18 Jan

Testing the Waters of Modern Icelandic Literature

Book review: The Whispering Muse by Sjón

The Whispering Muse - Cover

The Whispering Muse – Cover

Because I started learning Icelandic this year, I decided it would be a good time to check out some Icelandic literature in translation. Most people are familiar with the Icelandic sagas, but there is a lot of modern literature coming out of Iceland too. I realized I could be reading Icelandic literature in a roundabout way. I had been reading David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. The book mentions Halldór Laxness, an Icelandic author who received the Nobel Prize for literature. I know, this isn’t a review about Laxness, as you’re undoubtedly thinking. Well, I did get a Laxness novel from the library but I read The Whispering Muse first because it is much shorter and I practice library triage. So, here we go.

The Whispering Muse takes the form of a memoir of an older Icelandic gentleman named Valdimar Haraldsson. Haraldsson fills his time with running a journal about the connection between fish and culture–specifically that fish is the secret to Nordic superiority. Haraldsson’s memoir details the events aboard the merchant ship MS Elizabeth Jung-Olsen, where Haraldsson stays as a ‘supernumary’ thanks to the largess of Norwegian shipping magnate Magnus Jung-Olsen. The story takes place in the late 1940s.

Each night while onboard the ship, Haraldsson dines at the captain’s table with several of the crew and the paramour of one of the crew members. Haraldsson becomes increasingly horrified each night because fish, nor seafood of any kind, does not appear on the dinner menu. Several days in, Haraldsson takes it upon himself to go fishing (the ship spends most of the story docked at a paper mill in a Norwegian fjord). His catch is made into several meals, to Haraldsson’s delight and to everyone else’s skepticism.

After the evening’s repast, the second mate, Caeneus, recounts a part of the saga of Jason and the Argonauts. To tell the story, Caeneus holds a woodchip up to his ear. Caeneus receives the tale from the woodchip and relays it to the group.

Haraldsson assumes that the business with the woodchip is some sort of conceit, but everyone else takes it seriously. Caeneus later reveals that the chip is a piece of the Argo itself, which is why it can tell him the story.

I’m not sure The Whispering Muse was really the right entree into Icelandic literature. I don’t really feel like I “got” the book, but I’m going to give it my best interpretation anyway because it’s just the internet, not a peer-reviewed literary journal.

The Whispering Muse is apparently a satirical take on a milquetoast Icelander who, preoccupied with the inherent superiority of his own people, cannot recognize true excellence when he sees it. Caeneus’ tales of the Argonauts feature excitement and heroics. In contrast, when Haraldsson has the opportunity to speak, he presents a rambling lecture on his fish and culture thesis. It is not well-received.

At the end of the story, Haraldsson, confronted by someone truly superior, only f lees. An epilogue explains that he loosened up on his view about fish and Nordic supremacy after his stint on the Elizabeth Jung-Olsen. I also suspect it is intentional that Haraldsson is dwelling on Nordic superiority so shortly after World War II. The Germans adopted the Nordic myths and used them as part of their claim for racial superiority. It would be a little awkward to walk around talking about how great the Nordic people are so soon after the same myths were unfortunately used (in part) to justify atrocity.

It was interesting to read a novel translated from Icelandic because it offered some different word use than what we normally get in English literature. I have to thank both the author and translator for this one, since literature in translation is so influenced by the translator. This translation had some gems, like the phrase higgledy-piggledy. You have to wonder how that appears in Icelandic (This just in: Google Translate says it’s the same in both languages. What a buzzkill).

What to read next:

  • I think I have to recommend Halldór Laxness as a next read. Independent People seems to be his most famous work, but there are certainly quite a few options.
  • I guess I’m cheating a bit for both of these recommendations, but I’m going to recommend The Bone Clocks as well. I just finished it about a week ago. It was definitely worth reading. It’s a kind of speculative fiction that is so close to reality that you forget you’re reading something that is arguably magical realism.
09 Oct

Brotherhood and Modern Philosophy: The Great Glass Sea

Book Review: The Great Glass Sea by Josh Weil

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

Book Cover: The Great Glass Sea

As I read this book, I was sure I would not write a review about it. The Great Glass Sea is a dense, complex story. It is stuffed with thick, filling imagery and, frankly, it took a long time to read. At first, I thought there would be nothing I could say that would add to the experience of this novel, but I let my thoughts percolate for a few days and I have decided to write.

I was excited to get this book even though I knew nothing about it. I received The Great Glass Sea for my first installment of Powell’s Indiespensible, a subscription service for hand-picked books accompanied by thematically-appropriate goodies (this book came with a water bottle and several sachets of tea, if you are wondering). Since I did not know what to expect, I also found it hard to start this book. The first few pages seemed compelling, but I got a little bogged down in the newness of the concept and the Russian names. However, once I got used to that, I definitely got into the story and the way the story was told.

The Great Glass Sea follows the lives of twin brothers Yaroslav (Yarik) and Dmitry (Dima) Zhuvov—not their entire lives, of course. That would be dull. Rather, Weil zooms in on what separates Yarik and Dima, what pushes their lives onto opposing trajectories.

There are hints of Yarik and Dima’s separation from the beginning of the story, from their childhood, but it was not until I neared the end that I realized that the seeds of their separation were sown so early on.

Most of the story focuses on Yarik and Dima as adults. The boys’ town, located in the north eastern reaches of Russia, the parts that get so little winter sun, is home to a mad engineering project: the Oranzheria (“greenhouse” in Russian). The Consortium is building a gigantic series of mirrors to reflect light into the city. The project invigorates the people of Petroplavilsk. Men work 12-hour days erecting the mirrors, working their way across the Petroplavilsk and the outlying area. Yarik and Dima used to work on the same crew, but that changed after they were found doing nothing all day while on the clock by the Consortium’s CEO. Afterward, the brothers are put on separate shifts. They only see each other on holidays and at the bus stop during the shift change each day.

A map

Where in the world is Petroplavislsk? Waaay out there.

This separation sets off a series of events that propel the brothers Zhuvov into separate orbits. Yarik becomes a “friend” of the CEO and the front man for the Consortium’s advertisements in Petroplavilsk. Because Yarik has a wife and two young children, he sees the importance of moving up and embracing the culture of work. Dima, in contrast, quits work not long after their separation. Dima decides he feels no need to work. He roams the city, falls in with various anti-Oranzheria groups and, for the most part, loses the will do to anything other than save up for a day when he can be together with Yarik.

Each brother shows a side of this modernized, capitalized Russia. This is a Russia dragged out of the Soviet Era, which the people of Petroplavilsk call The Past Life, and into a world infused with American-style capitalism.

What is interesting about how The Great Glass Sea illustrates these concepts—brotherhood, capitalism—is that each brother personifies a choice. What I really like about this is, in my view, that Weil did not make a judgment. Is the capitalism better than The Past Life? Worse? You decide, dear reader. From this portrait, it seems that there are both positive and negative consequences for either decision.

Dima represents The Past Life. He wants to purchase their uncle’s old farm (technically the farm belongs to a socialist collective, but the brothers Zhuvov are among the few who can now purchase it) and live there with Yarik and his family. To Dima, work is pointless if he cannot spend it with his brother. In fact, most of life is pointless without Yarik. Instead of working, Dima saves the money that Yarik gives him to take care of their mother. He sells practically everything not nailed down in the apartment he shares with his elderly, addled mom. Dima searches for meaning out in the world, rather than attempting to find meaning through work. However, the people of Petroplavilsk view Dima as a layabout at best and as a lunatic at worst. His indifference toward temporal needs hastens his mother’s death. His inability to connect with the rest of the world makes him an outcast and further separates him from his brother.

Yarik represents a work-focused, capitalistic viewpoint. He wants to provide a good life for his wife and kids, rejecting Dima’s bucolic vision. Although Dima remembers life with their uncle on the farm as some kind of paradise, Yarik recalls the miseries and the work involved with living off the land. At the Oranzheria, he ascends from laborer to foreman to manager thanks to his relationship with the Consortium’s CEO. While his progress is emblematic of the American Dream (permit me this; there does not seem to be a “Russian Dream”) his rise is actually not a reflection of a functioning meritocracy, but is a way for the Consortium’s CEO to get ahold of the farm that a bunch of old communists refuse to sell—the farm that Dima wants to buy. This relationship also puts Yarik in several ethically questionable and even dangerous situations. But on the upside, Yarik’s family has a computer and a car.

The Great Glass Sea intrigues me because it does not pick sides. Is The Past Life better than the Oranzheria’s present? I find it reassuring to find a work that depicts a dichotomy without taking sides. So very different from the current American trend of giving equal time to “both sides” of an issue, whether or not an issue is too complex to have “sides” like that.

Philosophy aside, there were other compelling elements to this novel. The Great Glass Sea is speculative fiction with the lightest of touches. I am tempted to call it science-fiction, but I am not sure I really can. The Oranzheria is science-fiction-esque in that humans built a contraption to redirect the light of the sun so that a Russian town does not have to endure darkness any longer. Despite that, the Oranzheria is more like a set piece than like something from science fiction. Maybe it is hard to call this science fiction because the people and the world are so starkly real.

I would perhaps like to categorize the book as magical realism, but I think that might be a stretch too. The Great Glass Sea is very real, very present. I would even classify it as literary fiction, but the book, like its characters, takes multiple views. I think that genre fiction fans will enjoy it, as will readers of “literary” or “regular” fiction (what is that even called? This may be a sign that I read too much “genre” fiction. So be it).

The Great Glass Sea brings Russian folklore into the fray as well. Although I love myth and folklore, it turns out I know nothing about Russian folklore. One creature that is mentioned throughout the book is the Chudo-Yudo. There is not even a Wikipedia page about this creature (in English at least). It seems to be some kind of dragon (but possibly a metal band, who knows?). Clearly, I need to read up on it.

The Chudo-Yudo

The Chudo-Yudo, terrifying yet adorable.

Finally, Weil’s prose, once you settle into it, is delicious. His descriptions are long and lovely. This does make the book slower to read, unlike a dialog-dense book that moves along at a brisk pace. It’s worth it though.

Here’s a sample of Weil’s writing style. This is a description of the Oranzheria—also called the zerkala coming into view:

In the last hour of nature’s light, as the planet rolled away from the sun, the zerkala rose off the eastern horizon, their refracted glow red as the sky in the west. People called it vooskho zerkala. Mirror rise. From then to dawn the satellites drifted overhead, a sliding swatch of stars, their mirrors ever angling to cant the sun’s light down on the same circle of earth. And as the first zerkala followed their path over the world’s western edge, the bank of mirrors behind them took up the task, and then the zerkala behind them, and behind them, all through the hours that once were night.

What to read next:

  • Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Sword. Did you know the sequel to Ancillary Justice is out? Go read it!
  • In his acknowledgements page, Weil names a few books that helped him write this one. One is Russian Fairy Tales compiled by Aleksandr Afanasev. It sounds like a good entry to Russian folklore, which I am now interested in reading more about. The chudo-yudo! We must learn more of this strange beast.
  • The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne is another book I read recently. It, too, has a starkness to it, but this novel has stronger science-fiction elements. Highly recommended!
12 Jul

Now with 100% More Civilization

Book Review: Three Princes by Ramona Wheeler

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes book cover

Three Princes is a book that seems to be based on the question “What if Egypt never stopped being great?” In Three Princes,The eastern hemisphere is ruled by a civilized, modern Egypt; the western by a fusion of the Incan and Aztec empires. The novel is apparently set in this alternate universe’s early 19th century. There is a bit of a steampunk vibe accompanying the strange melange of speculative fiction that Wheeler has committed to the page. The story itself is excellent, especially if you like espionage, but what I really appreciated were the books concept and its perspectives on gender issues and religion.

The titular three princes are Lord Scott Oken, Professor-Prince Mikel Marbuke, and Prince Viracocha. Lord Oken, the fourth son of a prominent family in the Britannic Isles, is the story’s protagonist. Although not originally from Egypt, he was educated in Memphis and became a part of the Pharaoh’s spy network. Oken is a memoryman—a person with perfect eidetic memory, trained to recall all—and student of and assistant to Professor-Prince Mabruke. Mabruke trains young spies for the Pharaoh and, as his cover, teaches university courses in aromatics. The Pharaoh calls upon Oken and Mabruke to investigate rumors that the Incas are building a craft to fly them to the moon. In the course of their investigation, they encounter the third prince, the good-natured Prince Viracocha, son of the Incan emperor.

Our princes face the rebellious Black Orchid Society whose mission is to bring down Egypt and replace her reign with that of Queen Victoria, at least one insane Incan prince, and various unnamed European nobility. Without giving too much away, I will say their plan for world domination hinges on a scheme to send the aforementioned moon-bound craft into space to rain explosives down on Memphis. The princes’ journey involves a delightful man-powered flying craft called quetzals (the Nahuatl word for feather), plenty of espionage (Egypt’s preferred way of doing business, talking is much more civilized than fighting, as they say), and lots of beautiful people.

a quetzal

A quetzal bird, yes that’s a real thing

I’m realizing that what really sells me on novels is the concept. I loved the concept of Three Princes and not just because I wanted to be an Egyptologist (but also because of that) when I grew up. Wheeler’s alternate universe is a rich one. She does not go into the world’s history or its various details except as the narrative requires it, but I enjoyed thinking through what could have lead to such a world.

Dear reader, if you would indulge me briefly: it seems that Cleopatra and Caesar formed a strong Egyptian-Roman partnership able to withstand time. Lord Oken explains that he is a direct descendant of both Cleopatra and Caesar and that apparently comes with bragging rights in this world. There is also a vast system of roads, presumably inherited from Roman empire-building. With the Egyptians cum Romans running the show, Europe and Saharan Africa were united. This stunted the formation of various European empires like those of Spain and England. This, in turn, either prevented expansion to or discouraged colonialism in the “New World,” allowing the indigenous empires to flourish. The Incan prince Viracocha states that the Aztecs and Incas fused into one mighty empire and he mentions the mysterious “Maya Lands.” In short, Egypt exerts a civilizing force over the entire planet.

I liked how Wheeler dealt with gender issues in Three Princes. The Egyptians, civilized folk that they are, wear kilts or skirts as a regular part of masculine dress. Egyptian men also wear makeup. Not only that, but wearing makeup is an essential part of looking civilized. At one point, the reader is treated to this humorous exchange between two male characters:

“Our makeup must be perfect in the face of disaster.”

“We are Egyptians, sir.”

There is nothing more Egyptian than looking good and turning in out regardless of circumstances.

Wheeler also shows the differences in how women are treated in Egyptian and Inca culture. Although the protagonists are men, there are many female supporting characters. Lord Oken, in particular, is a window into the Egyptian mentality on women. When Oken and Mabruke visit the Inca, they stay in rooms meant for a newly married couple. Mabruke asks Oken which room he would choose for making love to his bride. Oken responds, “Any place my lady pleases. Ever and always.” To which Mabruke comments, “Spoken like a true Egyptian.” They continue their conversation to observe that the women of the Inca seem singularly repressed. “Women as suppressed as these Andean lovelies are surely the weak point of their civilization,” Oken opines.

Later on, one of the Inca degrades his general by calling him a “fool” for taking orders from a woman. In another instance, in reference to childbirth, the Inca prince asks who would take a woman’s word for who the father of a baby is. This shocks the Egyptians who respond, “Who could know better than the woman herself?” The question belies a more progressive attitude than that seen in our society today and I will leave it at that.

The Egyptians see women as humans. Egyptian women attend university, and in fact, Oken and Mabruke accept their mission from the Egyptian queen. Their ability to see women as people is also what wins the day at the end of the story. Their escape from a fairly unhappy situation was made possible by several women whose talents they trusted.

Another cultural aspect I liked was that of religion. In the Egyptian mindset, all faiths are true. When the nefarious Black Orchid Society claims that they have the one true faith, Oken becomes confused, hardly able to understand the allure of a group making such a claim. He muses, “I mean, if all faiths are true, then this Black Orchid thing is true. But if it’s true, then every other is false, which means they’re all false, so this Orchid thing is false. It just doesn’t add up.” For me, as a non-religious person, I feel like it would be a little easier to accept religion if the prevailing cultural norm was “all faiths are true.” Why is one god and more believable than another?

Wheeler also demonstrates how one’s religion can be a civilizing force. When asked what his gods demand of him, Oken replies, “That I learn to be a decent, civilized human being.” Well, gods be praised, sign me up for that religion! A society’s gods say a lot about what the culture values. In the case of Egypt and its Naytures, civilization and being a decent human is foremost. In contrast, the Inca gods demand blood, which is quite specific and not open to interpretation.

Finally, I want to end with two small points that amused me. The concept of a memoryman made me think of the mentats in Frank Herbert’s Dune. There is some difference—mentats were meant to fill the gap created by humanity outlawing thinking machines. Memorymen have perfect recall instead in a world that has never seen computers. The end result is the mostly the same and, for someone like me who values knowing everything, is pretty enviable. The other thing that make me chuckle is that Oken likes to check the “Horus-scopes” for the day’s prognosis. Of course, this is a pun on horoscope. I actually looked up the etymology on this because it seemed a likely derivation, but no, our English word comes down from Greek for “a look at the hours.” I like Horus-scope better though.

In any case, Three Princes is certainly worth reading. I like to pick all the little concepts out of a book. The story is not all about people talking about religion and gender issues, but those are the aspects of a book I like to discuss. The plot advances well and there is plenty of intrique. I recommend it.

Update (from Twitter): Ramona Wheeler approves of this book review. I think that’s pretty cool!

What to read next:

  • Queen of Kings: A Novel of Cleopatra, the Vampire by Maria Dahvana Headley is a story about Cleopatra (yes, of Anthony and Cleopatra fame) turning into a vampire as the result of a malicious god and a botched summoning. The premise is kind of silly, but it was an entertaining read.

  • Ancillary Justice by Anne Leckie is my next pick. Did you not read this book after I told you too? Well, here is your reminder. Even though Ancillary Justice is a space opera, what makes me feel these works are kin is that they both situate themselves at the heart of “civilization.” Civilization has fluid gender performance! That is what modern writers are telling us.

  • Dune by Frank Herbert. This is a sci-fi classic. If you haven’t read it, you should read it. It is one of my long-time favorites.

07 Jun

Meanwhile in Civilized Space

Book Review: Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie

Ancilary Justice book cover

Ancillary Justice is an awesome book. I know I’m not the only person with that opinion because it won a Nebula Award and an Arthur C. Clarke Award. Instead of focusing much on the plot (although I will address the plot because it is good, too), I want to talk about what makes this novel interesting.

Justice of Toren One Esk Nineteen also known as Breq is an ancillary. Ancillaries are human bodies that belong to a space ship. Ancillaries are mentally networked with their ship. Essentially, they are people with AI (artificial intelligence). Large ships, like Justice of Toren of which Breq was an ancillary, have multiple crews of ancillaries who work together to take care of the ship and support the human crew.

The plot hinges on the concept that an AI occupying multiple bodies can have conflicting opinions. Even though the AI’s bodies are technically all the same person, none of them really individuals, they can fragment. Breq belongs to a group of ancillaries called One Esk. Among many other campaigns, One Esk serves planetside during the annexation of another culture by the dominant civilization, the Radch. Events on the planet make One Esk realize that she does, perhaps, have the ability to hold internally conflicting opinions. Later, One Esk Nineteen is isolated from One Esk and Justice of Toren and she must adapt to acting individually.

That is the barest introduction to the story. I like the way AI works in this novel. Holding it together is the ancillary system, whose brutality is barely acknowledged by the Radchaai people. Radchaai seem to find it inappropriate to discuss what ancillaries are, insisting that they are not people, but equipment, part of the ship. Ancillaries used to be people themselves. It seems that most of the bodies ancillaries inhabit were formerly those of enemy combatants or citizens of the Radch who did not fit well into the social order. The origin of the ancillaries is not much discussed, but it does seem like the sort of horror that may be exposed in the series’ next book.

A lot of aspects of Radchaai civilization (this is a redundant phrase since in Radchaai, Radchaai means “civilized”), are like that: intensely brutal, but people work hard to ignore the brutality. The Radchaai people are relentless in annexing as many other civilizations as possible. The novel eventually reveals that the Radch are so focused on annexation because annexation drives the whole economy and the system of wealth acquisition for prominent families.

I appreciate the social structure in the Radch and the detail apparent in the way the culture works. It was different enough that it had a feeling of otherness, but many of the concepts were recognizable. The Radchaai structure themselves into family Houses, with certain families being particularly wealthy and prominent. These Houses participate in a kind of patronage system, called clientage in the book. Houses with less influence can be “clients” of weather houses. Of course, this kind of system puts poor people at a disadvantage, as ever. People with influence can get better placements in the military and are assumed to just be better people. People of “low” birth are at a major disadvantage in this system.

The Radchaai demonstrate their civility through outward symbolism. No Radchaai would be caught dead without gloves, for example. I like the idea of gloves as a marker of civilization, personally. They also make public displays of worship in temples, exchange pins and jewels to affix on their uniforms, and drink tea (like all civilized people in every era, clearly).

Radchaai pins, via http://asakiyume.livejournal.com/711734.html

Ancillary Justice made me think about how I perceive gender when reading. In the Radchaai language, there is no gender binary. Everyone refers to others as “she.” Children are automatically daughters. Women are simply people. There are both men and women, of course, but the civilized Radchaai tongue does not acknowledge them as different. Neither are there explicit performative actions for femininity and masculinity; anyone can present themselves in any (socially acceptable) way. Gender presentation is not tied to propriety. When the protagonist is on a backwater world, she has to use the local language, which includes referring to people with the correct gender pronouns. Our protagonist, as an AI and former part of a ship, finds it difficult to distinguish male from female and she is at constant risk of offending others.

This un-gendering of everyone is awesome. I did not realize how strongly ingrained it was for me to see male as the default. When the author introduced a new character, I considered him to be male. There are a few biases here that made me assume everyone was male: this is a militaristic civilization (many of the main characters are lieutenants, captains, etc.) and much of the story takes place on space ships, which are also stereotypically a male thing. But when a character inevitably referred to other characters as “she,” my brain did a double take. I didn’t even realize I was imagining characters as male until I was confronted with the female pronoun. Of course, the way the novel is set up, any character could be a man (technically speaking), but that person is still referred to as a woman, and that is the civilized thing to do.

I applaud Leckie for writing a civilization that treats gender this way. Seeing how gender can be irrelevant is fascinating. Even though I am educated about many gender-related issues, I still have this male-default bias. I didn’t even know I was doing it. I hope to see more books that play with gender so skillfully. Ancillary Justice challenged assumptions I did not know I had.

What to read next:

  • It is not being released until October, but obviously my suggestions include the next book in the Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Sword. You have four months to catch up. Get on it!

  • Want to read more about artificial intelligence (I do!). Try Our Final Invention by James Barrat. This is a non-fiction book about the coming-soon technologies leading to AI.

  • Somewhat unrelated, but I read this recently and liked it: Lexicon: A Novel by Max Barry. This novel does not challenge the linguistics of gender like Ancillary Justice does, but language and how it is used drives the plot. It was an interesting read and I recommend it.

13 Apr

58 Days Later

Book Review: Notes from the Internet Apocalypse: A Novel by Wayne Gladstone

 

book cover

Cover: Notes from the Internet Apocalypse

Notes from the Internet Apocalypse is the diary of one man who chronicles the worst thing that could ever happen: the internet ceases to exist. Gladstone—both the author and the narrator, who goes by Gladstone—intermittently chronicles the first 58 days of post-internet society as it grapples with various stages of grief. The novel is amusing for people like me who spend a lot of time, perhaps too much time, online (presumably the intended audience). Even though it was an easy, entertaining read, it did get me thinking some deeper thoughts.

Gladstone (the author) wrote the story as an alternate-reality version of himself in which he is not a columnist for Cracked, but works for the State of New York (bureaucracy time—I feel for ya, Gladstone!). Gladstone uses two characters to represent the facets of himself, the eponymous Gladstone, and Gladstone’s friend Tobey who spends his time writing fart jokes for the internet. Gladstone (the narrator) starts taking notes in earnest on the state of things approximately a week into the so-called apocalypse, right around when people start getting really desperate for something to masturbate to. In fact, Gladstone depicts the stages of grief, starting with denial (everyone frantically slamming ctrl+alt+delete), but not quite reaching acceptance.

To cope with the new reality of a de-networked existence, bands of “zombies” take to the streets, forming circles based on their former affiliations—Digg, Reddit, YouTube, etc. 4Chan plays a role in the story as well, both through their group headquarters and, indirectly, in the Rule 34 Club (if you don’t know what “Rule 34” is, I do not recommend you Google it if you don’t want to find porn).

The plot of the story centers on Gladstone’s attempts to find out what happened to the internet. He ventures forth with Tobey and they find Oz, manic pixie dream girl and former camgirl who made money by streaming video of herself in the shower. As I write this, it sounds like everything in the story is porn-related. The book isn’t that sex-centric, but it does acknowledge the reality that it the internet is … an outlet for many people.

Over the course of the narrative, Gladstone also deals with the loss of his wife Romaya.

This is the paragraph with serious spoilers, if you care about such things. Romaya is, it seems to the reader, dead, but it is later hinted that she perhaps left due to Gladstone’s inability to do anything interesting, thanks to the internet paralysis that is so common among modern humans. This aspect of the story is actually what makes the narrative compelling. The story is punctuated with flashbacks to the at-times idyllic past between Gladstone and Romaya. The reader learns that the couple wanted to have a baby, but were unable to do so; Romaya had several miscarrages. The novel’s climax happens when, spurred by a memory of Romaya, Gladstone climbs to the top of the Statue of Liberty and confronts himself. At this point, the reader wonders whether the internet apocalypse is real, or a psychotic break as is suggested by several aspects of the narrative. I, for one, appreciate the psychotic break theory of the novel because it puts a personal tragedy on the level of a worldwide catastrophe. Basically, this book is like Gladstone saying “my wife left me and it hurts so bad that it feels like there is no more internet.” On its own, that sentence wouldn’t be that powerful, but backed by 212 pages of the written word, I get the picture.

I liked that this book outlined the world conditions well. Only the internet is gone. Computers still work, there is still television and everything else. The world is simply without networking abilities. It’s almost like it’s the early 1990’s, except you have a whole generation of people who have no idea what life is like without the net and at least two other generations who have forgotten how to live without it. Of course, Notes from the Internet Apocalypse made me think about life without the internet, as terrifying as that is (side note: when I picked up this book, I thought it might be more of a campy horror story, but I was wrong). On the one hand, I would be distraught without the internet because I rely on it for my job search, finding stuff out, disseminating my opinions in blog form, and putting holds on more library books than I can possibly finish before they are due. I also use the internet for a lot of shit though, like many people. There’s nothing inherently wrong with binge-watching Netflix, reading Reddit all day, or whatever your version of using the internet looks like. The trouble is that when we do this all the time, we can lose touch with business that actually matters.

Spending too much useless time online has been something I’ve been thinking about over the last few months, which is probably why I appreciated the message of the book. I have been trying to get in the habit of quitting my computer when I’m not actually doing anything. I remind myself that going through page after page of Reddit is not doing anything for my life. I at least force myself to make the conscious decision to vegetate online or go do something else. I’m not saying that we should all quit the internet, but I think there is something to be said for conscientiously choosing what to look at and how long to look when it comes to the web.

In short, this book is a light read and fairly entertaining. It had a number of good quips like the day eight comment that “Most offices are back in session, relying on faxes, phone calls, and the realization that 50 percent of all e-mails never need to be sent.” As someone working in an office right now: AMEN. Another piece of wisdom: “Trying to make a point online is like playing a game of telephone with fifty friends. All of whom are deaf. And neurologically impaired.” I liked that there was an undercurrent of philosophy to it. I recommend it to people looking for fun speculative fiction.

What to read next:

  • Since we endured a world without internets, I will suggest its opposite: cyberpunk. The Otherland series by Tad Williams (book one: Otherland: City of Golden Shadow) is long—not Wheel of Time long, but definitely substantial—and describes the plight of a number of people in a virtual world. It’s pretty awesome. Tad Williams is one of my favorite authors.
  • Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum is a non-fiction book that describes the history of the internet and goes into how it works. Let’s get some perspective on our internet-having world.
  • The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr also deals with the internet’s effects on modern life. I reviewed it last year (almost exactly a year ago, now that I look at it). While I didn’t agree with all of it, I do think it was an interesting perspective.
06 Apr

Married to the Sea

Book Review: Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler

Sea Change book cover

Sea Change book cover

Sea Change is a delightfully written coming-of-age fairy tale, but the old school kind of fairy tale in which there is not really a happy ending and although everyone learns something about his or herself, no one is really better off than they were at the beginning of the story. What I’m trying to say is, this is my kind of fairy tale.

I finally got around to borrowing Sea Change from the library a few weeks ago. I greatly appreciate Wheeler’s writing style and I enjoyed the flow of story. Lilly, the protagonist, is raised by her merchant father and her formerly-giant-serpent-loving mother. Lilly’s best friend is a kraken. There is also a troll, witches, and bandits. If you’re not interested yet, your sense of fantasy may be defective. Schedule an appointment with your local librarian to set up a treatment regimen.

As I mentioned, this story is a fairy tale in the classic sense. Lilly, an only child, has had a lonely sort of childhood that seems to be unique to a certain class of protagonists and to people who never quite feel connected with the rest of humanity. Of course, in Lilly’s case, she is raised in a wealthy household and there are rumors that she is a witch. Lilly is not a witch, but she does spend much of her time by the sea, chilling with her kraken friend, Octavius (“Octavius? That’s a damned stupid name for a kraken,” grouses Lilly’s father. I find it an amusing name for a kraken, however.). Lilly is also witness to many parental fights in which her father accuses her mother of making him a cuckold. When Lilly’s mother is finally driven off by her father, a step-mother joins the family (bringing the hope of a son), and Lilly’s kraken goes missing, Lilly leaves the family home, beginning her quest to locate Octavius. Lilly’s life is mirrored by her mother’s teachings. It is mentioned that Lilly’s mother gave her “practical, frightening knowledge,” but did not tell her fairy stories until she was older, “in the reversal of the usual parental pattern.” Lilly sees a harsh childhood, only to follow it up with a heroic adolescence.

I am reluctant to give away too much of the story, but I do want to open a window into the magics used to propel the narrative. Lilly, seeking Octavius, trades her womanhood to a troll who offers her information. Octavius, we learn, had been captured and was being held by a circus-owner and a witch. The cost of freeing Octavius is to bring the circus-owner a magical cloak. At this point, anyone who has read a few books or played a few video games can guess that one fetch-quest leads to another. Lilly bargains and works her way through the story until finally she can reclaim Octavius. I won’t spoil the ending, but I will say that the reunion is bittersweet because people with magic are jerks.

Release the kraken.

The theme that stood out to me in this novel is that everyone must change, or to borrow the name of a certain webcomic, a lesson is learned, but the damage is irreversible. Lilly, of course, goes through the most drastic sea change in really every way possible. Her body is changed. She must learn to work—something she did not need to do growing up. Eventually, her mind is irrevocably altered as well. But it is not just Lilly who changes, her parents both make major changes: her mother by finally leaving and her father in a way that I will leave for the reader to find out. Lilly’s step-mother, Mary, we learn late in the story, also had to adapt to survive. Even Octavius and Lilly’s eventual sidekick Horace (a bit of an indulgence, but I will call Horace a sidekick) change. The root of storytelling is conflict, but I like that Sea Change also recognizes that major changes must be made for people to develop. The story also takes, in my view, a neutral tone towards change. Some books seem to argue that change has a positive or negative value, but it seems that in Sea Change, change simply is. Life continues heedless of the goals and wishes of humanity.

Sea Change is full of quality wordsmithery and is written in a style that does not resemble anything else I have read in a while. Wheeler is miserly with her words, but when she does lay down descriptions, they are wonderful and sometimes humorous. One of my favorite lines came from the story of Lilly’s mother and the giant serpent she loved. A woman in town is telling Lilly the story and she says, “’Against his cheek your mother leaned, saying whatever on says to the serpent that has stolen your heart.’” There is a lot of enjoyable language here. Another snippet I liked was the metaphor of “campfires too far off to reach on a cold night;” I will leave the context of this one a mystery for the reader, but I thought it was a beautiful way to render the concept.

Since Wheeler can be stingy with the words, I sometimes got the impression that I had skipped a paragraph and would need to re-read the preceding segment. This is not an indictment of Wheeler’s writing, but I will say that her style is different. I think that since the language used is so tight—Wheeler uses one word where other writers might use four—the reader has to pay attention and really value what words are used. I saw a review on LibraryThing in which the reviewer stated that s/he could not figure out what she didn’t like about the book, but there was something of the writing style that irked her. I would guess it was this. It took me nearly the whole book to put my finger on it. Personally, I find it a refreshing change, but I can see how others may not feel the same. For an example, of what I’m describing, consider the following passage:

“Lilly put the man out of her mind; words were on her tongue, but they were insufficient. She had become proficient at opening trousers since that first awkward fumbling on the slope of Three crones Mountains. She bared herself, asked ‘Are you still interested?’”

There is so much that is communicated in this short paragraph, but little is actually written.

Finally, and unrelated to the quality of the writing, I love the cover art for this book. The cover is actually what caught my eye in the first place. Now that I’ve read the book, I like how the cover manages to represent the work without falling on any of the contemporary clichés of book covers.

In any case, I do recommend this book, especially for people who enjoy fantasy or for people who are looking for a fresh writing style.

What to read next:

What to read next is a hard question here. This book seems unrelated to everything (I mean that in the best way), but I’ll attempt some suggestions.

  • Because probably everyone needs more kraken in their life, I suggest Kraken by China Miéville. Kraken, like Miévelles work usually does, has a certain other-worldliness. It’s a bit of an urban fantasy, there’s a strange cult, magics, and all that stuff you want from your fantasy books.
  • The Dresden Files is a series by Jim Butcher about a wizard in Chicago who does freelance and consulting detective work. I’ve read a few of these stories and I classify them as “popcorn” books (tasty and quickly consumed). Some of the same magical concepts in play in Sea Change show up in The Dresden Files. There are quite a few parallels between the one I just read, Grave Peril, and Sea Change.
30 Mar

In Which Time Travel Is the Hip, New Thing

Book Review: The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (translated by Nick Caistor)

Cover for The Map of Time

Cover for The Map of Time

The Map of Time weaves together the stories of three 19th century London characters: a wealthy young man who loves a common prostitute, a woman who is certain she cannot enjoy life in the present, and a science fiction writer who becomes embroiled in a number of schemes. You see this? I’m practicing my gripping introductions.

I have this problem with novels in which I can never muster up the enthusiasm to write about the novels I think I’m going to write about. Then there are other novels which I have no intention of discussing that I am compelled to write about. The latter scenario is what happened with The Map of Time (and the former with The Golem and the Jinni, which I finished a week or two ago and have been contemplating since). I read The Map of Time without making a point of thinking deep thoughts about it; rather I allowed the florid Victorian prose to bear me along in its current.

For the first two sections of the novel, I was not enthralled. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Palma’s work, but neither was I especially focused on reading it—I had to renew my loan for it twice (the library is your friend, people) although that is partly because it is a pretty long book. But once I made it to the book’s third and final part, the story came together and things became significantly more interesting. The promised map of time was revealed. Time travel conventions were explored. Threads of the story were connected. Indeed, it was art.

One of the things that impressed me about The Map of Time is that Palma clearly has a strong knowledge of early science fiction and the late 19th century—the novel’s setting. One of the novel’s protagonists is, in fact, H.G. Wells himself (I don’t know if any of you watch Warehouse 13, but I always want to picture Wells as a woman now, thanks to the show’s influence. Helena!). It takes skill, and a certain amount of chutzpah, to write a real person into the story. I am no Wells aficionada, but it seemed accurate (if we are to believe Wikipedia) and I felt it was well done.

H.G. Wells writing

H. G. Wells, keeping it real

This is one of those stories that is really about writers being writerly. Wells is brought into time travel schemes—hoaxes really, but for the best of causes. In both, Wells’ supplicants are seeking closure for issues in their lives. And since time travel is in the cultural zeitgeist, they believe traveling through time can really solve their problems. Why would normal people believe in time travel? In the parallel universe of the story, a man name Gilliam Murphy has opened a time travel experience in which a form of performance art is staged to make people believe they have traveled through time. Coupled with the recent popularity of Well’s The Time Machine, people begin to think that, well, anything is possible. In any case, Wells resolves his problems through, of course, writing and story telling. One involves creating a believable story for a heartsick young man. Another involves an epistolary tale told between lovers. Finally, Wells gets his due as a main character in the last section. Letters are again involved. Wells also gets the opportunity to be the subject matter expert on time travel. I think writers love nothing more than the fantasy of writing saving lives and solving problems.

I also enjoyed the way the rules of time travel were applied in the story. In the first two sections of the story, it seems like time travel is probably just a scam. No one actually time travels, but scenarios are crafted such that a number of people believe that time travel is happening. The reader gets to be in on the secret. However, in the final episode, there really is time travel, but after a novel full of fakeries, the reader hardly wants to believe it. In the end, there is some good discussion of parallel universes and such like. I quite liked where the story ended up.

The last thing I want to comment on is the quality of the translation. The Map of Time was originally written in Spanish and was later translated to English. I obviously cannot comment on the accuracy of the translation, since I have not read the Spanish edition, but the spirit of the work is amazing. I am impressed at how well the translation captures the feel of the story’s period. I can only imagine what reading this in Spanish would feel like (that’s not true, I could go find the book and then I wouldn’t have to imagine. Dear reader, you know what I mean).

Okay, I am going to keep this review a little shorter than usual, but I do recommend this book if you like things like steampunk, alternate history, the rules and conventions of time travel, or just well-researched fiction.

What to read next:

  • The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma is the sequel to The Map of Time. It is apparently centered on Well’s The War of the Worlds in the way that The Map of Time is based around The Time Machine.
  • H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne is a biography of Wells. Reading The Map of Time, I realized I did not know that much about Wells’ life.
  • Steampunk edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer is an anthology of steampunk-themed stories. If you like the setting of The Map of Time and have realized that you want more steampunk in your life, this short story collection should get you going.
13 Feb

New Work, Old Work, What’s the Difference Once Your Head’s Blown Off

Book review: Makers by Cory Doctorow

Makers book coverEver since I read Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson last year, I’ve been captivated by the maker movement. I was going to link to my awesome review about Anderson’s Makers, but then I remembered I didn’t write it (I always want to review everything, but few reviews make it out of my head). I picked up Makers from the library on a whim and thanks to name recognition of Doctrow whose Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom I’d read some years ago on an Amtrak train from Portland to Seattle.

Anyway.

Makers is a near-future/cyberpunk/science-fiction published in 2009 that strikes me as fairly prescient. I mean, I don’t know what the future holds (I hope it’s monstrous alien creatures), but given the state of things, Doctrow’s vision feels on point. The story takes place approximately 20 years from now (by my reckoning), the characters at the intersection of several groups of people coming together in the brave new economy.

The character who most resonated with me (for perhaps obvious reasons) is Suzanne Church, a journalist. She starts the story as a writer with the San Jose Mercury, an actual newspaper. Her coverage of Silicon Valley events leads her to Florida, where she meets tinkerers extraordinaires Perry and Lester. Perry and Lester live in an abandoned mall in Florida, making interesting junk out of the world’s inexhaustible supply of useless crap, utilizing our surplus of Boogie Woogie Elmos. Suzanne begins documenting Perry and Lester’s inspired madness as it gives way to the New Work movement, a sort of maker revolution that, unfortunately, doesn’t quite last for the long term.

I don’t want to summarize this book because that is boring and pointless. Go read the book. I do really like some of the concepts that percolated in my brain while I read this, so I’ll talk about those instead.

First, I liked Suzanne a lot. She quits her stable, grown-up journalism job to follow what she perceives to be the real news of the day. She reports on stuff that is simply too cool to not write about and her readers clearly respond to it, since she manages to stay in business with her site’s ad revenue. That is something I really admire, especially since, regardless of intent, writing seems to be developing into something of a career for me. I don’t think I have the ovaries to up and move to follow a story (maybe I will eventually), but the idea of just taking off after awesome things to chronicle them is fucking cool to me.

In her own way, Suzanne embodies the story’s New Work movement with what she does. Although she isn’t tinkering and creating things or using 3D printers to improve people’s lives, she is creating based on what’s around her. She still makes an important contribution to the movement, especially since it isn’t logistically feasible for everyone to be an engineer. I think the way of the new economy, as Doctorw foretells it, is that everyone is essentially their own business. And honestly, life already feels that way to me a lot right now. Many jobs I consider treat employees as independent contractors. You are a contractor and you are your own brand. So, seeing Suzanne in the novel is like reading about someone who is doing a great job managing her brand and just making her own way, fuck the rest.

Another aspect of this book that I appreciated was the nature of community and how it can be configured using the Web. In the second act of the novel, Perry and Lester’s tinkering results in “the ride.” The ride is a series of scenes composed of bricolage, staged in an abandoned WalMart. Riders upvote or downvote scenes based on whether they like them or think they belong in their personal vision of the ride. Eventually, The Story emerges. Online communities begin discussing and dissecting the story. A segment of the Florida goth community becomes particularly involved after Death Waits (né Darren) gets laid off by Disney World (of course there is Disney, this is a Cory Doctrow novel) and then has the shit kicked out of him. After word of the ride spreads to the Web, rides spring up in other cities, each with its own style and engendering its own community.

Finally, as a novel of things-to-come, I like it. The United States, it is indicated, is essentially a third world country (not hard to predict at this point, to be honest), but people make do. Consider all the empty real estate there will be—it’s put to good use by people creating their own sort of slum towns or filled with things like the ride. 3D printers play a significant role in the economic liberation of these ad hoc communities. By the end of the book, people are even making bicycles with them thanks to tireless tinkering and open-source sharing.

It always feels difficult to review novels because I want to distill my feelings and the new thoughts that I had when my brain interacted with the story. I hope this makes some kind of sense. Doctrow is definitely a prophet of the coming tech age.

What to read next:

  • If you want the non-fiction version, check out Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson. It talks about the cool stuff 3D printers are doing now. If you’re a would-be librarian like me, you can read it and think about the cool things you would do with it in a library. There are a few books about the maker movement, maker spaces, etc., but this is one that I have read and enjoyed. At this point, I have to reference my favorite Twitter feed, Fake Library Stats:
  • If you want more Cory Doctorow, I recommend Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Not only because this is the only other Doctrow book I’ve read, but because I like the cyberpunk, techie aspects of the story.
  • My third recommendation is Oryx and Crake byMargaret Atwood because I feel like this is the opposite kind of universe from Makers and because you should read Atwood. Everyone should read Atwood.
31 Dec

2013: The Year in Books

It’s new year’s eve and it is time for my annual list of the books I read for the year. I read the entire Wheel of Time series this year, which was really quite time consuming. I read 46 books overall–not quite the 50+ I was shooting for, but I think it is still respectable, all things considered. Nineteen of the books were non-fiction.

  1. The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan 1/20
  2. The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan 2/14
  3. CompTIA A+ Certification All-in-One Exam Guide, 8th Edition by Michael Meyers 2/18
  4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain 2/25
  5. Over the Cliff: How Obama’s Election Drove the American Right Insane by John Amato and David Neiwert 3/1
  6. The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan 3/7
  7. The Ordinary Acrobat by Duncan Wall 3/10
  8. The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers & Fathers Are Going Broke by Elizabeth Warren & Amelia Warren Tyagi 3/19
  9. The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr 4/2
  10. Every Day by David Levithan 4/3
  11. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright 4/9
  12. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander 4/27
  13. Logicomix: An Epic Search for Truth by Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos Papadimitriou 4/29
  14. Adventures of the Artificial Woman: A Novel by Thomas Berger 5/1
  15. The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan 6/10
  16. Dreams and Shadows: A Novel by C. Robert Cargill 6/16
  17. Makers: The New Industrial Revolution by Chris Anderson 6/28
  18. We Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo 7/2
  19. I Fired God: My Life Inside—and Escape from—the Secret World of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult by Jocelyn Zichterman 7/4
  20. Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan 7/10
  21. The Unlikely Disciplie: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University by Kevin Roose 7/24
  22. Oz Reimagined: New Tales from the Emerald City and Beyond edited by John Joseph Adams & Douglas Cohen 7/30
  23. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes 8/11
  24. Girls of the Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kernan 8/28
  25. Red Shirts: A Novel with Three Codas by John Scalzi 9/3
  26. The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan 9/4
  27. Why Have Kids? A New Mom Explores the Truth about Parenting and Happiness by Jessica Valenti 9/10
  28. Asperger’s on the Job: Must-Have Advice for People with Asperger’s or High Functioning Autism, and their Employers, Educators, and Advocates by Rudy Simone 9/11
  29. Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan 9/17
  30. Crown of Swords by Robert Jordan 10/2
  31. The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler 10/11
  32. The Path of Daggers by Robert Jordan 10/18
  33. The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan 10/23
  34. The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan 10/24
  35. The Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan 10/25
  36. The House of Hades by Rick Riordan 10/29
  37. Winter’s Heart by Robert Jordan 11/7
  38. Crossroads of Twilight by Robert Jordan 11/24
  39. The New Rules of Lifting for Women: Lift Like a Man, Look Like a Goddess by Lou Schuler, Cassandra Forsthe, Alwyn Cosgrove 11/27
  40. Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myths by Nancy Marie Brown 12/2
  41. Just a Geek: Unflinchingly Honest Tales of the Search for Life, Love, and Fulfillment Beyond the Starship Enterprise by Wil Wheaton 12/4
  42. Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan 12/6
  43. Love Minus Eighty by Will McIntosh 12/8
  44. The Gathering Storm by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 12/13
  45. Towers of Midnight by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 12/22
  46. A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson 12/31
17 Aug

New Voices from Oz

 

Oz Reimagined book cover

Oz Reimagined

Oz Reimagined is a great collection of short stories on the topic of, of course, Oz. There are 15 stories collected from notable writers in science fiction and fantasy, all accompanied by a cool illustration. What I particularly enjoyed about this anthology was that the stories were so diverse. If you enjoy Oz, or re-tellings, or fantasy in general, you should give Oz Reimagined a try (and if you don’t want to commit to all the stories, you can buy them individually on Amazon).

The stories in this collection were all inspired by the original written canon of Oz books (not the movies or subsequent adaptations), so you find characters like Jack (who has a pumpkin head) and Ozma (child queen and erstwhile boy, Tip). Some of the stories deal with Dorothy and her life after her original visit to Oz. Sometimes she is an Ambassador (which is a much less dry story than it sounds), sometimes she returns as an adult. Some of the stories focus on the Wizard and some of them don’t feature Dorothy or Oz the Great and Powerful at all, instead focusing on the people of Oz.

Many of the stories take a darker turn, which I suppose is to be expected when you ask authors to work off a story that is pretty solidly for children. One of the more cynical stories that particularly resonated with me was about Oz’s reality television show Wish. The show was orchestrated by Oz’s witches and the story is told from the perspective of a jeweler. Wish turns out to be the social event of the season and it is revealed that it is actually part of a plan to orchestrate a coup against the Wizard. Another story that hints at the, perhaps, surveillance-state nature of Oz is about a munchkin who works as a window washer in the Emerald City. One of his buddies dies on the job, despite all the safety measures that are in place. When he comments to some friends saying that something about the whole situation seems “off,” a flying monkey he works with brings up the fact that the friend had been working to unionize them.

One of the other stories that I thought was totally unexpected was one called “The Veiled Shanghai.” In this story, Dorothy is a fourteen-year-old Chinese girl (Dorothy is her English school name and she lives on Kansu Road) who unwittingly facilitates the May Fourth movement via her actions in the Veiled Shanghai—a place where carrots are magically sweet and that is ruled by a wicket warlord. What I liked about this story was that it used the Oz mythos to describe real events. The story ascribed a magical impetus for the May Fourth movement. I have to admit that this movement is not something I know much (ahem, anything) about, but I like the concept of using stories like this to explain history.

This collection is full of cool stories, but I don’t want to spoil them all. There is a riff on One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a cyberpunk version of Dorothy and Oz, a story about a Zeppelin, and one about a young L. Frank Baum meeting the girl who would show him the Kingdom of the Air (which inspired the Oz stories, of course). There were a lot of stories; I enjoyed all of them. They all offered fresh takes on the Oz mythos without overlapping. I think some of the reason for this is that the source material is so vast. The other part of this is that there are so many ways to interpret an older version of Dorothy or to characterized the other denizens of Oz (and there are a lot of them).

I was giving some thought to why the dystopian views of Oz appeal to me so much. I don’t know if it’s simply that our era is so jaded and cynical (is that too much of a generalization?) or if it’s that the original Oz is so squeaky clean that it’s impossible, from a writer’s perspective, to avoid corrupting it in some way. But I think the Oz story was ripe for reconsideration. The way that Oz’s society is set up naturally lends itself (if I may be so presumptuous) to dystopian interpretations: four cultures who all live in their own isolated areas of the country, an autocratic ruler who doesn’t let anyone see him, a capital city that literally shines (seriously, nothing is that clean on its own). And if you think about the movie, you have that road and no one else is travelling on it. What are the people of Oz doing all day? Obviously not traveling. Perhaps, like so many police states, travel is strictly regulated. Okay, I will stop with this line of thinking because I am clearly talking myself into a story of my own!

I’ll end with some book recommendations. I hadn’t heard of a lot of the authors featured in this collection, but at least half of the stories made me want to look them up to see what else they had written. Here are some book selections if you’re looking for something to read after you’ve made it through Oz Reimagined. Oh, and I won’t bother recommending the original Oz stories or Wicked because come on, you can find that in two seconds of Googling.

  • Rosemary and Rue (October Daye, Book one) by Seanan McGuire has the kind of cover that generally signals something I don’t want to read, but I really liked her story in Oz Reimagined, so I guess I will have to take that advice about not judging books by their covers. This book is billed as urban fantasy and its main character is a half-human, half-fae changeling. So, what could possibly go wrong?
  • David Farland is the author of a cool cyberpunk story that made it into Oz Reimagined, but it looks like his books are fairly fantasy-based (although he has a lot of books and I can’t promise that I’ve comprehensively gone through them). The Lair of Bones is book one of his Runelords series, and it sounds like some pretty good fantasy.
  • This recommendation isn’t actually out yet, but it sounds super good and it’s from the author of the Oz has a reality show story. How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past Present, and Future by Rachel Swirsky sounds like it is going to be a great read.