Descent of Angels by Mitchel Scanlon

Ah, Warhammer 40K. I hate it… but I love it.

Before I start this review I feel the need to preface, given that it’s my first review of a Black Library novel on this blog. All future 40K-related posts will link back to this one.

Anyone who has even a passing knowledge of 40K knows that most of the 40K universe is utter bullshit, which isn’t entirely surprising seeing as it is, at its heart, just a futuristic reskin of regular Warhammer, which is, like the vast majority of popular fantasy tabletop franchises, made for cishet white boys.

I’m not going to bother explaining the entire 40K mythos here but if you want a refresher, here’s a helpful Youtube video that I did not make.

So, why do I give 40K any of my time considering the overarching tone of this blog (which, for those keeping score is “almost all male science fiction writers suck”)? To be honest, I can’t explain it. I guess it’s something of a guilty pleasure. It appeals to my nihilism, and I find it fascinating to speculate that humanity is destined to simultaneously advance and regress so completely that we end up reliving our own shitty history over and over again, each time on a different planet.

But it’s not even a guilty pleasure because it is such a pleasure to hate on it, even in spite of that seed of genuine enjoyment of the subject matter. It’s because of 40K’s utter disregard for any sort of social progress, its complete and shameless embrace of the sweaty, women-hating, nice-guy with hentai posters on his bedroom wall that we probably all picture when we hear the words “Games Workshop.”

So I ask you to take it on faith that I am fully aware of how incredibly problematic and stupid the 40K universe is when I say I’m a huge fan of it.

On to the novel, then! Descent of Angels is the sixth book in the Horus Heresy series, and Mitchel Scanlon’s first contribution. It’s also the first HH novel that doesn’t throw the reader into battle with an Astartes legion right off the bat. Descent of Angels is interesting because it’s the first Black Library novel that I’ve read that follows a recruited space marine from birth, starting from before he had any knowledge of the Emperor or the primarchs.

As the novel opens we meet Zahariel, a young boy living on the planet Caliban. Caliban has been inhabited by humans for the past 5000 years and has evolved a stoic patriarchal culture that views success through knightly combat as the highest honor one can achieve. As you can see, it’s super original, right from the start.

The entire planet of Caliban is overrun with “beasts” – huge, man-eating chimeras that come in a variety of flavours and are the main source of conflict for the world’s many schools and orders of knights.

Early on, we’re informed that, a number of years before Descent’s plot takes place, a lone man was found wandering in the beast-infested woods of the planet, and by virtue of not being dead, was instantly knighted and became a legendary figure known across the planet. The man was given the name Lion El’Jonson which means “the lion, the son of the forest” and is also one of the dumbest sci-fi barbarian names I have ever heard. By physical description, Jonson is basically Arnold Schwarzenegger as Conan.

Jonson starts a campaign to exterminate all the beasts on the planet, convincing everyone that Caliban is the rightful possession of the human colonists, because this is Warhammer “Fuck All Cultures Except for Ours” 40K.

This is all going on while our boy Zahariel becomes a man. He gets to join the Lion on his crusade and manages to kill one of the beasts single-handedly, a feat which earns him an instant promotion to knighthood.

By this point, I was feeling encouraged – the novel had raised a few interesting, if heavy-handed points, and I thought maybe Mitchel Scanlon was going to take more of an introspective approach to the Heresy. There had been implications of tapping into the warp for the power of good, mentions of Zahariel meddling in forces he didn’t understand, and an argument speculating that removing an external source of conflict (the beasts) would cause humans to turn on each other. I thought maybe I was going to get to see some genuine internal conflict or some critique of humanity’s xenophobic politics within the fiction. Was I going to get a glimpse of what a self-aware 40K could look like?

Shame on me for getting my hopes up. Scanlon posits his debate topics then buries them again like a nervous fox. The Lion’s campaign is a success and the beasts are vanquished, but before anyone has time to study the aftermath, a spacefaring deus ex machina full of Astartes drops on Caliban and starts preparing the planet for assimilation into the Imperium.

Obviously all the young knights want a piece of that action, because the Astartes are the biggest, shiniest phalluses they’ve ever seen and this is Games “we think the crusades were awesome because we’re a bunch of white dudes” Workshop.

As it predictably turns out, Lion El’Jonson is a primarch and Zahariel and friends are recruited and turned into space marines of the Dark Angels legion. They go on to have adventures and not learn from their mistakes ever at all, because boys will be boys and the Emperor knows best. Little did I know that Mitchel Scanlon wasn’t finished cockblocking readers who were looking for a bit more provocation.

The Dark Angels get stationed on a planet called Sarosh, with orders to take over for the White Scars legion. The White Scars have, for the past year, been trying to penetrate the planet’s convoluted bureaucratic system to make the Saroshi people “compliant.”

Sarosh is portrayed as a peaceful if slightly slow-paced utopia, so naturally the Dark Angels are super annoyed to be there because they won’t be allowed to shoot guns and fuck shit up in the Emperor’s name. I got my hopes up again and thought that Scanlon had been saving his Big Subversive Message for later in the novel, when the stakes were higher.

But no. The Saroshi try to blow up the Dark Angels’ ship because, twist ending, this isn’t just a confusing but benign foreign bureaucracy – it’s a terrorist organization and a cult. Everyone knows that if you aren’t willing to conform to the Imperium’s will it means that you are literally Satan.

Oh, and it’s bad. The Dark Angels discover that the Saroshi people are not actually human but rather non-Euclidian nightmare creatures disguised as humans who worship some sort of shapeless Lovecraftian blob thing, sacrificing millions of their own kin to its insatiable hunger.

Okay. I will say: the book has a cool ending, and readers who are reading it because they love 40K in all its stupid, ridiculous glory will love it. It’s action-packed and bombastic and dripping with gory chainsword porn.

Descent is a unique story in terms of the Horus Heresy novels, and I appreciated where it came from. As with most Black Library books, I can’t know exactly how much blame to lay on the author himself, and how much to lay on the publishers behind Warhammer “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” 40K.

Now, obviously I don’t think that Black Library authors need to be inserting tidbits of philosophy into every other paragraph because these are supposed to be action/adventure books and people are reading them for the alien-slaying, not the abyss-gazing. That said, the moral lessons in this novel seem so obvious that the fact that they are not explored at all makes the story feel disjointed. It’s like Mitchel Scanlon had some kind of shock collar on while he was writing it, and got jolted every time he even hinted at a critique of the deeply fucked up machinations of the 40K universe.

I understand that these novels are simply fleshing out a world that already exists with a fully-realized time frame of certain events, so there are things that you can’t actually change as an author coming in post-creation. But the world is also so massive that it’s pretty easy to tell sweeping, complex, even progressive stories without affecting the overall canon in the slightest.

Can you imagine how interesting it would be to have one Astartes legion realize what a dick move it is to force an apparently peaceful and civilized planet to arbitrarily conform to your system of government and religion? I know the space marines are clones bred for one purpose (war), but I consistently see Black Library authors trying to paint them as complex individuals with their own thoughts, desires and opinions, so I don’t think it would be such a stretch to have one of them go off the rails a little bit, have some sort of identity crisis.

Show me a 40K novel featuring a non-Imperial religion that doesn’t involve ritual sacrifice or demonic possession, that isn’t actually a malignant force. Show me humanity seeing an alien culture and going “you know what? This is actually better.” Show me the challenge and upheaval that comes with trying to impose your law and religion while still feeling empathy.

Or so help me God-Emperor, I will write it myself.

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Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

This was my first time reading Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card and I have to say I actually really enjoyed it. I think the multiple awards that Card won for this book have been justified, and I have no problem with its status as a classic. So allow me to discuss some of its flaws because that’s what I like doing!

The novel follows Ender Wiggin through his recruitment and training as a military fleet officer in a futuristic war against a race known as the Buggers (a slur describing a race of aliens who look like insects and therefore had me confusing Orson Scott Card with Robert A. Heinlein for about two days.) The buggers are threatening to exterminate the human race, apparently, though the actual existence of the threat is less important to the plot – the scope remains small and focused.

Ender is a third child, a rarity on the futuristic Earth from which he hails, and while he’s off at the Spartan, space-based Battle School, his psychopathic older brother Peter and calculating-but-kind sister Valentine are left at home to scheme world domination under parents who are seemingly oblivious and largely absent from the plot. That last sentence sounds like a joke but it’s played completely straight and it works, if you overlook the fact that the children in question are under 13 for the first half of the novel, and under 18 for the second half.

To be perfectly honest, this was the biggest issue I had with the book. I had to hang my disbelief altogether too high to find the dialogue at all suitable for the characters. Card makes these kids talk and think like adults or at the very least latter-half teenagers. My edition of the book came out in 1991, 20 years after the original release, and features an introduction that spends several pages indicating that my problem is not unique. Card retorts with a series of letters sent to him by gifted teenagers, who unsurprisingly write in a manner on par with the older children in the latter half of the book. Ender is 6 when the plot begins, however, and I find that he talks and thinks in a manner eerily similar to that of an adult sci-fi author.

Maybe I’m nitpicking – well, of course I am. Card’s annoyance with readers choosing to focus on this issue is clear, but my opinion is that he should either write children like children, or create adult or young adult characters. I guess I haven’t met any properly gifted children, or I don’t remember what it was like to be a child myself. The failing of anyone who reads a novel and can’t believe that those kids would have talked like that, perhaps.

It’s also possible that what bothers me about it so much is that you could dial up the ages on the characters and have a functionally identical version of the novel – the only real reason why these characters are children (that I could discern) is because this is supposed to be a young adult /children’s novel. Admittedly I normally stay away from young adult fiction for this very reason, so my distaste is pretty heavily biased, I will admit.

Naturally I have to talk about the role of women in the book. At the beginning I was concerned that I was getting into yet another story that would leave me wondering where all the women were being kept. As luck would have it, though, the female presence in the book is sparse but strong. There’s a brief and unnecessary remark by one of the characters at the beginning of the book – something about women not going to battle school because evolution is working against them – that sparked my worry. Yes, there is only one female character in the battle school, but within the novel that fact functions more as a comment on the misogyny of armed forces in this imagined universe than on the author’s own personal opinions.

The plot develops to feature two female characters who are integral and not singled out, and as the novel develops, that one comment seems all the more unnecessary until it sticks out in my mind as a sliver of awkwardness like Card was worried that he’d lose his main male demographic of readership if he didn’t note that women are weak at the starting gate. Which is incredibly lame, but if we get past that and just ignore it, women are represented quite strongly and satisfactorily though the rest of the novel.

Valentine proves to be an instrumental part of the whole machine. Where Ender is taught to be cold and violent, Valentine wrestles with her own fears of being too compliant and too good, versus giving in to the psychopathic calculations and manipulations of her brother Peter. She’s never a foil for anyone else’s personality and she never gets killed so anyone can have feelings. She has her own power and her own influence and her own struggles with the responsibility surrounding that.

Over the course of reading the novel no one’s gender is ever made to be more important than it is, or pointed out unnecessarily. It’s rather refreshing.

The novel is tactical, but not to the point that those who are bored by detailed discussions of military strategy would be driven to abandon it. The final twist is a little odd in that it struck me as extremely contrived and yet by that point I was so invested that it came as something of a triumphant relief. It actually caused me to set aside my analysis of the book to just be satisfied that something good was actually happening to the characters, which, once again is an occurrence that I should just sit back and enjoy.

Some might find the ending a bit much. I know I did, though as I previously stated I don’t tend to enjoy young adult novels so I was expecting it to be a bit rough. Just… so much catharsis – all the loose ends are tied up, characters that were no longer necessary are conveniently killed off while those who will go on to be included in sequels are placed at their appropriate starting positions.

Speaking of sequels, this book has a number of companions, a couple of which I have already purchased so you can look forward to those in 2016.

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Friday by Robert A. Heinlein

Ah, Friday. It took me a long time to write about this book – mainly because, weeks after reading it, I’m still not sure what I want to say about it. I think my biggest issue with this novel is that I don’t know why it was written. I don’t mean to say that it’s awful – though it certainly has its flaws – but I can’t discern the point of its existence, as a novel. I’m not talking specifically about plot, here. This isn’t a postmodernist novel. But it’s not the rollicking action-adventure story that it tries to sell itself as, either.

There’s no central mission, no really well-defined conflict, no one event that’s weighted with any more importance than the rest. A bunch of stuff happens, the characters are tossed to and fro without experiencing any sort of personal growth – then the story ends with everything tied up in a neat, abrupt bow that comes across as incredibly banal.

Robert Heinlein sets Friday at an indeterminate point in the future, presumably a couple hundred years from now. The Americas have been split up into a number of smaller, separate nations and advances in transportation have made it possible to get pretty much all the way around the world in a couple of hours. In some ways, it almost reads as a technological precursor to Ringworld. For the most part, I found the world building really interesting, logical and believable as a whole. Space travel exists and a number of other planets are colonized but the story takes place by and large on Earth.

Friday is an artificial human – not a gynoid or a cyborg but a flesh-and-blood human that was conceived with frozen eggs and sperm, then grown in a tube. And she’s far from alone in her origins. These genetically perfect humans (and more bizarre composite organisms, known as living artifacts – but we never get to meet any of them) are made to seem relatively commonplace in Friday’s world. Knowledge of their existence seems widespread and the fact that they are being produced is apparently largely accepted.

Despite this, the artificials are met with such uninhibited, violent prejudice that they can never reveal themselves for fear of being lynched. Despite their physical perfection and ability to complete any task with a rate of error far below that of an average human, no legitimate employer will hire them.

This whole concept alone seems like a bit of a farce – it’s deployed as an allegory for racism, sexism, insert-your-ism-here, but with humanity already utterly in control of the creation and rearing of these artificial humans, it seems bizarre to have built up such a hatred of them. Why not just discontinue production? Why design and create organisms for the purpose of living among humans, then refuse to let them live among humans? If there was some sort of traumatic incident in human history that was the fault of the artificials, Heinlein certainly doesn’t let on. So it’s just… a bit nonsensical.

Friday, aka Marjorie Baldwin, admonishes the reader that artificial humans are just as “human” as the rest of us, and that unless the artificial is circumstantially forced to reveal his or herself, the layman is completely unable to distinguish a tube-grown human from a “natural” one. All the while, though, she reminds us how much better she is than the average person – smarter, faster, stronger and better looking. She’s better at fighting, strategy, sex, arguing, and drinking. If not happier, she’s certainly fitter and more productive than you.

This gets a little grating after a while. Plus, she consistently makes mistakes, and admits to her flaws in the same breath that she reminds us how much worse it would’ve been for a normie. To have the main character of your novel constantly negging herself is a choice that gets old really fast.

Speaking of better looking, Friday is always talking about how she’s not really that pretty, even though everyone in the world continuously tells her she’s gorgeous – if she wasn’t so apathetic the rest of the time I’d start to wonder if Bella Swan had been cryogenically frozen for a couple centuries. I wouldn’t exactly call it low self-esteem. At some points she seems genuinely uninterested in her own appearance, emphasizing instead her abilities and intelligence, while elsewhere in the novel it seems like her only real abilities are looking pretty and fucking.

She wants to be seen as a regular human, but when she’s always talking up her artificial upbringing it’s a little hard to believe. Friday goes on about how she doesn’t understand human customs, doesn’t quite grasp human sexual tension, doesn’t have tact. Does she really not understand, or does she just think she’s better than us?

There’s no actual evidence of humans being any more socially awkward than Friday, either. Sexuality has evolved somewhat predictably. Heinlein’s future Earth is less bogged down in relationship stigma – casual sex isn’t portrayed as particularly taboo, and 101 flavors of monogamy and non-monogamy coexist apparently without conflict. It’s humans that Friday is constantly in bed with, and none of them seem to have a problem with it.

A sex-positive heroine is fine, and her sex drive is not in and of itself an issue. But within the context of the book, it doesn’t really matter. If this had just been written as an erotic novel and Friday’s sexual escapades were the plot, hey, that would be dandy. But Friday works as a courier for sensitive items and information. She answers to a mysterious man who for most of the novel we know only as “Boss.” She has numerous bank accounts and credit cards and fake identities and a license to kill that she frequently takes advantage of. So sue me for reading this expecting a goddamned action adventure novel. I don’t really care who Friday is sleeping with unless she’s seducing someone to get information.

Perhaps it’s the certain intangible, male-gaze-iness to the whole ordeal that makes it seem like the author wanted to write a really sexy femme fatale and didn’t quite understand what that meant. All the artificials are given “doxy training” (the killer sex skills aren’t ingrained) before being unleashed on the general public. Which, again… why? If humans hate the artificials so much, why bother training them to be good at sex? Why isn’t humanity prejudiced against people who are good in bed, at this point? The more I wonder about this, the more confused I become.

Sure, yes, there’s action and there’s adventure. But not enough detail about it for me to really get invested. I said it before and I’ll say it again – there is no conflict in this novel aside from small, insignificant disagreements that are opened and closed by circumstance. Religious extremists or [other] decide to mess around with the government at the halfway mark and it causes problems but not… to any lasting detriment? Later, it’s expressed that a pandemic is set to sweep the Earth in a few years but… oh, no one really seems to care, and the problem is neatly solved? It seems like our hero spends most of the novel eating breakfast in bed or travelling. And I’m left exasperated because I can’t figure out why I didn’t care.

The one thing that I could identify as a genuine (if minor) flaw, was I guess a fault of Heinlein’s world building: human society has changed. Government, monetary systems and transportation are all drastically different, but the way that humans interact remains the same. This certainly isn’t a problem that’s limited to Heinlein, but it seems especially annoying here because all the tech is in place to let human social interaction evolve.

Decent analogues for laptops, iPhones and the actual internet are readily available in Friday’s world, and yet we’re treated to a scene in which Friday, in her unparalleled wisdom, just suddenly realizes that you can really spend a lot of time using them for entertainment. This book came out in 1982 and 20 years later we’re already dependent on screens for a good part of our social interactions. We talk to people less in real life. We don’t leave our doors unlocked or let kids go out without supervision. Why, in Heinlein’s distant future, do we have to assume that humans interact in the same way that they did in the early 80’s? Maybe this is the 20/20 vision of hindsight talking but, really, this didn’t occur to anyone?

Oh, and the ending – it’s something like that Harry Potter epilogue that everyone hated, where all the friends get married to each other and have a matched set of kids that are ready to start off on their own adventures. For a story that didn’t really have a point, the neatness of its ending verges on eerie. Friday gets her wish, seeing as her main purpose in life is apparently to get married and have children – which is fine but who is this character? Is she a cutthroat assassin, or a homemaker? Is she both? Because that’s possible, but Friday seems less well-rounded and more indecisive and scattered. I could probably write an entire dissertation on Friday’s character but I’ll leave you with that. This novel is kind of fun, and a relatively quick read, but it might leave you wondering just why you thought so.

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet Teresa Plowright

Dreams of an Unseen Planet by Teresa Plowright was a random thrift store pick. With a cover like that I wasn’t going to pass it up, and I was delighted to find a female author sandwiched between the usual Asimov and Heinlein novels that populate my local Value Village. I had high hopes for this one from the start, and in the end I’m not disappointed! Though I have to say I think, as a novel, it takes a little bit of time to pick up steam. If you’re reading it, I’d encourage you to stick it out until you’re at least a third of the way through.

Aside from the obvious selling feature of a female sci-fi author, this book features a female protagonist and what I would call a majority of female characters. The circumstance isn’t contrived, either. When your setting is a space colony specifically designed for the propagation of the human species, you can’t really get away with focusing entirely on men. Maybe the scenario is rife with opportunity for females to be given the static “birther” role, but I might have thrown the book out the window if that had been the case. As in David Weber’s Honor Harrington books, I really get the sense that women exist as actual people in this world. There isn’t a palpable distinction in capability between men and women. They hold the same jobs, seem to have the same weird social tendencies, and are equally as worried and emotional. Fertility issues as they pertain to women are discussed as just part of a working whole, not some mysterious, foreign enchantment.

A word on what I just said about fertility – with a tagline like “When sex is not the answer…” I wasn’t sure if this was going to be a novel that toed the line and tripped into straight-up erotica or if I’d get the Stephanie Meyer asterisks-mean-sex cop-out. Surprise! The answer is neither. Sex is a central theme, because of course it is when your setting is a domed base on a distant planet populated by 2,000 colonists whose main purpose for being there is to procreate and continue the human race. Earth has gone to hell and so, on the verge of nuclear war, the Americas, China and Russia each send a bunch of colonists to a far off-planet called Gaea to preserve and rebuild the human race. From the point of view of Miera Tull, a woman living in the English-speaking colony, we learn that all efforts at procreation have been unsuccessful – no one can get pregnant, and those that do eventually miscarry or die.

Naturally, as the sex-drenched but childless years wear on, female fertility takes on something of a talismanic, mystical identity. Everyone lives for it but no one knows how to obtain it.  Eventually, the colony takes to putting on a multiple-day orgiastic festival of procreation called Estros. Which harkens to the importance of female sex hormones and is in its way reminiscent of fertility festivals associated with some pagan religions. But I never felt like the book was earnestly presenting this view as its own. The view of fertility as an evasive deity belongs to the characters, and the novel takes a documentary backseat.

It would be difficult and unnecessarily timid to take a setting where sex holds such omnipresence and remove the basic act. So Plowright doesn’t. But she also rarely veers into outright titillation. There’s not a sex scene that takes place outside of the plot or character arcs. The novel stays improbably classy for taking utter, desperate fucking as its subject matter.

So why did I take so long to come around to it? My theory is that Plowright introduces the characters so brilliantly that it’s a little too real.  As I started the novel I found Miera petty, dramatic, and largely overly concerned with her own personal issues, considering the general direness of the situation on the colony. Despite being hand-picked for the project for her looks, personality and scientific education, she doesn’t fit in, she’s jealous that her ex-lover has found a new girl, she has insecurities about her job, suffers from insomnia and nightmares, et cetera. In retrospect, of course everyone on the colony would degrade into focusing on personal anxieties, and after a while it’s clear that this is all part of the psychological set-up of the novel.

The range of characters is diverse enough that some are swallowed up in a wave of anxiety, never to return, while others, including our hero, rise above it and become stronger, more developed than I even thought possible at the outset.

Language-wise, you might find the novel a bit flowery. I definitely did. When Plowright hits her stride she does so without sacrificing her language, though these very pretty, dreamlike descriptions seem to have more utility as events progress. The descriptions of sex are at times almost too vague, with so much metaphor that you’re not sure what you’re actually reading. There were a couple passages that I ended up reading twice just to clarify what was actually going on. But it’s worth it for that occasional passage that sparkles with beauty even while it’s describing a hallway or an office.

The sense of scope expands as the story goes on, giving the reader time to get acquainted with each character individually, instead of having to meet several of them at once. Only after a few distinct personalities have been developed do we start learning about the history and inner workings of the colony itself. By the end of the novel we know more about the people in the book that we do about their world, though in a character-focused story, this is an acceptable balance.

In final summation, this book is way more than the fluffy, softcore romp that the cover and synopsis would suggest. It’s definitely a treat for those of you who are sick of reading female sci-fi characters as damsels or oversexed femme-fatales.

Buy Dreams of an Unseen Planet on Amazon.ca!

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World by Haruki Murakami

Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite authors, though Hard Boiled Wonderland and the End of The World is the perhaps the most sci-fi-like of his novels that I’ve yet encountered. 1Q84 could be a contender, but I never found it so overt.  Perhaps that’s why Hard Boiled Wonderland seemed slow to start – because at first it was jarringly un-Murakami. It took me a while to get into this book, is what I’m saying.

So I was delightfully surprised when it did start to grab me, even more so when it really started being hard to put down toward the end. The last few chapters felt as though they dragged slightly, again, moving toward and ending that was wholly unsatisfactory, though I believe intentionally so.

At times this seems like a classic Murakami story with some sort of bizarre fantasy novel wedged in between chapters. The chapters alternate, one then the other, between tales set in the “real” world – Murakami’s recognizable if slightly skewed depiction of early 1990’s Japan – and in an isolated village with no modern technology at all, where unicorns roam, people’s shadows are sentient beings and dream-reading is an occupation. Yet they are two halves of the same coin, as is slowly revealed when the stories begin to converge. This is one of the best justifications I’ve seen for chapters that flip perspective, and the way the separate viewpoints slowly reveal themselves to be the same is subtle and brilliant, with enough clues in each version for the reader to draw mounting parallels.

Murakami, as usual, tends to fixate in an oddly clinical fashion on sex and other bodily functions. His descriptions of food and alcohol are sumptuous, and a moment where the main character’s collection of whiskey is destroyed was one of the most heartrending things I’ve read in some time.

Women in this universe unfortunately tend to be objects of desire for the main protagonist. We never meet one without getting a detailed description of an imagined sexual encounter, and those that are more than momentary passersby never quite seem to escape the protagonist’s vague fascination. The “main” female character, who we know only as the chubby girl, falls dangerously close to manic-pixie territory, though she seems to be saved by her unaided toughness in the face of adversity where our hero balks and cowers.

What at first seems to be the central storyline, the protagonist’s mysterious, government-operative occupation, is never really explored in more detail than that. He performs a job which involves complex encryptions and decryptions carried out by a part of his subconscious while his waking mind disassociates. The revelation that his abilities are the result of modifications made to his brain, and that he is the only survivor in a series of human experiments, should smack of campy 80’s action movie science, though when it is revealed it seems almost mystical. It’s very much a psychological thriller, though the divide between reality and the imagined world is clearly delineated and unambiguous.

For all his faults, we care about the main character, if only because he tends toward being a blank slate onto whom we project our social insecurity. In line with a large percentage of Murakami’s male characters, he’s in his mid-thirties, apathetic and minimally employed, though somehow with a fair chunk of disposable income. He’s divorced and this fact is treated as more an inevitability of life than a personal tragedy. As far as I know Murakami himself has been married for the duration of his writing career so I sometimes wonder about his fascination with divorced men – though perhaps it is his way of confronting the possibility of failure, creating numerous alter-egos to assess different possible reactions and outcomes.

At any rate, Murakami’s male characters always seem to have an autobiographical possession, whereas his women are more distinct. Despite what I said earlier about the female characters in this book, I do believe that this author is more than capable of writing interesting and realistic women. I’ve seen it in later works – Sputnik Sweetheart, 1Q84 and After Dark all feature women in main roles and when Murakami places them in the spotlight it’s real and effortless. Fittingly, when he treats them as afterthoughts and sexual objects it seems a bit contrived. So perhaps the treatment of women in this novel is a necessary aspect of the protagonist’s characterization. That’s an optimistic way of looking at it, anyhow.

For a novel that has the self-awareness to admit, through reference, its reverence of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, it does have its own internal logic that never falters, even when the plot doesn’t seem certain. All in all it was a worthwhile read, even inspiring at points. The ending, while abrupt, is divisive. Some, I’m sure, will see it as the most logical conclusion, while others, like me, will read the final page in slight disbelief, certain that another outcome was within reach.

A percentage of Amazon sales go toward keeping the blog running, so buy the book here: Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Plastic Beach: Snarkitechture at the National Building Museum

THE BEACH by Snarkitechture

The National Building Museum in Washington, DC, is hosting THE BEACH, from now until September 7th. A pity I live nowhere near there – but maybe this will inspire other installation artists to explore this kind of extreme interactivity in future works. THE BEACH is oddly commercialized and sleek, sort of an upper-middle-class, art hipster, yuppie paradise.  It’s also vaguely humorous (how can you not be, when you place a giant ball pit in the middle of a museum) and really seems like the sort of thing that you’d find in some sort of future dome-city where the real beaches have all been nuked off the planet and humanity splashes around in oceans of plastic balls. Maybe that’s what Snarkitechture was going for – a fun, lighthearted installation with a little bit of dystopic background static.

So about that ball pit. It IS huge, at 10,000 square feet, composed of almost one million recyclable plastic balls in a uniform translucent white. At the end of this ball “ocean” is a wall of mirrors   that play the role of a distant horizon, providing the illusion that the ocean goes on forever. The foggy, milky color of the ball pit as a whole is dripping with ultra-modern minimalist sensibility but it’s also the colour of so many plastic shopping bags – a fun parallel, considering what those do to the real ocean.

Brooklyn-based creators Daniel Ashram and Alex Mustonen have made THE BEACH in keeping with Snarkitechture’s usual style. They frequently do the stark black and white thing, playing with the aesthetic of a consumerist and design-oriented society. It’s not without humour – in installations like their ultra-sleek marble run for Art Basel at Miami Beach, and The White Room, made for a Chromeo album release and focusing on a series of “all white matte objects,” they really sell the idea that the future won’t be chrome, but stark white. They never lose their sense of humour but there is a palpable “evil megacorporation” undertone in many of their works. I dig it.

THE BEACH top view

It’s not all play – the National Building Museum (which I’ll admit I had never heard of before reading about this artwork) has boasted that its summer admissions sales have nearly tripled since last year with the installation of the work this summer. That’s just savvy business. So what about THE BEACH is attracting so many people? Obviously a ball pit that’s big enough for adults is a draw whether we want to admit it or not. But that’s a gimmick. Behind that, there’s an actual subversion of what people understand the museum space to be. When the general air of the museum is “look, don’t touch” – THE BEACH begs you to get all up in it,  sit on it, swim through it, throw bits of it at your friends.

It encourages guests to sit in chairs and idle on its shores, eat organic, fair-trade snacks from the Union Kitchen snack bar (acting as mock concession stand) – to just treat it like a real beach. All these activities seem to exist in a place of passive opposition to the traditions of a museum, where food is forbidden, guests glance at paintings and sculptures for a few seconds before moving on, and where touching any artwork is, obviously, strictly forbidden.

So you tell me: are Ashram and Mustonen building the synthetic beach in preparation for a future in which we can’t visit the real thing? Are they setting up a novelty in the here-and-now to have us look at it in 200 years and see it as a pale imitation of what once was? Probably not, but I’ll be damned if that isn’t in keeping with the dark, snarky humour that is the firm’s namesake.

An interesting side effect of inviting people into a touchy-feely space like this is that the sanitation issues that you should probably expect have also come into play. It’s minor fear-mongering for the most part. One case of pink eye, one cold, both that are only circumstantially tied to ball-pit exposure. The museum assures visitors that all of the balls in the pit are molded with antimicrobial agents, as well as being sprayed with antimicrobials and cleaned nightly. Now that’s what our beaches are missing – that alcohol smell of hand sanitizer. Imagine yourself safe in each milky white bubble! Each could represent a sealed antibacterial shell for the immune-challenged. Surely a few cases of contagious illness are preferable to shark bites, jellyfish stings, sunburns and sand in the shoes.

People swimming in THE BEACH by Snarkitechture

THE BEACH, the plastic beach, a wonderful, hilarious art piece and a chilling glimpse into one possible future. If you’re lucky enough to see it, enjoy it as a temporary fun afternoon – or go home unable to shake the feeling of slight sadness, like you’ve seen a premonition that you don’t quite understand yet. The determining factor – whether this piece is the future of museums or the future of beaches.

All images from Snarkitechture.com

Read my slightly less rambling coverage of the piece on The Speaker!

Azuma Makoto’s Botanical Aliens

Azuma Makoto Exobotanica

I can’t decide if Japanese artist Azuma Makoto loves flowers or hates them. His is a practice that seems at times bent on putting gorgeous plants through the most hellish of trials and punishments, while at the same time elevating something you can technically find in your backyard to the status of high art sculpture. It’s sort of like Hannibal for florists.

I was first introduced to Makoto’s work when I came across an image of his frozen flowers. In an exhibition held in Japan in the winter of 2014, Makoto froze a number of large, lush flower arrangements in cartoonish crystal-clear blocks of solid ice. Think the block of ice that Steve Rogers gets caught in for 70 years. The sort of thing that would probably never happen by accident in real life. I don’t know how the artist did it, but there must have been some scientific consultation going on for him to get the arrangements to look just so, like they were blowing in an invisible breeze, while suspended in effective cryostasis.

Azuma Makoto Iced Flowers

I think my favourite part of this piece is the backdrop that Makoto chose. A barren warehouse that seems in direct contrast to the liveliness of the flowers. The wet concrete floor, stainless steel apparatus and chains make me think of a slaughterhouse or industrial factory. Not really a place for flowers. That tired old word juxtaposition is almost as alive as the plants seem to be in this piece. I could talk about the slow death that the plants experienced as the ice slowly thawed leaving them wet and wilted on the floor, but there aren’t any photos of the aftermath – not that I can find, anyway. That was behind the scenes, not meant for the viewing public.

Azuma Makoto Iced Flowers Large View

So Makoto used ice one time to suspend his plants but in other cases it’s a recurring cube enclosure that looks like a cross between torture device and display case. A plant, sometimes a Bonsai tree, is held in place by four metal cables, leading to the corners of a small metal box, just a frame, with open sides. It’s an innovative vase, but provides the plant no protection or access to necessary nutrients. The plant becomes a beautiful object for a very limited period of time. Taking this further, Makoto sent flowers into space. Well, not technically into space, but into the upper levels of the earth’s atmosphere, about as close to space as you can get without being in the vacuum.

Azuma Makoto Exobotanica Crew

Why worry about the plants, suspended as they are in their metal cubes, days already numbered? I imagine they looked lovely for a few hours floating peacefully in the stratosphere, until they began to fall and wither. I’m not sure what the air and temperatures up there would do to a plant – I don’t think Azuma Makoto did, either. Launched out of Black Rock, Nevada, earlier this summer, the project isn’t the least Burning-Man-esque artwork I can think of, yet there’s something more focused and serene about it. The plants become Exobotanica, the artist’s website explains, they become extraterrestrial beings, freed from the earth. Perhaps this is a glimpse into Makoto’s true feelings about the plants – perhaps they are more, or can offer more than what we see them as. I wrote about Makoto’s studio in an upcoming post on Artist Run Website – his atelier, as many websites call it, because “studio” seems almost crass for the delicacy of the work that is being done here – and it, alone, is a work of performance art. Look at Makoto’s Exobotanica assistants, in uniforms with special patches on them. A team of scientists preparing for the future of art. I want to read that story.

Encyclopedia of Flowers: Flower Works by Makoto Azuma photographed by Shunsuke Shiinoki

All images from azumamakoto.com

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Something Wicked This Way Comes

August was an interesting time to read Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes. I don’t think I know of any other books that so accurately portray the smell, appearance and general feel of autumn, particularly late October when the season is in full swing and the frost is only beginning to set in in the mornings. I know it’s a particularly North American concept of October, but that being the one that I’ve grown up with, it really made me long for sweater weather.

For a horror story, it’s very much a boy’s coming-of-age tale. Not to say that only boys and men can relate to it, I know I found it totally engaging regardless, but the text is rife with nods to apparent shared experiences by men of a certain age who grew up in a certain era. Released originally in 1962, it doesn’t exactly subvert the sensibilities of that era, but it doesn’t fall victim to them, either.

When I say horror in describing the story I definitely mean classic horror. There’s no gore or teenagers being stalked by serial killers here. A supernaturally evil carnival comes to town. No, there aren’t any murderous clowns, either. The carnival itself is something that would probably be passed off as utter camp if it were written into a horror story today, but Something Wicked’s temporal setting makes it totally believable. This is a time where 13-year-old-boys roam free in the middle of the night, escaping through their bedroom windows and are reprimanded only via brief scolding when and if they are ever discovered. There aren’t any cellphones or computers, and travelling salesmen are still a thing. The town is presented as a relatively idyllic portrait of “all-American” life in the late fifties.

Yet the action never feels dated or dull. There’s suspense, bits that are genuinely scary and as a reader I was still able to form an attachment to the characters to the point where I cared what happened to them. The story is tight throughout and never drags. I think this was at least partially a side-effect of Bradbury’s extremely short chapter structure – sometimes a chapter was only half a page long. I’m a fan of this. It means each chapter is a clean divide, describes only one scene, no matter the length, and it really keeps the pages turning. Not to mention that we’re treated to an ending that’s much more than just “the heros win, and the bad guys are vanquished.” It’s thought-provoking, satisfying and most importantly doesn’t feel like a rip-off the way so many happy endings tacked on to horror stories do.
As for gender roles: Bradbury is no Larry Niven, but again, the women in the story are passive objects. Set dressing and plot devices. Arguably the most prominent female characters are the boys’ mothers, and these two “characters” are completely interchangeable. Will’s mother has a few lines of dialogue in which she consoles her husband and son – Jim’s mother is only described from a distance. Basically, the boy’s mothers are on there to act as foils for the maleness of our three heros. Other than that, they don’t affect the story at all. The boys and Will’s father barely seem worried about getting in trouble with their women after running around through the town all night. Also, when do they sleep? There were points at which I got tired just thinking about this. Maybe I was just never a 13-year-old boy.

Aside from the mothers, women are presented in a weird dichotomy. On the one hand, they’re the gullible fools who get eaten up by the supernatural evil presence while the astute young males see through the clever ruse immediately – and isn’t this sort of intuition often a traditionally feminine thing in literature? Men figure stuff out with science, while women are in tune with nature and “just know”?

If not that, they’re a part of the evil, as in the only female member of the carnival – the blind witch. I guess this is our feminine intuition nod – the woman communes with nature, has a sixth sense and is therefore a practitioner of evil black magic. The witch is portrayed as inherently evil, being a part of the carnival, but really all she ever does in the story is smell and feel things, knowing things in spite of her blindness, which we’re supposed to interpret as really creepy.

My short rant aside, there’s a reason Bradbury has been called the greatest sci-fi writer in history. (Link NSFW) This is an engaging story with solid characterization and plot. And for old, classic horror, I found it genuinely eerie. Read this at Halloween! Read it in front of your gas fireplace or with a lamp on under a blanket. Pretend you’re 13 again.

Ringworld by Larry Niven

Ringworld by Larry Niven

I actually read this title a little while ago but I’m refreshing my memory for the blog because I feel it bears being written about. For starters, I really liked the story. The overarching plot is reasonably compelling. Unfortunately it’s marred by Larry Niven’s blistering disregard for women. This was published in 1970, and reading novels from a particular era, I think you have to steel yourself against some degree of oblivious, but belligerent, misogyny. That said, I’ve absolutely read other authors who allow the influence of their own era to exist within the book without it being completely awful for readers, who, 30+ years later are starting to get the  hang of this whole “women are actually people” thing and get queasy thinking about how recent a development that is. As I’m writing this I’m halfway through Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes and the female characters in that serve mainly as either set dressing or plot devices, but Bradbury doesn’t seem to have an active hate/fear relationship with his women characters. Niven, on the other hand, sees women as pretty vessels. The female characters in Ringworld (all two of them!) could be convincingly replaced by aesthetically pleasing Tupperware.

It’s a shame because I liked the story so much. I just learned that there’s a colloquial term for this type of story: “Big Dumb Object” or “BDO” for short. In BDO stories the entire premise is based on the existence of this one big object, whether it’s a threat to humanity, a giant physical anomaly that later proves to be the ticket to humanity’s continued existence, or just a weird unexplored chunk of space rock. Gamers, think the Traveler from Destiny. In the case of Ringworld the titular object is all three of these thing, which is why a team of explorers are sent to…well, explore it.

Huge unexplored space objects are my fetish, so I was quite enthralled with Niven’s descriptions of the Ringworld itself. The author’s descriptions of alien worlds and made-up future technology are sometimes a bit hard to follow, but having a picture in your head is more important than whether or not the picture is accurate. The story’s fairly large in scope, with the huge distances taking years and years to travel, even with fantasy advances in propulsion technology.

The main character, Louis Wu, is honestly just some old rich guy who doesn’t seem to have much else going on. Accompanying him on the expedition is Teela, who we first meet when Louis ends up sleeping with her at his birthday party. Despite an age gap of something like 40 years she falls haplessly in love with him because it’s the future and they have anti-aging technology and people live way longer and because Niven is extremely transparent in the way he projects his own fantasies into his writing. And pretty much the only reason Teela joins the expedition is because she can’t bear to leave Louis and also because Louis can’t bear to go on this multiple-year space journey without someone in which to holster his dick. The other two characters are of different alien species – one of which has sentient males and non-sentient females. I don’t think I really need to say anything more.

The one other female appears toward the end of the novel. She’s a crew member from a marooned space ship. Hang on, did I say crew member? I meant ship’s prostitute. Okay. I am totally supportive of sex work as a legitimate way to earn a decent living, and, okay, this alien is portrayed as mind-blowingly good at her job, but it would be so nice to meet a female character who is in the novel for reasons other than “has a vagina.” I can’t say for sure, but I’m going to guess that a progressive portrayal of sex workers was not at the forefront of the author’s mind when he wrote the character.

My verdict? Buy the book. Buy it USED. Read it, enjoy it, throw it against a wall. Pass it along to your friends.

On Basilisk Station (Honor Harrington #1) by David Weber

On Basilisk Station by David Weber

A few days ago I thought I was going to start this review by saying that David Weber’s On Basilisk Station, the first novel in the Honor Harrington series, attempted to be feminist but almost missed the mark. After having finished it, I can say it really hits its stride in the latter half. Considering that the last few novels I’ve read have been Horus Heresy volumes, it was wonderfully refreshing just to read something that focused on a female lead character. And even more refreshing to note that Honor Harrington is not treated as an anomaly in her universe, but rather that Weber’s Navy seems to have a fairly even distribution of men and women among all ranks and positions. Women in this novel are portrayed as capable, intelligent tacticians, scheming politicians, corrupt billionaires – and each is just as sincerely written and believable as any male character in a similar position.

While the story itself is tight and relatively small in scope – small given that the main conflict involves a space station, wormhole travel and interplanetary espionage – the writing itself drags very occasionally. This is usually when Weber gets caught up in explaining the technological aspects of ships and weapons or the history and process of various political systems. It’s clear that the author genuinely enjoys his world-building, and it’s not that I don’t appreciate this – I can think of a lot more stories where a bit more world-building could have improved things. Weber’s bouts of exposition sometimes go on for four or five pages, eventually reading like someone rambling nervously at a bar, knowing their target is going to walk away as soon as they stop talking.

Those of you expecting a tale of swashbuckling high-space-seas adventure won’t be disappointed – though you should be warned that things take a turn for the #dark towards the end of the novel when the stakes get higher and the body count rises. I’ve never been particularly put off by blood and guts but the way the gore is treated here (serious, with odd dignity given the number of over-the-top violent deaths and their slightly-too-loving descriptions) might be a little incongruous for summer reading. Honestly though, my biggest complaint about this book pertains only to the specific edition that I bought, which features a conventionally beautiful, long-haired Honor Harrington on its cover despite numerous descriptions to the exact contrary within. I digress: the book was engaging almost all the way through, with likable characters and meaningful losses, and I will definitely buy the next installment of the series.