Category Archives: new weird

Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins

When I read Yellow Blue Tibia, I was struck by the lack: why isn’t there more more Soviet Noir? It seemed obvious when I saw it there: the world-weary gumshoe, the crushing, predatory bureaucracy, the hidden history that is the very history of authoritarian regime. The official story is such glossy fiction, wrapped like a carapace over the bleeding sinew of the body politic. Yellow Blue Tibiais less alternate history and more historiography, the speculative fiction of national narrative and the secret speech that underpins it. Though, of course, Americans were the most well voiced creators of the Noir genre, Noir seems attuned to the Soviet history in a weird way. The commissioner won’t just bust you down to the beat, but disappear your ass to the gulag. Soviets had some of the most fabulously Noir bureaucracies ever built, only sputteringly efficient, capricious, and absolutely deadly. 


 Wolfhound Centuryis a strange animal, existing in the tidal edges of genre, the marshlands that are moving silt. Backwater police Inspector Vissarion Lom is called in by high ranking police official in the capitol city Mirgorod to investigate a Moriarty-ish terrorist, and gets caught up in the wheels within wheels of the Noir plot. I wouldn’t call this densely plotted, as at least part of the time has to be spent introducing us to the world. In this, Wolfhound Centuryprobably has some similarities with Mieville’s The City & The City. And I say “probably” just because I’ve never read The City & The City, but gossip has it that the detective plot of C&C is maybe perfunctory, while the cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma are not. I felt there was a good balance of world building and happening here, anyway, and the action is relatively breathless, if you’re into that sort of thing. Short chapters, shifting points of view, a fair amount of bloodshed once the stakes start escalating like floodwaters. 

Much of the ornament and language is Soviet Russian, something I once knew enough about to be smart, but that has gone hazy for me. Still though, Mirgorod (which translates to “world city” or “peace city”) and its origin myths smack hard of Peter the Great, standing out over the swamp that would become St Petersberg with his near seven feet. Or the Akhmatova hat-tip, or the fact that the secret police are call the NKVD (this the precursor to the KGB), or any of a hundred things. But this is not our world, not an alternate history in the strictest sense. The Vlast with its great unconquerable forests stretching off to the west, the steampunk-ish mudjhiks, the fairy tale palubas like some thing Baba Yaga would create, the fallen angels hard and stony: all of these strange, fantastical things shift the Soviet history, twist it. All in all, I get the impression that Higgins’s grasp of history is very, very good, and his choice to set this in an alternate reality is pointed, not lazy. 

I probably don’t even need to say this isn’t going to work for everyone – no novel does, even your darlings – but it sure worked for me. I usually get really cranky when writers eschew the alternate history in favor of Bullshit Fantasy Planet, where the writer constructs a near-simulacrum of a time period, but then fudges the details for the needs of the protagonists. (Later day steampunk is guilty of this a good deal, and high fantasy, don’t even get me started.) But that is not what happens here. This isn’t so much alt-history as coded history: the extremity of the details, the weirdness, the bent genres, all calling into relief the ugly extremity of history, its non-inevitability despite the fact that it happened, and so on. There’s a time leakage at the center of the plots, a breakage of possible futures and presents, and given the harsh relief between lived lives and the propagandistic gloss under Stalin, this sort of fantastic time slippery is just a beautiful metaphor. 

There’s a character called Vishnik here, a member of old aristocracy who, for a time, managed to hide his manored upbringing. But discovery was inevitable, and he was deposed from the university where he taught. He became an archivist of Mirgorod, a sinecure which he more or less takes seriously. He has been recording the moments when the possible present splits from the actual one, and those moments are stoppingly beautiful, half out of time and within it like a gestating creature. There are dog’s brains within armored suits which smash the way they must. There are fallen angels – harshly alien – who are at war with the forest. God, this kind of encoding and inflection makes me all giddy, especially hitched to a Noir plot that has breathless short chapters that run and scream from one encounter to the next. 

Here’s the thing: I’m not pumped about this ending. I don’t hate it. I get why we end in the marshlands outside Mirgorod, in the interstitial place of sinking land and silted water. That part works for me. 

The world and everything in it, everything that is and was and will be, was the unfolding story of itself, and every separate thing in the world – every particle of rock and air and light, every life, every thought and every event – was also a story, its own story, the story of everything becoming more like itself and less like everything else. The might-be becoming the is. The winter moths, on their pheromone trails, intent on love and flight, were heroes.

But the confrontation between antagonists drags, feeling like this itchy diversion before the real confrontations, which, whoops, apparently won’t be happening in this book. I suppose I could work a justification here for why the book never comes to the final crisis – blah blah, something about the insignificance of individual will versus the state kind, etc – and certain personal trajectories are completed satisfactorily, but if there isn’t a second book, I will be a cranky cat indeed. So, Mr Peter Higgins, get on that shit.

Railsea and Earthsea

One of the reasons I didn’t get to Railseauntil now is that Moby Dickis all over this story, and obviously so. I haven’t ever read Moby Dick, and reading a book without having read the obvious intertexts can be a problem. For example, I know I read The Club Dumas but I was so at sea with all the Dumas-lore that almost none of it stuck. Apparently, seeing a bunch of Three Musketeers movies and having the gist of buddies fighting Cardinal Fang wasn’t enough for me to dig the intertextual story. (But I liked the movie! I know I am a philistine.) But I think Moby Dick, like Frankenstein, is a different situation, in the sense that both of those stories have achieved a level of saturation (at the very least in the States) that you can dig the nods and winks when they come up even if you haven’t read it. They’ve been ground down and seeded into our story-listening DNA. They are molecular at this point.

Hell, even last weekend I was watching The Wrath of Khan- I know; philistine – and Khan in his last scenes spits out the lines, “To the last, I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart, I stab at thee; for hate’s sake, I spit my last breath at thee.” I thought to myself, that is from either Moby Dick or one of the Shakespeare revenge plays. And behold! It is from Moby Dick. (It is somewhat hilarious to consider that Kirk was the Big White Dick in that movie. Ba dump tss.) The crew of the Pequod comes up rather a lot on Trek, the show dealing as it does with explorers and frontiers and the occasional philosophical madness. Alfre Woodard calls Picard Ahab when he’s raging about the Borg in First Contact. He takes her point, and ruefully quotes some lines to her, after which she admits with some embarrassment that she’s never read it. Reference five, Alfre! It’s okay we’ve never read it. It’s in our bones. 

Not that the Moby Dick intertext turned out to be this super huge thing anyway, I say never having read it. Sham ap Soorap is an orphan child-on-the-cusp-of-manhood who is sent off with a moling train as a doctor’s assistant. He appears at the first blood-soaked and swaying on his feet, this powerful image of a bloody boy about to drop. But the story then reverses, chugging, letting you know the half-comfortable events that lead up to this half-uncomfortable image. Railsea is a train-world, where the ocean is stripped and tied with rails in snarls and parallels, all these tracks onto which to lay the story down. The earth of the railsea is a scary place, roiling with all manner of underground monsters: worms, moles, bugs, digger owls. (Like Un Lun Dun, Railsea includes line drawings done by Miéville himself. I toss my underpants on the stage.) It’s a place of reversals and islands and debris, and Sham picks his way through the mess on the ground and underground, and sky and upsky. It seems like a layered world, discrete, with its tracks and isolines, but while the tracks may run linear, the trains on them do not. Oh dear, this is the kind of thing that gets me very hot. 

Railsea has one of those chatty narrators that you sometimes find in young adult literature, like the narrator from The Hobbit but less so. I don’t mean a strong first person voice, like Avice from Embassytown, but a straight up capital-N narrator. My husband and I spent some time talking narrator when I sorted this out about Railsea, and I realized I pretty much only can stand these sort of narrators in young adult fictions. “Name me one chatty narrator in adult fiction,” I said to my man. “Tom Robbins,” he said. I groaned. I admit I loooooved Tom and his narrators before the age of about 25, but after that, no. It’s not even an issue of quality, or my becoming all wise or something, it’s just that all that aggressive meta-narrator stuff aimed at my fully formed personality makes me freak out. I see what you’re doing, so don’t tell me what you’re doing while you’re doing it. But stuff aimed at the unformed? That for some reason doesn’t bug me. I admit my biases are deeply unfair. 

Here’s the thing. I was rolling along in this story, very much enjoying all the usual Miéville touches and flourishes: the weirdness, the half-dashes at local beliefs, the scrubby, bloody rawness. (I admit, I do miss his profanity in this young adult world, but I can forego cussing for other good things.) Then I had the revelation. You guys, this is on some level a riff on A Wizard of Earthsea. How did I not see that before: earthsea, railsea? Omigod, and when Sham and company sail right off the end of the world, on that one impossible track that stretches over the great impossible void, I was breathing right into a bag. Le Guin’s archipelago is the geography of my heart, and while Miéville takes that geography and runs it to a slightly different locale…I’m still breathing into a bag here. My heart, it burns. 

Both of these stories – Railsea, Earthsea – hinge so strongly on their endings and their denouements that I don’t even feel like I can talk about it, even under cover of spoiler. You’d see the terminus of those tracks before you felt the rails, which is part of the point of the thing called story, head out of the window like a dog in the artificial wind. Adventure stories for the young chattily run us from one place to another, confronting impossible and possible monsters, meeting and losing people, learning the tracks of regret and lost opportunities, one’s life narrowing to a single impossible track over the great impossible void. The great thing is that there are seas, whole seas, earthseas beyond the void, and the tracks never run where you expect. Nothing does, even if you knew the shape of Ahab’s philosophy and metaphor-spearing expectations. A railsea does not mean, but be. And 

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

&

&

&

Light by M. John Harrison

Now this is one of the weirdest ass books I’ve read in a long while. This is not a criticism, just an observation. It’s really defying me to encapsulate the story and themes in 50 words or less, but I’ll try to give it a whirl. Three different plots lines follow three different people in three different times. This is not really accurate either: two of these time periods are the same, or overlap, and one of these people is not really a person anymore, but a sentient space ship working on the purpose for a weirdass alien artifact. The contemporary story follows a serial killer who is working on quantum computing. The third follows a man who has just been dumped out of a tank and is running about in something approximating a Noir plot, but with lots of cyberpunkery as ornament. 

This book made me have a couple revelations about genre, and for that I thank it. I don’t generally enjoy super hard science fiction because it’s really weird and schematic. The authors tend to get their duuuuuude on about concepts, and then they forget about good writing and character and all that. I’m up for this occasionally, as I have humanities-type person aversion to reading about science, so I enjoy hard sf for the narrative wrapper that it puts around scientific thought. I’d rather eat glass than read something written non-fictionally about the Technological Singularity (c.f. Kurtzweil, et al.) but it’s cool as a bit of play in a story. (Also, I know, please don’t freak out, that the TS is more bullshit and masturbation than *actual* scientific thought. It was just the first thing I thought of that I would rather see in fiction than in a treatise or similar.)

Anyway, I think it might be time for a massive digression. I recently watched a pretty fascinating conversation go down on Goodreads between a romance novelist and a reader who doesn’t generally read romance. The author spent a lot of time explaining where she was coming from in terms of the characters, how she was trying to say something about sex addiction within the confines of the romance genre. This got me thinking, why did she confine herself to the romance genre? She talked about the editing process, how her publisher edited pretty hard, and how some things got lost in the mix. Why not try to publish something that would break out of the romance ghetto? 

I’m going to answer my own questions in true asshole fashion. She wrote a romance because that’s the genre she enjoys. I read Light because a friend of mine, who is also an sf nerd, gave this to me for my birthday, and he must have thought I’d enjoy this. And I did. The language is totally killer, slick with a sort of cyberpunky Noir damage, but with these quick sketches which nail character in short, hard strokes. I hadn’t really seen the relationship between Noir and cyberpunk before I read this; the way both tend to rely on hard-luck and the image of the Street; the chase and the mystery; the beauty of the flickering neon and ugly marketing of a gutter-level view on things. 

The code parlors, the tattoo parlors – all run by one-eyed poets sixty years old, loaded on Carmody Rose bourbon – the store-front tailor operations and chop joints, their tiny show windows stuffed with animated designs like postage stamps or campaign badges from imaginary wars or bags of innocent-coloured candy, were already crowded with customers; while from the corporate enclaves terraced above the Corniche, men and women in designer clothes sauntered confidently towards the harbour restaurants, lifting their heads in anticipation of Earth cuisine, harbour lights on the wine-dark seas, then a late-night trip to Moneytown – wealth creators, prosperity makers, a little too good for it all by all their own account, yet mysteriously energised by everything cheap and tasteless. Voices rose. Laughter rose above them.

But then the real heart of this story has to do with sex, and it’s totally uncomfortable and tricky as hell within a genre that doesn’t really lend itself to that. I love science fiction like the brother I never had, but space opera, cyberpunk, doesn’t generally have much to say about early childhood trauma, internalized body issues, sexual abuse. Or if it does, it says it in ways that are stupid and juvenile. (Sorry, science fiction. *arm punch* You know I love you.) Why did Harrison choose to write about this in this genre? Who the fuck knows? But probably because this is a genre he enjoys, and he clearly has fun in it & knows the idiom like a fever dream. 

SPOILERS BELOW

So my mention of the technological singularity in the first part of the review wasn’t a total accident, although my equation it with scientific thought mostly was. Harrison brushed up against the singularity in the almost god-like Shrander, and in the ways that bodies are replaced and renewed, put on ice, cloned, proxied, etc. Science is often a collection of data, but those data are put into narrative by scientific thought and theories; the hypothesis is a story looking for causality. Sometimes I think all the ridiculous “theorizing” that goes on about the singularity – how it is already here, how it will make human life perfect or something, is this strange narrative that says more about our discomfort with our bodies than anything. Harrison kind of rips this apart. Seria Mau becomes disembodied because of childhood sexual abuse, but taking the body away doesn’t take away her trauma. She keeps murdering her human cargo – sorry for this bad phrase, but it kind of works – because they keep having sex. The narrative, fractured though it is, drives her to heal her own fractures and get her body back. Her brother twinks out in a tank, living in stories that play for him in the cliched idiom of the Noir plot, and his non-seeing is part of his not-seeing in childhood, not understanding what was happening to the sister he loves.

END SPOILERS

I guess I’ll just say one last thing, not under cover of spoiler  This book does not make a lot of sense in the end, in terms of plot-lines, and lots of reviews seem to grumble and imply that you need multiple reads to dig it all. Maybe. But I think it’s pretty cool how the symbols just sort of rolled together like the patterns on dice, and didn’t slip-knot into a hard conclusion, but into the impression of a conclusion, the bones held in the hand for the next hard throw. Inside the hand is bones too. Ah.

Perdido Street Station: Race/Race

Despite having declared Mr. Miéville my literary boyfriend some time ago, I have to come out and admit I’ve only read one (1) book by him. I’ve read his foray into YA, Un Lun Dun, which thumbs the touchstones of his writing: urban spaces, a bunch of weird ass shit, and literary genres ground through the pulper of his baroque writing. But, being YA, the profanity and sheer globbing fuckallery of his writing was dampened a bit. No so, here. And dag, yo, that’s some stuff.

Man, I don’t even know what to say here now. I guess I could get into the plot, but you can go consider the mechanics of who did what where in other places. Despite this being a tumbling, active book, I’m not sure that will give you anything. Something about this book kept reminding me of Lightby M. John Harrison, and has strangely convinced me to go back and give that book another star. I didn’t get what Harrison was doing there, how he sliced open the childhood teddy bear and sewed it back together inside out and upside down. I looked at that ravaged bit of stuffing with the black zig-zags of thread, and thought, what the fuck are you doing? That is wrong, and possibly gross. 

There’s a lot in New Crubuzon that is wrong and possible gross, and I feel like I’m too close to the end the my read to articulate the totality of what exact teddy bear Miéville vivisected. Here’s one little stuffed arm I can grope toward: race. We use the term race in daily life to mean different kinds of people, different ethnicities, different colors, what have you. (I’ve found I’ve lost all the nomenclature for talking about race, so sorry. Like profanity, I can’t describe it succinctly, but I know it when I see it, and so do you. And like profanity, we’re going to define it differently. This parenthetical comment is getting out of hand.) Fantasy uses the term to mean different species, although this term is a little off because fantasy doesn’t pretend toward scientific rigor, and the term “species” implies that a bit. Although Prof Tolkien has warned us against allegory, I think we can safely say that often, and maybe even always, the fantastic races are symbolic chits of our racial discomfort. No, an orc isn’t exactly, allegorically a Black Man, or an Arab, or whatever racial boogey we’ve got, but an orc is a biologically determined creature who holds inherent moral worth, or worthlessness, as you will. Race is deterministic, so is race. 

Perdido Street Station opens to a pair of lovers working through their morning languor. It’s a sweet, slow-moving, romantic coupling and decoupling, two beings who love each other sweet-talking though their morning, but the sweet-talk is familiar and clouded with the near-conflicts and innuendo of couples who have been together a long time. Of course, one of the pair has a beetle for a head, and the other is a walrusy, wheezing human scientist. They are different races, and their love is shot through with their sense of perversion and transgression. The beetle-headed artist, having shucked her kepri community, can more or less openly admit the two are lovers; the human scientist has a lot more to lose, as humans are less understanding of bug-fuckery. Their love is tense, an open secret, complicated because of the paradox of that term. 

Let’s now think about a similar scene with Aragon and Arwen. First off, I’m pretty sure there was no pre-marriage post-coitus for those two. Second, the elves were, yes, totally skeeved that Arwen wanted to marry a human, but the embodied disgust is so coded, so reified. Instead of “Omaigawd, I can’t believe you’re banging that mortal meat-sack”, it’s “Marrying him will take away your immortality.” And ultimately, thirdly, there is no disgust at the bodies themselves. Aragon is rough and unattractive, but he is understood to be imbued with the power of his rule, his sentience. Arwen and he meld their minds, the Platonic forms of themselves, their love arches over the dirty business of knocking boots, carefully ignoring the cat-ears of Arwen’s that fire the lusts of so many readers. I am not bagging on this; it is nice work if you can get it. 

Hmm, I want to say I’m not after Tolkien here at all, but I can’t help falling back on his stuff because it’s so much more memorable than a lot of the fantastic twaddle that gets written in his loooong shadow. And this book isn’t high fantasy either, it’s…well, who the fuck knows what it is. Like New Crubuzon, it’s a patchwork of stuff, steam-punk arms, magical boxes, science-y glass tubes, natural philosophy with wings pinned to cotton, the horror of the flying death, in their non-discreet neighborhoods, throwing grappling hooks over one another, building up and digging down, heaping trash from one genre to another, running shit and blood and cables through the whole mess, throwing a switch and cackling, EEETS ALIIIVE. Still though, I think there’s something in the story of the lovers that is about the difference between miscegenation and bestiality in the slash between the terms race/race, and how both of those terms are pretty gross. 

I’m kind of flailing here with the stitching and the stuffing, but I was honestly, genuinely, purposely affected by the strange, quiet love story between the human and the kepri. I love the ways the various races were cataloged as having this set of characteristics or that, but almost no one hewed to those characteristics, a constant sly denial of race/race; one that doesn’t pretend there isn’t a perverse glimmer in bug-fucking, or banging the mortal meat sack; one that isn’t about love as a moral force, tied to our moral bodies, but a social one, a plank thrown between neighborhoods where we construct our racial identities and have them constructed for us. Occasionally people walk that creaking tightrope from one side to the other, their arms outstretched, and it is a dangerous, scary, heart-pounding thrill. 

There’s more in this book, a lot more stuffing and wires that I’m sure my brain will sift through in the coming months, and I really like that about it, how it’s this this baffling, active monster slaying quest on one hand, and then this lazy walk through a bazaar on another. (I see I have failed to mention completely that the main plot is about hunting down and killing some badass killer moths who are much scarier than the term “killer moth” might imply. So. Now I have mentioned it.) I guess I also feel like I should mention that Miéville’s writing style is likely a love-it or hate-it proposition. He does not use 5 words when 50 will do, and 5 of them will be made up, and another 5 will be thesaurus words, and another 5 will be profanity. I like all of these things, but you may not. So, yeah, that’s what I’ve got for now.