Letter From The Editor - Issue 59 - October 2017

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Writing Fantasy

  
Book Hungry
October 2007

Finder: Sin-Eater by Carla Speed McNeil
Lightspeed Press, 2007, Hardcover, 381 pp, $29.95

Ha! All y'all can eat your little hearts out, because I was recently lucky enough to have the pleasure of chatting with Mrs. McNeil herself for a few scant moments at the Stumptown Comics Fest here in Portland, Oregon. Tragically, the shebang was held sometime after noon on a Saturday, thus ensuring that I would be utterly sleep-deprived and slow-witted. (The epic Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVD marathon my roommates and I partook of the night before probably didn't help matters, but such are the sacrifices one makes for Alyson Hannigan.)

My point is, my powers of fanboy-gushing were not at their peak, and I managed but a few feeble comments about Octavia Butler before (sigh) slinking back home to sleep.

No, no, wait -- my point is that McNeil finally debuted her much-anticipated hardcover collection of Sin-Eater, the first storyline in her open-ended comic series Finder. With extra-speshul director's cut additions. Let the drooling begin.

Now, I know we've just acquired an excellent new comix column by our dear Mr. Ellsworth, but this was just too good to pass up:

Finder, as the title so subtly suggests, concerns the Finder (think "aboriginal detective") Jaeger Ayers and his various adventures in the domed city of Anvard -- a hodge-podge of every culture imaginable, with more world-building going on in a single panel than most artists can manage in an entire miniseries.

Besides being a Finder, Jaeger is also a Sin-Eater, someone who takes responsibility for the sins of others. A ritual scapegoat, in other words. McNeil goes absolutely crazy with the sheer complexity of the many, many weird societies and people bangin' into each other within the Dome. Practically every trope in science fiction and fantasy are on display here, and they somehow manage to form a cohesive and completely new whole. The book is at once a family drama about how Jaeger's presence transforms the lives of a mother and her troubled children (I get a vaguely Harper Lee-esque vibe in these sections), as well as a blisteringly fast-paced extrapolation of practically every hot-topic issue you can think of from the last decade or so.

Also, it's really damn funny.

McNeil has a brilliant ear for dialogue, and the comics form gives her ample enough room to play with different fonts, sizes, placement, and whathaveyou to really give a feel for the language, the music and the cadences dancing around her amazingly individualistic characters. Dave Sim is clearly an inspiration in this regard, no matter how freaky-deaky his political rants were.

McNeil also has the luxury and benefits of both movie-visuals and book-length prose, but of course this means that she has to work twice as hard to avoid the pitfalls of both as well -- exposition is a breeze, since she can just show the world instead of having to find clever ways for the characters to "notice" the cool things that they would in actuality take for granted. However, she can also get into the heads of her characters to a degree that is simply impossible outside of tightly-written prose -- none of the inevitably-superficial assumed-characterization of film here.

It's drawn in a sort of documentary-style that I love, but it will inevitably confuse some readers unfamiliar with some of the conventions comic books use. (This is alleviated greatly by the copious -- and often hilarious -- notes at the end of the book detailing the minutia of the world.)

'Cause McNeil is doing something in comics that is rarely tried even on the pure-prose side of science fiction. Finder is leading the way in the direction that comics need to go in if they're to survive -- stories that can only be done in one medium, not as a stepping-stone to movies or whatever -- McNeil is doing it better than the movies and better than the books could anyway. This is, in fact, practically the only anthropological and social-organization based storytelling going on in comics, and what's even more amazing is that it works so well.

No joke -- Finder is easily one of the most important, challenging, morally-complex, and just plain ol' fun works of art in the past decade, and you'll be sorry if you wait very long to read it.

www.lightspeedpress.com will get you started, so hop.

Spook Country by William Gibson
Penguin Books, 2007, Hardcover, 371 pp, $25.95

This book is only marginally science fiction, but Gibson has been such an important contributor to the growth of sci-fi (not to mention such a seminal influence on early cyberpunk) that he gets lumped in with us even when he goes a bit out-of-genre. The curse of the successful writer: to never be allowed out of the pigeon-hole.

Still, Gibson makes a noble effort to escape from our ghetto with this recent-past caper-thriller:

The book begins with Hollis Henry, a failed-musician-turned-journalist who's on assignment for Node, a mysterious tech magazine that hasn't quite started publishing. She's been conscripted to find a mysterious "producer" named Bobby Chombo, who never sleeps in the same place twice. Bobby is somehow connected to Tito, a mysterious Cuban-Chinese member of a crime-family, who is in turn somehow connected to Brown, the mysterious one-time government agent who's holding a mysterious drug-addict named Milgrim in close captivity.

(Erm, don't blame me, the whole point of the book is how mysteeeerious the inner workings of the world are.)

The most interesting concept in the book comes early on: when Hollis puts on some special goggles and stands in the right place, she's able to view hidden "tags" of "locative art" -- art that is produced entirely in a virtual-reality melding of GPS and the History Channel. Want to see what a famous celebrity looked like when they died? Go find the spot where they kicked it, slip on those goggles, and you've got an artist's rendering of the subject hyperlinked to anything else you might want to know about the place/person/event.

Unfortunately, this delightfully crass little invention is about as interesting as the book ever gets. There's a vague plot (that is only fully revealed in the last few pages, and not in the good twist-ending sorta way) about a sort of prank that some of the main characters are pulling on the government involving some questionable money-laundering schemes in the wake of the Iraq war, and that's about it as far as excitement goes. Milgrim, the only mildly-interesting character of the bunch, is almost entirely useless to the main thrust of the story. The thriller elements don't reach beyond the usual Hollywood car-action at the climax, and indeed, rather than being a pure thriller, I think the author is trying harder to justify his personal vision of the supposed American zeitgeist. Just comes off as paranoid, brother:

Gibson unfortunately uses the characters as transparent mouthpieces in order to spout yawn-inducingly trite jabs at the political party he doesn't like (I, for one, don't care if Cheney's hunting mishap was big news when the novel takes place -- if I hear one more lame "shot by the Vice President" joke I'm going to get a little trigger-happy myself) and superficial "insights" into the music and art world that are meant to be deep but which end up coming off as affected artsy-cliches. He's trying for ironic satire, and I keep hearing people talk about how biting and funny it all is, but for me it was mostly just an exercise in seeing how long I could last reading the inspirational literature of a nostalgic hipster-religion I don't belong to that's trying to reinforce the same tired old lines that their Orthodox members use to convince themselves they really have a grip on the subtle ties between geopolitics and communication networks.

Still -- Gibson is a deeply talented stylist, and the sheer skill he employs to evoke place and culture is as good as or better than it's ever been, meaning it's really, really good. His terse-yet-dense prose has always been his strong point, and even with the noticeable lack of the stereotypical Gibson tropes, this book should be no disappointment to those readers who enjoy him for his wordplay. He still knows how to spot the trends and minutiae, and his namechecking is as frenetic as ever.

In other words: not my kind of story, not my kind of politics, not my kind of art or music, just plain not my kind of book -- but it's done well enough for what it is, so decide for yourself whether or not it's your kind.

Powers by Ursula K. Le Guin
Harcourt Books, 2007, Hardcover, 502 pp, $17.00

For Gavir, slavery is comfortable.

He's a young house-servant owned by the great and kind family Arcamand, the best student in his classes, living in relative luxury in a pre-technological world. He's studying to be a teacher, and it's only when his most trusting relationship is betrayed that he starts to understand the fundamental unfairness of his life. We follow his path as he undertakes an epic journey to find his place in the world:

Gav's autobiography begins within a little community of slave-boys -- I don't know how Le Guin knows what my early years were like, but all the loyalties and factions, the tiny-yet-epic betrayals and jealousies and friendships with the enemy, the reconciliations and goodbyes, they're all true to life in a small town where everyone knows each other, and everything is muted and softened to remain civil. People tend to think that if such delicate things are not talked about explicitly that there is nothing going on beneath the "surface" of the event. But as Gav says: "There might be silence, yes, but there were no secrets in our life." As usual, all of Le Guin's societies are perfectly drawn and hint at further revelation, hidden complexities. You don't even realize you're getting lessons in anthropology and sociology because it's so dramatic and fun.

However, the really fun gimmick of the book is Gav's power to "remember" events that haven't happened yet. It makes for an interesting mix of memory, the present day, and future, swirling around in a nostalgic sort of synesthesia.

Le Guin's prose is utterly bare-bones, and all the more interesting because of it -- it becomes rich with the amount of causal detail and events. Some writers write page upon page of stylish nothings, whereas Le Guin writes so concisely, with such precision, that she's free to be morally complex with her ideas because they're so clearly-explained. She has a great sensitivity to all the different roles and functions people in different relationships can fill in a tight-knit community. An anthropological study of these fictional people allows her to clarify moral issues relating to parenting and families that apply to us in the real world, as we learn through exposure to the different cultures to think more clearly and critically about the way we organize our own society -- what works, what doesn't, the effects different social institutions have on our private lives, and how we might improve. We learn what can be changed for the better, and we learn to uphold and sustain the things that worked from the past.

Gav and his friends, too, learn responsibility when other children are hurt for their unthinking actions. The plot moves gently at first, more a leisurely recounting than an adventure, describing tender moments between Gav and his beloved sister Sallo and their friends playing in the golden summer between the rocks they imagine are the great castles of the past. Things go as well as can be expected, until the horror of war comes upon them, and the children of slaves are buried where the water will inevitably eat their graves.

And though Gav serves all his masters well, they all end up betraying his trust; he runs away from the home he grew up in and makes friends with other on-the-run slaves, traveling across the world. Le Guin sets up societies with basic equivalencies to the real world (ie, Democracies, Matriarchal hunter-gatherers, Socialism, etc) and never picks sides over what is the ideal -- equal time is given to exploring them all, the positives and negatives, and she never resorts to easy-answer utopianism. You can read the book to see what happens next, but you can also read it for the philosophy, which is never dumbed-down. There is prejudice even between slaves -- no matter how low you get, people still find ways to make life miserable for those even smaller and lower.

In his travels, Gav gradually is able to win respect with the friends he makes in the free society called the Heart of the Forest by telling the histories and poems he learned in his slavery. (Here Le Guin is able to insert a nice lesson on the real power of stories plainly-told to the common folk to work their immersive magic on an untrained audience hungry not for the specific words themselves but rather for the events and characters. These untrained readers talk amongst themselves like we all do after a movie to argue the morality of the tale. We hear complex arguments from uneducated people, which matches my own experience of finding insight in supposedly uninsightful people.)

When Gav meets the almost mythical Barna, he learns that the great man who raised himself out of poverty to create a society of Freemen can be just as wonderful as the stories say he is -- but that he can also be as terrible as the dark whispers that travel in the underground. He comes to understand how to learn from someone and value their teachings without necessarily valuing those who taught it -- listening for the information, not getting hung up on whether or not you personally like the person who told it to you.

For even as a former slave, Gav only sees Freedom as a word, beauty its only function, until he learns to appreciate it -- just as we today take so many things to be merely pretty words that have no meaning in "real life", in the "real" world of cynicism. Things like honor, trust, honesty, integrity -- their beauty truly lies in the way that they could change the world if only we'd act on them and make them real. From his many journeys, he learns that it is not what he owns so much as his memories that he can call his own.

As he travels more and more, the agony of being separated from the community he knows and loves best weighs heavier and heavier, knowing as he does that the others are separated as well, and no matter how much they might think of each other, reunification is impossible. Every time he becomes part of a tribe, he is forced to leave, until he has a whole cast of characters known only in his memory. Indeed, some of the most notable relationships are those that are the briefest: Diero is one of Barna's mistresses, and yet her time with Gav is the most soft and tender, hinging as it does on the idea that they are truly equal. I was in tears at the beauty of their friendship, as Gav is the only man who, rather than wanting to own her, truly wishes to stand beside her as a worthy person. She brings him quiet release from the pressures of his life, and he teaches her young friends Iran and Melle to appreciate art and learning.

Gav goes on many journeys, and battles many inner demons, until he finds a people to belong to -- and that's really what the book is about: finding your place in the world, a place where it is actually okay to be happy. Which is why I loved it.


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