Friday, December 31, 2010

Best Reads of 2010

I read 134 books in 2010. The following are my twelve favorites. For variety's sake, each author is limited to a single work, and books that made the previous Best Released list will not be considered here.  I’ll post my complete reading list for the year in a few days, so you know what I’m drawing from here.

In alphabetical order, we’ve got:

Review here.

Andreyev’s characters try and often fail to find meaning, their lives so well portrayed that the century’s gap between the tales’ writing and reading does not dim their impact in the slightest. This collection is often startlingly dark, with stories like The Red Laugh painting our whole world with their hellish brush, and other tales like The Abyss showing compassion and innocence defiled, destroyed, and left by the roadside. Andreyev is a master of pace, capable of making a man’s final night seem like years and of making the longest waits and isolations heavy with their inevitable ending. Though the exclusion of one of Andreyev’s best stories, Lazarus, is disappointing, Visions is still an incredible work.

Bakker’s debut is a work of powerful, vivid prose and thought provoking ideas, offering genuine insight while also succeeding at the standards by which mainline Epic Fantasy is judged. Though there are pacing issues, their detrimental effect was diminished on reread (this was my second time through), and those problems are ultimately inconsequential in the face of what’s presented. Bakker's characterization is deep, if miserable, and sympathetic, if deplorable. The various societies of Bakker’s world walk a fine line between recreating history and pure imagination, falling to one side or the other as their prominence dictates, and the magic here is innovative and excellently depicted. Highly recommended for any fans of fantasy.

The Master and Margarita crackles with vitriolic wit. Bulgakov’s writing is impassioned, outlandish, and brilliant. He can make you care for his characters. He can make you laugh at his characters. He can make you hate his characters. The Master and Margarita uses excellently realized fantasy to criticize and examine the oppressive world around it. This is a classic of genre and literature.

Malazan is a bizarre mix of larger than life fantasy and Erikson’s philosophical and social musings. The series is far from flawless, but Erikson’s large cast and powerful prose make each of the volumes satisfying and often exemplary. When it comes to balancing visceral entertainment and more cerebral pleasures, the early volumes often fell too far to the shallow-but-fun side of the spectrum, while Toll the Hounds almost wholly sacrificed plot for the sake of writing and theme. House of Chains is one of the few volumes in the series that manages to flawlessly blend the two elements. The volume features the introduction of Karsa Orlong, beginning with his extended viewpoint, and then takes us through the height of the Seven Cities rebellion. The new ground level perspectives introduced with the Malazan army that comes into play here are well done, and the battles are mixed with the atmosphere of other, imaginative scenes that take place in the farthest reaches of Erikson’s creation.

Up until last night, American Gods was on this list. Then I read Sandman. This is a graphic novel of startling scope and imagination, with a grace of writing and presence of atmosphere that make it remarkable in any category. The sheer depravity of 24 Hours and the power of The Sound of Her Wings together managed to make Preludes & Nocturnes one of my favorite reads of 2010, and I’ll even say that Gaiman edged out Moore for my favorite Graphic Novel writer. And I hear that the first volume is the weakest of the series. Is that even possible?

Review here.

Gilman’s prose in Gears of the City is among the finest that I’ve read this year. His characters are theatrical masterpieces, cackling and monolithic in their flaws and triumphs, and his world is oppressive and immersive. I could try and rationally argue for its spot here, but I think I’d rather let Gilman do that for me and just give you another excerpt of the novel’s writing:

Later, as Arjun and Brace-Bel hid in the darkness of their bolt-hole, Brace-Bel would breathlessly recount his adventures in the Museum. He explained that he had always, in his strange life, been the villain, or worse, the laughingstock; but he’d ventured into the enemy’s lair in search of his true beloved like a hero of the highest and most chivalrous romance. His purpose had been pure as the purest knight’s, because he expected nothing from [her], nothing at all. He became what he was always meant to be. It was laughable, humiliating, but also superb… (p. 233)

Review here.

Joe Hill’s debut collection is a brilliant piece of horror, which also happens to examine just what horror is and how it works. Hill is capable of visceral darkness, as he proves again and again in tales like Abraham’s Boys and In the Rundown, but he’s also adept at moments of heartwarming melancholy that leave your world feeling drained of color in comparison afterwards, as he shows in Pop Art and the title story. There’s the occasional weaker story, but they don’t succeed in bringing down the power of the collection. Hill proves himself right out of the gate and doesn’t let up; 20th Century Ghosts is masterful and self conscious horror.

When I reread The Shining in March, I said that it was the best novel by the greatest modern horror author. Now, having discovered Ligotti, the latter part of that statement is almost painfully off (especially when one considers King’s lamentable later work), but that does nothing to dilute the power of The Shining. This is pretty much a textbook example of how modern horror should be written. The characters are complex and sympathetic, their relationships organic in their development, and the horror comes from the characters and their relationship to the world. It’s true that the ending is a disappointment, but what precedes those last pages is so powerful that the ending’s weakness fails to damage the work. This is a must read for horror fans.

Thomas Ligotti’s work is hypnotically powerful and devastatingly depressing. The man’s prose is crystalline, flawless and ornate. His grasp of atmosphere is equal to Lovecraft’s, and those are not words I say lightly. Choosing whether to include Songs of a Dead Dreamer or Teatro Grottesco here was very difficult. I ended up going with the latter. It’s less outright horror, operating even more on a cerebral level than Songs… did. The stories here are crushing, but they’re so well written that they are, somehow, beautiful at the same time. Review coming.

McCarthy’s work is brutally, horrifically violent. Most action stories, whether prose or film, manage to make violence glorious and exciting. Blood Meridian does the opposite. This is a story devoid of sympathetic characters and understandable motivations. It is a story with no goal in sight. It is, simply, violence, brutal and uncompromising, unending and representing the entirety of the world. And the reader, mesmerized by McCarthy’s masterful prose, has no choice but to keep reading.

Moore’s work is dark, powerful, and multifaceted; his inclusion in this year’s Best Of was assured. But that still leaves the question of which of his works to show. V for Vendetta (review forthcoming) was very powerful and generally devoid of some of the flaws of Watchmen (the ending-from-nowhere, for instance). Still, I had to go for the later work. Watchmen was generally deeper, and the character of Rorschach and his ultimate decision is still present in my mind despite having been read months earlier. If what you think when you hear super heroes isn't a nuanced examination of the nature of power, you need to read this.

After Dark is the story of a few almost unconnected characters in the early morning hours of Tokyo. There’s little to no overarching plot. Going in, I didn’t think that I would love this book, but Murakami’s prose made me an easy convert. This novel is beautiful, and I mean that in the fullest sense of the word. Tokyo is vibrant, alive, and bizarre, and the different characters came to feel as real as anyone I’ve ever met. Review’s on the way.


Review here.

This was no contest. Sheepfarmer’s Daughter was boring, and that's just about the worst thing that can be said of entertainment. The characters are uninteresting, the plot is uninvolving, the themes are occasionally offensive but generally unremarkable, and prose is wholly devoid of style. When reading is a chore best handled in fifteen minute increments, you know that something’s gone wrong.


When compiling this list, I left Shakespeare and Dostoevsky out of consideration for a variety of reasons. First, both are classic authors. You don’t need me to tell you that. More importantly, with Shakespeare, there’s the fact that I find it difficult to view his work in the same way that I do another author’s, and I’m not talking about quality here. Shakespeare is on such a pedestal, and his work has so seeped into popular culture, that one’s expectations going in are monolithic, and rare is (at least from what I’ve seen) the reader who, going into Hamlet (to pick a play at random) does not know the majority of the plot. If I had included Dostoevsky and Shakespeare, they would have both made the list (King Lear beating out Hamlet, for me), but that’s not to say that they would have been my favorite books on it.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Best Releases of 2010

I've read eighteen books released this year. Of those, four stood out as head and shoulders above the rest.  Each of these books is something I would recommend to any genre fan.

So let's get to some books, shall we?

Review here.

The Halfmade World excelled in just about every category I can think of to judge fiction. The world is immersive, well thought out, and interesting, and the characters that populate it are both larger than life and crippled by flaws. Liv is ineffective and, for much of the novel, incapable of surviving on her own. Creedmore is narcissistic and self pitying. Lowry is an automaton, unwilling to acknowledge that he’s walking right off a cliff. Gilman's created a focused work that feels epic, a fascinating cast of characters, and a gripping plot. I’d compare The Halfmade World to the other releases of the year, but there’s really no need. 2010 has a clear winner, and it’s standing right here.

Review here.

Like The Halfmade World, Terminal World uses a personal struggle to illuminate vast, world changing events. Admittedly, none of Reynolds’ characters here have the sheer power of Gilman’s in the above book. But Reynolds has never been a character writer, even if his characters have grown immeasurably. I read Reynolds books to be wowed by concepts and shifts in scale, to be awed by creations I could never have conceived of. The ideas in Terminal World will blow your mind. The Spire’s varying levels of technology allow clear demarcations within the text, and Reynolds gets to play in a half dozen different playgrounds. Every level is exquisitely rendered, from the opening to the steampunk to the endless wastes. Reynolds’ tone is no less variable, ranging from pure fun to awe to terror, and all in the same ten pages. If he’d wanted to end the book with the characters’ view of the Swarm below them and call it a day, I think I would have still walked away trying to pick my jaw up off the floor.

Review here.

The Folding Knife shares a limited cast with the prior two books, but it differentiates itself by not really being about the imagined world at all. Oh, Basso is in charge of the country, but we really only care about the Vesani as far as Basso feels like being compassionate that day. Parker’s newest novel is cynical, witty, and incredibly deep. It would be easy to make a novel about a single, narcissistic antihero who gets his way and have it be off putting and tensionless, and it’s true that the secondary characters here show a disappointing lack of depth, but Basso himself is humanized by his flaws and fascinating for his peculiar morality. If I were to pick an Epic Fantasy read of the year, it’s undoubtedly this.

Review here.

Apartment 16’s cast is uneven, and the climax is ultimately disappointing. On the other hand, the book’s atmosphere is oppressive enough to smother you on a sunny beach in Florida. Nevill invites the reader along as he splits his characters’ world in two and sends Seth down the dark path. Watching the main character gradually recede from humanity is a painful experience, and it’s only made more so by his occasional intersections with the world that we recognize. This is a dark and uncompromising read that will stay with you long after you’re done with it.


Review here.

Abraham's short fiction proved as multifaceted as his novels. Leviathan Wept is a varied and powerful work, capable of terrifying you with one story and warming your heart with the next. The collection was brought down slightly be a few slightly weaker stories as it went on, but this is still an essential read.

Review here.

Thomas Ligotti's first nonfiction work is as insidious as his short fiction. The ideas presented in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race are interesting and well argued, if not always persuasive. I didn't put this in the upper list because I've no idea how one can conclusively state that a book of philosophy is "better" than a book of fiction, but this is a work that had to be mentioned in any proper summation of the year.

Habitations of the Blessed is a stunningly original novel that's atypical down to its very structure and framing. This is very much the first book of a longer work, and it's difficult to draw conclusions about Valente's world and its ramifications from just what's here. Still, the barrage of exquisitely bizarre imagery that Valente unleashes makes this a must read for any fans of fantasy fiction or gorgeous prose.


Some people seem to have a rather skewed impression of what Best Of lists actually are. I know that it says Essential Reads on top of this post, but you know what? I’m aware that those are not necessarily the ultimate, objective books of 2010. They are simply my favorite released books of 2010. That does not mean that I have read every book released in 2010 (or even every book I want to read in 2010), or that I have used some sort of unbiased criteria to determine these. The complete list of 2010 releases I've read is as follows, provided to give my picks context and to explain the absence, of, say, That Book You Love That I Haven't Read on my list.

Daniel Abraham – Leviathan Wept
Iain M. Banks – Surface Detail
Justin Cronin – The Passage
Ian C. Esslemont – Stonewielder
Felix Gilman – The Halfmade World
N.K. Jesmin – The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
China Mieville – Kraken
Adam LG Nevill – Apartment 16
K.J. Parker – The Folding Knife
Alastair Reynolds – Terminal World
Patrick Rothfuss – The Adventures of the Princess and Mr. Whiffle
Brandon Sanderson – The Way of Kings
Brandon Sanderson/Robert Jordan – Towers of Midnight
Cathrynne M. Valente – Habitations of the Blessed
Jeff VanderMeer – The Third Bear

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

An Addendum to Up and Coming (and Essential?) in December

It’s a bit late to be updating December’s recommended books, but, well, I screwed up, so here we go:

My apologies to Ms. Valente for this one. I haven’t yet gotten to read much of her writing, but what I have read has been very interesting, and her new story collection from Subterranean Press and PS Publishing looks right up my alley. So why didn’t it get a feature? Well, I double check my release dates on amazon, and amazon doesn’t have it listed . If you want a sample of Valente’s short fiction, there are quite a few stories available through her website.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Arthur Conan Doyle - A Study in Scarlet

“Get your hat,” [Holmes] said.

“You wish me to come?”

“Yes, if you have nothing better to do.” (p. 166)

A Study in Scarlet is where two of literature’s most iconic characters, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, first meet and where those characters were first introduced to the reading public. Today, of course, there’s no pressing need to experience Holmes first through here, as all the stories are published – and, besides, it’s damn unlikely that anyone today could not have at least a passable familiarity with the name of Holmes, if not the stories themselves – but it’s still a logical point to jump into the mythos for newcomers, of which I am most certainly one. So, does A Study in Scarlet do justice to the legend that it was the beginning of? Despite a few flaws, it does.

I’ve heard several times that the Sherlock Holmes stories are told through the point of view of Watson, rather than Holmes, in order to distance us from Holmes’s intellect and to preserve the tension, and I don’t think that’s by any means untrue, but Holmes isn’t the all powerful superman that you might think. Though undoubtedly a genius when it comes to affairs deductive, Holmes doesn’t quite have the same skills in the social arena. He comes off as cocksure and boastful, something not mollified by Watson’s fawning. Of course, the man’s arrogance is intentional on Doyle’s part, and the text is far stronger for avoiding such an obvious white knight pitfall.

A Study in Scarlet is a mystery story through and through, and the prose reflects that. Doyle’s writing is precise and packed with detail. Holmes’s outlook is a purely rational one, but Watson too is a logical creature. When first confronted by Holmes, he tries to solve the mystery of his companion by organizing a list of his traits:

Sherlock Holmes – his limits

  1. Knowledge of Literature. – Nil
  2. Philosophy. – Nil
  3. Politics. – Feeble
  4. Botany. – Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.
  5. Geology. – Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After he walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.
[And so forth] (p. 156)

But the true marvel is that Doyle’s prose, though meticulous, is not dry. A Study in Scarlet comes alive on the page, turning a genre that all too often falls into an interesting but uninvolving logic puzzle into a page turner, albeit one more reminiscent of a jigsaw puzzle than a car chase.

Holmes has an annoying, though in character, habit of revealing nothing of what he’s thinking until it’s wholly formalized, but, when combining that with Doyle’s formidable skills at pacing, the tension is built up to vast levels as all other theories fall apart and events leap into motion, the reader still clueless but convinced that there is, somewhere, a coherent explanation to be found.

Unfortunately, Doyle’s greatest skill is in the viewpoint of Watson and observing the character of Holmes. When, after the halfway mark, Doyle switches to a third person flashback to reveal the backgrounds of other characters, we find ourselves leaving everything previously established long behind. A compellingly evoked London is left behind for a shoddily and inaccurately rendered Mormon exodus, and, though the story does eventually build up some power of its own, nothing in this strand is a tenth as memorable or gripping as a twitch of Holmes’s pinky.

Is it possible for the reader to piece together the clues themselves? Not a chance in hell. I suppose that it’s a measure of Holmes’s intellect that he can take such minute clues and build such a complete picture of them, and, as we’re inhabiting Watson’s and not Holmes’s head, I suppose that’s fair game. What’s more irksome are the clues that are in no way supplied, such as Holmes’s correspondence, in which a huge part of the puzzle can be found. Still, it’s not a deal breaker, and the immense, yet rational, logical leaps that Holmes undertakes make it feel silly to say that I would’ve had even the slightest chance of keeping up with him anyway.

Of course, there is the spare piece of the puzzle that doesn’t quite add up. For instance, we’re shown time and time again that Holmes can read a life story from the grit under one’s fingernails – so how is he fooled by a young man dressing up as an old woman and enfeebling his voice? Seriously? I’m sorry, but I’m just having trouble believing that a man that can read profession from footsteps could be stumped by a white wig.

A Study in Scarlet isn’t a perfect beginning, but it is an intriguing one, and I’m looking forward to reading more Holmes stories. Though I’m not well read enough in the detective’s mythos to truly say whether this is the best starting point or not, it’s most certainly a compelling story with no background knowledge required. If you’ve got any interest in the mystery genre, this is required reading.

[Note: All page numbers came from The Annotated Sherlock Holmes]

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Peter F. Hamilton - Pandora's Star [and] Judas Unchained [The Commonwealth Duo]

The Night’s Dawn Trilogy was a powerful book with a number of flaws, and Hamilton seems determined to cart them all over to his new work. While he’s at it, though, he imports a few excellent traits as well. All in all, the Commonwealth Duo is half Mercedes and half car crash.

Making a thousand pieces work in tandem is an incredible feet, but it requires an excellent grasp of pacing to keep their integration smooth. The pacing in the Commonwealth Duo is, to put it bluntly, fucked. In fact, if it wasn’t for Hamilton’s ability to racket up almost unbearable levels of tension in only a few pages, I don’t think the stuttering, staggering, staccato flow would have left anything even remotely respectable.

Many authors are accused of utilizing dues ex machina endings or events to move the story forward. Peter F. Hamilton will never be one of the accused. He foreshadows everything, and I mean everything. If, in the last five pages of book two, Chris is going to hold the door for someone important, you can bet that you’re going to follow Chris’s life all through book one, seeing him kiss his wife and hug his kids for roughly the length of your average novel, all to prep him for his six lines in the spotlight.

Hamilton’s Commonwealth is a creation of incredible depth. Every single street corner has a history, every world a personality. Hamilton does not shy away from showing you that history. These are certainly not books that take place on an empty stage, but one could argue quite convincingly that they have the opposite problem. Hamilton’s world building comes in the flavor of info dumps upon entering a new area or location, the culmination of a long established plot thread briefly paused to chronicle a canal.

 It’s an inevitable fact of epics that various strands will lag behind, that you won’t be quite as captivated in one plot thread as another, but the problem is a hundred times compounded here. Were you enjoying that climactic space battle, where the enemy was bearing down through the shattered navy lines towards the defenseless characters you’ve spent so long growing acquainted to? Well, I hope not, because we’re now going to watch Ozzie build a raft. For thirty pages. Maybe, if you’re good, we’ll go back to something interesting later.

Remember the sex scenes in the Reality Dysfunction? Abundant, superfluous, overacted, etc? Remember how they then vanished in the Neutronium Alchemist and the Naked God? Ah, that was nice. Well, they’re back now. In force. There are advantages to how Hamilton handles sex in the Commonwealth Duo, I’ll admit. This time, we cut to black before whittling away pages in an orgasmic stagnation. Unfortunately, there is so much sex here that it simply blows the mind, and it’s all (or damn close to it) packed into one viewpoint. Mellanie has sex. A lot. With everyone. Look at the Dramatic Personae. Odds are, if you see a name there, Mellanie will have sex with them before the book ends.

All of which is to avoid mentioning the run on sentences which are, once again, everywhere. Does Hamilton not have an editor, or at the least a book of middle grade grammar, to inform him of the basics of sentence structure?

And yet, despite it all, the Commonwealth Duo is still most certainly half Mercedes. In fact, quite a bit better than half, because the bits that Hamilton is good at are really, really good. Really, really good enough, in fact, to counter the bits were he’s really, really bad.

The greatest strength and weakness of the worldbuilding, and the books as a whole, is its total lack of focus. Concepts that could guide whole novels are the backstories of a single character, explorations into deep space and naval warfare only a part of the action, murder mysteries and memory wipes nothing but the provider of some extra motivation, guerilla warfare on an alien planet a side story, galactic terrorists and conspiracies, subversive aliens, artificial intelligences, scheming politicians and clashing dynasties, it’s all just a part of the whole. And the whole of the Commonwealth Duo is, in every possible way, larger than life.

Hamilton has an unmatched gift for realizing setting. His creations are vast and deep, his universes populated by dozens of world that are each both logical and unique. Though it’s true that much of the information is more plopped in front of you than woven in, Hamilton is excellent at balancing the fantastic and the realistic in his worldbuilding, ending up with a product so unexpected that you can’t look away but so well woven in and explained that you can’t help but believe it.

This is not your generic, vanilla space opera setting. Hamilton’s world developed along its own track, with your standard spaceflight society being neatly sidestepped in the prologue. The Commonwealth proper does have spaceships, but it’s the trains and wormholes that are its true soul, and even the traditional elements of deep space war are treated in an interesting fashion here.

The locations outside of the Commonwealth are equally well done, for the most part. The alien’s late entrance is, oddly enough, one of their best assets. After so much time probing around the issue and so much speculation as to just what’s inside the barrier, the reader being shocked right alongside the characters. The Prime race is probably the strongest part of the novels, a species that is both convincingly alien and an excellent antagonist.

Then there’s Ozzy’s journey on the Silfen pathways. Now, I’ll give you that there are some very, very cool images here. But there’s a problem, and it’s that cool images are all that there is. There’s no tension whatsoever in Ozzy’s sections. None. There’s no excitement, no intrigue, not reason at all to stay interested once the constant barrage of bizarre locales has left you desensitized. And, just to add insult to injury, the payoff is entirely superfluous by the time it comes, and Ozzy’s actions afterwards are not juvenile but almost nauseatingly idealistic. The fact that Ozzy’s immature wanderings are artificially forced to amount to something serves only to devalue the actions of every other character in the series.

Still, Ozzy’s only one character, and the rest of the cast is well done and diverse. Though many characters initially seem unnecessary, you will, by the end, have grasped the importance of all of them, and the dozens of plot threads that course through these worlds tie into each other and drive by on adjacent tracks, each glimpse into Mark’s life lending credence to something unrelated that Mellanie sees two hundred pages later, with her every step factoring just as heavily into Myo’s investigations.

Every character isn’t particularly fleshed out, but Hamilton is adept at making the parts illuminate the whole, the individual blandness of many of the senators leading to an interesting picture when viewed in its aggregate, which isn’t to say that none of Hamilton’s characters are interesting when viewed on their own.

The most intriguing member of the cast by a landslide is Paula Myo. She’s an archetype driven far past its standard borders until it becomes interesting again. Genetically engineered to be the perfect police officer, Myo’s as dedicated as she is ruthless, as honest as she is meticulous.

Unsurprisingly for a mechanism with so many components, the Commonwealth Duo takes some time to get started. The opening of Pandora’s Star, for a brief time, belies this. You’ve got one or two main plot lines, and it’s easy for a bit to imagine the exploratory craft departing, the killer being caught, and everything wrapping up nice and neat in time for the carefully choreographed galactic war.

That’s not quite how it plays out.  Events and plot threads soon spiral out of control, the simplest problem soon growing a half dozen corollaries and popping out a few new activists, every seemingly solitary character greeted with the full weight of the Commonwealth’s interplanetary population. Even the beginnings of the end, the potential death tone of their civilization, can’t unite the citizens of the Commonwealth, and it seems impossible at the end of the first half of the series to imagine a satisfying resolution.

The majority of Judas Unchained, however, is anything but undisciplined. The number of plot threads is truly prodigious at this point, yes, but Hamilton wields them dexterously, building them up into their own climaxes and developments without, generally, sacrificing too much mobility on the part of their counterparts. I’d say that this part right here, the first five hundred odd pages of Judas Unchained, is the best part of the series – though the initial Prime perspective in Pandroa’s Star is the undisputed best scene – and it’s, suddenly, easy to imagine an incredibly satisfying ending. Not what that ending is, mind you, there are far too many moving parts to even start to picture what the configuration’ll be when they all stop, but you’re sure, by now, that Hamilton’s got something grand planned.

He does, sort of. But it takes far too long to really kick itself into action. The climax of Judas Unchained is protracted and, far worse, unable to maintain the same gravity that the buildup had in such great supply. What was once an epic struggle as now a cheesy adventure – complete with a prostitute tagging along for cliché’s sake – and what was once a painful moral decision is now a cheesy fight the man! whine.

Is the Commonwealth Duo a travesty of excess or landmark of Space Opera? Well, truth to tell, it’s a bit of both. There’s very little middle of the road in Hamilton’s writing; it’s a project with both absurd highs and painful lows all mashed into one. Is it worth reading? Hell yes. Is it worth loving? Yeah, I think it is. Is it worth hating? Yup, that too.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Inception [Movie Review]

Cobb: What is the most resilient parasite? A bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? 

Arthur: Ah, what Mr Cobb is trying to...

Cobb: An idea. Resilient, highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed, fully understood. That sticks, right in there somewhere. [points to his head] 

Saito: For someone like you to steel?

Arthur: Yes in dream state your conscious defenses are lowered and it makes your thoughts vulnerable to theft. It's called extraction.

Inception is the dizzyingly complex, fiendishly simple story of a dream within a dream. Within a dream. (Within a dream?) Inception is a two and a half hour movie mostly built up of simple scenes, with clearly defined goals and almost comically overblown action. When scenes are taken with their predecessors, they become almost incomprehensible, characters popping in and out of comprehension. When taken as a whole, the movie makes perfect sense, a tapestry smashed out of order but easy to repair. Even if there are a half dozen readily apparent orders to put the pieces in.

In classic Science Fiction fashion, we begin with an idea: our dreams are vulnerable, and our deepest secrets can be stolen from us while we slept. The idea then comes to define the world, every other element falling into place in its wake. The genius of Inception is how self referential it is. Much like how the characters’ dreams are layered, the movie manages to create a layered suspension of disbelief, using our understanding of its opening concepts to get across its twists and gambits.

As Cobb says, the key aspect of dreams is that we feel confident but understand nothing:

Well dreams, they feel real while we're in them, right? It's only when we wake up that we realize that something was actually strange. Let me ask you a question, never really remember the beginning of a dream, do you? You always wind up right in the middle of what's going on.

Inception operates in the same way. Each scene is a hook, forestalling our questions with easily latched onto action. As things spiral increasingly out of control, we get increasingly obvious set ups. We open (after a brief and initially incomprehensible prologue) with spies trying to convince a businessman. Like many scenes in the movie, it could have been taken from Goldfinger or From Russia with Love with ease. There are hints of uncertainties, of course, both minor and major. They are speaking of extraction and dreams, something slightly outside of our adopted thriller framework. Much more importantly, we don’t know where they come from or who they are. But, like a dream, we allow them to carry on, allow ourselves to be swept up in the moment and, for a time, to not question.

When the scene ends with yet more uncertainty, and when the transition savages all thoughts of conventionality with a savage blow to the head, the next proper scene gets an even more obvious hook: a timer. Outside the window, a mob is approaching, smashing cars to pieces and hollering for blood. We don’t understand what the characters are after, what test Satio is speaking of, what the inaccuracies of the carpet mean – but we don’t need to. There is tension, still, regardless of our understanding, and it’s through the use of this small scale drama that Christopher Nolan drags us into the bigger picture without needing to show his hand until we’re far too involved to back away.

An obvious consequence of learning the rules in such a distended fashion is that the viewer is, right up until the very end, unsure of what’s going on. There are times when it seems that we have a complete understanding before then, of course. When Cobb explains the mechanics of the world to Ariadne, for instance, it would be easy to assume that we have the complete picture. And yet Cobb is playing the viewer along with the rest of the team, manipulating us in the same way that they manipulate their quarry.

Such manipulation could, of course, often feel like simple contrivance. When Cobb changes an easily escaped and easily won game to one that cannot be fled and is fraught with danger, all through a few beforehand undisclosed quirks of dreaming, it’s easy to feel cheated. Why would they enter if they’d known this? Clearly, the only reason the plot got to this stage is that the creators had no choice but to hold the knowledge back from both audience and characters until it was too late to make use of it.

Nolan, however, is far too good a storyteller to allow himself to be caught stacking the deck so obviously. Because the standard gut reaction to the scene is correct; it would have been suicide for the characters to enter the dream under those conditions – which is why they, like the audience, were not informed of them. By putting the cast in the same position as the viewer, Nolan channels our feelings of betrayal into empathy, letting our annoyance bolster, not detract from, our connection to his world.

Much more than the revelation of the rules is artificial in Inception. The cast is skillfully drawn and well played, but the movie is centered around DiCaprio’s Cobb, and Cobb is as manipulative as they come. He has shaped his world for so long that he cannot stop. Dreaming has shaped and dominated his world, and it has separated him from his children. In his quest to get back to them, he will do anything. His earnestness is a façade, his cold ruthlessness often terrifying as he pursues his humane goals.

Character arcs are built on change, and Inception is the story of Cobb – and yet its character arc is split into two parts. Cobb himself does no grow. He has created a prison for his past, a world that he is endlessly trying to superimpose upon reality in which he and his family are, again, one. His problems are worsening, not bettering. Does he grow at the end? That’s a question that will have to be left open for debate, his rationalization and realization so intertwined that to draw one conclusion is all but impossible.

Growth can only be found with Robert Fischer. In a bizarre, almost sociopathic travesty of warmth and reconciliation, Fischer is made to reexamine his relationship with his father, propelled into love by lies and gunfire. In the end, the simple chemistry of the cast, the warmth of their interaction, is a calculated thing. The movie’s emotional core is a lie. The ultimate moral realization a fabrication, as Cobb and his team play god with another’s emotions:

Dom Cobb: We need to shift his animosity from his father to his godfather. 

Ariadne: We're going to destroy his one positive relationship?

Eames: No, it repairs his relationship with his father, thus, exposing his godfather's true nature. We should charge Fischer a lot more than science for this job.

That is not to say that there is no true feeling in the movie, but rather that what genuine camaraderie there is is passed aside and gradually pushed towards irrelevancy. The friendship between Cobb and Arthur is never reflected upon but is unmistakable. Arthur is aware of Cobb’s eccentricities, whether the quirk in question is a dislike of trains or an obsession with a dead wife. As the movie progresses, however, Cobb sorely abuses their bond. He lies to and misleads his friends, putting them in grave danger. When his team falls short of his impossible expectations (expectations that he, too, is unable to live up to), his reaction is not sympathy but rage. Cobb’s callousness leaves our sympathy to him tinted with anger, hoping that his flaws won’t lead to the undeserved deaths of those around him, those that trusted him.

DiCaprio is far from the only effective actor. To me, every character came off as vibrant and alive. Cotillard’s tender insanity is brilliantly portrayed, and she’s magnetic in every scene that she’s in. The minor characters are just as strong. Rao’s Yusuf, Gordon-Levitt’s Arthur, Hardy’s Eames, and Watanabe’s Saito are all captivating. Murphy’s role as Fischer is, in many ways, the emotional core of the film, and he manages to appear vulnerable enough to gather the audience’s goodwill, turning him from gullible dupe to proper player.

Finally, I’ve heard some people complaining about Ellen Page’s performance as Ariadne. From what I can gather, the complaints basically amount to: “but she was in Juno!” If there’s some basis within the actual film for the criticism, I can’t see it; Ariadne’s sympathy and desire to help is powerful and only made more so by the many situations in which she’s rendered ineffective.

I mentioned before that the individual scenes of Inception function as hooks, but to leave off there would be superficial. Every aspect of Inception is over the top – and excellently so, at least for the most part. It would have been easy for Nolan to try and keep the action realistic, but to do so would have left his fantastic landscapes feeling almost pedestrian, their potential untapped. As Eames remarks when he conjures a grenade launcher with which to destroy a half dozen attackers, You mustn't be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

Of course, every scene is not equal in its excess, and the action scenes that fall into the uncomfortable dead zone between stylization and realism often come across as simply silly. Still, for every unconvincing gunfight, there are two moments of delightful imagination. The film’s highlight is the gravity and mindbending scene where Arthur and a succession of projections battle in a hotel where the rules shift all around them:

The actors and the writing are matched by the special effects. Of course, to say that a modern movie has good special effects isn’t to say much at all. 2012, after all, looked great, but I doubt that anyone would hold it up as exemplary in any way shape or form. Inception, however, is the rare movie that understands how to use bombastic effects in order to augment script and character, rather than using writing as a means to simply set up larger explosions. Here, explosions and distortions are expressions of the bizarre’s intrusion into our sleeping world, and slow motion is the ramming home of time dilation as plotlines are dragged increasingly apart.

I’m tempted to go on for another thousand words and discuss implications. It’s hard to not offer my own theories, to refrain from circling spinning tops and mazelike city streets, faceless organizations and actors’ ages, cryptic phrases and circular story structures. But to do so would, I think, to be to overstep my bounds. Inception is a movie that simply has to be seen. There are a myriad of different realities contained in these scenes, and each of them demands to be seen, understood, and either embraced or rejected as you barrel through. So go out and buy Inception. Watch it, maybe watch it twice. Then perhaps I’ll get to work telling you why your theories are all wrong. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Jeph Loeb - Batman: Hush

Jeph Loeb’s Hush is intense. If you are going to go into the book knowing one thing, make it that. This book is painfully difficult to put down, every scene flowing into every other with all the momentum of a train speeding off a cliff.

Of course, Hush is more than a collection of fun action scenes, though the main plot’s development due to it occurring almost entirely in the shadows of explosions and grand gestures. A large part of this is the narration of Batman’s thoughts which frequently color the scene and give information that would be otherwise impossible to convey.

Generally, these work quite well, but they bring up two problems. The first is the presence of Batman’s thoughts in scenes where Batman is obviously not present. Here, they act as more of an omniscient scene setter, but they are presented in the same style as the monologues, so telling the two apart is impossible. More important is Loeb’s tendency to litter fight scenes with thoughts, which works for the most part but can occasionally lead to the odd moment where the action is frantic and Batman’s thoughts are contemplative and, by comparison, almost bored, making it hard to really care about the action (you'll have to click the picture to read the text):

For reasons not completely clear to me, Jeph Loeb decided that Hush needed to include every single character to ever see a bat shaped light go off in the sky. As someone relatively unfamiliar with the Batman mythos, I saw a huge number of new faces, but familiarity isn’t required as Loeb does a great job of bringing you up to speed in a few quick lines. The characters themselves generally come off quite well, even though most are only given a limited space to develop, and though none of the sub plots are particularly important on their own, they each do a good job of keeping you interested while the main story slowly builds behind them.

Of course, there’s the inevitable straining of suspension of disbelief that occurs whenever you’ve got more than one guy in tights on the page at once. For the most part, this is handled well enough with the standard Batman characters. It is at times hard to see how the seventeen sidekicks that Batman’s had over the years don’t bump into each other all the time, but Loeb focuses on the character’s on screen well enough, and gives them enough depth, that I can forgive that. What’s harder to forgive are the characters that come from elsewhere, namely the Superman mythos. I’ll just say it right here: I don’t like super hero crossovers. It just seems silly. Still, when Batman was in Metropolis, I was able to tread the whole thing as a mildly enjoyable cartoon, but even that slight connection was blown apart when a super dog came on stage, and I laughed the rest of the way to the issue’s end. Thankfully, superdog didn’t make another appearance.

By far the most important of the side characters, and the only one to really stay with the story for more than five minutes, was Catwoman, who begins a romance with batman towards the beginning of the story. Their relationship is more commented upon than acted upon, which can be fairly annoying, though fitting with Batman’s character, but their interactions do lead to several good scenes and do serve to lend both characters more of a human side than they might have otherwise have had, as well as providing the lion’s share of the text’s rare breather moments.

In the final issues, the main plot that’s been, we’re told, slowly building the whole time starts to emerge. I specify “we’re told,” because, despite a few out of place events, most of Batman’s theories come across as pointing fingers at random and seeing Cthulhu in the shadows behind his dresser. Still, the last issues do a good job of trashing our expectations, and the several layers of reveals at the end had me quite interested in who the villain would turn out to be.

As for that villain’s actual identity (I won’t spoil the particulars for you), I’m unsure if it’s a brilliant turn or a cheap trick. If this is one of your first Batman comics, try as hard as you can to guess the villain. You’ll never get it, because the villain’s scheme relies on an ability wholly unknown to the newcomer, but obvious to the veteran. At the time, I was more than a tad annoyed, but, in retrospect, I’m not sure that’s fair. How much of bringing us up to speed is really Loeb’s responsibility? If the device is already established in the Batman mythos, I guess it’s fair game, so I won’t hold the trick against him.

The best word for Jim Lee’s artwork is iconic. Every frame and character that the man draws is larger than life, including the monolithic muscles under Batman’s suit to the fight scenes, which are just choreographed enough to have the feel of a martial arts master but just frantic enough to feel dangerous and unpredictable. Lee’s style is, in no real way, realistic, but none of his characters ever devolve into caricature, and he’s fluid enough for his super models to feel natural and powerful, fitting into the world rather than sticking out like an overly buff sore thumb:

Besides, the athleticism of the characters makes a degree of sense. Providing you weren’t immediately shot in the face, jumping from building to building to knock out criminals night in and night out would shape you up pretty well, I think. (Of course, that only explains one aspect of Lee’s universal male anatomy, and damn little of his female equivalent, but we’ll just let that slide).

When it comes to scenery and fight scenes, Lee is equally competent, blending subtle hints that bring the scene to life amidst the more boisterous elements of the artwork in much the same way that Loeb does with the plot.

At several points in the storyline events break into several strands, some operating in different chronologies, with the majority of the work of differentiating between them falling to the artwork. For the most part, different color choices keep the scenes distinct and provide each with its own feel, though the washed out palette of the recollections can make telling the details of the scene difficult. That could, of course, be argued as intentional – after all, it’s not like we really remember every part of that day twenty-five years ago equally – but whatever the intent, things have certainly gone too far when I mistook the two boys for each other on several occasions.

Hush can be a bit hard to take seriously at times, and not all of Loeb’s ideas work out with quite as much finesse as one might hope, but the ride is fun from beginning to end. If you’re willing to suspend your disbelief for a few hours, you won’t want to stop reading until the ending, and you’ll enjoy (almost) every minute of it. I wouldn’t recommend this to someone looking for their first taste of Batman, but if you’ve got a few Graphic Novels under your belt, Hush is an entertaining read.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Thomas Ligotti - the Conspiracy against the Human Race

Is there really anything behind our smiles and tears but an evolutionary slip-up? (p. 54)

The Conspiracy against the Human Race is the first nonfiction work of horror author Thomas Ligotti. If you’ve been following Ligotti, the views expressed will not come as a surprise. This book has all the markings of a magnum opus. Here, Ligotti takes the ideas that he’s been advancing for his whole career and strips them of their fictional trappings, explores their raw realities and their naked implications.

This is not a dry read. Though there is no story or characters, this is still a deeply engaging work. The tone is set by the brief fable of humanity’s “Loss of Innocence” (so titled in the Notes section), which is one of the many times that Ligotti uses his virtuosity as a fiction author to get across dense abstractions.

Reading Ligotti’s stories is being immersed in a strange, inimical atmosphere, and Ligotti proves just as capable of getting across moods and feelings (alienation, fright, or whatever it is that he wishes to evoke) with only a few phrases, conjuring powerful images with apparent ease: Life is a confidence trick we must run on ourselves, hoping we do not catch on to any monkey business that would have us stripped of our defense mechanisms and standing stark naked before the silent, starring void. (p. 29)

In addition to the terror that he can so easily create, Ligotti’s prose can also, at times, have a lightness to it. His writings are always elegant, beautiful as they tear into your beliefs. The moments of black comedy (and it is a black so dark that fulign barely begins to describe it) do nothing to damage the import of the ideas all around them, but rather succeed in drawing us closer and enmeshing us further still.

But to review a work of philosophy and talk about prose and imagery, and then to leave it at that, is to miss the point entirely. How does one review a work of ideas without either shallow dismissals or equally worthless panegyrics? I’m not sure. I don’t think that there’s a way to read The Conspiracy Against the Human Race and not be affected by its ideas, and, by the same token, I don’t think it’s possible to do a worthwhile review of the work without, at least partially, allowing objectivity to fall by the wayside and interacting with those ideas.

The rest of this article will be a combination of review and response, going through the first two sections of the book and both looking at Ligotti’s arguments and my own feelings about his conclusions. If you would prefer to draw your own conclusions about Ligotti’s ideas, feel free to bow out until you’ve tracked down a copy.


This section deals with a broad array of pessimistic, nihilistic, and antinatalistic philosophies. I have a minor quibble with Ligotti’s terminology (I think it’s one step too far to say that, in order to be a pessimist, one must also be an antinatalist), but I’ll bow down and use Ligotti’s definitions for this article.

We are first exposed to Peter Wessel Zapffe’s essay The Last Messiah, which is the cornerstone of Ligotti’s argument and likely the most discussed work in The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Zapffe believed consciousness to be an evolutionary accident and held that, in a universe governed by uncaring natural law, the realization of our predicament (which consciousness would bring about) would cause the end of our race. As a result, the entirety of human endeavor can essentially be summed up as an attempt to minimize consciousness.

In order to accomplish those aims, Zapffe provides four means of repression: Isolation, Anchoring, Distraction, and Sublimation. These ideas are not left as abstracts. By the end of the section, almost every one of our accomplishments or emotional outputs is explained in the darkest possible light. The final of the four means of repression, Sublimation, accounts for the entirety of human art, and our enjoyment of that art is nothing but an attempt to distract ourselves from our predicament:

(4) SUBLIMATION. That we might annul a paralyzing stage fright at what may happen to even the soundest bodies and minds, we sublimate our fears by making an open display of them. In the Zapffean sense, sublimation is the rarest technique utilized for conspiring against the human race. Putting into play both deviousness and skill, this is what thinkers and artistic types do when they recycle the most demoralizing and unnerving aspects of life as works in which the worst fortunes of humanity are presented in a stylized and removed manner as entertainment. In so many words, these thinkers and artistic types confect products that provide an escape from our suffering by a bogus simulation of it – a tragic drama or philosophical woolgathering, for instance […] just as King Lear’s weeping for his dead daughter Cordellia cannot rend its audience with the throes of the real thing. (p. 31-32)

After Zapffe, we explore Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of the Will to Live, a blind and uncaring force that drives us ever onward to procreation and thoughtless expansion, as well as a whole host of other pessimistic philosopher’s, a list that includes, by the book’s end, Fredrik Nietzsche, Philipp Mainländer, Carlo Michelsteadter, Karl Popper, David Benatar, and others. The synthesis of these ideas is remarkably smooth, and one often finds ideas here represented in the abstract that have been featured prominently in Ligotti’s fiction, such as the idea of the puppet universe:

To Michelsteadter, nothing in this world can be anything but a puppet. And a puppet is only a plaything, a thing of parts brought together as a simulacrum of real presence. It is nothing in itself. It is not whole and individual but exists only relative to other playthings, some of them human playthings that support one another’s illusion of being real. However, by suppressing thoughts of suffering and death they give themselves away as beings of paradox – prevaricators who must hide from themselves the flagrantly joyless possibilities of their lives if they are to go on living. (p. 32-33)

And yet, Ligotti never argues for any of the concepts put forward. The philosophies are exposed and either favored or criticized based on Ligotti’s overall ideas, but this section is strictly informational, not persuasive. The reader is, it seems, either assumed to be an antinatalist already, therefore in little need of convincing, or, if they don’t happen to already be sufficiently pessimistic, impossible to convince:

People are either pessimists or optimists. They forcefully “lean” one way or the other, and there is no common ground between them. For pessimists, life is something that should not be, which means that what they believe should be is the absence of life, nothing, non-being, the emptiness of the uncreated. Anyone who speaks up for life as something that irrefutably should be – that we would not be better off unborn, extinct, or forever lazing in nonexistence – is an optimist. It is all or nothing; one is in or out, abstractly speaking. Practically speaking, we have been a race of optimists since the nascency of human consciousness and lean like mad toward the favorable pole. (p. 47)

Since there are so many ideas proposed, it’s inevitable that some are more persuasive than others and that some contradict one another. The ideas of Philipp Mainländer – the Will to Die, to follow Schopenhauer’s Will to Live – are fascinating but, ultimately, feel as sentimental, although admittedly negatively so, as any of the major religions.

Mainländer theorized that the ultimate goal of everything in the universe is, essentially, entropy, and that life and existence ultimately amounts to nothing but the pursuit of death. He gives us the idea of a suicidal god, who made existence only so that, when existence ended, it could enjoy nothing afterwards. But the idea of a suicidal god, while an interesting one, is no more practical than that of a benevolent god, and both thoughts depend equally on the unsubstantiated existence of a deity, whether it be a negative or positive figure. Antinatalism in general is seen as the disregarding of all conventional notions (to use Ligotti’s phrasing, it is to say that life is NOT alright), but Mainländer is more inversion than negation, more akin to theistic Satanism than atheism.

Mainländer’s inverted spiritualism leads us in its way to the book’s title. The Conspiracy against the Human Race is a fittingly evocative phrase, as are all of Ligotti’s titles, but I’ll admit to being perplexed when I first considered it. Isn’t the crux of Ligotti’s argument that there’s not only no conspiracy but that there’s nothing aware enough to even dream of such a conspiracy? Upon the course of reading, however, the meaning becomes clearer. Ligotti uses the word ‘conspiracy’ as something perpetuated by optimists; the conspiracy against the human race is our own collective refusal to deal with reality. The emergence of our consciousness was not something that we could have stopped. The perpetuation of the suffering that can only be brought about by existence, however, is something that we have no one to blame for but ourselves.

To go back to the arguments presented in The Nightmare of Being, several rely on either an overuse of absolutes or for the listener to have already adopted the central tenants of the philosophy. David Benatar says that there is a chance that a baby will experience happiness, but a certainty that it will experience suffering. Up to this point, I think that most will agree. He then goes on to say that, since happiness is a possibility and suffering a guarantee, the only moral act is to curtail the suffering and cease reproduction.

But this idea only works under the (frankly bizarre) supposition that all suffering and happiness are equal. While there are some lives, I’ll admit, that contain absolutely no happiness (death soon after birth, say), the majority will experience some kind of joy in their lives, and a good many of them will say that the pleasure in their lives outweighs the pain. So while more may, numerically, experience pain than pleasure, it is illogical to say that pain overweighs pleasure overall, rendering the conclusion that, in order to benefit the majority we must end birth, unattainable.

Which brings us to the key problem that I have with antinatalist arguments. I agree with the nihilism of, say, Lovecraft (though there we’d likely be better off with the term Cosmicism). I see no possibility of a benevolent deity, and I believe that the world is without objective purpose. But does that mean it is without personal purpose, also?

A key tenant of antinatalism is that the majority, as per Zapffe’s minimization of consciousness, suppress all knowledge of their ultimate position in the universe and go on to live their lives in a happy fiction. That the majority is, to some extent, happy is almost undeniable, and the pessimists make no attempt to refute it; the majority of the population is (at least under the strict optimist/pessimist definition put forth by Ligotti) optimistic.

So if most people are, in the end, happy, why is the sum value of existence a negative? It’s one thing to argue that the ways in which they make themselves happy are, ultimately, false, but it’s far from certain that that invalidates the resulting joy. Regardless of the ultimate meaning of existence (and on that question I am in agreement with the Ligottis and Schopenhauers of the world), if the majority of people are existing in a fashion that they consider better than not existing, if they would answer that Life is Alright, how can it be stated that Life is Not Alright for the entirety of the human race?


The second section of The Conspiracy against the Human Race concerns itself with humanity. Who are we? Why are we the way that we are? Do we control ourselves? Do we understand ourselves? As before, anyone with a familiarity of Ligotti’s thoughts as expressed through stories and interviews will likely not be surprised by the conclusions that he draws, but the depth that he goes into and the frank insidiousness of his arguments is almost like a physical blow at times.

Like endlessly probing a cut, human thought circles around those areas that make it uncomfortable. But why does the uncanny make us so uncomfortable? In his essay On the Psychology of the Uncanny, Jentsch says:

But if this relative physical harmony happens markedly to be disturbed in the spectator, and if the situation does not seem trivial or comic, the consequence of an unimportant incident, or if it is not quite familiar (like an alcohol intoxication, for example), then the dark knowledge dawns on the unschooled observer that mechanical processers are taking place in that which he was previously used to regarding as a unified psyche. (p. 88)

This discomfort with the realities of our bodies, and our attempts to distance ourselves from those realities, show our acute discomfort with who we really are. This is, Ligotti concludes, one of the key ways in which supernatural horror can make us afraid: by showing us our bodies stripped of the romanticization of consciousness, with the added benefit that – unlike, say, a medical drama – no training can desensitize you to the uncanny of the supernatural.

This is one of several passages in The Conspiracy against the Human Race that deals with the casues, so to speak, of supernatural horror. Like the others, the symbolism makes sense, but there’s the fact that Ligotti is only ever describing the upper echelons of horror. While it is effective in explaining why movies like The Thing and The Bodysnatchers are so affecting – and while such creatures as Shelly’s Frankenstein, Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, and Ligotti’s own unnamed (at least in the works I’ve read) beings are powerful symbols – I think that your average zombie picture is far more concerned with decapitations than symbolism, fake blood being held in much higher esteem than any sort of stripped bare analogy. Or perhaps my skepticism just relays my total lack of faith in every aspect of your average horror products, from the writer to the audience.

Jentsch and the discussion that followed are interesting, but it’s Ligotti’s analysis of free will that makes this section so powerful. Consider: you have the ability to act in the manner that best suits your desires. Hence, you have free will. Correct? But wait: how did you come by those desires? Did you chose them? Could you chose them?

Within the structures of commonsense reality and personal ability, we can choose to do anything we like in this world…with one exception. We cannot choose what any of our choices will be. To do that, we would have to be capable of making ourselves into self-made individuals, as opposed to individuals who simply make choices. For instance, we may want to become bodybuilders and choose to do so. But if we do not want to become bodybuilders we cannot make ourselves into someone who does want to be a bodybuilder. For that to happen, there would have to be another self inside us who made us choose to want to become bodybuilders. And inside that self, there would have to be still another self who made that self want to choose to choose to make us want to become bodybuilders. This sequence of choosing, being interminable, would result in the paradox of an infinite number of selves beyond which there is a self making all the choices. (p. 94)

Of course, the interesting thing about Determinism is that it’s impossible to believe in while still remaining anything even approaching human (or, as Metzinger put it: Can one really believe in determinism without going insane? (p. 110)). After all, you feel responsible for your actions, do you not? To imagine that you are not the cause of your actions is to wholly leave behind any societal framework.

But that feeling of responsibility isn’t something that can be trusted, because we all feel responsible for a whole variety of actions that we are, in no way, responsible for. Ligotti discusses the idea of inviting your friend over to your house to move a couch. On the way there, they are hit by a car. You feel as responsible as if you’d killed them, but that feeling is, by any objective measure, false. So how can you trust your feelings in other matters, if examples of how they can mislead you are so easy to conceive?

Taking the discussion of feelings and emotional further still, Ligotti brings up the idea of an emotionless state, a frame of mind that’s wholly rational. The pathway to the state is depression, or, at its extreme, anhedonia. In this state of mind, as close to enlightenment as it is, perhaps, possible for us to come, we would realize that our endeavors are wholly fruitless:

In […] depression, your information-gathering system collates its intelligence and reports to you these facts: (1) there is nothing to do; (2) there is nowhere to go; (3) there is nothing to be; (4) there is no one to know. Without meaning-charged emotions keeping your brain on the straight and narrow, you would lose your balance and fall into an abyss of lucidity. And for a conscious being, lucidity is a cocktail without ingredients, a crystal clear concoction that will leave you hung over with reality. In perfect knowledge there is only perfect nothingness, which is perfectly painful if what you want is meaning in your life.
The image of a cloud-crossed moon is dreadful not in itself a purveyor of anything mysterious or mystical; it is only an ensemble of objects represented to us by our optical apparatus and perhaps processed as memory. This is the great lesson the depressive learns: Nothing in the world is inherently compelling. (p. 116)

Of course, it could be argued that esteem for depression (or, later, for the ego-dead) is no different than any other religion’s reverence for their holy men, with just the robes and means of enlightenment altered. Ligotti does admit that the sick self is no more “the real you” than your hale self, but I’m curious about the significance he lends rationality. While anhedonia is no doubt an effective tool for showing the ultimate emptiness of our world, I’m unconvinced it’s a good tool to defeat consciousness with. After all, if our foe is not life but consciousness, why is the depressive the one who has achieved enlightenment? Rather than believe that the man who has eliminated emotion and lives with only rational thought (a product of our consciousness), wouldn’t it make more sense to revere the man wholly given into his emotions, or his baser nature?


The Conspiracy against the Human Race is an incredibly affecting work of poignant imagery, masterful prose, and powerful arguments. I’m aware that my review has consisted of far more dissension than adoration, and that’s not something incidental. First, it would have been pointless for me to simply summarize every one of Ligotti’s arguments and merely nod my head.

More importantly, however, I want to get across that I am not recommending this book because I agree with everything that Ligotti says. I do not, but I don’t think that that was Ligotti’s intention. This is a work that makes you think; the reader who proceeds with an unconsidered affirmation of every pessimistic sentence and nihilistic turn of phrase has, I think, missed Ligotti’s point as thoroughly as the reader who just throws the book in a fire after the first few pages.

We end with a man dying. As we experience the last moments of his life, we’re put through, once again, the wringer of all of Ligotti’s arguments. Reading and finishing this book is apt to leave you shaken, with a black cloud hanging over your head that filters out all light, and with the sensation of everything you know and love having been insulted. I think that means that Ligotti succeeded, don’t you?