Friday, December 22, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 7: Machineries of Empire Series, by Yoon Ha Lee

I have seen this series called space-opera or space fantasy. I don’t really know how to define the first, and I fear the second is often used to belittle science fiction that isn’t written by and for physics majors. To me, Machineries of Empire reads very much as science fiction, some of the most novel and exciting science fiction I have read in years. These are books about war and intrigue in a complex, rigidly organized society whose aristocrats have strange, psychic/magical powers. They spend a huge portion of their prose on exposition, description, and backstory. It is tense, engaging, beautiful, and difficult to put down. Here are some of my thoughts on the really important elements of that apparent contradiction, which I am hurriedly stuffing into this bag for my own use.

Big ideas really can be fascinating. Idea fiction is hard, like super hard, and I am particularly hard ground for many flavors of that particular seed. I did philosophy in college, and I bounce off a lot of work grounded in philosophical ideas from my own preference for rigor. Machineries of Empire is all about big ideas, about the nature of trust, of government, about the purpose of civilization on a galactic scale, and it is fascinating. The characters care so deeply about these questions that we as readers must as well. Lee’s characters care so deeply about these questions, about the potential for individuals to change and influence their fate in the great system, about the religious/political constitution of the empire and what it means. Machineries of Empire was able to make me care about big ideas that I did not come into the story looking for in way I am still barely beginning to understand as a matter of technique.

You can world-build forever if your world is cool enough. Lee spends a lot of time just teaching the reader about the world of the Hexarchate and its neighbors, how the government, and the religion, and the technology work, how it all came to be and how it evolved over centuries. Those long dives into history and science/magic mechanics and technology are some of the best parts, because the history and technology and magic/religion/government are incredibly cool, surprising, exciting ideas. These books have exotic (as in exotic physics) technologies that only function in those parts of space where everyone on the relevant space stations and planets follows/believes in/conforms to the appropriate calendar, and a vast government/religion whose raison d’ĂȘtre is enforcing that conformity. There are soldiers who voluntarily take on a compulsion to obey superior officers so strong refusal is fatal. The world is so rich and interesting that I never resented a long dive into it, away from the theoretically more proximate action of the main plot.

Awesome names do work. A huge part of the world building and delicious immersion of Machineries of Empire is done with names, evocative, strange names that are either never explained or only explained much later. When I read “ninefox crowned with eyes,” or “Kniferose” or “The Fortress of Spinshot Coins,” or hear of the terrible “threshold winnower,” I am immediately placed in a fascinating, alien world. Names do so much for the world of Machineries of Empire. They put you immediately in the flood of a new world and invite you to swim after brilliant, unknown fish. (more on my love of deep-end first world-building in a forthcoming blog on China Mieville; more on my love of complicated names in literally everything I manage to publish.) Lee claims not to be a visual writer, but the names do more work than most descriptions, and give readers (at least me) an endless succession of vivid images, or the sensation of having an image even if it is hazy, which is just as good.

Caring about individuals when dealing with conflict on a galactic scale is revolutionary and difficult. A society that encompasses hundreds of planets, that is united by faster than light travel and the strange contortions of a religious/calendrical system that enables that travel, necessarily contains a vast amount of human suffering, of people overlooked and neglected, or ground in the uncaring wheels of a vast bureaucracy. The Hexarchate of Lee’s novels contains quite a bit more, since the calendar that permits the technology that maintains the empire to function requires regular public torture and execution of heretics. In such a large, cruel world, it is revolutionary to have power and to care about the powerless as individuals. Lee’s heroes do that, and it makes them special beyond the power of brilliance or strength to do so. To have a novel of vast conflict and intrigue and make its heart one of care is powerful, and it reinforces the importance of care for the constitution of government and the personalities of those few who can move the levers of power. It is always worth remembering the power of care, especially when the size of the world and its troubles seems to dwarf our individual complaints.

Machineries of Empire encompasses the already released Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, with the forthcoming Revenant Gun.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part 6: Hunger Makes the Wolf, By Alex Wells

Full disclosure to begin: Alex bought my first story sale. The goodwill I have for them, for that, and for how lovely they were during editing, is hard to overstate. It’s a major reason I got this book to read the first time. It is very much not why I am writing this article now.

I read Hunger Makes the Wolf in one day. I did nothing else. I had not planned to spend my Saturday doing nothing but reading, but I opened the book, and then I had no choice but to continue. Be warned; it is difficult to stop this train once it leaves the station. Be sure you have set aside the time you need to make the journey, but do make sure to take it. Hunger Makes the Wolf is entirely worth whatever space you can make for it. Here are some fumbles at why, as I try to find a way to distill a little of the same pulse-pounding pull into my own work.

Visceral description makes everything realer and more compelling. From the first sentence of Hunger Makes the Wolf, you can taste the grit of Tanegawa’s World between your teeth, feel the heat of the desert and the sweat under your leathers. The powerfully present physicality of the characters’ experience transports you into the setting on a bedrock level. Even now, months after my last reading, I can conjure the heat and dust and sound of the story in a moment. I strive for viscerality, for that closeness, in my own writing, and I have no idea if I achieve it, but Wells never lets you down. From start to finish, you can place yourself right under the skin of the world and the immersion gives the story weight.

Solidarity is the foundation of resistance. Hunger Makes the Wolf is, at its heart, a union story. The villain is the corporate overlord, and the heroines are the core of a resistance. Wells understands, very well if you follow their real-world social media presence, the nature and history of corporate violence and oppression and the need for solidarity on all levels, to resistance. Hunger Makes the Wolf showcases the quest for a broad union, between communities, between workers of different industries, but also at the personal level. It is the strength of personal bonds that lets the heroes of this story be heroic. Hob and Mags trust each other, and they are the hinges of a power that can fight a corporation bigger than the interstellar government and win, at least for a little while. Hob trusts her gang, and they trust her to lead. They don’t think each other perfect; they understand the foibles and weaknesses and bad decisions that their friends have made and will continue to make, but they build something together. That core of trust and action together is a worthwhile lesson, for society and for writing. Friendship can move mountains. Solidarity can re-shape the world. It takes the small to build the large, and together the poor and insignificant can shake the thrones of the mighty.

Fear also build coalitions. Hunger Makes the Wolf is a story about solidarity, but it is also a story about witch hunts, quite literal ones. The corporation preys on fear of the other, and on fear of being labelled among the undesirable, to make the people of Tanegawa’s world police themselves and purge people suspected of having power the corporation fears, and it works, sometimes extremely well. Even people who know what the right thing will be do the wrong thing when it will keep them safe. From the outside, a mob and a community coming together look very similar, and Hunger Makes the Wolf has both, and makes you understand how people who are not particular evil by nature become so when they are pushed toward it.

There are different kinds of strength, and they are all important. Hob is a biker and a fighter and witch, and she does violence and rides the desert, and that matters. Mags is a miner’s daughter and a talker and an organizer. She builds networks and reads people and convinces them, and that matters. It takes a clever hand to make space for fire-magic and reckless gunplay, and careful building of a half-secret network of solidarity to feel important as part of the same larger puzzle, and Wells does an amazing job with it.

Heavy subjects don’t mean a heavy book. This all sounds really serious doesn’t it? I have not managed to approximate the tone of Hunger Makes the Wolf in this blog about it. The book is a fast-driving good time, full of perfect action and occasional tenderness, with delightful humor and plenty of stand and pump your fist moments. When I try to learn from Hunger Makes the Wolf, that’s the heart of what I’m aiming at: something that deals with weighty, topical things without reading like a tract or an epic. Hunger Makes the Wolf is fun, so much fun, and there is still more to come back and enjoy once all the twists and plunges of the rollercoaster are familiar. It’s an alchemy of prose and concept and humor and joy that makes a book that is satisfying in a single huge gulp or a long savoring. Definitely give it a look.

Once you’ve enjoyed Hunger Makes the Wolf, you can pre-order the sequel, Blood Binds the Pack at your local bookstore or on Amazon.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Ideas I am Currently Stealing, Part Five: Persons Non Grata, by Cassandra Khaw

Persons Non Grata is currently two linked, but entirely stand-alone horror novellas by the delightful Cassandra Khaw, Hammers on Bone and A Song for Quiet. The books are beautifully short and driven, perfect for reading in a single sitting. I read Hammers on Bone in an hour on the train, and was extremely sad to have no more to read when I was done. These books are worth devouring, sharp and dangerous and richly sweet and broken glass made from honey and butter. They are my absolute favorite pieces of modern Lovecraftian horror, preserving the power of cosmic horror better than anything else I’ve read. I want to steal almost everything about these books, perhaps enough that I should consider simply consuming them whole, to absorb the entirety of their power. Until I work up the jaw strength and gastric fortitude for that, here are some of the pieces I think are most important.

There is vast terror, and there are small, personal hurts, and both are needed to sharpen the other. Cosmic horror, the horror of a vast and peopled universe filled with intelligences that waver between utter indifference and active malice towards the life of individuals and of humanity as a whole can, and in Persons Non Grata does, create a pall of dread that heightens the emotion of reading. But this play on the strings of anxiety cannot become proximate and sudden without a certain diminishment. In Khaw’s stories, the dread is sharpened by the pricks of smaller, more ordinary horrors, by neglect, loss, hunger, poverty, and the pain of lonely, frightened child. These small hurts twist the knife in skin that universal dread has sensitized, and the confluence is delicious and terrible. The dread too is made more with these little barbs to pull it closer. The end of the world is more real when you can see why someone would desire it, why the building of little pains could make the end of everything seem like a panacea.

Pain hurts, and you feel every second. Cassandra Khaw is the finest writer I have read for describing the experience of physical pain. She makes it hurt, but spins just enough art into the pain that I don’t white-out and stop imagining the whole sensation. That’s often how it goes for me. I note that pain is part of the scenario, but it drifts to the back of my imagination of the scene, because it’s quite unpleasant. Khaw keeps the pain close and real and hurting just the right amount. It works so well in these horrors, to make success cost enough. Even when the heroes win, you can feel the damage, and it keeps building up. That feeling of pain that stays, victory that costs for more than scene, is something I am trying hard to learn from Persons Non Grata.

Gorgeous prose can keep the sharpest edge. Very often, our reflex is to associate elaborate prose with distancing, with slowness or absurdity. The tortured thesaurus diving of Lovecraft and his imitators brings a jarring note of unintended humor to the horror. If purple prose is prose that jars or calls unnecessary attention to itself with its elaboration, then there is nothing purple about Khaw’s writing. Her language shines dark and rich and smooth as molasses pouring from the jar, cuts sharp and raw as a frozen knife breaking your skin. There is more than enough weight to take it between your teeth and grind the last drop of flavor out by slow savoring, but the pace of the story pulls you on faster than that, even through the luxury of language. Not a bit of Khaw’s prose erodes the horror of her narrative. If anything, it reinforces it. The lush, vibrant prose reveals more details to disturb, just enough to make your imagination form a more vivid picture than fainter brushstrokes could reveal. As you may be able to tell, I have a love for elegant and expansive writing, and perhaps aspirations to match Khaw’s command of such.

Even in the impossible darkness between uncaring stars, there is reason for hope. Both of these novellas are horror, unequivocally, and they deal with both the cosmic terror of a monstrous universe, and the smaller horror of monstrous societies, but both, in my reading, end with hope. Even in the face of flesh and teeth and huge inhuman hungers, the world does not end. Even in the face of pain and poverty and prejudice, the battered, broken heroes do not want it to. There is a delicate art to horror on the larger scale that does not lead to nihilism, but still preserves the balance of terror, and Khaw strikes a perfect note. I am taking notes on it. The power of hope prevailing, if only for a brief reprieve, after the touch of more than human darkness is worth all of our attention, and so is the strength of Khaw’s protagonists, especially in A Song for Quiet, to embrace hope after the smaller, sharper horrors of their lives.

I will make no secret here that this entry in the Stolen Ideas series is particularly special for me. I have discovered Cassandra Khaw only recently, and she has risen already to be among my very favorite authors. Her prose is spectacular and engaging and very much like what I imagine my own best work to be. Of all the authors mentioned and to-be-mentioned here, she is the one I most imagine a collaboration with, because there is a harmony between her words and my dreams that I have found with nothing else. Her work, and her delightful twitter microfictions are well worth everyone’s attention.