on the level of plot, as these apparently straightforward character-driven adventure narratives tend to be packing serious political teeth.

The books I've just finished are A Companion to Wolves and The Tempering of Men. I thoroughly enjoyed them, but they've stayed with me in a not entirely comfortable sense: in the final analysis, I'm still not sure if they completely worked. The Iskryne world is a sort of alternate-fantasy Viking-based civilisation, in which the early-medieval Nordic homesteads are regularly threatened by trolls and wyverns. The task of fighting off these supernatural depredations is taken by the wolfcarls, warriors telepathically bonded to wolves, who form their own sub-society revolving around the pack. The harshness of the setting - ice and snow and advancing glaciers, and marginal existence scratched out in the face of it - contributes to the overall feel of the books, which is gritty, bloody and occasionally brutal.

Telepathic bonds with animals are so much of a fantasy cliché, you're probably groaning as you read this. Fortunately the authors of this series are absolutely and intrinsically aware of the cliché, and are deliberately setting out to turn it on its head. What above all I adored about these books is the absolute poke in the eye they are to the fluffy teen romanticism of things like McCaffrey's Pern series. The books set out to logically work through the implications of two basic premises, viz:
  1. Telepathic bonding with animals renders the human bondmate open to the unconstrained sexual impulses of the animal in heat, with whatever that realistically implies in terms of loss of agency; and,
  2. Bonding with wolves is about being better equipped to fight maurauding trolls. While a wolfcarl may bond with a male or female wolf, in a civilisation based on Norse mythology and Viking civilisation, the people doing the fighting are going to be exclusively male.
You can see where this is going. Inescapably, this premise followed with any degree of consistency is going to lead to really an awful lot of gay sex. Which it proceeds to do, not always comfortably, but always with complete conviction.

I was impressed with the world-building here. The cultural consequences of a separate, wolf-pack-based, homosexual society for a subset of the culture's warriors seem to me to be well and convincingly delineated. The writers are not shy when it comes to depicting both the consolation of such a setting for its participants, the strength and support of its relationships, and the less comfortable tensions - not just in interaction with a heterosexual meta-culture, but the implications for a heterosexual man who is nonetheless drawn to the wolf-bond enough to accept the sexual imperatives that come with it. The whole set-up has a beautiful logic, and its working out is consistent and satisfying even when it touches on brutality and limitation of choice.

But I'm still not sure it completely works, and I rather suspect that some of the point of my disquiet is in the genesis of this whole thing in two female writers writing about male experiences of homoerotic encounter. When I flippantly refer to "slashy" takes on Shakespeare and Marlowe, above, I am quite deliberately invoking the whole subculture and creed of slash fan fiction, in terms of its production of male homoerotic encounters by, largely, female writers and for the benefit, largely, of female readers. I'm doing it deliberately because at times this is what Companion and Reckoning feel like. There is an awful lot of homosexual sex, inevitably given the set-up, but more importantly, there's a huge amount of focus on male feelings - love, angst, conflict. At base, quite apart from the smut elements, this is what slash is about, the exploration of male emotion expressed outside normal cultural contexts and expectations, and this series does that in spades. The problem - and this may simply be the result of my over-exposure to slash, and thus somewhat dubious - is that it somehow feels as if its address is the same as that of slash, towards a female readership.

So, however much I enjoyed and respected Iskryne's world and achievements - and I did - there's still an ambivalence in my response. Part of me is responding with an awareness that this is serious world-building and cultural exploration, and is doing mental pompom routines on the sidelines in recognition of the simple elegance of the setting's inversions. Hell, if you want a truly poignant window onto the probable experience of gay men forced to hide inside heterosexual marriage, try looking at it through the eyes of a heterosexual man forced into homoerotic relationships solely because of his love for his wolf.

But there's another aspect to my response which is quite simply to feel as though some of the things the series is doing are about objectification, pure and simple - men put through their sexual and emotional paces by and for the benefit of women. And pure titillation aside, some of those paces are nasty - if you let the animal lust thing run its course with men standing in for the wolf bitch in season surrounded by males, what you have is a gang-bang. However rational the steps which have led to that outcome, and however much the focus is on cultural necessities and the emotional consequences of the choices they force, the upshot is deeply unpleasant, and the slashy conditioning makes it feel slightly as though the characters are being put through trauma because it gives rise to interesting angst.

Which is, of course, deeply illogical: to return full circle, what I really like about the series is its ability to insist that animal life is not clean or pleasant or romantic, that Pern's dragonriders largely got away with soft-focus hawt dragon sex rather than having to face the reality of sexual coercion via involuntary participation in an animal's responses. The angst is entirely necessary and justified. Likewise, if slash interests me, it's mostly because of the extent to which it seems to function as a genuinely female pornography, written by and for women and about men. If I don't have a problem with Harry/Draco, why should I have a problem with conflicted homosexual wolf-carls? Because it's "serious literature" rather than "fluffy parodic self-indulgence"? Way to be consistent, there.

Nonetheless, there is disquiet, and I'm not entirely sure it's the disquiet the authors intended to create with their deliberately provocative premise. It's not enough to prevent my enjoyment of the writing, and it won't stop me from acquiring the third in the Iskryne series when it turns up - this is a compelling world and I really like these characters. (Quite apart from all of the angst and trauma and bloody fighting, these books still manage to be occasionally funny). But I have, let us say, small political reservations. I shall watch the direction taken by the third book, and my own responses to it, with baffled fascination.

hydrocarbon Ragnarok

Saturday, 14 May 2011 10:01 am
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Still homicidally misanthropic, a state not improved by contemplating the need to interview 60 potential orientation leaders in three days next week after spending the weekend writing a report for the Dean. Eek. I console myself with random linkery, hoping thereby to also entertain you, because by gosh and by golly just at the moment in my own right I'm not entertaining at all. I also suspect I'm giving innocent Scrooges and serial killers the world over an undeserved bad name.

  • China Miéville does it again, where "it" entails being lyrically strange, wayward, incisively political, sad and haunting. I am completely seduced by this story, it has a beautiful, inscrutable and tragic inevitability, and some really weird literary echoes. Also, China Miéville is one of the few writers I can think of who could make the phrase "hydrocarbon Ragnarok" do so much work. Covehithe. You should read this.

  • Random Heartwarming Moment: Paul Simon makes a simple fan very, very happy by hauling her up on stage to sing and play guitar. She does pretty well, despite the inevitable hyperventilation. It's a sweet enough moment to penetrate even my current homicidal misanthropy.

  • Just for [livejournal.com profile] smoczek, chart porn. Many of these are witty and recursive to an extremely pleasing extent.

  • Fafblog, predictably enough, weighs in on bin Laden's death with the proper perspective. The mash-up of the "killed thing" with the royal wedding, while perfectly politically pointed in terms of media spectacle, cracked me up completely.

While I hate everything and everyone, I hope you have a lovely weekend. Please to raise a glass at some stage to my esteemed mother, whose birthday it is today - one she shares, weirdly enough, with the esteemed [livejournal.com profile] egadfly. Homicidally misanthropic felicitations to both of them.
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A happy day playing quite a lot of Dragon Age yesterday (I'm getting better at setting tactics), but I got to my Twitter feed late last night to see that Diana Wynne Jones had died. This wasn't entirely a shock, I had a horrible suspicion it was her when Neil Gaiman tweeted about a friend on their way out, but it was still incredibly sad, and I'm still rather weepy. She's probably in my top 3 favourite fantasy authors ever.

I'm not sure if I should be glad or sorry that I never read any of her novels when I was actually a kid - if they would have been a richer or poorer experience than reading them as an adult. On the whole, I don't think it matters. I can't at this stage even remember who introduced me to her novels and which one I read first, but it was sometime in my first few years of university. (Vague suspicion rests on [livejournal.com profile] virtualkathy, and possibly Fire and Hemlock, or The Power of Three. I know the Evil Landlord hit me with Archer's Goon at some stage, but I think it was later). She's always been the author whose next book I will automatically buy, without question, in hardback if necessary, and which I will automatically enjoy. She never had off days. Each novel was a perfect, quirky, original, meaningful thing.

DWJ is the ultimate literary exemplar of the thing that Buffy got right, what JK Rowling dreams of being, vainly, in her most aspirational moments - fantasy that uses magic and symbol intelligently and with considerable emotional reality to talk about human experiences, issues, angsts. The Ogre Downstairs is the perfect Difficult Step-parent novel, through the lens of an enchanted chemistry set. Archer's Goon is the ultimate sibling rivalry cautionary tale. Black Maria is about emotional manipulation and gender stereotyping. They're brilliantly written, sharp and humorous and warm, and jam-packed with ideas - she tucks away in odd narrative corners whole edifices of fancy around which a lesser writer could construct an entire novel.

It's difficult to say which are my favourite DWJ books, because as I think of them, each of them becomes the obvious candidate. I have a very soft spot for Chrestomanci, the dashing, witheringly sarcastic enchanter in the midst of alternate realities, and the rabble of gifted and chaotic children who surround him (and as one of which he started himself). The Chrestomanci regulation of magic is a more intelligent and Victorian precursor to Rowling's Ministry of Magic, and has a far more real sense of the costs of power, control and responsibility. But I am also enamoured of the chatty, down-to-earth witchery of Sophie and her sisters in the Howl's Moving Castle series, as well as Howl himself, and of the beautiful, devastating critique of bad fantasy and bad teaching in The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel. And, of course, the magic-infested fantasy convention in Deep Secret makes me incredibly happy, as does the alternate-worldery of The Merlin Conspiracy. Also, salamanders. And Minnie the elephant.

I give up. I love them all. I re-read them often, and in fact over the last week or so I've just ambled contentedly through the Howl series yet again. The long row of DWJ books in my shelves is a storehouse of treasures, an old friend, a magic box which I open to connect me with someone who I wish I could have met: a warm, vibrant, vital, slightly mad mind with an earthy sense of reality and a sharp and compassionate eye. I can't bear to think that my DWJ collection is now complete, that there will never be another new book from her. The rising young stars of the fantasy genre will have to scramble to match her. But they'll never be her. She was an original.
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Is it weird that the scenes of Gandalf digging through piles of parchment looking for One Ring info in the LotR movie made me want to be a librarian in Minas Tirith? Because, dear sweet cosmic wossnames do they need one. The dweeb they dug up to talk about athelas in the books is clearly incompetent. I have added to my List of Soothing Mental Exercises For Use In Insomnia the construction of a happy alternate identity becoming Gondor's primary knowledge specialist, and ruling all those piles of parchment with an Inkstained Iron Fist. There may be pauses for hitting very hard on Faramir. (Other Soothing Mental Exercises For Use In Insomnia: Designing Sybil Trelawney's Divination Classes, and Which X-Men Ability Would I Have? [Flying, for a start. A lot of my Superman fixation is about the flight. Which is another reason why Smallville is irking me, but hey, Clark still cute, in that stunned-puppy sort of way]).

This entirely inconsequential post possibly brought to you courtesy of devouring the entire Questionable Content archive since Friday, something that seems to be making me even more vague and lateral than usual. Also, I have a new skirt featuring deep red cherries on a black background. The Dean likes it.

I think I need more tea. I think the five-day weekend I have starting tomorrow, courtesy of a sneaky use of leave time adjacent to a long weekend, is arriving not a moment too soon.

Anyone for Fiasco! this weekend?
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Reading! I can do it, who knew? As promised, two books which I've read in the last week, and which have struck me somewhat forcefully.

I acquired Jo Walton's Tooth and Claw because I was so impressed with Among Others. Tooth and Claw has also knocked my socks off, although it sounds gimmicky when you summarise it: it's a Jane Austen or Anthony Trollope social study whose protagonists, instead of being humans, are dragons. Where it's not in any way gimmicky is in its execution, which is pitch-perfect. The voice is superbly sustained, with that beautifully-controlled social perceptiveness masked by understatement, irony and a focus on manners which I so love about Austen. The incongruity of giant, highly carnivorous flying reptiles involving themselves in plots about marriage, inheritance and navigating social and religious strata wears off in about a page and a half, and the world becomes simply compelling and immersive.

I loved this book unreservedly, not just because it's so nicely constructed and narratively self-aware, but because it's so clever. It can never be simply a facile gimmick when the intersection of Polite Manners with Giant Savage Dragons is used for frankly political ends, to expose nineteenth-century social niceties as exactly what they are, the veneer over savage and primitive impulses. Marriage plots and concerns about the purity of young maidens are suddenly horrifying when male dragons can induce sexual response and irreversible scale colour change in young females by simply going too close. Inheritance issues become obviously bloody when you're not just worrying about who inherits the land, you're also worrying about who gets to consume the parent's growth-inducing corpse. And don't let's get into social class and governance when a landlord's right is to eat the smaller, weaker offspring of his vassals, to keep the species strong and incidentally increase his own size. It has an amazing, inescapable, perfectly consistent and entirely shudder-making logic. Ms. Walton is a clever lady, oh yes she is. Read this book.

The other book I read, by way of a somewhat profound leap of tone and theme, was Lauren Beukes's Moxyland, which has been sitting in my shelves intimidating me for about six months. The novel has been making waves as a fast-rising example of South African science fiction; it's set in near-future Cape Town, and threads together a sort of cyperpunky corporate power/arty resistance movement/hacker/nanotech/terrorism/marketing/internet culture tapestry which, though fairly incisive social awareness and a fast-paced multiple-viewpoint narrative, manages to be both challenging and gripping. The South African flavour is powerful and interesting, and she takes surprisingly few logical steps on from current cellphoneophilia to make it into an alarming emblem of social and corporate control. The bleakness and betrayal and double-crossing are profoundly satisfying because they're so likely. I also enjoyed the dogs.

But. I can't really give this the same wholehearted endorsement I did to Tooth and Claw. On the one hand this is exactly the kind of novel that the insular and up-its-own-arsepipe South African literary scene badly needs to drag it kicking and screaming into the Century of the Fruitbat; I applaud Ms. Beukes both for her project and her achievement, and cordially wish more power to her elbow. On the other hand, reading Moxyland left me with a slightly vague sense of, "hang on, did we really need another William Gibson? wasn't he a bit... 80s?" The innovation in this book is in applying the familiar South African setting to the classic cyberpunk narrative; it makes full and intelligent use of SA's social inequalities as well as its cultural tropes, but it doesn't otherwise critique or reinvent the genre. While I can see echoes of Doctorow and other more recent writers, it feels as though she's rehearsing the familiar motions of South Africa discovering and appropriating a cultural expression about twenty years after the rest of the world has exhausted it and moved on. Moxyland is an intelligent and pertinent infusion of South Africa into an existing tradition; it's not a new South African novel form. I enjoyed it, but I feel a bit cheated. It is, however, her first sf novel, and her second one, Zoo City, seems to be generating even more buzz, so I look forward to seeing where she takes things. It strikes me that she's made an excellent start.

While on subjects literary, I also can haz a new MicroFiction entry. This time I seem to have inadvertently written Lovecraftian fanfic. (OK, I lie, it was completely advertent). To my horror, none of my fellow MicFiccers are obsessive enough about Lovecraft to spot the reference, so I hope it means something to one of you lot.

bane of tomes

Sunday, 6 March 2011 09:18 am
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I have rediscovered reading! thank heavens, I was beginning to be afraid this job doomed me to fluffy comfort reading for the rest of my existence. I shall anon tell you all about Moxyland and Tooth and Claw, both of which I read recently, but for now, I need input. I am, for the second time, attempting to flog myself through A Song of Ice and Fire, which I tried a couple of years ago and gave up on in disgust. I'm about a third of the way through the first book for the second time, and I'm making extremely heavy weather of it - I have to read it in short bursts between distractions. I know it's an extremely well-loved, highly celebrated series which a number of people whose taste I esteem have embraced with fervour; the recent announcement of the latest book's publication date has caused frenzies of delight all over the internet. The miniseries version has a kick-butt cast and the trailers seem to promise well. All this being the case, why the hell can't I enjoy the damned thing?

I'm going to vaguely rant about the things which annoy me, and hopefully fans of the series can offer counter-arguments which may give me fresh insight. For a start, it's gritty fantasy, as real-world and political as possible. Politics in fantasy for me somehow always runs the danger of invoking the Le Guin article "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie", in which she surgically deconstructs the failure of tone and language in fantasy; I can't read about political machinations without imagining senators clattering down the stairs into the garden. But, while I don't by and large enjoy gritty political fantasy, this is not invariable; I really loved the darkness and nastiness of Richard Morgan's The Steel Remains, for example, and something like Tamora Pierce or the Furies of Calderon series offers large-scale politics, venality and warfare without alienating me one whit. I can't simply say "aargh political fantasy not for me" and have done with it, and I cannot in any way accuse GRRM of a failure of tone, the writing is admirably incisive and atmospheric - there's more going on here.

I suspect that, bearing in mind I'm still slogging through the first third of the first book and am thus not responding to the series as a whole, my lack of enjoyment stems from two things. On the one hand the whole thing takes itself too damned seriously, which is problematical for me for actually quite complicated reasons. The lack of humour is wearying after a while; these are Serious! People! in a Serious! Demanding! Brutal! World! and I want them to damned well lighten up, already, but it's really not just that I prefer some fluff to my fantasy.

The thing is, to me if you're writing Gritty Realistic Fantasy you're trying to treat fantasy like the real world, and it's not. It's a symbolic genre. Its operation is emblematic. If you are writing a brutal political story in a world which happens to have dragons and mysterious icy undead, this says to me that you want to be in a world which has dragons and mysterious icy undead, which no-one in their right mind wants. What they want to be in is a story which has dragons and mysterious icy undead. Ice and Fire is so busy being grittily political that it's lost sight of story shape, quest, heroism, all the narrative aspects of fantasy which even something like The Steel Remains is aware of, if only because it's gleefully kicking the conventions in the nads. GRRM doesn't seem to be trying to do much which allows him to engage self-consciously with the conventions, he's instead trying to write dragons like War and Peace. I don't think dragons should be written like War and Peace. I don't think you can write fantasy without being aware of its generic structures and expectations, at least not without making me throw the book across the room and mutter about political realism and how I'd go and look for it if I wanted to read it, which I don't. Phooey.

But again, this isn't enough. There's some pretty darned nasty fantasy out there which conforms bloodily and bloody-mindedly to realist tropes, and a lot of it I read with a great deal more pleasure than I'm getting from Ice and Fire. I suspect that at base my problems are quite simple - ye gods and scary dire-wolves, these are horrible people. The Lannisters are unrelieved psychopaths, the Starks are tough and grim and honourable and sadly naive and are busy being horribly rolled over. Children die, innocents die, most of the leaders, current or deposed, are narcissistic or sociopathic or both, and I really can't imagine GRRM pulling any sort of final upbeat resolution out of the whole mess without things getting very much worse first. It's unpleasant to watch. I'm not identifying with anyone - they don't inspire empathy or anything other than a wincing fascination with their eventual fates. It's all so doomed.

So I suppose what I'm asking for, oh ye fans of Ice and Fire, is for reasons to keep on reading. Does it keep up this tone throughout? Am I right in thinking that there's going to be a lot more blood and despair and loss before we see any of these complete bastards get theirs? Do we ever see these complete bastards get theirs? Does GRRM have something up his sleeve that justifies all this bleak? I don't want to google for spoilers in case I decide to carry on reading, but I want reassurance that there's some actual reason to do so. Meep!

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