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Musing on Books
Cold Magic, by Kate Elliott, Orbit, 2010, $14.99.
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, by Charles Yu, Pantheon Books, 2010, $24.
Lightborn, by Tricia Sullivan, Orbit UK, 2010, £8.99.
Among Others, by Jo Walton, Tor, 2011, $28.99.
I READ, AS I've said before in this column, for character. I've never quite understood questions that separate character from plot, because as a reader, I can't do that. If the plot doesn't arise out of character, what does it arise from?
However, as I come to discuss the first of the books this time around, I realize that I need to expand on this a bit. Character is not, when I read, just a person, or a collection of people. The world and setting itself can be—when handled well—as true and strong a character as the people it houses. It's often not handled well—and I can deal with that by increasing the output on the Suspension of Disbelief dials—but when it is, it informs everything about a book, and it adds a dimension to the book itself: one gets the strong sense that the story began long before the first page and continues when the page is turned, bleeding into different futures that may—or may not—affect the people the story is ostensibly about.
In my opinion, no one does world-building as well as Kate Elliott. It's subtle, in the sense that it's not all on-screen, but the world, culture, and societies she creates feel solid. If you think about them when you close the book, you can see how they could work; how the economics could work, how the governing could work, how the cultures formed. There's a context that affects every person in the world—not just those whose story we happen to be following.
But it also informs the characters of the story itself, shifting the way they think, the words they use, the way they express both fear and defiance; it's an added layer, and it's always present, but it's present in the best possible way: if it's not your thing as a reader, you don't even have to pay attention to it beyond its trappings.
Full disclosure time: I read the first three chapters of the first three versions of Cold Magic. I don't actually consider this a kindness on the part of the author because I then had to wait to read the rest of the much longer book.
Ahem. In Cold Magic, Elliott's world isn't a secondary world; it's Earth, riven by magic and early changes that produce an entirely different historical outcome than the one that's produced ours. The novel has been called Icepunk and Steampunk, and while it has some of the aesthetics of the Steampunk genre, the underpinnings are solidly grounded in that magic-imbued alternate history.
Catherine Hassi Barahal is an orphan, raised by her aunt and uncle since the age of six. All she knows of her parents is contained in the volumes of diaries her father wrote before his death, and as with all children without parents, she longs to know more. Her childhood, however, hasn't been unhappy; she's not Cinderella, and her aunt and uncle have treated her, always, as their own child. Her cousin Beatrice, whom she refers to as Bee, is also her best friend, and they attend school together, watch out for each other, and occasionally torment each other as only family can.
This changes for Catherine on the night that an arrogant stranger arrives at her uncle's doorstep to demand that he fulfill the terms of a contract that is almost twenty years old: he is to give up the eldest daughter of his house in marriage—to a Cold Mage from Four Moons House. Said Cold Mage, Andevai, is the messenger. The Cold Mages are the dominant—and feared—aristocracy of the modern world, and the contract cannot be broken. Catherine is therefore immediately bound in marriage to a stranger who treats her with angry contempt.
But Catherine is not entirely what she seems; nor, for that matter, is Beatrice, and as Catherine struggles to understand her new place in the world—and then, worse, survive it—she slowly discovers just how much of the history she's been taught has been a lie.
This is a much more personal story than Elliott's previous works, in that the machinations of politics and the people who have the power in the upper echelons don't figure directly into Catherine's story. There are fewer characters and no splits in viewpoint, and while there is a strong underpinning for a future relationship, I'd say the strongest relationship in this book is the one between Bee and Cat. Which is one of the reasons I loved it so much—it's not often that two women, with strikingly different personalities, are shown to be so loyal to each other.
If you've previously found Elliott heavy going, or if you didn't care for the politics and the movement of large armies, I'd still recommend this one highly. I'll bet it reads even better when you don't have to wait a year between chapters three and four.
The world-building in Charles Yu's novel is of necessity entirely different. The book's premise is a science-fictional premise in all ways, but the execution is not traditionally sfnal.
So, first: the premise. The universe of the narrator, Charles Yu, is Science Fictional Universe M31, a small and neglected universe that isn't large enough for space opera. It is, however, capacious enough for the quiet and personal lives of the terminally unhappy and unsuccessful, and it is in one of those lives that Charles Yu now lives. Because there has to be a relative measure of success, it is also large enough for the type of lives that Yu envies and despairs of ever having; it needs to be able to drive home the grayness and failure of existence. I'll call our narrator Yu2 for the purposes of discussion.
Yu2 works in time-travel maintenance, which isn't as exciting as it might be in a different universe; in this one, he maintains machines and coaxes the people using them out of the past, because being in the past does them no good at all. His axiom is that despair and guilt are the driving forces of time travel.
And in his universe, this is true. The time travel mechanics in a Science Fictional Universe obey some of the theory of narrative drive, as do the character designations, and some of this is bitterly funny (the requirements to be a hero in M31 are a prime example). Yu2 doesn't really spend much of his life in the present. His job has him traveling to the past a lot, and when he isn't, he's doing his best to hang out in the limbo that exists when the past, present, and future can't really touch him. I don't think it's a coincidence that the time capsule he personally uses has a neurotic (I wanted to say insecure, but in the case of computer systems that has other meanings) AI as an operating system, and the only companion he has is a dog named Ed that's been retconned out of existence.
He has, however, a mother and an absentee father—a man who almost discovered time travel. His mother has retreated from her unhappy life in much the same way as Yu2 has, although the methods are different.
However…there's always a bit of trouble with time travel, and in particular with the unfortunate difficulties that can occur if you happen to be in the same place at the same time—even in a Science Fictional universe. The first line of the book makes this clear: "When it happens, this is what happens: I shoot myself."
It's at this point that Yu2 must examine his life, how it's been lived, and where, in essence, the course he has charted began—because he really doesn't want to die.
I find it hard to discuss this book without spoilers, which is actually sort of pointless, because it's the type of text that resists spoilers. It's not about what happens, per se—I could boil the book down to a paragraph and capture all of the events—but about how it's viewed. Yu2 is a literary voice, a passive observer, a man who has a poet's view of humanity and can clearly delineate much of the human condition in a line or two. He is bleak and cynical, in part because anything else would require not an observer but someone with agency. Yet his observations are cutting, they are painful, they feel real.
What most impressed me about this book within a book is that the passive view is a necessary part of its structure. If you dislike meta-text, this is probably not a book for you. M31 is treated as a literal place, but Yu makes clear what the rules governing the small place are, and further makes clear that Yu2 knows and understands these governing laws; it has structure, and the structure guides the form. The passivity and regret serve as a necessary history and context for a man who is a protagonist without apparent agency, and they propel him into the second half of the novel, when Yu2's desire not to die galvanizes him. When he takes action, his world changes (literally). This is good because I would have otherwise damaged the book by kicking his moping butt.
I really, really liked this book. I liked the pop culture references. I liked the satirical view of society. But I also liked the very real and sharp jolts of youthful awareness Yu2 experienced as he started to come of age. There is a scene in which the pain and horror of failure is so exquisitely detailed that I was cringing as I read. But they're small failures, all—like the ones that define life in our non-science-fictional universe.
I think some readers will find it slow going, because his time travel is human, small, unambitious—in fact, possibly the antithesis of ambition, and he knows this, emphasizes it.
But I loved it because while everything in the bleak first half of the book feels—and is—true, it's clear that everything in the second half of the book (with one exception), while it has the potential to be just as bleak, offers insight, understanding, both of which change the meaning of an event, while in no way changing the event itself. Does the past change? No. But Charles Yu has made a window from the past to the self, and from the self to—the future.
And the future is promising.
Tricia Sullivan's Lightborn is an entirely different look at sf—or fantasy, because Lightborn has both. It's an interesting combination. There are no Vampires, Zombies, or Werewolves, but the book is strictly contemporary. The sf elements are more subtle, and feel like tropes—but without them, the novel wouldn't exist. I'd probably err on the side of fantasy in this case, because even the sf elements are, well, fantasy; the book takes place in a town in America, Los Sombres, beginning in 2004.
In the 2004 of Lightborn's world, people have been physically modified in order to receive "shine." Shine is the generic term for neural augmentations that enhance anything and everything. Your ability to learn. What you learn. Your experience of sex. It's delivered to receptors that are stimulated by light. Everyone past the age of puberty is prepared for and uses "shine" in their daily life.
Everyone but Roksana, who is embarrassingly immune to its effects. Only children—and those deliberately burned-out neurally—are otherwise immune to the effects of "shine," and Roksana feels she's stuck in a permanent state of immaturity while all of her friends have graduated to experiences she will never be able to share. The world seems to run on shine, and it's leaving her behind—right up until something goes very badly wrong with the "shine" in the town of Los Sombres. Anyone with receptors, anyone who can be affected by something that seems like one giant computer virus gone hugely wrong, loses their mind over the course of one long day, and the town and its immediate environs are locked down to prevent viral contamination anywhere else in the world.
Two years later, Xavier, a boy on the edge of puberty and desperate now for the drugs that can extend childhood and prevent the crazies, enters what's left of Los Sombres in search of those drugs. He lives on a farm/commune of survivors, most damaged by the virus. Under quarantine, he can't really go anyplace else. His father died in Los Sombres, and his mother is a shell of her former self.
The whole landscape has a very post-apocalypse feel to it, because so little of the outside world is seen, and there's not much interaction with it, except at the fringes of what now passes for an economy; people from the outside trade at the edges of the quarantine area for the cash that's no longer useful to survival.
Los Sombres is somehow still standing. The army has plans to destroy it, but in the two years since lockdown, they haven't managed much. Xavier's been waiting for the army to finish the job, because when it finally does, he'll be able to rejoin the real world.
Roksana believes the town can be saved, that the government is suppressing and lying about the dangers it presents. Her father is a highly respected academic, a victim of the fall, and a man driven to attempt to save what remains of the town; he's also missing.
Xavier meets Roksana, and together they discover that Roksana's father has left a device—a special shine—that could save Los Sombres. Roksana, however, can't use it. Xavier can—and in the end, does, at which point the book takes an almost psychedelic turn to the strange, because the shine appears to be sentient.
This book doesn't really follow a straight line of any type. It crosses the zones of genre—and tone—with alarming ease, and Sullivan makes it work. I have a minor quibble with the end of the book—but it is minor, gives away most of the plot, and regardless, I really didn't want to put the book down until I'd finished it.
Jo Walton's book crosses different genres.
Part autobiographical, part magical realism, part flat-out contemporary fantasy, the novel is structured as a diary, one which our narrator, Morwenna Phelps—or Morwenna Markova, as she is called while living with her father's family—writes in mirror-image text by her own admission just in case.
She has, at the start of the diary, arrived in what will be her new home, delivered there because that's where her father lives. She's never seen her father until this introduction; instead, she's lived with her grandparents and her insane mother for all of her sixteen years.
She walks with a cane; she can't run, can't dance, and can't participate in the sports or games that seem so important to her new boarding school; she is Welsh, and therefore automatically an outsider, even without the injury. But she isn't passive and isn't easily cowed; she prefers to be scary and distant instead of being bullied, and she achieves that with remarkable ease.
It's not clear why she was injured, but it is quickly clear that she's a survivor, and that she's not entirely happy with that state, because her twin sister—her closest friend, her playmate, and her other half—was not.
How she died, and why, becomes clear over time. Both Mor and her twin could see—and hear—fairies. The fairies in the Valley. The fairies who only live in abandoned ruins and old forests, and who are unlike the fairies of story and movies in almost all the particulars. These fairies would ask for help from time to time, and Mor and her twin would carefully carry out their requests, because fairies can't really interact with the real world directly.
Walton's fairies are wild. Not in the way that weeds are, but in the way that story is: they feel like a quiet, essential force, something that can't quite be contained, can't be explained, and can only be approached in certain circumstances which even Mor can never fully understand. Mor can approach them because Mor understands magic. Mor understands magic because her insane and malevolent mother is, well, a witch.
It's because of this that Mor's twin is dead, and Mor, unable to run or dance or often move without pain, is now attending a boarding school away from the weft and weave of her extended family.
Mor's solace and sanity come from books. In particular from science fiction novels, from Lord of the Rings, from Le Guin and Heinlein and Henderson and Zelazny. Books are really the only thing that allow Mor to engage with the world around her; she is passionate about their ideas, their words, the worlds they evoke and create. They're the only thing she freely speaks about that have strong meaning to her; she's very careful about keeping her distance, otherwise.
Books are the bridge between Mor and the father she's never met, because her father is also a great reader of sf, and he's willing to share. Books are her bridge to the only people she's met who are as intense about books as she is: a small science fiction book club at the local library in town. It is clear that this is her tribe, and as I've read almost all of the books they discuss, it's a small window into my own high school life.
What makes this book unusual is the narrative tone. Mor's writing is both detached and clinical; she is, or tries to be, logical and consistent within her diary entries, and she is often baffled by social norms because they make no sense. If nothing else about this book had the claim to autobiography, I think I would nonetheless hear Jo Walton's voice in the attempts to understand the rest of the world's worldview. There is vastly less confusion in Mor's description of place, of isolation—or of fear; these are natural to her.
As Mor engages with her new friends, that lively interest overtakes the sense of desolation and loss; this book really is about the slow recovery from the numbness of loss and grief—and the acknowledgment, the realization, that life is precious, that hope and joy wait around corners just as readily as fear and dread. It's a book about recovery.
But, just as the magic, it's a peculiar, unique book. I've read most of Walton's fiction. I like this best, but in some ways it's the least structurally certain of her works; I think the magic that's so subtle it's deniable at the start of the book fails to maintain that quirky quality at its end—and I understand why, but still found it jarring.
Regardless, there's a deep beauty to this book that feels so entirely real I'm grateful for its existence, for the fact that I could read it, and for the way it now graces my own internal library.
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Copyright © 1998–2020 Fantasy & Science Fiction All Rights Reserved Worldwide