Sunday, April 22, 2018


I'm continuing to make my way through Roberto Bolaño's body of work. I'm starting to regret not plowing through all of them at once. Typically, I want to hold off and savor the authors who I enjoy most, but Bolaño's stories tend to have little linkages that bind them together. Not as directly as, say, David Mitchell's, but caesuras in one novel might be filled in another. As I was reading Nazi Literature in the Americas, I often had the feeling that I was reading a reference to a character who I had previously encountered, but had no idea whether it was from the vast cast of The Savage Detectives, the oppressed seekers in 2666, earlier in the same book, or if I was just imagining it. 

All of his books that I've read so far have a few things in common. They're partially or wholly set in a literary milieu, populated by poets and novelists and publishers and critics. They disdain traditional narratives, largely omitting dialogue and using different forms to present their story. Nazi Literature is sort of an extreme example of both of those elements. Per the title, the whole book is about (fictional) writers of far-right-wing literature. Structurally, it's organized as a sequence of capsule biographies. Each writer gets a birth and death date and city, then several pages summarizing their life's accomplishments: who they influenced or were influenced by, what works were rejected or published, critical consensus around their output. We never really see people interacting or get much of a sense of individual personalities. The end result feels much more like a mosaic, impressive but very static.

It's really well-written, though! While the subject matter can be horrifying, there's a strong sardonic streak running throughout. I particularly enjoyed a few segments that, while ostensibly describing a fictional piece of literature, seemed to be anticipating potential criticism of the book itself.

"It is full of appendices, maps, incomprehensible indices of proper names, and solicits an interaction in which no sensible reader would persist... There is no main character. The less chaotic stretches read like collections of stories haphazardly tacked together... The texts are not so much scrambled puzzles as fragments of scrambled puzzles. Although presented and sold as a novel, The Fourth Reich in Denver is in fact a reader's guide to the preceding titles."

Or, later:

"It is not unusual for Sibelius to spend twenty pages simply introducing a character, specifying his physical and moral traits, his tastes in food and sports, his ambitions and frustrations, after which the character vanishes, never to be mentioned again in the course of the novel; while others, who are barely given names, reappear over and over, in widely separated locations, engaged in dissimilar if not incompatible or mutually exclusive activities. The workings of the bureaucratic machinery are described implacably."
Stylistically, the novel reminded me of "The Part About the Crimes" from 2666. There's a sort of similar piling-on effect: each individual entry is dry and colorless, but they are relentless, stacking one on top of another into a more horrific edifice. It gets to be a little numbing, but the numbing is deliberate, drawing attention to how the terror is becoming the new normal.

Despite the title, only a few characters in this novel are technically Nazis, but pretty much everyone is somewhere on the far-right spectrum. Given the predominantly Latin-American setting, it's fitting that Falangism is particularly represented. Most of the writers are not affiliated with any particular movement, but hold antisemitic views, support authoritarianism, and/or hold other rightist views. In the whole book there are perhaps one or two very brief biographies that aren't obviously political. I'm curious if a deeper reading would reveal their connection, or if this is deliberate, depicting them as so minor that it isn't worth exploring their beliefs.

Most of the subjects are presented matter-of-factly, without any obvious editorializing. The characters themselves are... oddly ordinary, I guess. There are a few monsters, but the majority of them come across as vaguely pathetic, misguided, or confused. This is probably realistic, and also seems like it may be an effective way of handling them. It's a little satirical, denying them the glory and infamy they crave, instead showing their smallness and limited impact.


The one major exception is the last full chapter, Ramírez Hoffman aka Emilio Stevens. This is one of the sections that felt like it may overlap with another Bolaño book; in particular, the characters of María and Magdalena Venegas seemed familiar. Anyways, this chapter is different from the rest: it's the most vivid, the most horrifying, and has an active, present first-person narrator (named Bolaño). This chapter finally starts to get at raising some crucial questions, although it doesn't begin to answer them: are violent people attracted to fascism, or does fascist ideology produce violence? Does art born out of wickedness have value?

Even though this section feels different from the preceding ones, I think it benefits from coming at the tail end. It's a bright, bold splash of color that brings home the real-world consequences of ideology. We've seen how widespread this umbrella of ideas is, and this final entry is kind of a case study of how deep it can go.

Speaking of the real world... as far as I can tell, the characters in this book are all fictional, or at the least fictionalized versions of real-world people. But it's also very grounded, with plentiful references to real-world political leaders and movements. One striking exception is Pinochet, who seems conspicuously absent from the entire book until making a very late appearance deep in an appendix. I'm a little curious why he doesn't have a larger presence, when people like Peron, Allende and Castro get name-checked more frequently. Bolaño was Chilean, so maybe it seemed too close to home. Maybe he wanted to keep the focus more on pan-American extremism instead of seeming like he was settling scores. Or maybe the absence is itself significant: one of Bolaño's skills is to build a kind of mounting dread by talking around and eliding a central subject, and perhaps Pinochet plays that role here.

I'm still unsure exactly what the book is supposed to be. Some sort of near-future reader's-guide to a completed movement in American history? The timelines in the novel go through at least 2027, and every character has a death date listed, so it's presumably written some time after that. That sort of chronological distance may help explain the chilly and dispassionate treatment of the subject, not unlike how we now write about, say, Galileo's trial. We recognize it as being outrageous and wrong, but it's also settled. We feel only scorn for the antagonists, not anger.


Obviously, a book with the title "Nazi Literature in the Americas" isn't going to be a cheerful book, but this ended up being a surprisingly good read. It's a very muted satire, dealing with bad ideas in a deliberate way, revealing them as mean and contemptible, while simultaneously poking fun at the literary system and the whole edifice that produces books such as this.

This is probably the most formally constrained book of Bolaño's that I've read yet. I was reminded often of Borges's work, especially Pierre Menard... Bolaño is definitely not a magical realist and his books have a very different feel to them than the surreal Borges, but I think both of them were great explorers of the untapped potential of non-narrative forms of writing. On a more prosaic level, this kind of reminded me of the short stories I used to write when I was a kid, which were just a sequence of "This person did that and then went there and met them." I was writing out of a paucity of ability and imagination, but Bolaño chooses this mode deliberately, claiming a distant point of perspective from which he can review and dismiss his subjects.

Thursday, April 19, 2018


I'm not sure exactly how I got into this habit, but for the last couple of years I've read a Nicola Griffith novel each time I fly to and from Chicago. Other than the Aud Torvingen series, I'm not reading them in any particular order, and so am finishing with her second published novel, Slow River. It's good!

I'm increasingly impressed at Nicola's versatility. She's adept at writing noir mysteries, imaginative science fiction, mystic historical fiction. Slow River is set in a near-future very-mildly-dystopic world; the setting seems almost cyberpunk, with subdermal identity chips and a few riveting hacking scenes, but the overall vibe feels quite distinct from most cyberpunk.


It's less obviously sci-fi than Ammonite, but there might be even more science in this book. Specifically, there's a really cool and deep look into environmental science, microorganisms, public works and infrastructure. I don't know enough about life sciences to know if all of this is established science or if some of it is speculative, but it all sounds plausible and intriguing.

I increasingly enjoy reading about people who are good at what they do and take pride in their work, and Lore is a great example. She knows a great deal about the underlying theory and the practical operations of the treatment plant she works at, and feels compelled to help it perform well. There are multiple tensions opposing this drive of hers. First, she's keenly aware of the source: her knowledge and her determination come from her family, from which she is estranged, and even when she benefits from that association she's simultaneously brought down by the reminder of her past. She's also constrained by her secret identity: she can't seem to be too good, or know too much, lest she ruin her disguise and expose herself to dire consequences.

But she overcomes these hesitations and does what needs to be done. I really liked how the public good and a general sense of responsibility are powerful incentives in this novel. Lore doesn't say "It's not my job" or "What's in it for me?" She knows the consequences of getting things wrong, the mild-to-major harm that will be visited upon untold numbers of people should these systems fail, and that drives her to sacrifice her self-interest and support the greater good.


Of course, Lore hasn't always been so altruistic. She hasn't been exactly selfish, but she has been focused on herself. Among other ways, this is shown through her sex scenes: there are a surprising number of encounters she has throughout the novel, starting from a very young age and continuing through a series of disconcerting liaisons while working with Spanner. I thought it was interesting that, of all of Lore's short-term and long-term romantic partners, Magyar is the only one who doesn't get a sex scene. There is still a nice focus on physicality in their relationship: when they tap each other while wearing biohazard suits, it feels more erotic than the graphic parties that occurred a few pages before. The bond Lore forms with Magyar is powerful, built on respect and trust long before they thought of one another as partners, and it's kind of cool to see that Lore decides she will spend the rest of her life with Magyar before sleeping with her.

The Magyar relationship is kind of the opposite of the one Lore has with her mother, which began with love, then moved to trust, and devolved into suspicion and adversity. While Griffith's novels are all very different, I've noticed that the mother characters share a lot of similarities. They tend to be powerful, manipulative, emotionally distant, and clever. Their protagonist daughters inherit their wealth and education, and share some of the high-society connections while being estranged. I don't want to overstate this - Aud's mother is much more sympathetic than Lore's - it's just an interesting theme.

The revelation of Katerine and Oster was seeded very well and cleverly revealed, with all the important information present long before Lore receives the answer. I'd had a suspicion that something else was going on - Oster's behavior didn't really fit the scenario - but for some reason Katerine hadn't been on my radar for that incident, and I was impressed by the conclusion. The Greta revelation didn't make as much sense to me. All the pieces to that puzzle had also been set out in advance, but it wasn't and isn't obvious to me how they fit together, how Lore goes from the old black-ops team to Greta's role in it to blackmail to the kidnapping. It's possible I just missed something in the sequence, though... I was wrapping up the novel near the end of a very long delayed flight.

I'm still undecided on how I feel about the structure of the novel. Within each chapter, it shifts between present-tense and past-tense narration, and between first-person and third-person narrators. These are used to denote different time periods: one starting from Lore's childhood, one starting immediately after her escape from the kidnappers, and one when she starts her job at the plant. It always felt jarring to me, and I'm not convinced that the novel is much better from having the timelines overlap this way than it would be told chronologically. We already know the outcomes of the first two timelines, so it doesn't really build any suspense. It definitely isn't bad, it just seemed distracting to me.


All in all, Slow River was a great read. Lore is yet another terrific Griffith protagonist: resourceful, thoughtful, resolute, driven by a winning mix of compassion and self-determination.  While it's technically another science fiction novel, I think it stands on its own, with a very different setting and feel from Ammonite. In some ways it anticipated the crime noir of Aud Torvingen, but with a very different protagonist and a unique set of concerns.

Ordinarily, I would feel bummed to have exhausted the output of a newfound author, but! Fortunately, Nicola is just about to release So Lucky, which will be out in less than a month, yay! That should help tide me over until the sequel to Hild arrives.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Open and Shut

This probably isn't actually a thing, but I've started thinking of the subgenre of science fiction that I've been focusing on lately as "humanist sci-fi". These novels focus on creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving. They eschew violence, definitely as a solution and often even as a part of the setting. Like sci-fi as a whole the science can be hard or soft, the protagonists may be heroes or antiheroes, and and they may or may not include alien species, but they seem allied by a common thread of dignity and curiosity that I find increasingly appealing.

My latest author and book in this vein is A Door Into Ocean by Joan Slonczewski. The story started off a little slowly, but there's fantastic world-building and great exploration of really cool ideas. Once the main conflict kicks in, it becomes very engaging, and I tore through the back half of the book with a quickness.


There are a lot of neat things going on here. One of the most obvious is Sharer culture, which is built around reciprocity and cooperation. In an appealing variation on Orwell's language theory, Sharer society is fundamentally egalitarian, and their language makes it difficult for them to even understand concepts like domination or unilateral action. In the Sharer tongue, verbs bidirectionally link subjects with objects. If your hand strikes a wall, the wall strikes your hand. If you shun someone, then that person shuns you. If you teach someone, you learn from them.

This leads to a very appealing culture, based around sharing and mutual respect. It isn't a monolithic one: Sharers can and do disagree with one another, and they develop very different personalities, defined in part by the "selfnames" they claim: The Intemperate One, The Stubborn, The Traitor. They generally strive for consensus, but do not compel it. They place a high value on learning, seeking to correct misunderstandings and spread knowledge amongst one another.

The more immediately obvious defining feature of Sharers, though, might be that they're all women. I don't remember if the novel ever addresses whether they evolved this way or if the males died out, but they've developed the ability to reproduce by directly shaping embryos in the womb. (As a side note, they also have an interesting belief in reincarnation: the councils will decide when to create more children, and they believe that the souls of dead Sharers will inhabit those new bodies, thus keeping the overall Sharer population fairly consistent and maintaining a limited demand on Shora's resources.) Of course, this reminded me of Ammonite, although it's cool to see how differently those societies turn out. Jeep tended towards pacifism, while Shora is wholly pacifist; Jeep is mostly driven by a gift economy with limited bartering, while Shora doesn't really have an economy but has adopted barter for trade with other worlds; Jeep is a heterogeneus civilization with various competing tribes while Shora is more homogenous. And there are similarities: both planets, despite being considered "primitive", have highly advanced life science;  both are largely monogamous; both have some sort of meditative trance that can have a transformative effect on those who undergo it.

Some of this probably has to due with the authors' different interests. Joan is a professor of biology, and, while biology isn't the main point of this novel, it's a very cool and important element. Some of this drives the plot, as when Valedonians are baffled by Shora's flora and the Sharers' relation to it. There are occasional semi-deep-dives as well, when Sharers detail how a particular organism works, or the important role a seeming pest has to play in the larger ecosystem they rely upon. As with some of my favorite science fiction, A Door Into Ocean shows an alternate route to reach a familiar place: they have a planetary communication system, recorded knowledge of all their science and history, lifesaving treatments for seemingly fatal injuries. And yet, these are all developed from organic, living sources. Or... "developed" is probably not the right word. Sharers have integrated themselves into Shora, and learned how to thrive within it, rather than bending it to their will.

We learn a lot of the basics about Shora and Sharers through the eyes of Spinel, a young Valedonian male who is apprenticed on the planet. Honestly, I found Spinel a little hard to take, which may have been deliberate. It was difficult for me to place him: at first I imagined him being about eight to ten years old, as he's constantly throwing temper tantrums and storming off in a huff. But then there's the sex stuff later on, which made me think he was a particularly immature young adult. And then near the end Merwen reflects on how much taller he's grown, so I'm left kind of imagining him as an early-to-mid teen. Anyways. I never liked him all that much, but he becomes much more tolerable as the book continues, especially after he returns to Valedon and starts bearing witness.

The really cool thing about Spinel is his stone-knowledge. For most of the novel, it's been kind of inescapable that Sharers are "good" and Valedonians are "bad": that's an oversimplification, but the Sharer way of life seems far superior. But I really appreciated that Slonczewski doesn't make the Sharers perfect, and one of the great examples of this is their fearful, almost hateful relationship with stone. Very late in the novel, we start to see how this is based on ignorance, not entirely unlike the ignorance-based hatred that many outsiders bear towards Sharers. Once Spinel begins learn-sharing with them, they can begin to see that stone is nothing to fear: diamonds are carbon, and carbon is the basis of life. Stone can "grow", it's just done under different conditions, like high pressure and heat. As they begin to understand it, their fear starts to drop away, and you can imagine their stone-sickness dropping in potency.


Besides Spinel, the other Valedonian we hear a lot from is Realgar, especially in the last third or so of the novel. He... seems a little like the husband in a Lifetime Movie Of The Week. He's very awful and easy to cheer against. While it was discomforting, I did kind of appreciate that we got to see his point of view, so we could see his rationalizations and motivations. Spinel's ignorance is a useful device to explain Sharers, but Realgar's hostility is arguably even more useful, as it provides a sharp contrast and draws out the way Sharers will behave even under distress.

Realgar's occupation and campaign of domination start exploring major themes of nonviolent resistance and anticolonialism. The asymmetry of the struggle is highlighted, not only in means (Sharers have no weapons) but also in aims (Valedon seeks to conquer and profit, Shora seeks to embrace and learn). The price Shora plays is real and huge, particularly near the end as waves upon waves of peaceful martyrs are brutally slaughtered. The Sharers' response seems to be successful, but not at all easy or simple, requiring a huge amount of dedication and sacrifice. It's fragile, too: a single act of violence immediately undoes all the good work done before and comes close to dooming their entire species.

Reading this book, I was curious how readers in the mid-80s would have read this scenario and applied it. My immediate thought was of colonialism, especially in Indochina: the asymmetry of goals and mutual incomprehension reminded me a lot of the Vietnam war. But it might be more accurate to think of the civil rights movement in the United States or Gandhi's movement for Indian independence, particularly in terms of the methods used for resistance and revolution.

Now, in the 2010s, I find myself thinking of global adventurism, capitalism, and terrorism. How should wealthy and powerful nations behave in their relations with poorer and weaker ones? How will those other nations respond? Asymmetry is inevitable, and while I passionately wish that all parties would follow principles of peace and understanding, it isn't at all surprising that many will choose to follow the example of Nisi rather than Usha.

I suspect that some readers were annoyed by the ending, but I loved it: the last-minute conversations, reversal of plans, and open-ended personal relation between Spinel and Lystra. That felt very real to me, and also like an echo of the culture we've spent a novel exploring. Sharers aren't defined by their dogma: they're curious, taking in new information, adapting, finding the best decisions based on their values and present circumstances. They tend to operate by consensus but, well, Lystra has always been headstrong and independent, and it's very much in keeping with her to act. At a macro level I'm left with the feeling that things will be okay, and I like the bit of messiness that's left for the individuals we've grown attached to.


It looks like this is the first book in a series, and I imagine I'll pick up the remainder at some point. This novel covers some really cool, fertile ground, and scratches the itch I'm increasingly feeling for warm, thoughtful, progressive science fiction.