Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christopher Hitchens - God is Not Great

Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning: the argument at the center of God is Not Great is not a subtle one or a moderate one, not something with which accords can be reached or with which peace can be made. Hitchens doesn’t set out to fire an opening salvo but to deliver a complete strike and a killing blow. In his own words, his goal is to prove that the usefulness of religion is in the past, and that its foundational books are transparent fables, and that it is a man-made imposition, and that it has been an enemy of science and inquiry, and that it has subsisted largely on lies and fears, and been the accomplice of ignorance and guilt as well as of slavery, genocide, racism, and tyranny. (p. 229)

Unsurprisingly, that grand lack of subtlety where the problems start setting in. Far, far too many of Hitchens’ arguments fall into the same trap. After fiery but rational openings, they leap farther, into wild and unsupportable overstatement, leaving their strengths and weight far behind. The first example of this the reader’s to experience is right on the cover. The volume’s title, God is Not Great, is a suitable one, exemplifying Hitchens’ desire to show the evils perpetuated by the divine. And then, those buying the book in America are treated to its ghastly subtitle: How Religion Poisons Everything, a claim so hyperbolic as to be near parody. (Those in the UK, I should point out, do get the far superior The Case Against God on the front of their book.)

Christopher Hitchens argues through specific tales and events rather than through abstractions. Many of these tales come from his personal experience, many sections and assertions open with In northern Uganda in late 2005, I sat in a center for the rehabilitation of kidnapped and enslaved children… (p. 188) or I once joined these potential adepts and acolytes (p. 195) and the like. Hitchens lived an incredibly worldly life, experiencing far more than most ever could or will. Despite that, these arguments backed by anecdote are all unable to, by themselves, carry the day.

This can be most clearly seen, I think, in the book’s second chapter, Religion Kills. The majority of its page count is devoted to an answer Hitchens gave to Dennis Prager, a religious broadcaster, when asked, if a large group of men approached him at night in a strange city, if he would feel safer were they “just coming from a prayer meeting.” (p. 18) In response, Hitchens discusses experiences that he had in – to stay within the letter ‘B’ (ibid) - Belfast, Beirut, Bombay, Belgrade, Bethlehem, and Baghdad and why, in those situations, he felt “immediately threatened” by that “group of men […] coming from a religious observance.” (ibid) Each of those six experiences is interesting, well presented, and thought provoking.

All of that’s enough to justify Hitchens’ flippant answer – “No,” (p. 28) needless to say – to Prager’s question, and, considering the breath of Hitchens’ answer and knowledge and depending on how much the reader finds his or herself swayed by his arguments, might even be enough to somewhat justify his claiming that religion is “an enormous multiplier of tribal suspicion and hatred, with members of each group talking of the other in precisely the tones of the bigot.” But to go from there to the chapter title that Religion Kills is simply silly and would require a broadening of the argument not even attempted in the chapter’s pages. It’s well proven here that religion can kill (or as he puts it at one point, faith and worship can make people behave very badly indeed. (p. 242)), but is there anyone who would even challenge such a truism?

Hitchens’ style of attack is excellent for laying to waste certain aspects of religion, for assailing sects and leaders, for showing the dangers and flaws of faith. But it proves ineffective for taking down the edifice of religion as a whole, and Hitchens even seems aware that it's ill suited to the task and unfair if used for it: I do not say that if I catch a Buddhist priest stealing all the offerings left by the simple folk at his temple, Buddhism is therefore discredited. (p. 185) But he makes that very error time and time again. The chapter There is no “Eastern” Solution, to give but one example, begins with a discrediting of a “celebrated guru” (p. 195) known as Bhagwan. Hitchens’ claim here is that these religions are centered on a distrust of and abandonment of the intellect, and he illustrates the dangers of this by showing how Bhagwan fleeces his followers and abuses them horribly. But this is no more a discrediting of all gurus than the presenting of one guru who does not steal and rape would be a validation of all of them.

This death-by-a-thousand-cuts kind of assault on religion is also one badly damaged by factual errors. When discussing religion’s insanities, Hitchens tells us that Orthodox Jews conduct congress by means of a hole in the sheet. (p. 54) That’s outright false and utterly unsubstantiated, and its presence amidst a list of other, equally appalling acts of the faithful, serves to make the reader question the whole thing. All the rest certainly sounds convincing, but, after all, if I didn’t happen to have Orthodox relatives, would I know the above falsity to be just that? Mind you, I don’t think that Hitchens has penned a volume of lies, not at all. Rather, I think that Hitchens, in his drive to stick every injustice he could find on faith, let a few inane rumors sneak right through  his critical faculties and research skills and land on page fifty-four of an otherwise fine work. Nonetheless, its presence there is a damning one that makes it just that much harder to trust every other line and example in the volume.

But let's zoom out and move away from the particulars for a moment. A problem, maybe even the problem, with this whole How Religion Poisons Everything subtitle and thesis – and a large part of the reason why such an overstated subtitle/thesis is so laughable – is the good that religion rather undeniably does in the world. This is where, in my opinion, Hitchens falls the hardest, looking out from his view of religion and, based on its so-hostile tenants, then trying to claim that just about every good thing religion’s ever done is nothing but the faithful inadvertently acting on essentially secular/humanistic principles. He acknowledges that “charity and relief work” might “appeal to tenderhearted believers,” but claims those things to be wholly consequences of “modernist and the Enlightenment.” (p. 192) But that’s absurd, seeing as charity was a fundamental part of the Christian church all the way back to Roman times.

Things get more egregious still when it comes to the poaching of individual believers and their accomplishments, particularly Martin Luther King, Jr: At no point did Dr. King […] even hint that those who injured and reviled him were to be threatened with any revenge or punishment, in this world or the next, save the consequences of their own brute selfishness and stupidity. All things that I, and I suspect most, would agree with, and perhaps, one might think, a reason for Hitchens to soften and acknowledge that some good can come from men of deep faith. Not at all, as it turns out. Instead, he, from this, concludes that King was, in no real as opposed to nominal sense, then, […] a Christian. (p. 176) It’s of course easy, Mr. Hitchens, to make the case that religion has had no good practitioners when you swoop in and claim that all goodly and godly men were not in fact godly.

So after all that criticism, I suspect my long time readers (if I’ve any left after all this and if I ever had any and if those I hypothetically do have ever thought I was particularly good at all this criticism stuff) are quite convinced I’m about to reach my conclusion, my dismissal of Hitchens’ overwrought, overstated, and too narrowly (and sometimes too unfairly) argued attack on religion. Not at all, as it turns out.

God is Not Great is a luxury car with the misfortune of having a maker convinced that it can fly and who, as a result, enters it into all sorts of competitions designed for helicopters and airplanes. This book is never going to sway a believer, prove the nonexistence of God, prove the malevolence of all believers, or disprove all the good things religion’s ever done. Truth be told, despite its own proclamations and subtitle, it’s not really designed for even attempting such a thing, and its few tries are rather weak, though admittedly quite impassioned. No, the roads this finely made automobile was meant to drive were more earthly ones, focused on the fallacies and flaws and weak humanity inherent in the practice of the religions and their leaders that it discusses.

Maybe the key part of all this is Hitchens’ prose. His might be the most fiery, caustic, dancing, biting and clawing writing that I’ve ever read, remorseless and witty, calculated to sting and cut, and fiercely intelligent. This is the kind of writing that will run roughshod over all boundaries, is near guaranteed (maybe even designed?) to cause offense, and is also prone to overshooting its mark on occasion, but the destructiveness is an integral part of its splendor: We shall have no more prophets or sages from the ancient quarter, which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday, sometimes ratcheted up to screaming point so as to ward off the terrible emptiness. (p. 7) Countless times when reading I found myself laughing out loud, caught somewhere between the venom of the words and the ludicrousness of the actions described.

I’m tempted to go on like that for ages, but I’ll refrain. Similarly, I’ll avoid a recounting of all of Hitchens’ arguments. Such a thing might have proved interesting, but, on the points where we broadly agree, it’s no doubt better to let the author speak for himself than to rewrite his text here. Suffice to say, though, Hitchens on the warpath is a sight well worth seeing, and one that spits out immeasurable fascinating thoughts amidst its bile.

The final thing I want to discuss is Hitchens’ treatment of humanism, his alternative to religion. Taking refuge in the middle of all Hitchens’ anger are moments of joy and awe that are just as much a part of the whole, a reverence and respect for science and the natural world. Though Hitchens doesn’t outline what he thinks is needed in place of religion, he does give hints as to its character – and, of course, he defends it against religion’s counterattacks.

In the chapter An Objection Anticipated: The Last-Ditch “Case” Against Secularism, Hitchens deals with one of the most pervasive arguments I’ve seen against atheism, namely the bringing out of its own tyrants and the discussion of the crimes of “secular and atheist regimes. (p. 229) Some of the section is given to specific and factual linkings between religion and fascism and its crimes, and it’s quite successful at a fair bit of that, but the more interesting part, for me, was the discussion of totalitarianism in general. Hitchens says that totalitarianism – as exemplified by, say, the reverence towards the communist ruling party – should not be viewed as the opposite of religion but rather as, essentially, another form of it. Towards this end, Hitchens provides a very interesting quotation from George Orwell’s The Prevention of Literature: A totalitarian state is in effect a theocracy, and its ruling caste, in order to keep its position, has to be thought of as infallible. (p. 232)

It’s a very interesting and well done section, and convincing in its way, but I can’t help but feel that Hitchens is here missing, or at least slightly dodging, the point. When most people say religion, they do not mean simply fundamentalism of any sort, and saying that the proper antithesis of secularists like Hitchens is not religion but all forms of dogmatic belief seems going too far. Hitchens may – and, of course, does – favor and encourage questioning and inquiry rather than dogma, but that doesn’t change the fact that atheists as a group are not defined by this questioning but rather by their lack of belief in god. Throwing all of the uncritical atheists back to the other side and saying they’re not wanted feels too much like (to use an example pertinent to this blog’s general focus) a literature professor pulling out all the good Science Fiction stories, pointing to the (almost by definition rubbish) remainder, and saying that, see, it’s a worthless genre after all.

It’s only in the tail end of the section that Hitchens gets to what is, in my eyes, the real reason that comparisons to Hitler, Stalin, and other monsters are not a real refutation of atheism. Humanism has many crimes for which to apologize, he says. But it can apologize for them, and also correct them, in its own terms and without having to shake or challenge the basis of any unalterable system of belief. (p. 250) It’s true that Stalin and his ilk were atheists, but they are not in any way revered or held up as paragons of unalterable virtue in the way that the biblical prophets by definition are.

When all’s said and done, God is Not Great is a fascinating read that’s sure to provoke a reaction out of you. I think this is a work as dominated  by its flaws as its successes, and it’s not one that I can wholly endorse or agree with. It is, nonetheless, an interesting and impassioned one, put together by an erudite author skilled with a pen. Hitchens is absolutely brilliant with specifics, and it's well worth it for the interested, in my eyes, to read this for those delectable and wrathful examples and expositions, even if some of the overall conclusions may not be nearly as roped in as one would like.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Publication: Twitter Story on Nanoism

I wonder if anyone remembers the Twitter Stories I mentioned a few months back. But even those of you who caught that post, and read the two published pieces (one of which can still be read here), did not hear the whole story. See, there was a third piece. I wrote it at the same time as the others, sent it off, and... waited.

Well, no, that's not quite right. As it was so short, I didn't really include it on my normal story spreadsheet. In fact, I kind of forgot all about it. Which made it all the more surprising when, just a few days ago, I received an email from Nanoism telling me that they'd accepted it and, oh, by the way, were publishing it that day. Not exactly bad news. And, since I'm a firm believer in spreading such good tidings (or something like that), I figured I'd give you a link. If you've any interest, come check out my latest (very, very, very short) story here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Angel: Season One

At the close of Buffy the Vampire Slayer's third season, Angel, everyone's favorite vampire with a soul, left Sunnydale to start a new life (and, it seems, show) in Los Angeles. After drifting about and punching some vampires in an aimless, albeit satisfying fashion, he's approached by Doyle, who, with a direct line to the "powers that be," ends up being able to point Angel at those most in need of aid. Before long, Cordelia wanders back into the picture, the three of them have christened and set up Angel Investigations (We Help the Helpless), and the show's off and running.

Though both Buffy and Angel take place in the same world, and though there are a fair few overlaps, Angel differentiates itself from Buffy quickly and surely. First off, the tone here is totally different, dark, urban, and adult, rather than the high school (well, now, college) metaphors and snarky humor that make up much of Buffy. There's still humor here, of course – it's a Joss Whedon show, after all – but it's less prevalent. Less standout hilarious lines is, of course, a sad thing, but the show's atmosphere makes up for it.

The biggest difference between the two, though, is the lead character and, tied with that, their reasons for fighting. Now, each does pit an abnormally powerful individual against the forces of darkness and all that, but Buffy does so in a fashion similar to a super hero concept. She's light, they're dark, she kills them. Angel, however, is noir to the bone, and the show loves to play with the clich├ęs of the genre, right down to the broke white knight detective against the world. Central to that is the fact that Angel is not like Buffy, cast as a savior by fate. Rather, he fights because he chooses to, and, though he's multiple opportunities to step away, to join the system and gain its power or even to be happy and free, he refuses to stop.

The greatest moments of heroism and character in the show, though, come from those around Angel. For the season's first half, the stage is often stolen by Glenn Quinn's Doyle, and it's his climax in Hero that is by far the most powerful and most affecting of the show's heroic moments. Coming soon after his departure is Alexis Denisof's Wesley Wyndam-Price. Now, I know I was rather hard on Wesley in my review of Buffy's third season, where he acted as an amusing but redundant stickler for the rules, but things are a whole different ball game here, and his determination, knowledge, vulnerability, and occasional incompetence are all damn effective.

Of course, while the standard noir hero is just one man fighting impossible odds, he is also intrinsically not just any man. The very fact that he alone refuses to go along with the system serves to differentiate him, making him – whether he be Hammett's Continental Op, Chandler's Marlowe, or any other detective you care to name – something fundamentally separate from those he's fighting for. In Angel, though, our private detective is not the same as those around him save for his determination. Angel is a vampire, as much a creature of supernatural strength and unnatural night as those he slays. For the most part, the show manages to either slide by this or, when it does bring it into the spotlight, play it as a wrathful avenger, a monster kills monsters type deal along the lines of, say, Dan Wells' recent I Am Not a Serial Killer.

At times, though, things are handled far less deftly, namely in the episodes She and War Zone. Angel – who, besides being inhuman, is a rich white man who, despite resolutely failing to charge the vast majority of his clients and having no other apparent source of income, lives in spacious quarters and drives a snazzy car – approaches, in one, oppressed women and, in the other, poor black children forced into a gang to survive the vampires attacking them. Each time, those in the group, at first, and rather reasonably, doubt Angel's ability to help them. And, each time, Angel proves that he can help anyone and everyone, regardless of their problem or situation, boiling the prejudices and difficulties against the groups into handily punchable opponents. The episodes aren't awful, but they both feel oversimplified and leave Angel a white knight with armor so bright and pure that it ends up defying belief, ironically making what could have been the show's grittiest episode (War Zone) into one of its most uncomplicated and superheroesque.

Most episodes, though, fair far better, thriving on the show's darker atmosphere and more adult tone. Many, like I Fall to Pieces and I've Got You Under My Skin, are genuinely creepy, even terrifying, to an extent that I can't remember anything on Buffy being. Others, like the Ring, are simpler but no less effective, while some – such as Eternity and the absolutely stunning Somnambulist – create incredible character arcs and portrayals in just forty minutes.

All of that's not even mentioning Five by Five and Sanctuary, the season's two Faith episodes, taking place immediately after Faith flees from Buffy. These two are made entirely of the rare moments when absolutely everything comes together, humor and tension and terror and more, to make something astounding. Faith, by this point, is utterly insane and utterly deadly, and her every moment is fantastic, but it's the conflicting reactions of Angel and Wesley that make the arc. Angel, the do gooder with the past of atrocities, can let no one go, can never acknowledge that there is a point after which redemption is impossible. Wesley, meanwhile, was brought up under the harsh and specific rules of the Watchers Council, and even that's before what Faith does to him in Five by Five.

From those and other episodes, much of Angel's worldview can be seen here. For him, it's never too late to turn around and redeem oneself – but, at the same time, there's no one harder than those who choose not to. Late in the season, in Blind Date, a member of Wolfram and Hart finds himself beset by moral qualms and wonders whether he should step away from the organization. Angel, after listening to him attempt to whitewash his own actions, shows damn little sympathy:

Lindsey: [We were] dirt poor. No shoes, no toilet, six of us kids in one room. And come flu season it was down to four. I was seven when they took the house. They just came right in and took it. And my daddy's being nice, you know? Joking with the bastards while he signs the deed. So yeah, we had a choice. You got stepped on or you got to stepping. And I swore to myself that I was not gonna be the guy standing there with a stupid grin on my face while my life got dribbled out.

Angel, after pretending to fall asleep: I'm sorry, I nodded off. Did you get to the part where you're evil? (Blind Date)

The organization that Lindsey works for there, the guys in suits that make up the system that Angel and the down and out must fight, are the season's big bad, or would be if the show ever really got around to the supposed center of its plot. The majority of those fantastic one episode arcs build to nothing and, though the shadowy law firm of Wolfram and Heart recurs in the shadows and in an increasingly adversarial way, we never get a glimpse of who they are or what they're trying to do.  By the season's end, Wolfram and Heart have decided that Angel's their foe because he's interfering with their operations, but it's not possible to get even the faintest idea of just what he's interfering with or just what they'd be doing if he wasn't around.

In addition, as Wolfram and Hart's made up entirely of humans, with a security system that seems primarily made up of hope that they won't be attacked, it's difficult to see why Angel doesn't just burn the place to the ground. He's even shown to  break in with nigh no trouble multiple times, but doesn't bother to destroy his foes, because… huh. Not particularly sure on that one. Besides which, Wolfram and Hart has the same thing. Yeah, they send the occasional super powered hitman after Angel towards the season's close, but why they don't do so with, say, a dozen at once, or why they don't go after those squishy mortals who like to help Angel, is hard to say. Not to mention that their final plan – bringing back a throwaway vampire from Buffy's first season that, yeah, maybe have sired Angel but never did anything interesting or important – is not quite making me quake with terror yet.

But while Wolfram and Hart still need to be explored in far greater depth, the show's got time and seasons yet, and what's here in season one is, for the most part, fantastic. The dark, urban atmosphere that Whedon and co have here birthed is oppressive and gripping, the characters at once flawed and larger than life, the plots at once complex and satisfying. All in all, Angel seems a more than worthy spin off to Buffy.

Standouts: Five by Five, Sanctuary, Somnambulist, Blind Date, Hero

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

K.J. Parker - The Hammer

You can have justice, or you can keep the peace. Can't have both. (p. 379)

Though I can hardly call myself an expert in Parker's work, I have read The Folding Knife and the Engineer Trilogy, and the similarities between The Hammer and the latter of those two are unmistakable. Some of those are superficial, like how we've here, as we had there, a scene involving the urgent construction of some strange tool to save a man's life. But that pales compared to the rather larger similarity of a world, one filled with conflict but set in its ways, disrupted forever by a single freethinking man that fled the established order, outthought everyone else, started a factory, revolutionized the economy and technology of all those around him, had an ulterior motive, and changed everything.

Now, a similarity that gargantuan's a bit hard to overlook, but alright, fine. It was a great concept the first time, and I trust Parker as an author. Surely, she could make it work again, and surely she wouldn't shoot for the exact same payoff. Well, she didn't. But that's where the book's more serious problem lies. The Engineer Trilogy showed its hero of sorts undertaking a huge task, but that was just the beginning. Momentous as the factory was, it was the path to something much greater. Using a comparatively simple mechanism, the main character shifted the entire world and did something that, though tragic, was unmistakably incredible, grand, and all sorts of words like that. The Hammer, alas, plays out in rather the opposite fashion. Our factory builder, Gignomai met'Oc, does have an ulterior motive, but rather than being earth shaking, that motive's far, far smaller than what he seems poised to do. The novel's earthshaking rhetoric and epic build were all just smoke and mirrors. Amusingly enough, all that large scale stuff does end up happening, after our personal payoff, and it does so off screen and without any real fuss.

It's something like if you went to a great stage magician's show, and she took to the stage with a school bus behind her, and she gave a long speech about how she's going to lift the bus into the air with the power of her mind, then reshape it into a statue, or what have you. Then she takes a spoon out of her pocket, bends that, and wanders off. The spoon bending was all well and good, and might have been quite impressive in other circumstances, but it's rather hard to not feel more than a tad disappointed after all the buildup it got. Then, as you're walking to your car, the magician stops by and, in a section entitled Five Years Later, tells you that she actually did all that was promised, only she did it after the lights were out and everybody'd left. She briefly alludes to how interesting it might've been to see if only she'd let you, though, so there's that.

Why is this such a problem? After all, in her aforementioned stand alone, The Folding Knife, Parker plays out the drama of one man's life on a grand stage. What makes that not work here, though, is that, unlike in The Folding Knife, the characters are not only unsympathetic but also unreletable. Some are cold and distant, others are only presented to us in that way, but we can grow close to none of them. That's not necessarily a problem in an epic, but it certainly is in a personal story about one man's obsessions. Like Vaatzes, Gignomai interacts with people as if they're objects, as if he's a "scientist" and the world's but a culture for him to fool around with and bend to his will, life just an "experiment" for him to manipulate to his satisfaction (p. 217). That could work for a man unfeelingly shaping nations, but when his goal is a familial one, I, at least, felt little more than the vague disappointment that comes when a great power is used for some minor end.

Of course, Gignomai's not the novel's only character. He is, though, the only one with any mystery to him. Through the entire novel, I can only think of one genuinely and emotionally human moment, and it takes place very near the end, though I won't say exactly what it is to avoid spoiling the text for those who've yet to read it. That one moment struck me, added untold depths to the character who expressed it, and made me, for a few brief moments, really feel the human consequences of Gignomai's actions. If the rest of the book had been like that, it would've been heartbreaking and immeasurably more powerful. But the rest of the characters, besides Gignomai and that one other flash, are concepts given flesh and blood, walking playthings for Gignomai to shape as he chooses. Amusingly enough, many of them are even aware of this. The town's shopkeep and mayor even begins to think of himself as a "properly greedy man" (p. 300) before all that long. The explanation for this could, I suppose, be that Parker's only capable of writing obvious characters unless, as she does with Gignomai, she simply hides everything about them, but I don't think that's true. After all, though it focused on much of the same themes as The Hammer, the Engineer Trilogy had several complex and fascinating personalities, and The Folding Knife had its riveting star, Basso. Leaving that out, though, I really can't say why most of the characters here fall so flat.

The distance is reinforced by the prose, though there is still a huge amount of Parker's always stunning irreverence towards traditions, loyalty, and life itself: [He] had no idea how to kill a man with his bare hands. It turned out to be one of those things you can pick up as you go along. (p. 342)
But when you laugh – and laugh, I think, you will – you're not laughing with the characters, even if they made a joke. You're laughing at how much more than them you know, even if it's not much, and at how terrible things are and will grow, and at how deserving they are or are not for the fate that you know that's coming.

Even when Parker relates her character's thoughts directly, the prose is still distant. We come to see these people, and we come to understand them, but we never really come to sympathize with them. Midway through the text, we see that Gignomai looked up so fast he banged the top of his head on a cross-beam. He felt a strong pulse in his scalp, and something wet dribbled down over his forehead. (p. 279) We see the physical and emotional effects of the story in every detail, we know why Gignomai hit his head and what happened afterwards and that blood dribbled down, but we see all this through a lense, and the detail that's never mentioned is whether this hurt, and we're certainly never made to wince alongside him.

This is, I realize, a really negative review. I should, likely, qualify it a bit. I didn't hate The Hammer. I even enjoyed reading just about every minute of it, loved the writing, was intrigued for most of it, and finished it in two days. But the book's ending was more a whimper than a bang, and the fact that, for all its interesting aspects, it was building up to nothing, rather trashed my fond memories of most of the experience. This isn't the kind of book where you cheer for the hero, and, because there's never a tenth of the way credible opponent, it's also not the kind where you wonder for even a moment if that hero's going to win. In the end, the The Hammer's the kind of book that's experienced through a lense or a microscope, with the reader not at all a part of the action and along just to see how things turn out, and, well, they don't really turn out at all, at least not on stage in any of the ways we might've been tempted to see.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

George R.R. Martin - Tuf Voyaging

The plague star twinkles but little, shines down upon the land with a clear bright light. This is wrong, I told Janeel once; a plague star ought to be red. It ought to glower, to drape itself with scarlet radiance, to whisper into the night hints of fire and of blood. This clear white purity, what has that to do with plague? That was in the first days, when our charter ship had just set us down to open our proud little trade complex, set us down and then moved on. In that time the plague star was but one of fifty first-magnitude stars in these alien skies, hard even to pick out. In that time we smiled at it, at the superstitions of these primitives, these backward brutes who thought sickness came from the sky. (p. 14-5)

Tuf Voyaging opens with a planet bound glimpse of the orbiting Ark, a ship of the long lost Ecological Engineering Corps that, now abandoned, rains plagues down upon the surface of a ruined world. Our focus soon shifts upwards, as Haviland Tuf, the Tuf of our title, gains control of the ship and its near unlimited power. Though composed of eight distinct short stories, this is a collection with a strong arc, and it's one of power, responsibility, maybe even divinity, and – let's not forget – more inventiveness and wit than your average author can dream of.

The first and longest tale, The Plague Star, brings us to that celestial doom bringer and forces us to cower, antlike, before its mass. Like almost all of the collection's pieces, we are relegated to a somewhat distant view of Tuf, but here we don't see him as a titan come with benevolence or malevolence but rather as a man, a down on his luck trader hired to be the most expendable part of a crew made of near nothing but, hired to take them all to a prize so vast they'd all gain wealth beyond comprehension if they could secure it. Of course, as soon as Tuf's Cornucopia of Excellent Goods at Low Prices ferries their crew of retired soldiers, bodyguards, cybertechs, and career criminals to the colossal Ark, things fall right to hell. The Plague Star shows every character gunning for every other, a free for all filled with violence, cleverness, and trickery amidst the echoing corridors and dormant cloning tanks. Before long, a handy tide of delightful monsters and plagues have joined the fracas. Yeah, it's clear from the get go who's going to be relaxing on the bridge at the end of all the shooting, but that doesn't detract one bit from the mayhem. This's a rather different tale from the collection's others, focused more on action than theme, and it's likely the most fun, even if not the best.

From then on, with Tuf in firm (and sometimes not so firm) possession of the Ark, the collection becomes the story of his change (or, depending on your interpretation, lack thereof). In each of the tales to come, Tuf is presented with a seemingly impossible ecological problem and must find the solution. This is where, in my opinion, some of Martin's most colorful creations can be found. Handed the life-generating powers of the Ark, with the limitations and to some extent necessary realism of long form work removed, Martin lets his imagination fly here, presenting us with a variety stunning sights and ideas. In Guardians, for instance, we see a war between horrors beneath the sea and those in the seedships vast cloning vats: To hunt the drifting fire-balloons [Tuf] brought forth countless fliers: lashtail mantas, bright red razorwings, flocks of scorn, semi-aquatic howlers, and a terrible pale blue thing – half-plant and half-animal – that drifted with the wind and lurked inside clouds like a living, hungry spiderweb. Tuf called it the-weed-that-weeps-and-whispers. (p. 235)

The height of all that, though, is likely A Beast for Norn, which readers of Dreamsongs have experienced in slightly different form (along with, actually, the also just mentioned tale Guardians). A Beast for Norn has Tuf visiting a planet famed for its gladiatorial combat, each of its great houses pitting its monsters against the next. That, of course, is a situation just waiting for a man with a titanic vessel filled with all the great beasts of the ages, and so it proves, Martin somehow managing to balance a stylish and moral tale with exhibiting a menagerie resplendent with potential and sheer fun.

Tuf's genesis, Martin reveals in Dreamsongs, was an attempt to generate a proper series, one centered on a "larger than life" (p. 563, Dreamsongs) character who "the readers would enjoy following story after story." (p. 562, ibid) To say that he succeeded is an understatement of the kind that Tuf himself might find rather excessive. Tuf is a vegetarian and a pacifist, the possessor of untold power and unmatchable physical strength besides, a fussy and fastidious man, as obsessed with formality as he is irreverent towards the customs of others. He's implacable and huge and hairless; his only sentimental attachment is his cats – named Dax, Suspicion, Doubt, Hostility, Ingratidue, and Foolishnes to commemorate the rude treatment he receives at his various ports of call – and he often extols the virtues of the feline to any and all who will listen (or, of course, that must listen). And none of that's yet touching on his fantastically dry wit. At one point, a military officer tells him that his seedship is "impossible," for "the EEC was wiped out a thousand years ago, along with the Federal Empire. None of their seedships remain." Tuf's response, in all its wry glory: "How distressing […] Here I sit in an illusion. No doubt, now that you have told me my ship does not exist, I shall sink right through it and plunge into your atmosphere, where I shall burn up as I fall." (p. 206)

But there's a troubling, thought-provoking, and nigh unforgettable core beneath all the collection's levity.  As things proceed, a truth soon becomes clear. It is not enough, and is not even possible, to simply solve the environmental symptoms of the problems that Tuf encounters. No, he can liberate the men he finds from the consequences of their mistakes, but he knows that, as he departs, they will make those mistakes again. And so Tuf changes again, and he begins to alter the men themselves.

The center of the collection's arc is the trio of tales set on S'uthlam, a world beset by overpopulation and long ago exceeded resources. The first time, Tuf tries to save them with simple technology. But, as he is shown again and again, there is no possible solution that is merely technological. So Tuf, witnessing a universe filled with problems, and aware that he has the ability to solve them, steps in to fix them. It's something he must do, he argues, no matter how much the people of that world wish him not to. Failure to decide, because you lack the right, is itself a decision, (p. 438) he says. Tuf remakes the worlds around him to match his own ideas of progress.

The dilemma of right and intervention is an interesting one, but the true blow from all this comes from the reader's own realization. Each of the collection's tales is an escalation from that preceding it, both in moral complexity and in the scale of Tuf's intervention. And while I'm sure the exact point each reader begins to feel queasy will vary, that moment of revelation will come, and it's that revelation – the realization that the reader has been blithely supporting this remaking, unconsidering and as unable to see beyond Tuf's exterior as the characters – that gives such awful power to Tuf's debatably megalomaniacal declaration to the man named Moses in the second to last story, Mana from Heaven:

"I was born human, and lived as such for long years, Moses. Yet then I found the Ark and I have ceased to be a man. The powers I may wield are vaster than those of many gods that humans have worshipped. There is not a man I meet but I could take his life. There is not a world I pause on that I could not waste utterly, or remake as I choose. I am the Lord God, or as much of one as either of you is likely to encounter.

"It is a great fortune or you that I am kind and benevolent and merciful, and too frequently bored. You are counters to me, nothing more – pieces and players in a game with which I have whiled away a few weeks." (p. 382)

Tuf Voyaging is the story of a man turning into a god, though whether it's a benevolent or malevolent diety he becomes is a question best left to each individual reader. This is not a collection that can be enjoyed in the same way as some of Martin's other work, like his landmark A Song of Ice and Fire. Reading, you don't sympathize with Tuf and, really, there's never any doubt at all about whether he'll succeed. This is, nonetheless, an excellent read well worth the attention of any of Martin's fans or any Science Fiction, a narrative of spectacle and humor with enough depth to comfortably envelop Tuf's vast ship.

[Note: all page numbers from the Meisha Merlin limited hardcover edition]

Friday, November 25, 2011

Robert McCammon - The Wolf's Hour and The Hunter from the Woods

My review of Robert McCammon's two Michael Gallatin novels, The Wolf's Hour and The Hunter from the Woods, is now up at Strange Horizons here.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

This Week's Review...

This week's review will be coming on Friday, when Strange Horizons posts my review of Robert McCammon's two Michael Gallatin works, The Wolf's Hour and the Hunter from the Woods.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Four

If you'll allow me to paint with a broad brush, I'd characterize Buffy the Vampire Slayer's evolution something like this: after the interesting but flawed first season, the second was a tightly plotted and gripping endeavor, where a relentless plot, driven by a brilliant villain, was underscored and aided by moments of character revelation. The next and third season, meanwhile, was less plot focused, instead allowing the characters, and their interaction and growth, to shape the story. When the main story gets started it's lackluster, but even that's nothing compared to how it takes nearly half the season to jerk into its sorry excuse for motion. The first nine episodes, and a fair few later ones, are concentrated filler, devoid of real character or plot growth, farce only made somewhat passable by witty dialogue. [A warning: SPOILERS follow.]

Looking back, I think the pattern for season openers is rather clear, now: Buffy is in a bad place psychologically, and, by the episode's end, she's pretty much reverted to normal. This worked brilliantly in Anne, the opener of last season, but is, here, rather less successful. In The Freshman, she needs to adjust to college life and the freedom that it offers after being beaten up by a big, bad, super scary collegiate vampire. Once she decides, eh, it'll still probably die if she stakes it, she's good to go, and we're off. Ish.

Character growth?
One of the biggest, or at least earliest, changes between this and earlier seasons is the setting. Buffy and pals have now graduated high school, and, as the first episode – The Freshman – shows us, they're now off to college. But Buffy never becomes a show about college in the way that it used to be a show about high school. Classes are rarely shown, little of the campus is particularly interacted with, and nigh no attempts are made to really bring the overall place to life. About all this, Spike at one point says: You know how it is with kids. They go off to college, they grow apart. Way of the world. This is, of course, a dark thing that must be fought against and all, but, really, it's quite true. Deprived of the established location and feel of its prior sets – both due to moving on in the world and to them having been blown to hell at the end of Graduation Day – the show feels in some ways without a center, something certainly exacerbated by Xander and Giles, neither of which are attending the school, the latter for obvious reasons. They spend the season trying to prove their continuing relevance and largely failing. Giles drinks, is amusing, and is superfluous; Xander goes from odd job to odd job, hangs out with Anya, and develops no life at all outside of his old friends who have, as he notes, rather left him behind. 

Willow, meanwhile, has by far the most, and maybe even the only wholly, effective long term arc of the season. For the first time since season two, Oz must face the consequences of his lycanthropy, but things, expressed through his growing fascination for both the wild and for fellow werewolf Veruca (Paige Moss)), aren't so easy to solve this time. Without ever breaking his trademark stoicism, Oz realizes he's no longer able to so easily continue being the man he once was with the beast inside him raging, and he departs. Soon after, Amber Benson's Tara comes into the picture, a witch on or beyond Willow's level. More importantly, the chemistry between the two is fantastic. All of which sets up one of the season's most tragic, yet perfectly understandable moments: when Oz returns, later, and finds that, though he's managed to reclaim who he once was, everyone else has moved on.

Profundity?
Most Buffy episodes, and all of the best, straddle the line between humor and drama, making us laugh and also making us care. Most of season four's earlier episodes, on the other hand, fall right off the line and land smack in comedy, earning some fair laughs but possessing nigh no staying power. Beer Bad, in which we learn that alcohol of all varieties turns men in to cavemen, is likely the clearest example of this. It's also not the only one to try the moralizing game, and it's not the only one to fail. Pangs is about the rise of a Native American spirit determined to avenge the wrongs done to his people. The episode focuses on the morality of even opposing such a force. As Willow says: Thanksgiving isn't a-about blending of two cultures. It's about one culture wiping out another! And then they make animated specials about the part where... w-with the maize and th-the big, big belt buckles. They don't show you the next scene, where... where all the bison die, and Squanto takes a musketball in the stomach! (Pangs) All well stated and all, and I'm certainly not going to say the Native Americans deserved smallpox or anything like that, but equating a battle against the spirit with the trail of tears is absolutely idiotic. Want to know the difference? It's rather simple. The Native American in question here is dead. There is no longer a peaceful reconciliation. This is not a question of how to treat a people, but rather of whether it's the duty of all Sunnydale citizens to die at the hands of a corpse for crimes committed by their distant ancestors. Forgive me if I'm not all that conflicted.

As usual, there are some magic-focused episodes, and, as usual, they're amusing as hell and have the aftereffect of making everything a damn sight and a half less believable and consistent for episodes uncountable to come. Something Blue's here the main example of this, though Superstar certainly fits the archetype. Something Blue shows Willow accidentally wreaking havoc with a spell gone wrong. But, while the idea of Buffy and Spike getting married is a damn amusing one, this episode faces the same problem as a lot of the show's more magic focused episodes, namely that it entirely breaks… well, everything. If Willow can cast a spell to make her every whim reality, why've the gang yet to resurrect their foreign allies, slay their enemies, and wished for boatfuls of cash to boot?

The main plot of season four has a ton of potential, at least on paper. It addresses one of the aspects of Buffy I've always found lacking, namely the rest of the world's reaction to the whole vampire thing. Well, here, the government gets in on the game with the Initiative, a force of commandos posing as college students (…because) that capture and experiment on vampires and the night's other assorted beasties. The organization's two aspects are summed up in two characters (each of which ends up passing that torch along, but more on that in a bit). First there's Marc Blucas' Riley Finn, a soldier who exemplifies the dependable soldier archetype, determined to do good and sure he's doing it. Then there's everyone's favorite mad scientist, anything to get the job done figure, here Lindsay Crouse's Maggie Walsh, played cool and disapproving throughout.

Buffy, of course, comes in contact with the Initiative (or, well, she does after spending half a season doing nothing much), and she does so through Riley, who she begins to date, not knowing his penchant for night time camo and morning pushups. The drama here seems obvious… which is part of why it's so disappointing when it doesn't bother to show up. The Initiative's initial reaction to her being a Slayer is essentially "Oh, huh. That's odd," which is shortly followed by Maggie's decision that killing her would clearly be a good idea. So, alright, we skipped a few steps and most of the subtlety, but we're at least heading interesting places, right? Things are no longer as simple as demons bad, people good, and Buffy might have to face the implications of…

Moral complexity?
Oh, wait, never mind. That's not how it happens at all. Actually, Maggie Walsh is quickly bumped off by the fruits of her mad science, George Hertzberg's Adam, who is a Frankenstein/Prometheus character desirous of understanding and transcending the boundaries of mortality. He's not a bad character, even if he is a familiar one, and his detached musings do make a decent combination with his strength, but he's a simple character and turns it all into a simple situation. In the past, Whedon's proven a master of twisting the situation so that he can approach complex themes through simple metaphors, but here, having Adam signify everything that's bad about the Initiative in a nicely killable and demonic form deprives the set up of all its interesting parts. With its dangerous element gone, the Initiative – now sans Riley, who's been forced to question everything he's held dear in the one somewhat effective part of all this – bumbles around, irrelevant except when it wanders into the way of someone more important.

One of the side effects of all this is Spike, who's captured by the Initiative towards the beginning of the season. He escapes, but not before they put a chip in his head, and he finds himself suddenly unable to harm any living thing. The initial scenes of this are hilarious, with Spike attacking Willow, finding himself unable to bite her, and her then consoling him for a moment (You're being too hard on yourself. Why don't we wait a half an hour and try again? (The Initiative)) before bashing him on the head. All the same, it really does seem for much of the season that his character and magnetism might've been broken in the shift to impotence. He spends his time hanging around in Giles' house and then Xander's basement, doing nothing much at all, and the revelation that he can still hurt demons, though it seems placed to allow him to really join the good guys' side, doesn't end up amounting to much. It's only at the end, when Spike joins into an alliance with Adam, that he gets his agency and drive back, and his scenes again feel like they've a purpose. I love Spike, he's my favorite character by far on the show, but I hope that, if he's going to be staying around long term, he's given more to do in future seasons than wander about in Xander's cast off clothing.

In the end, Buffy defeats Adam, the Initiative is disbanded because demons are too dangerous to try and harness (because everyone knows the government usually gives up on incredible power just because it's dangerous), and things're just about restored. The main plot, though not awful once it gets going, is never that great. Like all the way back in season one, it's the side stories and one offs that here hold the power, chief among them Hush. The idea of a television episode, let alone one of such a wit-driven show as Buffy, being silent save for music for most of its length is a rather iffy one, on paper. In practice, though, it's one of the strongest episodes of the entire show. The villains, the calm and sophisticated looking Gentlemen and their horrifically demented helpers, are fantastic, and, here, the inability to scream heightens the terror immeasurably, casting every space, no matter how wide or populated, as the site of a claustrophobic nightmare.

It's not the only excellent episode, though. Where the Wild Things Are also successfully builds tension, atmosphere, and drama, something perhaps aided by how, with Buffy and Riley (ahem) occupied, the show needs to turn to its other elements. For character moments, though, Faith's two episode return is impossible to top. Over its course, as Buffy and Faith find their places quite literally switched, the two are forced to, to some extent, come to terms with the other. It's a concept that could have devolved into melodrama, but the excellent dialogue (humorous and anything but), tension, and Buffy's anger make it anything but. These episodes are fast moving and hard hitting, resplendent with all the energy, terror, and raw pain that made Faith's demise at the end of the prior season so unforgettable.

Season four's not awful, but it's certainly nowhere near the standards set by its predecessors. The main plot is slow to develop and only adequate when it does, and the side stories often fail spectacularly, leaving us with a show that often feels like it's coasting on its past success and only able to reach higher through its (excellent) dialogue. And then come episodes like the ones just described, and suddenly everything's back in place, and the quality level's as high or higher than it's ever been. Here's to hoping Whedon and co can, next time, keep those highs and, just maybe, find a main plot with a touch more spark…

STANDOUTS: Hush, This Year's Girl/Who Are You?, Where the Wild Things Are

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Peter Straub - If You Could See Me Now

After a prologue in which our child protagonist skinny dips in a quarry with his cousin love, and in which the two vow to meet again come twenty years to the day, If You Could See Me Now opens with its first person narrator, a now-aged Miles Teagarden, returning to the rural town of his youth. For him, the past is not done with. No, to him the past is something that inescapable and desirable, something that could, would, should be repeated indefinitely, that it was the breathing life in the heart of the present (p. 49). As the novel progresses, and as the date of Miles' promised meeting with Allison, his love, nears, he finds himself drawing deeper into a past more complex, horrible, and inviting than he could have imagined, a past that still colors the fabric of Arden and the surrounding farmland and decides the way that every man, woman, and child of the area views his return.

And oh, oh how I wish I could end this review's opening there, keep it as a discussion of intrigue and inevitability that carries the implicit promise of brilliant fulfillment. I was really looking forward to this book after all the things I'd heard of Straub, and the opening pages did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm. Alas, what followed did a more than ample job of that. This is a novel devoid of emotional impact due to a series of bizarre developments and stylistic choices, and it's also a novel that seems determined to, by the time the last page's turned, have undermined and shattered every one of its thematic conceits. A warning before we begin: there will be SPOILERS.

The center of our tale and its problems is, of course, Miles Teagarden. Miles is a narrator as detached as they come. Near the beginning, he mentions that he has "olfactory hallucinations" (p. 20). He smells things that are not there, a visceral reaction with no rational reason. Swap emotions for smells, and that's not a bad description of the reading of this novel, except that, where Miles says his hallucinations (which never play a major role in the plot) are "disquieting and unsettling," (p. 20) their effect on the reader is more one of disassociation. It's not that Miles never explains his actions, and it's not that he never shows emotion. No, he does quite a bit of both of those. It's just that there's a profound disconnect between the two. The decisions that Miles mentally agonizes about seem to have almost no resemblance to what he does, and his reactions to events seem to vary between disproportionately extreme and utterly muted.

We never come to have the slightest understanding of Miles as a person. He comes from a big name university back east, but we receive no glimpse of it. He is writing on D.H. Lawrence, but thinks about Lawrence maybe one or two times in the entire novel. Before long, he's abandoned that project, and instead spends his days writing… something, it's never really revealed what, but he certainly goes and does whatever it is a lot. Besides that, he hangs out with various people and does various bewildering things like pretending to shop lift and, for reasons undecipherable, ripping up paperback books in a bar. Okay. By their very nature, the actions here are building to nothing, and Miles is such a distant character, and one so devoid of sympathetic traits, that there's little reason to care about his odds if they were.

A large part of this is that we're not clued in to major swathes of the motivations that Miles does have. Some measure of the town's hate can be explained by Miles' outsider status in a time fresh after a murder, but the personal animosity and hatred he receives – the pastor delivers an entire sermon against him personally – beggars belief. Indeed, hints soon start to accumulate about Miles' past, references to dark deeds and the terrible outcome of his cousinly swim out at the quarry that we glimpsed the beginning of. Then there are the statements that are littered through the narrative, first person accounts given by the townspeople to the police of Miles' actions, and the way that each of these differs so strongly from the way that Miles himself depicts those events. The final revealer comes not long after, when Miles takes the letters he's been mysterious letters he's been receiving, tied to dear Allison, to his old buddy (or so he thinks) the Police Chief, and the Chief says that the addresses are done in his handwriting.

Alright then, right there, case closed. Fellow readers of horror, say it with me, as we've seen it so many times: Miles is insane. Clearly, we've trespassed into the territory of unreliable narrators, here, and our protagonist is either lying or utterly clueless about what's going on. From there, it's not a far leap to get to the source of all the townspeople's hatred, of Miles' longing, of the disparate clues littered about the narrative. Allison is dead, likely ever since that night at the quarry, and it seems our boy Miles had something to do with it. All this is put on the table a short while later, a reveal just before the second part begins, albeit a reveal explicitly stated on the back cover, because evidently nothing entices people to read a novel quite like giving them the twist.

So, our supernatural cards on the table, things turn into a waiting game as the 21st approaches. Straub's primary method of building otherworldly tension relies on dreams and the like, which might be fine, except that the sense of evil never leaves them, never crosses over the clearly marked line and into the main text. Yes, there're moments of terror, even one or two when Miles' eyes aren't shut, but they're all kept well away from the main scenes, and there're warning signs a plenty as they approach. Much like how the monster isn't scary if it agrees to go away at a particular time, these scenes do little to contribute to an overall feeling of dread.

The whole thing is built up as love, love gone sick and perverted and twisted, a real life reenacting of the tragedy of Duane's "dream house," ineptly built to fit his love and left empty and broken forever. But for all this to work, the reader would have to care for Allison, would have to feel the strength of the narrator's bond with her as well as it's darkness, and, like how there's little reason to feel such fear, there's no reason at all for the reader to love Allison. She's never glimpsed again outside of the prologue, and the characters of the novel ,save the narrator seem to have almost totally forgotten her. She wasn't some avatar of kindness, and, though we're told she was a spirit of freedom, our only evidence of that is that she had sex with a variety of men that included her teacher. And here we are, two decades later, and the narrator's never been able to truly love anyone else.

Anyway, on the mundane level of the town of Arden, tensions continue to grow. Miles manages to discover the events of that night at the quarry, and who Allison's real killers and rapists were, namely Duane and the Police Chief. He responds to this revelation with sulking, they with limp anger. Meanwhile, as a third girl of Allison's rough age has gone missing, the town is in an uproar. Though there's the matter of his absolution for Allison's death, and a red herring or two, the reader's prime suspect is (or, at least, mine was) Miles. After all, his actions are still bizarre, and surely some kind of madness must lie behind his coming to meet a dead girl, his bizarre actions throughout the novel, and the detached and irrational way in which he speaks and acts.

But… no. Actually, the returning dead girl is – brace yourself – evil! And Miles realizes this with rather little fanfare, just mute acceptance. After wondering whether to just wander away for a bit, Miles decides to go to the quarry on the night of her return, though there's no better reason given than that it would be "where it would end." (p. 302) He sits through the night, and it looks for a second like he really might be mad, like he might be "stranded alone in only the human world," (p. 308) and faced with the knowledge that he did kill those kids. But wait! Nevermind, there's our climax, just running a bit behind schedule, and, after the ghost kills those who killed her twenty years ago, he gets to blow her up with some gasoline and run out of a burning house. Day saved.

If You Could See Me Now seems to be setting itself up as a story of tortured love, about how we can never escape our pasts. That's a story that, here, is crippled by the fact that we're never given a reason to care about that past. Even the concept falls down and collapses when Miles does glibly overcome his past and burns his old love to hell in a nice action movie finish, before driving off into the sunset, his every action having apparently been normal, his questions answered, and his revenge gotten without him having to dirty his hands. I know this is a damn well regarded novel, but I can't for the life of me see why, and I can't think of a single aspect that hasn't been done better elsewhere.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

H.P. Lovecraft - The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

In his life, H.P. Lovecraft wrote only three novel length works, the second of which was The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft thought the tale poor, calling it, in a letter to Barlow, a cumbering, creaking bit of self-conscious antiquarianism (p. 389), and he never made any attempts to publish it. In the time since, however, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has come to be considered a more than worthy addition to Lovecraft's body of works. This is a human story, one where characters and their aims dominate the stage, and, perhaps stemming from that, this may be Lovecraft's most plot focused work. [Two brief notes before we begin: First, SPOILERs will follow. Second, all page numbers come from the Penguin Classics edition of The Thing on the Doorstep and Other Weird Stories unless otherwise noted.]

Though things generally do progress in a chronological manner, the power of the plot does not come from a traditional escalation of events and tensions but rather through successive revelations. Frequently, the importance of events cannot be discerned until well after their passage, and, in the novel's first half, our protagonist, dear Charles Ward, is himself attempting to unravel the dark past surrounding his ancestor, Joseph Curwen. In addition to that, not only is the reader trying to piece together facts, and not only is the character, but the narrator, too, is writing with an outsider's eye, combining numerous sources to try and comprehend the true happenings of the tale with varying degrees of success.

The downsides of such a style can be felt strongly in the opening. After the intriguing first section, we switch to a view of Ward's youth that is filled in endless historical details, near no tension, and that does, alas, serve to justify a bit of Lovecraft's dismissal of the work. But, soon after, disquiet seeps into the narrative, something that only serves to grow, often exponentially, as Ward's probing turns from the innocuous past and to its darkest aspects. When, in the story's final chapters, we do finally understand the tale's core and events surge forward, the scholarly detail and multiplicity of sources from which it's been compiled, lend the text an air of powerful authenticity, leaving the reader not feeling like they've been told of great and dark happenings but that, through their own insight and research, they've discovered those happenings themselves.

One result of this is Lovecraft's prose throughout the story. Lovecraft's style can be, perhaps, said to consist of two interlocking parts. First, there's the scholarly side, something superficially aided by his intentionally archaic spellings and diction but really coming forth in his approach to detail, in how many of his stories start with what could serve as the openings to essays, and in the erudition he always displays. Then there's his penchant for climax and even hysteria, the moments of startling eloquence where his words seem as grand and immortal as the farthest reaches of whatever he's describing, as well as, alas, his oft parodied excesses.

While both of those are, to some extent, present in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it's by far the former that predominates. With only a few exceptions, the majority of the text's first, say, two thirds, are devoid of stylistic flourishes, and those that are there, interestingly, are often of a more positive or beautiful nature, brief reprieves from the darkness that, depending on the mindset of the soul seeing them, may or may not be perceived: That he said nothing of antiquarian rambles in the glamorous old city with its luring skyline of ancient domes and steeples and its tangles of roads and alleys whose mystic convolutions and sudden vistas alternately beckon and surprise, was taken by his parents as a good index of the degree to which his new interests had engrossed his mind. (p. 141) It's only far later that Lovecraft's writing takes on any of its sometimes-donned oppressive weight, layering and filling the sections spent in the bowels of Curwen's home with, at once, a sense of dark majesty and of nigh irresistible claustrophobia.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward has, I think, some of Lovecraft's strongest work with character. Now, mind you, I don't mean that in a third person limited point of view, follow them around and know their lives sense. What I do mean, though, is that, as we accumulate and acquire facts that allow us to understand the characters' actions, we begin to see the characters themselves. In large part precisely because of how little of his inner workings are ever shown, Charles Ward becomes a tragic figure, his passions and light wholly subsumed into the darkness brought on by Curwen's influence. The other figures, too, receive depth through the narrator's assembly of their story's, but the most interesting aspect is the contrast between Curwen and Ward.

As the novel progresses, and as Ward loses more and more of his humanity, we see several letters, written in a dense and anachronistic style, between Curwen and his confederates, not a one of them any longer mortal in the traditional sense. And the fascinating thing is that, in marked contrast to Ward's obsession, these letters are, in places, positively warm, showing evidence of a genuine friendship amidst the deepest darkness: I rejoice you are again at Salem, Curwen writes, and hope I may see you not longe hence. I have a goode Stallion, and am think'g of get'g a Coach, there be'g one (Mr. Merritt's) in Providence already, tho' ye Roades are bad. If you are dispos'd to Travel, doe not pass me bye. (p. 130)

On the surface, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward seems to fit snugly within the mythos and their thematic implications that Lovecraft is so (justly) famous for. To sum things up in the briefest manner possible, the mainstay of Lovecraft's fiction focuses on man's place in the universe, and how that place is wholly insignificant, irrelevant, ephemeral, and so on and so forth. The Call of Cthulhu, to pick what's likely his best known work, or The Colour out of Space, to pick what's likely my favorite of the lot, both focus on man coming to terms with the wider world and being brushed aside, trampled, and ignored, surviving only because forces greater than he don't care enough to extinguish him any more than we'd wage a global war against ants.

Here, the surface details do seem to match up. Not only does this happen to be the first place where the recurring Mythos entity Yog Sothoth is mentioned, the tale's horror comes from a man venturing beyond the spheres of mortal and sane life and even past time (p. 203). In fact, in its focus on the dark sides of science and progress, the story serves to illustrate the so-famous opening paragraph to Call of the Cthulhu: The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age. (p. 355, H.P. Lovecraft: The Fiction)

But The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a human story in a way that the majority of the Mythos' centerpiece tales are not. Of course, this is not the only instance where the great beyond has its human familiars, or even its dark sorcerers, but Jospeh Curwen and his associates are different from the crazed cultists of the Call of the Cthulhu, the degenerate Whatley of the Dunwich Horror, or whoever else you care to name. Curwen, see, is in control. He ventures "beyond the spheres," yes, and does things no mortal ever could, but he himself is the architect, and his aims are, in their twisted way, human ones. It's not interdimensional monstrosities that he creates from his essential saltes (p. 90) but rather the titan thinkers of all ages (p. 186), and, though his aims may alter all civilization, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe (p. 186), their acts in doing so are driven by humans with their ends also being comprehensible in nature, even if their means are not. This is not a tale of man discovering the entity greater than itself that will destroy us, but rather of man discovering powers beyond what can be conceived and destroying itself.

Of course, this interpretation can be contested, especially with regards to the recurring warning throughout the text to never call up Any that you cannot put downe. (p. 190) And Curwen, after all, is, it's implied, killed the first time by a creature that he lost control of. But I think the fact that any control at all was possible, no matter that he lost it in the end, show this to be an exceptional case in Lovecraft's Mythos. After all, can you imagine a man, no matter his ultimate fate, slapping a saddle on the back of Cthulhu or, for any time at all, directing a shoggoth?

All that, though, is not to say that there is not a free and supernatural agent in the text, for there is, but – and here's the amazing thing – it's actually a force for good, and one called, one must not forget, more by a well-meaning character's bumbling than by dark designs. The rising of the entity, that which was therein inhum'd (p. 190), that Willet accidentally calls to life forms a damn excellent climactic moment, but its implications are far greater than just that. It's this man, whose identity can never be confirmed (though that does nothing to diminish the fun of speculating i), that strikes the greatest blows against the unnatural practices of Curwen and his cohorts, a man capable of wielding stronger weapons (p. 195) than the simply mortal. That benevolent and supernatural force, and the happy(ish) ending it brings, are certainly anomalies in Lovecraft's so-strictly amoral Mythos.

The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is a fascinating and, once it gets going, gripping novel that's far greater than Lovecraft himself thought. I don't think I'd recommend it as an entry point for the man's work – there are far more immediately enthralling tales, and it'd likely be best to understand the core of Lovecraft's Mythos before venturing to their outskirts – but this is nonetheless a necessary read for anyone looking for a complete understanding of Lovecraft's writings, Mythos, and thoughts.It's damn difficult to find meaning in a world where life can be created and dissolved by the mad, where the laws of society and nature are just playthings for the powerful. And yet, with the text's close, the men perpetrating the evil, if not the ability for the evil itself, have been destroyed, and the evidence of their actions undone. True, Ward has fallen victim to his tragic need to know and understand, and those around him will never be the same, but the world does go on. Maybe, if we stay huddled in our corners and never stray too far, it'll stay that way. 

Monday, October 31, 2011

The Metamorphosis of Jane Doe

A few weeks ago, the website hosting my second published story, Linger Fiction, ceased lingering. As I've always thought I should have a sample of my fiction writing here on this blog, I've decided to post it, and Halloween seems as good a day as any and better than many. So, enjoy...

Jane went because she hated herself, hated her life.

"Change," she told herself in the vacant lobby, past the empty elevator shaft, and onto the stairs. "Change," said as she pressed on a door with a hole where the knob should have been.

The room beyond was a studio apartment with linoleum floors and bare walls, all weakly illuminated by an electric lamp on its side. The odor was an olfactory hallucination, a rank impossibility in such a building: an all too real antiseptic – nauseating in its intensity – covering a natural aroma, a smell like entrails and sweat, dirt and hard sun.

"Change," whispered to herself, a prayer and a talisman.

A figure was hunched over in the far corner, beating his fingers on the ground, claws clacking on the tiles. "In or out," he said, breathing out lazy rings of smoke. "Come or go."

"I heard you can change me."

He wheezed and laughed. "A predator, right? Something with claws and guts, something that doesn't back down?" He threw his cigarette, and it rolled to a stop by her leg, smoking impotent on the ground.

He stopped laughing. "I'm always fucking right," he said. His head was surrounded by distant gold, a dull halo in the shadows.

Jane's head was swimming. "I don't want to be me anymore," she said, thinking of John.

He stood up and tottered over to her, features flat and furred. "It will all be okay," he said, grip too tight on her arm. "Might want to shut your eyes."

"Will it hurt?" she asked.

"Change isn't easy. Never as simple as you think it'll be." Then he was fumbling with something in the darkness, and the needle was sliding into her flesh. "And you never know what you're going to get."

He shoved her down, and she landed on her hands and knees. The antiseptic stench was parting, now, gates coming wide to reveal what was beyond. She felt lost, felt found, felt like her body was made of dripping cement.

"It's not like that," he said. "Not visiting some guy and telling him what you want to be."

Her eyes were wide open but she couldn't move. Her limbs were loose and weighted, her flesh flowing like a silt-filled tide.

"No one else can make you assertive," he said, then he dropped to all fours beside her, circling her with a natural gait that made a mockery of her crude writhing. His eyes shined in the dark.

Her nails dropped away, but prey's hooves came instead of hunter's claws. He was straddling her now, his too-large jaws just above her tender throat.

"All others can do," he said, "is hunt you down."

Jane Doe, prey to the end, didn't struggle beneath him.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Stephen King - Skeleton Crew

I've often heard that Stephen King's as good a writer of short stories as he is of novels, or – from some – that he's even better in that form, but my one experience with the man's short fiction, Everything's Eventual, did anything but confirm that opinion. Still, Everything's Eventual collected stories written relatively late in the man's career, and, as I've now said many times on this blog, all of the man's later works have failed to live up to his earlier, in my opinion. So we come to Skeleton Crew, the second collection from the man that many consider the greatest of all horror writers, and the man that – if the bibliography in this very volume's to be believed – is not only the bestselling horror author but the best selling author of all time. Does the collection live up to the man's reputation? Yes and no, really. Almost everything here's at least enjoyable, but there are two or three or more limpers for every homerun. But, of course, those homeruns sure can fly.

One of the things that I found most interesting in the collection is that many – though certainly not all – of the stories here are of a very different kind of horror from what King generally writes.  For a while now I've divided horror into two general groups: stories where the horror comes from the characters/humanity, such as the majority of King's work (The Shining, Pet Semetary, etc), and then stories where the horror comes from the unknowable world around the characters, Weird Fiction ala Lovecraft. Many stories here fall into that latter category, The Mist foremost among them. The Mist is, of course, the highest profile story here, initially released in the horror superstar anthology Dark Forces and, more recently, made into a movie and, as a result, released as a brief standalone volume (though why that would improve on the collection I've no idea). The reasons for the story's success and prevalence are damn easy to see: put simply, The Mist is one of King's best tales.

As always, King proves himself an incredible writer of people. Our narrator, David, and his wife and son are forced to huddle away from a ferocious summer storm. As they do, King humanizes each of them with quirks of diction and action, as well as the touching and believable ways that they interact with one another. Later, King extends that to the story's secondary characters, often establishing entire personalities with only a line or two, like when the narrator explains that he didn't care for Bud Brown, who seemed to fancy himself the Charles de Gaulle of the supermarket world (p. 51) or one of the descriptions of Mrs. Carmody: The easiest [person] to pick out was Mrs. Carmody in her blazing-yellow pantsuit. She looked like an advertisement for yellow fever. (p. 54)

The story proper gets started as a mist begins to approach from a nonsensical direction, a mist so dense that nothing can be glimpsed from within. As it comes, David and his son are, along with much of the town's population, in the only nearby supermarket, and it's there that they're trapped, for strange and horrible creatures walk the mist, monstrosities made up of tentacles and monolithic size that have turned the mist-drowned world into an alien hell unimaginable. The mist is change inescapable and catastrophic, and the heart of the story is the way that the ensemble cast reacts. Some collapse in despair, others refuse to believe what they be, blind themselves with regulations and routine, or try and escape their situation by fixating on an increasingly malevolent god.

Amidst all this, though, King refuses to give in to defeatism. His writing is dark, often and in this case punishingly so, but he still will not let go of the worth he sees in humanity. Carrying the fire was a very big deal for him, the narrator writes of his son. It helped him forget about being afraid. (p. 28) And it does more than that; by the end, the characters are, for all that they know, alone, and it's only their will that keeps them and all going. But King's optimism is not a blind one, and his triumphs are never easy or certain. I know that I've very often criticized the man's endings, but the ambiguous final scene of The Mist is absolutely perfect, filled at once with hope and horror in equal measures.

If The Mist challenges King's optimism, Survivor Type does its best to hack it off with a buzz saw. This  is a story of human determination, and, while reading, it's almost impossible to not think that, sometimes, it goes too far. But, as the narrator says, the only mortal sin is giving up. (p. 423) As we begin, the narrator's trapped on an island, alone and with no food. His fate seems sealed, but he disagrees and will always disagree. The center of the story soon becomes this question: How much shock-trauma can the patient stand? (p. 407) And the answer: How badly does the patient want to live? (p. 407) Well, our narrator wants to live very badly indeed, and, as the tale progresses, is forced to cut off and eat his own limbs to survive. This is a sickening story, that I won't deny, but it's written so compellingly, and with an undercurrent of the most perverted idealism, that it's impossible to ever look away. I won't be forgetting this one for a while, and I dare say you won't be either.

Beachworld, The Raft, and The Monkey are also tales of man facing an inevitable fate in an uncaring world. The first two are both extremely enjoyable, but The Monkey proves more perplexing. Essentially, the ending destroys the metaphor the story's built on. We begin as the main character sees his sons playing with a windup monkey toy that he had in his childhood. His reaction, one of abject terror, confuses them. The monkey, as we found out, dominated his youth as it clanged its cymbals together to signal each death around him. Now it's returned, and he sees it as tragedy returning to savage his idyllic life. Now, it must be stressed that the monkey itself does not kill its victims; it's not some cheap monster movie villain. No, the monkey merely clangs as they die from seemingly unrelated means. The monkey, it seems, is death, its shadow over each and every tragedy in the narrator's life. And yet, at the story's end, the protagonist succeeds in throwing the monkey into a lake, and the monkey – which has, for the entire story, been built up as a personification of death itself – is gone for good this time. […] The monkey would not be back to draw a shadow over Dennis's life or Petey's. (p. 195) So the narrator just killed death? Huh?

Of the other types of tales present, the most forgettable are generally the shortest and most violent. Here There Be Tygers is a quick story whose only event of note is the teacher being slaughtered by a tiger, but Cain Rose Up takes the cake in this category, a brief but bloody piece in which a student massacres his classmates. These certainly contain horror, but they don't make us care, and, without that, the horror's just spectacle. Most, however, are better than that, even if a fair few are competent horror like Word Processor of the Gods that show up, have a decent time, and then fade away without leaving much of an impression.

A few of the stories here distinguish themselves more in the manner of their telling than in the events told, primarily Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands, and The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet. By far the most successful is the last of those just listed. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is a conversation between an editor, an agent, a writer, and the writer's wife, and it focuses on a story of insanity that the editor received. Of course, the editor – and King behind him – admits that the one thing the American reading public doesn't need foisted upon them is another story about Going Mad Stylishly in America […] But this story was funny. I mean, it was really hilarious. (p. 500) And so it is. The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet is absurd, simply told, and damn fun to read.

Alas, the other two frame-focused don't work nearly as well. The Man Who Would Not Shake Hands is a genteel story too proper in its telling to allow much humor beyond a polite nod and too vague and insubstantial to be particularly affecting. Mrs. Todd's Shortcut, on the other hand, is an interesting but far from exceptional tale about driving off the map and the addictions and dangers therein. In both cases, the cumbersome nature of their back and forth telling delays what satisfaction there is long past the point of sustainability, drowning their already meager cores with verbiage that's adequately written but does little or nothing to excite.

But I'm just getting lost in the details and the negatives. Those stories I've just pointed out and criticized? There are flaws in all of 'em, flaws – a tendency to excess, sentimentalism, and/or what have you – but you know what else? They're (almost) all still involving tales, and you can bet that goes double for those I didn't critique and triple for those I praised. King can make you care with a line, can pen a character like almost no one else, can draw you in with irrelevancies and keep you there with quirks and mannerisms and realities like nobody else. It's great when King generates dread thick enough for you to drown in, when he makes you laugh, and when he pens the human race's condition and downfall in a hundred page novella. But all of that's superfluous to his real charm, and, even in his weakest tales, even as King's pacing and construction and themes fall down and fall away, it's still damn hard to look away from the page and from the character's that he's so excellently birthed from nothing at all.

Skeleton Crew is like Stephen King's career in miniature. It's got a huge amount of work, all of which makes you care, almost all of which is decent,, with the occasional burst of brilliance so radiant it justifies every unnecessary word in the pieces that surround it. This is, without a doubt, worth purchasing for The Mist, and I can promise that you'll have a good time with just about all the rest, even if damn few of them will still be kicking around in your skull two weeks later at the least expected moments.

Standouts: The Mist, Survivor Type, The Ballad of the Flexible Bullet