Jagannath

Jagannath
Karin Tidbeck

I’m going to make a hash out of this, but I have to give it a go anyway. Most of what I write about is both quality and engages with questions that I find interesting. (Politics and economics, for example, or the Singularity, or exploding spaceships.) Some of what’s left is bad and begging to be mocked. Both of these are easy to write about; words practically flow onto the page like the mighty Amazon River once I get going. Other books though, are a bit like that quiet kid back in high school who looked perfectly normal, but once in awhile would say something completely out of the blue that made everyone think, “Wait, is (s)he ok? That was brilliant, but is one of us going to suddenly turn up dead one morning at his/her hand?” Jagannath is exactly that book.

In more mundane terms, Jagannath is a short book of short stories, thirteen of them in 134 pages. Tidbeck is from Sweden, so one might compare this book to a Volvo, if the Volvo were beautifully constructed, delicate and graceful, with all sorts of innocently sinister tics and quirks, and without those big mother headlights in front. On second thought, Jagannath is almost nothing like a Volvo; something tells me that Ikea and meatballs are also comparison non-starters. The stories are, however, often based on Scandinavian folk tales and maintain the dislocated feel caused by exaggerated days and nights that come with the seasons in that distant clime. I’m not exactly in midnight sun territory here, but it is far enough north that I can see the psychological changes that follow the early nights of winter and the long, long days in summer. The connection between endless nights and twilights and the weirdness in the stories is sometimes overt, sometimes implied, but almost always present.

I think that my favorites of the collection are the opener, “Beatrice,” and “Brita’s Holiday Village.” I would be hard pressed to explain why these stand out more than the others, since the collection as a whole demonstrates a consistent level of quality. All of the stories worm their way into the reader’s subconscious, causing random flashes of ghostly weirdness. Nothing in the book qualifies as a taut, page-turning yarn; instead the stories move elegantly from reality into something very strange, leaving the reader with a furrowed brow and a, “wait, how did we end up here?” The effect is rather like someone looking at a seemingly charming Edward Gorey picture and saying, “Well this is cu… hey! Is that bear eating the children?”

So far, I have only made comical (offensive?) Scandinavian caricatures, without offering much in the way of analysis or critical appraisal. Sadly, things aren’t going to get any better, because Jagannath defies easy categorization. The only other comparison I can make is to Mozart’s chamber music: transparent miniatures of impeccable craftsmanship that, if not always to my taste, are well worth an in-depth study. Hopefully that is enough to convince everyone to check out what will likely be a touchstone collection of 2012.

Rating: Let’s go all the way with Sweden and this particularly insane goal against Brave England.

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Trafalgar

Trafalgar
Angelica Gorodischer

I found out about this book from the always excellent Far Beyond Reality blog. I had planned on putting it further down the To Read list, but when I checked the library, there it sat. And so, Trafalgar Medrano, the daring hero of Angelica Gorodischer’s book, somehow leaped to the front of the line. To be honest, this is not at all what I thought I’d be reading right now. A quick look at the planned reading list for the year shows no Argentinian SF to speak of, but sometimes these things creep up on us.

Trafalgar is a slim volume of short stories that are, if not chronologically sequential, at least meant to be read that way. The central figure in each is Trafalgar Medrano, a galactic merchant who returns to his home base in Rosario, Argentina after each adventure to regale his circle of associates with heroic tales. Often as not, he does this in the friendly confines of his favorite Rosario cafe, while consuming remarkable quantities of coffee and tobacco. His most obvious literary counterpart is Nicholas Van Rijn, though Trafalgar bears little resemblance to Poul Anderson’s rather grotesque creation. The stories generally follow traditional SF paths, wherein the brave, capitalist hero finds himself in a strange land beset with strange troubles; only his wits and business acumen can save the day.

The fun begins when the reader realizes that Gorodischer isn’t just serving up the usual Campbellian fare. Instead, she is slowly deconstructing SF cliches and building a new perspective on the typical Competent White Man so prevalent in the genre. To begin with, many of the stories are told by women. (Trafalgar narrates his own of course, but usually within a framework of someone else reporting on what Trafalgar said, creating multiple layers in each chapter.) The ladies obviously take a different view of Trafalgar’s inveterate womanizing; they let him know that at every opportunity. The last story in the book presents our leading hero with an especially tart irony that all but the densest will enjoy.

It’s not just the womanizing that comes under fire. These secondary narrators subtly undermine the whole affair, deflating Trafalgar when he gets pretentious, though still recognizing his more noble accomplishments. There is an air of unreality to it all however, and I come away from the book wondering how much of it is supposed to be “factual.” Trafalgar is allegedly traveling the stars, but we see no evidence of planetary commonwealths or some such. Is he crazy? Is it all a deep secret? Should we take him at face value? I have no idea. That is, I suppose, part of the fun. He may be exactly what he claims to be, or he may be a compulsive yarn-spinner. Gorodischer delivers it all with a perfectly straight face, as though daring the reader to doubt her.

Even with all of these layers in place, Gorodischer still isn’t content. Woven into many of the stories is subtle social commentary, clear to those with the eyes to see, but unobtrusive, likely hidden to many. It is strongest in “The Gonzalez Family’s Fight For a Better World,” my favorite episode, when said family literally has to escape the tyranny of the past. This bonus of humanism means that Trafalgar is masterfully constructed, both in its pieces and as a whole, slowly opening into a strikingly comprehensive synthesis of the best characteristics of science fiction, fantastical writing, and square-as-a-box literature.

This book is a must read for the serious SF consumer. It broadens the science fiction’s cultural base and adds a feminist voice to the discourse without lecturing or haranguing. It picks apart hoary cliches without disrespecting its heritage. Best of all, Trafalgar paints an interesting and engaging portrait of a character that is familiar, but still manages to surprise. Gorodischer’s book will likely end the year on my top list.

Possible Murakami Group Read

So, in response to some comments on my last post, the idea of doing a group read of Murakami Haruki’s IQ84 has come up. I’m wagering that this weighty tome is sitting on more bookshelves than mine, frightening the children and intimidating guests. Is there any interest among readers and my fellow bloggers for a joint assault on this imposing bit o’ literature? I am considering a June time frame, though no other details are yet clear. Any thoughts? Suggestions? Interested parties? I’d be happy to start putting something together if there is interest; otherwise it will just be me and my friend kamo setting off into peril.

[Insert Bill Pullman’s Independence Day speech here.]

2013 Reading List

2013 Reading List

So this is a little late, and probably of less interest to the readership than my usual book reviews, but I want to get a list of titles down to reduce aimless confusion time at the library. As a bonus, I can check this later and shake my head sadly at all the failures. Good times. So in no particular order, with occasional commentary, this is my list of Stuff I Oughta Get Through This Year. (Note: I will add links as these get written up.) I may add or subtract to this list as the year marches on.

Tad Williams – Memory, Sorrow and Thorn
This is an easy one, since I’m already almost done with Book Two.

Peter F. Hamilton – Night’s Dawn Trilogy (Or at least some of it)
This just seems like something any self-respecting space opera buff would have read.

Iain M. Banks – At least one novel, probably Excession. Possibly more.
I am making my way through the Culture, roughly one book per year.

Steven Erikson – Whatever is next in the Malazan books. I think number five.

Eric Brown – The first of whatever series I can get my hands on. My library branch only has sequels. Boo.

Bradley Beaulieu – The Winds of Khalakovo

CJ Cherryh – Finish Cyteen. Probably read something else Alliance-Union as well, though her books are so heavy. It takes a certain fortitude to dive in.

Something in Japanese. I will likely start with The Girl Who Leaped Through Time, but I’ve got some more ambitious stuff on the shelf.

Haruki Murakami – IQ84
This has been sitting on the shelf far too long. It may jump off and attack me soon if I don’t read it.

Some classics: Heinlein, Anderson, Aldiss, Silverberg, etc. I’ve got a bunch of college syllabus type stuff waiting for me.

Something by Walter Jon Williams.

More LE Modesitt Jr., Stephen Baxter

Charlie Stross – Iron Sunrise, Rapture of the Nerds

China Mieville – The next Bas Lag books.

Mike Resnick – I should really finish the Starship series, and maybe something else. I’ve only been picking at the first for about four years now.

Parasite Eve

Parasite Eve
Sena Hideaki

 I read about this book in a post here, on one of the few blogs I’ve found that reviews much Japanese SF. Her description pretty much guaranteed that I would check this book out, though it failed to live up to the zany expectations engendered by the review. I was looking forward to a homicidal Lady Part stalking through the halls, doing awful things to misguided scientists. Tragically, this is not quite what happens. Anyway, Parasite Eve was published in Japan in 1995. It appears to have been a cultural phenomenon, spawning a (probably bad) movie adaptation and a smash hit video game sequel. It was finally translated and published here in 2005 by Vertical Press, one of just a couple reliable sources for Japanese SFF in translation. I’m a bit puzzled why this became so popular, for reasons that we’ll delve into further.

The big take home from Parasite is to not trust our mitochondria, since we have no idea what it’s really up to. This is a promising start to a horror tale, but Sena buries the lede under 170-some pages of Too Much Medical Information. For the first time, I finally understand how a regular person feels hacking through Hard SF. As the entirely too detailed descriptions of surgeries, organ transplants, inner workings of cells, and the life of biologists piled up, I found myself skimming more than is healthy. Biology has never been my thing and Parasite didn’t change my mind. There are occasional interesting bits here and there, as the mitochondria take over lovely, sheltered, and doomed Kiyomi’s body, give random people hot flashes, and occasionally dispense creepy, orgasm-y feelings to Kiyomi when her husband says the word “mitochondria.”

On the other hand, way too much time is spent talking about 14 year-old Mariko, the real loser at the end of the book, who gets dead Kiyomi’s kidney but has massive hang-ups about her new organ. Her featured chapters may be a grudging nod to characterization, or maybe just a way to build pathos, but mostly they made me not like poor Mariko. Her typical salaryman dad also gets some attention, but the narrative is mostly dominated by Toshiaki: the lead scientist, aforementioned husband, and “hero,” who is downright bizarre in his obsession with cultivating his dead wife’s liver cells. By page 200, it’s hard to like any of these characters, with only Toshiaki’s dutiful graduate assistant garnering any sympathy. (The last is, like grad students everywhere, merely present to be exploited by everyone and everything. A sad lot, grad students.)

From here on out, expect spoilers. Things finally pick up a bit for the last 50 or so pages. (A good thing, too, or Parasite would be the most boring book I’ve ever seen.) This is where I expected the Vengeful Lady Part to appear and start raping everything in a paroxysm of slime and fire; Sena meets me halfway. First to go is the grad student. (Of course.) I will give Sena some credit here – the grad student breaks not a one of the usual Thou Shalt Nots for females in horror, though she is tall. As I said above, she’s basically the only likable character of the bunch. Pure too, as far as I know, which is supposed to keep her safe in Weird Horror Parallel Reality. So there’s a surprise. Regardless, she gets taken over by rampaging mitochondrial goop, poor girl. All of this excitement is too much for the evil mitochondria, who begins to form herself into a slimy, woman-shaped “Eve.” In the unquestioned highlight of the novel, and probably the hardest to film for public release, Eve starts by making herself from the goop a brand new lady part, a finger, and a single boob. Um…. yes. Brilliant.

Toshiaki wanders over after some other weirdness and, in a massive disappointment to me, is pursued by a squishy and runny Eve who has now formed herself fully into Kiyomi shape. Eve shapeshiftingly rapes the holy heck out of Toshiaki in a scene that had me snorting awkwardly on the bus, glad that nobody could see what I was laughing at. I was disappointed that Eve went all the way to human shape here, rather than stomping around as Kiyomi’s naughty bits, but at least she was shape changing and slimy while harvesting Toshiaki’s potent seed. Now able to create some weird, mitochondrial-human hybrid, Eve escapes through the sewer. Toshiaki gives chase, but Les Miserables this is not.

Meanwhile, Mariko is having horrible nightmares and her kidney is bouncing around inside her in a most unkidney-like fashion. Eve pours herself through the sink, tosses a doctor against the wall, and enflames two nurses. This sets Sena off on a random, multi-paragraph tangent about, what else, spontaneous combustion. Toshiaki and Mariko’s dad arrive in time to extinguish the doctor’s hands, which Eve lights on fire as she makes off with Mariko’s unconscious body. They miraculously figure out exactly where Eve might go and give chase, despite several people being in various stages of recovery from massive burns, rape, and shock at seeing a monster run off with a nubile 14 year-old whose kidney is trying to escape, Alien-style, from her body.

This brings us to the ickiest part of the book, when Eve debates how to best insert her fertilized egg inside Mariko’s womb. Fortunately for Eve, this is Japan, where the correct answer to most questions is “rape,” so she doesn’t have to think for long. Eve makes some necessary adjustments to her equipment, then Sena tells us much more than we ever wanted to know about how this sort of thing might happen. Thanks, Sena! The men are naturally horrified by it all, and even moreso as nine months of pregnancy condense themselves into about that many minutes; before they can say, “Holy hideous and hostile hybrid, Batman!” Eve and Toshiaki are proud parents. Normally, this would be the end of the world as we know it, but some detail of biology that I don’t really understand means that the mitochondriac love child literally needs a man, so she merges with Toshiaki in a creepy daddy-daughter pairing that kills them both off in some sort of inappropriate-yet-parental ecstasy.

At this point, a now conscious Mariko, apparently unaware that she has been violated by a monster and forced to carry its now dead baby to term, smiles at her dad and says, “Everything is ok now, the kidney is really mine.” And they all lived happily ever after, even the grad student.

So yeah, where do I start? Pacing and characterization and stuff are not egregiously bad, but I really can’t figure out why this book among hundreds set off a firestorm. It’s really boring for a long time. I guess enough people made it to the last set pieces, since those do have enough pyrotechnics to offset the preceding drudgery. I have no idea how this got turned into a movie without some massive story changes. Japanese studios didn’t have the budget or technology in the late 1990s to make some of this work, to say nothing of the waggling, marauding genitalia. Still, the end was fun and it made me laugh. (That may not be what Sena had in mind, but I don’t see how the reader can take this seriously.)

What is more troubling is Sena’s portrayal of women. The dude has a serious Madonna-Whore complex going here; some of his descriptions of Eve made me cringe. The ladies are either pure, shy, and/or uninterested, or they are brazen, rape-machine hussies. Well, one hussy. It’s pretty clear what nice girls don’t say and do in Sena’s world. At the same time, he unabashedly turns Ye Olde Male Gaze on his victims. Among others, I now know far more than I want to about Mariko’s young (underage), wholesome body. Note to prospective authors out there: I used to teach junior high school girls. Please don’t attempt to make me think about them in that way. It just gives me the willies and makes you look gross. Finally, there is the end of the book, when the strong, forceful woman who attempts to overthrow the system is thwarted by her own, male-needing biology. Three cheers for the Three P’s of Japanese Society: Patriarchy, Pederasty, and raPe. (OK, so that is a little clumsier than I might have hoped. Sorry.)

Final recommendations? Let’s go with hilarious, but sometimes cringe-worthy, fun. Well, fun leavened with 170 pages of biology infodumps. If the gentle reader only wants to consume the best fiction out there, give this a pass. However, much as I have been known to occasionally crave Taco Bell and corn dogs, some readers may periodically wish to read something grotesque and offensive, with side orders of nurse combustion and rape-happy goop balls. If this is so, do I have a book for you.

Rating: Gotta go with the Japanese Women’s National Team being forced to fly economy to the 2012 Olympics, but only if there are too #%^% many snakes on that plane.