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Kamo (this is how she fight start): Unless you’ve been dead for the last couple of months (or alternatively completely uninterested in contemporary speculative fiction, in which case YOU’RE DEAD TO ME! DEAD I TELL YOU!) then you’ll have noticed that both Kameron Hurley and Robert Jackson Bennett have recently released new books. While I plumped for a pre-order of Hurley’s Mirror Empire our estimable host here at Two Dudes ended up reading Bennett’s City of Stairs, and so some kind of joint post seemed like the thing to do. Pep, as is his wont, will probably be looking to tease out themes and draw Significant Conclusions about The State of The Genre, but I am both more capricious and more easily distracted and I quite fancy doing this as an antagonistic Jets vs Sharks thing for no other reason than since August these two books have accounted for about two-thirds of my Twitter timeline. So we’re going to have a dance-off. We’ll drag the books on stage, whack some MC Hammer on the boombox and see which has the better moves and more garish costume. Pep and I will champion our respective books, or, since we’re talking about fantasy here, I’ll be pitching for Team Edward and Pep for Team That Other One With The Eyebrows.
Pep: Go Eyebrows. I’m all ready to dance, with a playlist cued up of Westside Story, “Can’t Touch This,” and “Superfreak.” (That’s the Rick James tune that Hammer sampled, for all you young’uns out there.) I tried to wear my old parachute pants, but they don’t fit now, more’s the pity.
Round One – Contemporary Hip-Hop
Kamo: We begin, as we seemingly must, with considerations of genre. Both books appear to be characterized by the genre-straddling that seems to be in fashion at the moment: is it horror? is it fantasy? is it science fiction or new weird or slipstream? Who cares?
We do. We care. Or at least I do, for reasons I’ll try to tease out later on. In the meantime The Mirror Empire slots itself relatively neatly into the drawer marked Epic Fantasy. We can be fairly certain of this because there’s a map inside the front cover depicting the conveniently rectangular landmass upon which events are set to unfold. There’s also magic and intrigue and prophecies and children marked for greatness and a metric fuckton of blood. (Is that the correct unit of measurement for lots and lots of blood? An arselitre perhaps? A twatgallon?). There are some vague feints in the ‘indistinguishable from magic’ direction, but as this the first of a series we’ll have to let those bubble along for another book or two, I suspect.
Pep: I care a great deal about genre, or in this case, the breaking thereof. I suppose the catch-all is “fantasy,” but for me it’s more of Cold War spy thriller/steampunk/political fantasy/dead gods religious horror. Is that an official genre yet? If John Le Carre and Immanuel Wallerstein teamed up to write gaslight fantasy with religious underpinnings, we might get City of Stairs. Very little of this book conforms to convention, so the one giant nod to fantasy tropes stands out like a skyscraper in the Sahara. That would be Sigurd, the sidekick and “secretary” for the main character. Sigurd is a brazen archetype, almost a Platonic form of the savage Northern barbarian. It probably goes without saying that he totally kicks everyone’s butt, all of the time. He is certainly jarring, but I’m pretty sure it’s just Bennett trolling the fanboys. When Sigurd is offscreen, things focus much tighter on spycraft, historical analysis, and the governance of empire.
Round Two – Pasa Doble
Kamo: AH-HA! A theme! I told you there’d be some. Because if the genre of ME is relatively easy to define, what raises it above its peers is the way it interrogates, subverts, and generally abuses some key conventions of that genre. And this means we must gird whatever parts of our anatomy we feel most in need of girding and discuss worldbuilding; the storytelling equivalent of Stuart in Accounting who never shuts up about his static caravan in Dorset and that one time he met Carol Vorderman in Tesco but is also the only person in the company who knows how to correctly file VAT returns.
Pep: Apropos nothing really, I wish the US had VAT. It’s a revenue tool vastly superior to most of what we have in place.
Kamo: Now there’s whole other can of worms. Given Japan’s just called an election at least notionally as a referendum on a sales tax increase, with all the promised fun a Japanese election entails, you’ll forgive me if I’m not particularly well disposed to the subject right now. Which is a pain, because I’m usually not so well-disposed to worldbuilding, either, viewing it with a grudging tolerance as, at best, a slightly tiresome necessity for the greater good of the story. I mention this here because while I’ve read, enjoyed, and can highly recommend Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha, she does have an approach to worldbuilding perhaps best described as, “KITCHEN SINK? FUCK YOU AND YOUR SHITTY TIMID SINK, BUDDY,” which means that there’s inevitably going to be a bit of tension on this point. (Read more about Bel Dame here! And here!) Somewhat counterintuitively, it’s an approach that works for me more often than not; whatever else you may accuse her of, she definitely commits to the universes she creates and if you’re going to throw it all at the wall and see what sticks you might as well throw it as hard as you fucking can. Things adhering with a resounding SPLAT! in this instance vary from the overtly ideological (one participant culture has five standard genders, and even in those with a smaller range of roles the male-female continuum is notably mutable), to the innovative twists on the familiar (magicians wax and wane in power according to whether their associated satellites are ascendant or not), to the just plain cool (KILLER BONE TREES! URSINE STEEDS! MAGIC NINJAS!). This book has many strengths, and I think it’s fair to say that the majority of them grow from the mindblowing universe that Hurley has set in motion.
Pep: Coincidentally, worldbuilding is really where Bennett makes his mark. City of Stairs has possibly the best setting in years; it’s completely irresistible. Imagine a city of the gods, animated by their power and filled with all the wonder and beauty that godlike power can bestow. Then imagine the catastrophe when the gods are killed – floating towers crashing to the earth, lines of reality redrawn, temperate weather reverting to a natural tundra, the works. With this description alone, Bukilov is one of fantasy’s most engaging cities, and this is just from the dust jacket. The Bukilov we see is a fallen capital, ravaged by poverty and disease as the empire it once commanded is ruled by a former colony, the upstart Saypur. The first fifty pages of the book felt like a spy novel set in post-WWII Warsaw, with all the paranoia, suspicion, and tradecraft in a rubble-strewn city.
Kamo: All to the good, I’m sure, but I notice that you nowhere mention Magic Ninjas. This must count against it, I fear.
On the upside, it looks like we can also tick off ‘messy colonialism’ (is there any other kind?) in our I-Spy book of Discourses in Contemporary SFF. The scope of ME is several orders of magnitude larger than a single city, but here too the cultures are marked, and to a large extent defined, by their previous roles as both colonizers and colonized. The history provided for each culture is vast, even if explanations of the accumulated waves of invasion, subjugation, decline, and re-invasion do occasionally bear an unfortunate resemblance to the recruitment scene in Hot Shots (‘They’re the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize the guys sent in to colonize…” It’s turtles all the way down). The in-play cultures also all seem to have names that start with D, which doesn’t help with telling them apart. I’m sure there are very sound linguistic reasons for some of the similarities, but what kind of loon would base an epic fantasy on linguistics?
Pep: Very true, there are no magic ninjas. Boo. Or killer bone trees. There is a lot of colonialism however. Saypur revolts, then conquers through science and economics. Once itself oppressed, Saypur now attempts to control the Continent by erasing its history. All references to the dead gods, no matter how obscure or unintentional, are proscribed. The conflict between heritage-burying colonizers and conquered believers flows through and around everything else that happens in the book.
Kamo: This does appear to be A Thing right now. Witness the recent World Fantasy win for A Stranger in Olondria (Note: I really hope this reference is still current by the time we finish this post). Is it that new though? I’m not asking as a rhetorical device either, I get the impression that you’re much better versed in ‘the classics’ than I am. Is it just more visible than before, or is genuinely being interpreted in new ways that extend beyond transparent proxies for The White Man’s Burden?
Pep: I think it is indeed a new thing. People probably touched on it during the New Wave (the period of SF I know the least about), but I don’t think there was a broad consciousness about the whole colonization issue until recently, even in society as a whole. It’s probably related to the ongoing globalization of SFF, at last no longer the sole preserve of white men. I’m trying to think of books that really took on issues of empire or oppressed people, and nothing really comes to mind until the last few years.
With this, Part One comes to a close. Kamo and Pep continued to ramble, at great length, so please stay tuned for Part Two, to be posted over on This is How She Fight Start.