Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season Five

To be honest, I think we're rather past the point of introductions here, with this season's opener marking the seventy-ninth episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If you've gotten this far, I think you're moving on, and I think you should be prepared for some SPOILERS, for there certainly are a few in this review. If you're new to my blog, here's a brief catch up, namely my views on the first, second, third, and fourth seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, with the first season of Angel thrown in for good measure. All of that brings us here, to the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which, in marked contrast to the largely aimless and often lackluster fourth season, is focused, dominated by an overarching plot to perhaps the greatest extent of any season yet, and is also, I should mention, rather excellent.

So, the center of a good plot is a good villain, right? Well, evidently not. Now, I know I might be in the minority here. The Buffy enthusiasts in my viewing group were about as ecstatic at the entrance of Clare Kramer's Gloria (Glory, for short) as I've ever seen them. But Glory's just not that interesting. The problem isn't her backstory, mind you. She's  the pure-evil god of an entire, demonic dimension, exiled to Earth and requiring a supernatural Key to get back. But all that's just in the background. Glory is fashionable, prissy, and really, really strong, but none of that force of arms translates into anywhere near as powerful a character as Spike or as brightly, dangerously charming as the Mayor. She just doesn't feel like much at all, an even less interesting (if rather smaller and slimmer) version of the hard-hitting and hard to drop Adam of the prior season. Fight scenes with her are devoid of any particularly interesting mechanics, and her own strength ends up playing against the interest of the fight, as we simply know that none of Buffy's punches or kicks will carry the day, leaving us just waiting for the trick our heroes use to get out alive.

Silly? Of course not!
Glory brings a host of characters with her, not only the aforementioned Key, but also a group of goblin-like henchmen that are always quite amusing and a force of knights dedicated to stopping her and destroying the Key. Those knights prove rather less amusing, and note that, when I say knights, I am not being in any way facetious: these fellows ride horses en masse down suburban streets, wearing chain mail and wielding swords. The spectacle's every bit as silly as it sounds. Where their numbers are coming from (who on earth would join such an order?), why they don't use any weapon developed since the tenth century, and what they hope to accomplish against a foe that is unfazed by their slashes and stabs are all good questions left unanswered. Thankfully, these renaissance fair runaways aren't all that prevalent outside of a few near-parody moments.

As I've just panned the villain and much of the supporting cast, you might be wondering why I started off speaking so highly of this plotline. The answer begins with the Key, made into human form by a few monk dudes we briefly see at the beginning. The result? When Buffy gets back from the busy slaying of the first episode, she's a sister sitting in her home, Michelle Trachtenberg's Dawn, and every character acts like they've known her all along. The episodes that follow exude WTFery in a fashion seldom, if ever, equaled in anything I've seen. Things get interesting, and Dawn more than a bewildering wrench in the works, before too long, as the other characters gradually realize what she is. All of that culminates in the absolutely fantastic Blood Ties, where Dawn herself learns that her life and memories are a lie, that she's scarcely weeks old, and that she's only debatably human. The episode is one of existential horror, of questions of who we are and what our purpose is, and is filled with beautiful and terrible moments. There are other Buffy episodes that are more exciting, for sure, but I think this might be the forty-four minutes that hit me the hardest in the show's entire run.

Tied with it is the season's ability to explore tragedy. Now, there's always been loss in Buffy before, but it's rarely been of a permanent variety, nor has it often been to those closest to our heroes. No longer. Behind the excitement, action, and drama of the season's first half or so lurks a persistent and oppressive sub plot, a tumor in Buffy's mother's head. And then, after all seems well, Joyce Summers dies a pointless, meaningless, and sudden death. The episode that follows, The Body, is another high water mark for the show, a creation that drags and staggers forward, lengthy and torturous as the characters, without anything to fight, are left with nothing but the utter emptiness that follows Joyce's transformation from human, from mother, to nothing but a still body. Despite the death they've seen and dealt, our protagonists are still human, are still young, and are still vulnerable.

Bye! Don't hurry back...
Through the season, Buffy's left trying to balance her shift to adulthood and her duties as a Slayer, two things that are obviously incompatible and only seem to grow more so. Of course, that's not exactly a new conflict; it's pretty much been the center of the character from the beginning, and some of the explorations of it here falls rather flat. When Buffy, anxious to figure out the true meaning of her position, does a rather fancy and far off ritual to speak to the First Slayer we saw running around during the last season's closer (Relentless), she's shocked when she's told that death is your gift. As, by this point, she's spent nearly a hundred episodes stabbing people with bits of sharpened wood, I'm not particularly sure why this is such a surprise, but anyway. Some things of interest do come out of this plotline, for it's the divide between her Slayer side and her regular life that causes Buffy to lose Riley. Though I – and, it seems, most Buffy fans – can't really claim to have ever loved the guy, he always did come off as kind and well intentioned, and his departure is well done.

Furthermore, Buffy's character arc grows immeasurably more powerful with the death of her mother. Sarah Michelle Geller is an adequate actor when playing a happy, excited, and carefree Buffy, but she's an absolutely magnificent one when Buffy is depressed, distraught, and otherwise emotionally destroyed. Besides the Body, the key episode of Buffy and Dawn's loss, and Buffy's maturity, seems to be Forever, where Dawn tries to, against all warnings and advice, resurrect Buffy's mother, and the two of them have to face the divide between what's comforting but ultimately damaging and what may be right but is also brutally difficult.

But none of those are the best arc of the season. No, that's Spike's. After being a badass of unquestionable and unmatchable style and strength in the second season and then faffing about for most of the next two, he suddenly decides to go from snazzy villain to fully fledged character. After an attempt early in the season to remove the chip that prevents him from harming any living thing, Spike essentially resigns himself to his existence. The details of his past are soon after explored in the episode Fool for Love, and, much as a flashback episode setting out to demystify a character seems like a good awful idea, the thing's a huge success. Along with it comes Spikes' realization of the terrifying truth: that he's been in love with Buffy for a damn long time. It's a revelation that could have felt hackneyed, but not with James Marsters behind the helm, bringing enough desperation, longing, and manic violence to the task to get just about anyone on his side. Though Buffy spurns him, he doesn't turn away, nearly dying for her in Intervention, and, though his love's disturbing as hell, it's also rather fantastic.

Due to the season's focused arc, the rest of the cast doesn't get as much of a chance to shine, but the exposure that they do get is meaningful and avoids the aimlessness of the last season. Giles is now the proprietor of the town's main magic shop, the Magic Box, and Anya soon gravitates over to help him. Xander's main episode here is The Replacement which, like the Zeppo, focuses on how he might seem to be the outsider, the regular guy in their group, even the bumbler, but shows that he's inner strength and ability to match the others. Tara, meanwhile, is integrated into the group after Family, where her oppressive and misogynistic father and family come to retrieve her from college, Willow, and all those around her. It's a great moment when the gang all steps up to defend her, though I do have to wonder how she, now without any sort of family support, intends to continue paying for college. (Actually, on that note, how exactly does Buffy expect to not starve to death, what with her utter lack of income?)

Quick! Look busy!
Though this is such a plot driven season, there are other items of interest. The alien threat in Listening to Fear is a byproduct of events in the mean plot, but is by no means in it, and while its extraterrestrial nature may be a bit silly, it does lead to some fantastically creepy scenes. Also of note is the Watchers Council's appearance in Checkpoint, where they try to regain control of Buffy and, not too surprisingly, fail. One of the main things I was left thinking about afterwards was what the hell the purpose of this organization is, as they are – as Buffy says – useless without her. Since there's only one Slayer at a time, why on earth do they need so many Watchers, what do the rest of them get up to all useless day, why do they have so much political power yet never seem to use it for anything important, and why on earth did all the other Watchers disrespect Giles, if he was the only one who was in any sense employed in doing something useful? But that's drifting from the point.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer's fifth season is one of the show's strongest. The character arcs are fantastic here, and, even if the villain herself isn't too awe inspiring at times, by the season's end, the tension's built up to an incredible point, and the climax is excellent. There are a few missteps here and there, but this season proves that Buffy is not a show stumbling on past its prime (much as aspects of the last might have suggested that very thing), but is rather still growing, still evolving, and still powerful.

Standout episodes: Blood Ties, The Body, Fool for Love

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Vernor Vinge - A Fire Upon the Deep

Vernor Vinge’s 1992 Hugo Award winning novel A Fire Upon the Deep opens as follows: How to explain? How to describe? Even the omniscient viewpoint quails. (p. 1) From those sentences on, the novel’s one of tremendous scale, a playful book full of adventure and heart that is, one can never forget, a behemoth of nigh unimaginable proportions, a colossus as awe inspiring as the star-studded night sky it takes place in the depths of.

The idea central to the book is that there are Zones of Thought, that the galaxy and its physics are not uniform entities but are rather stratified by areas of different potential complexities and even natural laws. From the Slowness towards the galaxy’s core, where the Earth of our present lies entombed and where sophonts can only crawl across the stars, to the Beyond, a realm like the majority of our Science Fiction and filled with mingling races and faster than light travel, all the way to the Transcend, the place where the restraints of reality are so lax that those who’ve reached it become as Gods, impossible for us to conceive and capable of almost any feat. It’s an interesting set up, and Vinge is an author skilled enough, and a dreamer daring enough, to not shy from its complexities but rather to search out its implications.

So many authors of Science Fiction (and Fantasy) seem determined to attain the grandeur of celestial timescales and zeroes after their dates without either the ability or willingness to actually give that history life. Needless to say, that’s not at all the case here. Rather than give the Transcendent the easy gravity of immortality, Vinge delves deeper, into something simpler, stranger, and, once considered, infinitely more awesome. The Transcendent are so much greater than we are, and their conceptions of time and reality so different, that it’s rare they stay communicative for more than five or ten years. They lost interest, or grew into something different – or [they] really did die. (p. 72)  Instead of a being eternally humanoid, they're brief, ephemeral, and infinitely vaster in that short span of time.

But it’s not just as the very top of his delectable and speculative layer cake that Vinge has imbued with life. Though the Zones themselves seem permanent, and though the evolution of life from Slowness to Beyond and even Transcendence if the race proves capable is well established, the actual details of Vinge’s world are ever in flux. Faced with the vastness of space and time, with the prospects of further advancement into the Transcend or the dangers of their neighbors, entire races frequently perish or ascend. As Vinge says, civilizations were transient and races faded… (p. 307) At one point, when faced with a beach so odd and beautiful that it might be unique, we’re told that, considering the immensity of space and the uncountable races that inhabit it and inhabited it, saying that something is unique is an extreme thing to say about anything in the Beyond. (p. 166) I can think of several excellent examples of Science Fiction concepts so excellent that they defined entire imagined cosmos in their tales’ reality and their readers’ imagination, but here is something different, an eminence of eternal change and possibility vaster than any one idea, no matter how strong.

To my puzzlement, Vinge's treatment of information seems often accused of being outdated and/or hopelessly retro. That’s bizarre to me. It’s true that the internet here is mostly composed of simple text based messages, just about identical to the emails of today, but the face of the thing’s irrelevant next to the structure and mindset of it, and there Vinge excels. His is a future concerned, above all else, with information, and it’s the pursuit of information that shapes its structure and its masters, that drives the very economy of the Beyond.

Of course, we don’t know all this at the novel’s beginning, and, fear not, despite the brilliance of the world building, A Fire Upon the Deep is anything but a slow or self-indulgently expository novel. In fact, the broad outlines of the plot are just about as standard as you can get. In the prologue, bumbling human explorers stumble upon an archive containing an ancient entity more powerful, and more malevolent, than they can imagine. I probably won’t be shocking anyone when I say that it escapes and that it starts wreaking havoc. Sequestered for so long in the archive with the perversion, though, was what just might be some means of combating it, and that means ends up marooned after a shipwreck on a medieval-level world populated by pack intelligences with the last two child survivors of the researcher’s last escape ship. Alternating with the children’s perspectives and those of the world’s natives is that of Ravna, a human woman from up in the Beyond who is at first key to monitoring, and then to trying to rescue, the trapped children and their cargo. The fun of it all is further accented by all manner of gleeful ingredients, from the amateur spy who reassures his companions by saying “Hey, don’t worry. I’ve read all about doing this sort of thing!” (p. 31), to Vinge’s pulpish habit of underlining entire sentences for emphasis, to his constant playing and subverting (or even simply subsuming) the tropes of the most excitable adventure stories, as when Ravna realizes upon meeting one particularly larger than life character that after a lifetime of reading romantic fiction, she’d run into her first hero. (p. 89)

Crucially, though, Vinge somehow manages to never cross the line between fast paced fun and shallow or thin tales with nothing to offer besides the whittling away of time. The key to that is, rather unsurprisingly, the depth and brevity of his world and its constant and mind-expanding games of scale. Both of those make themselves felt constantly and naturally through the most innocuous details or statements, like one character’s casual mention of “nonlinear reading” (p. 281) or another man of this far future’s saying that half-assed programming was a time-filler that, like knitting, must date back to the beginning of the human experience. (p. 487)

Another vital component of it all is the way that Vinge is able to suggest and even dive into genuinely alien minds. Chiefly on display are two creations, the pack based and technologically primitive Tines and the two Skroderiders that accompany Ravna on her mission to the Tines’ world. Of those two, it’s the Tines that fascinated me most, creatures whose very consciousness was the product of multiple distinct and independently sentient parts. Vinge explores the concept in all sorts of interesting ways with Flenser and Steel, Tines that have become a cross of megalomaniacal dictators and mad scientists, experimenting on their brethren and themselves to discover just what makes them them and just how a pack could be artificially created. Despite their profound strangeness, however, the Tines are relatable in their way, emotional, sympathetic, and even at times understandable. As one of the children with them observes of one of their conversations, the ideas were so alien, and yet the overtones of affection and humor were somehow very familiar. (p. 293)

It doesn’t hurt that the Tines’ world is so fascinating. It may be only a part of the whole, but Vinge, like China Miéville, has the unique ability to make his every throw away idea incredibly fascinating and his every sub plot seem fertile enough for a series. I, at least, know I’d gladly have read, loved, and considered great a Fantasy novel containing nothing but a smaller scale version of the Tines portion of this text. Their world has numerous interesting factions and characters, unexplored yet tempting horizons, is everywhere rich with the implications, from architecture to art, of a pack mind species. The fantasy plotline that takes place there reminded me a great deal of K.J. Parker’s Engineer trilogy with its focus on technology and the changes that it leads to, but here, of course, the characters have a cheat sheet, the two sides both struggling to invent from scratch the weapons and items that they know exist, leading to a world and a confrontation within it marked by huge gaps and leaps in ability and technology.

As enjoyable as the plot is, it still does seem small at first when glimpsed against the entirety of the Zones and the uncountable races that reside there. In fact, many sophonts take exactly that position in the first half or so of the novel, saying that there have always been such galactic catastrophes and that, really, it’s no big deal for any except those that get caught in them. The fact that the perversion then proves a danger to not just humanity and those near it but to all the Beyond serves to raise the stakes and immensity of the threat to critical levels, but does still leaves the individual seeming hopelessly outmatched as entire civilizations fall and die on the periphery, their fates only obliquely revealed through the shifting views of the Net.

Even that’s barely touching on the incredible effects of living near the Transcendent, knowing that there are beings infinitely superior to you, infinitely above you, capable – and, now, willing – to use sophonts as but their playthings. We’re all, as one character says, nothing but “happy automatons, running on trivial programs. […] [The Transcendent] could make devices like you and I.” (pp. 255-6) But the cast as a whole is not given into such fatalism. No, the message here is one of defiance and action, no matter how fleeting or seemingly hopeless, how short lived or even doomed. Our perspective in the prologue says it first: While we exist, when we exist, we should do what we can, (p. 3) but I think my favorite iteration of the sentiment comes later, when one of the novel’s most audacious, but ultimately weaker, characters says that he “will not be flotsam on the wave of the future.” (p. 450) (All of which is similar to another of Parker’s themes, the one best summed up by Basso’s declaration that Destiny is the enemy. (p. 203, The Folding Knife))

Despite all that, though, Vinge’s characters, and even his plots, are well overshadowed by his ideas. The excellence of each and every one of his humanoid and alien creations comes from their reactions and actions in their extraordinary and inventive situations, and the joys of his flashy plotting come from the way that it interacts with his cosmos. So, once just about all’s explained and understood, or at least as much as it ever will be in the novel’s pages (or ever could be by our Slow Zone minds?), a bit of the excitement leaves the affair, and the broad strokes of the novel’s ending aren’t too surprising, even if the particulars might be. Tied into that is the fact that we only get to viscerally feel the aspects of the climax that take place on the Tines world, a shame because it’s in terms of the larger galaxy that the unexpected aspects of the ending really hit. But, for all that, the ending’s still a damn fine one, a shade disappointing only for being merely very good at the end of such an exquisite work.

A Fire Upon the Deep is the epitome of what so much Science Fiction is trying to be, a gripping and exciting book filled to bursting and over the rim with interesting ideas that stretch out your mind, fill your head with wonder, and make you contemplate something profoundly other and infinitely vast. Here, at the tail end of this panegyric, I still feel like I may have understated just how much this novel hit me and just how much I liked it. So let me have one more sentence-length shot at conveying how I feel about it: A Fire Upon the Deep is absolutely brilliant. Now go read the book.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Haruki Murakami - 1Q84

"And also," the driver said, facing the mirror, "please remember: things are not what they seem." (p. 9)

1Q84 is the Japanese novelist Haruku Murakami's third novel since 2000, though the word "novel" might be a tad misleading, as it's a trilogy in Japan. Fittingly enough for its three-in-one background, it's a brick of a book. Nonetheless, it's an easy and pleasurable read, Murakami's smooth and sonorous prose floating you through a narrative that, right up until you turn the last page, seems to make perfect sense. When you look back on it, however, all the easy associations you picked up as you read turn out to be rather hollow, the book's meaning something that has to be cobbled together from bits and pieces throughout its massive, lifelike sprawl.

An easy looking thematic starting point seems to be the reference in the title, the contrasts and, of course, similarities between Orwell's so-famous 1984 and this year of 1Q84, this world-with-a-question-mark, as Auomame puts it. But that association's too easy, and Murakami's true intent at once rises above that one-to-one correlation/interpretation and also sidesteps the comparison entirely. As one character says:  Now, in the real year 1984, Big Brother is all too famous, and all too obvious. If Big Brother were to appear before us now, we'd point to him and say, 'Watch out! He's Big Brother!' There's no longer any place for a Big Brother in this real world of ours. Instead, these so-called Little People have come on the scene. Interesting verbal contrast, don't you think? (p. 236) Those Little People are nothing near as concrete as Big Brother and his police force. No, the Little People are something nigh entirely ephemeral, a force of magic and thought that only touches the world, if it does at all, through implication and faith and the most subtle of maneuverings.

In the end, the comparison does, of course, seem valid to some extent, but the despotism shown here is not one of force or even of nation, but rather a despotism of thought and will, of past and intent and even of love. The Sakigake Cult is the clearest example of this. It takes the circuits out of [its member's] brains that make it possible for them to think for themselves. […] It makes life a lot easier. You don't have to think about different things, just shut up and do what your superiors tell you to do. You never have to starve. (pp. 120-1) but while it might be the most obvious example of the intellectual and individual atrophy at the novel's core, it’s the least focused on. Sakigake is mostly a specter in the shadows, an example of how dominating the Little People's manipulations can become so that we may better see and fear them in the rest of the text.

[People] have to move with a purpose, (p. 29) we hear towards the novel's beginning, and it could be said that attempts to find that purpose and carry it through, no matter the circumstances or obstacles, dominate. And the greatest of all barriers seems to be one's birth. Both Auomame and Tengo had parents locked in narrow roles, and each had to escape those roles to try and become who they needed to be. More important than just escape, though, is reconciliation, or at least understanding, of the past. Much of Tengo's storyline is in fact his desire and need to understand his origins and father, to comprehend how half of the genes that made his existence possible could come from this narrow, uneducated man. (p. 176) But while Murakami's adept at Tengo's personal conflict, the ramifications of it do not, of course, end there. No, in 1Q84 the world seems made wholly of an endless battle of contrasting memories, (p. 293) and it seems that the effects and maybe even purpose of life might be the rewriting of those memories and the past.

Love is another thing central to 1Q84, but that's not to say that it's pure. No, the characters need love, but it's often what destroys them, a cruel jailor and torturer that feeds on their flaws and often leaves them destroyed. It's through love, here, or at least love's approximation, that true loneliness is reached, and Murakami proves devastatingly able to hammer those moments home: Ayumi had a great emptiness inside her, like a desert at the edge of the earth. You could try watering it all you wanted, but everything would be sucked down to the bottom of the world, leaving no trace of moisture. No life could take root there. Not even birds would fly over it. […]Though she tried to forget it, the nothingness would visit her periodically – on a lonely rainy afternoon, or at dawn when she woke from a nightmare. What she needed at such times was to be held by someone, anyone. (pp. 368-9) That's where Auomame comes into her role as assassin. She, with few friends and fewer emotional attachments, has become an avenger of sorts, a slayer of those who abuse and destroy the object of their desires.

The one exception to the novel's two categories of emotionless and damaging is the idealized and intangible relationship between Tengo and Auomame, forged from just one moment of true contact many years ago and distinct by virtue of its improbability. Neither character will pollute it with their actions, will actively go out and find the other. If they are too meet again it must be by chance one day, like passing on the street, or getting on the same bus, (p. 190) for only flesh that does not exist will never die, and promises unmade are never broken. (p. 374)

1Q84 is anything but a realist novel. Its flow is a surreal drift. Strict analysis flounders here, the orderly march of cause and effect left behind for a tale as humanly logical as it is absurd. Like After Dard, 1Q84 is not constructed from the oft-contemplated yet depthless impossible but instead from the subtly unthinkable. Murakami's otherworldly agents – his Little People – do not replace our reality but rather alter it. Murakami's is a Tokyo-born Middle Earth made of nothing but an empty sandbox and swings, a mercury-vapor lamp, emitting its sterile light, the spreading branches of a zelkova tree, a locked public toilet, a new six-story condo (only four units of which had lighted windows), a war notice board, a red vending machine with a Coca-Cola logo, an illegally parked old-model green Volkswagen golf, telephone poles and electric lines, and primary-color neon signs in the distance. The usual city noise, the usual lights. (p. 548)

One of the text's key fantastical components is that of dohta and maza (p. 685) and the relationship between them, object and shadow, reality and afterimage, character and alter ego. It's a relationship that characterizes much of the text, for 1Q84 is a story of layers and careful shading, numerous perspectives and recurrences, images and events appearing again and again in slightly altered forms and viewed through drastically different eyes. Even the language comes to play the game, with Murakami often using one word, such as aroused (p. 43/4), twice in the same scene, but in vastly different connotations, with the first nonetheless impacting how we view the second.

Murakami's prose is brilliant and engaging without ever being flashy or openly attention seeking. It's the little things that make it what it is and often the descriptions of the smallest things that stick in your mind the longest. Murakami is an absolute master of similes and metaphors, twisting mundane images into wonderful new configurations, like when a character must fasten [their] feelings to the earth – firmly, like attaching an anchor to a balloon. (p. 185) or like when we're told how Tengo's past lovers had come and gone, like vividly colored birds perching momentarily on a branch before flying off somewhere. (p. 360) Furthermore, Murakami's a supremely playful author, often mercilessly poking fun of his own creations with a wray wit: The large crown of his head formed and abnormally flat bald area with lopsided edges. It was reminiscent of a military heliport that had been made by cutting away the peak of a small, strategically important hill. (p. 330) Not even revelation and life changing events are above such jibes:  At least once in his life [Tengo] had had the perfect erection, and the perfect orgasm. It was like the author of Gone With the Wind. Once you have achieved something so magnificent, you have to be content with it. (p. 727)

Despite all that, 1Q84 is a flawed novel, and a reviewer ever so slightly more concerned with snappy phrasing than accuracy might even say that those problems are half from excess and half from restraint. The first of those can, for the most part, be pinned down to the novel's aforementioned repetition. It's a technique that is, for the most part, effective, but, when used to the extent it is here, serves to further slow down and clog up the works. The repetition does give added insight, but it also serves to stifle any forward momentum the novel might otherwise have accumulated. This, and the novel's length, would both not be an issue if not for the fact that, put plainly, the book simply doesn't have enough significant events, at least not when one compares the number of those to the weight of its minutia and the sum of its page count. Though 1Q84 is more than twice the length of Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, it doesn't feel like it has any more content or depth, just like it's playing its melodies at half speed.

That's not to say, admittedly, that 1Q84 is never a tightly paced, gripping work, just that it almost never is. One of the novel's key set pieces is a long, long time building, but, when it comes in the midst of the second book, is composed of chapter after chapter of almost unbreakable tension, each word exquisitely backed by the weight of our expectations and by the omnipresent feel of imminent revelation. Alas, the novel never again reaches the magic of those chapters, and some of the later significant events actually serve to simply underscore the weightlessness of much of the narrative. The third book introduces a new viewpoint character, a private detective in the employ of Sakigake. His chapters are generally enjoyable, but the moment when he pieces together the connections between Tengo and Auomame is one of the novel's weakest. In the main thrust of the narrative, enraptured by Murakami's prose, the link between the two is delightful and even magical because of its slightness. When uncovered and explained in terms of the detective's supposed logic, however, the connection ends up viewed by the reader's regular, discerning gaze and the link is, when considered in that light, of course ridiculous.

The other contender for the much-coveted prize for the novel's weakest section comes when the reader is finally allowed to glimpse some of the text of Air Chrysalis, the book-within-a-book that first exposes the Little People and that, when rewritten by Tengo, goes on to win prizes and top bestseller lists. Everything from cap-i-tal-izum to peese and for-tress (p. 532) is rendered in the grating, garish, and juvenile manner of an adult doing his ham-handed best to cram a child's perspective down our throats. The main effect, besides conveying boundless immaturity, was making me wonder about the sanity of the judges and reading populace of this alternate reality Tokyo.

I would say that most of my criticisms of logic and pacing, though, wouldn't come as any surprise at all to Murakami. After the publication of Air Chrysalis, Tengo reads several of its reviews, one of which says that: As a story, the work is put together in an exceptionally interesting way and it carries the reader along to the very end, but when it comes to the question of what is an air chrysalis, or who are the Little People, we are left in a pool of mysterious question marks. This may well be the author's intention, but many readers are likely to this lack of clarification as a sign of 'authorial laziness.' (p. 380) This confuses Tengo. He knows that, as a story, Air Chrysalis was fascinating to many people […]. What more did it have to do? (p. 381)

That, really, seems to sum up much of Murakami's philosophy in reading this work and the mindset that must be used to read it. Speaking of life, a character at one point thinks: The warmth and the pain came as a pair, and unless he accepted the pain, he wouldn't feel the warmth. It was a kind of trade-off. (p. 803) 1Q84 is a magical and sprawling work, one resplendent with depth, and also one loaded down with a number of flaws. It's a tapestry of dreams that might just be too delicate to be perfect without being ruined.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Publication v4

Tell me straight, dear readers: are your lives too cheerful at the moment? Are you lacking the necessary depressing horror? Missing all dark flair? Desperately requiring a short, sweet, and disturbing shock to the system? Well, let me try and fix that. On February 16th, Eschatology Journal will be publishing my short story Strings.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Best Reads of 2011

Largely, I think, due to reading so many magazines and so many parts of various books for classes, I read the fewest books in 2011 that I did in any year since I started keeping track in 2009. Still, I've ended up with the at least somewhat respectable total of one hundred and nine volumes conquered, and, needless to say, quite a few of those were rather excellent. And so the time has come for the eight best of them, presented in alphabetical order. We begin with…

Reviewed here.

The Wounded and the Slain isn't an exciting book. It's downbeat, instead, not to mention depressing, dejected and dispirited, filled with character and heart and written with a kind of rough poetry. Though there is a crime at the book's center, it's very much a crime with a small c, not a jumping off point to adventure but a tortured, haphazard, regrettable, and, above all, pointless thing. The descent into darkness thing is an inexorable crawl, not a glamorous leap. I don't think you could ever call this a pleasant book, but it's one that'll hit you hard, and it's a damn good one.

Reviewed here.

As stark as it is focused, as streamlined as it is jagged, Red Harvest embodies much of what interests me about the noir genre. Though wholly concerned with matters of justice, this is a compassionless novel, maybe even a(n intentionally) heartless one. Morality here is a brutal force, and the idea of right is relegated to strength and violence. But, in this nigh lawless place, even the lawman, the only one standing up for us, might be corrupt to the core. This is a fast novel, a fun novel, and a damn disturbing one.

Reviewed here.

Like Red Harvest, The Ammonite Violin is disturbing and raw, but here those qualities don't come from bare language, harsh violence, and a lack of emotion but rather from a series of stories that are almost unutterably rich in their composition, filled with overwhelming and enveloping language and positively overflowing with feeling. The longing shown here is the kind of calculated, unbearable, and revelatory longing that might come gushing forth from an excised heart with all the force of the heavy, dark blood that comes with it.

Grimscribe is horror extraordinaire Thomas Ligotti's second collection, and it takes place wholly within nightmare, on the edge of utter dementia itself. Its stories toy with that border, giving glimpses and tantalizing, horrifying hints, leaping across for brief moments where sanity howls before falling back. Amidst it all are several of Ligotti's best tales, including Nethescurial, an insidious and Lovecraftian beast of a tale that can actually be read for free (albeit with an annoying formatting issue or two) here. In my personal rankings, Grimscribe is roughly tied with the author's Songs of aDead Dreamer and Teatro Grottesco for the overall prize of his best work. Suffice to say, this is a brilliant collection.

Reviewed here.

I knew I'd like Sandkings going in, maybe even knew I'd love it, but I didn't know how much. The Stone City is a Science Fiction Weird Tale in every sense of the word, and an absolutely brilliant one at that, fiction that probes the limits of human understanding and strangeness with as much skill as Lovecraft himself brought to the table. This isn't, though, a collection with one centerpiece. Every tale here is filled with breathtaking images and audacity, entire worlds and some of the best characterization you'll ever come across. I know a lot of readers view Martin's older works as a now-done sideshow compared to A Song of Ice and Fire, but doing so is a dire mistake.

Reviewed here.

Embassytown is the rare Science Fiction novel that is not only alien in its choice of colors and its number of tentacles. The aliens shown here are convincingly inhuman, but it's the aspects of language that Miéville uses them to explore that are stranger and more intriguing still. Those concepts are explored in full, taking the humans in the narrative to and past the breaking point, twisting and shattering and reinventing every aspect of their world. Miéville's as skilled as any with coming up with brilliant and challenging ideas, has the ability to ride them for all they're worth, and the talent to present the whole with his fantastic prose. Though it's very different from his early work, Embassytown is no less excellent.

The Dream of Perpetual Motion builds a vivid, colorful, and fascinating world and populates it with larger than life, well explored, and somehow believable characters. I think it says a lot about the novel that I chiefly remember two scenes, one the thrilling, grand, and inventive climax and the other an unimportant scene where the main character eats some rather unpleasant food in a diner. Try as I might, I can't decide which of those I liked best, or which felt more real, and, amazingly enough, the two fit so well into the same narrative that, looking back, they really don't seem all that different in importance at all.

Review to come.

A Fire Upon the Deep operates on a scale so much vaster than what can be easily conceived that the reader's practically pummeled with awe as they turn the pages, and turn them they will. The central plot of A Fire Upon the Deep is a gripping adventure story that takes place amidst an unimaginably complex and fascinating universe, a story filled with grand ideas and with a cast made up in large part of some of the best made and most convincing aliens I've ever seen. A Fire Upon the Deep isn't only one of my favorite books of this year: it's one of my favorite Science Fiction novels ever and even one of my favorite novels.


Review here.

Though it also had its fair share of excellence, 2011 packed in more than a few disappointing novels: Boneshaker, If You Could See Me Now, and even the legendary Frankenstein among them. But the latter two had some good ideas, if a fumbled execution, and even Boneshaker was more formless mush than actively bad. Only Wicked Things managed to truly and genuinely piss me off, not because it hadn't met my expectations (though, needless to say, it hadn't) but because it was simply an awful book, one that rambled about aimlessly, setting up numerous hints and clues, and then oh-so-cleverly keeled over dead before resolving anything. Ha ha. Wicked Things tries to be a stylish, plot-based read, but the ending reveal leaves it a thriller that forgot to thrill, a horror novel whose only real horror moment is a and unsubstantiated cheap shot, a novel whose characters are stick figures then jerked out of their unremarkable paths, and a book with nigh no redeeming features.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Dummy and Bards and Sages

My short horror story The Dummy is now available in the newest issue of Bards and Sages Quarterly (print/kindle), and my name seems to be on the cover. The story's a compassionate, bright, and hopeful tale, about... Well, no. It's dark and disturbing. But hopefully quite enjoyable nonetheless. To either whet your appetite or put you off forever, here's the first paragraph:

The dummy was a work in progress, a Michael to torment and a Michael to love. It was an impromptu sculpture, a masterpiece of longing made from paint and wood, hand carved jewels for eyes and ivory for nails, and blood from a pin for its heart. Fleya spent thirty-three hours mastering every drift of hair, but the face was an abstraction, a swirl of paint and indentations. The dummy was half dream to look upon, and it was snow-cold to the touch.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Best Releases of 2011

Yesterday, Strange Horizons put up their Year in Review postwith my own paragraph-long thoughts among those offered. Head on over and take a look. Once you're done, though, keep reading, because the discussion's not yet over. See, at the time of writing the Strange Horizons piece, my computer was down and seemingly dead (thankfully, it recovered soon after). As a result, I didn't have access to my list of books read and so, rather unsurprisingly, forgot the dates of a few notable releases, most importantly Daniel Kraus' Rotters, a YA horror novel about grave robbing that one me over in short order due to the fantastic descriptions of that so-sordid crime and the depiction of the novel's main character. And then there are all the series books, few of which I mentioned. Both White Luck Warrior and The Crippled  God were quite good. The latter maybe even excellent, even if it wasn't my personal favorite Malazan volume. Both, though, lost their places on the list because they were too tied up with the preceding (and, in the case of the former, to come) novels for me to really judge them on their own merits. Finally, there's certainly the matter of Historical Lovecraft, the anthology that came out midway through the year bearing my very first published story.

My post with overall best reads for the year will come out next week. 

For those interested, the full list of newly released books I read is as follows:

  1. Joe Abercrombie – The Heroes
  2. Daniel Abraham – The Dragon's Path
  3. R. Scott Bakker – The White Luck Warrior
  4. James S. A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes
  5. Steven Erikson – The Crippled God
  6. Daniel Kraus – Rotters
  7. Mark Lawrence – Prince of Thorns
  8. George R.R. Martin – A Dance with Dragons
  9. Robert McCammon – The Hunter from the Woods
  10. Haruki Murakami – 1Q84
  11. Adam Nevill – The Ritual
  12. K.J. Parker – The Hammer
  13. Patrick Rothfuss – The Wise Man's Fear
  14. Brandon Sanderson – The Alloy of Law
  15. Sam Sykes – Black Halo
  16. Catherynne M. Valente – Deathless
  17. Historical Lovecraft