What I’ve Been Reading, February 2023

Yes! I am still reading! In fact, there is a section on my homepage where you can see what I am reading right now, which I update every month or so, with little snippets of my current impressions of the books.

These three books I’m reviewing here aren’t all that I have been reading, but they’re what I felt like writing about at greater length in the past few months.

I finally finished Perdido Street Station by China Miéville, read by John Lee, which I’ve been listening to off and on since July. It’s a secondary world fantasy set in the enormous, early industrial metropolis of New Crobuzon. New Crobuzon is full of all kinds of different hominids, including bug people, cactus people, hand parasite people??? The book’s main trio, at least at the beginning, is the scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, his romantic partner Lin—a bug person artist—and Yagharek. Yagharek is an exiled bird person (these different groups all have actual terms in the book, but I’m just gonna call him a bird person) who has had his wings removed, and he has come to New Crobuzon to see if Isaac can restore to him the power of flight.

The strongest point of the story is the city. It is riotous, expansive, and intensely detailed. Every neighborhood, every little enclave, is a whole world unto itself—just like a real city! There isn’t just The Bug Person Neighborhood, there are actually multiple, which fall into their own hierarchy among each other, with different cultures and different relations to the powerful of the city.

The trouble with the book, and the reason my progress with it slowed down about halfway through, is that the main antagonist basically flattens all this detail. The book switches focus from Isaac’s attempts to help Yagharek fly again, and Lin’s dealings in the sordid art world, and becomes a monster story. A big soul-sucking moth creature from a far away land is loose in the city, and everyone is powerless to stop it. I say it flattens things because this monster has essentially the same relationship with every neighborhood. The differences between the neighborhoods, their cultures, their inhabitants, what type of hominid they are, are all irrelevant. Everyone is equally powerless against this moth. Whereas before, Isaac, a standard human person, has different relationships with all the neighborhoods. Some are totally hostile to him, some he can mingle with easily. In some neighborhoods he doesn’t want to be seen publicly with Lin, in others he is open about his relationship. And likewise, every characters has a different orientation to any given neighborhood.

Like when Lin and Isaac visit a squat of bird people within the city, Isaac unwittingly makes an ass of himself, arrogant and offensive to the locals. Lin, being from an oppressed group herself, can see how abrasive Isaac is being, and tries to get him to leave before he does more damage.

The moth creature flattens this. Our heroes still have to move throughout the city as they try to fight it, and this does occasionally produce some of that sparkling detail and cultural friction which I so enjoyed in the beginning, but its more rare. Two other major characters are introduced, who are also as unique and separate from the city as the moth.

And it’s not that this monster narrative is bad, it’s just such a step down from what was developing before. I mean imagine if in A Song of Ice and Fire, after setting up all these different houses and characters, the second book immediately changed to focus on an invasion of white walkers who sweep across Westeros in indiscriminate carnage. Not bad necessarily, but it’s a waste! This moth story could’ve happened anywhere, it could’ve happened in London or Ankh-Morpork or Gotham.

Nevertheless, it’s a great book overall. Miéville employs a realism that goes beyond some dirt under the fingernails and missing teeth—it’s a realism of attitude, outlook. Most of the characters are subject to powers far beyond their control. The ones that are in power are not evil or righteous—no good kings, no kings at all actually, just an iron-fisted mayor and various apparatuses of violence under his command. Everything’s a little shitty, a little petty, a little casual. You live here. And that realism of attitude, combined with his fantastic, iridescent worldbuilding, is what has me eager to read more of Miéville, and wishing I’d started reading him sooner.

The Mountain in the Sea by Ray Nayler – Folks, this one’s a banger. Humanity makes first contact with a non-human intelligence, but instead of aliens, its an octopus. That’s a slick pitch for this book, but there’s so much more going on. The octopus colony is discovered in a tiny section of protected ocean, but there’s a big, vicious world beyond, and Nayler gives the reader a pretty broad view of it. Ha Nyugen, the scientist hired to study these octopuses, is just one of three viewpoint characters. There’s also Eiko, a slave on an AI-piloted fishing boat, and Rustem, a hired-gun hacker who’s taken on an impossible job from an unknown employer. Through these different characters, in short, focused chapters, Nayler explores neurology, linguistics, consciousness, computation, memory, biology, and ecology.

I’ve been reading Nayler’s short fiction for a while, which I loved for its thick atmosphere, grounded settings, and diverse cultural referents informed by Nayler’s work in the US Foreign Service across Asia and Eastern Europe. All that is here (any Nayler-heads out there will be thrilled to find some quiet Istanbul café scenes in the Rustem chapters), and more. I think the part where I really got hooked was when the book got into the biology and neurology of the octopuses. The book explains why it would be so implausible for a group of octopuses to develop a language, a society, and then proceeds to demonstrate how it could happen. There’s a little bit of hand waving, but not much. It really feels like a hard science fiction approach to the “””soft””” sciences of biology and neurology, which makes for fascinating reading.

And once the implausibilities of octopus brain development are solved, then the book arrives at another implausibility: the implausibility of first contact. How can humans communicate with a creature so morphologically different? With a totally alien culture, informed by a life-cycle and environment far more violent and precarious than our own? How, in fact, can humans even communicate with one another? The book is, in part, a deconstruction of the first contact narrative. Progress is slow, non-linear. Successes are few. And as the book goes on, more depth to the octopus society is revealed, and more challenges for communication as well.

This is easily my favorite thing I read in 2022. I am so thrilled that Ray Nayler has made such an excellent long-form debut, and I cannot wait to read what’s next from him.

Okay guess what in the time since I wrote that review of Perdido Street Station, I have listened to the entirety of The City and the City by China Miéville, read again by John Lee, and it was fantastic. The book is a noir-ish murder mystery set in the two cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which occupy roughly the same geographical space. Think, for instance, of the borders between East and West Germany during the Cold War. These cities are not like that. Along some streets, the borders change from one building to the next. They overlap along many roads and streets. These borders are not maintained with physical barricades, but mental ones. Residents of Besźel must not see residents of Ul Qoma. If an Ul Qoman is lying in the sidewalk, a Besźel pedestrian must step casually over them, and “unsee” them at the same time. Such an impossible concept is made sufficiently plausible by a secret police force called “Breach” who enforce this divide, as much through actual physical intervention as through an abiding paranoia which lives in all residents’ minds, and keeps even political dissidents in conformity.

If this explanation feels thin, or if you are thinking of a hundred scenarios where such an arrangement might break down (drug smugglers? children? new immigrants?) rest assured that Miéville has thought of all this too, and at some point the book will touch on every potential problem and its solution. Unlike Perdido Street Station, the fascinating setting of this book is explored in all its implications, and remains inextricably integrated with the plot.

The plot: Inspector Borlú, a Besźel man and our narrator, is assigned to a murder case. As more evidence comes to light, it seems the victim was killed in Ul Qoma, then dumped in Besźel—and things only get more tangled up from there.

Again, that realism of attitude is pitch perfect here. Even more astounding is the realism of circumstance—that is, the plausibility of the setting. From the logline description of the cities, it would seem that the reader has to engage with the book on a poetic level, rather than a literal one; not so. I mean, obviously “unseeing” is a pretty rich metaphor for a lot of real cognitive dissonance in everyday life, but it does also play out as a real, consistent cultural practice. You may have to suspend a little disbelief, but not so much.

The mystery plot ultimately hinges on a motivation which I found unsatisfying, but for the most part Miéville has put together a very tight and intricate conspiracy. The narrative moves along with constant building momentum and a heightening sense of danger. Cerebral and a page-turner, nice!

John Lee is a great narrator, for this and for Perdido Street Station, bringing the right measure of gravitas and/or grit to the various denizens of these cities. He is unfortunately unable to read shouted dialogue as actual full-throated shouts, so you get lots of inside-voice-shouting, which sounds like crap. It’s more noticeable in Perdido Street Station because the characters shout more in that—and anyway this isn’t really a knock against Lee, just a knock against the standardized practices of audiobook narrators. Vary your volume and speed, damn it!

But yes, read it or listen to it, The City and the City is dynamite, and rightly celebrated as one of Miéville’s defining works.

My Friends Make Things

The Industrialization of Education: A Taxonomy of Class Power is a thorough overview and analysis of the history of labor and capital in the US education system, made by Rybin. Despite being relatively short (about 50 pages in total), it really does cover a lot of ground, giving you the full scope of public education’s development in the US, from the late 1890s to the present. And when it comes to the present, the zine is particularly informative about the growth of charter schools, and how these ostensibly public institutions have gone hand-in-hand with privatization.

Interested in labor history? Interested in public education? Both? Read this. You can find the first third of it here, and you’ll also find full PDF versions linked at the top of that page.

So that’s what I’ve been reading. Next post will be about AI maybe. Or comics.

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