No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, April 30, 2012

2012/12: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms -- N. K. Jemisin

There were once three gods. The one who matters killed one of the ones who didn’t and cast the other into a hellish prison. The walls of this prison were blood and bone; the barred windows were eyes; the punishments included sleep and pain and hunger and all the other incessant demands of mortal flesh. (p.24)
Yeine Darr's mother was murdered: now she's been summoned to Sky, the god-built city in the clouds which is the stronghold of her mother's people, the Arameri. Yeine, who's of mixed blood and dark-skinned, is treated like a barbarian by her cousins, and isn't entirely comfortable with her maternal heritage. The Arameri are the chosen people of Bright Itempas, the victor in the Gods' War two millennia ago; they are also the gaolers of Itempas' defeated foes, the Enefadah, who built the city and are forced to obey the Arameri.

Yeine's grandfather Dekarta is the current ruler of the Arameri, and may have been responsible for the death of his daughter Kinneth. ("Murdering those we love best is a long tradition in our family.") He wants Yeine as his heir, which does nothing to endear her to her cousins. The political intrigues, decadence and game-playing of the Arameri court would give Yeine plenty to deal with, even if she weren't also drawn into the schemes of the Enefadah.

There are four Enefadah ('those who remember Enefa', the goddess of life and death who betrayed and was killed by Bright Itempas). Nahadoth, the Nightlord, ruler of darkness and chaos and change; Sieh, the Trickster, an eternal child with all the cruelty and playfulness that implies; Kurue the goddess of wisdom; and Zhakkarn the goddess of war. Imprisoned in mortal form, they are as much weapons as slaves; and Yeine is the unknowing bearer of a secret that might free them.

There's a great deal going on in this novel. On one level it's a traditional story of an exile recovering her heritage. On another, it's a post-colonial narrative that discusses race, gender and class. It's an epic romance, an exploration of theology (Jemisin's gods are more reminiscent of the Greek pantheon than of Christianity: they are petty, vengeful, jealous and playful), and a murder mystery.

Yeine's first-person narrative (or possibly narratives) allows Jemisin to show us Arameri culture from the outside without long-winded expository passages. I'm not entirely sure I like Yeine: she's (understandably) somewhat humourless, and very much the tool or weapon of those greater than her. But I find her sympathetic and interesting, even if she's not the character who most intrigues me.

After all the hype about The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, I was prepared to be disappointed. Instead I was enthralled, and promptly (ah, Kindle, so easy to succumb to temptation) bought the other two novels in the series. Of which more later.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

2012/11: Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum -- Mark Stevens

[Richard Dadd] remained convinced that he was on a mission to battle the devil, who could take many forms, including that of Dadd senior, and that the artist formerly known as Richard Dadd was in fact descended from Osiris. (location 509)

Broadmoor Revealed: Victorian Crime and the Lunatic Asylum is a short e-book, available free from Amazon and Smashwords, compiled by the senior archivist at the Berkshire Record Office. Mark Stevens has picked out some of the most intriguing case histories from the vast archive of medical records and case notes.

There are chapters on infamous inmates such as 'Fairy Feller' artist Richard Dadd; William Chester Minor (a.k.a. 'the Surgeon of Crowthorne', and a prolific contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary); and Edward Oxford, who attempted the assassination of Queen Victoria. Stevens also describes the histories of some of the female inmates; and there's a chapter devoted to escape attempts, successful and otherwise.

There are some fascinating details amid the accounts of daily life in the asylum; croquet matches on the lawn, employment for the working-class inmates, and Richard Dadd's distrust of chess pieces 'due to the antiquity of the game'. (Sometimes Dadd's behaviour reminds me of a character in a Tim Powers novel.)

The most interesting aspect of the book, for me, was its insight into Victorian attitudes to insanity. "[Moral insanity] was a disease free of delusions, but where the mind was unable to think and behave properly as it should. Although it did not fit the modern term of psychopath, itself a rather overworked word, it is perhaps the nearest to it that the Victorians acknowledged." (location 221). The Victorians didn't regard the mentally ill as exhibits or, necessarily, threats; Broadmoor was not a prison but a refuge.

That said, approximately a third of the inmates at any one time were 'time', meaning that they were serving a sentence for a crime. Their reward for good behaviour was a return to the prison system. The 'pleasure' inmates, who had been declared insane and were detained 'at Her Majesty's pleasure', could look forward to an enlightened and humane regime of adequate meals, a roof over their heads and some meaningful occupation -- unless their condition improved sufficiently for them to be released. Given those parameters, and the lack of effective medical treatments for 'moral insanity' and 'lesions of the will', it's amazing that anyone was ever discharged.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

2012/10: The Chrysalids -- John Wyndham

They weren't God's last word, like they thought: God doesn't have any last word. If He did He'd be dead. But He isn't dead; and He changes and grows, just like everything else that's alive. So when they were doing their best to get everything fixed and tidy on some kind of eternal lines they'd thought up for themselves, He sent along Tribulation to bust it up and remind 'em that life is change. (p. 496, The John Wyndham Omnibus.)

It's many years -- a thousand? more? less? -- after the Tribulation, God's punishment for humanity's hubris. David is a young boy growing up in the rural community of Waknuk. To the south and southwest are the Badlands, where nothing can live; between Waknuk and the Badlands lie the Fringes, where Blasphemies -- those who are not quite human, as evinced by irregular numbers of fingers and toes, or other, less obvious wrongnesses -- are exiled.

David first begins to question the status quo when his childhood friend Sophie is captured and exiled. (It was only a little toe.) Then his Uncle Axel warns him never, ever to mention to anyone that he can speak to some of his friends, no matter how far away they are. But David's little sister Petra is a stronger mind-speaker than any of the others, and it's going to be hard to conceal her gifts ...

Published in 1955 -- ten years after Hiroshima -- this must have been one of the earliest SF novels to explore the world after a nuclear holocaust. It felt dated to me, because so many of the ideas Wyndham includes (mutations of the mind, feral tribes of exiles, technological regression) have become staples of the genre.

The Chrysalids is a powerful novel about evolution and mutation, about purity versus diversity. There are undertones of racism and sexism -- probably more uncomfortable to a modern reader than to the original audience. The moral issues raised (including the draconian measures of the Sealanders) are still unsettling, and Wyndham's hope that greater understanding and communication would bring about peace on earth seems quaint and optimistic.

Incidentally, one passage in this novel sprang out at me. "The way wound somewhat with the lie of the land, but its general direction was right. We followed it for fully ten miles ..." (p.485 of Wyndham Omnibus). I remember that passage from a single June morning in 1983: it was the 'continue this story' part of my English Language 'O' level paper. I'm pretty sure I haven't encountered it between then and now, but ... it leapt off the page, all familiar and known. Memory is a strange thing!

Friday, April 13, 2012

2012/09: FlashForward -- Robert J. Sawyer

For almost three whole minutes there wasn't a single conscious mind on Earth — no one, anywhere, to actually observe the creation of the Higgs boson. Not only that, there was no one available to observe anything. That's why all the videotapes seem to be blank. They look blank — like they've got nothing but electronic snow on them. But suppose that's not snow — suppose instead that the cameras accurately recorded what they saw: an unresolved world. (p. 249)

FlashForward, published in 1999 and set in 2009, was the basis for a single-season TV series, which I haven't seen. As far as I can tell, though (research! I checked the episode guide on Wikipedia), the novel is considerably more concerned with the 'bigger picture' -- philosophy, quantum physics and the Higgs Boson.

The premise is simple: a LHC (Large Hadron Collider) experiment, designed to trap the elusive Higgs boson, "caused the human consciousness to jump ahead twenty-one years for a period of two minutes". That is, every human being (and, as far as anyone can tell, many apes) blacks out and gets a two-minute preview of their future life.

It's not neatly labelled: triangulating the precise two minutes that's been previewed is a complex task, requiring the collation of millions of accounts. And it's not strictly true to say that everyone's consciousness jumps ahead: some people simply black out. Some of the visions are profoundly unsettling: a man sees himself and his wife, but the wife isn't his current fiancee; an aspiring literary author sees himself serving drinks in an overpriced tourist cafe; a physicist is driven to investigate his own murder, which seems to have taken place in the ring -- but he doesn't box...

The philosophy of the novel (which draws on notions from Lloyd Tipler's fabulous The Physics of Immortality, as well as Heisenberg's ideas about observability and the classic paradoxes of free will) is fascinating: but what really struck me was the datedness of Sawyer's future. Hindsight is a wonderful thing! In 1999's near future, we have broadcasts being watched via VHS; someone being summoned to take a phone call; a strangely retro internet, and the persistence of the floppy disk.

Easy to mock: but this 2009 also has two space shuttles in orbit (one American, one Japanese); spectacles being a quaint affectation due to the success of laser keratomy; most books being sold print-on-demand. And the glimpses of 2030 show a world where the Queen's dead, the British monarchy dissolved, and an African-American man is President of the United States. (Sadly, there's been no second coming or mission to Mars.)

There's something about the futurology in this novel that reminds me of Golden Age SF: the author stepping outside the narrative for a moment to give explanation and context; fragments of news and culture to sketch out a changed world; that juxtaposition of the marvellous and the mundane. The second LHC experiment does produce the Higgs boson -- but to the disgust of the general public, who were hoping for another glimpse of their future lives. "You cheated the entire planet!"

This is yet another novel where the ending could be interpreted in one of two ways. Oooh, perhaps it depends on the observer ...

Fun, pacy and thought-provoking, even if some aspects of the futurology are more entertaining with hindsight than Sawyer intended. (And he did get the Pope's name right!)