Monday, November 24, 2014

Bourgeois Book Club

A Storm of Witchcraft by Emerson W. Baker

Something about the month between Halloween and Thanksgiving always puts me in the mood to read about colonial American history. I attribute it to the habits of childhood, as this was always the time of year in school we covered the subject on our way to playing Pilgrims and Indians at Thanksgiving. But the time between spooky Halloween and American mythographical Thanksgiving is particularly perfect for reading a book about the Salem Witch Trials like A Storm of Witchcraft.

A Storm of Witchcraft is interested not only in what happened and why there was this sudden outpouring of "witchcraft," but why the Salem witch-trials were so unusual, why they settled into the collective consciousness where other comparable incidents never did, and why the trials have such cultural resonance over three hundred years later. Starting with a straightforward narrative of the incident, Baker then goes on to look at the larger issues that caused the crisis and fueled its fire, with particular looks at the accusers, the accused, and the judges, all ensnared in tangled webs of alliance, enmity, and relation.

SPOILER ALERT: there were a lot of very complicated and interlocking reasons the trials took off like they did and unfolded as they did, including but not limited to war panic, economic distress, small-town pettiness, family ties, constitutional crises, religious disagreements, and a pervasive sense of moral decline (THE QUAKERS!). This is a pre-Enlightenment world, to be sure, but these were educated people using what was at the time generally considered best-practices. But even at the time the whole affair was mired in controversy; a lot of people thought it was all horseshit then, and said so. The trials cannot be dismissed with a simple "Oh, those stuffy Puritans sure believed a lot of silly nonsense." People died and many lives were ruined, and we should understand why.

The final portion of the book goes beyond the standard "...and then they ended, and Arthur Miller wrote a play" ending to the story to look at the legacy of the witchcraft trials, how and why it remained in the American consciousness, and how the people and places connected to it continued to be effected by it even centuries later. Long before The Crucible, Salem was a watchword for intolerance, oppression, and mass hysteria, partly due to the Massachusetts government's efforts to cover the whole thing up in the aftermath. It more or less ended Puritanism as a political force in New England. And even hundreds of years later, feelings about the trials was strong and politically trenchant in Salem, with huge controversies about monuments and memorials into the twentieth century. While Danvers, the modern name of Salem Village, where most of the witches and accusers lived, has mostly avoided connection with its past, Salem Town, where the trials took place, has made a whole industry out of being "Witch City," complete with statue of Elizabeth Montgomery as Samantha Stevens. Salem had profound reverberations in future America, and it's refreshing to see that aspect acknowledged.

Two stylistic features make A Storm of Witchcraft particularly noteworthy: it is short (less than 300 pages, excluding appendices and notes) and readable, which is far from the last book about the Salem trials I read several years ago. Fascinating and engaging, I strongly recommend it for anyone interested in digging deeper into this flashpoint in American history.

The Time Roads by Beth Bernobich

In an alternate early twentieth century where Ireland (or "Eire") is a world power plagued by unrest in its English (or "Anglican") colonies, a young queen, a secret agent, a brother and sister mathematician team, and a genius inventor are all touched by the invention of time travel and must fight to keep the world from a dark future.

A series of interconnected stories rather than a straightforward novel, The Time Roads is an able addition to the alternate universe subgenre, with a slight hint of steampunk (goddamn balloons!). But I came away from reading it disappointed. "What if Ireland and England's roles were reversed?" is an interesting divergence point for an alternate history, but it did not feel supported. It's a perfectly valid choice from Bernobich not to infodump the full history of her world to show the ramifications of the differences, but it left me feeling the worldbuilding a bit thin. It does not help that I think the extrapolations she posits are not particularly plausible; there should be more radical changes than she entertains. But, then again, alternate history is hardly a "science," so her world is no more invalid than any other setting.

Beyond questions of setting, however, another disappointment is that, besides the queen, I did not find the characters engaging or even interesting. We never get into the head of the time machine inventor at all, even though his is probably the most interesting tale, as we see near the end of the book. The brother and sister mathematicians are dull, and whether intentional or not give off far too much of a Flowers in the Attic vibe. Even the spy is not really all that exciting.

One nerdy nitpick about the math in the book. Now, I'm far from a math genius, but for a story that heavily relies on math and mathematicians, the math seems rather... dubious. Prime numbers are the keys to time travel! Errrr....

The Time Roads is not at all a bad book. It just could have been so much more, and that is a terrible shame.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Sympathy For The Devil

As loathe as I am to discuss that recent "gate" controversy or its affiliate "scandals," tantrums, and firestorms, and as much as I'm disgusted by its perpetrators, my own goddamn commie pinko bleeding heart cannot help but have some sympathy for the latter. There's just a lot there I identify with more than I'm comfortable with, and also a lot of "there but for the grace of God..." to it. I have a lot more sympathy for their victims, though.

Winner!

The book I was rooting for won! Hooray!

Sunday, November 09, 2014

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Breaking Star Wars News!

Shih Tzus and other such dogs dressed up as Ewoks is practically declasse at this point, but the second picture!!11!!

(Oh, and "The Force Awakens" is fine. Better than "Attack of the Clones"!)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Bourgeois Book Club

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

There are many worlds. The world of Raitin and its siblings glow in the light of four mystical satellites. "Jistas," magic-users with powers tied to one of these satellites and its associated specialties, wax and wane in power according to which satellite is ascendant. Those sensitive to Oma, the dark satellite, among other powers, may open gates between worlds. Previous risings of Oma have brought great migrations, wars of invasion, overthrow of empires, and even geologic change. But Oma has not been seen in two thousand years, and much has been forgotten. Oma now rises. There are many worlds, and some worlds are not content with just their own.

Probably the most noteworthy aspect of the book is its gender complexity. Of the three cultures we see, the Dhai have five self-selected genders (passive/assertive male and female, as well as "ungendered"), the Saiduin have three assigned (male, female, and other called ataisa), and the Daidun have a "typical" male/female split, but inverted into a repressive matriarchy. It is a fascinating, and challenging, task to recalibrate all of one's gender assumptions.

But if I have one "criticism" of the gender politics, it's that the fluidity of sexuality seems overdone. With such a variety of sexualities even in the "simple" and often rigid male/female binary of the real world, naturally there would be even more in a world with a more expansive and spectral gender dynamic. Yet it seems less like there is a "spectrum" than "every single character is sexually attracted to every other gender." Perhaps I'm just narrow-minded, but I can't help but feel that a lot of people would still have distinct preferences in who they sleep with. But that may just be my own thing; I get my back up sometimes when a certain type starts with the "I don't like labels, maaaaaaaaan. Sexuality is fluuuuuuuuuuuuuuid!", not because it isn't true, but because it's usually straight guys doing gay porn, or a certain kind of person who wants to "enjoy" sexuality without any of the potentially uncomfortable stigmas or prejudices a label can come with.

The Mirror Empire is challenging in other ways. Hurley isn't one for infodumps. One is flung directly into the deep end and the expansive worldbuilding must be pieced together by the reader. With so many narrators, so many characters, and so many names, even with a glossary in the back, it can be challenging to keep everyone straight, especially at first. The correlation between "character we like" and "characters who aren't annoying, assholes, or genocidal" is not the strongest, either, which some don't care for. I don't really find it a problem, because I love an interesting asshole (the genocidal general of a matriarchal police state is one of my favs), and as noted before, there are a lot of characters, so no one's assholishness brings the whole thing down. It is, though, something not all readers might enjoy.

None of this is a criticism in a "don't read this" way. The Mirror Empire is an excellent book, a thrilling portrait of a distinctly alien world on the edge of catastrophe. The worldbuilding is amazing. (Instead of horses, they ride huge dogs and bears!) With the promise of more worlds, even stranger worlds, coming into play, and various cliffhanger endings, I look forward to the future books (it's a "saga," so who knows how many that could be) with gleeful anticipation. It simply is not an "easy" read.

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Once, Bulikov was the most powerful city in the world, seat of the very gods themselves. Now a shadow of its former self after the death of those gods, occupied by its former subjects and forced by them to forget all that they once were, it seethes with conspiracy and discontent. The death of a foreign scholar brings "Shara Thivani," one of Saypur's most accomplished secret agents, to the city, and what she finds might change the fate of two continents.

Whereas The Mirror Empire plays with gender, City of Stairs does so with colonialism. The oppressor becomes the oppressed. Religion has not been disproven or displaced; it has been killed. The Divine was real, and was really shot. It's a fascinating look at how two wrongs don't make a right, how repression can bring no real peace, and how important history is.

I think my favorite aspect of the book is Thivani, who is not your typical spy protagonist. She's a tiny, South Asian-ish woman with glasses. James Bond she ain't, and it's refreshing. Of course, her "secretary" Sigurd fills the "he-man badass" role, but he's still the sidekick.

My only criticism of the novel has to do with a closeted gay character. Not that they are closeted (there are good reasons for that in-universe), but because, as Thivani and Sigurd are the only ones whose heads we actually get into, we don't really get "their" story, and they become more a prop for the plot, in my view, than an actual person. They are written with sympathy, but at a remove, and it irritated me profoundly.

I still highly enjoyed and recommend City of Stairs. I would only caution that, though faintly steampunk in aesthetic, it's not really a "steampunk" novel. As I don't particularly care for the steampunk subgenre, this was just fine with me, but if you are an aficionado of that subgenre, don't expect it to conform exactly.

Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

The sequel to last year's much-lauded and multiple-award-winning Ancillary Justice, sees Breq, the only remaining remnant of a starship's AI, given command of her own ship. Her assignment is to maintain the security of the Athoek system as the civil war between factions of the distributed consciousness that is Radchaai ruler Anaander Mianaai enters a new, deadly phase. She must battle the agents of the "other" side of Anaander Mianaai, begin to unravel the mystery of the Ghost Gate, integrate with her new crew, deal with a potential diplomatic incident with an alien species, and attempt to right some of the injustices of the Radch system in Athoek.

Sword is a very different, in some ways, book to Justice. Justice felt bracing and strange with its gender ambiguities and multiple-first-person perspective, while also maintaining a fairly familiar revenge narrative. Of course, now know to expect the ambiguity and the perspective, so it does not feel so novel, and the revenge narrative has given way to something more cloudy.

There is a closer look at the systems and effects of colonialism. It sets up a mystery that will presumably be resolved in the next book. But after a lot of thought, what I think Sword is really about what it means and how it feels to be an outsider, from oneself and from one's society. Breq is not really human, and serves a society she doesn't believe in or truly fit in. Young Lieutenant Taiwaarat undergoes a horrible violation that leaves her entire identity changed. The Velskaayan workers, a people stubbornly different and apart from Radch society and inhabit the very bottom of Atheok society, are exploited and repressed. A former political agitator is forced to live in an ambiguous limbo without truly belonging to any group. Meanwhile, the "insiders" stand on the backs of their "lessers," allowing them to abuse their power without any seeming consequence. Of course, not all of the "insiders" are monsters, nor are all the "outsiders" saints, but it is an interesting look at how different a society can look depending on where one stands.

Though not as immediately gripping as Ancillary Justice, less audacious-seeming now that the bracing conceits have been fully expected and accepted by the reader, and not as clearly structured, by the end I came to quite enjoy Ancillary Sword. I look forward with great anticipation to the next book in 2015.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Science Book Prize

It is of course irresponsible of me to have a preference from this list when I only read one (and a half) books on it, but I hope Stuff Matters gets the prize!

As for the "half" book, I tried to read Seven Elements That Changed The World, and just couldn't do it. The author is the former head of BP (he who was around when the Gulf spill happened), which I was willing to overlook if it was an engaging read, but no. Self-congratulatory and dull was my verdict after two chapters. Others, obviously, disagree, which is very WRONG of them, but I suppose is there right.