Friday, April 29, 2016

April retroblogging

Another month, another frail effort at reducing the queue. I didn't do very well this month, but I did some. If you want to go back and look mostly at my light commentary on photos I took, go ahead:

This post's theme word is fanfaron, "a boaster or braggart." Publicly failing to achieve pre-announced goals renders me less of a fanfaron, and can add a line to my CV of failures.

Hugo nominees 2016

The nominees for Hugo Awards have been announced. It's yet another interesting sociological study in gaming voting systems. The number of voters was huge --- more than double last year's all-time record-breaking high! --- but the effect was apparently diffuse. (We will only find out after the awards are announced, when the distribution of nominating ballots is revealed.)

The resulting list is bleak. I used to look to the Hugos as a recommended reading list, and I became a member of the *cons in order to have access to this reading list. Recent years have really shot me in the foot about that --- the stuff I enjoyed reading, I had read already on my own. And the other stuff turns out to be mostly weird, sci-fi fandom in-crowd hatemail from one group to another.

(Why do they do this? I wouldn't. My reaction to this toxicity is "meh", accompanied by a shrug and not really devoting much time or effort to it... probably as a combination of socialization and my own personality. It's an ultimate de-escalation. Participating in scifi fandom is a leisure activity for rich, literate people. It is super easy to opt out. I find it strange and incomprehensible that there are these internet mob leaders, each spending millions of words responding to each other and rallying their mobs and constructing elaborate facades of sophism to justify disembodied hate of an outgroup with which they share most traits and with whom they spend huge chunks of time interacting online. Rather than work myself into the lather of a long blog rant, I would just go outside. Or take a nap. Self-care. If I want to worry, I worry about the heat death of the universe. My outrage is better than your outrage.)

Here's the list of nominees.

Best novel:
  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik
Best novella:
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
  • The Builders by Daniel Polansky
  • Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold
  • Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson
  • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds
Best novelette:
  • “And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead” by Brooke Bolander
  • “Flashpoint: Titan” by CHEAH Kai Wai
  • “Folding Beijing” by Hao Jingfang, Ken Liu
  • “Obits” by Stephen King
  • “What Price Humanity?” by David VanDyke
Best short story:

Almost nothing I nominated got onto the ballot. I'm most bummed about China Miéville's short story "The Dowager of Bees" from the collection Three Moments of an Explosion, which was utterly fantastic. But really, the amount of bumming I can suffer from an abstract awards nomination in a niche field is minimal. Sure, this varied my mood down, for a total effect of -ε. Breakfast has more of an effect and occurs more regularly.

I'll try to read the nominees again (see my previous efforts in 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012,2011, 2010, 2009 --- all still incomplete as I gradually retroblog what I thought of them). I have Seveneves in my queue and I'll definitely get to it; the other novel nominees are not very appealing, I have read their opening few pages and they did nothing for me. (This browsing long before they received Hugo nominations.) The extent to which the nominees have been controlled by a voting bloc suggests that I might not find much to hold my interest in the rest of the list. On the other hand, I am interested to see the result of what seems like an experiment by the voting block ("will people vote "no award" above popular authors if we endorse the popular authors who would be on the ballot anyway?").

But I'll try.

I have to keep my English limbered up. This fall I get to talk to captive audiences at length! (Read: teach classes!)


This post's theme word is standpat, "one who refuses to consider change," or "refusing to consider change in one's beliefs and opinions, esp. in politics." The standpats debated each other to a standstill.

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Book of Phoenix

Nnedi Okorafor's The Book of Phoenix fits the mold of her previous writing (Binti, Lagoon) for me: it is vaguely science-fiction/fantasy, with characters whose choices are opaque to me even when the writing reveals their inner monologues. It touches on racism and slavery and human testing and the limits of scientific ethics, for very strong values of "touches on" (in the same way that District 9 "touches on" apartheid).

The protagonist, a woman named Phoenix, is the result of a scientific experiment, and has lived all her life in a large lab complex, surrounded by prodding scientists and the bizarre and puissant other human/animal/robot experimental subjects. She begins as fairly naive and innocent, although very well-read.

Then, of course, she escapes.

The book is her own firsthand (maybe) account of her escape and the ensuing series of revelations (about the extent and horror of human-subject testing by this powerful corporation) and rescues/destructions wrought (of the other human subjects and of the company's physical holdings and employees, respectively). Her reflections on human testing are pretty much as expected: "Human beings make terrible gods." (p. 152)

As always, the conclusion is that Racism Is Bad. All other types of discrimination, too: we should all aspire to just get along, respect each other, be kind, and improve the lives of those around us. ("He accepted what I was as if it were normal. He gazed at me but didn't stare. His world was big and there was room for me." p. 155)

The story was a bit jumbled, or at least, it was not designed for someone with my mindset to comprehend. For example, some event happens several times. Time A it takes 3 days. Time B it takes 1 month. Time C it takes a few minutes. After time C, one onlooking character says that it is getting faster... a conclusion which I think unwarranted, given the available data. But he says it with a certain conviction, and without any second-guessing in the narration, that indicates (to me at least) that the readers should accept this pronouncement as accurate. It is narrative fact. This causes some dissonance in my brain, as the available data might just as well suggest that it is alternatingly fast-and-slow, or just noisy and unpredictable, or really anything.

The entire book is like this: it's not what I expect, I never feel comfortable with what is going on, and it explicitly calls out privileges that benefit me. It's discomforting, but as with Okorafor's other writing, this discomfort is clearly meant to be a feature of the writing for readers like me. And I think that it's good, or right, or at least social-justice-minded, for me to "sit with [my] discomfort" (in the words of Another Round host Heben Nigatu, episode 15).

The final notes of the book are weird --- there is a framestory to wrap up, but then we pop the stack one more time. Somehow. Somehow we pop the empty stack, we jump up another level to a frame story that no one even knew was going on. The fourth wall is broken, which is of course pure Lila-bait, but it's brief and weird and I am still thinking about it and not sure what to make of it: "Once the author wrote the story, the author became irrelevant." (p. 210) and "'I know what you think,' she said. 'You can rewrite a story, ... Think before you do; your story is written too... Who is writing you?' she asked."(p. 211)


This post's theme word is rhizophagous, "feeding on roots". The three-mile-high tree had tremendous rhizophagous needs.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Concrete Jungle

Charles Stross' overtures to the Laundry universe continue in The Concrete Jungle, joined with The Atrocity Archives (previously) to make book one of the series. Yet again we join Bob Howard, IT monkey and hapless geek-thrown-into-fieldwork-of-a-rugose-and-squamous-nature. The bon mots are frequent, the silliness is pervasive, there are blood-pumping action sequences interspersed with tedious buzzword-filled officespeak.

This novella features:
  1. smart, good-aligned nerds who are bad at bureaucratic-politics-navigating skills,
  2. technologically inept bureaucrats who shine in the paperwork-'n'-politics realm, and
  3. an eldrich explanation for why DRM won't die.
Every story seems to involve some civilians being exposed to the Real Lovecraft Underpinnings of the Universe, and thus being forcibly enrolled in the Laundry, the British government's branch that deals with suppressing and controlling the same. At this rate of expansion, it's no wonder that the bureaucracy is sprawling, inexplicably ramified, and variously inept (applying inappropriate "solutions" to nonexistent problems, or worse, to very serious and existent problems).

The idea of a bureaucracy so thorough, ruthless, and unflinching that it can execute a near-real-time paperclip audit (justifying every use and tracking each deployment) is as frightening as any of the mundane, merely Lovecraftian horrors that feature in this novella.

It is a joyful, sarcastic romp.

In the afterword/author's note, Stross goes into detail about the alignments of various elements that hummed resonantly in his brain and caused him to create this universe and its stories. I want to quote the entire thing, but I'll limit myself to this quip from p. 301:
The metafictional conceit that magic is a science has been used in fantasy --- or science fiction  --- several times. ... There is something about mathematics that makes it seem to beg for this sort of misappropriation: an image problem deeply rooted both in the way that the queen of sciences is taught, and in the way we think about it --- in the philosophy of mathematics.


This post's theme word is mumpsimus, "a view stubbornly held in spite of clear evidence that it's wrong" or "a person who holds such a view." The accountant was such a mumpsimus that he stepped into the summoning circle, even after the runes had started to glow and the scent of brimstone filled the air.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Girl Who Soared over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two

Catherynne M. Valente hits another one out of the park --- and all the way up to the moon --- with The Girl Who Soared over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two (previously: 0, 1, 2). Our protagonist continues to be September, no longer a little girl but a teenager, ageing at a fairly steady one year interval between books. This was another excellent jaunt to Fairyland, with  involved the question of free will and Turing tests and fundamental rights and lots and lots of silly and ridiculous fairy-magic. Yetis are involved, and time speeds up and loops back on itself variably. The observer effect is used, and of course the omnipresent narrator sneaks in some sly marginalia.

September meets her fate, written in a book (of course), and observes that  "You can't argue with something that's written down... there's nothing for it. Once it's written, it's done. All those ancient books always say 'so it is written' and that means it's finished and tidied and you can't say a thing against it." (p.162) The narrator continues by directly, fourth-wall-breakingly, replying:
Oh, but September, it isn't so. I ought to know, better than anyone. I have been objective and even-tempered until now, but I cannot let that stand, I simply cannot. Listen, my girl. Just this once I will whisper from far off, like a sigh, like a wind, like a little breeze. So it is written --- but so, too, it is crossed out. You can write over it again. You can make notes in the margins. You can cut out the whole page. You can, and you must, edit and rewrite and respahe and pull out the wrong parts... Living is a paragraph, constantly rewritten. It is Grown-Up Magic.
The entire book is full of these little touches and flourishes, head nods towards growing up and towards preserving magic and towards clevernesses in all their forms. As before, Fairyland is full of comic takes on adult life, as rephrased in terms of magical nonsense systems. But here Valente does the converse, too: she describes normal reality in magical terms. She blends from both directions. September is learning to drive, and gets a car in some parts of the adventure --- leading to the description by a fairy of gasoline as "saved-up sunlight. Giant ferns and apples of immortality and dimetrodons" (p. 151), a rather delightful stance to take on a fundamentally boring description of everyday fuel.

Nothing in Valente's writing is boring or everyday. All descriptions are amped-up, as if the Fairyland writing style were a baroque chest of drawers.  When describing the scene laid before the adventurers, it gets to be "vermilion and viridian and cerulean and citron and bold, glossy black, fairly glowing in the twilight." (p. 40) That's right: where other books might say it was red, green, blue, and yellow, with black outlines, Valente instead provides readers with an imaginative raid on the thesaurus. This is applied enough to be fun without verging into the exhaustion of rococo-saturation.

I continue to love this author. Read this book, too; if you've properly followed my recommendations to read its predecessors, you'll be drawn to read this book by your own reading gusto.


This post's theme word is logomania, "obsessive interest in words," or "excessive and often incoherent talking." Pardon my logomania, it is brought on by my logomaniacal reading habits.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Girl Who fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There

Catherynne M. Valente continues to delight with The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, the second book in her Fairyland series (previously: 0, 1). We stick with our familiar protagonist September, who has grown up a little in the intervening year but still longs to return to Fairyland, where she left behind several close friends, the fantasy-world of magic and silliness, and, of course, her own shadow. This girl-shadow --- with her own name, and her own narrative arc, and her own personality --- is the title's referent, continuing the series' title pattern.

Valente again tickles the readers' fancy, with a story and characters wonderfully sweeping from the foolish and silly to the clever and subtle. The prose is luscious and playful, childlike with hints of adulthood peeking through. Again we are treated to some light breaking of the fourth wall ("I am a sly narrator," p. 59) and again the details of Fairyland are a mirror-image of the daft systems of reality (economic speculation of firstborns and spinning straw into gold); I was particularly gratified to hear from more magic-researchers about the intricacies of academia in Fairyland. (In a book titled Sleeping Royalty and Other Politickal Conundrums, we read that "Other than revolution and assassination, falling asleep for a hundred years or more poses the biggest danger to royalty these days." p. 121)

At a toll to pass into the underworld, instead of surrendering a puissant magical item, September is asked to take one from the Sybil's cluttered house, with her encouragements:
But the trouble is, when they leave their sacred objects, I'm left with a whole mess of stuff I have no use at all for. Good for them --- they learn not to rely on their blades or their jewels or their instruments of power, but for me it's just a lot of clutter to clean up. After a thousand years, you can see it heaps up something monstrous and there's just no safe way to dispose of magical items like these. (p. 46)
In the time since the previous book, September has read a wide variety of mythology, as background research and preparation for her anticipated next visit to Fairyland. So this book makes even more references to familiar fairytale tropes, and September sometimes heads off a dull explanation with a shortcut that she figured out from other stories.

Once again the conclusion was unexpected, which is a criterion I appreciate a lot recently.

Recommended. (Although, start at the beginning of the series!)


This post's theme word is pervicacious, "very stubborn." Pervicacious girls have very strong magical powers, if handled and frustrated correctly.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Sonic screwdriver science

I was surprised to see this giant bronze woman holding a sonic screwdriver, wielding it quite fiercely at a (bronze) parchment in front of the Hôtel de Ville.
From this angle, it really really looks like a sonic screwdriver. I just couldn't come up with anything else it could be. The seated, naked, generic statue lady didn't have a lot of context clues. The Wikipedia page was not a huge amount of help, since the building is coated in statues.

On further examination from another angle, she is wielding a compass and considering some... academic thing... on that parchment. Her partner statue was wielding a pen on paper, which gives enough of a clue to sift through the photos and uncover that she is La Science, science embodied.
My high school draw-this-with-a-compass puzzle-solving practice might pay off when I take up modeling.
I'm glad to see that, at least in science-abstraction statuary, the gender imbalance is working in my favor.


This post's theme word is armsceye (or armseye), "an opening in a garment for attaching a sleeve." Science is not bothered by petty details of armsceye; she has long since transcended clothing altogether.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Paris Lego store

There now exists a Lego store in Paris. The two things that delighted my constructor-child's heart were: (1) it is possible to buy Lego bricks in bulk, by volume. The wall of bricks-by-volume is sorted by color. It's fantastic.

Item (2) was the impressive collection of models on display. But of course, the Lego store would have incredible window displays. Of particular note were the reconstructions of Paris landmarks.

Notre Dame was reconstructed in recognizable detail, although to my disappointment there are not any gargoyle-shaped pieces. Not even custom-made ones!

Overall the model is very lovely, although at current Lego prices it probably involves several thousand dollars' worth of pieces.

There were also (of course) Eiffel Towers, but I appreciated the reconstruction of the friezes and statues on the Arc de Triomphe.

This post's theme word is skosh, "a small amount, a little bit." How much for a handful or skosh of bright green bricks?

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigate Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making continues the story retroactively begun in the prequel The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland --- For a Little While, which I quite enjoyed. That is, the story of Fairyland continues. The titular girl has changed.

Our new heroine is September, who falls for the traditional abducted-by-fairy tropes, but only to a point. She is a modern heroine, quite practical, definitely in the vein of Alice (of Alice in Wonderland), blending an ability to go-along with the silly nonsense around her --- which often subtly or not-so-subtly mocks the nonsense of adults in the real world --- with a stubborn determination and fierce loyalty to her friends. For example: September happens across some indentured-postdoctoral research Fairyland residents, and when she calls one out on evading her questions, the response includes:
We were only told to feed you up and send you into the woods. No one tells us anything unless it's 'Mix up Life-in-a-Flask for me, Citrinitas!' 'Bake me a Cake of Youth, Trinny!' 'Grade these papers!' 'Watch that beaker!' 'A monograph on the nature of goblins' riddles, Ci-ci!' I swear to you, I am finished with postdoctoral work! (p. 136)
September knows that fairies are tricky, and listens carefully to subtle rules and sneakily-worded conditions. ("Hello, I believe we have an utterly unique specimen on our hands: a child who listens" observes a quest-giver on p. 31.) But fairies know about these fairy-tropes, too:
If it will make you feel better, I can lead you to a pit in the forest or steal your breath or whatever it is I might --- and I'm not admitting to anything --- have done in my profligate youth. (p. 106)
The book is infused with this self-awareness, it is a fairytale which knows about fairies and fairytales and breaking the fourth wall, and gently does it all over again, in a triumph of marvel, whimsy, and intelligence.

Valente's writing-magic has worked on me again. The story is unpredictable in a way that Alice in Wonderland is not (either because I have been repeatedly inoculated to its style by indoctrination from an early age, or because Valente is a modern writer with a better sense of what my readerly expectations may be, and this a better handle on how to shrug them off and go somewhere new, unexpected, and fantastic). I proselytize these books, and D. reported that they not only describe but also recreate the sensation of childhood, the curiosity and bewilderment and astonishment and uncertainty and pure, untrammelled joy.

Some marvelous bits that I highlighted:

  • "One can never see what happens after an exeunt on a Leopard. It is against the rules of theatre. But cheating has always been the purview of fairies, and as we are about to enter their domain, we ought to act in accordance with local customs." p. 15
  • "But even the wisest men may die, and that is especially true when the wisest of men has a fondness for industrial chemicals. So went my mother's patron, in a spectacular display of Science." p. 39
  • On p. 161, the following exchange:
    "... I cannot begin to imagine what you are!"
    "WHO!" bellowed the shoes, hopping upright, straps flapping in indignation. "What is an indirect dative reserved for things. I am alive! I am a WHO. Or a whom, if you must."
And on breaking the fourth wall:

  • "no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move." p. 35
  • "September could not see it. ... That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator." p. 171


The climax and ultimate problem (and resolution) of this book were excellent, just full-on capital-Q Writing of Quality. Not at all what I expected, based on the hints dropped and clues collected. As with all of Valente's writing, this gripped me in unexpected ways, and was tremendous fun. I highly recommend.



This post's theme word is allochthonous, "originating in a region other than where it is found." The allochthonous girl circumnavigated Fairyland.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

The Narrator

Michael Cisco's The Narrator is a delicious, brain-twisting novel. It almost defies verbal description, but I will do my best here. His Wikipedia article cites his work as "de-genred fiction", which I absolutely endorse.

SPOILERS in the extreme for the plot, the substance, and my hypotheses about the book below the cut.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Infinite Jest (again, and always)

Tom Bissell's article on David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest says things I've never been able to express. I have loved Infinite Jest and written about it before (1, 2), and the past few years I find myself rereading it once a year. Bissell's article prompted me to begin rereading again, in that infinite cycle that Infinite Jest describes and invokes.
  • "We return to Wallace sentences now like medieval monks to Scripture, tremblingly aware of their finite preciousness"
    Yes, absolutely. I have a copy of The Pale King that I am waiting to read, saving it for a chance to enjoy, for the last time, new DFW sentences. I want to savor every one.
  • "he wrote so often, and so well, in a microscopically close third person. "
    I've never considered the scope of the third person writing style, but "microscopically" is such a fantastic way to describe the way DFW manages to capture every single detail, in obsessively constructed sentences, to describe the sensation of involuntary mental obsession.
  • "... how completely the book had rewired me. Here is one of the great Wallace innovations: the revelatory power of freakishly thorough noticing, of corralling and controlling detail. ... The Wallaceian is not a description of something external; it describes something that happens ecstatically within, a state of apprehension (in both senses) and understanding. He didn’t name a condition, in other words. He created one."
    I hear you, Mr. Bissell. I hear you.






Rereading Infinite Jest is calming: every character runs on its prescribed arc, enacts its prescribed compulsions, suffers its prescribed mental agony, and the whole book swirls together in its intricate and jumbled details. This time through I recognize that almost every film of Incandenza's filmography --- which seems at first reading like a nonsensical list of overly-artsy non-sequiturs --- is actually a reference to an event in his life, and altogether the filmography describes his descent into madness and spiraling circular obsessions.

It's great. Go read it, then also go read everything written by and about DFW about DFW. I shamelessly prescribe more reading than is feasible, I know: but read it anyway. Just try. It's perfect for spring.










This post's theme word is birdlime, "to ensnare" or "something that ensnares." That birdlime book describes a fatally birdlime film.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven reads like a Philip K. Dick novel. I found myself checking the cover page more than once to verify the author's name. It has all the PKD elements, you see: the main character, George Orr, can't trust reality and is nervous and anxious about it. So he seeks psychological counseling. But it immediately becomes clear that he doesn't need counseling for delusions, because his anxiety is completely rational: his dreams occasionally edit reality. In major ways. And they are uncontrollable, as products of his subconscious, but imbued with a pervasive power to change all of history, and everyone else's memories of it.

Of course (and in a style I can only characterize as "twistedly PKDickian") the psychiatrist, Dr. Haber, who is treating Orr becomes subtly manipulative, both disbelieving him and simultaneously using his power to manipulate reality through hypnotic suggestion, all the while buffaloing him with torrents of pompous psychology babble. It's these meta-conversations that seem extremely Dickian, where one character questions the nature and permanence of reality and his interlocutor tries to convince him of one thing, while throughout maintaining a cognitive dissonance (of which the readers are aware) about an intricate web of lies.

Early in the book, when the world is overpopulated, dirty, and at war, Dr. Haber muses that "The only solid partitions left were inside the head." (p.9) Of course this kind of sentence, appearing in the middle of a description of how thin the walls are and how neighbors can hear everything about each other, set off all kinds of readerly alarm bells in my mind. It's a literary Chekhov's gun: its appearance foretells that even thoughts will not be private later in the book. And of course, with a power-hungry hypnotist psychologist controlling an anxious omnipotent dreamer, the invasion of one man's head becomes a central feature of the story, alongside the invasion of Earth.

By aliens.

Because dreams are not predictable.

This interplay between the two main characters: a shy and compliant and nervous Orr, and an overbearing, blustery Haber, fills most of the book, but the readers aren't meant to simply deplore Haber's ill-undertaken schemes and sympathize with Orr's helplessness and fear.
If Haber was afraid, of course Orr must be. He was suppressing fear. Or did he think, Haber suddenly wondered, that because he had dreamed the invasion, it was all just a dream? What if it was? Whose? (p. 104)
Part of the delight of the book, for me, was exactly the PKD effect: the novel made me wonder what I'd do with the power, and be thankful that my reality doesn't (apparently) suffer all the vagaries and discontinuities of causality evinced here.

I solidly recommend this book. It's mostly a psychological trip into one man's unspooling mind (which is a description of basically any PKD work, I know), with very little set-dressing of spaceships, or unusual societies, or a giant cast of hundreds of characters. It's a great addition to the genre of "be careful what you wish for" tales.


This post's theme word is kwashiorkor, "a form of malnutrition caused by protein deficiency." If all you ask is that kwashiorkor be eliminated, you might get a virulent childhood plague instead, so no children live long enough to develop it.

Paris marathon?

It seems like it is every week with these races in Paris.
They congest the streets, and delay the subways as select stations get paused and skipped for security (?) reasons.
Plus they accent the art on display --- I imagine those in the Louvre comparing the marble statues of human perfection to the sweaty bodies streaming by outside.


This post's theme word is fugleman, "one who leads a group, company, or party." The marathon's fugleman wore short shorts and a bright t-shirt emblazoned with corporate logos.

Saturday, April 2, 2016

Sainte Chapelle

I revisited the royal chapel today with my favorite PhD tour guide. The usual flair for historical detail and neat technical observations was continued. My photos from inside the chapel were too blurry to convey its awe-inspiring, towering sheets of intricate stained glass, rising up to the heavens, but the outside stonework detailing was also nice.
Stonework on a lower wall panel, exterior of Sainte Chapelle.
And extremely French. They love that fleur-de-lis, it's on everything.


This post's theme word is hagiarchy, "a government by holy persons." The lifelong grooming of a royal saint should not be confused with a hagiarchy; this instance was certainly a helicopter-parent-iarchy.

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Traitor Baru Cormorant

Seth Dickinson's The Traitor Baru Cormorant tells the story of Baru Cormorant, a child of an island nation which is absorbed, subsumed, oppressed, and culturally homogenized into the Masked Empire. She is trained in the colonial schools, taught the language and culture and norms and rules of the conquerors. (SJW alert: the Masked Empire is pro-vaccination but violently homophobic, and her parents' culture is pansexually open and free but doesn't have basic sanitation or medicine. Lots of subtle and not-so-subtle social conversations could happen around this book. I won't examine any of them here.)

Like many protagonists, Baru Cormorant is brilliant. And, despite the accuracy and predictive power of the novel's title, she is a reliable "narrator" (limited 3rd person). Her treachery is contained within the book, and it is comprehensive, pervasive, and exhausting. Exhaustive, too. Even warned by the title and by the giant flags dropped everywhere, the thoroughness of betrayals, reversals, and interpersonal stratagems that she executes is impressive. (Especially because, as a "savant" accountant, her real gift is supposedly with numbers; playing the people and systems around her is just the frosting atop what must be a truly Byzantine accountancy problem.) Baru Cormorant is more devious than Ender or Darrow,* in her self-determined navigation as a child within an oppressive regime of adults and their arbitrary strictures. Clever. Thorough. Analytical, defensive, and perfect in her delicate subversions. Always just balancing on the knife-edge of failure, but just just pulling through with wild success.

The story of The Traitor Baru Cormorant is compelling and deeply emotional, even with (or especially with) a main character who suppresses most emotion. (More compelling than similarly-suppressed characters like Vyr Cossant (of Iain M Banks' The Hydrogen Sonata) or Avice Benner Cho (of China Miéville's Embassytown). The middle part of the story dragged a little for me, with endless chapters of military tactics and movements when I'd rather have jumped to the result. (This was compounded by reading the entire novel in airports and airplanes this week, waiting to get to the other side of the ocean.) The end landed exactly where it was forecast, but nevertheless was narratively-charged and compelling.


This post's theme word is procrustes, "a person imposing conformity without concern for individuality." The procrustian dystopia is rife with smart, subversive urchins; however, most grow up to be procrustes themselves.

*I couldn't think of a third child-protagonist-of-psychologically-controlling-regime-who-subverts-it-from-the-inside to complete this list. Or any female characters. Many are like Katniss Everdeen, and central but ultimately powerless over their own destinies.