Thursday, July 19, 2018

Arboreal Count

Continuing the trend of "authors I've been meaning to read for a while": Italo Calvino. He's popular amongst the Failbetter Games fans, and often shows up in lists of recommended reading, alongside existing favorites of mine like Borges and Mieville. The book of his that shows up most often on those lists is Invisible Cities, which was freshly on my mind thanks to The City & the City and the corresponding memory of Infinite City.


I forget now why I didn't start with Invisible Cities; instead, I picked up The Baron in the Trees, an earlier work by him. This may have been because I wanted to start with a more traditional narrative as opposed to the apparently fragmented structure of Invisible Cities. Regardless, it was a pleasant read: perhaps on the slight side, but very enjoyable.

MINI SPOILERS

The novel is set in the late 1700s, as the vestiges of Italian feudalism are starting to fade in the Enlightenment. The protagonist is Cosimo, the son and heir of a minor, politically ambitious baron. At the age of twelve, the son gets into a spat with his family, stomps away from home, climbs up a tree, and swears he will never come down. His determination proves powerful, and he lives the rest of his life in the branches of the forest: originally out of stubbornness, but eventually he seems to gain pride in his niche and to love what he can accomplish up there.

From early on, the story felt curiously nostalgic to me. I hadn't thought of it in years, but reading this I vividly remembered how, when I was a boy, I would be similarly determined to, say, spend 24 hours living in my backyard without coming inside, or to spend all day in a treehouse, or otherwise arbitrarily-but-emphatically shun the expected trappings of civilization for a (relatively) milder milieu. And I also vividly recall feeling a little boy's anger and sense of justice, issuing a proclamation that I would then seek to uphold long after the inciting incident had faded away.

I can only imagine how exasperating those demonstrations were for my, or any, parents. Similarly, when Cosimo makes clear that he never intends to return to the ground, the people in his life are alternately scornful, worried, disbelieving, dismissive, or condescending. Over time, they, and we as readers, may come to a sort of admiration: at first grudging, and then heartfelt. It's a stupid project and a stupid promise, but we can admire the tenacity and effort involved, regardless of how we feel about its aims.

Much of the fun of the book comes from Cosimo's inventiveness, as he brings the earthbound conveniences of his life into the trees or creates new advantages from his new environment. This reminded me strongly of the Swiss Family Robinson and other books that I had also enjoyed deeply as a child and haven't thought of in years. We learn how he fashioned a shower in an oak, how he brings a horse into the canopy, how he fetches items for his ailing mother's bedside or courts a young lady.

MEGA SPOILERS

We end up witnessing the entire span of Cosimo's life, from childhood to old age, and those courting scenes are surprisingly touching. I really like the complexity Calvino brings to them: it isn't a simple, single love story, but a series of echoes and variations, as he grows and explores and tries. It's messy, which I like a lot: sadness and disappointment are inextricably bound up with passion and optimism.

The novel is narrated throughout by Biagio, Cosimo's younger brother, and in this and other aspects of the new Baron's life we get an appealingly uncertain account of the truth. The baron is a local legend, so of course all sorts of stories spring up around him, some more believable than others. Cosimo further complicates this with his own storytelling, often telling a dozen or more variations about a single battle, say, or an escapade. Biogio will offer up his own best guess about what actually happened, but his inability to pin down Cosimo helps the latter seem even larger than life.

I got the most pleasure from the book's adventuring, whimsical spirit, but it does touch up against some interesting political and philosophical topics. Calvino was writing in the mid-20th century, but these characters fully inhabit the 18th, and it's intriguing to see, say, the conflict between the Jesuits and Voltaire, or between French republicanism and Italian feudalism. Given the decades-long span of the book, it's especially interesting to see how things turn and decay: the initial fervor and promise of the French Revolution curdles and the new boss proves to be even worse than the old boss. But, to me, it doesn't ultimately feel misanthropic: it's more of a recognition that life is complex and unpredictable, and while we can exert enormous influence over how we live our personal lives, even the most powerful people have only the slightest control over how the world evolves.

END SPOILERS

This wasn't a mind-blowing book like I half-expected, but it was a really fun read: unexpectedly nostalgic, with a pleasant mix of action and thought, and a concept that initially seems thin but proves sturdy enough to support an entire life. I think I'll be ready to move on to Invisible Cities next, and am curious how that will compare with this.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Not So Lucky

I started a couple of other novels on my vacation, but the last one I finished was So Lucky, a surprising new novel from Nicola Griffith that just recently came out. I've caught up with all of her extant works, and it was fun to dive right into a fresh work from her without an extended wait.


MINI SPOILERS

It's a little hard to place the genre of this book. Griffith is a very adaptable writer, skilled at writing detective noir and science fiction and historical fiction and whatever else she wants. So Lucky is internally more varied than any of her other works. A sort-of mystery spins up near the end, but it isn't structured like a mystery. There's a slight, possibly supernatural element, but it's ambiguous and not really central to the plot. There are some compelling relationship vignettes, but this is probably the least romantic of any of Griffith's books. I can imagine any one of these elements filling a separate novel, but this story works really well with the combination.

The book isn't mostly focused on the plot: it's focused on the very flawed but wholly sympathetic protagonist, Mara. She isn't some angel: she's a real, grounded, ambitious woman who is swiftly adapting to the titanic changes in her life. This can include reversing her previous actions (or lack of action): when she was fully abled, she casually blocked the creation of a wheelchair access ramp at work, focusing on the dollars saved rather than the people served. Now that she's on the other side of the fence, she's even more determined to see it built.

That might seem a little selfish, but once Mara is awakened to the daily injustices of her new world, she develops a very broad vision that includes a range of disabilities: not only people with limited motor function but also those who are deaf or otherwise face social and environmental obstacles that limit their ability to live their daily lives with dignity.

Mara comes across as an angry person, and I like that! She, and the book, feel very vital: someone who deliberately acts to change the world, not just reacting to her circumstances.

END SPOILERS

This was a short read, but a great one. It feels more personal than Nicola's other books... she's always had a great worldview, but this work seems more polemic than most, in addition to being a compelling character portrait. It was thrilling to see a little tie-in with one of her other franchises, and makes me curious if we'll ever see these characters interacting in the future.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

-Socialism

Next up on my surprisingly-political summer vacation reading: The Iron Heel by Jack London. I don't think I've read anything by London for thirty years: I vaguely remember reading Call of the Wild back in elementary school, and nothing since. I've been meaning to return to him for a while, though. He was a native San Franciscan, lived in the Bay Area for much of his life, and is honored locally in various large and small ways. While scanning possible titles to read, The Iron Heel jumped out as particularly interesting: in contrast to his man-versus-nature books I was previously familiar with, this was described as a dystopic science fiction novel. Intriguing!


MINI SPOILERS

In addition to being a talented novelist, Jack London was also a socialist, and if you didn't know that before, you would very quickly figure it out. The first, no kidding, 150 pages or so of the book is an almost non-stop series of dialogues promoting classical Marxist theory. It's very dull! I happen to agree with a lot of the content, but the form quickly becomes annoying, as London sets his alter-ego against a series of straw men. Have you ever performed the (silent) exercise of imagining an argument with someone else? You go, "I'll say this and then they'll say that and then I'll reply with this perfect comeback and they'll be dumfounded! Yep, I'm pretty smart!" Of course, those conversations never actually play out that way in real life because real people are a lot more complex and intelligent than the automatons inside of our heads. Anyways, imagine 150 pages of those imaginary arguments and you have a really good idea of how the novel opens.

To be fair, those sorts of dialogues have a very strong pedigree. Particularly in philosophy, greats like Plato and Berkeley and Hume used this form to develop and promote their ideas, and that hasn't stopped us from reading them. For whatever reason, I'm less enamored of it in a novel, probably because I want action, darnit!

There's a term in pop criticism that I generally dislike, a "Mary Sue character". If the term has validity, then I think Ernest Everhard is the Mary Suest Mary Sue to ever Mary Sue. He's utterly flawless, destroying all of his foes with his mighty intellect; but strong enough that he could crust them with his fists (or his neck!) if he chose; he's evidently omniscient, perfectly predicting every development that will take place over the entire novel (and, incidentally, robbing it of drama); immediately sizes up every person he meets and accurately states what will happen to them. As the notes in my edition pointed out, Everhard is pretty clearly based on London himself, and I think people who complain about authorial self-insertion would flip out if they ever read this book.

While the opening chapters felt annoying, they moved along very quickly, and they were made much more palatable by the intriguing device London uses to structure the narrative. The Iron Heel was published in 1906, and describes events taking place in the 1910s, Jack London's imminent future; it's technically science fiction for him, but also very much his prediction for the outcome of current events. While Ernest Everhard is the protagonist, it's narrated by his wife-to-be Avis, who is writing the manuscript sometime in the 1930s, looking back at this exciting time in their lives. But the edition we're reading has been edited and released by scholars in the 27th century. The novel contains frequent footnotes from these far-off scholars, explaining to their contemporaries topics that by then seem obscure: who Theodore Roosevelt was, who the Pinkertons were, what a slum was, the incidence of child labor.

MEGA SPOILERS

These scholars live during the Brotherhood of Man. We gradually learn that the efforts of the Everhards and their allies will, in the short term, be doomed to failure: the Iron Heel will triumph, despotically ruling the world for centuries. But inevitably they will fall, and be replaced with a new era of freedom, equal opportunity, and fraternal solidarity.

That's kind of a spoiler, but also a pretty compelling structure in which to tell a story. You have a sense of fatalism and hopelessness, knowing that the struggle we're watching will fall, but at the same time it's compelling and inspiring to see that struggle, to know that, over the very long course of generations, they will eventually be proven right.

What is this force they're facing? Capitalism, pure and simple. In London's day, this was exemplified by the trusts, like Standard Oil and the railroad concerns. As Ernest observes, there's an irreconcilable conflict between the demands of capital and labor to divide the limited profits generated by their collaboration. Labor has the benefit of numbers, and will ultimately triumph at the ballot box or by force, so the only way the capitalists can hold on to their disproportionate wealth is through overwhelming force of their own: at first by using the judiciary, bought politicians, media organs and bribery; later by enlisting "patriotic" mobs; ultimately by deploying the United States military, militias, and their own paramilitary forces.

It's really fascinating to read this book today, more than a century after it was written. All of London's assertions are made very confidently, and the ones that failed to materialize stick out: we do still have a middle class, nations industrialized throughout the 20th century without starting wars to offload surpluses, the Socialist Party peaked in popularity in the 1910s. The stuff he got right is more subtle and more important: war with Germany, the collapse of Hearst, the use of a bomb in Congress (/ Reichstag) to seize martial powers, the return of conscription, Japanese imperialism. And, of course, the eternal struggle between capital and labor. After decades of relative social flattening between the classes, we've now returned to the mind-boggling gap between very rich and everyone else as was seen in London's day, and it's little surprise that interest in socialism is on the rise again.

The book gets a lot better once the Iron Heel begins to stir and those endless speeches are replaced by dramatic action. It's probably not a coincidence that Ernest becomes quiet for much of this section: he's off politicking, or later languishing in a prison cell, and the novel really opens up now: instead of being obsessed with this unrealistically perfect superman, we start witnessing the struggles of a collection of likeable, flawed, admirable characters. Coming from diverse backgrounds, they are animated by different principles but united in the cause, showing true solidarity with one another.

During the opening chapters I kept wishing that the book was shorter, but by the end I found myself wishing it would go on for longer. I'd have loved to see more of Bishop Morehouse, who returns to the Biblical commandments to serve the poor in dramatic fashion; or Biedenbach, the tragic demolitions expert with a crusty exterior and a soft heart; the young Wickston son, who betrays his own class to support the revolution. Heck, I'd love to read an entire novel about Anna Roylston, the charmed spy and assassin. We get only brief references to these and more characters as the novel hurtles towards its conclusion, but those references are very intriguing.

The climax of the book is the Chicago Commune, which has been foreshadowed and referenced since the opening pages of the book but still feels startling and bloody. The name is a clear evocation of the Paris Commune, a relatively-recent-for-London urban socialist conflict. The Chicago version, though, is a mesmerizing nightmare of modern warfare. You viscerally feel Avis's fear as she races down the streets, chased by enormous mobs of lightly-armed masses, straight into machine-gun encampments that mow down the onslaught. Aircraft fly overhead, dropping bombs onto strategic locations or attempting to shoot down other aircraft. The most compelling and bizarre element is building warfare: entire blocks have been seized by one side or the other, and each fires from its own windows into the other, dealing death twenty stories above a busy street as the battle below rages.

Ultimately, we're left with dashed hopes and disappointment: the revolution betrayed by a few skilled trade unions, unable to control the howling and desperate people of the abyss, the socialists cede all of the power they have only recently gained and resign themselves to fighting a low-key and vengeful insurgency against the triumphant Oligarchy. But, again, the big-picture promise of the coming Brotherhood of Man helps salve the wounds and provide encouragement for the future of humanity.

END SPOILERS

The Iron Heel isn't exactly what I expected, but it did end up being a blast. I know I've complained at length about the preachiness of the early chapters, but I do really like it when authors have a strong viewpoint and allow it to animate their work, and The Iron Heel is one of the better examples I've seen of that. It feels a little like a precursor to 1984 or Brave New World with its warning against antidemocratic autocracy, but for better and worse it's very much a product of its times, the fears and optimism of the early labor movement. We should probably all be grateful that the Iron Heel he feared did not come into total power, but we can also hope that the Brotherhood of Man is not too far off.

Anarcho-

Hello! I've returned from a wonderful two-week vacation. It was filled with nature, and books, and at least one book prominently featuring nature: The Monkey Wrench Gang, a sort of destructive caper novel by the environmentalist and provocateur Edward Abbey.


Abbey has been on my reading list for a little while now. I think he first came to my attention when Nick Offerman name-dropped him during an interview, and the little I'd read about him sounded fascinating. He was an anarchist and naturalist who wrote lyrically about the American West, lamented the destruction being wrought there, took direct action to prevent it and urged others to do the same. The capsule biography made him sound a bit like a combination of John Muir and Abbie Hoffman, further piquing my interest. I'd initially flagged Desert Solitaire, but on further research decided to start with The Monkey Wrench Gang, which fans seem to agree is his most accessible and enjoyable work.

MINI SPOILERS

And enjoyable it is! There's a lot of content in there, but even just as a story in its own right it's a lot of fun. It follows a very recognizable formula: a band of misfits joins together in order to accomplish a common goal. But instead of that goal being the defense of a town or the discovery of a treasure or the solving of a mystery, the goal here is pure destruction: blowing up bridges, wrecking bulldozers, cutting down fences, stripping away all markers of mankind's intrusion upon the stark desert landscape.

It's fun to get to know the gang; it felt a little like putting together a party for an RPG, with each member playing their own specific role. Doc Sarvis, a middle-aged surgeon and widower, bankrolls the operation while generally sounding the voice of reason. Bonnie Abbzug, a Jewish nurse from Brooklyn, handles odd jobs and keeps up morale. Joseph "Seldom Seen" Smith is a wilderness guide and local expert, with a perfect memory for the complex geography of western Colorado and eastern Utah. And George Hayduke, a veteran of the Vietnam War, is an expert in all matters of munitions and explosives, and the loudest voice for causing destruction.

The four characters are distinctly drawn, though they serve very different roles in the narrative. After a memorable introduction, Doc fades into the background for much of the story. Seldom Seen and George are the stars of the novel, central to almost all of the action. And Bonnie is... Bonnie can be a frustrating character. She often feels like a sexual token, a resource for the men to pass around among themselves. She does get some great lines, and speaks up on her own behalf, but ends up serving the role the men select for her. I can't decide if it's better or worse that she articulates a feminist message while performing a chauvinist part.

This novel was written in the mid-seventies, and it's kind of interesting to see how Abbey sees women's liberation and the sexual revolution. As portrayed in this book, it's entirely about men's pleasure: at last, they can enjoy multiple sexual partners without any consequences or demands for intimacy. There's really no reference to womens' pleasure or autonomy. This is especially noticeable in Bonnie's initial introduction, and practically parodies the "men writing women" genre: how many stories are there where older, unattractive men, without extending any effort, pique the boundless lust of voluptuous, spunky and creative young women? Isn't it a weird coincidence that those stories are invariably written by older men?

Sorry, that was a bit of a tangent... but it also gets at one of the unavoidable elements of this book: the inherent selfishness of all the characters. They aren't purely selfish, but their selfishness coexists with their noble idealism. Yes, they love the unspoiled beauty of the West and wish to maintain it. But they live in the West. They don't ever suggest that they should leave, just that newcomers should. They benefit from the fruits of industrial life: Doc charters private planes, Seldom and Bonnie drive automobiles, George gleefully purchases products from DuPont. But they don't think that other people should use electricity from these plants, drive cars on those roads, buy those houses.

That contradiction is unavoidable, and has an august precedent: we tend to think of Walden as being a celebration of a pure commune with nature, but Thoreau didn't hesitate to purchase nails and tools and other modern conveniences that would support his project of living in nature. People like Seldom Seen seem to be following in those footsteps, consciously using certain resources to achieve a somewhat contradictory aim. On the other hand, George is openly anti-environmental: he takes pleasure in littering wherever he goes. He doesn't really care about defending nature, he just wants to destroy civilization. The other members of the gang call him out on this, but agree to live and let live. It's kind of cool to see how each person has their own motives and behavior, yet they succeed in accomplishing (= destroying) a whole lot. I wonder if this might be kind of an exemplar of political anarchism: there's no external authority they defer to, all issues are deliberated by the group and decisions are only made once consensus is reached by all. They each take different journeys to arrive at those conclusions, and all support one another once they arrive there.

The two paragraphs above probably sound self-righteous, but the truth is that the exact same criticism applies to my own life: I profess to love nature, and yet my actions belie that love. My work life is focused on technology, and happens to have a very low environmental footprint; on the other hand, I pollute the most when I visit nature. I show that love by hiking, and how do I hike? By driving, by myself, in a gasoline-powered automobile to a trailhead. In extreme cases, like the vacation I just returned from, I might even fly on a commercial airliner, spewing large quantities of greenhouse gasses into the upper atmosphere, so I can appreciate the beautiful landscape I'm helping to destroy.

Like the characters in this book, I think it's valuable for me to acknowledge the contradiction or hypocrisy, the way my actions fall short of the ideals I profess. But even if it is contradictory, nature is still important, is still worth preserving, and we can still benefit enormously as human beings when we immerse ourselves in it.

Returning to the politics of the book: despite its boundary-pushing eco-advocacy, it manages to feel really regressive on other fronts, especially on gender and race. There's a really negative view of Native Americans throughout the book. This might be an aspect of the characters and not the author: when George, for example, espouses an opinion, that probably means it's a bad one. But there are zero positive portrayals of or references to native people throughout the book: despite the fact that this is their land, they only appear as drunken, lazy, greedy, useless background actors. The narrator seems to agree with the protagonists' low opinions.

I find it increasingly difficult these days to separate my enjoyment of fiction from the politics it presents. While the action in the novel is thrilling, the characters' goals end up being opposite to, or maybe just orthogonal to, the stuff that concerns me the most today: improving access and opportunities for the most people. If the Monkey Wrench Gang was focused on saving the West for the sake of the planet, then I could get behind that. But saving it so a few hundred Mormons can keep vast landscapes all for themselves... ehh, that's less inspiring. I admire their tenacity and creativity and audacity, but can't help wish they cared as much about other people as they do about the planet they live on.

END SPOILERS

All in all, The Monkey Wrench Gang ends up being a surprisingly detailed action plan that anyone can read to become an eco-warrior. Delay roads by pulling up survey stakes! Sabotage earthmoving equipment by pouring corn syrup into gas tanks! I can see why Abbey is so admired by so many people: he seems to have been the ultimate combination of thinker and doer, one who acted and one who exhorted others to act. I feel ambivalent about the actions he describes and the motivations he ascribes, but I can't deny how compelling he makes it seem.

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Conurbation

I've been cautiously dipping into China Mieville again. I'm always impressed at his books, but feel like I need to pace them: he's so good at building atmospheres of dread that I feel like I need to air out my mind for a while after finishing one of his stories.


I was a little surprised, but pleased, so discover that The City & the City isn't as taxing as the New Crobuzon novels. It isn't exactly happy, but it feels a bit more sleek and a lot more modern. As I read it, my dominant thought was generally "Oooh, I wonder what'll happen next?" as opposed to "Oh no, what's going to happen next?"


The New Crobuzon books are set in another world, a kind of nightmare Discworld, but The City & the City is set in our world, probably around the present day. The characters use the Internet, quote Hollywood movies, seek to attract American investment dollars, and otherwise participate in the global world. The interesting difference is that the city itself, Besźel, doesn't exist in the real world. Based on the descriptions peppered through the novel, it seems to be a Balkan city-state, located on a coast (though it's unclear which one). Like a lot of the real-life nations in that area, it is relatively stable but economically disadvantaged, proud of its traditions, and trying to make its way in the world.

MEGA SPOILERS

... I'm not sure whether to quality this as a "mega" spoiler because it's revealed very early in the book, but the reveal is so delicious that I'd hate to spoil it for anyone. The most distinctive feature of Besźel is something that the narrator and every other character takes for granted, and so we don't realize it for some time, even though it's surrounding everything in the story. Besźel has a counterpart city, named Ul Qoma, which occupies the same physical space but is completely separated.

My mind was somewhat primed for this idea because I've been simultaneously reading through Charles Stross's Merchant Princes series, which posits a series of alternate Earths that occupy the same space but diverging realities. I thought it was interesting and cool that Mieville was working with a similar concept, but to a very different effect, with a weightier noir detective story instead of an adventurous thriller. I started trying to unpack how the system here worked: unlike the Merchant Princes, Besźel is integrated into the real world, so does that mean that Ul Quoma is in an alternate dimension? How is its America different from Besźel's America? Can everyone cross over everywhere, or is there something unique about Besźel? And, given the huge economic implications to parallel worlds explored in the Merchant Princes, I started wondering how it would affect the world in this story. It seemed odd that it would end up so close to our own world with such a major difference.

As Inspector Tyador's investigation forces him to more closely consider Ul Quoma, I started entertaining a fanciful notion. "Heh... wouldn't it be funny if there WASN'T an alternate world? What if both Besźel and Ul Qoma are in our same world, and everyone just, like, pretends that they can't see each other? That would be amazing!" I held that idea in my mind for a good, I dunno, hundred pages or so until it slowly, gradually dawned on me that, yup, this is EXACTLY what the situation is. As far as everyone else on the planet is concerned, Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city with two odd and highly distinct cultures. For its citizens, though, these cities are (and must be!) entirely separate.

A very strong and multifaceted defense keeps the two apart. It consists of cultural taboos, social training, and the power of the state. We eventually learn how parents instruct their children from a very young age to "unsee" objects and people that belong to the rival city. Growing up in this culture, everyone gains an instinctive ability to recognize whether something belongs to one city or the other. A building's architecture, a person's clothing style or walking gait, species of plants: all of these are markers of being in one city or the other. Some areas are Besźel or Ul Qoma "in totality": an entire street might belong entirely to one city or the other. But many areas are "crosshatched", with Besź and Ul Qoman people operating side by side but forbidden to interact with each other.

As a reader, you sort of need to reverse-engineer the snippets you receive from Tyador to reconstruct what's actually happening. As an example: on a busy throughfare, both Besz and Ul Qoman cars might be sharing lanes. The Ul Qoman cars are sleeker and more modern, while the Besz cars are older and blockier, so everyone knows at a glance which city each belongs to. If you're Besz and another Besz car cuts you off, you might curse at the driver and flip him off. But if it's Ul Qoman, you must studiously ignore it; more importantly, the Ul Quoman driver would have given you a large berth to begin with so neither of you must interact with each other. And what if there's an emergency? Each city has its own police, each with its own type of siren. If an Ul Qoman siren starts to sound, all Ul Qoman cars immediately make way. The Besz cars shouldn't acknowledge the Ul Qoman car, but instead they will, seemingly entirely by coincidence and random chance, happen to open up a lane, while pretending that nothing happened.

Beyond the police, though, the ultimate authority overseeing this system is Breach, a shadowy yet omnipresent force that monitors all people in both cities looking for any sign of infraction, of seeing what should not be seen, and acting swiftly and mercilessly to resolve any breaches between the two. Breach is powerful, but has a limited porfolio: they don't care about crime or justice or policy in general, they only uphold the singular duty of keeping Besźel and Ul Qoma separated.

Once I realized that the "grosstopical" colocation of Besźel and Ul Qoma meant that they both physically existed on the same planet, it seemed like Breach was the one remaining fantastical element of this novel: they know when anything bad happens, appear immediately, and dispatch transgressors. By the very end of the novel, though, I started to wonder if they were, in fact, supernatural. It seems like much of Breach's power may come from socialization: children play at "Breach" from a young age and treat it with awe and deference, so the immediate obediance may be a result of that rather than mind-control powers. Likewise, it seems that many of their actual powers might be obscure but rational in origin: silenced guns for swift killing, chloroform to put minor transgressors to sleep, ubiquitous surveillance cameras and plainsclothes agents to maintain watch on suspect areas and people. (But, complicating this, there is some suggestion that the archeological artifacts of the progenitor city may actually have unique physical properties; if so, that "sufficiently advanced technology indistinguishable from magic" might have formed the kernel of Breach's initial establishment and power.)

Coming to the end of the novel, I started to wonder if it was intended as a metaphor or exploration of the kind of selective vision we city-dwellers acquire. Like the citizens of Besźel, we are trained from an early age to unsee: don't stare at that man on the sidewalk, don't engage with the person asking for money, don't look at what those people are doing in the alley. We build and maintain this fiction that those things aren't happening in our city. Of course, everyone around us knows that that thing is there, but they're all similarly ignoring it, and so we sort of construct this alternate agreed-upon reality that we implicitly choose to occupy.

And, it's the same from the other direction as well. Here in San Francisco, homeless people will greet one another and hold animated conversations, while ignoring the young professionals walking past them on the sidewalk. Different groups of people, grosstopically occupying the same physical space, but having an incredibly different experience of San Francisco and building up a culture of people who conform to their same viewpoint.

This isn't a radical idea, of course. Among other things, I was reminded of Infinite City, a great atlas from Rebecca Solnit depicting SF through a variety of lenses. I've spent much of the past decade in the Mission District and feel like I know it well; but the Mission District I know is a place of parks and trendy eateries and "dive" bars and music venues. There's another Mission District which is a sort of DMZ, an armistice between the Nortenos and Sureños: one of the maps in Infinite City shows the territory claimed by each at the time of its creation. I walk across those lines every day and never even think about it: it doesn't exist for me, and I don't exist for them. But if I had brown skin, then I would need to be aware of those lines and the colors I wore and all of the customs and consequences of that other city which occupies the same space.

Anyways! It's an interesting thought experiment. I have no idea if that was at all part of Mieville's intention in writing this. It seems like it might be... I dunno, too obvious or too pedestrian. He might have just been inventing for the fun of it, or had some deeper perspective that I haven't caught onto. Regardless, it's a really stirring idea.

END SPOILERS

Heh... after all that discussion, I haven't talked at all about the actual plot or characters! They're good. I like how the people, especially the narrator protagonist, are fully rooted in their world and roles. The plot is cool, maybe moving a little too swiftly at the end but still thrilling and clever. For me, though, it's the worldbuilding that's most impressive, and that's the part that will linger with me.