Archive for the ‘reading’ Category

The Pace of Reading

Posted: June 15, 2020 in reading
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I’ve noticed a weird thing with the way I read lately – I always seem to speed up near the end of a book. It’s not that I’m skim-reading or rushing it and missing the detail, I just seem to be more enthused and more likely to keep reading the further along I go. I don’t know whether it’s being keener once I’m engaged in the content, or if I’ve got hooked on the satisfaction of putting a completed book away on the shelf. It’s kind of nice for the second half,  as I tear through books with a sense of glee, but the flip side is when I’m a little way in, not getting very far, and part of my brain checks out because it wants to cut straight to the final rush. It can make getting started on a new book feel more like work than it should.

Do you have any patterns like this to how you read? Are you a completionist who has to finish once they start something, a ten-books-at-a-time reader, or find your reading patterns shaped in some other odd way? Leave a comment, reassure me that I’m not the only one acting up.

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.

I might as well begin with a jaunt on the river; sounds jolly enough, no?
– Adrian Tchaikovsky, Cage of Souls

I could write for days about Cage of Souls, Adrian Tchaikovsky’s novel about a prisoner in a dying civilisation. I could discuss its inversion of Heart of Darkness, how it plays with prison drama tropes, what it takes to build a dying world. But instead I want to talk about one thing – how perfectly Tchaikovsky sets up the book.

Stefan Advani, Most Unreliable of Narrators

Set in the distant future, Cage of Souls is told from the point of view of Stefan Advani. We first meet Stefan on a boat heading for prison through an ungovernable swamp. As the story progresses, we learn more about Stefan’s past and his experiences in the prison, all seen through the filter of his perceptions. And as the book makes clear from the beginning, Stefan is not a reliable narrator.

“Where to begin?” Those are the very first words of the first chapter, and they set the tone for Stefan’s narrative. He’s making choices about what to tell us, in what order, and how to tell it. He’s framing the story to his own ends. He doesn’t even care whether we see him as reliable, sarcastically introducing his river trip as a jolly jaunt. He’d rather be seen as erudite than as honest.

This sets the tone for everything that follows. Stefan recounts his adventures as if they were true, but as readers we can never trust him. Another character even calls him out on this near the end of the book, accusing him of misrepresenting them. And the nature of Stefan’s unreliability tells us a lot about his character and what he values, including both his intelligence and his public image.

Stefan cannot be trusted, and the very first page makes that clear.

The Tension of Subjects

In a certain sense, this is also a book that can’t be trusted. For over a hundred pages, it dwells in the prison where Stefan is held. It builds up a claustrophobic drama about life in this one dreadful place, like some sort of post-apocalyptic Oz. But it’s not really about that one place. It’s about the whole of human society, in a future where that society seems on the brink of death. It’s a story that embraces Stefan’s whole world.

That tension between the immediate and wider subjects of the book is again set up on the first page. Stefan contemplates the topics he could start with – a criminal underworld, a rioting crowd, a parched and deadly desert. By offering up these possibilities and then snatching them away, Tchaikovsky hints at a much wider world and makes us want to know more about it. We’re sat waiting for the next 130 pages, stuck in prison while knowing that there’s a wider world to see, just like Stefan.

That introduction to other topics holds out a promise of what’s to come, and it’s a very important promise. If a book changes tack partway through, this can throw readers. Whether they like the new subject or not, they may feel confused and frustrated that the story is no longer what they expected. It’s possible to avoid that sensation by foreshadowing what’s to come.

Game of Thrones has perhaps the most famous example of this. Before heading into a grim, grounded story of political intrigue, George R R Martin provides a single encounter with something fantastic and monstrous. It’s easy to forget that chapter once you’re drawn into the story, but it puts a pin in the map, a marker that says “here be dragons, and they be coming back later”. It gives us reason to believe that there’s more to Westeros, and primes us for high fantasy elements to come.

The start of Cage of Souls does the same thing. It prepares readers for later sections of the book, when Stefan’s story will roam outside the prison. It creates tension, expectation, and an acceptance of what’s coming later.

Distance

Distance is one of the key themes of Cage of Souls. The distance between Stefan’s world and ours, between the prison and the city, between society’s wealthy and the criminal gangs living underground. And of course the psychological distance between very different characters and communities.

There’s a sense of distance in the way the story is told. By talking directly to us on the first page, Stefan doesn’t bring us closer. Instead, he creates a greater awareness of his presence as an intermediary. The book holds us at arm’s length, and those arms belong to Stefan. Though Tchaikovsky’s writing style creates moments of incredible immediacy, sucking us into action scenes and confrontations, he always comes back to Stefan eventually, holding us away.

That sense of distance is reinforced by the way Stefan relates to events. He misses many of the most important incidents in the book, and only survives because of that absence – this is the story of a dying civilisation, and our narrator lives by narrowly missing its death throes. He sees their aftermath or passes on the accounts of others – of course retold, removing any risk that they might be entirely true.

This distance reinforces something that could easily be missed – that Stefan isn’t really the protagonist. There are many scenes where he’s just the observer to others’ struggles, from the power plays of gangs to a deadly duel. Even in the overarching narrative, this isn’t really Stefan’s story. It’s the story of his civilisation, and he’s just the eyes we see it through. Though a reader can’t see this at the start, it’s all set up in that detached tone.

Decay

Cage of Souls is a story about decay. This is signalled in the descriptions of the first scene – an antique boat, festering jungle, ragged and stinking prisoners. A page and a half in, the word “decay” itself has already cropped up. The choice of where to start, a choice made within the book by Stefan and around it by Tchaikovsky, sets the tone for everything to come. Even though we won’t see what passes for civilisation for over a hundred pages, its rot is there from the start.

As I said at the beginning, I could write for days about this book. Fortunately, I don’t need to. The keys to the story are there from the start.

There aren’t a lot of comics dealing with how humans affect the environment. In some ways that’s weird, because the potential for striking imagery is huge. In other ways it’s less surprising – this is a difficult issue to face. That’s why a less direct approach is sometimes valuable.

Farmhand by Rob Guillory doesn’t read like an environmental parable. It’s a weird sci-fi story of a farmer who finds that he can grow human organs on plants, transforming and even saving lives through vital transplants. But as odd things start to happen, it becomes clear that the past is catching up with him and that there’s more going on with these plants.

Farmhand is worth reading just for Guillory’s lively, angular art, which made Chew such a memorable read. But if you’re looking for comics that talk about humans and the environment then there’s more to be seen.

This is a story in which people are directly affecting their ecosystem. The plant-grown organs amount to a genetic experiment, and one that’s leaking out into the world. Life can’t be contained, no matter how humans try, and their creations have gotten into the wild, creating effects they couldn’t have predicted.

There are also unpredictable effects on human beings. This is one of the things that we don’t talk about enough with environmental harm. Pollution doesn’t just poison animals and plants, it hits humans too. It’s affecting our immune systems, our food, the air we breathe. Even if you don’t care at all about nature, you can’t avoid its consequences.

And then there’s that tale of the past catching up with the characters. What better metaphor could there be for our relationship with the planet? Decades of abuse are catching up with us as forest fires rage and ice caps melt.

Farmhand is a great piece of storytelling and comics art, but it’s also more than that. It’s a timely reminder of how much is at stake.

I’ve been looking forward to reading Guns of the Dawn since listening to its author Adrian Tchaikovsky read from it at FantasyCon last year. Combining black powder fantasy with a war story and an exploration of gender roles, it hits a lot of themes that interest me. And as it turned out, it was even more interesting than I expected.

Revolutionary War is Hell

Guns of the Dawn is set in a fantasy world with late 18th century technology and politics, in which one nation has overthrown its monarchy in a bloody revolution and its neighbour is invading in defence of the old order. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, neighbouring Lascanne is running out of soldiers to fight with. Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend their country from their regicidal neighbours.

Except that, as the cover says, ‘the first casualty is always the truth’, and the rights and wrongs of this conflict are far from clear.

Half the book’s action takes place in a brutal battle for control of a stretch of swamp. It’s a good example of fantasy world building that draws from different parts of history, with the technology of the Napoleonic Wars, the exhausting jungle warfare of Vietnam, and the issues of mass conscription that marked the First World War. This jamming together of historical elements shows one of the great advantages of using fantasy over historical fiction – looking at how elements from different historical periods might combine. It’s a great piece of world building, and really hammers home the horrors of war.

Now for Some Jane Austen

The dark experience at the heart of the book is made all the more striking for being framed by Emily’s pre- and post-war experience. Hers is a genteel life like something out of Jane Austen, leaving her unprepared to become a soldier. As well as making the war all the darker by contrast, this acts as a reminder that such a privileged life is often made possible only by the suffering and struggles of others.

Jane Austen’s characters existed in the same world where Napoleon was conquering most of Europe. These two elements, often seen apart, combine to make a fascinating contrast.

Dawn of the Guns

There are plenty of other things about this book that I could enthuse about. The characters follow familiar tropes, but are given enough depth to make them enjoyably familiar rather than tedious clichés. The way magic fits into the social and political hierarchy hints at some fascinating possibilities. The atmosphere of the the military campaign, and the psychology of people unable to face the truth, are brought vividly to life.

But one of my favourite details is a technological one. During the fighting in the swamps it becomes clear that the Denlanders have special guns which are giving them an advantage. When the truth eventually comes out it’s a clever use of real historical technology, showing how researching the real world can make imagined worlds stronger.

The growing trend for black powder fantasy, combining gunpowder technology with magic, is creating a tiny pocket sub-genre that I consider particularly awesome – French Revolution-inspired fantasy. True, it’s not a full-blown trend – I’ve stumbled across two writers doing it so far – but I’m really hoping I get to see more.

At the moment I’m reading Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a story of warfare similar to that between France and her neighbours under the revolutionary government. As the war against revolutionary Denland grinds brutally on, Emily Marshwic becomes part of a first wave of female conscripts, desperately trying to defend Lascanne from the nation’s regicidal neighbours. There are touches of Vietnam war story in here as well, lots of questions about the rights and wrongs of war, and a strong cast of characters. It’s a fantastic read.

Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, the first in his Powdermage Trilogy, looks at revolution from the other side. A despotic government has just been overthrown, and the rebels must now try to establish order even as they face invasion by their neighbours. Most intriguingly it takes the traditional European belief that kings were divinely appointed and runs with it, asking what would happen after the revolution if the king really were tied to divine powers. There are some fascinating ideas here, and though not quite as gripping as Guns of the Dawn, it’s still an enjoyable story of politics and bloodshed.

You could also argue for including Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series in this selection. After all, it’s the Napoleonic wars with dragons, and without the revolution there is no Napoleon. Again, I like these books, but they lack the thing that’s made me really pay attention to the others – an exploration of how revolutions work out, or don’t, when you throw fantastical elements into the mix.

I love seeing fantasy get beyond its usual sword-wielding or urban fantasy territory and play with elements from other time periods. Now I’m hoping for lots more revolutionary fantasy – if you know of any, let me know in the comments.

Powerful.

If I was going to choose one word to describe The Wandering Fire, the second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, ‘powerful’ is the word I would choose, not just for its style but for its story. It’s a power that lifts a good series into one that’s truly great.

Part Two: Better and Darker

The Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to the magical world of Fionavar, where in true legendary style they are called upon to fight the forces of darkness.

At first glance, this book seems much like the first, taking a very Tolkien morality and mythological story-telling, and cranking it up with Kay’s excellent writing. But it feels like, having set up the series, Kay is now free to use his full literary prowess in expanding upon it. The big moments feel even more epic, the intimate ones more personal, the menace even more substantial.

The Revelation of the Overwhelming

Overwhelming power is a major theme of this story, and one that gives it much of its drama.

On the one hand there is the overwhelming threat of Rakoth Maugrim, and of the apparent inevitability of his triumph. By alluding in advance to events to come, as well as shifting the story around chronologically, Kay creates a sense of creeping inevitable disaster, much like the atmosphere of a horror film. Defeat feels almost unavoidable, both in the broad scheme and in individual battles.

But characters are also overwhelmed in a more positive way, through religious experiences. Incidents such as an encounter between Dave and the goddess Ceinwen have a real sense of awe and grandeur to them. The gods are present and yet not reduced to mere people. It’s a difficult balance to strike, and moving to read. This is religious experience at its most emotional.

The Intimate

This isn’t to say that Kay’s book is all about epic grandeur. It’s also rooted in more ordinary but no less wonderful relationships, which he uses to explore all kinds of emotional bonds. There are siblings; romances; parent-child pairings; leaders and followers; blood brothers bound together by combat; a man and his dog; gods and worshippers; mages and the extraordinary people from whom they draw their power. This last pairing, a creation of Kay’s world, helps to draw attention to the others and bring out this theme of the story.

I enjoyed The Summer Tree, but was not enjoying The Fionavar Tapestry as much as Kay’s later work. The Wandering Fire has turned this series into something extraordinary, and I look forward to the final book.

A someone focussed on words, I’m normally drawn to comics by their writers. But there three exceptions, artists whose work is so distinctive and brilliant that I’ll pick up a book just for them – Jamie McKelvie, Frank Quitely, and Bryan Talbot. Fortunately for me, Talbot is also a fan of stemapunk, as shown in one of his worlds that I’ve returned to this week, the strange place that is Grandville.

Wind in the Willows But With Murder

Grandville and its sequel, Grandville Mon Amour, are the sort of strange, idea-packed stories that the comics industry is particularly friendly towards. It’s a steampunk that combines an alternate history in which Napoleon won with a world of anthropomorphic animal people. Into this mix are thrown murder mystery plots which must be solved by the hero, Detective Inspector LeBrock.

One of the reasons this setting works so well as a comic is that the visuals provide a constant reminder of the setting, without getting in the way of the plot. Every moment your eye is on the page acts as a reminder of the odd world Talbot has created. This means he doesn’t have to stop to describe a strange gadget or the hamster landlady – they’re just there on the page, the story flowing through them.

Tying the Strands Together

As detective stories, LeBrock’s adventures aren’t particularly innovative in their rhythm or labyrinthine in their twists. But that doesn’t matter because they’re so strongly told. The central character, the setting and the crime are all neatly connected, meaning that each one helps to inform the readers about the other parts. The alternate history background is not incidental. The Socialist Republic of Britain’s recent separation from the French Empire is intrinsic to the mysteries LeBrock faces, the obstacles standing in his way, and his own life.

Story, character and setting all inform each other in fascinating and efficiently executed ways.

Beautifully Illustrated

The art too is tied to the story telling. Talbot uses interesting layouts to tell sequences without words, uses his amazing skill to bring the characters and setting to life. Everything is clear, vivid and wonderful to look at. His subjects are sometimes ugly – the scarred, dog-faced serial killer; the hippopotamus brothel madam – but the beauty of his illustration makes me want to keep staring at them.

Grandville is a strange, wonderful place, and one I’d heartily recommend visiting.

Daredevil has shown that the combination of superheroes and gritty noire drama can work on TV as well as in comics. If that’s a new idea to you, or one you want to explore further, then I recommend one of the all time great overlooked comics – Sleeper by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a secret agent under cover in an organisation of supercriminals. Except that he’s been cut adrift, without a handler or support, and being undercover means acting like the people he’s pretending to be. As loyalties tangle and motives blur, Holden is faced with the terrible question of whether he’s really a hero or just another villain. And worse yet, which does he want to be?

I’m not going to provide a detailed review. There’s so much to love about this comic that I could spend weeks picking over the details. Sean Phillips’s art is the perfect choice for a noire story, full of shadows and worn down looking characters. The supercriminal underworld is well thought out. The characters have both novel hooks and hidden depths. The plot is twisted but always coherent. The page layouts play with the comic book medium in ways that will delight long time comic fans without getting in the way of casual readers.

This book only ran for twenty-four issues, collected in four volumes. That means you can enjoy the whole story without getting lost in the endless web of superhero connectivity or decades long arcs. If you don’t have a comic shop nearby you can download the free Comixology app and buy the e-reader version through there. And you should. Because Sleeper is amazing.

Content warning though – Sleeper is full of violence, sex, bad language and unpleasant characters, sometimes all at once. It takes a dark palette to enjoy it.