Monday, March 2, 2015

The Faded Sun Trilogy: Kesrith, Shon'jir, Kutath

by C.J. Cherryh

57042grim, dry, melancholy, frustrating, riveting, endearing, and tragic are all good words to describe this moving anti-epic. well it looks like there are two more words to add to this list, moving and anti-epic. now how about another: bromantic.

grim: this trilogy is about a human and two members of an alien race known as the Mri, their long flight back to their homeworld and what they find there. this is not an "adventure". it is a stark, dark tale about how easily betrayal can be rationalized and, more importantly, how hard it can be to survive that betrayal if your version of survival equals never giving an inch to your betrayers - or your allies.

dry: this trilogy is austere and introspective, and Cherryh evinces little humor and lightness in the telling. yet the dryness works perfectly and never comes across as pretentious. she approaches her subjects in a careful, detached manner and that style is a perfect fit for her story.

melancholy: one character gives up everything. two characters lose everything. they do not spend much time in reflection on the things they lost, but that loss pervades the atmosphere and their characterization from beginning to end.

frustrating: it is not the novels that frustrate, it is the characters within. the Mri are a frustratingly pure race. they do not negotiate. they do not take prisoners. they view all non-Mri as un-people; the definition of "Mri" is "the People" while all others are "tsi-Mri", or "not the People". they do not bend, they do not yield. they are a hard people and the fact that so many others are set against them makes their single-mindedness even more frustrating. why in the world would a human want to become one of them? Cherryh makes that decision understandable and the harsh Mri strangely noble, without turning them into that infernal cliché, the "noble savage".

riveting: there is much that quickens the pulse. an attempt at genocide. dangerous journeys through wastelands. political intrigue. challenges and duels and games with throwing blades. how tough it is to travel in the dark of space. spaceships bringing fire and destruction upon abandoned cities. men learning to find true connection despite an automatic inequality between them. a woman becoming a strong and fearless leader.

endearing: the dusei are empathic bear-like sidekicks to the Mri. they are scary and adorable and a fully conceived alien species. Cherryh really outdid herself in creating these fascinating, wonderful creatures. she made me dream about them.

tragic: there are two horrific slaughters in this trilogy and they cast a long shadow on all subsequent actions in the narrative. the entire journey is suffused with such a deep sadness; the tragedies made this trilogy genuinely depressing but not in a way that made me want to stop reading - in a way that made me consider all such slaughters. I admired Cherryh's ability to make these tragedies so terrible and yet so resonant. these tragedies are what happen to people like the Mri, in science fiction and in our own real world.

moving: and yet ultimately this is not a depressing work. there is much that saddens and despair is woven throughout the story. but this isn't about the end of a people; this is about how a people can perhaps survive, on their own terms. and it is a story with flawed, real characters who will stay with me.

anti-epic: do not expect sturm und drang. despite everything I listed under riveting and tragic, the music this trilogy plays is all in minor notes. things are not made to be larger-than-life; instead they are precisely the size of individual lives, no matter how great the stakes. it is not operatic, it is intimate.

bromantic: at the heart of this saga is the story of a friendship between two men, a human and an alien. watching this relationship evolve into something real and lasting was amazing. the (platonic) love that grows between them is the foundation of the entire trilogy; it is the best part of these excellent novels.


Monday, February 2, 2015

Lilith's Brood

by Octavia Butler
contains the novels Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and Imago


from the Earth Journal of Scientific Analyst SLJLK92349UO, Earth Invasion Exploratory Unit

one thing became clear to me as I read this trilogy: Octavia Butler is not partial to the human kind. oh, humanity: violent, vengeful, and vicious; petty, pitiful, perpetually proud. avaricious and all too willing to prey on their own. as a fellow visitor to this planet, I can only view Butler's perspective as one that is in line with my own. and so this was quite an invigorating experience given the overabundance of naively pro-human novels in the science fiction genre.

the story, in broad strokes: humanity destroys itself... the starfaring race of the Oankali arrive to pick up the pieces by saving what few humans remain on their blighted planet. these saviors of humanity offer them a sort of bargain: join with us - literally - and be reborn. it is not actually a bargain because humanity does not have much say in the matter. predictably, humans seethe and rebel against this kindly offer. my cynical self can't help but think that the main reason humans resist the compassion of the Oankali is because a large number of tentacles are involved. oh, racist humans! the trilogy follows the lives of three individuals: the woman who paves the way for a joining of the two species, and two of her children - two different kinds of human/Oankali "constructs".

Butler correctly assesses humanity's tragic flaw: a genetic tendency towards hierarchism at every level. a flaw that on the micro level leads to an inability to form relationships based on equality - and in the macro, one that could easily lead to the end of humanity's home world as they know it. oh, humanity. Butler writes in simple, straightforward prose, in what I imagine to be a chilly, neutral monotone. her style of writing makes the reading experience a deceptively simple one. but this is not a simple work. there is so much to contemplate throughout this series, in particular the idea of essentialism in terms of basic human nature: in gender roles, in the propagation of the species, in the ability to form families and other necessary social units, in the ways that humans think and act and react. science fiction as a genre once had at its core the idea of "speculation" - what would happen if this concept was introduced, what would happen if that idea changed a world. Butler's trilogy is a part of that excellent tradition and these books are challenging in the best sort of way: they force the reader to speculate on their own limited natures, on their own individual decisions and on the future of their kind. Lilith's Brood imagines where humanity's ultimate path may lie if they continue to give free reign to their basest genetic impulses - and then she imagines another path.

it should go without saying that Butler is ultimately in favor of the Oankali way. as a race, they are not without their own rather endearing flaws. but compared to humanity? well, that's like comparing a human child's scribblings to the works of the relatively advanced human Da Vinci. it was quite refreshing for me to read an alien invasion saga that is so resolutely on the side of the sensible "aliens". it was also fascinating to witness Butler's iciness gradually melt away, slowly revealing herself to be a rather tender individual who fully endorses the spirit and acts of cooperation and connection and joining that are necessary for any species' ongoing survival. her calm, dry-eyed observational skills are merely the outer shell of a person who values above all else such things as curiosity, compassion, and the concept that to live is to change. all beings are works in progress.

I have observed humanity as well; indeed, that is my entire mission on this planet. I hesitate to say that I am more sympathetic to the species, but my robot heart does have a certain fondness for this stumbling, bumbling race - a sympathy that a being from Butler's own insect species would most likely find quite foreign. well, I have been programmed for both sympathy and empathy while such emotions are often eschewed by her culture. I suppose such differences in perspective will be reconciled once our joint invasion of Earth commences.

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Thursday, January 22, 2015

Top Ten Books Read in 2014

in no particular order:

The Story of Harold  by "Terry Andrews"

- life is all small moments, that’s what’s important, all those mundane moments that accumulate and create a life, a good life – life is good, it really can be! – you didn’t expect the novel to take a breath and suddenly affirm life –

Mortal Leap by MacDonald Harris

Dead-Soul Boy runs away from home; he becomes a merchant marine and travels the world. Dead-Soul Boy sees the world through his dead, dead eyes. does Dead-Soul Boy's soul ever come alive? stay tuned!

Miracleman Vol. One by Alan Moore

Here be dragons, and unexplored territories - at least in 1985, before Watchmen. Alan Moore Had his ideas and themes already perfectly formed, his darker directions already mapped out. His smart deconstruction and reconstruction of comic tropes and hero archetypes never blunt his story's visceral shocks or disguise its messily emotional foundation. The dialogue and narration move from angst-filled realism to surreal poetry. His Miracleman moves from knowable to unknowable.

Endless Love  by Scott Spencer

I can't explain why I love someone. I can explain the things I like and love about them, the details... but explain the love itself? who can do that? I think love is one of the unexplainable things in life. it can't be quantified.

Secret Hours by Michael Cisco

he is unique. his stories are often about a state of mind. spiritual transformation. mental degradation. crazed emotional highs and lows. metaphorical landscapes. terrible forms of transcendence. intellectual terrors. chthonic excavations.

Memory  by Lois McMaster Bujold

this is a wonderful novel about figuring out that who you are does not equal your job or your birth name or any specific, singular role or title; rather, it is the sum of all such things, and your experiences, and your internal workings, your actions and your potential, your ability to change or not change, and so much more. you = not easily summed up in one word.

The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner

when it comes to love and other obsessions, "yesterday" and "tomorrow" are mere constructs

Montana Gothic by Dirck Van Sickle

a meditation on loss. it is bleak and beautiful; a tall drink of icy cold water; a dark, sad dream of a book.

Lilith's Brood: Dawn, Adulthood Rites, Imago by Octavia Butler

Butler correctly assesses humanity's tragic flaw: a genetic tendency towards hierarchism at every level. a flaw that on the micro level leads to an inability to form relationships based on equality - and in the macro, one that could easily lead to the end of humanity's home world as they know it. oh, humanity.

Lucia in London by E.F. Benson

Has fair Riseholme itself been superseded? It cannot be! Well, as we sort out this dreadful mystery, at least we are still able to sit back and enjoy Lucia make short work of London's tarsome social mores and strictures. No one knows how to climb more swiftly than Lucia!

special bonus favorite: favorite novella read in 2014:

"Pale Horse, Pale Rider" by Katherine Anne Porter

...who is this new Miranda who has seen death up close, who has lived and loved and lost and died and been reborn... who has made death her friend? why, she has become Katherine Anne Porter, of course.