misce stultitiam consiliis brevem

Archive for the 'Science Fiction/Fantasy' Category


When I was encouraged to read Ruthanna Emrys’s Winter Tide, which jumpstarts from the “Deep Ones” part of H.P. Lovecraft’s mythology and is intended as the beginning of an “Innsmouth Legacy” series (Tor’s got some previews from the months before the book was released), it was fairly popular in my library systems. While waiting my turn I got myself a better Lovecraft grounding: specifically, The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, which as a hardcover volume feels really impressive. (One of my math friends at Harvard demonstrated his thesis’s, er, gravity by dropping it on the floor for me. You’ve all heard the one about a class’s grades starting from “A to the person whose paper falls farthest down a staircase,” right? This guy seemed actually to be aiming for that—proudly.)

The source for the Winter Tide recommendation asked, upon hearing of my progress, “Do you think Lovecraft as an original author is worth reading?” That’s the sort of question I like to respond to publicly.

Do I feel honor-bound to have my Lovecraft “grounding” before I attempt a spin-off/re-imagining like Winter Tide or Lovecraft Country? Not at all. Do I think it’s likely useful background to enhance my experience not only of those books, but of a host of other cultural experiences up to and including overhearing “de-briefs” of Arkham Horror and Eldritch Horror at HRSFen Summer Party? Oh, yeah. Heck, I hadn’t even known until the other month the reference inherent in Batman Begins‘s “Arkham Asylum.” “Lovecraftian horror” is one of those terms thrown around enough that it’s worth having a primary-source experience for it.

Lovecraft’s well-acknowledged real-life racism and other prejudices are, indeed, off-putting to say the least. Some people recoil at his very likeness. To me, though, it can’t be any significant factor in my appreciation for his fiction. Fiction must speak for itself. I feel insulted, and sometimes literally pained, when I feel an author is insulting the audience—and this is partly because it’s a misuse of the medium. Characters with unsavory personal views, in contrast, are often a perfectly valid element in the author’s story-telling. And that’s how the racism in Lovecraft’s actual stories feels to my reading. His stories assume certain bizarre fears and ‘ick’ factors about certain heritages (long-term small-village insulation being even more off-putting to the characters than ethnic background). This assumption from story to story is consistent enough that one isn’t surprised to hear it comes directly from the author. However, the stories propound equally–or more–consistently and markedly the fear that “people around me might be in contact with or even worshiping arcane powers that it’s Better We Know Not Of”—that’s exactly the atmosphere people like in “Lovecraftian horror,” isn’t it?

Besides, it’s truly charming to skim over the annotations in The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft. There’s how many biographies and critical works and cross-referencing and maps and genealogies and other secondary literature? It’s just sweet that so many people have cared so much for the worlds he created. It reminds me of Tolkien.

C.S. Lewis might very well have agreed with me that Lovecraft and Tolkien have a legitimate kinship here. In An Experiment in Criticism, one of the greatest literary critics suggests very gently and very persuasively that the value of a book may lie less in how it is written, and more in how it is read. The chapter “On Myth,” though not the center of Lewis’s argument, is my favorite part of the volume, and the part applicable here:

There is … a particular kind of story which has a value in itself—a value independent of its embodiment in any literary work. …

The pleasure of myth depends hardly at all on such usual narrative attractions as suspense or surprise. Even at a first hearing it is felt to be inevitable. And the first hearing is chiefly valuable in introducing to us a permanent object of contemplation….

The degree to which a story is any story is a myth depends very largely on the person who hears or reads it. … Where one finds only danger for the heroes, the other may feel the ‘aweful.’ Where one races ahead in curiosity, the other may pause in wonder. … The myth-loving boy, if he is also literary, will soon discover that [John]  Buchan is by far the better writer; but he will still be aware of reaching through [H. Rider] Haggard something which is quite incommensurate with mere excitement. Reading Buchan, he asks ‘Will the hero escape?’ Reading Haggard, he feels ‘I shall never escape this. This will never escape me. These images have struck roots far below the surface of my mind.’

Over the course of almost a century, H.P. Lovecraft has inspired readers gleefully to dig into, mine out, crack open, polish, display, and send to the stars every little nugget of the strange, fearsome world his characters live and (mostly) die in. A discovery whether some version of that world strikes roots, too, in you is worthwhile irrespective of the quality or morals of the writing.

Oh, and about the writing: yes, I, too, get the impression from At the Mountains of Madness that you could cut out a full third of the text just by culling adjectives synonymous with “eldritch.” But it’s like with Philip K. Dick, or George Lucas: these men have ideas that can light fires in so many imaginations. That’s worth appreciating.

No comments

Jerusalem – overview plot post

HRSFANS Book Clubread-a-LONG up to our February 13, 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, “Book One—The Boroughs.”

Reminder: proposal is now that the official Book Club plan for February 13, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book.

This post has as much as I’ve got plot spoilers for Book One—The Boroughs,” based on content in the first two chapters of “Book Two—Mansoul.”

The point of this post is to give a plot overview to people who want a baseline for discussion on Monday, whether you’ve read through the end of Book One or not. If you don’t want such a baseline, don’t read further.

This post has minimal concept/perspective spoilers.

Thank you, Captain Exposition

So, here’s your overview of Book One (with parts specific to the narrator’s role redacted, so as to limit the spoilers to Book One, NOT also Book Two):

[Narrator name redacted] had heard of Alma Warren. She’d grow up to be a moderately famous artist, doing paperback and record covers, who had intermittent visionary spasms. … So, Michael Warren was the pretty brother of alarming-looking Alma Warren, who could somehow entice fiends to sit for her. And then there was the strange event of cryptic import that would take place … in 2006, with which the woman artist would be heavily involved. …[T]he pieces started tumbling into intriguing new arrangements. Something positively Byzantine was going on…. There was all that business of a female saint in the twenty-fives…. That affair had tenuous links with the occurrences in 2006, links that related to the Ancestry of Alma Warren …

And her brother.

Oh, now, this was interesting. They were siblings, and so had their ancestry in common.

That meant that Michael Warren was a Vernall too. It didn’t matter if he knew it, and mattered less if he liked it. He was tied by blood-bonds to the old profession, to the ancient trade.

…[T]he greater part of Mansoul’s unique local terminology came from the Norman or the Saxon, phrases such as Frith Bohr, Porthimoth di Norhan and the like. Vernall was older, though…, since, what the Roman occupation? And … it might derive from earlier traditions still, from Druids or antlered Hob-men that preceded them, weird figures crouching in the smoke-drifts of antiquity. Though Vernall was a job description, it described an occupation that was based on an archaic world-view, one which had not been in evidence for some two thousand years and one which did not see reality in terms the modern world would recognize.

A Vernall tended to the boundaries and corners, and it was in the mundane sense of a common verger that the term came to be understood throughout the Boroughs during medieval times. The ragged edges that comprised a Vernall’s jurisdiction, though, had not originally been limited to those weed-strangled margins of the mortal and material world alone.

The corners that a Vernall had traditionally marked and measured and attended to were those that bent into the fourth direction; were the junctions that existed between life and death, madness and sanity, between the Upstairs and the Downstairs of existence. Vernalls overlooked the crossroads of two very different planes, sentinels straddling a gulf that no one else could see. As such they would be prone to certain instabilities, yet at the same time often were recipient to more-than-normal insights, talents or capacities. In just the recent lineage of Michael Warren and his sister Alma, [narrator name redacted] could think of three or four striking examples of these odd hereditary tendencies. There had been Ernest Vernall, working on the restoration of St. Paul’s when he fell into conversation with a builder. Snowy, Vernall, Ernest’s fearless son, and Thursa, Ernest’s daughter, with her preternatural grasp of higher-space acoustics. There had been ferocious May, the deathmonger, and the magnificent and tragic Audrey Vernall, languishing at present in a run-down mental hospital abutting Berry Wood. Vernalls observed the corners of mortality, and watched the bend that all too often they would end up going round themselves.

…This clueless child, currently dead but in a few days [sic] time apparently alive, had been the cause of a colossal brawl between the Master Builders. More than this he was a Vernall by descent, related to  a woman who was central to the crucial business that would take place in the spring of 2006. This forthcoming event was known, in Mansoul, as the Vernall’s Inquest. Much depended on it, not least the eventual destiny of certain damned souls….

I have some suspicion, also because of a mention later in this same chapter, and because of “Rough Sleepers,” that the last sentence is the tie-in to “ASBOs of Desire” and “Atlantis.”

And one more passage that sheds light on the points of the chapters “X Marks the Spot” and “Blind But Now I See,” and the part about transportation in “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey” –

For one thing, well over a thousand years ago the Master Builders chose this town to site their rood, their cross-stone, marking out this land’s load-bearing centre. There, down on the lowly district’s southeast corner, there is England’s crux. Out from this central point extends a web of lines, connective creases on the map of space-time linking one place with another, paths imprinted on teh fabric of reality by multiple human trajectories. People have journeyed to this crucial juncture from America, from Lambeth and, if we include the monk who followed the instructions of the builders in delivering their cornerstone, from Jerusalem itself. Though all these regions be remote from one another upon the material plane, seen from these higher mathematic reaches they are joined in the most gross and obvious of ways. Indeed, they’re almost the same place.

No comments

Jerusalem – overview concept post

HRSFANS Book Clubread-a-LONG up to our February 13, 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, “Book One—The Boroughs.”

Reminder: proposal is now that the official Book Club plan for February 13, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book.

This post has a bit of plot spoilers clearly marked in the lower part of the heading “Authorial Intent.”

It has as much as I’ve got concept/perspective spoilers, based on content in the first two chapters of “Book Two—Mansoul.”


The beginning of “Book Two—Mansoul” reads like the actual second book in a series, with an overview of what you will have learned before about the characters being summarized in a “Thank you, Captain Exposition” manner.

The weird part is that “Book One—The Boroughs” reads NOTHING like the first book in a series (with the exception of the last chapter). “Book One” reads like a series of character sketches – not even a series of short stories, since nothing plot-related happens in most of them – just a series of “filling out the fictional world” bits for the author to have fun with. It’s like Seanan McGuire’s webpage of additional short stories in the InCryptid universe, except that those do have plot and are not published as if they, in aggregate, stand alone as a publication.

Honestly, having gotten through it now, I find it a pretty annoying way for Moore to have done things. Does he really have a big enough fan base and/or literary cred to get away with this? On only his second work actually published as a novel? Maybe so based on the tiny bits of reviews I saw on a Google search for Jerusalem, but in retrospect I would MUCH have preferred setting “Book Two—Mansoul” as our joint read. (NOT that I’m proposing that as a change at this point – we’ll totally go with what we’ve got.)

Partly I bring this up because over my time with Book Club I’ve learned that Ursula K. LeGuin can write complete novels full of plot and characterization in less than 200 pages, and even in only barely more than 100 pages. Genre authors just don’t DO that anymore, though my dad confirms that it wasn’t even unusual for ’70s SF. I don’t actually begrudge the additional time to read a Neal Stephenson or Nnedi Okorafor or Seanan McGuire novel, but it is starting to, well, annoy me. I’d like that as part of the discussion on Monday.

Life as book

I was TOTALLY right in Post 2 and Post 5 that though Jerusalem as a whole wasn’t written as if you were supposed to know all its parts already at any given point, it sometimes seems that way–and the first two chapters in MULTIPLE places confirm this is by design.

(Unlike in prior posts, I’m not going to name perspective characters or even chapter titles here for non-spoiler purposes: just know that each of these are paragraphs of dialogue.)

Only when we’re reading through the pages wizzle there be any order to ‘um. When the book’s shut, all its leaves are pressed together into paper inches that don’t really goo one way or t’other. They’re just there.

and, with greater detail –

Think of your life s being like a book, a solid thing where the last line’s already written when you’re starting the first page. Your consciousness is progressing through the narrative from its beginning to its end, and you become caught up in the illusion of events unfolding and time going by as these things are experienced by the characters within the drama. In reality, however, all the words that shape the tale are fixed upon the page, the pages bound in their unvarying order. Nothing in the book is changing or developing. Nothing in the book is moving save in the reader’s mind as it moves through the chapters. When the story’s finished and the book is closed, it does not burst immediately into flames. The people in the story and their twists of fortune are not disappeared without a trace as though they’d not been written. All the sentences describing them are still there in the solid and unchanging tome, and at your leisure you may read within the whole of it again as often as you like.

It’s just the same with life. Why, every second of it is a paragraph you will revisit countless times and find new meanings in, although the wording is not changed. Each episode remains unaltered at is designated point within the text, and every moment thus endures forever. Moments of exquisite bliss and moments of profound despair, suspended in time’s endless amber, all the hell or heaven any brimstone preacher could conceivably desire. Each day and each deed’s eternal, [redacted]. Live them in such a way that you can bear to live with them eternally.

Authorial intent

I’m pleased about the “life as a book” quotes above also because they confirm that, as bizarre as this book is, Moore DID also write it to speak for itself, as in my opinion (inherited to a lesser degree from my father) fiction very much should. However, the first two chapters of Book Two—Mansoul also the bit I noticed in Goodreads Q&A page (“Ask the Author“), though, that Moore expects Jerusalem to become his most personal published work. It looks like he’s putting out not only what might very well be a fictionalized version of his own life and heritage (I say “might be” in that I’ve done not even any perfunctory searching into Moore’s history), but also his concept of a functional SF/F Grand Unifying Theory.

…[T]rees and certain other forms of plant life, they already have a structure that expresses perfectly a timeless life in more than three dimensions. Being motionless, the only movement is in their growth, which leaves a solid trail of wood behind in much the same way that we ourselves are leaving a long stream of ghostly images. The tree’s shape is its history, each bough of the curve a magnificent time-statue whih I can assure you that we folk Upstairs appreciate just as enthusiastically as do you humans.

As for pigeons they are not at all as other birds, and different rules apply to them. For one thing, their perceptions are five times as fast as those of people or most other animals. This means they have a very different sense of time, with all things in the world save them slowed to a crawl in their quicksilver minds. More interesting still they are the one of the only birds, in fact one of the only living creatures not a mammal, which can feed its young with milk. I don’t pretend to know exactly why the pigeon should be favored over all the other beasts in its relation to the higher realm, but I imagine that the business with the milk has got a lot to do with it. It probably enhances their symbolic value in the yes of management, so that they have a special dispensation to behave as psychopomps and flutter back and forth between the pastures of the living and the dead, something like that. I’m not sure what they’re for, but mark my words, there’s more to pigeons than most people think.

A few notes on those paragraphs

  1. The first paragraph matches one of my favorite parts in Doctor Zhivago:

    He again thought that his notion of history, of what is known as the course of history, was not a all the same as the accepted one, and that he pictured it as similar to the life of the vegetable kingdom. In winter, under snow, the bare branches of a deciduous forest are as scraggly and pathetic as the hairs on an old man’s wart. In spring the forest is transformed in a few days, rises to the clouds; one can lose oneself, hide oneself in a leafy maze. The transformation is achieved by a movement that suprasses in speed the movements of animals, since animals do not grow as quickly as plants, and that can never be observed. A forest does not move; we cannot catch it, cannot surprise it changing place. We always find it immobile. And it is in the same immobility that we find the eternally growing, eternally changing life of society, history, in its unobservable transformations.

  2. In the second paragraph, each of these purported attributes of pigeons also matches something I’ve heard about insects: that the common housefly can see movement about 4 times as fast as a human, and that the tsetse fly has something pretty close to what humans recognize as a pregnancy and breastfeeding (which is SERIOUSLY GROSS). There’s a lot more to insects than we’d like to give them credit for, too, their capacities for agriculture and animal husbandry being my favorite “scare-the-pants-off-me” examples.

Another “Grand Unifying Theory” few paragraphs, which unlike the rest of this post has plot spoilers for Book Two, as well. I recognize these from such speculations as The Secret History of the World as Laid Down by the Secret Societies directly and am pretty certain is responsive to such authors as Blake and Milton indirectly –

You have to bear in mind that this was back before there was a time as we know it now, or a material universe of any sort. There wasn’t any trouble. Naturally, that didn’t last. It was decided higher up that part of the great being … should be pushed down to two or three dimensions to create a plane of physical existence. In effect, some of us were demoted from a world of naught but light and bliss into this new construction, this new realm of bodily sensation, of emotions and the endless torrent of delights and torments that those things entail. I’ll grudgingly admit that this disastrous reshuffle might well have been necessary, in some way that we who labored in the lower ranks were not aware of. Even so, it bloody hurt.

… what this  whole new earthly plane had been created for. It turned out it was something called organic life. …

It is our hope that in a thousand or so mortal years we shall again attain the limitless, exalted state…. Mankind is the sole impediment to our ambitions. If we are to reach the highest realm from our current location in the lowest, then the middle realm must first be pushed up from below, ahead of us. If not, our one alternative is clawing our way through you, I’m afraid, should desire to ever see the sun again.

A last concept spoiler

Read the title of Book Two, “Mansoul,” as a compound word.

It’s called Mansoul because Mansoul’s its name. … I mean, you couldn’t give a thing a plainer label. It’s entirely self-explanatory and anyone with any sense would just accept it, although I can see you’re not included in that category.

No comments

Jerusalem, Post 5

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, “Book One—The Boroughs.”

Reminder: proposal is now that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book.

This post has some plot spoilers.

It has more concept/perspective spoilers.

Last-for-now favorite quote

Laugh-out-loud from the first page of the chapter “Choking on a Tune,” perspective character Michael (Mick) (hey! a second chapter with the same perspective character! Whoa!):

Blinded and howling, this according to the subsequent colourful witness statements of fellow employees, Mick had charged round in a semicircle and, with all the slapstick timing of a radiation-scarred post-nuclear Harold Lloyd, had run head first into a bar of steel prtruding from the outsize scales on which the flattened drums were weighed. He’d knocked himself out cold, and looking back congratulated himself on the speed with which, in trying circumstances, he had improvised a painkiller that was both total and immediate in its effect. Hardly the actions of a stupid man, he’d smugly reassured himself after a day or two, by which time the worst bruises weren’t so bad.

Should’ve picked the middle?

I finished the first third of Jerusalem today. YAY! I read on and was surprised at how easily the second part started to move: the last chapter of “Book One—The Boroughs” and first chapter of “Book Two—Mansoul” follow much more directly from the moody and hinting-at-reasons “Prelude” than do any of the chapters before them. We get to start hearing more about Michael’s vision. In fact, it’s getting a lot like Black Elk Speaks around here: I feel like we might be about to learn his life’s mission, revealed to him in a vision in a fit as a small child. The timings are even quite comparable (Black Elk had a nine-day catatonic spell at the age of five, Michael Warren was at the age of three unconscious or dead for two weeks of his own subjective experience, though less than an hour from his family’s perspective).

Yes, I feel like all the multi-generational “friends and relatives” – oh, and ghosts – stuff earlier gave me a more thorough grounding in what the heck might be going on “Upstairs” than I would have had starting here, but it almost certainly would have felt more standard in a modern narrative way to give us the plot chapters (if plot this is) interwoven with background, rather than lay such deep literal foundations before attending to any construction we can see from ground level.

I guess this kind of gets back to Post 2 that though this book wasn’t written as if you were supposed to know all its parts already at any given point, it sometimes seems that way.

Another SF/F burst I’d forgotten to mention

From the same 4-page spread of “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey” that was suddenly FULL of tropes I recognized:

Vernalls, as their father had defined the term, were those responsible for tending to the boundaries and corners, to the edges and the gutters. Though a lowly place in the ethereal hierarchy it was a necessary one that carried its own numinous authority.

There’s a similar worker early in Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, a “lineman” who is much more secure in her post and sense of self than most of the characters in Jerusalem (and particularly than any of the Vernalls, with the possible exception of Thursa).

This will be very hard for you

Quote, from “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey,” perspective character Snowy:

“This will be very hard for you.”

He meant his child, his wife, himself, meant everyone who’d ever struggled from the womb to somewhere that was brighter, colder, dirtier and not so loving in its ways. This, THIS, this place, this eddy in the soup of history, this would be very hard for all of them. You didn’t need an angel to come down and tell you that.

Quote, from “The Breeze That Plucks Her Apron,” perspective character May:

Worse than this, she had started to suspect that life, all life that walked upon the earth, had never had a reason from the start. This was a world of accident and mess without a divine plan that guided things. It weren’t that God moved in mysterious ways, more that you never saw him move at all. What was the point of going on with it, the human race? Why did everyone keep having babies, when they knew they’d die? Giving them life then snatching it away, just so you’d have some company. It was cruel. How had she ever seen things differently?

There’s a folktale folded into the middle of Orson Scott Card’s Saints, regarding two traveling salesmen and the promise of happiness. I’ve got the book waiting for me at the local library and will be able to pick it up in a day or two to reread and be able to summarize it more carefully. For now, let’s just say that it involves a character who asks for advice on happiness getting a suspicious, angry look and a screed thrown back at her that I’m almost certain I remember including the promise, “It means watching your children die” — yet the tale is neither callous nor farcical.

Sanctity inhering in a PLACE

This is one of the first topics I’d thought of writing about when I started reading Jerusalem, and I’ve been studiously putting off writing about it, because it involves looking into Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, and no matter what I read, Neil Gaiman and I are NEVER on the same page.

This evening I got the book out, frowned at it, and said, “This is a problem.”

My husband solicitously suggested I could put it back.

“I need to find the part about the House on the Rock,” I grumbled.

Google Books search failed me … and then I paged to it in our paperback in about 15 seconds. So, whew, much less painful than I’d expected.

Here goes:

“This is a roadside attraction,” said Wednesday. “One of the finest. Which means it is a place of power.”

“Come again?”

“It’s perfectly simple,” said Wednesday. “In other countries, over the years, people recognized the places of power. Sometimes it would be a natural formation, sometimes it would just be a place that was, somehow, special. They knew that something important was happening there, that there was some focusing point, some channel , some window to the Immanent. And so they would build temples or churches, or erect stone circles, or … well, you get the idea.”

“There are churches all across the States, though,” said Shadow.

“In every town. Sometimes on every block. And about as significant, in this context, as dentists’ offices. No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

“You have some pretty whacked-out theories,” said Shadow.

“Nothing theoretical about it, young man,” said Wednesday. “You should have figured that out by now.”

So, back to “X Marks the Spot,” perspective character Peter:

If it were indeed a home of Christian worship, Peter knew it for a Christianity more old than his and come from the traditions of three hundred years before, when the forebears of Peter’s order had been forced to seek appeasement with the followers of peasant gods by mixing in Christ’s teaching with their rude and superstitious lore, preached from the mounds where shines to devils were once raised.

“X Marks the Spot” is, more importantly, the chapter where Peter is on a quest (returning from a pilgrimage) to plant a relic in the centre of his land. I don’t understand, and don’t remember him quite understanding, why this is important, but the world conspires to bring his task to its completion.

Reaching again to Snowy, in “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey” (this being, admittedly, one of the chapters NOT set in Northampton, but positing a close connection, tesseract-like, between there and Lambeth):

The Lambeth visionary [William Blake]’s notions of a fourfold and eternal city seemed at times so close to Snowy’s own view, right down to the exact number of its folds, that he had wondered if there were some quality in Lambeth that encouraged such perceptions. There may be, he’d often thought, some aspect of the district’s shape or placement when considered on more planes than three that made it most especially conducive to a certain attitude, to a unique perspective….

I really don’t know how to tie that all together. Maybe I’ll come up with some more before next week, but then again, clearly Moore plans to take his time about it all.

1 comment

Jerusalem, Post 4

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, “Book One—The Boroughs.”

Reminder: proposal is now that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book.

This post has hints at plot spoilers.

It has moderate concept/perspective spoilers.

Start at “Do As You…” if you’re looking for a clue

Like I’ve been warning, this book goes on and on with minimal connection from chapter to chapter, and with each chapter being itself less part of a story than a character study in “short-story” form. Very worthwhile on its own terms, but confusing and potentially frustrating if judged by terms Book Club is more used to.

“Do As You Darn Well Pleasey” breaks this mold. Not entirely, but enough that I can recommend jumping to there if you’re getting bogged down. Read this and at least you’ll feel you’re being set down on a path that involves some narrative plan, and some planned central conflict, and ground rules for how that conflict will be managed.

SF/F bursts

He he. So right after writing in the last post that Jerusalem shouldn’t count as SF/F I come across a set of less than four pages that, to me, rattles off like machine-gun fire pretty specific tie-in references to a nicely wide variety of genre works that I like a lot.

Quotes from “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey,” perspective character Snowy:

It would be hard for Snowy because he lived in a world where everything was there forever, never ended, never altered. … When he looked at it objectively, he saw that the real measure of his freedom was that he was free of the illusion of free will.

i.e. Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Hi death would come in a long corridor of rooms, like the compartments of a railway train, and Snowy’s mouth would be crammed full of colours.

… maybe Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination.

As if they and their lives were not the smallest and most abstract brushstroke, a pointillist dab fixed and unmoving in time’s varnish, there eternally on an immeasurable canvas, part of a design too vast for its component marks to ever glimpse or comprehend.

… i.e. Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry.

Ernest had explained to him and Thursa how there was a way of foldin our experience of space as easily as we might fold a map to join two different places together, say the Boroughs of Northampton and the streets of Lambeth.

… i.e. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time.

These two places were in fact unusually easy to bring into close proximity, due to the numerous others who had made the trip before and, doing so, had worked the fold into a worn and whitened crease.

This one hits me as so reminiscent of so much stuff I can’t quite put my finger on now (so to speak)–it definitely reminds me of the speculations on the workings of the Shadow Roads in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye novels, but I’m almost certain that’s attributable to my obsession alone (whereas for most of the others I can very easily suspect authorial intent).

Mr. Dadd, the fairy-painter who’d gone mad and murdered his own father.

Not checking this, I’m almost certain this “fairy-painter” is also alluded to in Terry Pratchett’s The Wee Free Men (almost certain because the allusion is explicated in an afterword, with a few key notes both on the painting and its author’s life).

[H]e allowed his consciousness of time to crystallise around the quarter-inch of the duration axis that the moment represented so that things slowed to a crawl, the progress of events barely perceptible. … “Pigeon eyes,” their dad had called this gift, without explaining why.

Well, in Ransom Riggs’s Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children it’s explained that only birds are time-travelers.


Quote, from “Modern Times,” perspective character with several aliases:

The woman laughed and it was music, more that of a pub piano on a Friday night than of Debussy, but music just the same.

Quote, from “Do As You Darn Well Pleasey,” perspective character Snowy:

… [T]he baby’s head was now emerged completely. Snowy’s wife had the appearance of those peg dolls you could buy that were reversible and had a head on each end at the junction of the limbs.

Then there’s any number of mentions of chamberpots and the smells of various excreta, in any number of chapters, which are, well, just rather more vivid than I’m used to in my reading. Even in other fiction set far enough in the past as to be before deodorant (or a concern for it), it usually isn’t pointed out that people, and living, and particularly living in cities, really smells. Here, that is pointed out.


Jerusalem, Post 3

HRSFANS Book Club – read-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

It has ridiculously hand-wavingly vague, I wouldn’t count it but maybe Kevin would concept/perspective spoilers.

NEW PROPOSAL for shorter version of the read

I propose that the official Book Club plan for February 6, 2017 meeting be to discuss Jerusalem‘s “Book One—The Boroughs”: the first third of the book. (Of course, if you don’t manage all of that, it’s also still fine to come! Book Club realized long ago that we can have good Book Club meetings whether or not people liked the book, and I think this also counts for whether or not people have finished the book!)

This book is long and dense enough that, considering other commitments, I’d have a lot of trouble finishing it by a month from now. The few people I’ve talked to who are also reading it are not yet so far along as me. So perhaps realism is the better part of valor.

“Book One” alone will presumably leave us hanging as to the main plot, but, seriously, this is not a plot-driven book. Let me say that again: this is a seriously not plot-driven book. It’s like Citizen Kane, which is less a story than a character study. Jerusalem is less a story than an set of character studies, linked to add up to a portrait of a place and a way of life.

Like the density of the writing, this may make Jerusalem pretty annoying for people who like their novels comprehensible. (Though I hope some of these people will try it out, then come to complain, anyhow: see above—Book Club is good with or without love of the book!) Also, it’ll mean we get more than usual chance to speculate on what the heck is supposed to be going on in general.

My husband’s told me that I’m really not making this book sound inviting in these posts. Well, what can I say? I was surprised that more people showed interest in reading Jerusalem: I had suggested it because I wanted the support of more readers for a task that was looking kind of daunting to me. I agreed to write about the reading experience—and that feels daunting, too—as a sort of giving back to those people who are also reading.

So thank you for reading this, and thank you for reading Jerusalem. And please come to HRSFANS Book Club meeting February 6, 2017, to help us all.

Is it SF/F?

Is Jerusalem a work of science fiction/fantasy/speculative fiction?

Books that seem on the borders of genre, or beyond it, come up every now and then at Book Club, like River of No Return and Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore. (In the former case, the overall consensus was “maybe,” in the latter “no.”) I say science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, what about if …” I’m not sure what I’d use as a definition for fantasy: probably something similar, but using some set of outside-lived-experience-realistic tropes rather than using technology. very much welcome better definitions in comments.

So I’d say Jerusalem is not SF/F. There’s some things going on that are outside of what we can experience in average everyday life, but those aren’t being used to advance a plot or an argument or an understanding, so far as I can see.

Preserve a fragment of the life

Quotes, from “Atlantis,” perspective character Benedict:

On recently refurbished crab-paste brickwork were the words or possibly single word NEWLIFE, a sideways silver logo, more a label for a mobile phone or for an everlasting battery than for a tower [apartment] block, he’d have thought. Benedict winced, attempting not to look at it. For the most part, he found it comforting to still reside in the beloved neighbourhood, except for those occasions when you noticed that the loved one had been dead for thirty years and was now decomposing. Then you felt a bit like someone form an item out of Fortean Times, one of those lovelorn and demented widowers still plumping up the pillows for a bride who’s long since mummified. Newlife: urban regeneration that the’d had to literally spell out because of its conspicuous absence otherwise. As if just bolting up the mirror-finish letters made it so. What had been wrong with all the old life, anyway?

And this:

He’d always felt that he could talk to Lily, although looking back it pained him to admit that most of what he’d talked was drunken rubbish. That was largely what had finished it between the two of them. It was the drink and, if he were entirely honest, it was Ben’s insistence that the rules in his relationship with Lily be those that had suited his own parents, Jem and Eileen, thirty years before, particularly those that suited Jem. Back then Ben hadn’t really taken in that everything was changing, not just streets and neighborhoods but people’s attitudes; what people would put up with. He’d though that at least in his own home he could preserve a fragment of the life he’d known right here in Freeschool Street, where wives would tolerate constant inebriation in their husbands and consider themselves blessed if they’d a man who didn’t hit them. He’d pretended that the world was still that way, and he’d been stunned right to the core of him when Lily took the kids and demonstrated that it wasn’t.

About that place and that way of life, which it seems Jerusalem is designed to evoke: they’re in bad shape. They’ve been in bad shape for some time: by some counts, they’ve been declining for centuries. I don’t know whether Northampton is a known place to Englishmen and Englishwomen. There’s reference in the text to it not being known, rather unaccountably so, and quite unlike how a similar place would be talked up in America. Which leads me to: both my parents grew up in Flint, Michigan. I’ve never lived there, but the city’s always still been my family’s center of gravity, and I’ve heard all my life about the pain from the city’s decline, witnessed from inside and out.

There is something living about the innumerable people, resources, animals, ideas, ambitions, projects, and so forth that converge, then weave and dance and brawl, to create a city, and the livingness of a city can resemble a lifeform in ways more than just metaphorical (if I’m remembering correctly from Steven Johnson‘s Where Good Ideas Come From, the same back-of-a-napkin formula for the total length of veins in a human can also be used to estimate the total length of water pipes in a city — and by the way, if I’m remembering correctly, Johnson explains why that isn’t as trivial as it sounds). So there is something tragic about the death of a city, as for a person.

And there is also something tragic about a person who has the lifestyle he was led to expect ripped away from him by the arc of history. Do I think it would be good for anyone if more modern marriages conformed to that of Benedict’s parents? No. But I don’t blame Benedict for thinking what he grew up with was normal, or for assuming that what he’d seen growing up would suit him. (McNorris opening Boomtown Season 2 episode 2 is an amazing exposition of this.)

There are a lot of angry people in my country now. Some of them are angry and frightened, and very sad, because they feel like their lifestyle has been taken away over the past several decades, or because they fear a sudden apparent change in society’s course will lead to their lifestyle being taken away over the next several decades. They’re in pain. Whether or not the pain, or the changes that precipitate it, could be or should be avoided, it’s worth acknowledging people are scared and hurting, for reasons including (if certainly not limited to) that you should expect them to lash out.

And this year Britain’s been through its own unexpected change in course, in large part due to similar fear and anger.


Jerusalem, Post 1

HRSFANS Book Clubread-a-LONG up to our Feb 2017 meeting: Alan Moore’s Jerusalem.

This post has GUARANTEED 0, ABSOLUTELY NONE plot spoilers.

I haven’t yet seen (partway into “X Marks the Spot”) two perspective characters actually interact with each other, though some of them have seen each other. This is not a book where the reader is just shadowing character(s) through a narrative. Rather, it seems like the intent is that I, the reader, keep catching balls thrown by the author and, as my arms fill up, I gradually notice ways to piece them together to form a partly congruent whole. It seems intended to be organic in the chemical-reaction sense, rather than the “plantlike” sense.
This is my first Alan Moore. Can anyone tell me whether he’s likely to be able to pull that off?
First favorite quote, from the “Prelude,” perspective character Michael –

“… when he was a child, when the insane were that much easier to spot and someone walking down an empty street towards you yelling angrily into the air was certain to have paranoid psychosis rather than a Bluetooth earpiece.”

Other early favorite quotes:

from “ASBOs of Desire,” perspective character Marla –

What it was, when it was good, it felt like that was you, that was how you were meant to feel, that was the life that you deserved and not all this, this walking round like you’re asleep and feeling like you’re dead.

from “Rough Sleepers,” perspective character Freddy –

You could sometimes see the sisters still up there, a proper pair of dragons who’d been widely-known and talked about when in their prime: wild, shocking and exciting. Famously, they’d once raced naked through the town, leaping and twirling, spitting, running along rooftops, all the way from here to Derngate in about ten minutes, both so dangerous and beautiful people wept to see them. Freddy sometimes spotted them in Mary’s Street, just moping wistfully around the piles of dried-out leaves and litter drifted up against the sunken car park’s wall, drawn back here to the place where they had once commenced their memorable dance The glitter in their eyes, you knew that if they had the chance, even at their age, they’d still do it all again. They’d do it in a minute. Blimey, that would be a sight.

On a one-off basis these sentences are beautiful, but this book is going to be tough on those readers who want to understand a sentence before they go on to the next one. I mean, dude, I’m not one of those people, and I still regularly feel the need to go back and reread almost immediately. The writing is third-person limited, and closer to the idiom of the perspective character’s internal monologue rather than his/her speaking voice. Someone else’s inner monologue is not easy to catch hold of.

This makes me a bit apprehensive about how many other Book Club readers are going to be willing to read at least part of this, and come discuss it with me. We have several members who for one reason or another strongly prefer audio books. I can’t imagine trying to grapple with this in any medium other than the actual printed page – it’s too slippery even for e-reading for me.

And a quote which I’m starting to think bears on some main theme, from “Rough Sleepers,” –

It’s like the houses that used to be down here, with unexpected bends and doors that led off Lord knows where. But all the pokey little nooks and stairways had their purpose in the builders’ plan.

1 comment

Book Club – announcing “read-a-LONG” to February book

HRSFANS Book Club meets each month virtually, by Google Hangouts videoconference. (If you are interested in joining us and have not yet signed up to the Google Groups account – please email Kay S., Kevin M., or Rose M.) Our next few meetings are

  • Dec 12, Silent Hall by N.S. Dolkart
  • Jan 16, Paladin of Souls by Lois McMaster Bujold

On an actual browse through an actual book store (or, well, kind of: it’s a mega-bookstore) earlier this fall I found a bunch of new stuff to try reading, including one that struck me very strongly as The Kind of Book I’d Want Help With. Such a book is usually what makes me want to recommend a month’s foray for Book Club, but Alan Moore’s Jerusalem is also 1200+ pages long, and bears some sort of relation to the works of William Blake—neither of which is by any means Book Club’s usual. (So if you like the idea of regularly discussing books with HRSFANS but not the idea of this doorstop, please don’t be turned off.) I was pleasantly surprised that multiple people said, “yeah, sure, I’m game” when I emailed the group to gauge reaction, so now Jerusalem is our scheduled February 2017 book.

It’s Kay’s suggestion that “It might be easier to tackle this huge, dense book in some kind of read-a-long like steps,” and our weblog seems the simplest way to host those steps. So my commitment for the next while is to post about my progress on Jerusalem at least every other week. Anyone who would like to offer their own post, please contact me or comment to a post and I can coordinate putting it up for you. Of course I hope for comments from other readers throughout.

Before we begin, since this has something to do with William Blake’s Jerusalem, a few sources for that:

  • from BlakeArchive (color, but single link per single page)
  • from HathiTrust (black-and-white, but downloadable in .pdf)
  • the HathiTrust file as a .pdf with blank pages removed, Part 1
  • the HathiTrust file as a .pdf with blank pages removed, Part 2
No comments

Challenge me!

Not actually to a duel, please – I’m unlikely to stand a chance at anything except, maybe, a Clue or Babylon 5 reference-off—and even on those, I wouldn’t rate my chances highly. Just give me good reasons otherwise, or—even better, if appropriate—good reasons for and against:

Star Wars isn’t science fiction.

I need challenging because this came out of my mouth without me really thinking it through first, and in a context where it wasn’t likely to be challenged (right before a staff meeting starting, and I work for a regulatory body). I dredged up some justifications after (in proper Douglas Adams fan fashion; for that matter, in proper human fashion), so I think it’d be fun to argue.

So, Star Wars isn’t science fiction. It’s mythology. Science fiction uses technology as a vehicle for exploring aspects of humanity: “Given people being people, …”

  • “… what would actors do if reincarnation were proven?” (Nancy Kress’s With the Original Cast!)
  • “… what would people seeking meaning do if life on other planets were conclusively disproven?” (Philip K. Dick’s The Trouble with Bubbles)
  • “… what would strong people do if another intelligent species wanted to take ‘the best’ of humanity and integrate it into some other form of life?” (Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis, aka Lilith’s Brood, Orson Scott Card’s Wyrms, &c. &c.)”

Star Wars uses technology to look cool while telling a story that would, and indeed does, unfold exactly the same in any context. It’s is such a classic hero journey that

  • it’s literally used to illustrate the hero journey paradigm in at least one high school class I recently heard of;
  • It’s been awesomely translated into Icelandic saga;
  • I instinctively mapped onto Star Wars characters about half a dozen of the major characters of Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death? the second time I read it (whereas on the first reading, exactly the foreignness of the book’s culture had impressed me most).

But, then, note that I linked no sources for parts of my claim like definitions of “science fiction” or even “hero journey.” So what am I missing? And what’ll be fun to pick apart even if I didn’t really miss it?

No comments

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

If this is not the only post you read this year comparing Beatrix Potter‘s books to Sex in the City, please share your blogroll with the rest of the group.

Why is fiction always about people and relationships?

I started thinking and talking about this question a few years ago. (I labeled it a “personal-intellectual project” of which my “Who’s the medium now?” set of posts in 2010-2011 is one expression). The only counter-example I know well is Dougal Dixon‘s After Man: a Zoology of the Future. An author friend, Alec Nevala-Lee, pointed me to “hysterical realism” (a term for packed-to-the-gills works such as many by DF Wallace, Pyncheon, Don DeLillo, and Zadie Smith) as potential counterexamples:

From James Wood’s review coining the term:

Zadie Smith has said, in an interview, that her concern is with “ideas and themes that I can tie together–problem-solving from other places and worlds.” It is not the writer’s job, she says, “to tell us how somebody felt about something, it’s to tell us how the world works.”

My dad offered many more well-known and better-loved counter-examples: Beatrix Potter’s books. “They’re about animals, not people.” “Of course they’re about people!” I said. “How so?” “Because they’re about how people feel and think and interact with each other.” My dad then accused me of tautology: I define any work of fiction as being “about people.”

That might be a fair criticism, but not with respect to Beatrix Potter stories, and particularly not with respect to The Tale of the Pie and the Patty-Pan. Its first line may be, “Once upon a time there was a Pussy-cat called Ribby, who invited a little dog called Duchess, to tea,” but The Pie and the Patty-Pan is, in fact, exactly like the Sex and the City (TV) episode “A Woman’s Right to Shoes.” Both are surface-funny and subtext-baffling, showing absurd examples of what one may and may not say in certain social circles, what kinds of miscommunications or properly understood communications can or cannot threaten a friendship. Both poke fun at social conventions but apparently without denouncing them. The little animal details in Potter’s book like Duchess begging for a sugar cube on her nose or the doctor being a known and accepted kleptomaniac by virtue of his species (magpie) is probably all that makes Potter’s version easier for me to stomach than HBO’s.


This is very similar to my argument for Invisible Cities and The Twilight Zone being about people: they use tight, focused, beautiful metaphors to externalize a mind or soul’s internal conflicts. And I think it’s an argument very relevant to speculative fiction fans: the main message of a show like Babylon 5 is always, “Aliens are just people, too.”


Next Page »