Review: Dead Astronauts by Jeff VandeMeer

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Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. The organizing principle of Dead Astronauts is not chronology, nor non-linear chronology (a book told out of order still postures itself against a fixed, correct order which the  reader can construct in their mind.) The organizing principle is ecology, iteration, echoes. I had a dream recently where someone told me they “experience things cumulatively,” which I find to be an oddly apt description of this novel. You experience this book cumulatively. The book takes place in the world of Borne, but it may as well not, because aside from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape and the similarly surreal lifeforms that populate it, the way the world behaves is just totally different, starting with the timeline-hopping Dead Astronauts.

The second chapter of the book, and also the longest, follows these titular characters, “the three.” If not for this section, the book wouldn’t have anything close to a main plot, just lots of small stories filling in the histories of different places, the backstories of different characters. So, what is the narrative? “The three,” Grayson, Chen, and Moss, are on a seemingly futile mission to reclaim the City from the Company, a mission they’ve repeatedly undertaken across multiple alternate timelines, facing different variations of the same archetypal characters each time, often (always?) ending in failure.

But … why? This chapter was probably my least favorite—the parts of it that I liked most were the parts delving into the astronauts’ pasts, while the actual narrative through-line, this mission, just wasn’t all that compelling. What are they reclaiming the city for? What would they do once its reclaimed? The thing Grayson Chen and Moss seem to care about most is each other, not the City. Grayson and Moss may have personal reasons to want to exact vengeance on the Company, but … enh, that’s more my own speculation than anything the text explores. And unlike in the Area X trilogy, the hollowness of the mission isn’t developed and spotlighted as a theme, it just feels like flat writing.

Once the title characters get out of the way, other chapters shine a lot brighter, like that of Charlie X, a scientist at the Company with a fast deteriorating memory, or the chapter for the Dark Bird, a deadly, tortured creation of the Company. These chapters are much less narrative-focused, more non-linear and experimental (granted, even the Dead Astronauts section is far more experimental than something like, say, Borne—it’s a testament to how wild this book is that that chapter seems conventional in contrast to everything else.) Probably my favorite chapter was “Can’t Forget,” a vigorous, hateful 60 pages narrated by the Blue Fox, describing an ancestral memory of humankind’s assault on foxes, through fur-trapping and climate change up to the Company’s experiments on and exploitation of the Blue Fox as a biological reconnaissance tool. I could write a post about that chapter in itself—the use of huge walls of repeated text, the effect of actually reading through it, the defiant and truly inhuman voice VanderMeer achieves. There are a few single sentences in the chapter that floored me, simple phrases that land with explosive impact because of how the text builds up to them.

Truly, VanderMeer’s prose is great throughout the whole book, it’s as inventive as the novel’s overall structure. He gives lots of focus to the materiality of words, their sound, their weight when repeated over and over, with less emphasis on strict semantic meaning. Characters stutter out series of rhyming words, text appears in blocks with big vacuums of white space in between. Just as this world is full of characters whose striking, mythological stature transcends a more realist, psychological approach, the language often strives for force, vitality, in order to transcend the mere conveyance of information.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. And because of its non-linear nature, because the narrative is more a decentralized history than a single plot, it beckons to be reread, reread in pieces, in sections, out of order or over and over again. If you like VanderMeer’s more experimental stuff, definitely check this out. There is little out there like it.

Review: So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

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Cover courtesy of Graywolf press

So Much for that Winter is a collection of two novellas by Dorthe Nors, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days.” Both are about break-ups to varying extents, and both take highly lineated forms. Every sentence in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” get its own line, with scarce use of pronouns or compound sentences, meaning most of the novella looks like this:

Minna introduces herself.
Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.

“Days”, on the other hand, often breaks sentences across multiple lines. It is made up of numbered lists, with each list composing one day, so it looks like this:

1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.

As I said, both novellas are about break-ups, but “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is a little more explicitly about a break-up. Minna is a composer who is in love with Lars, and a few pages into the novella Lars dumps her via text. Also, Minna needs rehearsal space, and she was supposed to get a space through a friend of Lars’s, but that’s a no-go now. So Minna tries to go about her life, tries to get over Lars, tries to keep composing, and eventually goes on a vacation to Bornholm which takes up the last third or so of the story.

“Minna” is a very humorous novella, reveling in awkward encounters and embarrassing moments. It honestly reads a bit like chick lit, just in an unusual form—a form which does, in fact, accentuate its dry, pithy humor at times, while also allowing some more poignant, meditative moments at others. Overall I quite enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel a very strong connection to the main character. Maybe it’s the form, making even the most sincere moments seem a bit flip in their delivery. Or maybe it’s the pacing, the constant release of tension from each line break, each period, preventing total immersion. Or maybe I just don’t care that much about break-ups? I also found it strange (and this is kind of a problem with “Days” as well) that the main character appears to have no job. Is she really making a living off of her “paper sonatas”? It’s a touch odd, in a book focused on everyday life, that monetary concerns/financial anxiety basically never come up. Maybe that’s just how people are in Denmark, IDK.Read More »

Review: Death’s End by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

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Cover courtesy of Tor Books.

Death’s End is the conclusion to the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Spoilers for the first two books, which I reviewed here. Death’s End more or less picks up where The Dark Forest left off, with Trisolaris in an uneasy cold war with the Earth, and Luo Ji sitting with his finger on the button. I say “more or less” because the book actually does take some time to go back to the “Crisis Era,” describing a failed espionage project, and introducing us to the book’s main character, Cheng Xin. This brief episode at the beginning, where we see a human brain sent out to the Trisolaran fleet, is the last bit of set-up Liu needs—after a book and a half of waiting for the fleet to arrive, we finally have a book where, start-to-finish, humanity is dealing with immediate existential threats, or suffering immediate damages. With the exception of these few chapters of anticipation at the beginning, the whole book is falling dominoes.

And the scope of the book is truly phenomenal, full of so many historical episodes across different eras of human existence. I say “historical” because that’s really the only way to describe it, even though it’s a history of the future. Cheng Xin is the main character, as she lives through many different epochs by undergoing “hibernation” for long periods of time, but human civilization is the protagonist. It is humanity that is at stake, humanity that must act, humanity broken and humanity triumphant. And so many of these episodes are captivating little stories in themselves—a war crimes trial of the survivors of the Doomsday Battle, the horror of mass-resettlement to Australia, and three intriguing and cryptically coded fairytales which form a strange, imagistic core to the book much in the way the game Three-Body did to the first novel. This serial nature is also similar to the first novel, but here, each episode has two previous books’ worth of material to build on, bringing all that unstoppable momentum crashing forward on and on. It makes for a solid read.

I also greatly enjoyed the book on a thematic level. It covers a lot of ground, and a lot of different sci-fi concepts, but above all it is a profoundly sorrowful book, a book about death—of people, of civilizations, of the universe. It is pre-apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and intra-apocalyptic all at once. It also manages to leverage some basic observations about the universe, along with some of Liu’s own postulations, to reach terrifying conclusions about the fate of all things, similar to the ominous overtones of the first book. The idea of the “Dark Forest” is already harrowing enough, but Death’s End promises even more terrifying ideas about the nature of space and cosmic intelligence, about the utter insignificance of our place in existence, and it delivers on those promises in spades.

If you enjoyed the first two books, definitely read this one. If you enjoyed the first one but not so much the second, I’d still highly recommend Death’s End. While it’s a lot longer, not nearly as compact as The Three-Body Problem, it still feels like a return to form, in the ways I’ve mentioned above. And if you haven’t read any of the trilogy, I highly recommend all of it. As a whole, it present a dark and captivating vision of galactic civilizations, and humanity’s future among the stars.

Some blog housekeeping: No more “What I’ve Been Reading” posts! Only individual reviews from now on! Basically, the “What I’ve Been Reading” posts made sense when I first started doing them because the reviews were quite short, and they were a quick way to throw in a bunch of reviews in the middle of some other series of blog posts. However, now I tend to write longer reviews, and if I feel like I can only write a paragraph about a book, I just don’t write anything. Also, for the foreseeable future book reviews and other kinds of reviews will be the only thing going up on this site, so I have no need to condense them and make way for other posts. Also, no more “Recommendation Dump” posts. Just gonna atomize everything.

I mean, probably. Maybe I’ll still bundle reviews together from time to time. Who knows. But that’s why this review is its own post, even though its not super long, and that’s how it’ll be from now on.

Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

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Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

 Acceptance is the final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the rest of which I reviewed a while ago, here and here. Spoiler warning for those books, I guess?

There are three major narrative threads in Acceptance, which the book alternates between by chapter—the lighthouse keeper, the Director, and Ghost Bird & Control. The Lighthouse Keeper’s story occurs before Area X has taken over the coast, though it soon becomes clear that Area X’s arrival is impending. The Director is the director from Annihilation, and her narrative takes place before the events of that book, showing the lead up to that expedition. Ghost Bird and Control (the book also alternates between them by chapter, though their stories form one continuous narrative) are entering Area X and trying to find the Biologist, their story picking up right where Authority ended.

All of these component parts are great. The Director chapters are reminiscent of Authority, getting into the oppressive, decadent world of the Southern Reach agency, a long slow burn with the “12th expedition” looming on the horizon. The Ghost Bird and Control chapters are more like Annihilation, though a bit faster, punchier—a return to Area X, with new revelations, new menacing phenomena, and a steady drive toward a mysterious objective. And the lighthouse keeper chapters feel completely new, with Saul Evans (the lighthouse keeper) being maybe the most normal character in the whole trilogy? I came to quite enjoy these chapters, settling into the small coastal town setting, getting to know Saul, and slowly seeing the gruesome shadow of apocalypse fall across everything.

However. The sum is less than the parts. Authority, the previous book in the series, was a very slow book, but I came to enjoy it, its immersive quality and careful consideration. The Director and Lighthouse Keeper chapters are, likewise, fairly slow, the characters don’t have big objectives, and they present worlds you really want to sit with. By contrast, the Ghost Bird and Control chapters are maybe the most action packed of the trilogy—if the books have been building up to anything it is these chapters, and you just want to keep reading, keep pushing deeper into Area X and closer to their goal. So the faster chapters break the immersive, slow-burn pacing of the slower chapters, and the slower chapters wreck the momentum of the faster ones.Read More »

Review: Rereading Great Expectations

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Engraving titled “Pip waits on Miss Havisham” by Marcus Stone.

A month or so ago I reread Great Expectations in the hopes that it would provide me some nice juicy quotes to pair with chapters of the travel memoir I was writing. That ended up kind of working, but in general I just found myself loving the book, as it more than lived up to my fond memories of it. I actually did review the book on this blog awhile ago, in a What I’ve Been Reading post,  but I only spent a few paragraphs on it, and a lot of stuff struck me that I didn’t really notice the first time around, so here goes.

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens is narrated by Pip, an orphan living in a small town in southeast England, presumably near the Thames Estuary, as he multiple times describes “the marshes” and the sight of “hulks”—prison ships. Actually, the Pip who’s narrating things is an adult, looking back on his life, mainly focusing on his boyhood, adolescence, and early adulthood.

The book is broken into three volumes, and each one is really it’s own little universe, with its own specific goals and style.

The first volume mainly focuses on Pip’s boyhood. Pip is raised by his much older sister, the abrasive, violent Mrs. Gargery, and her husband Joe Gargery, a kind, gentle, infinitely likable blacksmith. Pip is given a taste of wealth and status when Ms. Havisham, an old, reclusive noblewoman, calls him to her house to attend on her, and play with her daughter, Estella. And with that little taste, and with his sudden love for Estella, Pip quickly grows distasteful of his low, common life.

That’s really what the first volume does beautifully—it paints a portrait of the steady development of self-loathing, even of disdain for Joe, in this commoner boy. It shows the growth of his unhealthy desire to be a “gentleman,” to escape the profession of blacksmith. One terrific quote comes as Estella and Pip are playing cards:

“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella with disdain, before our first game was out. “And what coarse hands he has. And what thick boots!”
I had never thought of being ashamed of my hands before; but I began to consider them a very indifferent pair. Her contempt was so strong, that it became infectious, and I caught it.

Towards the end of the volume though, Pip learns of a mysterious benefactor, who wishes him to go to London, and who has granted him great expectations—expectations meaning, by a now archaic definition, an inheritance. Although the benefactor works through an intermediary, not revealing their identity to Pip, all signs point to it being Ms. Havisham. These expectations only drive Pip further apart from Joe, and the volume ends with Pip setting off for London.Read More »

Review: The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

I wrote this post before Ursula K. Le Guin passed, though it seems fitting now to open it with these words of hers, in response to the question, “What do you want to happen to your books after you die?”:  “I want them to be available, I want cheap paper editions of them, I want them to be continuously downloaded in forty different languages, I want them to be read, I want them to be argued about, I want people to cry over them, I want unreadable dissertations written about them, I want people to get angry with them, I want people to love them.” Well, I’ve read a second-hand cheap paper edition of The Left Hand of Darkness, gotten angry with it, kind of loved it in a few moments, argued about it (in my head, with myself and with two different versions of Le Guin), and now, behold, an unreadable dissertation blog post. Hopefully, this is exactly as Le Guin would wish. Rest in peace.

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Cover of the 1st edition, vastly superior to the latest edition’s cover, which is just a glacier, honestly it’s stunning how mediocre that new cover is. Courtesy of Ace Books

The Left Hand of Darkness is one of those books I’ve always felt silly for not having read—and likewise, Ursula K. Le Guin is one of those authors I’ve always etc. Not just because Left Hand is considered a classic, and Le Guin one of the greatest, most influential sci-fi/fantasy writers, but because it’s the kind of sci-fi and fantasy that really interests me. Sci-fi with a focus on society, on the world, on characters. Not to mention, the gender thing—I’ve always heard that Le Guin is a great feminist writer, someone who subverts and challenges our ideas about gender, and especially about women. And Left Hand is, of course, the gender book—or the book without gender. A world where the dominant sentient life-form has no biological sex—fantastic. I’m always interested in that kind of premise, I always like to see deconstructions and reconstructions of gender. Yet, I somehow never got around to reading it, I always had some other book or author I was more interested in. I finally decided to read the book when I got it in a white elephant gift exchange, and, for months, had the physical copy sitting about in my bedroom somewhere, staring at me.

So I read it. One less thing to feel silly about Francis, good job. After reading it, and kind of wondering what everyone else saw in it re: the discussion of gender, I read Le Guin’s essay on the book, “Is Gender Necessary?” Actually I read the “Redux” version, which was written over a decade later, with annotations from Le Guin clarifying and arguing with her past self. In some ways, the redux essay is a revisiting of a revisiting—Left Hand came out in 1969, “Is Gender Necessary” (henceforth to be referred to as IGN) in 1976, and the redux in 1988. Which would make this blog post a commentary on a commentary on a commentary on a book, at least in some part.

I’ve struggled with how to write this post. It seems unfair to review the book as if its some kind of argument—in fact, Le Guin herself mentions this in “Redux,” when she writes that “critics of the book insisted upon talking about its ‘gender problems’ as if it were an essay not a novel.” That line instantly made me think of “Cat Person,” the Kristen Roupenian short story that made the rounds last year, and which was bizarrely referred to as an “article” or “essay” by some. These stories did not ask to be scrutinized as perfectly hygienic arguments about gender and sexuality. The idea that Left Hand is an incredible classic which strikes right to the heart of gender politics is external to the book. So I’ll do my best to separate the two, to review the book as just a book, before specifically going into why I found it lacking in terms of gender commentary.Read More »

Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This was originally going to be just part of a “What I’ve Been Reading” post, but it turns out I have a lot to say about this book, so now it’s just its own review post.

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Cover courtesy of DAW

The Name of the Wind is the first book in Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, and it describes the early life of the first-person narrator and alleged Kingkiller, Kvothe. To describe the plot generally would paint this novel as clichéd. I guess that’s because it is, in its broad strokes. An exceptionally talented, fast-learning child lives a comfortable life as a player in his father’s troupe of traveling performers. When the troupe takes on an arcanist, young Kvothe is mentored by him in Sympathy—a kind of magic based on intense concentration and mental gymnastics. Eventually the arcanist leaves, and soon after the Kvothe’s father begins work on a ballad involving the mysterious Chandrian—mythical superhuman superevil beings, probably just fables. Then the Chandrian murder the entire troupe, leaving only Kvothe alive. For years Kvothe survives by the skin of his teeth, hitchhiking, begging, stealing, though he eventually determines to go to the University, to utilize its massive archives to research the Chandrian. Demonstrating exceptional intelligence and knowledge of sympathy, Kvothe is admitted to the University, where he spends the remainder of the book having adventures and misadventures, and trying to gain access to the archives.

Yes, with the exception of a few creative flourishes, the book traces a familiar arc. Where it stands out, or at least justifies its position as one of the most popular fantasy novels in the past decade, is in the execution. The book reminds me of a 19th-century serialized novel, like Great Expectations or Count of Monte Cristo—both of which, in their broad strokes, also rely on clichés, despite being terrific works. The pacing is tireless, each chapter lurches into the next as new dilemmas arise and Kvothe sets his sights on new goals. There’s a large cast of characters, but they’re all memorable, and you love to love the ones you love, and love to hate the ones you hate. Name of the Wind manages the great trick of being long and reading fast.Read More »