Books I Read In July 2012
Obsidian & Blood – Aliette de Bodard
Omnibus edition of three fantasy novels set in Tenochtitlan, capital of the Mexica Empire, or the Aztecs as they’re often called1. The narrator is Acatl, the somewhat reluctant high priest of Mictlan, God of the Dead, who is charged with maintaining the boundaries between the physical world of mortals and the worlds of the Gods. He’s somewhat of a reluctant hero, someone who’s been unwillingly raised to an important position and forced to face up to his very serious responsibilities. The main draw for these novels is the setting; the Aztecs don’t often get much of a look in and when they do they’re often portrayed as blood-crazed nutters who were mysteriously doomed at some point in the past. This doesn’t really seem fair to me, obviously the whole human sacrifice thing is appalling but I don’t see why it should condemn the entire civilisation. After all, the Romans killed people purely for entertainment but they’ve managed to avoid being stereotyped as sadists and monsters. Tenochitlan is vividly portrayed, in particular I liked all the little details on the kind of food people eat, what their houses looked like, etc.; it makes the Mexica Empire look like the advanced civilisation it was. The other main focus is on magic and religion, the way the Gods interact with human beings, and the plots of all three books revolve around sorcery and divine intervention. In this world the Gods rely on humans as much as the other way around, and dealing with them is almost like a business transaction; priests more or less bargain with their Gods, maybe not as equals but it’s clear that both parties have rights, obligations and desires. I don’t really know much about the subject so I don’t know how much this mirrors what the Aztecs really believed, but obviously a lot of thought has gone into it and it shows. The actual plots themselves are serviceable, but nothing especially noteworthy; Acatl is maybe to reactive for my tastes, he spends a lot of time running around after various disasters trying to work out what’s going on without much luck until the end of the story. Some of the other characters are kind of thin, it seems like everyone in authority aside from Acatl is really very blasé about the survival of the world. They basically keep going ‘It’ll probably work out fine, you worry too much’ regardless of the fact that they’ve personally seen Gods trying to force their way into the world of mortals, star-demons falling from the sky, magical plagues, and so on. I did like the way that there are no obvious solutions or easy answers, the characters have to make serious decisions under pressure and have to face the consequences of their actions down the road. Anyway, some pretty good stories that stand out from the crowd thanks to their unusual, well-developed setting.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – David Foster Wallace
Following on from having read The Pale King last month, a collection of essays from various publications. There’s not actually very many pieces, about half a dozen without checking, but several of them are pretty long. Probably the most well-known is ‘E Unibus Plurum’, which is basically about the effect of television on popular culture and the resulting tendency towards everything being ‘ironic’. It’s good, although at this remove it’s a little difficult to judge just how accurate his critique was – it seems basically right except maybe exaggerated? I don’t think things were quite so bad as he makes out, but then I wasn’t exactly hip deep in US pop culture in 1993. In any case, the core of his argument is sound and I can’t say I disagree with the idea that constantly pretending not to care about anything doesn’t do anyone any good. The essay that gives the book it’s title is probably my favourite, detailing a week-long cruise aboard a luxury liner. The enforced jollity, unavoidable excess and the general sense of being hectored into enjoying yourself make the whole affair sound absolutely horrible, especially since being pressured to act happy amidst crowds of strangers is something I can’t stand2. The only real let-down here is a long piece on David Lynch, from when he was filming Lost Highway. It comes across as being something of a puff-piece, basically saying that Lynch is the greatest director in Hollywood, an unequalled genius, the inspiration for seemingly every important trend in cinema, etc. And I mean, I’m a huge fan of David Lynch, and he is a genius, but still. It all seems a bit excessive. Also he’s wrong about Dune3. That aside, this is definitely worth reading if you’re a fan of Wallace, although in parts it does feel almost too personal when you know what happened afterwards. Obviously it’s impossible for us to really know what was going through his mind, but when you know that he went on to commit suicide it’s difficult not to look at his disaffection with society and his loneliness without feeling awful. On a lighter note, it’s kind of interesting to read the more personal essays and see things that later popped up in Infinite Jest, names, places, concepts and so on.
Luthor Huss – Chris Wraight
Taking a brief detour from my journey through the Horus Heresy series to check out some of Black Library’s Warhammer fiction. The titular Luthor Huss is an extraordinarily charismatic warrior-priest, who wanders the blighted outlands of the Empire, battling the unending hordes of beasts, mutants and undead with his incredible strength and inspiring the downtrodden with his preaching. At the same time Huss is mounting his personal crusade, a Witchhunter is tracking down mysterious cult activity in the region, until eventually both plot strands entwine for the climax. This is an excellent example of what makes the Warhammer world stand out – it’s bleak, bloody and cynical, but still has real heroes, men and women who grit their teeth and face the monstrous forces ranged against them. The characters are all well-drawn and their motivations are dwelt on rather more than you would expect in this sort of story, in particular the title character who’s past is revealed in periodic flashbacks. Something else that makes the story unmistakeably ‘Warhammer’ is the emphasis on the natural world as being an intensely hostile, inhuman place – nature isn’t just inhospitable or dangerous, it actively hates humanity and constantly tries to destroy it. There’s no soaring ancient forests and lush groves here, but rather twisted, benighted forests thick with twisted, hateful beasts. As befits a Warhammer novel, the action scenes are suitably frequent, fast-paced, and brutal, with hordes of undead and beastmen pitted against desperate soldiers, deranged flagellants and of course a living-saint with a huge hammer. Definitely one of the best recent Warhammer stories.
White Noise – Don DeLillo
Post-modern satirical classic, I thought it was one of DeLillo’s earlier works except I just looked it up and apparently it’s his eighth novel. Don’t think I’ve heard of the earlier books though so I guess this was probably his earliest ‘successful’ novel. The plot follows Jack Gladney, professor of ‘Hitler Studies’ at a university in the Midwest US, who spends a great deal of time brooding vaguely over death with his wife. After possibly being affected by mysterious poisons during a huge chemical spill he becomes increasingly obsessed with his mortality; meanwhile he starts to suspect that his wife is taking some kind of medication, the side-effects of which cause her to forget that she’s taking it. Everyone is constantly talking about theories and concepts at several removes from the actual reality they’re supposedly living in, and as the title suggests television crops up rather a lot. It reminded me of the David Foster Wallace essay I mentioned earlier, in the way it presents image versus reality and the way modern culture leads to people becoming disconnected and isolated. The chemical spill that threatens the town is subject to constantly changing reports from the authorities and people’s symptoms seem to change depending on what they’ve heard. An organisation founded to carry out simulated disasters for research purposes uses the real disaster as an opportunity to practice pretending . . . It sounds like it could be pretty prententious, but it’s actually rather funny, mostly in a dry, understated way – everything is clearly ridiculous but is told completely deadpan. There were also a couple of moments when I unexpectedly found myself laughing out loud. I suppose it may be kind of dated these days, especially with the emphasis on television, but that’s par for the course I suppose. Anyway, recommended even if it isn’t his best work. Probably a good one to start with if you haven’t read any of his work yet.
Old Goriot – Honore de Balzac
Classic novel of early 19th century France, part of Balzac’s tremedously ambitious La Comedie humain sequence which attempted to capture more or less the entirety of French society in a series of novels and short stories. This one follows Rastignac, a young law student, newly arrived in Paris, who wishes to somehow rise from his relatively humble station into the upper classes. He befriends Goriot, an old man who lives in the same boarding house, who used to be wealthy but bankrupted himself out of insane dedication to his ungrateful daughters. With the aid of Goriot, and some distant relatives, Rastignac begins to enter into high society and is exposed to it’s luxury and the cynicism. He also becomes entangled with another fellow resident, the mysterious and amoral Vautrin who tries to involve him in a highly dubious scheme. The book is mainly a detailed historical novel, depicting a highly cynical if not actually corrupt world, where most people dwell in squalor whilst the upper classes live in luxury, and everyone is mainly interested in gaining money and status. The down at heel boarding house is perfectly described and the fact that it’s basically cheap and shabby rather than a horrific slum makes it seem if anything worse. Likewise, the portrait of society as cynical, hypocritical, and money-grubbing; it’s somehow worse to see things portrayed as ‘merely’ bad, because if they were shown as utterly awful you could discredit them as exaggerations. Having said that, there is a slightly weird exception in the character of Vautrin, who seems to have wandered into the novel from the pages of a penny dreadful, scheming constantly and giving exultant monologues on the foolish morality of the masses and so on. That aside it’s an excellent story, the writing is a little stiff in places which could be the translation. Also, it seems that student humour hasn’t changed much in two centuries.
The Name Is Archer – Ross Macdonald
Collection of short stories featuring private eye Lew Archer, some of whose later novels I read a few while back. I’m not sure exactly where these stories fit chronologically, some of them are obviously the first written featuring the character but they seem to have been originally published over a fairly wide timeframe so I’m not sure exactly. The reason I mention this is that these stories feel slightly different to the novels, the central character doesn’t feel quite so well developed which makes me suspect these are earlier works from before Macdonald got him properly worked out. They aren’t enormously different and the focus on the motivations that lead more-or-less ordinary, downtrodden people to do wildly foolish things is still definitely here, but Archer seems closer to a regular noir PI than he does in the later works. Of course that might be because there’s less room for character development in a short story. One thing that did stand out was that in over half the stories here Archer gets involved through a chance meeting or coincidence rather than through being hired by a client, which seemed a bit odd.
Exponential Apocalypse: Dead Presidents – Eirik Gumeny
The sequel to the entertainingly bonkers Exponential Apocalypse, which I read last month4. This is basically more of the same, which is no bad thing; former Norse thunder-god Thor is back working in a New Jersey Holiday Inn, hoping for Ragnarok and messing around with his friends. There’s been another two apocalypses since then, although of course the remaining population stopped paying attention to those ages ago. This time round the plot is even less substantial, more or less consisting of two strands – in the first, Queen Victoria pursues Andrew Jackson in order to exact vengeance upon him for having killed her boyfriend, Chester A Arthur, whilst in the second, Thor, Catrina and the guy who works at Dunkin’ Donuts transport Chester’s corpse to a supervillain’s lair in the hope of getting him cybernetically resurrected. Obviously, it’s all just an excuse for a series of wildly ridiculous things to keep happening, including; a psychic superhero squirrel who’s lost his telekinesis, an army of dinosaurs, Nikola Tesla, transportation via cocaine-fuelled flamingos, an Amish butter monster . . . I got this book after backing the Jersey Devil Press Kickstarter5, the success of which means this deranged confection will shortly have a physical print release. It should be printed in gold leaf on vellum, bound with finest leather and seeded in all major libraries in order to bewilder later generations.
Mr Norris Changes Trains – Christopher Isherwood
Brief novel set in the depressed, brutalised Berlin of the early 1930s. The narrator is a young man living in the city as an English tutor, who meets and becomes friends with the titular Mr Norris, a sort of dissipated, vaguely aristocratic Englishman who has many odd habits and very mysterious business dealings. He’s an interesting character, hugely self-centred and constantly feeling sorry for himself whilst never being entirely unsympathetic, simultaneously manipulative and naïve. Presumably the point is to contrast Norris’ selfish, petty scheming with the monolithic evil gathering strength in the background, and it does more or less work; Norris is something of a cad but he never seems malicious, more like a naughty child who doesn’t appreciate the consequences of his actions. It’s a pretty good book, but really it’s kind of slight; there’s not much to it, it’s more of a character study than anything else.
1 I think the difference is that Aztec is an ethnic group, rather than a nationality.
2 Which is why I very rarely enjoy New Years Eve.
3 I can’t tell anymore whether I defend the Dune film because I actually like it or out of sheer bloody-mindedness. Probably both.
4 Which is currently free on Kindle, if you’re interested.
5 They also sent me a postcard.