books


The people in charge of the Angoulême comics festival were recently completely unable to think of any female cartoonists, so I thought I’d help by contributing a list of more than 200.

If your favorites aren’t there… tell me!  Especially if they’re non-English.  I’m especially weak on manga.

As it happened, I was already reading Deborah Elizabeth Whaley’s Black Women in Sequence, which is about black female cartoonists.  It has a whole chapter about Catwoman, so I had to read it.  (Catwoman has been played on the screen by black actresses twice, going back to 1967, so it’s not surprising she has a special meaning for black comics fans.)

The most interesting chapter is on Jackie Ormes, who had several syndicated strips in black newspapers from the late ’30s till the ’50s.  I would love to see more of her work; it’d be a fascinating glimpse into those times.  What’s striking about her elegant, smart characters is simply that they look human, and sexy, at a time when white cartoonists were producing abominations like the Spirit’s Ebony.

Anyway, Whaley’s theorycrafting doesn’t turn me on much, but the introduction to a bunch of artists is worthwhile.  (I kept wanting to ask what she thought of Jaime Hernandez, or what she might think of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s new Black Panther…)

 

 

My review of Capital in the Twenty-First Century got too long for the blog, so it’s over at the mothership.

I’ve never read any Christopher Priest before, and The Prestige was recommended.  The library didn’t have it, but they had The Islanders, and I figured what the hell.

First, what is it?  It’s sf, of precisely the sort that explains why I use sf instead of ‘science fiction’.  It’s set on another planet, but it could easily pass as mainstream fiction, or magic realism. It reminds me of Borges, and even more of Georges Perec’s La vie mode d’emploi, which tells the story of a Paris apartment story, room by room.

The Islanders calls itself a gazetteer, and in form it purports to be a tourist’s guidebook to the Dream Archipelago, a worldwide array of thousands of islands on another planet— though honestly it’s all so British that we’d might as well call it an alternative Earth.  The planet also has two large polar continents.  One, Nordmaieure, consists of “quarrelsome nation states” engaged in a perpetual war, which in eminently civilized fashion is actually fought in the uninhabited southern continent, Sudmaieure.  The archipelago is neutral, though to get to the battlegrounds troops have to pass through it, so it is hardly unaffected by the war.

The book is arranged alphabetically, from Aay to Yannet, giving descriptions of geography and local attractions, and a listing of what currencies are accepted. It’s soon evident that this is merely a pseudo-pedantic scaffolding for telling stories about the Islands and Islanders: love stories, a murder mystery, meditations on art, some incursions into horror. The gazetteer style is frequently abandoned in favor of news reporting, court reports, memoirs, or third-person stories.

The “Introductory” by an Islander notable, Chaster Kammeston, provides a fair appraisal and fair warning: “It is a typical island enterprise: it is incomplete, a bit muddled, and it wants to be liked.” And in fact I found it extremely readable. I finished it quickly and found none of it boring.

There are standalone stories, such as one of the horror ones, classified under the island Seevl. The manner is Lovecraftian: the story starts out as something of a love story, narrated by a man named Torm, and takes its time to get to the mystery of the ruined towers that cluster on Seevl.

But many of the stories are interconnected, though unreliably. The introducer, Chaster Kammeston, explains that no true map of the archipelago is possible, due to “temporal gradients.”  Later this is explained further: if you circumnavigate an island, you’ll find that landmarks have shifted or disappeared. Getting around can be trying, and people end up in different places than they intend.  My gosh, is there some kind of subtext here?

Mirroring this, the interconnected tales don’t quite cohere. For instance, Kammeston introduces and appraises the book, but a key event in later chapters is his own funeral. One character is described as having lived 250 years ago, and yet she is described as a lover of the artist Dryd Bathurst, who lived long enough to be interviewed by Kammeston, his biographer. Kammeston’s introduction claims that he has never left his native island, but later chapters contradict this.

A key event, narrated multiple times, is the death of a mime named Commis—  killed by a plate of glass which sliced down vertically from the loft of the theater where he was performing. Later we get an account that explains what that plate of glass was for, who left it too loosely attached, and why.  Later yet we learn that one of the suspects went by another name, one that by now we know.

In some unreliable narrator stories, the idea is to piece together the real truth behind the conflicting claims. Not here, I believe.  An in-world explanation is half-suggested: perhaps the indeterminacy which afflicts the physical world of the Archipelago affects the people too.  You return to a man or woman and they’re not the same person as before.  It’s hard to believe that the introduction from Kammeston refers to the same text we’re reading, and not just because of the funeral.  Or, probably more likely, Priest is just spitting on the notion of objectivity, as is common in mainstream lit. Real life is muddled, though it’s still rare (I think) for sf narratives to be also.

As conworlding, it’s brilliant and slapdash at the same time. There’s very little attempt to make this world different from Earth— in fact he could probably have set it on Earth making no substantial changes.  There are some sf elements, but little that affects the storytelling. The indeterminacy of the world has great thematic resonance but isn’t really taken seriously.  (E.g. it’s said that no map of the Archipelago is possible, and yet people do things like plot worldwide ocean currents, to say nothing of undertaking wars on the other side of the globe.)   And as mentioned, all the islands seem British, with a side order of Scandinavian.

Yet it has a real sense of local color— you do get a sense of these islands as distinct places, so that this is that rare thing, an sf world which feels like it has more than one culture.  Torm at one point has a neat insight about continents vs. islands:

[On the mainland] I felt instead the lure of distance, of places I could travel to and people I could meet without crossing a sea, and an endlessly unfolding world of certainty. Islands lacked that. Islands gave an underlying sense of circularity, of coast, a limit to what you could achieve or where you might go. You knew where you were but there was invariably a sense that there were other islands, other places to be.

It’s hard not to feel that he’s describing both Britain, and various sub-worlds within Britain. What he describes as the mainland attitude I recognize in Americans. We have regions, but they always feel like secondary things that you can ignore if you choose.

 

Would you like it? If what you really like could be described as “Larry Niven again”, then probably not.  But it doesn’t have the dry cold feeling of much experimental literature; rather, it’s warm, digressive, and passionately human. I liked it (far more than the Perec, in fact).

(FWIW I spent a couple of hours reading Priest’s blog. He’s a bit of a curmudgeon, with some judgments that seem more personal than reasoned. E.g. he likes Terry Pratchett and dislikes Charlie Stross, which doesn’t seem unconnected with being an old friend of Pratchett’s. He can be pretty amusing when he rips into Martin Amis, and spectacularly condescending when he offers advice to China Miéville. Fortunately this strain of Aggrieved Blogger doesn’t get into his book.)

 

 

I’d never read any Connie Willis before. I’m a sucker for time travel stories, so I got into this right away.

I’m going to start with general comments, so you can decide if it sounds interesting and if so, avoid spoilers. There’s a Line of Truth later on where things get heavy.

The setup is simple: in 2054, we have time travel, and the major use seems to be by historians. The book deals with the historians of Oxford, notably James Dunworthy, who’s in charge of research into the 20th century, for Balliol, and Gilchrist, who has the equivalent position for medieval times, at Brasenose. The 20th century faculty has been doing this for awhile, but Medieval is sending back its first historian, an undergrad named Kivrin. Unfortunately Gilchrist is more eager than competent, and the customary precautions have been skipped or half-assed.  But Kivrin at least is well prepared, and really wants to go. So what could go wrong…?

This is paradox-free time travel, courtesy of The Cosmos. If you aim at a particular time and place, you might not get quite there, especially if it’s important historically. Plus you need special equipment and expertise… it becomes important later on that there’s only one time travel machine at Oxford. In effect this means the traveler has to be very very careful to meet at the agreed-on point and time if they want to return.

I have to say that the historians’ methods invite trouble. A simple example: Dunworthy mentions an exploratory jaunt he took to the 20th century. He had to get to Paddington station and take a train to get to the rendezvous point. Only when he arrived, Paddington was closed for some reason. He made it back, but it was close.  When even a simple trip can be so difficult, what about a trip to the Middle Ages?

Kivrin is well tutored on medieval life, inoculated against the prevailing diseases, and carefully dressed in an medieval outfit, but she’s sent with no electronic devices (except a recorder/translator), no weapons, no medicines, no money. It seems pretty irresponsible, especially as she’s aiming for 1320, which was till recently rated a 10 of 10 on the scale of “centuries you really don’t want to go to”. (Gilchrist thinks it really wasn’t that bad, so he re-rated it.) I won’t say this is a flaw in the book, as the irresponsibility of the attempt is thoroughly experienced and explored by the characters.

Worldbuilding besides time travel is minimal… Oxford in 60 years’ time (the book was published in 1992) seems pretty contemporary. Dunworthy seems to be head of Balliol, so there’s a good deal about his other responsibilities, from dealing with helicopter parents to hosting a group of American bell-ringers. A lot of this is at Wodehouse levels… amusing but not exactly in tune with the rest of the book.

Once Kivrin gets to the 14th century, she has to fit into the life of a medieval manor house. This part of the book is a lot of fun. She starts out with severe language problems: her electronic translator can’t handle the local Middle English. Willis gives plenty of samples; I’m happy to report that I figured it out long before the translator does. (Hint: Willis makes heavy use of a typographical trick to obfuscate it.) She gets to know the family and the tiny village it’s staying in. A clever bit is that it’s interacting with the six-year-old daughter that’s key to understanding the language and the family.

Willis is clear that being a female time traveler in 1320 is particularly dangerous. Dunworthy perhaps over-worries this, to the point of exasperating Kivrin.  She and Gilchrist have worked out an angle: she was traveling with retainers, but attacked by ruffians and left alone. Now, this only solves part of the problem (explaining why she’s alone), and doesn’t address allowing her to proceed alone. But I’d say the book finds a good balance between respecting the difficulties a woman would face in the Middle Ages, and respecting her agency as a highly trained modern person.

Did I hint that things go wrong?  Things go wrong.

OK, this is the Line of Truth. The book goes off into grimmer territory, and if you don’t want to know about that, stop here.


 

Right in chapter 2, we get problems. Badri, the tech in charge of the temporal insertion, gets extremely sick. Without giving too much away, this sickness spreads throughout Oxford and greatly impedes the modern team in keeping track of Kivrin.

Kivrin, not coincidentally, comes down with the same illness, which complicates her first days in the past. She gets better, but perhaps you’re seeing a theme here. Later on a far more serious sickness, an epidemic, comes to the village.

If you’ve read Iain M Banks’s Against a Dark Background, you know how hard an author can treat his characters. Willis is far more brutal. The final chunk of the book is almost cruel, as Willis destroys hope after hope. I’m not sure it was necessary to be quite as thorough as she was, but it’s certainly effective.

A curiosity of Willis’s storytelling is how much time the characters spend trying things that don’t work. In part this is basic narrative: an adventure plot generally consists of a number of attempts that don’t work followed by a final try that does. But most of the attempts are much smaller scale, nearly pointless– e.g. Dunworthy tries to contact an alternative tech, can’t get through on the telephone, has to try later. Kivrin tries various things to ameliorate the epidemic on her end, to little effect. It’s certainly realistic, but it’s unusual for a genre novel.

The one bright spot is Colin, a bright and resourceful twelve-year-old who’s visiting his great-aunt Mary, the chief university doctor. He ends up– spoiler– helping out in the past, and the general air of incompetence doesn’t extend to him; e.g. he’s the only one who thinks to bring a flashlight and a GPS device.

Bottom line: it’s a really good story, the characters are fun on both temporal sides, and it’s also a very grim ride.

(I learn from Wikipedia that there are three further novels, all featuring Dunworthy, but the time travel is to the 19th and 20th centuries instead.)

I just finished Folktales of Japan, edited by Keigo Seki, originally published back in the 1950s. It’s a load of fun. Lots of encounters with ogres, supernatural spouses or children, tales of supernaturally assisted comeuppance, and more.

The collection procedure was to find the most out-of-the-way places possible and solicit stories from the oldest inhabitants, presumably to avoid influence from urban and literary culture. The irony, perhaps, is that the stories turn out to be widespread all over Japan, and clearly connected to similar stories in China, India, Europe, and Africa, going back hundreds of years. Basically, a good story has legs, world-spanning legs.

My other immediate reaction: I feel that I understand Neil Gaiman more. I have a feeling he scours old collections of folktales… his stories and novels belong recognizably to this genre, where the ordinary world is in intimate contact with little-explained (but morally charged) fairies, demons, magic items, and curses, all with the sort of magic that can’t be reduced to D&D rules.

I’m almost done with the second draft, so it’s time for a page all about my China book. Ordering information will be there when the book is out.  I’m trying to get the book out before Christmas.  (I’m not certain about the cover yet; I have to see what it looks like as a physical object.)

A little pénjǐng

A little pénjǐng

Based on a suggestion from alert reader John Cowan, the title is now China Construction Kit, which fits neatly into my œuvre, and also avoids limiting the book to conlangers.

If you volunteered to read the second draft, I’ll be in touch shortly. I would still like to get readers who know Mandarin or Old Chinese well, so if that’s you, contact me.

A quarter century ago, Art Spiegelman and Françoise Mouly put out Raw— a highbrow mixture of underground cartoonists and French BDs where, in general, the id was fully on display.  In Vol. 2 No. 1 (1989) six pages were devoted to a little story called “Here”, by Richard McGuire, which looked a little too clean and cool for its surroundings.  It was also the most mind-bending piece in the whole 200-page issue.

McGuire-Here-1989-p-1

Every image of “Here” depicted the same scene, from the same viewpoint. But that wasn’t the clever bit. The clever bit was that not all the panels showed that scene in the same year. In fact, after a few establishing panels, windows within each panel showed different years. The entire six pages depicted– out of order– a story ranging from 5 billion BC to the year 2033.

Most of the story was concentrated around a single lifetime, from birth (1957) to death (2027). It was a fascinating look at a place, a lifetime, at how moments could be connected not just in linear sequence but by theme: similar events occurring in the same place; a woman’s complaint about cleaning repeated over the years; a tree growing; echoes of action or dialog.

Oh, here. Here’s “Here”. Just go read it. Six pages, light as a feather and dense like lead. It refrains from any sort of comment, and somehow seems to be about everything: time, space, life, humanity. It was just amazing that you could do this in comics.

Now, McGuire has produced Here, a version of the same idea, but 300 pages long, and in color.

Mcguire2014

Before you read the rest of this page, you should open a new tab, order the book, and read it. It expands the original idea, playing with the resonances of time and space, and the color version is spectacular. Plus the corner of the room is in the crease of the book, which is a neat iconic idea: the opened book echoes the shape of the room.

Better yet, get the iPad version, where reportedly you can view the book in multiple ways, or trace a particular thread chronologically.

OK, now that we’ve read it, I’m going to say: it’s neat and I like it, but the 300-page version doesn’t blow the mind at 50 times the rate of the 6-page story. A lot of what McGuire does here, he already did in the previous version. It’s a neat way to play with the medium, but it’s definitely in experimental mode, and in such things the emotional temperature tends to be low.

There’s a set of family pictures that look a lot like real family photographs, and from articles on the book, it turns out they are real photographs from McGuire’s family. Likewise, a bit that seems like rather a stretch– a connection to Ben Franklin– turns out to be literal truth: McGuire’s childhood home in New Jersey was across the street from Ben Franklin’s son’s house. Similarly, a visit from the local archeological society (they want to dig up the back yard for Indian bones) really happened.

The thing is, when you have to read news stories about the book to understand the connections, that’s probably a sign that the artistic method is a little too detached. The book plays delightfully with its concept, but it doesn’t cohere as a story. There are recurring characters but after two readings I couldn’t tell you who they all are.

Oops, I should learn to write these things with the positive stuff at the end.  The 6-pager did seem short– more like a proof of concept.  The book takes it slow, runs the idea through all its variations, is more careful about history (it’s a nice touch that the Native Americans speak an actual Algonquian language), it’s full of quirky juxtapositions, and it’s gorgeous to flip through.

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