This afternoon I did a beta read of a friend’s novelette, immediately on the heels of a stack of articles for class. An article of clothing features prominently in the story, and I am amused to contemplate an analysis of it using Prown’s linear progression from description to speculation, Fleming’s matrix of properties and operations, Montgomery’s connoisseur’s eye, Severa and Horswill’s intuitive analysis, or Steele’s semiotics. I think I will refrain from following this particular train of thought much further. That way lies madness.
Originally I was planning to read and report on Archive Fever, because it just seems like I should. But the copy I requested through the library didn’t materialize, and I thought there was a reasonable chance that while reading I’d just want to stab somebody.
So instead I picked a book where a lot of people get stabbed.
To say I’m not a big romance reader is something of an understatement. Nor do I read a lot in the urban fantasy or paranormal romance genres…rather less, apparently, than the author of this post. I am a firm believer in Sturgeon’s Law, but still have some sympathy for the argument that genre trends get stale really fast.*
This summer I read an excellent case study about archival practices: The Algebraist by Iain M. Banks.
The case study centered upon the discovery of an appendix to the first volume of a work of poetry entitled The Algebraist. Said appendix detailed the existence of a Transform (included in a subsequent volume) providing the location of wormhole portals in relation to gas giants included in the Dweller List (a widely circulated work, popularly deemed apocryphal). Given the high informational value of the material in question, significant sections of the case study dealt with the political and military maneuvers of various stakeholders: Fassin Taak, who initially acquired material related to the Transform and was later tasked with follow up research; the catalogers who initially identified the significance of the appendix; the various Mercatoria officials who dispatched Fassin Taak; and Valseir, the Dweller who donated the information.
I’m only a couple chapters into The Island of Lost Maps, and I find myself simply floating along from one well-timed diversion to the next, smiling at some delightful turns of phrase (like the post title, referring to the imaginary creatures illustrating maps; another favorite is “the hellish spawn of Big Bird’s one-night stand with Jaws”). Harvey makes a virtue out of necessity: lacking the cooperation of his purported subject, Gilbert Bland, Jr., he is not restricted to ferreting out the “truth” (psychological or methodological) of the crimes in question. His map of Bland is in the mold of the medieval mappae mundi, diagrams of legends and perceptions and morality rather than objective geographic information. The comparison unfolds with such a practiced inevitability that I wonder how doggedly Harvey pursued Bland as a source, and how disappointed he was to be rebuffed. After all, flesh-eating denizens of Gog and Magog are much more interesting than anything in the vicinity of the Caspian. How could the prosaic life of a habitual criminal compare to a story woven around tantalizing details and the author’s own obsession?
In Orca, Steven Brust suggests archival work as an employment alternative for those transitioning from the criminal management and murder-for-hire sectors:
In the course of my career, Kiera, I’ve done a few odd things here and there. I mean, there was the time I spent half a day under a pile of refuse because it was the only place to hide. There was the time I took a job selling fish in the market. Once I ended up impersonating a corporal in the Imperial Guard and had to arrest someone for creating a disturbance in a public place. But I hope I never have to spend another week going through a thousand or more years’ worth of an old lady’s private papers and letters, just to find the name of her landlord, so I could sweet-talk, threaten, or intimidate him into letting her stay on the land, so she’d be willing to cure—Oh, skip it. It was a long week, and it was odd finding bits of nine-hundred-year-old love letters, or scraps of advice on curing hypothermia, or how to tell if an ingrown toenail is the result of a curse.
I spent about fourteen hours a day grabbing a crate, going through the papers in it, arranging them neatly, then bringing the crate back up to the attic and setting it in the stack of those I’d finished while getting another. I discovered to my surprise that it was curiously satisfying work, and that I was going to be disappointed when I found what I was looking for and would have to leave the rest of the papers unsorted.
Fiction is a great way to get into someone else’s head. If one is concerned with finding usefulness in all things, then that is surely a useful feature of fiction. As someone who is capable of critiquing usefulness, but also perfectly content in the knowledge that useless things may exist, I primarily consider this an entertaining feature of fiction.
While thinking about socially accepted (even approved) violence, I was reminded of a 1689 scene in The Confusion:
Stopping at Slowyear a science fictional “bad real estate deal.”* The titular planet has years-long seasons; summer and winter are brutal. The population relocates to cramped underground quarters and must rebuild all surface structures every spring. Worse, there’s a native disease that leads to high child mortality rates and premature death.
Slowyear is not, at first glance, that much worse a deal than other options for the crew of the Nordvik. The planets visited by the tramp freighter grow progressively less appealing, even as shipboard life becomes more unbearable; physically and socially constrictive living conditions are standard on the ship. I rather like that setup, which draws parallels between the situation on the freighter and the planet. I like the assertions that it’s tough to live in environments—natural or artificial—where one’s species did not evolve, and that public health issues matter, even as they become transparent to the public in question. Before it takes a gothic turn at the end,† the story deals, in part, with the nuts-and-bolts implications of the scenario. That’s one of the raison d’etres of science fiction, hard or soft, in various media.‡
Connie Willis’s Blackout and All Clear are (is) picking up awards, which is not particularly surprising. She is a (deservedly) big name in the field, and it’s been a while since she released a new book. This one is very definitely a two-volume book, with the two halves separated for purely physical reasons and released within the same calendar year. While some fat could have been trimmed, the fat is a large part of the appeal. Willis does dysfunctional office comedy well, and in order to do that sort of thing properly you need repetitive scenes that make the characters want to tear their hair out. A largely black-humor-free dysfunctional office comedy in the midst of the Blitz is challenging* but at least for great swaths of the books it works.†
The schtick in these books (as in To Say Nothing of the Dog, Doomsday Book, and “Fire Watch”‡) is that time travel exists in the mid-twenty-first century, and it’s in the hands of the Oxford history department. Hilarity ensues.
There are a number of things to like about China Miéville’s books, but I think the thing I find most delicious is the aggressive banality juxtaposed with the fantastic elements. That’s evident in his latest, Embassytown, which features aliens John W. Campbell* might’ve loved: beyond human comprehension, and equally incapable of comprehending humans, for profound reasons of biology, culture, and language. But the sort of unsexiness I’ve praised before is very much in evidence, no matter how exotic the aliens (or humans): they still deal with interpersonal strife, public health crises, political shenanigans, and societal change. Since I think class is a dandy lens through which to examine societies, real world or fictional, Miéville’s Marxist sensibilities† have the effect of grounding his stories in the plausible.