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Musing on Books
Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear, Tor Books, 2015, $25.99.
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro, Knopf, 2015, $26.95.
The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, Tor Books, 2014, $25.99.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss, DAW Books, 2014, $18.95.
When I opened up the book—as one does—I read the first two pages. My first thoughts were: Prostitutes, ugh. Steampunk, ugh. Wild West? Ugh. This doesn't mean there's anything innately wrong with any of these things; it means the book is not for me.
And yet, I kept right on reading because of Karen's voice. Karen Memery is the tale's narrator, and her speech patterns infuse the book.
…Miss Francina went striding out into that burning cold in her negligee and marabou slippers like she owned the night and the rest of us was just paying rent on it.
Karen is a prostitute. Orphaned in a society in which women aren't hired for the kind of work she'd been doing most of her life—working with horses—she went to work for Madame Damnable as a seamstress. She does actually sew, but mostly for herself and the other girls who work in the house.
What I loved, almost instantly, is the base pragmatism that informs Karen's worldview. It's not cynicism, and it's not suffused with broken rage; she sees the world, she hates parts of it, but she doesn't fuss about what she can't change. World's unfair, yes—but that's the hand she's dealt. She doesn't hate her job—it's a job. It's a job that will, with the money saved, eventually buy her a ranch and a means of making a living when she's too old for this one.
She's got a strong work ethic, a respect for Madame Damnable, and a sense of what she owes. She is not beating herself up—ever—for her life choices, possibly because she had so few of them. She's impulsive. She's hot-headed, but she's tempered by experience. In other words, she's her age. She knows there are people who'll lend a hand, and people who'll slap yours, but she can mostly tell the difference between the two. Life doesn't owe her anything she doesn't earn.
But she's aware that she's been lucky. Not incredibly, impossibly, story-book lucky—but lucky. There are girls younger than Karen who are indentured, tied—sometimes literally—to brothels and their customers, and treated very poorly. She has enough to eat, a roof over her head, and genuine friends in the house.
They don't have that.
And that's the point on which the story turns, because Merry Lee, a young Chinese woman dedicated to rescuing those unfortunates, turns up bleeding just outside of Madame Damnable's Hôtel Mon Cherie (it's not grammatically correct French, but that is its name). She's been dragged there by a woman she was trying to break out—an East Indian woman, promised work in America. She and her sister left a destitute family, with intent to work as domestics and send money home.
That's not how things played out.
Merry Lee's been shot. There's a surgical…spider…in the house that can remove bullets—but it's not painless. Karen doesn't tell us how it actually works because "I'd seen her and that machine pull a bullet before, and I didn't feel like puking."
Unfortunately, Peter Bantle, Priya's owner, has come to take her back. Priya is thin and straight and almost fearless, and Karen knows instantly that she's not going to let Bantle reclaim her.
Bantle retreats, but he's got thugs all through Rapid City, and one of them attempts to grab Karen in the market when she's doing house shopping; he's sent on his way by a U.S. Marshall. Marshall Reeves and his very small posse have come in search of a serial killer, with a warrant that allows him to bag the man and take him away. He's certain the killer is in Rapid City.
It's not really a spoiler to say he's not wrong.
There's much about this book that's just pure, gonzo fun. It doesn't really sit still for more than a few pages. If you want and need a book that you can read for pure entertainment, this is great value for your money. And here's the thing about it: those little things that trip you up, that smack you upside the head after you've finished and you're starting to think about what you've just read? They're not here. Karen is, even given her age, clear-eyed. Given the milieu of the book and the situations many women found themselves in, there's a remarkable lack of judgment—which is to say, Karen's not judgmental. She might be insecure and at odds with parts of the universe—honestly, at that age, who isn't?—but she takes things more or less in stride. She knows herself, if she knows nothing else, and she's willing to learn.
The villains are what you'd expect of the Wild West; Bear works with tropes of several genres and treats them all with affection and overall respect—but she puts her own spin on them, and seems to have great fun doing it. It was certainly fun to read the results.
The Buried Giant is, not surprisingly, an entirely different type of book, and one about which my feelings are far more mixed. Bear's ambition is all beneath the surface, and the surface—the roller-coaster ride of event, event, event—is strong enough that it's not necessary to peel it up and look beneath it.
Ishiguro's book, given the title, doesn't reward that kind of reading—and that's fine. Sometimes you want to ride the rollercoaster and sometimes you want to study dead languages in a quiet room, and either can be a source of joy or passion.
At the outset, the book feels (deliberately, I'm certain) like a quaint fairy tale, with a kind of rustic rhythm and voice. Axl is an older man, married many years to Beatrice, and he is struggling with his thoughts. More specifically, he's struggling to retain them. The writing is not sparse, the sentences are generous, but the details are vague; I couldn't place where—or when—the story took place. I assumed, at the outset, that this was an entirely secondary world.
And again, given where this column appears, there's nothing wrong with that. But the feel, initially, is fuzzy. Considering the difficulties Axl has remembering anything that somehow perturbs the routine, day-to-day of life, I'm again assuming this is deliberate. It's hard to have a definite or defined personality when thoughts appear and vanish.
But Axl does manage to hold onto his sense of unease, and in the end, he and Beatrice decide they will—finally—go on a journey to visit their absent son, a grown man in a village a few days away from their own home.
Axl, however, finds it difficult to think of his son because he cannot remember him at all. Nor, in any real sense, can his wife. She knows that their son is one village away. She knows where that village is. But—she has no solid details, and they both accept this as somewhat natural.
In keeping with the tone of the opening, they head toward this nameless village to meet their nameless son, and as they do, they have strange and unexpected encounters with a variety of people that feel, again, well-placed for a type of fairy tale. A boatman whose boat carries people to an island where everyone exists in isolation except those who truly love each other, and a woman who was therefore stranded on this shore, and bitterly, bitterly resents him; a knight of King Arthur's court who has quested for most of his adult life on a hunt for a dragon; an orphan boy, bitten by a beast who's laid claim to him; a different man, not a knight but a soldier, hunting dragons.
But each iteration, each meeting, invokes the hint of memories, of other times. Darker times.
This book is about memory.
The narrative tone—the quaintness, the lack of specificity, gives way, in bits and pieces, to something grimmer, darker, and, at first blush, more real. But there's a conflict in tone, and a conflict in presentation; an argument emerges, not so much between characters, but between elements of the book itself.
Axl and Beatrice have lived a lift that just is. It's a simple life, if not particularly easy; it has very few perturbations. There is love and the type of knowing that comes from decades of familiarity and affection. There is the certainty of, the steadiness of, that connection, but it has become of great import to Beatrice that they remember; how will they prove their love if they cannot remember the happiness?
When a stray memory returns to Beatrice, it threatens that certainty, opening wounds long buried by the constant forgetting that plagues the land.
The nature of love, forgiveness, survival, and emotional survival depend, of course, upon how one absorbs experience; one heals with time as experience recedes into the past.
And I would have appreciated it more if I felt some stronger sense of connection to either the characters or the outcome—it seemed clear what had occurred in the hidden past from very early on, and the deepening understanding didn't quite rise above the initial tone, or merge with it in a way that made the book tonally coherent with its themes.
On the other hand, it could possibly be that the thesis that appears to underlie the whole is not one with which I entirely agree; the book is thoughtfully written enough that I want to argue with it.
Ken Liu is the translating lens through which Cixin Liu's Three-Body Problem comes to English. Translating is an art and a creative endeavor in its own right, and almost every sentence demands choices—even if the work is not your own. I imagine that if the work is not your own, and you have respect for it, the choices are more fraught.
Three-Body Problem struck me, in many ways, as very old-fashioned sf—in structure, in the way the story unfolds. There are—entirely appropriate—infodumps of mathematics and science, and the information is conveyed in a way that will feel instantly familiar, even comfortable, to sf readers anywhere, in any language. Add to this the possible appearance of aliens, of technologically superior extraterrestrials, stir in the long shadows cast by history (in this case the cultural revolution), and you have a book that sits squarely, unabashedly in the heart of genre.
What's less traditional is the handling of the disparate elements. Aliens, unseen and unlooked for, mean many things to many different people. What people make of them, what they hope for from them, what they desire to give them. Aliens are the Other, and people create narratives that reflect their own experiences—and damage.
The book opens in the past, and the human lesson to be taken from it is: do not kill a girl's adored father while she watches. Ye Wenjie is that girl. She doesn't die in the literal sense, but something essential to both her humanity and optimism breaks in her; she is left with so little hope that an act of betrayed trust not long thereafter starts the ball rolling down a long, narrow slope.
Having said that, there's an understanding in the narrative of all the elements that lead to—and from—Wenjie's father's death. What judgment the narrative provides is one of quiet grief and acceptance as opposed to anger, fury, outrage. Liu understands that every action in those turbulent times did not require monsters—just people who were afraid, people who understandably wanted to survive, or people who were so young and so inexperienced they were certain that if they were in the right, anything they did must be right.
Ye Wenjie is, in the end, rendered incapable of love. She is strong enough to survive, but too fragile to trust in any future she can see. If people allowed the murder of her father, if people betrayed others just to save their own necks, people were, in the end, the problem. She couldn't believe in them.
Alienated but human, Wenjie turns the ashes of her heart outward: to the stars.
And forty years later, Wang Miao, a young, experimental physicist, is called into a joint meeting of international concerns—a miltary meeting—because the powers that be know that Wenjie heard something, and responded to it. Wang's life is about to take an abrupt turn. He is escorted to this meeting by Shi Qiang, an abrasive, arrogant, rude police officer, himself hired because the man in charge is a former army buddy.
In a different novel, the military would be building warships. In this one, they're trying to understand what's happening, because across the globe, significant members of the scientific community are committing suicide.
Wang and Shi approach this question from different—and often clashing—angles, unraveling a mystery that began forty years ago until they understand what humanity is facing.
Cixin Liu doesn't romanticize anything but science, but in the end, he doesn't judge much, either. He lets the characters speak for themselves, and I think they speak well.
The Three-Body Problem, which does reference the math, is the first of three books. It's customary to end book one of a trilogy on a high note before blowing things up in the second act, at least in North America. This is not a North American novel—but it's a novel written by a man who clearly loves both science and science fiction.
Patrick Rothfuss opens The Slow Regard of Silent Things with one significant and seldom-seen sentence in his Author's Note: "You might not want to buy this book."
Longtime readers of this column will probably guess that such a warning does not deter me. Having said that, I think his author's note—in which he continues from that single sentence to a longer explanation—is both fair and accurate. Name of Wind worked for almost every reader I know.
The Slow Regard of Silent Things won't.
First, it's a novella, illustrated with black and white drawings.
Second, it's very slice-of-life. But it's a slice of the life of Auri, a character from the Kvothe novels, a strange, fey, wild girl who lives in the tunnels below the university. Kvothe knows how to speak to her, and how to listen, but we don't see the interior of Auri in the scenes where Kvothe speaks of her.
Third, there is no dialogue in this book. This would be because there are no other people.
Rothfuss calls it a strange book. It's definitely that.
I could spoil the entire thing here, because it's not the type of story that is particularly vulnerable to spoilers—slice-of-life art generally isn't. No, I won't, so please don't throw the magazine or your ereader across the room. If you read Rothfuss for Kvothe or the larger sweep of his hidden world, this is probably not your book.
If you're hoping for some of that hidden mystery, this is…still probably not your book.
So, who do I think this book is for?
For readers who love voice and tone. Auri's novella is infused with a voice that's entirely unlike anything Rothfuss has written at length before. It's quiet, it's stark, it's playful and it is so incredibly broken. Come to the book without expectations, come to listen, note what Auri notes, see what Auri sees, and eventually the book's tendrils wrap around the greater story—but not, again, in an obvious way, because nothing about Auri is our version of obvious. I found it sweet and troubling and ultimately disturbing because Auri is struggling constantly with the world and her place in it, with her determination to do the Right Thing—even when that right thing is not what any one of us would expect or understand immediately. And that's really all I can safely say.
Personally, I loved it. I think there are readers who will love it the same way. But while I fearlessly recommend Name of the Wind to pretty much any reader, I would be a lot more careful with this one.
Rothfuss wrote his author's note because he absolutely did not want to disappoint his readers. As a reader, I was not disappointed. But his author's note is true when he says this book is not for everyone.
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