The Year of Our War – Chronotopic Disruption

Steph Swainston’s debut novel The Year of Our War was published in 2004 and introduces readers to the Fourlands, a world inhabited by three races of humanoids: the Awaians, a winged race; the Rhydannes, a small cat-like race from the mountains, and the regular old humans. A fourth race, the Insects, has taken over the northern portion of the continent and continues to push south, destroying towns and turning them into Paperlands. The novel follows Jant Shira, a Rhydanne-Awaian hybrid whose light body and wings allow him to fly. Jant is a member of the Circle, a group of immortals ruled by Emperor San and charged with protecting the Fourlands. These immortals do not age or die from natural causes, though they can be killed in battle, extreme weather, etc. Jant is the Messenger of the Emperor, called “Comet,” and is addicted to a drug that allows him to access another world called the Shift. Jant finds himself embroiled in the internal intrigue of the Circle while the Insects sweep across the continent and the Emperor threatens to revoke his immortality if Jant can’t provide some answers.

Jant is one of the most interesting first-person narrators I’ve encountered in some time. I spent a lot of time feeling that he was really pathetic: his addiction makes him a weak link in the Circle, his desire to please leads to indecisiveness, and it’s hard to take him seriously when he tries to give orders. At the same time, he’s found himself surrounded by people who discount him due to his age (he was only inducted into the Circle around 200 years previously) or his weird tales of the Shift (which no one but an immortal can access without dying). He often finds his multiple loyalties conflicting as his personal life intersects with his official duties as Messenger. Despite his ability to fly and his status as one of the immortals, Jant has very little control over his own life, and his attempts to direct affairs are always usurped by the louder or the more insistent. This was perhaps one of the reasons I liked Jant as much as I did; he was frequently quite smart, but just as frequently not heard.

My favorite part of this novel is the way it plays with chronotopic disruption. The notion of the chronotope comes from the work of Mikhail Bakhtin and is further theorized Michael Holquist. (Honestly, most of what I know about chronotopes is from talking to my boyfriend who knows a lot.) The idea of the chronotope is a narrative time and place that we expect together. For example, for a Wild West story, you expect a particular a particular place — the American West — and a particular time — the 1800s. With that particular time/place we expect certain things: six-shooters, saloons, horses, prostitutes with hearts of gold, train barons, etc. Likewise, we expect certain things out of cyberpunk stories: a futuristic, urban setting where the lines between biology and technology blur and an evil corporation is usually behind everything. Narratives can also combine chronotopes, so we get things like Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which combines space opera and Wild West chronotopes, without necessarily disrupting our expectations and, in fact, calling our attention to the similarities between the two. Swainston disrupts the fantasy chronotopes in The Year of Our War  in less pervasive ways; in most ways, The Year of Our War seems like a fairly straightforward  fantasy world: archers, troops on horseback, ladies and lords ruling over fiefdoms and swearing fealty to a king (or not), a magical world beyond the world, and so on and so forth. At the same time, we encounter very non-straightforward things: t-shirts, newspapers, marathons, drug addiction, and the like. The affect of this is that the reader ends up noticing when characters adhere to the fantasy chronotope and when they don’t; we pay much more attention to the details of the chronotope itself.

I’m beginning to think this chronotopic disruption is a key feature of the New Weird. When I think back to the difficulties I had with both reading and discussing K. J. Bishop’s The Etched City, I think that a large part of it was that the novel didn’t fit into any chronotope, at least not for long. What starts out as a Wild West story doesn’t stay that way very long. China Miéville’s work plays with chronotopic disruption as well; for instance, The Scar seems like it will be an escape-from-a-harrowing-adventure story, but, while Bellis Coldwine does escape, it is in no way through her own skill or cleverness. I’m really excited about Swainston’s second novel, No Present Like Time; I want to see how she continues to develop the Fourlands and the chronotopic disruptions.

 

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The Etched City – Magic and Metamorphosis

K. J. Bishop’s first novel, The Etched City, appeared in 2003 and is her only novel to date. I had read a couple of her short stories, most notably “The Art of Dying” from the Vandermeer’s The New Weird anthology, so I was somewhat prepared for Bishop’s world of gunslingers and duelists, artists and prostitutes. At the same time, The Etched City is a novel that I can’t get out of my head and that I have trouble explaining to others when I try.

The Plot: After years of fighting a military dictator, former compatriots Raule and Gwynn leave the desert for the exotic city of Ashamoil. There Raule is shunned from the school of doctors despite her extensive knowledge of field medicine and instead takes a post in a religious hospital in one of the poorest districts of the city. Gwynn takes work as a hired gun for a slave trader, to Raule’s disgust. As Raule and Gwynn see each other more and more rarely, Gwynn begins an affair with a young artist named Beth, and at this point, the novel starts getting weird; Gwynn’s work situation becomes increasingly unstable as his girlfriend’s mental state appears to be deteriorating as well (at one point he goes to her house to find her with a bunch of strangers sewing together different parts of dead animals to create chimeric creatures). Beth eventually leaves the city, and shortly thereafter, Gwynn and Raule both decide to do the same, though separately.

In many ways, this novel felt less like a narrative and more like a series of very striking moments; Bishop’s language was frequently visceral and vivid, but I had trouble seeing how things really fit together over time. I was even a little disappointed that we spent so little time with Raule when I found her much more interesting that Gwynn; once the two reach the city of Ashamoil, we become deeply embroiled in the goings-on of Gwynn and his employer, with occasional glimpses at what Raule is doing. One thing that I did really like, though, is the way that magic is introduced in the novel. I really like when magic isn’t normally part of a world and the characters have to come to terms with extraordinary events just as readers do. Add in the fact that several characters are also alcoholics and drug users, and it makes it hard to tell when something extraordinary is actually happening and when it’s only happening in the mind of a character. As such, the first few magical events are easily passed off as misperception or hallucination, but it slowly becomes clear that not all things are as they seem.

This unfolding of the magical world corresponds with one of the dominant themes of the novel, that of metamorphosis. A wide number of items and events in the novel are related to this theme: eggs, cocoons, fetuses, lobotomies, flowers, etc. Contrasted with this are moments of stasis, such as the poor of the city who have little to no mobility or the “primitive” people that Gwynn’s employer holds in a never-ending civil war for the sake of his slave trade. The Rev seems to be a nexus for these themes in that he finds himself able to produce many kinds of small magic, but ultimately he is stuck with his own guilt and self-doubt and romantic fantasies about young, nubile women.

Since I read The Etched City for my SLA exam, I ended up thinking a lot about how the constructed contrast between urban and rural areas works in New Weird fiction. Much of the criticism on China Miéville’s work concerns his construction of social spaces within urban environments, and after reading The Etched City, I’m increasingly interested in how urban and rural locations are related to issues of agency in these works.

 

The Mists of Avalon – Pluralism and Feminism

I’ve been spending my summer reading time working on books for my SLA (Specialized Literature Area) Exam, which is focusing on the New Weird (hence all the China Miéville reviews recently). However, I was starting to get frustrated and overwhelmed with the project and allowed myself a “real” summer reading book, something that wasn’t geared toward any project or exam I’m currently working on. I’m not sure how I picked Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, but I got my boyfriend to bring it home from the library and read the first half of the book in about two days. The second half took the rest of the week, but I can now turn back to my exam reading feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to look at the New Weird with new eyes.

I’m not going to try to summarize the plot; suffice it to say that The Mists of Avalon is a retelling of the King Arthur legends from the point of view of the various women involved, mostly Arthur’s half-sister Morgaine and his wife Gwenhwyfar. It is a work of epic proportions: 900 pages, spanning 60+ years. What the story is really about, though, is the rise of Christianity against the worship of the Goddess at Avalon. As Britain becomes a “Christian land” with a “Christian king,” the worship of the Goddess is practiced less and the isle of Avalon fades farther and farther into the mist. Much of this is represented as a power struggle between Morgaine, a priestess of Avalon, and Gwenhwyfar, the Christian queen reared by nuns and ruled by her fear of sin and guilt over her love of Lancelet. These two women hold a great deal of sway over Arthur, Morgaine as the mother of his only child and Gwenhwyfar as his lawfully wedded wife. Morgaine, however, refuses to fully exploit her power, hiding away her son, Gwydion, from Arthur until he is grown.

What I found most interesting as I was reading this book was the way my loyalties changed throughout. The characters in this novel are well-constructed; I both hated and sympathized with almost every one of them throughout the course of the narrative, which I always take as the sign of good characters (this is one of the main reasons I love Battlestar Galactica). I often perceived the women of Avalon as shrewish as they insisted Arthur maintain the status of Goddess worship alongside Christianity, like they were not acknowledging the complicated materialities of Arthur’s position, how he must manage so many people in order to keep peace. I tended to side with the Merlins, Taliesin and Kevin, who argued for plurality: that all Gods are one God no matter what name he is called by, and that the time of Avalon had passed, so the best thing to do was to infuse Christianity with as much of druidism and Goddess worship as possible. Thus, Kevin steals the Holy Regalia of the Goddess in order for it to be in the world, incorporated into Christian worship. What brought me back to the side of Avalon, over and over again, was the reminder that women were getting really and truly hosed under the brand of Christianity that was coming from Camelot (there were other groups of Christians that were finding themselves persecuted for accepting the pluralistic view that Taliesin preached; Kevin is something of a different story, I think). I think that the scene between Gwydion and Niniane toward the end of the novel is very telling, as Gwydion, who does not ascribe to Christianity seeks to police Gwenhwyfar’s sexual liasons in the same way the Christian priests would, but Niniane refuses to participate and Gwydion kills her. The new system of gender hierarchy is not strictly a Christian one, but it is pervasive and unstoppable.

Which leads to my complaints about the end of the novel. Morgaine’s discovery of the Goddess in the small chapel dedicated to Mary and the simple joy that nuns of Glastonbury experience in their lives represents for her that the Goddess lives on in the world in a new form, that her work was not in vain, and that she should have listened to Kevin all along. At the same time, I’m infuriated that Morgaine is okay with the sexual rights of women virtually disappearing, and I’m dissatisfied that the novel’s ending suggests that all has worked out for the best. A pluralist society is not really pluralist when not everyone accepts and acknowledges the pluralism, which is exactly what Morgaine and the women of Avalon argue for when they ask Arthur to protect Goddess worship in his kingdom.

All in all, The Mists of Avalon was a very fun immersion; I had forgotten what it’s like to lose myself in an epic fantasy. I think, though, that the novel’s feminism is beginning to feel a bit dated, and I’m now interested in reading some more recent feminist fantasy masterpieces.

P.S. I tried to watch the TNT movie adaptation, but only got through about 5 minutes. It was unbearably cheesy and I hated how everyone was automatically older than they were in the book.

Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Cloning, Socialism, and the Individual

The blurb on the cover of my copy of Kate Wilhelm’s 1976 novel Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, my second book in the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge, claims that it is the most important novel about cloning ever. I was skeptical at first, but by the end of the novel I was pretty convinced that Wilhelm was doing something unique with the issue of cloning, engaging with the ethical issues from a different direction. At the same time, I’m still struggling with how to understand the final message of the text, whether Wilhelm wants us to celebrate the “individual” or understand that the “individual” is constructed out of a particular set of circumstances.

The Plot: David and his family begin reading the signs of the coming apocalypse with enough time to prepare an elaborate medical facility and living space for many people, including farmland and livestock. It quickly becomes apparent that the spreading plague and chemical fallout is making many of the inhabitants of the compound, both human and animal, sterile, and David and his fellow biologists design a plan for maintaining the human race via cloning. However, as the clones grow and develop, it becomes increasingly clear that they are incredibly alien from their human elders; rather than distinguishing themselves as individuals, clones understand the cloned siblings collectively to constitute a unit, and the mental development, including telepathy, reflects this. As the human elders die off, the clones set up a new society, but when the clones send off an exploratory party made up of individuals from different sibling sets, the traits of individuality begin to reappear, eventually resulting in the casting out of one woman and her further imprisonment upon becoming pregnant. Her son, Mark, is the protagonist on the last third of the novel, as the clones begin to exhibit signs of depletion in creative thinking and problem-solving skills and Mark begins his own plans to save the human race.

The novel’s division into three sections with multiple perspectives is interesting insofar as it does and does not allow us to enter the hive-mind of the clone sibling group. The hive-mind of sibling groups is difficult to represent through the kind of limited third person point-of-view that Wilhelm uses; it is almost as if as soon as Wilhelm becomes narrating from their point-of-view, the cloned characters begin separating from their siblings. And, this is exactly what is happening, though not necessarily because of Wilhelm’s narrating; instead, Wilhelm can only tell the story from the point-of-view of characters who are coming closer to the “individual” that we understand. Since part of the argument of the novel seems to be that the kind of hive-mind that is the consequence of human cloning is a bad thing, the reader not seeing things from the clones point of view works well.

Of course, hive-mind isn’t entirely a correct description; at first, the sibling groups themselves might be understood as individuals with many bodies. Increasingly, though, the clones become unable to function without someone to give them directions. The younger clones are unable to make meaning of abstract representations or conceive of anything that isn’t already in being. Wilhelm seems to be suggesting that individualization is key in problem-solving because it forces us to imagine what is going on in other’s minds in order to participate in social activities; because the clones are telepathic, they never develop these skills. Interestingly, the evolution of telepathy does not seem to affect the clones ability to use language, or even really seem to change the language they use. However, as the younger clones lose the ability to conceive of abstracts, they begin to see Mark’s ability to construct stories as something magical. One might even go so far as to say that rhetoric, or at least the canon of invention, is held in high regard within the discourse of this novel.

I’m still troubled by the ending. On the one hand, I can see where Rachel Hyland at GeekSpeak is coming from when she writes, “mostly it’s kind of a treatise on the value of individual liberties, almost an anti-Socialism manifesto, certainly a passionate argument against conformity.” It’s hard to miss the dystopic socialism of the clones, especially when they’re primary philosophy is this: “There is not individual, there is only the community […] What is right for the community is right even unto death for the individual. There is no one, there is only the whole.” At the same time, the necessity of the individual seems to be born out of particular circumstances; several times throughout the novel, Wilhelm alludes to pioneers and suggests that given the circumstances (i.e. human civilization crumbling and the clones having to rebuild the infrastructure), the ideology of the individual is the most effective for bringing about the changes the characters seem to want. Josh Wimmer at io9.com attributes the clones’ downfall not to their socialist practices but to their overriding need for safety, perhaps because the loss of a sibling is such a traumatic experience for the whole sibling group. This primary desire is not conducive to the kinds of activities and practices that must happen in order to revive something like civilization.

In the end, I’m pretty sure that Hyland is right, that the authorial audience for this text is one that would accept the argument that individuals and their rights are just better than socialist constructions. While I’m not persuaded of that, I am fairly convinced that “socialism” of varying degrees requires a certain kind of infrastructure, and that infrastructure is often built by the ideology of the individual.

Graceling – Evil Rhetors and Female Survivors

Kristin Cashore’s debut novel Graceling was published in 2008, about two and a half weeks after Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games. I make a point of saying this if only to remind myself that there is very, very little possibility that the novels are actually in conversation with each other, and instead they are perhaps reflecting larger cultural shifts. I read Graceling as part of the Worlds Without End Women of Genre Fiction Reading Challenge (henceforth the WoGF) since Cashore had been on my radar for a while, but I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I pretty much inhaled the novel; I read about half of it last night while I should have been reading for class, but no regrets.

The Plot: Katsa is the orphaned niece of King Randa and his number one thug. Possessing superhuman abilities, called her Grace, Katsa can kill pretty much anyone or anything with ease; unfortunately, she discovers her power by inadvertently killing an adult cousin when she was six years old because she did not want the man to touch her. Disgusted by her role as Randa’s enforcer throughout the seven kingdoms, Katsa organizes the Council, a group of individuals from lords down to servants who seek to protect citizens in all kingdoms from the power-hunger of their kings. Through her work for the Council, Katsa meets Po, a Graced fighting prince from the peaceful island of Lienid who searches for his kidnapped grandfather. After refusing to do Randa’s dirty work any longer, Katsa removes herself from the court and travels with Po as he seeks more information about his grandfather’s disappearance. What they discover is the underhanded work of the supposedly kind and beneficent King Leck of Monsea, who is himself Graced with the ability to fog people’s mind with his words and make them remember events as he chooses. Po and Katsa’s goal becomes saving Leck’s daughter Bitterblue from her sick, twisted, perverted, evil father.

So, a few quick notes on things that I could harp on and on about — but won’t — and then onto the things that I thought were really interesting.

  • Once again, the character who could be characterized as the Rhetor, using language to shape people’s perceptions of reality, is the villain. But not just any villain; Leck is really sick and despicable. I couldn’t help but think of Baron Harkonnen. Ugh. This, of course, makes me sad because seeing rhetoric get such a bad rap always makes me sad. I mean, Katsa uses rhetoric too, most notably in the scene when she tenders her resignation to her uncle; it is not her actual actions that persuade him; instead, her words about what her actions might be cause him to see the situation in a very different way. Rhetoric.
  • I commented on the connections I saw between Graceling and The Hunger Games earlier, the primary one being that they both feature female protagonists who are buffeted about by various physical and political forces, but who survive through being extremely good at survival skills. Now, I’m all for girls doing traditionally “boy” things, but I’m worried about what these narratives say to and about girls who like to do or are really good at doing “girl” things. Can’t cooking or sewing or organizing a community event save somebody sometime?
  • I’m going to talk more about Katsa and Po’s relationship next, but I really hated how once Katsa found the right man, all of a sudden she’s breaking into tears whenever and wherever, as long as it’s on his shoulder.

So much for that. What I thought was best and really interesting about this book was the way it constructs sex. Throughout the novel, Katsa continually claims that she never wishes to marry and she never wishes to have children. One suitor, upon hearing this, claims that of course she’ll want children eventually because all women do. I really sympathized with Katsa on this point, seeing as I’ve heard the same line a few times myself. Moreover, Katsa’s desire to not marry is culturally situated; as soon as she marries, she will have wifely obligations, and she doesn’t want to have to serve anyone but herself, and given her long tenure under Randa, the reader can understand her want of independence. (Interestingly, Katniss of The Hunger Games also claims to never want children for equally political reasons: she does not want to produce fodder for the Capitol’s games. However, SPOILER ALERT she does relinquish because of Peeta’s own desire for children, and I’m interested to see how Cashore deals with this same issue in subsequent books, given that she’s taken a much more feminist stand concerning inherent motherliness in women in Katsa’s choice than Katniss perhaps made in hers.)

So what happens is this: Po and Katsa fall in love (of course). Katsa kind of hates it because it means that she wakes up in the night afraid he won’t be there instead of being completely sufficient within herself. She wrestles with it and tells Po that it’s all futile because she will never marry and they should really just part ways so they don’t have to deal with their feelings all the time. Po tells her that they can be more than friends but less than married, and oddly enough, Katsa had never considered just taking a lover (I’m guessing because of societal constructs that discouraged women from knowing about such things so they wouldn’t do it). However, instead of being swept away in a fit of passion, Katsa dwells on it a few days, making sure of her own choice, and then, after guaranteeing that they have a form of birth control, she chooses to have sex with Po. And I loved it: the thorough forethought, the arrival at a decision, the conscious responsibility — it’s a model that I wish we saw more of.

The other thing that really struck me as I was reading was the theme of female survivorship. Katsa is extremely good at surviving, and she frequently takes it upon herself to protect other girls, especially from male predators. That her Grace manifests itself when she feels threatened by the untoward advances of her cousin is notable considering what she and Po save Bitterblue from, and Katsa is frequently appalled by the fact that women need to be most able to protect themselves but are taught nothing about fighting or surviving by those who claim to be protecting them. Her choice at the end to hold fighting schools for girls throughout the seven kingdoms suggests that this will be a theme explore in the sequels. At the same time, the novel has little to say about the trauma of abuse (Bitterblue copes quite well in her stoicism) or about structural changes that might bring about greater safety for women.