Friday, October 27, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 12: Neuromancer and Various Short Stories, By William Gibson

I had a distinct cyberpunk period (of reading and imagining), and it began with Neuromancer before expanding into Bruce Sterling and Lucuis Shepard and Neal Stephenson. For a sheltered child, Neuromancer, and cyberpunk in general, were something like drugs: raw, transgressive, mind expanding, filled with drugs. The cyberpunk aesthetic, especially early work like Gibson’s sprawl, seemed designed to shock, and I was appropriately shocked by the dirt, the smog, the pettiness of criminals and the godlike remove of the zaibatsus (huge corporations are all Japanese, or at least referred to that way, in early cyberpunk.) There was an almost sickening glorification of the violated and degraded in cyberpunk, the obsession with invasive body-modification, with the spiral of addiction, with the invigilating nature of poverty in the future. I had never met anything like it, and it was fascinating.

I came to cyberpunk from a slightly younger period steeped in classic science fiction, the technological optimism of the golden age, and cyberpunk was a splash of cold water collected in a rusted bucket from acid rain filtered through a slowly dying neon sign that advertised a virtual escape from the grind of life in a slum. The drastic transition from optimism to cynicism heightened, I think, the impression that Neuromancer made on me.

Another of the fascinating parts of Neuromancer that I now understand had a serious effect on me was the matter-of-factness of the transhumanism presented. I do not know that Gibson would have used the term then, but Neuromancer, and his short stories, were filled unproblematic human augmentation: implanted organs to prevent drug abuse, fingernail razors and sunglass eyeshades, an implanted holographic projection system. All of it is treated as unremarkable, exceptional for cost and elegance perhaps, but the concept of enhancing body and mind with implanted metal and silicon is not problematized. Stories that spend more time wondering about the nature of humanity and where it breaks down under augmentation have often landed poorly with me, perhaps in consequence of Neuromancer as an introduction.

There is a lot for a kid to not get in Neuromancer, when they haven’t read much similar fiction, or been to a regular school, or learned about the world of current events and recent history in anything approaching a systematic fashion. There are both a character and a backstory subplot that strongly evoke the Vietnam war, which I am not sure I had heard of when I first read Neuromancer. There are multiple cultures of recreational drug use, addiction, dependence and attendant troubles, which I certainly did not fully grasp at the time. There are space Rastafarians. I am certain I did not, when I first read Neuromancer, know what a Rastafarian was.

Despite some things going right over my head, Neuromancer punched hard and settled in. I read a lot of William Gibson after that. I do not remember the novels I read then very well (more about other novels, which I read later, in another blog.) Some of them were perhaps forgettable, others were likely brilliant, but at the time confusing, without the core of straightforward adventure that dragged me through the strangeness of Neuromancer. The short stories were different. Many of those dug in very hard. I still return to the first collection I bought, titled for the story I will begin with.

“Burning Chrome” is the quintessential Gibson, the quintessential cyberpunk short story. When I first read it, it was an action story, full of thrilling crime, colorfully sinister supliers, culminating a heist pulled off with flair and skill and luck to punish the guilty and reward the virtuously criminal. I loved the vivid strangeness of the matrix with its geometries of colored light and shifting identities. Now on my return, the flavor is more melancholy. The success is only part of a larger failure, the victory wins no prize, and the damage of poverty against ambition is done long before stolen wealth can soften the blow.

That, I think is a fair example of my reading of William Gibson then and now. When I was young, it was a grit and the flash that excited me, the thrill of heists and narrow escapes, or failed ones. On returning, the stories are an education in melancholy, in the failure of technology to improve mankind’s morality, society, or soul. Cyberpunk was a shock, and I mainlined the stuff for years. I still remember the smell of smog and ozone, the flash of chrome, and the glow of a sky like a television tuned to a dead channel.

And with that, dear reader, we come to the end of this series on books and authors that shaped my young reading, at a nice round dozen. Next up, since I’ve finally figured out how to write about books in a way I enjoy, and have reasonable hope others may enjoy, is a series on the books and authors whose ideas I am currently trying to steal for my own work. So, read about the hot new (and not particularly new) stuff that’s got me the most excited to read and emulate.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 11: Roman Britain Novels, By Rosemary Sutcliff

This week, we bounce back in the timeline a little to books that were first read to me and then re-read a few times on my own. I hadn’t originally thought of writing about Rosemary Sutcliff for this series, but a recent conversation with my parents reminded me of her books, and how much I enjoyed them, and how worthwhile telling people about them is.

Each of Rosemary Sutcliff’s novels of Roman Britain stands alone, with small references to earlier books for the enjoyment of careful readers. They are vividly world-built in both the physical environment and the culture. Much history is mentioned, but much less is explained. Exposition stays well confined to the perspective of the characters, even when what is common knowledge for them is mysterious to the young reader. The immersion is well-maintained and the characters feel authentically of their time, never turning toward the fourth wall for historical expositions. When I first read these books, I did not approach them differently than fantasy novels. I had no other historical reference to the times they were set with which to orient myself, so the world depicted was new and strange

I have only come to love these novels more as I return with much greater historical context. I find the interplay of solid history with legend and imagination enchanting, and I appreciate the effort Sutcliff puts on depicting the culture of the past without judgment, but also without excessive bowdlerizing. These books are satisfying to an amateur student of Roman history, both in the hints of larger social and political moves that drift into the narrative, and in their joyful examination of the details of daily life, hypocausts, and bath-houses, and legion careers. Beyond those details, the novels are united by repeated themes of legacy, loyalty, and the harmony and tension of blood family and found families.

The first of the series in The Eagle of the Ninth, set in golden age of empire, after the building of Hadrian’s wall. Our adventure is the search for a lost legionary eagle, vanished along with its legion in the mists of Caledonia beyond the wall, along with the main character’s father and an entire legion. After injury derails his career in the legions, our hero finds a second path in trying to redeem his family’s, and the empire’s, failure in the north. If there is a highlight beyond the lush description and enjoyable adventure, it is the clear-eyed view of the immense privilege that even a lower-level member of the Roman aristocracy enjoys. If there is a weakness, it the sensationalized savagery of the Celts beyond the wall, but it did not jar me when I was young, and I cannot now read past the veil of nostalgia to assess how deeply problematic it may be.

The next entry in the series is The Silver Branch, set a couple hundred years later, during Carausius’ rule of a semi-independent Britain. The issue of loyalties is immediately complicated in this book, as the legionary heroes must weigh loyalty to the distant and abstract Rome with duty to the nearby Carausius, a strong and effective steward of Britain, which they love. In the end of course, the question is resolved by Carausius’ murder by his treacherous minister Allectus, but not before much plot is wrung from investigation and skullduggery. Allectus allies with the Saxons, providing the series’ first glimpse of the blonde barbarians who will be the major antagonists of the last two books. In the end Rome, in the person of Re-conquering tetrarch Constantius, returns to its position as the light of order and civilization in Britain.

Rome is represented by a literal light in The Lantern Bearers, the lighthouse kindled by our protagonist as he watches the legions sail away from Britain, forever. Immediately after that melancholy symbol of defiance, our hero is captured by Saxons who look very much like proto-Vikings and taken as a thrall. The second half of the book, after his escape back in Britain, is an Arthurian story, with Vortigern, Hengest, and Aurelius Ambrosius, the sometimes Arthur, sometimes Merlin semi-historical last of the Romans in Britain. This was my first introduction to the Arthur as bearer of the Roman flame take on that mythology, and I have continued to be partial to that spin on Arthurian legend.

The Lantern Bearers technically closes a trilogy of related works, but I will also talk about a spiritual successor that I read along with the rest and enjoyed greatly. The Shining Company is an entirely British story, after the Romans and before Anglo-Saxon and British came to mean the same thing. It is in fact an imagining of a story told in a Welsh epic, preserved in fragments, called Y Gododdin. The poem and the novel tell of a picked force of 300 warriors, gathered by the wealthy king of what is now Edinburgh, and sent into doomed battle with the expanding Saxon kingdoms of Deira and Bernicia. (Fun trivia, if not a later interpolation in the manuscript, Y Gododdin contains the earliest known reference to king Arthur.) The style of The Shining Company is distinct from that of the Roman Britain novels, more lyrical, more epic, and more tragic, but it shows the same superb attention to the details of life in the past. It is particularly dear to me for portraying a world in which magic is believed in and magic is done without requiring any suspension of disbelief from the reader. Magic is done without anything necessarily fantastic occurring.

The lesson that the mundane must be explained and is worth spending exposition on no less than the fantastic is a quite important one, and that idea is perhaps the lasting legacy of these books for me. Also a deep fascination with Roman History. That may have started here too, or possible that was Asterix & Obelix. Either way, I loved Sutcliff when I was young, and I still find it worth returning.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 10: Sabriel, by Garth Nix

I bounced off Sabriel when I first encountered it, in one of many loads brought back from the library for my mother to read to me, something about it, the setting or the style or the age of the protagonist didn’t catch me just right, and we didn’t go very far. I found Sabriel again a few years later, when I was reading for myself, and it was perfect, delightfully dark and magical with a core of adventure and learning about a new world. Speaking of creepy and Garth Nix, allow me a brief digression on another of his books: Shade’s Children is genuinely terrifying and filled with vivid horror imagery. It is the only book that I clearly remember making it hard to sleep and giving me nightmares when I did. Give Shade’s Children to the young readers in your life with caution. It is not for the nervous.

Returning to Sabriel, one of the interesting things about it is that, for a moment, it seems to be a different sort of book than it is. The first chapter, discounting the prologue, suggests a magical-school kind of narrative. Our titular heroine is a prefect, with all the immediate cultural suggestions that entails, there are ivy covered buildings and illicit magic and school uniforms, but the expected structure is immediately undermined; Sabriel knows more than her teacher about magic and monsters, and the same scene that reveals that detail incites the real quest of the novel. After the initial tease, Sabriel become a journey book, an adventure of rescue of discovery, as Sabriel travels to a land she barely remembers and we, the reader, understand not at all.

Sabriel is simply full of things I loved and continue to love, so the form of the rest of this blog is going to be me talking about why those things were wonderful.

I loved Sabriel herself. Unlike very many YA heroes I have not enjoyed, she is powerful and competent and magical. Sabriel is young, and she is thrown into many situations she doesn’t know how to deal with, but she knows a great deal more about important magical workings than almost anyone else in the world. I loved then, and continue to love now, protagonists who are allowed to be powerful from the beginning of the book, not only at the end, and Sabriel’s magic and knowledge satisfied on that score.

I loved the Old Kingdom, the realm of magic and the walking dead where most of the story takes place, sealed off from the rest of the world by its ancient spell-mortared wall. In Sabriel, we meet the Old Kingdom as a ruin. Its are borderlands haunted by the dead; its remaining communities are closed in and harried into hardscrabble accommodation; its brilliant past of secret magic and grandeur is half-forgotten. But the bones remain. The Old Kingdom is one of the finest pieces of fantasy world-building I have read, because the society truly respects the magic. In a kingdom where the dead rise, unattended or at the will of a necromancer, the people have found defenses and ways to deal with the shambling corpses. The ordered magic of the Charter has a place in every community. The dead are burned. I love fantasy worldbuilding that integrates magic into the development of culture and convention, and Sabriel gave me that.

I loved the magic. There are two kinds of magic in Sabriel: Charter magic, the magic of order, healing, cleansing, and safety, and free magic, the magic of necromancy, of corruption, pain, and wild, destructive freedom. I adore the visceral feel of each. Charter magic is cool, soothing, precise and patient. Using it is like dipping into a universe of symbols that connects you to the whole of charter, a magical framework that connects all things and people bound to the charter. Free magic is hot, it burns and smells of hot metal. It is black-red flames with oily smoke. It buzzes in the head. It was so easy to feel the magic in Sabriel, more vivid than any other part of the book.

I loved the toys: the seven bells of a necromancer, Charter-spelled blades, armor of ancient porcelain-metal, forged with magic now forgotten, half-sentient gliders made from paper and magic with the personality of hawk. I enjoyed collections of carefully described magical or historically significant artifacts, and I loved it even more as a child, when I didn’t really bother with the emotional arc nonsense. Sabriel is chock full of magical toys and gewgaws and I loved them all.

I loved the Perimeter, the no-man’s land between the world where technology works and has advanced, and the regressive magic of the Old Kingdom. It is a place of the restless dead, where soldiers of an enlightened and post-superstition society must confront the reality of magic and the breakdown of their technology, where the dead rise, guns and telephones break down when the wind blows from the north, and experience soldiers wear mail over their khaki and carry a sword that only polite convention lists as a ‘bayonet’.

The world of Sabriel drew me in hard, and I have stayed invested and intrigued. The story managed to be serious, dark, dangerous, and adult, but still worked as YA, never losing a core of hopeful uncertainty/discovery, never becoming grim despite the death and danger. I read the sequels that complete Nix’s original Abhorsen trilogy, but later. I enjoyed them greatly, but I don’t count them as formative. I realized as I was writing this blog, how much the visceral description of magic in Nix’s books continues to inform my own writing. Clearly, these books have stayed with me, and I think that is very much to my benefit.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Books that Shaped Me, Part 9: Everworld, by K. A. Applegate

The Everworld series were books I certainly should not have, but did, read as child, when I between ten and twelve years old. I never read Animorphs, Applegate’s larger, better known series, but I have heard that it becomes quite heavy and dark by the end. Everworld started out dark and got rougher from there. I do not think these books belonged in the scholastic catalogue, from which I acquired all twelve as they became available.

Everworld is a story of four teenagers thrown into a magical realm by the schemes of their classmate/girlfriend/ex-girlfriend/sibling, Senna, who is a witch. Everworld, where they are sent, is the place where all the old gods and mythical heroes and monsters retreated, with a stock of mortals to serve and worship them, at the point they abandoned the ‘real’ world. Put another way, this is a world filled with sanity bending monsters that demand humans bow to them, and people with an unreconstructed dark-ages parody of a moral sense regarding violence, gender politics and slavery. The characters rubber-band between worlds as the series goes on, but the real action, in their and my minds, is in Everworld. The first book, which by publication dates I would have been 10 when I read, contains several scenes of graphic violence, including gory dismemberment and masochism, scenes of grim despair, torture, and heavily implied off-screen sexual violence. It also contained unexpected and intriguing world building, an interesting plot, and teen protagonists who I disliked with moderate intensity from the beginning.

I was not ready for these books. I will go farther and say I was unprepared (by life or by previous reading), shocked, and repulsed by them. The violence, fear, and suffering were more than enough to put me off the books, and I was made uncomfortable by a lot of what I read, but I was also uncomfortably fascinated, and it drew me back. Each time the next entry in the series appeared in the scholastic catalogue, I had to debate whether to acquire it. (When I was homeschooled, my father was registered as a teacher with scholastic. We got the catalogue each month, I circled what I wanted, the books appeared. I was given very little supervision in choosing the books.) I am not sure my parents were ever aware of the content of Everworld, or whether they would have done anything if they were. It was an internal debate, whether I wanted to continue the series each time, but each time I chose to order the books.

Reading Everworld never really stopped being frustrating, disturbing, or emotionally unpleasant, but it also continued to be fascinating and horizon-expanding. The content continued as disturbing as it began, and indeed escalated enough to keep the visceral unpleasantness fairly constant. It also continued to expose me to bits of mythology and legend that I had never seen before, and to aim at the things I was familiar with from odd angles that I had never considered. I was drawn to it the way one is drawn to peel off a scab, or to look at pornography when it is first discovered.

I was seriously unready for these books, and they were not written to ease the age-group they were marketed to into considering more adult issues. They were the literary equivalent of being thrown into the deep end of an icy pool in terms of teaching young readers how to think about the serious issues they presented. The books were full of sex: not graphic, but constant references, many of them tinged with violence. They dealt with depression, addiction, homophobia and white-supremacy, all through the lens of one character, who became depressed after a heroic sacrifice forced him to confront his own unthinking homophobia. He carried on a cross-universe bender that seems to be an acceleration of incipient alcoholism. In his real-world return segments, he discovers the copy shop he works at is run by neo-nazis, who invite him to their meetings. My hand was not held through any of this, and my articulation of what those parts of the books were about is very much hindsight. At the time, I found them uncomfortable. I did not enjoy reading them. I think this portion of Everworld is strongly implicated in an aversion to ‘real-world’ problems in fantasy that I carried for a long time, and am only now really examining and trying to discard.

The Everworld books were deeply difficult for me, and my reaction to them was complex, and is, perhaps, ongoing. I am not sure I would recommend them to anyone. I certainly would not recommend them to a precocious ten year old, but they did leave a real mark on me. The visceral imagery and emotion continues to shape how I think about horror in particular, and I remember them, much more than many books I simply enjoyed at the same time in my life. I was not looking for strange an disturbing fiction at that time in my life, but I have come to respect the value of it since, even if I am still unsure about Everworld.