I’ve been reading a ton of fiction in 2017, which has been so good for the soul and also gave me the little kick I needed to start writing some fiction of my own once again. 2017 neatly encapsulates why I believe we need critics. And never more so than now when any Indie Author can epublish any old book he or she’s written. Paradoxically, given all the web-shouting about evil traditional publishers who wilfully smother the voices of debut authors, self-publishing has made good new authors harder to find. The wheat:chaff ratio is now fantastically asymmetric. I’ve read enough to already have a to-be-read list that I will never get through in my lifetime. I have neither the time nor a pair of rubber gloves strong enough to sift through the all the world’s self-epublished rubbish to find a pearl that fell into the bin. So if I am to hear about fine debut voices and books, I need well-read critics (praise be some of my fellow Booklike critics) to do some work for me.
If you’re into this sort of thing, read on.
The best we can do is seek to transform ourselves and those around us into kinder, gentler versions of ourselves. This is a struggle that never ends and begins anew every time a new child is born. Success is only ever temporary and only ever a mitigation not a total victory. For all that it is an effort worth making but utopian dreams of a New Jerusalem are more of a hindrance than a help along the way. But it’s one thing to say war is stupid, another thing is to say it’s futile. It’s such a facile, throwaway line. Of course war is terrible, and futility is certainly a frequent aspect. It’s like saying that murder is bad, and claiming some moral superiority because you’ve said it. But irrespective of the claims of pacifists, it takes only one side to start a war. It’s just that a war with only one side is more commonly called a genocide. So rather than take a simplistic, clean view, one that protects your own conscience at the (possible) expense of other people’s lives, why not instead try to understand that war is deeply complex.
This book in particular, and K. J. Parker’s SF in general, reminds me of a quote by Yevgeny Zamyatin:
“It is an error to divide people into the living and the dead: there are people who are dead-alive, and people who are alive-alive. The dead-alive also write, walk, speak, act. But they make no mistakes; only machines make no mistakes, and they produce only dead things. The alive-alive are constantly in error, in search, in questions, in torment.”
Zamyatin was referring to the deadening effects of Stalinist oppression on the arts but I think his quote can apply to bureaucratic and warring societies like ours as well. Go and apply for a bank loan or talk to a lawyer about an insurance claim and experience some treasured moments with the dead-alive.
Despite being fortunate enough to be married with kids and have enough close friends in my life, I like solitude. I’ve always identified with Graham Greene’s protagonists, as well as those appearing in many of Haruki Murakami’s stories. Maybe that’s why I’ll probably never outgrow the teenage thing (SF, AOR music, dabbling in programming, rugby, etc.).
When I was little, I believed (sort of) that Santa Claus existed. It was a working hypothesis that worked, and I didn’t look behind it until it became untenable. Now I effectively assume my continuing identity as a person – because that works, sort of, too. In me, and most people I know, the baton of consciousness, of awareness of one’s I-ness, is repeatedly exchanged at unimaginable speeds between the two hemispheres. That baton seems to get dropped by people suffering certain forms of dementia – with increasing frequency as their condition worsens, being eventually only picked up and handed to and fro for brief, sometimes apparently fortuitous periods, if at all. How cruel (alongside other pains and indignities) to lose the working hypothesis that everyone else lives by. But perhaps, isolated in the permanently unfamiliar and frightening. Now they may be closer to the reality of the human condition than the rest of us. As with Santa, the mere fact that a working hypothesis produces a desirable and convenient result does not make it correct.
Take famine. We are told that “famine is rare”. But across what data-set is that claim true? Across the data-set of what we actually know, about what is actually happening, at the present time? But that is a profoundly-inadequate data-set. We ought to consider also what we don’t know about what is happening right now (Do we know whether or not, even right now, a serious famine is underway in under-reported/remote in parts of Africa?). More important, we ought to consider what might have happened, in recent history (has humanity quite possibly been merely lucky not to have experienced a mega-famine, in recent times (we may have come close, for instance, in 2007-9, during which period most of the world’s countries resorted to banning food exports)?
If you’re into science, read on.
Rebecca is, of course, indebted to Jane Eyre in all sorts of consciously thematic and perhaps unconsciously associative ways, but the book has always maintained its own peculiar identity which puts it out of the category of mere imitation or ‘tribute’ fiction. Most important is du Maurier’s tone, or rather that which she gives her own ‘Jane’: where Bronte’s heroine is boldly certain and declarative, the ‘I’ who narrates Rebecca is self-effacing and habitually deferential, made clear by the singular device (which is also a dark joke) of keeping herself nameless throughout. The namelessness itself may trip readers into thinking that this will be an example of an unreliable narrative; but there is the important and almost never commented upon device of those first introductory chapters – a device unused in Jane Eyre, which proceeds in strict linear fashion – before the ‘flashback’ which takes up the rest of the story. This is no attempt to muddy the narratorial waters, much less to complicate the reader’s point of view; rather, it is the second Mrs. de Winter’s open declaration that the story of her own growth and disillusionment, while told from her own present-day understanding, must be gone through step by step from the moment she entered it several years before.
If you’re into Mundane Fiction, read on.
“Banks loved metafictional negotiations, complex plots, and deconstructionist approaches, but he also loved story; he tied every subplot, told the tale of every character, and made sure to repay out good faith in him in kind.”
In “The Culture Series of Iain M. Banks – A Critical Introduction” by Simone Caroti
As a wildly innovative, imaginative, popular and subversive novelist, his works are infused with darker elements that give them a forbidden, cultish, underground status, but the fictions that are perceived as being in his more conventional and less evidently speculative mode fail to. It’s entirely possible that readers expect SF to be simpler and less demanding based on their previous experience of reading SF, rather than on mere prejudice. After all, you don’t have to eat all that much crap before you become unable or unwilling to distinguish it from fudge brownies.
Well I’ve done a systems check this morning and it appears that, yes, the anal probe has caused some slight damage to the self-censorship circuit boards, which may also have caused the nuance software to be over-ridden. This meant that the remains of the message was diverted to the spamsac. I include it here under the Full Disclosure subroutine:
“Of course, this logic doesn’t just apply to SF. If, for example, someone gave me “Amsterdam”, “Freedom” and “My Brilliant Friend” to read, telling me that it was the best of contemporary fiction, then I would legitimately be led to expect that there was no such thing as a fudge brownie, and that the main requirement for reading contemporary fiction would be to install the Brainfuck 2.0 virus whilst sticking hot knitting needles in one’s ocular sensors.” (although in italics, they’re my own words)
If you’re into SF Literary Criticism, read on