theferrett: (Meazel)

American Elsewhere, by Robert J. BennettIt’s hard to be impressed by the unknowable when you live right next door to the fuckers.

Which is to say that there’s a reason most of Lovecraft’s protagonists went insane at the end of the story.  If they’d continued to explain the Elder Gods in a refined, white-dude tone of voice for another fifty pages, it doesn’t matter how horrific Yog-Sothoth was, we’d get used to him.  Humanity’s survival skill is adaptation.  No matter whether we’re living in a ditch with flies laying eggs in our eyes or so rich that it’s cause for a bitch-slap if someone brings you a drink without ice, we come to think of what we know as normal.

So most books that open up a portal to brain-blowing other-dimension worlds and stay there long enough for us to get a good look?  Suck, and suck hard.  The Elder Gods are built on shock value, the idea that we literally cannot adapt to them… but the truth is, we probably could.  Stare hard enough into the void, and you’ll learn to ignore enough of it to get by.  And the more time we spend with Cthulhu, the more he seems kind of rubbery and sad.

American Elsewhere, however, takes a different approach.

Because there is a town in New Mexico, one that is on no map, one next to a mysteriously abandoned physics lab on a mesa.  This town, despite being miles from nowhere, is a 1950s-style wet dream of a town with a perfect pie-making diner and freshly-mowed lawns and kids playing baseball under the American flag.  Except when Mona, a hard-bitten cop with a suicidal mother haunting her past, discovers that she owns a piece of property here, she seeks it out – and finds exactly what is wrong underneath the surface….

Part of what keeps American Elsewhere bubbling along is that Robert J. Bennett knows just what detail is going to throw you.  He’s very good at setting up a realistic world, one that feels exactly like this one, made of studded 2x4s set deep into concrete foundations.  And then, in the middle of that painstaking realism, he places that one odd detail that uncorks potential worlds of weirdness seething underneath, a flurry of implications that keeps your brain frothing nicely.

(And, more importantly, he plays fair with the details.  They all make sense later on, in context.  It’s a lot like if LOST had actually thought that cause and effect was a priority instead of an annoyance.)

I don’t think it’ll be a surprise to any horror fan that the town of Wink, New Mexico is living right next to the unthinkable.  But the trick here is that Robert is smart enough to understand that if these wild other dimensions exist, we would be just as alien to them as they are to us.  As such, the book contains an astonishing amount of weirdness, but that weirdness expresses itself as a struggle for cross-pollination – of two wildly differing spaces trying to fathom each other, and the insanity that evolves from that imperfect adaptation.

Yet for all of this chaos, American Elsewhere remains firmly character-driven.  It’s not about the weirdness – it’s always resolutely set on exploring the people facing this weirdness, and the actions they take to defend what they think is right.  As such, what you wind up with is a lot like Half-Life might have looked if the protagonist wasn’t a mute man who could only interact with the world through violence; there’s a lot of exploring the past in an attempt to view the prism of the future, with many mixed results.

The end result is a very satisfying lap-buster of a tome, with that happy tension of a Stephen King or a Ray Bradbury echoing throughout it – that nostalgic pull we all feel for a stable town and home clashing inevitably with change – that feels remixed and refreshed.  It’s one of those books that should be a hot mess, but instead assembles itself into something more than the sum of its parts to become a statement on what America is, and might be.

As such, what you get is not a reflection of the unknown, but a distorted lens reflecting upon us.  And that is worth the price of admission, my friends.  Recommended.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

Whenever someone bitches about how stupid the creators are for producing a terrible movie, I think of Star Wars.  Not Star Wars, the global sensation that’s been around for thirty years – but Star Wars, the over-budget mess in mid-production, staffed by no-name actors, directed by the guy who’d had only one decent movie in the can.

If you read the interviews with the actors, they all went out after filming every day and got hammered.  And why not?  By day, you’re reading terrible, stilted dialog while the director screams at you: “Faster!  And more intense!”  You don’t see the special effects; you’re on a wooden screen, knowing the studio wants to shut this production down.  You don’t hear the John Williams music doing half the emotional work for you.  All you know is that this crazy maniac is telling you that all your attempts to emote lines like “How could I be so stupid? He’s nowhere in sight. Blast it!” aren’t sufficient while idiots in white plated armor are firing imaginary guns at you.

Why wouldn’t you drink?

Why wouldn’t you think this movie was the end of your career?

And even then, you’re wrong.  I know you’re thinking, “Well, it was all a success after that,” but… The movie that George Lucas directed did bomb.  The unsung hero of Star Wars is the film editor, who realized the initial cut was about twenty minutes too long, and went back and sped up the film to helter-skelter speeds – because the minute you had a second to pause and think about things, the whole thing fell apart.  The initial few cuts were legendary failures, and everyone in Hollywood was kissing George Lucas’ career goodbye.

The reason I say this is because I work in a couple of creative fields – I write stories, and I handle Magic: the Gathering cards as my day job.  And whenever something isn’t particularly, there’s this entitled, sneering reaction from the fans.  They leave comments over and over again with the same basic premise: “God, you’re so fucking stupid.  Fixing it’s so easy.  Why didn’t you just do X?”

Because it’s not that simple when you’re in the middle of the damn thing, that’s why.

Look, if we could all write glorious stories of magnificent heartbreak every time, we would.  But the creative process is really very complicated.  You’re complaining with the fresh sight of retrospect.  Scott Kurtz, author of webcomic PVP, once said that you couldn’t really critique a webcomic until you’d done one.  At the time, I disagreed strongly.  Once I had a year of producing a webcomic under my belt, well, I wasn’t so certain.

It’s not that you can’t critique – hell, you absolutely should.  I spent this week slamming Prometheus for failing absolutely on all but an allegorical level.  But when you critique, you shouldn’t take the attitude that the creative process is simple… And particularly not if you’ve never made anything and thrown your darling out to a crowd of angry, ungrateful people to be savaged.

When the project is done, it’s easy to look back and see what could have done better.  But in the middle of things, when you’re looking at a half-blank slate and the world is full of ten thousand choices, it’s hard to fathom that this one choice is the critical one.  Or perhaps – and this is the thing that the people who think “it’s simple” never get – that you made a hundred very good choices, more than most people ever do, enough to catapult your film/book/card game/music past the realms of “stuff that no one pays attention to” and into the realm of “good enough to for many people to like” – and in the process of making those hundred choices absolutely correctly, the one that stopped it from being pure genius got by you.

And maybe – just maybe – it’s possible that as a creator, you make a film/book/card game/music that absolutely satisfies you, but doesn’t hit anyone else’s good points.  That happens.  A lot.  And if you’re sitting there squalling because the creator should have “known better,” then maybe you should try creating stuff that’s perfect for you, and see the horrifying variance in reactions when your “perfect” product hits the shelves.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t criticize.  If Promethus sucks, well, it failed.  If something I write doesn’t win every award, well, it’s worthwhile to point out why my stories didn’t pan out.  But what you should not do is to treat the whole thing as a big ball of rage, as if we purposely set out to annoy you when making it.

We didn’t.  We wanted to make beauty.  Something got in the way, and we’re sorry… But if this was as easy as you think, then everyone would do it.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

The good news is, I’ve talked to Republicans, and it turns out none of them are racist.

Now, you might think many are racist, given the harsh reaction they’ve had to Obama, a black president – getting vitriolically angry at him for doing many things that they had little vocal complaint about when Bush was doing the exact same things.

But when I talk to conservatives, what it turns out is that every single complaint they have against Obama is entirely justified by Obama’s damaging policies.  They can talk for hours about how what they’re against is Obama’s actions – which, given that they’re Republicans, it seems pretty reasonable that they’d oppose a Democratic President.  And since their complaints are based entirely on the laws that Obama’s trying to pass, as are the complaints of all their friends, they assure me confidently there’s no racial component.

Certainly they’re rationalist Republicans.  After all, they’re debating me in my rather liberal journal – clearly not a comfort zone for them – and they have many long, thoughtful screeds on why Obama’s proposed laws and policies would do harm.

Therefore, all Republicans are like them.

Oh, sure, there may be a couple of racist mails passed back and forth, and a few embarrassing signs, but those aren’t representative of the true conservative party.  Most of the conservatives oppose Obama based on nothing more than sheer disdain for his policies – a sane, rationalist approach.

Which is good news.  Because what I was thinking in my foolishness was that yes, the conservatives almost certainly had some valid complaints against Obama.  But could it not also be that for many – and not necessarily those who comment here, but not necessarily not – their legitimate complaints are aggravated because of hidden racial sentiment in a way where they wouldn’t freak the fuck out if it was an old white guy in charge like Bush?  That it’s easier for them to complain about a black guy?

I thought it likely, given the consistent pattern of alienation and repetition – Obama is not a real American, he’s a Muslim, he hates the flag – that for many, these legitimate complaints are inflamed by an undercurrent that many of them aren’t even willing to look at, turning everyday gripes about the current leader into OMG HE’S RUINING AMERICA.  That there’s some ugly stuff there that might be deserved to look at, even though much of what they say is true.

But as it turns out, there’s one of two sides: either they’re all redneck racists and as such none of their complaints is worth a damn thing, or they’re all very rational people who’ve been inflamed by a particularly confrontational President.  You have to choose one.

It can’t be so complex as to that they can have both legitimate complaints and racism.


Now.  For “Obama,” read “Twilight.”  For “racism,” read “misogyny.”

Some people sailed magnificently past my comments that Twilight had some really difficult issues involved to settle, rather dimly, on the interpretation that “Ferrett thinks Twilight deserves a pass on its female issues.”  Which is distinctly not true.

Yes, I’m sure you have some good reasons to hate Twilight.  It’s eminently hateable.  It’s got some really fucked-up issues with regards to female empowerment (or lack thereof) and the prose is amazingly bad, and Edward’s stalkery creepdom.  Yes, all those are manifestly clear.  Yes, I’m sure you and all of your friends have thought it through very thoroughly, and that each of you have considered it carefully.

Yet forgive me for remaining unconvinced that the reason that everyone so easily dumps on Twilight is because of its terrible prose, and that there’s not a scrap of “teenaged girls have terrible taste and should be scorned” in there somewhere.  Because as I said, it’s not just Twilight, but Justin Bieber and Titanic and Sex in the City and a long score of feminine media, where if you tell people you really enjoy such silly things, you have to justify these silly pleasures on some level.

Because they’re girl things.

What I’m suggesting is that maybe, in addition to Twilight being deeply flawed so that you intelligent people can pick on it, there’s something inherent in our culture that allows us to see teenaged girl things as disposable.  (As witness this comment here about how the shrieking girl fans of the Beatles are presented as not really appeciating them.)  Which does not mean that Twilight is immune to valid criticism, it just means it’s more okay to kick girlish things like Twilight around because we subliminally accept it.

It’s been suggested that my liking of Batman is only acceptable in nerd cultures, and I’m just hanging around my nerdy unwashed friends too much, since any reasonably grown man would never admit to liking anything comic-booky in public.  Yes.  That could be.  It could also be clear that my reclusive nerdy culture doesn’t get out much, and the fact that five out of the the last ten years of box office annual #1s include a Spider-Man movie, another Spider-Man movie, a Batman movie, a Lord of the Rings movie, and a Star Wars movie certainly doesn’t mean that my boyhood favorites haven’t achieved, you know, global domination or anything.  Or that male power fantasy videogames like Halo and Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto haven’t outperformed even those stalwarts at the box office.

Clearly, the fact that these nerd fantasies are all massive money-makers means that every one of the millions of people who saw Dark Knight Returns never discussed it in public, clutching their purchases shamefully to their chest and never mentioning it among genteel society.  It’s certainly not a sign that my silly boyhood weirdo fantasies have actually infiltrated the mainstream culture to a large extent.

(As opposed to, say, Japan, where I hear tell the videogame development industry is suffering because men who play videogames past the teenaged years are considered childishly foolish and soon walk away.  Then again, I haven’t been there, so I can’t say.)

My point is that yeah, there are valid complaints to be had with these sorts of teenaged girl’s affections – mostly, the worrying message that a man bringing dizzying love is the only thing you need to complete you, a message hammered home again by Bieber and Twilight and Titanic and tons of rom-coms.  That’s a very legitimate complaint.

Still. A lot of women legitimately and unironically love these things.  So what then?  Do we train society that if women aren’t toeing the line of “Liking empowering things,” that it’s okay for society to make fun of them, dismissing the things they carry close to their chest?  A dismissal that further encourages teenaged boys to consider their teenaged girls as alien creatures, both mysterious and trivial?

(I wish I could find an essay someone linked to on Twitter the other day, but there was a creative writing teacher saying that when they asked students to write about what it would be like to be the opposite sex, the girls wrote long, involved essays that showed they’d clearly given it a lot of thought.  Whereas half the boys flat-out refused to do the assignment, considering it beneath them, and the remaining half made it clear that trying to think what they’d be like as a girl would be a waste of time.)

So.  Do we honestly think that everyone who’s bagging on Twilight is doing it with the same thoughtfulness that you’ve put into it…  or is it possible that the moral equivalent of Redneck Randal is riding your coattails, complaining for entirely different reasons?

I don’t have an easy answer.  But I think it’s more complex than “Everyone knows Twilight is bad because it’s disempowering.”  I think there’s something entwined in there that bears greater consideration.  (As is the concept that “changing the world,” as Katniss and Buffy do, is invariably a noble thing, and something as simple as trying to find the love of your life is not really a worthy story to tell.  I like world-changers  I just don’t think they should be everything.)

Which is why, in the end, I will – and have! – complain about Twilight.  I just won’t make Twilight the automatic punchline when it comes to choosing “the worst book in the world.”  Because some of those people laughing might not be doing it for reasons that I support.  There’s a difference between that and “refusing to criticize,” and if you can’t see that distinction, well, maybe you should write me off with Twilight.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

There’s a little misogyny in the hatred of Twilight and Justin Bieber and all the other things that teenaged girls love, and I wanted to unpack that.

Because one of the things I said yesterday that Twilight was a teenaged girl’s power fantasy, which it clearly is – the drab girl goes to a new school, finds that every boy there wants her, but she can ignore all that because the most special boy in the world who’s waited his whole life for someone like her comes along to change himself in every way for her.

This may seem dumb.  But consider the teenaged boy’s power fantasy, wherein your parents are shot dead, leaving you free with your wealth to buy all the cool gadgets and go beat up clowns in alleyways, and you’ll see that almost all power fantasies are, at heart, silly.

Now, admittedly, the phrase “teenaged girl’s power fantasy” is going to get some hackles up because, yes, not all teenage girls are the same and there are many who would rather go running with Katniss than Bella.  Fair cop.  But there are millions of girls reading and re-reading Twilight because for them, it’s the dream of what they want to be.

And it is scorned.

Twilight is the butt of everyone’s jokes, the automatic punchline.  Even people who’ve never read Twilight hate Twilight.  And there are very legitimate reasons to dislike Twilight, but I think a large part of the reason Twilight slips so easily into that “Need a flavor of the month to kick?  Why not Twilight?” is because girls like it.

Because stereotypical teenaged girls also like Justin Bieber… And as I’ve noted before, he too is the automatic kicking boy of jokes.  It’s not like the metal and rap bands that boys like, with their over-the-top posturing and hyper-masculine shouts, aren’t equally as stupid, but somehow Insane Clown Posse (or even more popular bands) never quite reaches the level of “auto-joke” that Justin Bieber does.

Stereotypical teenaged girls also like romantic comedies.  And rom-coms, another female power fantasy, are widely agreed to be awful, acquiring both critical denigration and a “Eeyew, who’d watch that?”  But action films, the teenaged boy’s powerful fantasy, may not get the critic’s thumbs-up, but mostly society thinks that well-done action films are kinda cool.

Compare, say, The Transporter to 27 Dresses.  Which one’s the more joke-worthy?  Even though they’re both by-the-numbers, competently-done versions of their genre?

And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the more embarrassing versions of power fantasies are invariably the girly ones.  The quiet message here is that what you want now is not just foolish, but actively embarrassing, something to be shucked aside.  You women with your silly dreams, go discard them the moment you grow up, because what you want now is to be gotten rid of.

There’s some very deeply-rooted misogyny in there, I think.  It’s like we’re almost afraid of young females agreeing on something, as though it scares the shit out of us as a society.  And if it was just one instance, I might write it off… But the fact is that every time I see something that teenaged girls think is cool, everyone immediately jumps on the bandwagon and agrees it is only not awful, but cringeworthy.  Which sends a bulletin to teenaged girls that whatever you like, you should change that shit right away.  Because you’re kind of silly and stupid, and maybe you should alter yourself to like better things.

Meanwhile, comic books and videogames, the secret male nerd pasttimes of my childhood, have gone mainstream to the point where pretty much everyone agrees Batman’s a badass and hey, can’t we play some Madden or Assassin’s Creed?  Aw, man, wasn’t Pokemon great?

(Which is why I think YA is causing some discomfort in the nerd communities, because mostly girls read YA, but reading is cool… isn’t it!  Should we take it seriously now that girls own it?)

Which is why I don’t make them the butt of my jokes.  Yes, Twilight’s problematic.  So’s DC’s nearly female-free comics reboot, along with the inflated breasts and suddenly submissive, dully-sexual women.  And it’s perfectly okay to analyze why they’re difficult from a sexual perspective, and to discuss the bad lessons they may be causing people to internalize.

But as far as making “Edward and Bella” the butt of my auto-humor when I’m searching for “the worst book in the world”?  I’ll pass.  Because hey, those teenaged girls may be silly, but they’re no sillier than I was when I was rooting for Batman to be the most bad-ass, smartest guy in the world.  Hopefully, like me, they’ll take the best parts and leave the silly behind.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

For research into my new book, I had to read Twilight.  People had told me that Twilight was an abomination unto the Lord, a scabrous pile of poop that a talentless hack had shat out to plague the world.

I didn’t believe it.

I always believe there’s some appeal to a bestselling book, even if that appeal does not necessarily lie in “prose.”  Take the Da Vinci Code, for example.  Are the characters wooden?  Yes.  But the thing people don’t get about Dan Brown is that his characters are not the central characters.  He spends far more time describing the parquet floors of the Louvre than he does on his protagonist’s motivations.  Once you realize that Dan Brown’s priorities are inverted and his locations are actually his lead characters while his lead characters are background, the novel moves quite swiftly.

And Twilight, well, I didn’t want to read it because Bella’s character sounded like she’d annoy me… But I assumed it had some appeal.  Why would millions of teenage girls read it otherwise?

And lo, Twilight did one thing better than I’d ever seen it done, something so perfect that before I read Twilight, I didn’t realize nobody had ever captured the moment before:

Stupid, silly New Relationship Energy.

The triumph of Twilight is that there is a hundred-and-thirty-page stretch where all Bella and Edward do is talk.  Oh, they talk in different locations – they’re talking in the school!  In the car!  In the woods!  In her bedroom!

And they’re talking only about how much they love each other!

Thing is, Stephenie has that silly first-blush of love completely down, where you’re so amazed that this person’s fallen for you that you keep regurgitating your origin story back at each other, endlessly creating your own mythology of How This Happened.  You learn a new fact about someone, then slip back into “I can’t believe this is happening” and “You smell so good” and “I knew I loved you from the moment I saw you.”

She abso-fucking-loutely nails it.  Which is going to irritate a lot of people who don’t like that kind of NRE.  I mean, if you’re not a silly teenaged girl at heart (and really, I am a cuddler), then this sort of flighty repetition is custom-made to drive you batty.

Yet that does not mean it does not ring true.  Having two characters do nothing but talk for a quarter of your novel, with no other people to interrupt or interject, and still maintaining my interest?  It’s a feat few can manage.

Bella’s also far spunkier than the world gives her credit for, though – she keeps running off, disobeying and contradicting Edward, coming up with plans.  I expected a total doormat… And Bella’s not an active lead, God knows, but she’s not quite an inert object either.  (Though I dunno if her character suffers from Motivation Decay in later books.)

The troublesome anti-feminist overtones of Edward have been rehashed in depth elsewhere, as Edward Knows What Is Best For Bella And Bella Agrees… But what I find more troubling is the way all the other characters fade into the woodwork.  This is a teenaged girl’s power fantasy where the world is bent to satisfy her, no different than a boy kicking ass as Batman…

And the supporting cast just vanishes.  Bella is strangely cruel to those she doesn’t care about, and it’s disturbing me more and more that this is a classic teenaged fantasy.  Anyone who isn’t attractive to Bella is flat-out invisible and interchangeable, to the point where they exist only to be dropped from the plot.  In other words, I’m so special that I have all of these friends begging for my attention and I don’t even NEED them.  I can just discard all human interaction to be with Edward.  She seems to find the concept of “regular friends” actively irritating, which is disturbing.

jenphalian thinks that this is merely a weakness in Stephenie Meyer’s writing, that she’s not that good at keeping track of many people – but no, Stephenie handles the vampires just fine.  It’s the everyday folks who become literally invisible, the ordinary kids who want to hang with the cool new girl, and the subliminal message is “If they’re not useful to you, they’re to be discarded.”  That’s fucking concerning.

But overall, despite the Godawful prose, I can see the potent vampire heart distinctly NOT beating at the core of Twilight.  I dunno if I can get through New Moon, not with so many actually good books out there (Holly Black is calling me, and I have two novels to crit)…. But there’s an appeal.

I just wonder how much NRE I can take.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

So thanks to my wonderful Dad, I got Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for Christmas, and devoured about 550 pages of it on last night’s plane ride.  And it’s interesting thus far.

11/22/63′s pitch is “Man goes back in time to stop Lee Harvey Oswald,” but realistically it’s not about that at all.  The gateway to the past is in 1958, which means that Our Bold Hero has to live through five years of late 1950s/early 1960s life, and the first 500 pages are about him trying to get by in early America.  He tries to prevent a couple of past murders he knows will happen, visits wonderful Derry, gets a job as a schoolteacher and settles down.  It’s mostly about the feel of America on the cusp of a great change, as viewed through small towns and cities.

The problem is that we’re now at the point where Our Bold Hero is intersecting Lee Harvey Oswald’s path, and it’s boring.  Why?

Because Lee Harvey Oswald’s not that interesting a character!

Oh, King’s doing what he can, but Lee Harvey Oswald’s personality is pretty well documented – I struggled to get through all of Bugliosi’s lapbreaker of a book on JFK, and King presents Oswald accurately, in all of his overblown, wife-beating, insecure ways.

But I keep thinking, “Out of all the characters here, I don’t really give a crap about Lee Harvey and his pal George de Mohrenschildt and all the Oswaldian friends.”  King’s trying, but the weird thing is that this book is absolute proof of how life just isn’t as interesting as what a good fiction writer can provide.  The least-developed character is the one who Unca Steven couldn’t generate wholesale from his mind.  The real stunners, the ones who you want to be around, are the ones he made up whole-cloth – even his villains are more villainous.

That’s the sign of a great writer, man.  When you outdo real life.

(Also, this book is a fascinating parallel to The Dead Zone, another tale of a guy who has to assassinate someone to ward off a terrible future history, and I’m probably going to reread Dead Zone when it’s done to see how they match up.)

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

For a quite sedate story about a girl in a boarding school, Jo Walton’s Among Others is perhaps the most ambitious fantasy story I’ve seen written.  I finished it yesterday, and I’m still not sure what I think of it.

The official story is this: “Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle for the fate of Earth that left her crippled – and her twin sister dead.”

The trick?  Note that all that description is past tense.

The actual front-story is Morwenna, in a boarding school, writing her diary as she learns to adjust, nerds out about 1970s science fiction, and dates boys.

It’s as though Lord of the Rings was written from Frodo’s perspective post-Sauron in a journal where he discusses the local hobbit-gossip, frets about building the addition to his new hobbit-hole, and only occasionally reflects upon the fact that oh yeah, he saved the world.

The thing is, on one level the book is tedious.  Morwenna is obsessed with science fiction books as only a nerd can be, and I’d say fully 7% of the book is devoted to witterings about OMG ZELAZNY and I just discovered Silverberg wrote this other series and my friend just gave me a book by an author called LeGuin, she’s brill.  I grew up reading science fiction in the 1970s, and this book made me feel tragically underread.

(And as my friend Keffy notes, the danger of mentioning all these books is that you feel vaguely like you should be reading them instead of this one.)

But that tediousness makes the book feels very real – because in addition to her discussions of faeries and magic, there’s a lot of loose ends that never amount to anything at all.  She comes from a big family stuffed with gossip, and there are a lot of things at the boarding school that just come and go.  So it feels like a very real diary of a witch-girl who only occasionally discusses magic and almost never with the frenzy or enthusiasm that she does Tolkien.  There’s a wealth to this world that’s just astounding.

I know others had problems getting through it, mainly because there’s a lack of an overarching PLOT – there is no basilisk attacking her school while she scrambles to open the chamber of secrets, just a girl slowly coming to insights.  There’s progression, certainly, but no firm forward driving motion.

But I burned through it, because I found her voice compelling and I’m big on day-to-day revelations.  Morwenna is not a popular girl but she is a smart one, so she’s unpopular in that rare sense you almost never see in books – not the shamed, spit-upon outcast, but a vaguely creepy girl with one or two close friends who gets picked on a fair amount but not enough to leave permanent scars.

The big problem with Among Others, for me, is the ending.  I won’t spoil it (though I’m encouraging you to discuss it in the comments), but I will say that the ending really didn’t work for me.  I was literally eight pages from the end of the book and going, “…is this series a trilogy?” when everything got wrapped and zapped.

And I felt ripped off.  The book had been so personal, and moment-to-moment, that I felt it deserved kind of a quiet denouement, and instead it goes out of its way to wrap up that big, movie-star backstory it’s presented.  It felt rushed and grafted on to me….

…or maybe it didn’t.  I’m still sort of digesting that ending, and trying to come to terms with Among Others, because it is so strangely ambitious in an odd way.  The only thing that’s coming to mind right now is the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation society, that late 1960s Rock Opera about the good old days of England and aren’t the hippies tearing down the good things with the bad and why can’t we just have a nice cup of tea?  It’s ambitious in a way we don’t normally define ambitious, and so it’s hard for me to process.

And so I ask: if you read it, what did you think?  What do you think of my reactions?  I said on Twitter the other day that I wished I had a portable book discussion group, and people told me to post in my blog, they’d discuss it here.

So please.  Do.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

theferrett: (Meazel)

If you are a writer who goes to conventions, you will rapidly ascertain that there is very little correlation between how much you like someone and how much you like their work.  This gets awkward when you find someone who you adore personally, but whose fiction you cannot stand.

Steven Gould, author of Jumper, is one of the nicest guys in sci-fi cons – quietly witty, fun to talk to, perfectly willing to apologize for the wretched movie based upon his book, which he had nothing to do with.  Which is why it’s such an extra-special triumph to report that his latest novel, 7th Sigma, is as fine as his company.

The pitch for 7th Sigma is nothing like the book itself, which is good.  The pitch, designed to get you through the door, is, “Welcome to the territory. Leave your metal behind, all of it. The bugs will eat it, and they’ll go right through you to get it… Don’t carry it, don’t wear it, and for god’s sake don’t come here if you’ve got a pacemaker.”  Which makes it sound like this book is all about battling the ferocious metal-eating piranha bugs that bore through human flesh – a good hook to grab teenaged boys.

But no.  The bugs are simply an excuse to transplant modern sensibilities and knowledge into a frontier lifestyle – what would it be like if we had to live with our medical knowledge and technology, but in a world without computers and construction equipment?  This isn’t a slam-bang action adventure, but rather a series of well-told incidents that outline the cleverness and compassion with which humanity survives in a world made new.  The cleverness inherent in the worldbuilding is filled with the kind of down-home, reassuring solutions that make you go, “No matter how bad things get, we’ll find a way to get by.”

Gould wisely avoids turning 7th Sigma into a Little House on the Prairie Clone by having the lead character Kimble, a young teenaged boy running away from his father, take up a job on an apprentice dojo.  As such, there are many localized lessons on Buddhism and martial arts philosophy from his teacher Ruth, all laced in with the endless chores one has to do to stay alive.  Kimble is a smart kid, sympathetic and brave, and as he learns how to fight, he learns when to fight, and eventually gets caught up in trying to remove the drug dealers and pimps that are making life worse in the territories.

The absolutely brilliant thing about 7th Sigma is that it wisely avoids any semblance of plot.  Which is to say that part of my love of 7th Sigma comes from its sleepy rhythm; each chapter is a parable, mostly self-contained, and it would have been all too easy to knit it into a big slam-bang freight train of a plot that would have moved the story along but lost most of its charm.  No, like All Things Great and Small, each chapter’s an anecdote of Kimble having a mini-adventure, and there are themes that overlap and amplify to provide a sense of movements, but there’s no point at which the Great Bug-Generator is found and everyone must take up arms to defeat the boss monster before it explodes and destroys the world.  This is all intensely personal, at a low level.

(Not to toot my own horn too much, but if you liked the day-to-day rhythm of my Little House-inspired space station novella “Sauerkraut Station,” which came out last week, I almost guarantee you’ll love 7th Sigma.)

The only real ding about 7th Sigma is that it ends with a lot of questions unanswered – not personal questions, since Kimble’s personal journey is wrapped up, but this book is clearly sequel-bait in the sense that hey, you know those crazy metal-bugs, there’s clearly more to tell.  And that’s fine.  When a book’s this good, I don’t begrudge the sequel-baitness of it, but rather look at it as the first salvo in a series of tales I’m quite anxious to hear the rest of.

In the meantime, I’ll just say that 7th Sigma has been responsible for a lot of hot water usage around here, as I devoured a quarter of it at a time in the bathtub, then handed it off to my wife for her bath.  We’re wrinkled, but happy.

Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.

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