Companion Pieces: The Wanderers and Packing for Mars

This past year I read The Wanderers, Met Howrey’s imagining of a near present in which an international team of three undergo a year long simulation of a trip to Mars, in which they are completely isolated and get to talk to other people besides themselves only through digital/radio communication.  It was in many ways more of a thought experiment than a full-fledged climactic novel, but it still pushed a lot of buttons.

I decided to make Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars the staff pick at my library for October, and it again got me thinking about The Wanderers.  Though Roach’s exploration of the history of space entry and travel covers a lot of ground considered the distant past in Howrey’s novel, it is still essentially about the human aspect of space travel, which is what any long-term space voyage simulation is really trying to figure out.  Engineers can calculate fuel and weight and trajectories, plan for when certain parts will fail and how many extra toilets will be needed, you never know when a human mind will fail the test of time and isolation.

I don’t read much non-fiction, but these two books go together well, and are a great companion read for anyone steeped in the traditions of spacey sff.

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The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

The world of Renthia is a terrifying place.  Beautiful, but terrifying.  Daleina, who lived through an attack by spirits as a child, knows this better than nearly anyone, and has dedicated her life to making sure that what happened to her village never happens to anyone in Renthia again.  Spirits–air, water, ice, wood, fire, and earth–are what make the world live, but they are also the forces of death and destruction, and keeping the balance is the queen’s responsibility.

So what happens when the queen’s strength seems to be slipping?

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the ways in which it doesn’t bow to conventional narrative.  The main character, Daleina, is not the best at everything, does not succeed in every venture and go on to save the day because of it.  She’s a complicated character, to be sure, and it is the ways in which she responds to the actions of others that drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged with her quest to not only succeed at the academy, but to become an heir to the crown of Renthia and serve her people, in her own way.

The narrative is at times merely workmanlike, the consistent point of view of Daleina occasionally overly navel gazing, but more often than not the very imagination at the heart of the story is stunning and part of an overall feeling of simultaneous dread and wonder.  This is a novel that doesn’t skirt the dangerous aspects of its fantasy elements, or couch the narrative in heroic imagery to such a degree that the reader is removed from the immediacy of harm.  The fact that Daleina is part of a close-knit group, rather than the competent loner women protagonists often end up being, means that violence or tragedy cut doubly–the terror of an attack and the loss of a friend.

Ultimately, imagination and strong group dynamics carry the narrative, and make it an engrossing read.  It has aspects of found family and the draw of having a magical academy as the main setting for Daleina’s story, with fun additions of the loner-mentor and a more casual approach to romantic relationships than is often seen in stories utilizing the “pre-modern” society standard.  The novel does suffer a little from the “assumed white” manner of describing characters, where the skin color of a new character is given more attention if it is not white (though Durst includes not just the white-to-brown spectrum of Earth, but shades of green as well).

 

The Tuesday List: Our Fanged Foes (or Friends)

Wee, it’s another edition of The Tuesday List, this time featuring books about vampires.  They’re not all spooky, or literary, or alt-worldy, but they’re all enjoyable.  Maybe you’ll find your next Halloween read, or maybe just your next obsession.

  1. The Quick, by Lauren Owen

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This novel had a serious Dickensian feel, a cramped, dark, dirty London inhabited by criminals, urchins, and the occasional mysterious other.  The quick refer to the living, fodder for the undead, who occupy a much greater circle of society than the uninitiated could ever imagine.

2. The Historian

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A Dracula story for the modern age?  Perhaps.  But the quest, the obsession of the historian predates modernity, and it is one woman’s harrowing journey into the past through old letters and documents, that brings this story to light.  A good tale, for those used to the smell of dust and old books.

3. Certain Dark Things

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A post-apocalyptic vampire novel, you ask?  Well, yes, in a matter of speaking.  But the apocalypse has happened to the vampires, not because of them, and this is the tale of one particular Aztec vampire just trying to make her way in a Mexico City hostile to her kind, avoid being murdered by a rival vampire species, and maybe meet a nice boy who can be her food source and companion for a while.

4. Prudence

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Irreverence leads in the fashion-conscious and nibbly bits-obsessed novels of Gail Carriger, and Prudence, her latest foray into the alternate steampunk universe of dirigibles, vampires, and shapeshifters, is no different.  This is a romp if there ever was one, this time through Bombay and the forests of India, on a quest for tea and justice for all the supernaturals in Queen Victoria’s empire.

5. Sunshine

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I needed one more book to make a nice round five, and thought to myself, self, you could pick one by a dude that you’ve read, or you could take a heartfelt recommendation from people you trust.  So I went with Sunshine, which was loved by both Ana and Renay at Fangirl Happy Hour.  You can listen to their discussion of it here.

The Immortal Architects, by Paige Orwin

Let’s get the basics out of the way first, shall we?  The Immortal Architects is the second in a series by Paige Orwin, the first of which was called The Interminables, and is an alt-world fantasy about wizards who destroy the world in order to defeat an evil immortal from the Middle East who is trying to destroy the world.  The main characters are Edmund Templeton and Istvan Czernin who,with help from a few others attempt to keep Shokat Anoushak al-Khalid, ancient Scythian warrior and magician, from rising and once again trying to destroy the world and all in her path.

It’s a workmanlike bit of plot and characterization, all the bits and bobs in the right places to give the reader a good sense of who the characters are and what they want, and with few enough plot holes that everyone arrives in the right order in order to make the final climax happen.  Points for interesting concepts including Edmund’s attempt to attain immortality by stealing time from others and Istvan’s existence as a ghost who literally embodies World War I, and the unlikeliness of the two coming together as allies.

A few years ago I might have glowed about this novel, because it is pretty inventive and imaginative, and has just enough of the unexplained to be interesting without becoming bogged down in explanations, but these days, I can’t help but read it a little differently.

This is a novel about white guilt.

That might seem like an odd thing to say in a fantasy novel.  Let me explain.

This is a novel about a white man born at the beginning of the 20th century, and his best friend, another white man born at the end of the 19th century, and their struggles to come to terms with a world that has changed in ways they can’t keep up with, which is where much of the pathos of the novel comes from: these two, both immortal in their own way, are the wrecking ball and not the flying superhero come to save the day.  One is afraid to die, the other literally can’t because he’s a revenant, and they are the whom this story is about.

The novel contains what, on the surface, is a diverse cast of characters.  As Edmund himself states in one of his guilt-saturated internal tirades, the head of the Twelfth Hour–the wizard cabal that ostensibly runs what’s left of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.–is a brown woman.  One of the other supporting characters is Grace Wu, a woman engineer with the ability to channel energy.  And, perhaps the most important, then there is Kyra, a young black woman able to create storms, who may be the secret to stopping Shokat Anoushak from coming back to ravage the world once again.

Shokat Anoushak is an ancient immortal, one who only wants to destroy, and also happens to come from the Middle East.  Kyra is a black woman from Rochester, NY, who is Shattered–someone damaged by the magical forces Shokat Anoushak unleashed and now, in the aftermath of the wizard war, dangerous to those around her because of the powers she wields–and also trans.  Barrio Libertad are the community at odds with the Twelfth Hour–coded white–who have a lot of power and are run by, you guessed it, a latino named Diego Espinoza.

All the characters mentioned are antagonistic to Edmund and Istvan in some way, and all of them are othered racially and ethnically.  It’s a white world, the story keeps screaming at the reader, and everyone else keeps taunting our two white male protagonists with their non-whiteness.

Edmund and Istvan are our point of view characters.  Edmund experiences a lot of feelings about things he does, things that happen, things he sees, things other people do.  He locks up Kyra with magical chains, all the while telling himself–in his head, in his feels–that he isn’t a racist and that everyone who will say he is is just being mean and not understanding his intentions.  At a point where Barrio Libertad obtain custody of Kyra, a random black man–never seen before or again after–is trotted out as a spokesperson and leader of Barrio Libertad, solely in order to point out to Edmund–and to the reader–that he is white and she is black, and to reference the history of racial inequality in the United States, which makes Edmund feel bad again.

Edmund repeatedly makes reference to his being “not a racist,” even when not confronted.  Remember, his is the reader’s point of view.   The author of this story made these narrative decisions, and decided to create the unnecessary and, frankly, unrealistic scene of a post-magical-war society living in the corpse of a previously animated city-sized monster who feels it necessary to call out Edmund for the racism of locking up a kid, instead of the hundred other dumb things he did in relation to that event.  That was black tokenism, and did nothing to move the narrative, other than to give Edmund something else to feel guilty about, which the reader then had to experience and is, presumably, expected to sympathize over.

Now let’s move to the other thorny subject.  Kyra is not just a teenaged girl, she’s a trans girl, for all intents and purposes.  When everyone meets her, in the middle of a killer storm she’s created, they all assume she’s a boy.  Both Edmund and Istvan misgender her repeatedly, and it takes a huge crisis in which Edmund and Istvan somehow get their priorities straight and decide that however misguided she is, it’s more convenient to just give her what she wants and use the pronouns she’s chosen.  From the first time Kyra asserts that she is a girl, the reader must slog through another 25% of the novel before Edmund and Istvan finally give in and reliably use her pronouns.  Istvan even goes on a tear, at Kyra, about how unrealistic it is of her to just expect people to get her and not treat her according to the natural order he’s used to.  He–a revenant of the great war capable of literally tearing people apart–screams at her about how she’ll get hurt if she insists on such irrational behavior.

It’s disturbing.  It’s even more disturbing that Edmund and Istvan are the only ones who call each other out for their behavior–unreliable as that is and usually only in relation to ways that they inconvenience each other–and no other part of the narrative really interrogates how they behave and shines a light on how problematic it is.  The narrative provides no other reliable mirror for their whiteness.

Kyra has memories of a happy time–all Shattered are given such memories in order to make them docile and useful to Shokat Anoushak–and Istvan’s referencing that time, in which she was free and happy to make decisions like what her pronouns were, also puts a date to when it ocurred–specifically the beginning of the 21st century, from about 2008 to when the war ended in 2020.  2012 was when the real destruction began, but Kyra has memories of a whole life, and in 2020 is about 15.  Read as a whole, the novel is implying that whatever happy reality Kyra remembers–our actual reality from 2008 on, which also coincides with things like Barack Obama being elected president and eventually passing the ACA–is not only not real, but not realistic, and that anyone who thinks they have a right to expect that kind of life or happiness deserves to get hurt.

I get it: the novel isn’t a manifesto.  And yet, writers bring all kinds of things to the table without realizing it.  Edmund’s arc isn’t really an arc at all.  It’s a straight line from the uncomfortable reality of the way he steals time from others to stay alive, to the way he attempts to lock away his mistakes so he won’t have to be confronted by them, to accepting banishment at the end of the story in order to escape the blame from another disaster he’s caused.

On the other side of the coin, Istvan can’t free himself of his bigotry, which is especially problematized by the fact that not only is he a gay man who was forced to live a lie at the turn of the 20th century, but that he repeatedly displays a hatred, a revulsion for that part of himself, and worries that Edmund will not want to be around him if he ever finds out Istvan loves him.  Sexuality and gender are difficult issues in this novel, to say the least.  For the first half of the story Kyra’s being trans is used as evidence that she is mentally  unstable, then she is punished for the rest of the story by being outcast, not fully trusted, and eventually physically attacked for not conforming to everyone else’s expectations of her.  The reader only ever gets glimpses into her real psyche through the lens of Edmund and Istvan’s gazes.

And through it all the reader is exposed to Edmund’s guilt, and his petty anger at being held accountable for the situation he’d created.  Even after 98% of the story, Edmund throws a tantrum over everything being taken away from him–after he tried to sell everyone out to Shokat Anoushak in exchange for the real secret to immortality–and includes being called racist in the list of wrongs perpetrated against him.  In a world where white accountability is sorely lacking, when being called racist is viewed as being worse than actually being racist, this story of a white man’s guilt is sadly accurate, and yet the way that it is presented is, again, not given the broader context against which to understand Edmund’s and Istvan’s actions as problematic.

For comparison, Mishell Baker’s novel Borderline, about a young woman with borderline personal disorder, has a white woman as its protagonist, and is told by her.  She repeatedly commits racist or ableist actions, sometimes in word, sometimes in deed, sometimes only in her head, and when in a good frame of mind to recognize it, feels guilty.  The difference is the ways in which Baker constructs the scenes.  Either the young woman is called out for behaviors that display overt racism or are racist microaggressions, or she makes a distinction in her own narration between the racism of her actions and the guilt she feels at perpetrating racist actions.  White people can and should feel guilty for being racist, but the story is not the guilty feelings, it’s the racism.  In The Immortal Architects, the reader is subject only to Edmunds experience of his guilt, not his realization of how he may be perpetrating racism and how his actions can be harmful to those around him.

That’s why this novel is a white guilt story and not a redemption narrative, or hero’s journey.  It’s a manifesto for the status quo that should be recommended with caution.

The Tuesday List: Freaky Fantasy Worlds

The Tuesday list is a themed list that comes out on Tuesdays, because Monday is too early and if I wait til Wednesday I’ll forget.

This week’s theme is Freaky Fantasy Worlds, novels or series featuring worldbuilding that both intrigues and terrifies.  In no particular order, here are my picks for Freaky Fantasy Worlds.

  1. Renthia.

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This world, first introduced to me in Sarah Beth Durst’s The Queen of Blood, is both beautiful and horrific.  The people of Renthia, and particularly Aratay, where our main character Daleina is from, live closely with the land, making their homes in the trees of the great forests, finding a careful symbiosis with the spirits that both give life and take it away.

The taking away is the scary part.  In a particularly bloody take the fae of many fantasy stories, the spirits–earth, water, air, fire, ice, and wood–have intelligence but not morality, and are ruled by their base urges to create and destroy.  Only certain women, gifted with the ability to control spirits, can force them to their will, and only the Queen of the land can control all the spirits, force them to do no harm.  But sometimes they do anyway.  And ordinary people are pretty much helpless against them.

But the spirits are necessary for creation, and so you can’t have the good without the bad.  When a queen dies, the spirits go into a sort of stasis, and the world begins to wither.  Only electing a new queen will bring the spirits back, re-igniting their creative, and destructive, influences on the world.

2. The Dominion of the Fallen, Paris.

Aliette de Bodard’s London is a ruined shell, barely sustaining the few people left after a great magical war that shattered the world, in which the only people with power are fallen angels, or those who negotiate power from the angels.  Magic is all around, and those with no affinity for it are powerless against it, while those with magic are hunted.

To top it all off, the angels can’t even control their own magics, can’t do anything to stop the spread of devastation wrought by the war, can only cull the weak and wrap themselves in even more intrigue and magic, a danger to friend and foe alike.  While I love de Bodard’s post-colonial Paris, full of color and culture even among the ruin, I’d never want to live there.

3. MaddAddam’s creation.

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I think the creepiest part of the MaddAddam trilogy isn’t the fact that pretty much everyone ends up dead and those who don’t either become a new race of “innocents” or find themselves stranded in a metaphysical flood, but that it’s a vision of the future in which everyone is supposed to be equalized, and yet all the old injustices only get magnified.  It’s not a fun look at the future, but it is a necessary one.

One of Atwood’s strengths is getting into the heads of her characters, finding motivation and plumbing depths that most of us wouldn’t want to touch, if we could help it.  Her characters are never wholly bad, but neither are they good.  It makes one wonder how we can ever create a just world, given all that lingers just beneath the surface.

4. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

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Jemisin is one of the best when it comes to imagining fantasy worlds whole cloth, and I don’t just mean the people who live on them.  Kate Elliott is one of my favorite word builders in SFF, but Jemisin is a world creator.  There are so many layers to her creations, so many opportunities to peel back what lies on the surface and look deeper.  The Inheritance trilogy is a great example of this because of the manifold ways Jemisin tells the story of this planet, which is part of a greater universe of gods and creations.

But I wouldn’t want to live there.  This planet is one of constant eruption and lives under continual threat of being remade or completely destroyed at the whim of its gods.  Not to mention that those gods sometimes take corporeal form and bring destruction to the people in person.  Oree’s story, more than any other, shows that the lives of the average, the poor, the small-time, are generally overlooked by the power players in this world, and since the odds of being a noble are slim, life would likely be pretty short and pretty tough.  And now that we’re talking about it, nobles have a tendency to drop like flies, too.

5. Umayma

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Nasheen and Chenja have been at war for centuries, the kind of war that kills generations, and leaves its bloody prints all over society.  Umayma is a colony planet, one that remembers it was colonized but not when or how, or by whom.  It’s also a planet full of bugs, big ones, that are both life and death for the planet’s human inhabitants.  Bio-warfare is commonplace and the stratification of power along gendered lines is even more bizarre on this dying desert planet than in the real world.

Unsurprisingly, medical practice has evolved to the point where even bringing back the dead seems possible, but it has also devolved to a grim and grisly practice of manipulating life to serve the needs of war first and foremost, and the rest use it to profit from that war.  While the stories that come out of this world are well-realized and Nyx is a compelling hero, I’d never want to live there.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

What will you do, when the inevitable catastrophe hits?  Will you cower, will you go out to help people, will you take advantage?  The empire has procedure in place for all of these things, and more.  They are very prepared, you’ll find, for any eventuality.  Because this has happened before, and it will happen again.  The earth will move, the ground shatter, the volcanoes erupt, people will die.  But some will live.

The Fifth Season takes on a lot of heavy topics and, by and large, handles them well.  The enslavement of one group of people based on a particular trait they all share is the main focus of this novel, but the hidden history of a world controlled by a powerful bureaucracy is another.  The empire in which Syenite has grown up is one in which everyone knows their place.  It’s written in their names, which consist of designators for the community they live in and the kind of service they render to that community.  Unless they’re an orogene, in which case their black uniform gives all the information others need about them.  And then their are the guardians, highly respected, but possibly much more dangerous than an orogene could be.

Guardians are the slavemasters, the groomers, those given power to take innocent children and turn them into tools for the supposed good of the state.  Essun believes she has escaped all this, or would like to believe it.  But she has grown up in this empire and perhaps knew all along that it could not last.  Nothing lasts, in the Stillness.

That is, of course, a false statement, and yet it isn’t.  The empire is perpetual, but in the way that all empires are: through convincing its subjects that it is so.  Syenite thought she had come to terms with the Empire, until she was brought together with Alabaster for a very special mission, and learns that all is not as she has always believed.

And amidst it all is the end of the world.  Jemisin has achieved new depths to her narrative style with The Fifth Season, combining not only multiple viewpoints and an ability to tell a compelling story out of order, but also telling the story of the world itself in addition to that of the people in it.  The Fifth Season is a visceral reminder that we are only the sum of the stories we tell, and that that can change in an instant.  So, what would you do, at the end of the world?