Monday, September 26, 2016

Read It, Late September 2016

Well, the second half of August went fast. And so did most of September. This one has been sitting on my computer, unfinished, for some time. I’ll try to be more regular, although I am now spending my free time packing my books for a move, which is taking up a great deal of time. The library takes up a lot of boxes, and a lot of storage space! On the positive side, I am attempting to bring the database of every book, video, and compact disc my family owns completely up to date.

On to the books.

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

In reviewing Authority a short while ago, I wrote:

I have started reading the third part with low expectations. I haven’t finished it yet. Already, it is more engaging than the second one. But I think my final verdict will likely be that readers should read the first book, which I reviewed highly in May, and stop there.

And in short, this is exactly what happened. I finished Acceptance this morning and found it unsatisfying. Like Authority, it suffers in comparison to the first book, Annihilation. It sets up the sensation that there will be revelations and climaxes. We learn a little more and speculate a little more about what is going on in Area X, and there are some interesting and disturbing scenes and moments, but overall the latter two books in the trilogy both lack the sense of sustained build-up, forward movement, and storytelling that keep me happily turning pages.

So I’m going to do what I said I would do, keeping the first volume in my library and giving away the other two, and accept that VanderMeer tried, but somehow wasn’t able to make this work really work as a trilogy; it was a great novel. I think the setting might still be a fertile setting for other stories, but the stories VanderMeer actually managed to tell in Authority and Acceptance just didn’t live up to the uncanny weirdness, beauty, and intensity he achieved in the first volume. Which is a shame, but not exactly a startling revelation, since many, many trilogies follow in those same well-worn tracks.

The Stainless Steel Rat Books

Some time ago I read Harry Harrison’s original novel The Stainless Steel Rat released all the way back in 1961.

In the last couple of weeks I picked up an omnibus paperback containing the first three books and so completed The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge and The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World.

Revenge features a storyline about an alien civilization that has expansionist aspirations, and is invading other planets. Harrison’s world is not deep or complex but it is entertaining and fast-moving. His plot points often seem a little bit clichéd and feel like TV dramas, but I think one could make the case that this is, in part, because his novels have influenced several generations of screenwriters.

In Word there is an elaborate time-travel narrative. Time-travel stories were not new in 1972, but some of the tropes weren’t quite as tired. Slippery Jim travels back in time to 1975, and has highly amusing adventures trying to figure out the culture of old Earth.

I’m currently working on The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You. In this volume, Slippery Jim’s twin sons are full-grown and ready to embark on a dubious adventure with Jim and Angelina.

Let’s face it; the Stainless Steel Rat stories are not heavy, or deep. At least, the ones I’ve read so far are not, although amid Slippery Jim’s constant boozing, an admirable personal philosophy does emerge, a philosophy about personal freedom, coercion, and the role of the state and the military.

Harrison is apparently still writing Stainless Steel Rat stories over fifty years later, so maybe the new ones get heavier or deeper. I don’t yet know. But the volumes I’ve read so far are slightly satirical but mostly just amusing adventures in the mold of old-fashioned adventure tales. They do this admirably. Each one consists of about 21 short chapters. There are lots of narrow escapes and cliffhangers. They are, in fact, a nice antidote to some of the much heavier works that I’m reading. Works like…

The Book of the Short Sun

Having finished the New Sun books in audiobook format, I continued right on to the Short Sun books. In the past I have tried to read this series a couple of times. Each time I got hung up, if I recall correctly, about halfway through In Green’s Jungles.

I’ve had another chance to tackle this, the challenging third series of Wolfe’s “solar cycle” books, but by listening to the first two parts as audiobooks. The third part, Return to the Whorl, does not seem to be available on YouTube.

Even with the long hours in the car, available for listening, and large volumes of coffee, to focus my mind, In Green’s Jungles remains a difficult work. The first volume is, for the most part, told as a relatively straightforward story, but out of order, and with some deeply strange elements, some whose significance only becomes clear upon a second or even third reading.

Horn, a character from the Long Sun books, is the narrator. He tells us about accepting a mission to travel across the planet Blue to claim a seat on a “lander,” a spacecraft, which will return to the Whorl, the generation starship that brought humans to this solar system. His mission is to find Silk, the hero of the Long Sun books. He wants to bring Silk to Blue, because civilization on Blue is suffering from a distinct lack of coherent, moral leadership.

Horn has several adventures and misadventures, all told in a complex, interleaved retrospect. He meets a young woman who seems to be human, but who has gills, and she seems to have been transformed by a goddess into a literal siren. He is granted a vision of this goddess, who can take the form of a gigantic woman. She seems much like the Undine in the New Sun books.

Taking the young woman as his companion and lover, Horn violates his marriage. In a disturbing scene, he convinces the young woman, Seawrack, to sing for him. This singing arouses him so much that he brutally rapes her. It seems that both his violent and procreative instincts have been aroused, and he seems to try to hurt her as much as possible in the assault. This is a disturbing and baffling scene. How are we to identify with the narrator afterwards? Was he really unable to control himself because of Seawrack’s magical singing?

Wolfe here is clearly trying to challenge the reader by giving us a narrator who is difficult to empathize with, just as the New Sun books featured a young man who was literally a torturer, and whose job was to execute people by beheading, or perform other acts of punishment; after exile, Severian was appointed the administrator of a horrifying, wretched prison. I’m still disturbed by the way this Horn doesn’t seem to fit with the Horn of the remainder of the trilogy; at the very least, Wolfe is warning the reader that “this isn’t going to be easy.” At worst, it seems almost a George R. R. Martinesque act of sadism.

Horn meets one of the inhumi, a vampire-like alien being who takes on the appearance of a young boy. His difficult relationship with this inhumi, Krait, is set up in relation to his relationship with Seawrack. The cast of characters is rounded out with a hus, an eight-legged creature a bit like a boar, named Babbie. Babbie is not human, but seems to develop greater intelligence and empathy as he spends time with Horn. So does Krait. Seawrack seems to have been human once, but only constant contact with Horn keeps her so. So in addition to the actual storyline of In Blue’s Jungles, Wolfe has set up some complex philosophical questions about personhood, especially how our conception of someone’s personhood can change. But as soon as you have a feeling that you pretty well understand these issues, Horn casually mentions how all these things happened back before he died. And the issue of just who Horn actually is starts to loom large in the reader’s mind.

In the second volume, In Green’s Jungles, we are again learning more of the story out of order. The lander was a trap, and operated by the inhumu, to take humans not to the Whorl but to their planet, Green, to serve as slaves and/or food. Although the title mentions Green, almost none of the story actually takes place on Green, except in recollection of Horn’s earlier sojourn there. Well, sort of. As In Green’s Jungles is opening, Horn, years older than the Horn in the previous book, recounts staying with a man named Inclito. He tells us the story of how he winds up leading Inclito’s troops in an inter-city-state war on Blue. There are other inhumu characters to understand and contend with, some disguised and some not. And then, as Incanto, who is Horn, who may also be in some sense Silk, is left to sleep in the snow with a dying inhumu, he takes a whole contingent of fighting mercenaries to Green, via some kind of astral travel. And then things get so strange and difficult that, I think, this is the point at which I gave up in my previous attempts to complete it, and set the book aside.

I’ve done better this time, but I have to admit that after finishing In Green’s Jungles in audio form, I immediately had to go back and listen to most of it a second time before I felt like I understood it to my own satisfaction, and I don’t feel like listening to it a third time would be out of the question.

In Green’s Jungles is an immensely complex work. It bounces around in time and space such that it really would not be easy to put the chronology of events into a completely rational order. One would have to make a detailed outline and then cut it apart and reorder everything. In fact I get the sense that Wolfe constructed these three books, at least in part, by doing the opposite — tearing a detailed chronology of events to shreds and reassembled it as told by a narrator who is himself deeply damaged and confused, although (I think) not actually deluded or misled as to the true nature of events, as Severian seems often to be.

I wish I had Return to the Whorl in audio form. That book is also complex. I’d like to be able to listen to it in the car as well. Instead, I’ve been reading the printed version again. I have not gotten very far yet. In Return to the Whorl we finally start to learn what happens in between Horn’s “death” and how he fails — sort of — to complete his mission. Because I am not that far into it, I am not really sure whether In Green’s Jungles represents the peak of narrative confusion and complexity in the trilogy, and things start to become more linear in the third book, or whether Wolfe will be twisting things up even more. I’m betting that he is, at least for a while, going to ratchet the degree of difficulty up even higher.

I don’t feel like I’m even at a point yet where I can adequately review this trilogy. I’m a good reader. I once audited a seminar class on James Joyce’s Ulysses and I had a lot to say about that book, and felt as though I got a great deal out of it. I still have my notes. I was an English major and studied big and difficult books, classic works of literature like Moby Dick. Wolfe can, when he wants to, really make things hard, formally, by playing with the fundamentals of storytelling, in a way that Joyce didn’t and Melville didn’t.

The Book of the New Sun is so fascinating in part because it can be read in a very satisfactory way as a fantasy/adventure novel set in the milieu of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories. It is perfectly respectable to read and enjoy Severian’s adventure as a big travelogue, exploring his world and winding his way to his ascent of the throne. But the story is not quite what it appears. The fantasy world turns out to be a science fiction world. Many things that initially seem magical have a technological explanation. The lacunae and oddities and inconsistencies in Severian’s story reveal that he is not what he seems.

The second series, The Book of the Long Sun, seems right off the bat to give us an unreliable narrator — a young priest who has, in the first book’s first scene, a vision, or perhaps a mild stroke. He sets off on a great mission, believing that he has been granted enlightenment by the mysterious God, the Outsider. The story is actually quite straightforward, although through various details we come to understand that this story is connected to the Long Sun books because the gods of the Whorl, the generation starship, are the uploaded children of Pas, who is himself the uploaded Typhon, the two-headed ruler of Urth who Severian meets in both the four-volume novel and the “coda” The Urth of the New Sun. And Silk, it turns out, is not unreliable at all, although he may be divinely inspired, by a real God, not one of the fradulent technologically-enhanced human “gods” of the Whorl.

The Book of the Long Sun is not complex in the sense that The Book of the New Sun is complex. The plot is relatively straightforward. The challenge to the reader stems from the way the storytelling across the four volumes is so intense, complex, and focused. Events take place in an extremely compressed time scale. Dialogue is packed with meaning. There are dozens of characters to meet. Small details mentioned in passing become significant later, and there is a lot of detail to absorb.

The Book of the Short Sun takes yet another approach to narrative, in that we don’t necessarily have an unreliable narrator, but a scrambled narrative. In reading Severian’s account, at least for a second or third time, Severian’s identity becomes somewhat complex as we realize that his timeline has been manipulated and his whole existence across timelines interfered with. Horn has not, I think, had any such external manipulation done to him. But he has been badly damaged, his identity itself altered, and the narrative that he unspools reflects this chronological confusion; it’s a tangled ball of yarn.

The Book of the Short Sun is definitely the more difficult of the three Solar Cycle series. I think that The Book of the New Sun endures because of the way the reader can enjoy it on multiple levels, and it richly rewards re-reading. Too, I’ve started listening to The Book of the Long Sun, which I’ve read twice already. Unlike The Book of the New Sun, the story of Silk does not become more confusing on re-reading, but richer and more beautiful. I am listening with admiration as I see just how brilliantly Wolfe sets up the story from the very first sentence, making the onrushing events that overtake Silk seem inevitable. It’s a bit like an incredibly detailed short story.

Unlike these other two series, though, The Book of the Short Sun seems to require re-reading in order to understand the most fundamental aspects of the book, such as:

  • “Who is telling the story?”
  • “What happens in the story?”
  • “Who are the other characters in the story?”
  • “Which of these characters are people and should be accorded the rights of people?”

And as I have not even completed all three Short Sun books once, I still feel like I’m not quite ready to answer these questions. And I’m not really prepared to advocate for this trilogy like I have advocated for the other two, because I really have come to believe that this trilogy just isn’t written for everyone. It’s really written for a reader who wants at the outset to take on a multi-dimensional chess game with Gene Wolfe. And I’m not entirely sure, yet, whether it’s even for me.

There isn’t a lot of analysis out there on the Short Sun books, probably because they are so complex. Even though the trilogy is fifteen years old, I suspect that not very many readers have actually completed it, and of those readers, even fewer came away feeling that they understood it. I did find one interesting and, I think, correct interpretive note in the form of some incomplete notes on the Wolfe Wiki, which today seems to be off-line; I don’t even know who to credit these thoughts to, but they start off like so:

I believe we can take the old pen case as a metaphor for the old body Horn has brought back from the whorl. “At present it holds two quills, for I have taken the third one out. Two were in it when I found it in the ashes of our shop. The third, with which I am writing, was dropped by Oreb not so long ago.” To push the analogy, the three pens are three spirits: Silk, Pas, and Horn. The third, with which he begins to write this book, will be “dropped” before the end.

See (although as it exists in the form of a Wiki, that page may well have changed by the time you go to look at it).

I’d like to be able to sum up and render some useful final judgement on The Book of the Short Sun, but I simply can’t — at least not yet. Maybe I’ll be able to do so soon. For now, it’s just too big. For the moment let’s just say that if The Book of the New Sun is Wolfe’s Ulysses, I hope that The Book of the Short Sun is not his Finnegan’s Wake.

Next time I will to include some notes about Robert Borski’s book Solary Labyrinth. This is a book of short essays about The Book of the New Sun and the mysteries in that text, particularly the mysteries surrounding the identities and relationships of some of the characters. I re-read this work while re-reading The Book of the New Sun, to refresh my memory. Borski’s book is interesting, but in some ways, to me at least, not fully convincing. More on that next time!


Completed since last time:

  • Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer
  • The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge by Harry Harrison
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Saves the World by Harry Harrison
  • The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You by Harry Harrison
  • On Blue’s Waters by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • In Green’s Jungles by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • Solar Labyrinth by Robert Borski
  • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J. K. Rowling (bedtime reading for the kids)

In progress:

  • Return to the Whorl by Gene Wolfe
  • Nightside the Long Sun by Gene Wolfe (audiobook)
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle (bedtime reading)
  • A Hat Full of Sky by Terry Pratchett (bedtime reading)

Saginaw, Michigan
August 15, 2016

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