Piranesi

Since I’m still awake, I’ll write another review, this one of something I liked: Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi.

If you know nothing about it, it’s a fable, something of an urban fantasy. The title character lives in another world, which he calls the House– because it’s all one house or mansion. It extends for thousands of rooms in all directions, and despite years of exploration Piranesi has never found an end to it. The lower floors are filled with oceans; the upper floors with clouds. He lives off fish, shellfish, and seaweed he finds in the ocean, and he keeps an obsessive journal– the novel purports to be its 10th volume.

For company there are a few skeletons, and a mysterious man he calls the Other– the only living human he knows. The Other shows up twice a week for meetings. The Other is pursuing what he calls Great and Secret Knowledge which he thinks is hidden in the House; he does not search for it himself, but encourages Piranesi to explore. (He provides him with notebooks and pens.)

The first part of the book explores the House, the strange narrator, and his strange friend. Piranesi, oddly enough, is completely happy with his life. He has excellent recall of everything he’s seen in the House, and he’s satisfied with his daily routines and occasional longer journeys. Every room is full of statues, and he knows them all. He talks to the birds which fly through the halls, and leaves offerings to the skeletons. He regards the Other as a friend, though he is skeptical about the Great and Secret Knowledge.

This idyll is threatened by new knowledge– starting with a visit from another living person, who Piranesi calls the Prophet. The Prophet tells him things that put in question what he knows about the House, and the Other, and himself. He begins to explore these clues…

I won’t say here what he finds, except for what the book jacket reveals– that there is another world besides the House. And magic is involved.

The obvious comparison is to Borges’s Library of Babel– though the House is more a catalogue of the visual than the literary arts, and was more densely populated. It’s also reminiscent of Schuiten & Peeters’ brilliant and gorgeous French graphic novel La Tour (The Tower), which also depicts a near-infinite architectural monstrosity with few human residents and a mysterious origin.

Reviews usually mention C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew, probably because it contains a few explicit references to it, and because the House also recalls the huge palace of Charn. But the comparison is not very illuminating. Piranesi’s House is not Charn: it’s not lifeless, it’s not the sinister end of an evil civilization, and there are no traces of Aslan or the Witch here. There is some human evil, but the House itself is– at least as Piranesi experiences it– a peaceful and even joyful place.

What it’s not much like is Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I liked that one, but it takes a long time to get going, while Piranesi is just 245 pages. One thing they do share is that in both novels, Clarke commits to the bit, as comedians say. Strange is written in the form and diction of long 19th century novels, while Piranesi showcases the oddness of its main character, who learns all sorts of things during his adventures but never becomes what we’d call normal.

I liked the book a lot, and finished it in one long binge. Most everything gets explained eventually, at least one of the bad guys is dealt with satisfactorily, and Piranesi manages to adapt to his new knowledge without entirely losing the calm he found in the House.

It doesn’t explore its magic very thoroughly. I don’t think that’s a flaw, but it’s good to set expectations: if you like your sf ideas teased out in all their complications, this isn’t that.

I do think that– as with The Tower— the first half of the book works the best, when we are most exposed to the awesome and strange world of the House and don’t understand it yet. Schuiten & Peeters couldn’t really make the mystery pay off. I think Clarke does better at that, but some of the magic does leak out. One disappointment, perhaps (in white to avoid spoilers)… the Great and Secret Knowledge turns out to be a dud. Which is realistic, but it might have been more interesting if the Other’s project was more of an actual threat.

The Psychology of Time Travel

I found this book, by Kate Mascarenhas, more or less by chance. It was on the next shelf from where Arkady Martine’s next book should have been, and it was about time travel– I’m a sucker for anything about time travel. And in fact it’s really good! Once I was into it I had to keep going till I was done. And now I’m out of books.

The basic setup: four women– Margaret, Barbara, Grace, and Lucille– invent time travel, in 1967. One of them, Barbara, is overstressed and has a sort of breakdown in front of the media, and she’s kicked out of the group. The rest form an organization to manage time travel, the Conclave.

In July 2017 Barbara receives a cryptic note which turns out to be the report of a death six months in the future, and discusses it with her granddaughter Ruby. In January 2018, a girl named Odette finds a corpse in a locked boiler room… locked from the inside.

So, it’s a mystery, and an sf story, and true to its title it really is about the psychology of time travel: how it might mess with your head. What happens if you know the day you die? Or the day your loved one dies? More strangely yet… how do you grieve, or do you grieve, if after they die you can, whenever you want, take a trip into the past to see them again?

Fitting the subject, the structure of the book is all over the chronological map. Most of it centers on the murder and its aftermath in 2017-18, but chapters are set in the previous or following decades. There are quite a few characters, though the chief ones are named above.

Mascarenhas’s version of time travel is deterministic, and also future-oriented: time travel requires a receptive apparatus, so you can’t travel back before the device was invented. (You also can’t travel more than 300 years in the future. It’s hinted that the 24th century is pretty nasty, and perhaps all the machines are destroyed.)

Most of the focus is on the Conclave itself. Its structure is a baffling, because time travel sort of collapses its 300-year timespan. Any given agent may be given an assignment at a future or past time; people get intimately familiar with their past and future selves; you can even make a phone call to any Conclave employee at any time. There’s an extensive Conclave slang, which never changes since it’s shared over that entire time period. There are objects called “genies” which are acausal: a future you hands it to a younger you, so it exists uncreated in a years-long time loop.

A major subplot is a romance between Ruby and one of the pioneers, which has the brain-busting peculiarity that the lifespans of the two characters barely overlap. Romance is weird for time travelers: if they end up with a partner, they know who it is, often before they’ve met. Also, is it infidelity if, while you’re partnered, you also hook up with yourself?

The Conclave also turns out to be kind of a nasty thing. It’s located in London, but it’s outside the jurisdiction of British law, since the agents present at any one moment in time may be from anywhen, and it’s not clear what set of laws should apply. And it reflects the heavy hand of Margaret, at the top, and her determination that psychological problems like Barbara’s never recur. Naturally, worrying so hard about one problem leads into a set of opposite problems.

The book must have been hell to plot. It’s a lot of fun to explore all these concepts, and almost all of the characters are interesting to be with. (All the viewpoint characters are female; from an interview, it seems that the author tried male characters, and found that readers took the male characters as more important. So she just made everyone important be female.)

Mascarenhas works out lots of weird side-effects of time travel as the Conclave practices it, though I’m not sure they’re worked out enough. To try to explain without spoilers: information about future events is a phone call away. Sometimes the characters use this information; and to make the plot work, some of the characters (Barbara, Ruby, Odette) spend much of the book outside the Conclave and thus have to plod through normal time like regular humans. But some events proceed as if the Conclave weren’t using its own mechanisms. (Though, the timeline being unchangeable, perhaps the ultimate argument is “things happened that way because they did.”)

An example with spoilers: Odette joins the Conclave to dig up info. Because she had therapy, she is ineligible per Margaret’s rules, and she hides this for a time. When it’s revealed, she’s kicked out. There’s a testing process for entry, lovingly detailed; why isn’t part of it calling the future to see if she’s still employed in a month? There may be answers in this particular case– e.g. Odette is hired as a sort of internal detective, and perhaps policy is to not to mess with them. But the same issue comes up with larger plot points. E.g. after 2018 everyone knows that Margaret is a bit of a nutter. How could this be kept a secret before then, when travelers are constantly going back into her tenure? I don’t think these are flaws, it just worries me a bit.)

The Collapsing Empire

This, by John Scalzi, was another of the books recommended by NPR, but it turns out to be very similar in theme to A Memory Called Empire. It’s also a space opera about (spoiler) a collapsing empire, and even explores the same idea of a sentient brainscan. What I learned: it’s best not to read two space operas in a row about collapsing empires.

It’s not bad, mind you. The basic setup: humanity lives in the Interdependency, a network of colonies dominated by guilds (basically megacorps with monopolies), linked by a para-space called the Flow that provides FTL travel. The problem is that the Flow is disappearing, which will be particularly bad because human society has been designed to be interdependent– so the colonies will probably die off on their own. Only one colony is an actual planet, called End.

There’s a number of viewpoint characters: Kiva, a roguish and foul-mouthed Owner’s Representative on a trading ship at End; Cardenia, the new and unprepared Emperox of the Interdependency; Marce, a scholar from End who has the best insight into how the Flow is failing.

Let’s start with the positive: the prelude, which sets the tone and the theme. It details an attempted mutiny on yet another spaceship. It’s fun and showcases what Scalzi seems to do best: tough asshole characters, tense but witty confrontations, quick reversals, and a good helping of comedy. If you like that sort of thing, you’ll like the book. And the series; it’s a trilogy.

The overall situation is good too, though maybe it hits a little close to our little problem, the looming climate change apocalypse. The Interdependency feels like a bunch of overgrown Renaissance city-states, everyone trying to screw each other over without quite violating social norms. Throwing an existential threat at these people is an excellent way to see what they’re made of.

So, I like a lot of it but I also find it tiring. The comparison to Arkady Martine does not help it. I think the things that rub me the wrong way are these:

  • The characters are divided into good assholes and nasty assholes. (Not everyone, but close enough.) I actually like Kiva a lot– she’s lively and inventive. But, I dunno, there’s a reason Star Wars didn’t consist only of Han Solo and Boba Fett. It’s nice to have some actually likeable people in there somewhere.
  • The multiple viewpoint characters are a good fit for space opera, but I miss the focus provided by a single protagonist.
  • The Interdependency as Scalzi portrays it is hard to like– Martine is far better at explaining why an empire could be both dangerous and attractive. But the deeper problem is that the systemic problems are sidelined in favor of building up one particular clan as the archvillains. That is, Scalzi understands that the Interdependency is hopelessly corrupt, but still writes a story where shooting three people would pretty much fix everything.
  • Come on, Scalzi, you literally give your exposition of the Flow in the form of a lecture for schoolchildren?
  • The structure is weirdly digressive and repetitive. E.g. something like a third of the book is devoted on getting Marce from Point A to Point B. He’s threatened at home, then kidnaped, then they send assassins after him, then pirates. It’s competent thriller-plot, but did we need all four of these inconveniences, especially when the bad guy is the same one each time and we learn nothing new about him? The Chandler plot, careening from one danger to another, doesn’t work merely because it puts the hero in danger, but because it deepens the plot and provides surprises.
  • One more unfortunate comparison: Martine is far better at showing how it feels to be involved in apocalyptic events. It’s fun when a resourceful character like Kiva keeps sidestepping the enemy, but it’s more affecting when a character sometimes feels overwhelmed and panicky.

I’m afraid this sounds more negative than I meant it to. When something feels off about a book or game, I want to analyze that until I feel I understand it. But if I’d read this book first, or been in a slightly different mood, I’d probably have liked it more.

FWIW, re-reading my review of Scalzi’s Redshirts, I note that I had a very similar reaction: great idea, weird structure, and a certain difficulty in raising the emotional temperature.

A Memory Called Empire

There was a great post on NPR on the best sf/fantasy of the last decade, and I’m trying to read some of them. The first one I found at the library is this one, by Arkady Martine.

The book is dedicated to “anyone who has ever fallen in love with a culture that was devouring their own”, and that pretty much sums up the theme of the book. It’s about the devastation and the allure of empire.

The setup is simple enough. The viewpoint character is Mahit Dzmare, newly appointed ambassador from a border space station to the Empire of Teixcalaan. As soon as she arrives at the capital city-planet, she learns that her predecessor is dead, probably murdered. She has an imago of him– a sentient brainscan– but it malfunctions, leaving her alone, unless she can trust any of the Teixcalaanli. At least she has a hypercompetent liaison officer / shadow, Three Seagrass. (This is a great standard way to explore a conworld, by the way: use an outsider, so as they learn about the culture we can too, in a natural way.)

The structure of the book is interesting. A lot of sf is emotionless problem-solving– think Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, Stross. Empire is most reminiscent of a Raymond Chandler novel. As in a Marlowe novel, Mahit follows leads, has fraught conversations, gets into new predicaments, and when the author wants to shake things up, there’s a new assassination attempt. With one important difference: Mahit is the opposite of a native, and has no allies to start with– the one she should have, her imago, is gone.

As a consequence, the plot feels chaotic for about half the book. She doesn’t even meet the Emperor till page 229. A contrast is with N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, where the outsider heroine meets all the major players in a few chapters, and is even assured that there’s no one else who matters.

The names– plus a certain cultural fascination with blood sacrifice– come from the Aztecs, but much more comes from Martine’s academic specialty: the Byzantine empire. In interviews, she also mentions Rome and the US, but curiously doesn’t mention the closest parallel: the Chinese empire, which could be both a military juggernaut and a machine for cultural assimilation. Teixcalaan is portrayed as robustly exporting novels, films, and poetry, and even has an examination system like the Chinese. Mahit herself is a devotee of Teixcalaanli literature, though she realizes that to the imperials she’ll never be more than a barbarian.

(That may be true of her Byzantine models, but I think it’s not true of most empires, which are usually quite open to outsiders. I recently discussed Lucian of Samosata, who was Syrian but became a highly popular Greek writer; think also of Italian composers in Austria, Central Asian traders in Xi’an, Greek generals in Xerxes’ army.)

The para-Nahuatl names are cool but a bit misleading, I think: they suggest a more direct modeling of the Aztec empire than Martine is actually doing. A little actual conlanging would have been in order here.

Everything has a space opera sheen, but really the one sf element that’s carefully explored is the imago– a technology that Mahit’s Lsel Station has, but the Empire doesn’t. Here the plot gets in the way a bit: as Mahit’s imago malfunctions, we spend most of the book not seeing how the things work. Still, the idea eventually pays off.

A nice bit about the book is that character gender seems to be random or nearly so. Both Lsel and Teixcalaan have both women and men in positions of power, and no one makes a big deal of gender at all. (It’s fine if a sf writer wants to confront gender essentialism, but it’s nice to take a holiday from it sometimes. It’s not like either society lacks for other problems to explore.)

I don’t like everything about the ending– to be precise, the plot is wrapped up, but truncating the lesbian romance and sending Mahit back home are dissatisfying. But I see that there’s a sequel (A Desolation Called Peace), which seems to address those issues.

If it’s not clear, I liked the book a lot, and I’m eager to read the sequel. Mahit and Three Seagrass are both great characters, the mystery structure is fun, and Martine succeeds in her primary aim, showing how an empire can be both frightening and compelling.

If there’s one weakness, it’s that Lsel never becomes quite as real as the Empire. We learn a lot about it, but by the end of the book we care far more about Teixcalaanli politics. At the same time, and despite a cast large enough that Martine has to provide a glossary of names, it’s never quite explained how a station of 30,000 souls can be quite so important to the Empire and the Emperor. (I mean, plot-wise, it is explained; it’s just a weak bit of conworlding. And it could have been easily fixed: make the Stationers two or three orders of magnitude bigger. 3 million Stationers would still be tiny compared to the Empire, but more credible as a little outpost of high technology.)

What happens to heroes

Some dude named Noah Smith had an interesting opinion about LOTR. (Hat tip to Jeffrey for retweeting it.)

One interesting thing about Lord of the Rings is that the hobbits mostly don’t learn to fight, come of age, get the girl, or win the throne. They’re not Campbellian heroes; they’re soldiers in a war. They do their duty and come home with PTSD.

Now, my immediate reaction is that this is entirely wrong. Merry, Pippin, and Sam do all of these things and get all of these rewards. True, you have to read the appendices to learn all the details, but they’re all there– Sam is Mayor, Merry is Master of Buckland, and Pippin– reverting to his dignified name of Peregrin– becomes Took. For them, it is absolutely a Campbellian journey.

Eressëa (artist’s rendering)

Frodo, yes, has a hell of a case of PTSD. He is also far from the fairly idle and naive fellow of Chapter 1, is able to reorder the Shire to his liking, and actually becomes Mayor. He ends up living as an immortal in Eressëa. (Smith went on to say that he interpreted that as a metaphor for death, but no, that’s not what Eressëa means in Tolkien. Aragorn dies normally, Frodo does not.)

This got me interested in what a Campbellian hero is, so the next stop is Wikipedia. This article is pretty interesting, and I’m tempted to go off in a million directions on it. But let’s just focus on what happens to heroes after they defeat the Big Bad.

Campbell is actually pretty perceptive about the difficulty here:

Many failures attest to the difficulties of this life-affirmative threshold. The first problem of the returning hero is to accept as real, after an experience of the soul-satisfying vision of fulfillment, the passing joys and sorrows, banalities and noisy obscenities of life. Why re-enter such a world? Why attempt to make plausible, or even interesting, to men and women consumed with passion, the experience of transcendental bliss? As dreams that were momentous by night may seem simply silly in the light of day, so the poet and the prophet can discover themselves playing the idiot before a jury of sober eyes. The easy thing is to commit the whole community to the devil and retire again into the heavenly rock dwelling, close the door, and make it fast.

So a bunch of temporal rewards is not in fact the normal end of the Campbell story. In fact he’s predicting that a return to ordinary life is going to be difficult and unattractive. Frodo’s experience is actually a far better illustration of his point than Sam’s or Aragorn’s.

Let me very unsystematically survey some epics and see what happened at the end.

  • Gilgamesh: The hero completely fails his quest. He just goes home. No rewards to speak of, though he retains his day job (king).
  • The Odyssey: Odysseus ends up with what he wanted: being back at home, with his wife.
  • The Ramayana: Rama loses the girl in a display of nasty suspicion.
  • Three Kingdoms: Liu Bei foolishly dies in battle as he’s pursuing the wrong war, for personal vengeance, rather than paying attention to the overall situation of China.
  • The Mahabharata: The victors give up their happy life to be pilgrims, and most of them die. But of course this isn’t final in Hinduism.
  • Morte D’Arthur: Arthur dies and his circle of knights dissipates.
  • Hamlet: Everybody dies, except the one guy who got very few lines and now becomes king.
  • The Roland/Orlando saga: Roland fails to defeat the Saracens and dies.
  • The Three Musketeers: Porthos and Athos die. Aramis becomes evil. D’Artagnan serves the king faithfully and dies in battle.
  • Narnia: Everyone but Susan dies in a train crash. Before that the kids brought to Narnia to improve their souls long for it interminably and seem not very well adjusted at all.
  • Star Maker: the Cosmos is rebuffed by the Creator and intelligent life, after lasting billions of years, is quietly extinguished in the heat death of the universe.
  • Pullman’s Dust saga: Lyra and Will are separated forever and travel to other worlds is prohibited.
  • Hitchhiker’s Guide: Arthur likes a quiet life in a rural area, as much he ever likes anything.
  • Snow Crash: Hiro becomes a moderately successful security engineer.
  • Laundry novels: I haven’t finished these, but Bob apparently succeeds his boss as some kind of powerful undead.
  • Star Wars: Everybody’s happy. Later retconned to: And then it all happens again.
  • She-Ra and the Princesses of Power: She-Ra gets the girl.
  • Harley Quinn animated series: Harley gets the girl.
  • Rocksteady Arkham games: Batman has a really bad night, pisses off all his allies, and apparently kills himself and murders his butler. (Never got to that scene: too many Riddler trophies to solve.)
  • Sandman: Sandman racks up just enough maturity to realize that he can never change, so it’s better to die and get reincarnated.
  • Little Nemo: Nemo leaves Slumberland and takes a long airship tour. In his very last strip, he goes to watch a farmer shearing sheep.
  • In the Land of Babblers: Whether Beretos gets the girl is unknown. The political situation improves for awhile, but after a century it all goes to hell.

If we learn anything from this– and it’s unsystematic, so feel free to learn nothing– it’s that Smith is wrong: the hero does not always end up with power and romance. Even in pure power fantasies, creators seem to realize that endings are bittersweet, and the celebration often gives way to melancholy. And it’s pretty common for stories, even ancient stories, to end unhappily, or in a mood of existential angst.

Beyond that, as Neil Gaiman noted, if you prolong any story it becomes a story about death.

On the other hand, the next stage, according to Campbell, seems like nonsense:

Freedom to pass back and forth across the world division, from the perspective of the apparitions of time to that of the causal deep and back—not contaminating the principles of the one with those of the other, yet permitting the mind to know the one by virtue of the other—is the talent of the master. The Cosmic Dancer, declares Nietzsche, does not rest heavily in a single spot, but gaily, lightly, turns and leaps from one position to another.

I dunno. Do any of the works above end up with a master who “gaily leaps” from the mundane to the extraordinary and back? The whole idea of an epic, one could say, is that some great evil has to be ended so people can go back to a normal life. If you have to keep going, then you didn’t exactly take care of the problem. True, episodic series (Star Trek, Conan, Batman, the detective novel) have to keep going and keep creating new threats. But the price paid is that there is never any closure.

The Three-Body Problem

I just read this, by 刘慈欣 Liú Cíxīn, a name almost designed to confuse people who don’t know Chinese. You can get close to it with lyoh tse-sheen. His given name means ‘kind (and) glad’; the surname Liu has no current meaning, but happens to be that of the rulers of the Han dynasty.

I liked the book a lot, though I’m going to have trouble describing it, because it’s written in the form a mystery. So even saying what it’s about is a spoiler. This mystery is initially faced by a nanotech physicist, Wang Miao, and a cop, Shi Qiang. In the near future, they’re called to a strange meeting where they hear about a wave of suicides among top physics researchers. One of the physicists they meet is playing a virtual reality game called Three Body, and that gets Wang playing the game as well. Oh, and the book starts with a sequence set in the Cultural Revolution, focused on a very unlucky physics student, Ye Wenjie.

This sounds rather random and slow, but it’s a whole Chekhov’s armory. Everything ends up being connected and important.

I always skip the testimonials and other stuff that comes before the title page, and now I see that the very first page gives the plot away. But, well, I still won’t. I’ll say, though, that the trilogy of which this is the first book can be described as space opera.

So the first thing I’d say about the book is that it’s very tightly plotted, though it doesn’t seem so at first. And the second thing is that it’s pretty compelling– once I got going, I kept reading till the end.

It’s pretty interesting to see sf from a non-American perspective. Liu has said that he doesn’t write sf to comment on contemporary society; but he does of course write within it. American sf has tracked the corruption of our own society: classic sf came from a confident, ever-more-prosperous society, and largely projected that into the future; as plutocracy took over, sf plunged into endless dystopias. China has almost the opposite trajectory: two centuries of frustrating oppression, of which the Cultural Revolution was only a  part, and then a burst of dizzying progress. But while the Cultural Revolution lives in current memory, there’s not the same triumphalism of 1950s American sf. (In an interview, Liu mentions that Chinese sf is usually dystopian, and he’s considered an optimist.)

If you’ve read my China Construction Kit, that would be excellent preparation for this book, as you’ll already know some historical figures that show up here. (They’re explained in footnotes, but it’s more fun to recognize them rather than be told.)

I would say, on the whole, that Liu is like classic sf in that he’s more interested in ideas than in people. It’s not that he’s bad with people, or that they seem artificial; but it’s definitely not a character study, and for the most part they are fulfilling roles demanded by the plot. So, Wang is just curious enough to go talk to people and play the Three Body game, and react with the appropriate puzzlement or despair; Shi is the cop who doesn’t play by the rules but gets things done, on loan from every cop movie. It works fine, but Liu obviously has more fun when he gets to talk about string theory or the titular problem in celestial mechanics.

(One bit did seem unconvincing: a description of future technology involving a couple of protons. They seemed a bit overpowered. But it is future tech, which is after all pretty hard to talk about.)

One more thought, which I’ll leave in white to avoid spoilers. Liu makes a case that the existence of aliens would be terrifying news. The book has been compared to War of the Worlds, and it’s notable that both Wells and Liu are well aware of the problem of colonialism. China was a great victim of it; Wells had a guilty conscience about it. Americans, by contrast, barely got into the business of direct colonialism; they’re neither conquerors or conquered, so they’re far more likely to think about aliens as exciting and interesting. 

A Voyage to Arcturus

David Lindsay published this in 1920, and Ballantine re-issued it in the ’60s when they and everyone were waiting for Tolkien to finish the Silmarillion. I just re-read it; where Eddison is hit-or-miss, Lindsay is remarkable. Better than the Silmarillion, in fact.

I made the map below for my own use when I read it as a teenager. I wish I had a ball-point pen that fine today.

tormance

Lindsay has had many admirers, of many types: Alan Moore, Michael Moorcock, Harold Bloom, C.S. Lewis. Lewis notes that a reader may appreciate the weirdness shown in the first chapter, but will expect that it can’t be sustained:

Tormance, when we reach it, he forbodes, will be  less interesting than Tormance seen from the Earth. But never will he have been more mistaken. Unaided by any special skill or even any sound taste in language, the author leads us up a stair of unpredictables. In each chapter we think we have found his final position; each time we are utterly mistaken. He builds whole worlds of imagery and passion, any one of which would have served another writer for a whole book, only to pull each of them to pieces and pour scorn on it. The physical dangers, which are plentiful, here count for nothing: it is we ourselves and the author who walk through a world of spiritual dangers which makes them seem trivial.

Lewis is quite right. But let me step back a moment and set up the plot. Some posh Londoners are having a séance— the psychic, Mr. Backhouse, is a dour, uncharismatic man who promises a spectacle and duly produces one: a man materializes in the room. But an uninvited guest, Krag, mocks the apparition and snaps its neck. He then goes up to one of the other guests, Maskull, and asks him, “Wouldn’t you like to see the land where this sort of fruit grows wild?”

Maskull is interested enough to follow the man outside, along with his friend Nightspore. (Yes, Lindsay’s names are rather gothic.) Krag explains that he and Nightspore are traveling to Arcturus— specifically to its planet Tormance.

Well, it wouldn’t be much of a story if Maskull declined. He and Nightspore travel to a Scottish observatory where the trip is to start. Putting aside some atmospheric intrigue (the place seems long deserted): Krag appears with bullet-shaped vessel. They will use “Arcturan back-rays” to travel. These are light rays that strain to return to their source; they are used to propel the vessel.  Maskull falls asleep on the journey.

He wakes up naked and alone in a red desert, with scattered purple plants. Tormance is larger than Earth, so the gravity is overwhelming. Fortunately a native rescues him— a woman named Joiwind. By sharing blood, he is enabled to stand up and walk.

Tormance is one of the strangest planets in sf. Lindsay is no scientist, but he has plenty of striking ideas. The inhabitants are humanoid, but they— and Maskull— develop special organs: extra eyes, tentacles. One belongs to a third sex, the phaens, and gets new pronouns (ae, aer). There’s water you can walk on, terrain subject to brutal rearrangements, horse-sized insects, wheeling three-legged animals, trees that trap large animals. There are two new colors: jale and ulfire. You see, there are two suns; one has red, yellow, and blue as its primary colors, and the other has blue, jale, and ulfire. (As it happens, “primary colors” happen in our eyes, not in light, but it’s actually correct that if you had the receptors to see extra colors, you’d get them in pairs.)

(If you’ve read Out of the Silent Planet, Lewis’s sensoriness owes something to Lindsay. Most sf authors want to get down to colonizing or shooting or whatever, and neglect to tell us what it’s like to be on a completely alien planet.)

The structure of the book is episodic: Maskull meets one or two natives, talks with them, often develops whatever local organs they have. (Some of these special organs account for everyone’s ability to speak to each other.)  More importantly, each of the natives expounds an entire way of life, generally completely contradicting whatever the last one believed.

Joiwind, for instance, is a loving and benevolent soul— she has sensed Maskull’s arrival and walked many miles to rescue him. She lives on nothing but water, believing that even to strip a leaf off a plant is criminal. On the other hand, he soon meets Oceaxe, who comes from a land where the ego is king, and people do only what will benefit them.

If this is beginning to sound like a morality story— no, it’s much deeper and more surprising than that. Lindsay is very unusual in being able to portray characters of wildly differing moralities and let them explain themselves as well as they can. The reader can judge them, but none of them is the sort of cardboard figure that most authors produce when depicting someone of an ideology they dislike. Generally Maskull learns to act in accordance with the local mores; as he is a new element, this often leads to change and tragedy. He keeps moving, looking for answers. Here there’s a society of men only that despises all pleasure; here’s an musician whose art is so powerful that it kills anyone who listens to it; here’s a phaen who is driven to find a spiritual underground world though it is sure to kill aer…

All of this works surprisingly well: Lindsay doesn’t run out of novel philosophies, nor odd characters to explain them, and Maskull is a perfect foil— each encounter changes him, not always for the better, and compels him to act.

The show has to end somewhere, and one might presume that the final chapter contains Lindsay’s final point of view. What’s presented is a sort of Gnosticism— the universe is described as created by one god, but corrupted by another. And maybe that’s exactly what Lindsay believed— but I doubt it; books meant to end with a particular ideology of any kind usually get there much faster, and treat the alternatives far less graciously. Though Lewis talks about him “pouring scorn” on each viewpoint as he leaves it, that’s not the feeling I get. I don’t think Lindsay is writing a Gnostic tract with instructive moral tales about the failures of non-Gnostic approaches. It’s more like a catalog: look, here’s how the self-sacrificing and compassionate Joiwind speaks and acts; here’s how the entirely self-serving Oceaxe thinks and lives.

I didn’t find the last chapter satisfying, but I’m not sure what would have worked instead.  Tales of spiritual journeys are interesting only until the point when the protagonist has all the answers: even if you accept the final destination, the genre is about the doubts and slips along the way.

As well, up to that point the book succeeds despite almost entirely ignoring the normal notions of plot and character. Maskull wants to find out all he can about Tormance and its God or gods. That sets up the catalog, but it’s not a plot, and a childish part of me rebels at the end because, as a plot, the end makes no sense. Oh well… I usually find the endings of video games unsatisfying too.

Edit: There’s one near-constant in the ideologies Lindsay catalogs: suffering and sacrifice. That’s the one bedrock value that he seems to have, and it’s why so many of the stories end in death: the only worldviews worth having, to him, are the ones you’d die for. Almost the only exception is the land of egotists (including Oceaxe), and it’s hardly necessary to add any moral condemnation there; he simply shows the natural consequences of their views.

I should warn modern readers of one thing— Lindsay likes to play with gender essentialism. This doesn’t mean that he’s misogynistic (though some of his characters are). If anything, he does well with his female characters— and this is a rare classic sf novel which has plenty of them. And it’s worth remembering that feminism, circa the seventies, used to dip heavily into gender essentialism itself. But it’s in disrepute today, for good reasons— no one should be limited by what someone else thinks their sex should be like.

Since I quoted Lewis’s disparaging remarks on Lindsay’s style, I should also add that I don’t agree. I find Eddison’s style disagreeable; Lindsay is straightforward and quite readable. The wonder is in the ideas; there’s no need for him to dress up the style as well.

It’d be interesting to make the book into a video game. Faithfully, I mean— at least, as faithfully as it could be done without a monitor that can properly render jale and ulfire. It’d mostly be a walking (and talking) simulator. Imagine having to walk across the desert with Joiwind, for maybe an hour, and if you stop too many time to talk to her you both weaken and die.  I think it’d be a big big hit.

 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I just finished this, the 2010 novel by N.K. Jemisin.  It’s great. I wonder if in India it’s known as One Lakh of Kingdoms.

jemisin

The story: one Yeine, is chieftain of Darr, an insignificant barbarian nation somewhere in the north. But the entire world is subject to a single clan, the Arameri. She is summoned to the capital, where the aged patriarch of the Arameri informs her that she is now his heir. She knows a bit about world politics: she asks, doesn’t he already have an heir?  Oh, yes, two of them; they will fight out who will succeed him.

It’s a nice setup: as an outsider, Yeine is placed to discover how this strange and cruel clan operates (and explain it to us), and it looks like it’s going to be involve a lot of power struggles. And it does, though the story has a way of shaking itself and twisting into new forms, each time raising the stakes for Yeine and everyone else.

For one thing, Yeine is not quite so much a nobody as it seems at first. Her mother was Arameri, and was once the heir to the empire. But she renounced this position and went off to live with the man she’d fallen in love with, in Darr. (Yeine takes after her father, so she is brown-skinned where the Arameri are white.)

For another, there are gods involved, and not remote ones. Much of the story involves coming to understand the theology and history of the gods, so I won’t explain in detail. But the power of the Arameri over the world is because several of the gods are enslaved to them.

I think the thing I like the most about the book is how thoroughly it’s suffused with gods and magic. The Arameri believe they rule the world justly, but they’re ancient and corrupt and nasty. But they would be, with the power of gods at their fingertips. There are human plots for Yeine to worry about, but there are also divine plots.  She spends most of the book as a detective, uncovering each of them.

At one point she asks a counselor if there’s any important politician or family member yet to meet. He says no, not really, she’s met them all. Which isn’t very naturalistic, but it makes excellent narrative sense. There’s about half a dozen humans and about the same number of gods to worry about, and that’s quite enough. We don’t learn about very many of the hundred thousand kingdoms, but that’s just as well; it lets Jemisin close out the story in just over four hundred pages.

It turns out to be the first book in a trilogy, but I suspect Jemisin herself didn’t know that when she wrote the final words.  It doesn’t read like 1/3 of a story; it’s complete in itself and would be hard to continue in a conventional way.  (I haven’t read the next book, but I know that it has a different protagonist.)

If you haven’t read her, she doesn’t write anything like Neil Gaiman, but her material is similar: the mixture of mortals and gods, the deeply human motivations and imperfections of the gods.

There’s also something deeply subversive about the book— which is refreshing in a work of fantasy, which too often is enamored of old stone keeps and the old stony-faced tyrants within. All power is suspect here, including the gods’. At the same time, it’s not just that everything is weird and corrupt, as in China Miéville. The Arameri are presented as complex characters; only one is truly villainous. And Yeine is driven by the hope that at least some of the world’s ills can be put right.

Hanying!

When Against Peace and Freedom came out, I promised to create a conlang if I sold 200 copies.  That goal was reached awhile back; in fact the total now stands at 346. (Which is still, well, suboptimal. The LCK, by contrast, has sold over 10,000 copies.)

mars-month

But no matter, I decided to create Hanying, the language of Areopolis, and it’s finally done!  In fact, you really get three languages for the price of one:

  • Old Hanying, the English-Chinese pidgin that develops later in this century
  • Hanying Creole, the creole of a hundred years later, largely relexified from Brazilian Portuguese
  • Modern Hanying, the descendant of those languages 2700 years later, in Morgan’s time

Here’s a quick comparison. First, Old Hanying, where you can see the English and Chinese roots directly:

Xuputi xwo Fat “Xirtsun, bai kamyen, yo ženmin ma, dei meibi tiŋ dis xik, dei zhende xinren?”
Subhūti say Buddha / (World-lord), in future / have people Q / they maybe hear this teach / they true believe
Xirtsun represents Mandarin shìzūn and did not catch on in general.
Subhūti said to the Buddha, “Lord, will there be people who, hearing these teachings, have real faith in them?”

Next, Hanying Creole, which introduces many Portuguese words:

Xuputi xo ButaDonu, vo ta žẽči ke, tiŋ dis xik da ae sĩ krer da?”
Subhūti say Buddha / lord / future have people Q / hear this teaching sub and yes believe sub

And finally Modern Hanying, where sound change has ruined everything, and a mass of agglutinated verb particles have fused to form an intimidating verbal complex:

Subuti ləzešó soʔ Boz, “Orad, ləyoméžai uyeʔ lesəd šeso ləyozíŋar jerə ləyokəyér kæš?
Subhūti 3-past-say to Buddha / honored / 3-fut-irr-exist pl-person this teaching 3-fut-hear-sub true 3-fut-believe-sub and

Still to come: the 50th century alphabet.