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

Saturday, April 25, 2015

2015/05: Son of Destruction -- Kit Reed

Around here we drag our pasts around like Marley's ghost, because whatever you do, if even one person finds out, everybody knows it. You'd have to move to Alaska to escape it! In Fort Jude people forgive, God knows we all do it every single day, but nobody ever, ever forgets... [loc. 3173]
When journalist Dan Carteret discovered that the man he called 'dad' was actually his stepfather, he promised his mother Lucy that he wouldn't look for his real father 'as long as we both shall live'. Now Lucy is dead, and in her jewellery box Dan finds a snapshot of five guys in a Jeep, and a newspaper cutting about a case of spontaneous human combustion (SHC).

Turns out that Fort Jude, Florida -- the small town where Lucy grew up -- is the world capital of SHC. Under the pretext of investigating the phenomenon, Dan heads south and starts talking to whoever'll give him the time of day. He's quickly identified by the locals as Lucy Carteret's son, and the sleepy town stirs to frenetic life with gossip, confrontation and scandal as decades-old secrets are unearthed, turned over and reignited. Oh, there's fire here still, and not just in people's memories: the past inhabits the present, and the embers are still hot.

I found Dan one of the less memorable characters in the novel: he's almost a cipher, a chameleon, adopting new roles to nudge old truths out of those he encounters. And Reed is complicit in this, dropping sly authorial hints ("There are, however, things he can't possibly know ... too preoccupied to know that he isnt the only one looking for vestiges of Lucy here, or that the most important item pertaining to Lucy Carteret is not in this hall ...") so that the reader fancies themself ahead of Dan in his quest, yet is still constantly surprised by fragments that fall into place. There are many narrators, some in the first person, some in the third: teenaged Steffy and her faded mother, MIT graduate and professional loner Walker Pike, Bobby Chaplin who's constantly looking for someone to blame, Lorna Archambault who ... isn't at her best.

Reed's writing is precise and vivid, and she has an eye for cruel detail (the women rushing out when a house catches fire in the middle of the night: "lipstick, of course, but no makeup, we barely had time to comb our hair") and for the uncanny. The sense of humid, oppressive summer nights, something unseen in a derelict house, another accidental fire ... Son of Destruction is a claustrophobic novel, immensely evocative of a kind of Southern Gothic that is primarily urban, and concerned more with class than with race. (Or am I missing subtle cues about the characters? Definitely a possibility here.) It's about Dan's quest to find his father and see "How he will age. Whether he can be happy. What he will become." [loc. 880] It's about what happened to Lucy, and what happened to her grandmother, and how revenge rebounds.

Monday, April 20, 2015

2015/04: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet -- Becky Chambers

"Do you have any idea what this song is?"
Kizzy blinked. "'Socks Match My Hat'," she said. She went back up into the ceiling, tightening something with her gloved hands.
"Soskh Matsh Maeha. It's banned in the Harmagian Protectorate."
"We're not in the Harmagian Protectorate."
"Do you know what this song's about?"
"You know I don't speak Hanto."
"Banging the Harmagian royal family. In glorious detail."
"Ha! Oh, I like this song so much more now."
"It's credited with setting off the riots on Sosh'ka last year."
"Huh. Well, if this band hates the establishment that much, then I doubt they'll care about me making up my own lyrics. They can't oppress me with their 'correct lyrics'. Fuck the system."[loc 995]

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet is immense fun. It reminded me, while I was reading, of Delany's early space opera (for instance Nova) and of the Guardians of the Galaxy movie. Space is (a) big (b) full of strange new worlds (c) rather grubby.

Rosemary Harper, a woman with a Dark Secret, signs on as a clerk on the Wayfarer, which is a wormhole builder: their latest mission is to travel to the homeworld of the bellicose Toremi and install a wormhole there. It's a standard year's journey out to where the wormhole will be constructed: plenty of time for interpersonal relations to evolve like whoa.

The Wayfarer has a small but diverse crew, including several humans, a clone, an AI, and assorted aliens. Chambers does characterisation very well, and brings out both the otherness and the similarities of both humans and aliens. (Sissix, lizard-lady, on humans: "I'm tired of their fleshy faces. I'm tired of their smooth fingertips ... of their inability to smell anything .. of how neurotic they are about being naked. I want to smack every single one of them around until they realise how needlessly complicated they make their families and their social lives and their -- their everything." [loc 2855]) There are some stunningly effective scenes in this novel: an interspecies seduction attempt, a human/AI relationship, the loneliness of an individual whose race is almost dead.

And I think that's what makes this a successful novel. To be honest, the plot of The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet faded quickly from my mind: not that there's anything wrong with it, and it highlights some interesting issues of comprehension and assumption, but it is an unexceptional SF plot. (Maybe the key's in the title: it's not about the small angry planet, it's about the journey.)

It's Chambers' characters who have stayed with me. Tolerance, compassion, affection, pragmatism, and humour: love, oh, definitely love, in several forms. Chambers presents an interesting future history of humanity and its diplomatic and personal relations with the alien species of the galaxy. But all that is background: what matters is the people, and they are all people.