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Musing on Books
The Gossamer Mage, by Julie E. Czerneda, DAW Books, 2019, $27, hc
Fall; or, Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson, William Morrow, 2019, $35, hc
Exhalation, by Ted Chiang, Knopf, 2019, $25.95, hc
The Gossamer Mage by Julie E. Czerneda is that rare breed of secondary fantasy world novel: a standalone (I realize the irony of my saying this). It is entirely unlike anything of Czerneda's I've read before, and honestly, if you had handed me this book as an anonymous submission, and then asked me who the author was likely to be, her name would not have been on my short list.
It is very atmospheric, and the small details embedded in almost every sentence create a powerful sense of the world in which the story takes place. The world itself is a character every bit as compelling as any of the actual characters that people it, which is unusual these days. The characters are very well done, with the same attention to detail, the same grounding as Czerneda gives the context in which they exist.
But it's the tone and the texture of that world and its magic that surprised me; it's much darker—much—than I would have expected.
Magic in the world—in which Tananen is but a small country—once existed everywhere. Now? Nowhere but Tananen itself, and that magic exists in the hands, pens, and inks of the scribemasters—those touched and gifted by the Deathless Goddess, the source of all magic. Those who bear that gift are sent to the single school in the country in which their talents, the touch of the Deathless Goddess within them, might be properly nurtured and trained.
The scribes are taught words that they cannot speak and cannot fully understand: the language of the Deathless Goddess herself. Only in the writing of those words does magic come into the world—but that magic requires focus, will, intent. Intentions create things of use to the various towns and holds of Tananen, and scribemasters command a very high price for their writing.
They command that price because the price they pay for creation is their literal life: they age with each intention they write, each spell they create. To become a master is to burn through that life in iterative attempts to harness intention correctly—and before the scribemasters reach that stage, they fail often, and in the place of intended magic, Gossamers are created, odd creatures that often have no rhyme or reason, and have wills of their own. Those Gossamers are said to be beloved of the Deathless Goddess—but they seem to serve no other purpose.
If the scribes carry the gift of the goddess, the hold daughters carry the will. It's the daughters who can understand the words of the goddess—and who can speak those words, when the Goddess wills it. It's the daughters who can serve as Designates for the Goddess herself, if commanded to do so—but they pay a very, very steep price for their obedience.
The hold daughters are law in Tananen. They maintain balance, and they keep Tananen safe.
The Hermit Mage was once a scribemaster of some renown. He left the school in secret, intent upon finally untangling magic from the Goddess he privately refers to as The Hag. She has been the death of all of his friends. The death, in the end, of even he, sucking the life out of all of the scribes far, far too quickly. It's his intent—his desire—to do away with the Goddess so that the scribes themselves are not bled of the life required to work her odd magic. All of his friends—and he himself—look double their age, because they are. They've given away their youth in pursuit of magic.
But magic without consequence, magic without cost, has a deadly toll, as Maleonarial discovers, for his iterative attempts to create a magic that does not suck the life out of the caster has dire results—results he must face, and survive. And even if he does survive—at the will of the Goddess—others, far too many others, will pay with their lives.
Kait Alder has served the Deathless Goddess for all of her adult life. She lives a simple life in Woodshaven, one of three such daughters, with her son, Leksand, and her uncle. But she is called to Tiler's Hold—as are all of the daughters in reach—because anyone capable of becoming the Hold Daughter is now being interviewed and assessed. Something has gone wrong in Tiler's hold. Kait assumes that wrongness is somehow her fault: She can no longer hear the Deathless Goddess's voice.
Believing she has lost the favor of the Goddess, she is prepared to confess her lack of worthiness and return home to Woodshaven. But it is not just Kait who can no longer hear the Deathless Goddess's voice; none of the daughters can—not unless they leave Tiler's Hold. Something is stirring in that place that threatens them all, and it is up to Kait to find and defend the Goddess she has served all her life.
The two, renegade scribemaster and daughter, meet as their responsibilities merge, and attempt to work to discover what the enemy who can silence the Goddess is—and how to defeat it.
This sounds very standard, in some ways—but it's not. There's a darkness to it, a sense of cost, of loss, that pervades the magic that both scribes and daughters wield, and Czerneda doesn't flinch from the truth of it. This is not a magic for the wealthy and the privileged. The draw to create intentions is not an intellectual exercise. It is a compulsion, and the cost of giving in to that compulsion is made clear, again and again; she shows the hopes of the young and the naive—and the reality that they face.
There's a weight to the world, the world's creation, the use of magic, that adds a layer of reality to the whole. It's not dense, but she doesn't put a foot wrong—or in this case, a word. I recommend it.
I was slightly annoyed by the press release that came with the ARC for Neal Stephenson's Fall, because the events that it indicates starts the novel don't occur until maybe twelve long chapters in. But as I sat down to write this, I realized that there's almost no way around that. Fall, as with all later Stephenson novels, doesn't lend itself to discussion hooks. The discussion that Fall might engender doesn't lend itself to any spoiler-free verbiage, because much of what's interesting about the book, or rather, much of what bears discussion, is by its very nature a spoiler.
Let me try anyway.
Richard Forthrast is a billionaire. He was a billionaire in Reamde, in which his extended family was introduced, and that hasn't changed. What has changed by the end of the first chapter is that he is now dead. A medical accident claimed his life. So far, so good. His last act, besides allowing himself to be filmed with a young fan, was to buy two books for his beloved niece, Sophia, then four years old; she was interested in the same books that had absorbed him so thoroughly as a child.
He doesn't give her those books; the routine medical procedure prevents that.
Corvallis Kawasaki, former employee and current friend, is called in because C-plus, as he's called, is named the executor of Richard's will, which comes as a bit of a shock. The beneficiaries are relatives, and they're called in as well. There's one catch.
Richard, in the '90s, created a will that required that his body be cryogenically preserved. C-plus is positive that will, signed in optimism in the '90s, had been completely forgotten by Richard—but it's a binding will that demands that his remains be preserved with the best current technology possible, at the discretion of his family. The contract was signed naming a company that did not survive into our current time, but that company itself—and its assets—was absorbed into different companies because the cost of the preservation of the eleven people who did die during the height of the cryogenic phase is prohibitively expensive, and not enough people continued to pay to sign up to be preserved in a way that would allow them to be revived. Somehow.
One of those people is Elmo Shepherd. Elmo is a true believer and he wants Richard Forthrast's—called Dodge by family and friends—remains. He is as rich as Dodge was, and it's in his hands that the remnants of that original company, and all of its assets, reside.
C-plus has to untangle the technology and the complicated legal dancing required by the family.
I don't read Stephenson for fast-paced story. I don't actually read Stephenson for surprise or astonishment. I read him because the mode of internal character thoughts meshes with mine; it feels natural to read pages and pages of critiques about anything: coffee, for instance. Alarm clocks. Cryogenics. Data storage.
In this near future novel, there are many, many things that are actual impediments to the concept of "uploading your brain" or your personality. Stephenson has clearly thought it out—and those impediments become actual impediments; they drive the plot because they're the foundation that defines the eventual fate of Dodge. It's not passive. It involves the Forthrasts, the Waterhouse Foundation, and the other interested parties, because in order to enact that future restart, the future immortality once glimpsed in the people who first proposed cryogenics, money is required. A lot of money. A lot of computing power. A lot of bandwidth.
Money causes drama. In the real world, money always causes some drama; it's seldom front and center in the fictive worlds. I think most other writers, when considering this particular story, would assume that the foundations—the computing power necessary to run a one-to-one simulation of one human brain—would somehow just—exist. Stephenson doesn't. To be fair, Stephenson's novel is three times the length of any other book I considered for review, and there are very few authors who would be given an extra two hundred percent wordcount to get this right.
But because he does, the cost is clear, and the ways those costs affect the project, clear as well; reality intersecting in a practical, if dire, way. What's interesting is the subtitle of the novel: Or, Dodge in Hell. What, exactly, is Hell? How is it made, how is it sustained, how is it felt? The answers Stephenson offers are interesting, and I've been chewing on them—but I invite people to read the book and form their own opinions, because discussing any of that really is far too spoiler heavy, even for me.
If you've read Cryptonomicon, Reamde, and the Baroque trilogy, this book echoes questions and themes from those. If you haven't, I don't think you'll be lost. But it's hard to see how he could continue to write in this subset of the world. The book does stand alone, sort of. But Enoch Root, the wise man and advisor in the other books, puts in an appearance here, and it's interesting to chart the course of his various appearances through the Stephenson universe.
If you like Stephenson, this will be right up your alley.
Ted Chiang is known for his short fiction, and with good cause.
Exhalation is his second collection, and it contains two stories I haven't seen elsewhere: "Omphalos" and "Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom," the latter a novella, and worth the price of the collection if you've read the other stories.
Although the stories have different tones, different textures, there's a thematic element that ties them together: examinations of free will, of freedom, of fate and the things that cannot be changed.
"The Merchant and the Alchemist's Gate" opens the collection. It's a time travel story in the way that any of Chiang's works can be pegged to be one thing, which means it examines things preordained, things that can't be changed, and the desire of people to see their future, or affect their past. It's the desire of people—their human frailties, their regrets, their hopes—that informs the stories within stories of this tale.
"Exhalation," the title story, is like a parable of the heat death of the universe—in a space that is enclosed, a clockwork world in which the people are mechanical. They have their own science, their own comprehension of the universe they inhabit, and slow and inexorable understanding of the fate that awaits them. Again, it's the acceptance of the inevitable that informs this; it's a vignette of resigned despair and a desire to be remembered.
The stories lack rage against the predetermined, the preordained; if there's a struggle to save the world, it is not the struggle of the narrators.
"The Lifecycle of Software Objects," which I read first when it was published in 2010, has been interesting to revisit here, in the context of this collection; it, and the story that follows, "Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny," are, if not two sides of a coin, paired. The first is about the creation of virtual pets, embedded in Data Earth. Neuroblast wanted to create virtual entities that responded to their owners; that had to be raised and taught and would develop through the effort of those who purchased them.
Derek is a computer animator, hired to create animal expressions that don't rely completely on "real" animals; they have to be charismatic enough that people will respond well to them. Ana, a former zookeeper, is hired to interact with the beta models, to help them develop, because the digients, as they're called, require interaction and modeling.
A large community forms around these digients, but time and the advances in software and AI cause that community to dwindle—because people move on, and they don't have the time to invest in something that is not, to most people, real.
But in order to teach and model, both Derek and Ana effectively become parents. The attachment is not one way, and the sense of responsibility is, in the end, parental. Neither Derek nor Ana have real world children, and I don't think it's ever clear to either of them that that's what's happening; it's clear to me now in a way it wasn't in 2010.
"Dacey's Patent Automatic Nanny" starts with a placard:
"FROM THE CATALOG ACCOMPANYING THE EXHIBITION LITTLE DEFECTIVE ADULTS—ATTITUDES TOWARD CHILDREN FROM 1700 TO 1950; NATIONAL MUSEUM OF PSYCHOLOGY, AKRON, OHIO"
And in theory it's a description for Reginald Dacey's Automatic Nanny. It combines the pernicious attitudes toward both children and women in that era with a parent's desire to have a reliable, logical nanny to take care of his son. Having decided that women are too unpredictable and too emotional to be reliable—and never considering that he might himself parent, given the times—he reasons that a non-emotional clockwork substitute will produce children who are placid and rational.
This is the inverse of the previous story. Someone who desires a good response without the requirement of time or attention, without the human investment. The results of a functional automatic nanny are perhaps what might be expected, and it's interesting to look at in comparison, although the shorter story (the Dacey) is not at all subtle, which is unusual.
Memory, history, and narrative are the driving force of "The Truth of Fact, The Truth of Feeling," and also of the volume's final story. Or rather, they're the force that drives me while reading them. What makes the former story interesting to me is the structural construction of the narrator—his worry about the lifelogs that allow anyone, at any time, to search and draw up vids and logs that occurred in their lives and examine their contents.
His worries about the use of the system are, to me, valid concerns, but they also prove to be very personal concerns.
People construct narratives; stories drive them. In fiction, this is expected—but narrative structures in fiction can be edited, the parts that don't somehow fit, excised. People who depend on narratives about their own lives, sadly, often do the same: They excise and edit. What happens when this is not possible? When facts are in the open, viewed as facts and not necessarily what memory has made of them?
The final story looks at some of the same things, but through an entirely different story lens. In the world of "Anxiety," crystals exist in which one can, when those crystals have been activated, access a quantum split, a divergent state—and speak to oneself in this other branch of time, this other universe.
The split continues to advance, and differences occur, which cause branches, which cause more differences. Further, with older crystals and current technology one can access people from those timelines, which is why older crystals are valuable. They are, however, finite; there's only so much bandwidth, and the earliest of the crystals had very, very little of it. Once that bandwidth is used, there is no more access to that timeline from the narrative one.
Nat is a woman with a checkered past; once a desperate addict, she has come clean, and she is struggling with her life and her life choices. She works for a company that is invested in crystals, and one of her co-workers, Morrow, has many schemes for making money off of specific crystals, specific splits. Confidence games. Cons. Nat finds them a bit exciting, and a bit distasteful. It's through one of these schemes that the difficulty with the crystals, with the alternate selves, with the comparisons and the envy—or worse, pity—that comes from talking to yourself, becomes clear.
It is very, very human, in that the foibles, the insecurities, and even the solutions themselves are quiet and incremental—but more powerful, in the end, for that.
Chiang always makes me think. He doesn't always move me. But when he does, the story works in a way that few do, because on a gut level it feels real; there are warts and silences and quiet words that combine in such a way that I can fully believe in all aspects of what he's created.
Exhalation is an excellent collection, and recommended.
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