Visions of Paradise

Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Middle Kingdom

There’s a reason why somebody becomes a lifetime reader of science fiction. In my case it probably has a lot to do with love of exotic worlds far removed in space and time from the mundane world in which I live. So when I take a break from science fiction, I generally drift to historical fiction and stories either written in an earlier era or set in a far different land.

Such as China. Although there are more complex reasons why I grew fascinated with China, one important reason is that China offers me many of the same wonders as science fiction offers. So when I originally purchased Andrea Barrett’s Ship Fever awhile ago, I was intrigued to find right beside it on the bookstore shelf a novel by her entitled The Middle Kingdom. And the description was just as exciting: a middle-aged American woman visits Beijing with her husband, and so falls in love with the city and the country that she stays behind when her husband returns to America. This was a book I had to buy, especially considering my love of the writing of Andrea Barrett.

The novel opened during the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June, 1989, describing the adventures of the American woman with her Chinese-born (and apparently Chinese-fathered) baby during that troubled time, how her Chinese guardians tried to convince her to return to America for fear of greater disturbances to come–after all, that incident occurred barely a dozen years after the end of the Cultural Revolution, when the Chinese were much less optimistic about the state of their world than they became in the 90s. But in spite of potential danger to herself and her child, she refused to leave since China had become her home. A brave woman indeed, but I wanted to know more about her background. And the author–seemingly knowing she had me hooked already–quickly slipped into a flashback describing the narrator’s arrival in China several years earlier.

Grace had come to China as the wife of a scientist heading a delegation attending a conference on acid rain. While her husband conferred and met with Chinese scientists, she followed the other wives to tourist attractions and planned activities, all chaperoned by a Chinese tour guide who gave them so little leeway they were not even allowed out of the hotel alone. Until Grace befriended a Chinese scientist in the same field as her husband who introduced her to the real China hidden behind the tourist facade, and unwittingly planting the seeds for love of that country which quickly spread into those hollow places in Grace’s heart which had long remained unfulfilled.

When Grace contracts pneumonia and an accompanying high fever, she slips into a fever-induced flashback reliving her entire life story: her unhappy childhood as a misfit, her unhappiness with her family, how she buried herself in eating and deliberate weight gains; her first college experience ending with a failed marriage to a somewhat unbalanced artist; an eventual return to college as the protegee of her second husband, a brilliant-but-fixated lake biologist with whom Grace initially experiences the joy of shared work as his student and love as his wife, but which steadily fade into apathy and the resurgence of her low self-esteem.

And, just as in Ship Fever and The Voyage of the Narwhal, Barrett’s love of natural science fills the book. Not only are both Grace’s husband and her Chinese mentor natural scientists, but she studies it herself during her second time in college, and spends many years assisting her husband in his own research and writing. Science is the foundation shoring up the story, filling the gaps between scenes and occasionally driving the scenes themselves, ultimately as important as the other characters in shaping both the novel and Grace’s place in it.. But while science remains the story’s foundation, it never intrudes on the human interest story which is the author’s main concern.

As The Middle Kingdom progressed, I truly understood Grace and the problems which so determined the course of her life, and I empathized with her feelings of being a misfit at nearly every turn of her life, although not necessarily agreeing with her manner of coping with it. I understood how one’s childhood experiences can totally determine the shape of one’s entire life and appreciated Grace’s inability to pull out of the undertow caused by those experiences.

The Middle Kingdom is an outstanding book, not only because of the Chinese setting which occupied about 3/5 of it, but because of Barrett’s insight and fine writing. Andrea Barrett is my favorite non-genre writer whose fiction should appeal to all readers interested in natural science or the workings of scientists, but ultimately for everybody who enjoys wondrous fiction.

Monday, December 27, 2004

The Star King

I was hesitant to reread The Star King since it was the first Jack Vance story I ever read in Galaxy Magazine in 1963 in the midst of my personal Golden Age. I had discovered prozines six months earlier, and I was totally enthralled by sense of wonder for the first time. How could a story possibly live up to that chain of memories and resonances?

The Star King is the first of five novels detailing Kirth Gersen’s vengeance against a group of “Demon Princes,” interstellar pirates who staged a raid on the world Mount Pleasant, destroying the settlement and most of its inhabitants, kidnapping the rest into slavery. The only survivors were a young Gersen and his grandfather, who subsequently trained his grandson, turning him into a sfnal Batman with a single goal in mind: killing the five “Demon Princes”.

Gersen is neither a heartless killer, nor a noir type assassin. Part of his attraction to the reader lies in the fact that he is a normal person forced to perform a series of actions with seemingly little emotional stake. There is one brief sequence in which Gersen shows an ability to grieve for the innocent wife and son of a man he is forced to kill to protect himself. It is this empathy which enabled me to care for Gersen’s mission, and gave the novel more strength than a mere “killer on a mission of vengeance” novel normally would.

Like most Vance sf novels, The Star King is primarily a mystery. However, in some of his works such as Trullion, the mystery is merely a framework on which to hang a sense-of-wonder adventure. In others, such as The Grey Prince, the mystery and the world-building hold equal priority.

The Star King is a true mystery, with the entire plot and all the characters pointed towards the solution, which is Gersen’s attempt to uncover the true identity of Malagate the Woe, the first of the five “Demon Princes”. Malagate is not a human, but a star king, which is an alien race of chameleons who have take on human form and identity. The mystery is a good one, with sufficient clues scattered throughout as Gersen seeks his enemy. He successfully narrows his search down to three employees of a college, one of whom has hired a planetary locator who has discovered an idyllic world which Malagate hopes to use for his own unknown purposes. The locator tries to conceal the location of the world though, which causes Malagate’s accomplice Haldimer Dasce–one of the most hideous villains in science fiction history–to kill the locator. But Malagate is still unable to find the location of the world, which falls instead into Gersen’s hands. With this information, Gersen tries to smoke out the true identity of Malagate the Woe.

The climax comes in the last few dozen pages as Gersen and the three university employees travel to the new world. Gersen has evidence which he hopes will uncover Malagate’s identity, including his true nature as a star king. All the clues and Gersen’s detection were done fairly, so much so that I was able to figure out Malagate’s identity myself, but not easily, and never for certain.

The Star King is one of the better science fiction mysteries I have read. Combined with Vance’s worldbuilding and sense of wonder, this was a satisfying sf adventure which I recommend to all readers.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

Ship Fever

I talk about Andrea Barrett’s wonderful novel The Voyage of the Narwhal awhile ago, but nearly as good is her National Board Award-winning collection Ship Fever. The stories in it are mostly related to science, particularly the love and pursuit of science by its main characters. While I am not in love with science nor wish to make its study my lifework, I am fascinated by it from a philosophical point of view and intrigued by the workings of scientists. Even more importantly, the science favored in this book is natural science, perhaps the most interesting science to me. And Barrett not only obviously loves science herself and understand scientists, but she is a truly excellent writer with an excellent understanding of people overall and what drives them in their quest for scientific knowledge.

The Behavior of the Hawkweeds is a story about how Gregor Mendel developed his theories of genetics and how his relationship with a scientist named Nageli virtually ruined his research. It is also the story of a young boy who befriended Mendel and fell in love with science himself as a result of that friendship, passing on that love to his granddaughter through their own close relationship. That girl built a marriage around the knowledge she garnered from her grandfather, marrying a scientist whose own love of genetics became as much the basis of their marriage as any love he shared with his wife. There was enough meat in this story that it could easily have been a bloated novel in other hands, but Barrett told it all in a succinct manner that turned into a rich, satisfying, thought-provoking novelette instead. Now I can’t wait to research Mendel and Nageli and find out how much of that story is truth and how much is in Barrett’s imagination!

The English Pupil discusses one of the darker side effects of dedication to science as an aging Carl Linnaeus recalls the lives and premature deaths of his former students who traveled the world seeking obscure botanical specimens to send back to their mentor. Some of Barrett’s finest writing is in this story, as in the following excerpt which discusses the bitterness of old age:

His once-famous memory was nearly gone, eroded by a series of strokes -- he forgot where he was and what he was doing; he forgot the names of plants and animals; he forgot faces, places, dates. Sometimes he forgot his own name. His mind, which had once seemed to hold the whole world, had been occupied by a great dark lake that spread farther every day and around which he tiptoed gingerly. When he reached for facts they darted like minnows across the water and could only be captured by cunning and indirection.

Rare Bird is a wonderful story of the friendship between two 18th century women, a friendship based on their common love of science. One is a widow, the other an unmarried woman who has inherited her father’s intellect and love of science but who is under the economic thumb of her brother who has inherited their father’s wealth. Gradually he begins dominating his sister’s life, forcing her more and more into a traditional female’s role, away from discussions of the science she so loves.

The two friends begin investigating the centuries’ old belief that swallows spend the winter by somehow hibernating underwater, a belief which they find highly improbable, and which their experiments prove untrue. So they begin a correspondence with the famous Carl Linnaeus – yes, the same Linnaeus of The English Pupil, although much younger in this story – in an attempt to convince him of their finding but he is apparently more enamored by his beliefs than by the truth. And meanwhile, the brother is becoming more dominant in his sister’s affairs.

While the ending of this story was fitting, I found it quite frustrating in how abruptly the story ended when there was obviously so much more to tell. I was anxious to learn the fate of the two friends while the author was content to have them escape from the dominance of the brother and vanish somewhere where they could continue their experiments undeterred. Based on the other stories, it seemed out of character for Barrett not to explore their scientific explorations further, but the story was still powerful, if incomplete.

Birds With No Feet is a bittersweet tale of a young naturalist named Alec who is a contemporary and occasional collaborator of Alfred Wallace. In the mid 19th century he roams South America and Asia gathering specimens, both living and dead, of rare animals. He feels some sorrow for the animals he kills in his search, but in a letter Wallace reminds him that Each bird we shot and butterfly we netted was in the service of science.

But after several years it becomes apparent to Alec that there is a major difference in his research as compared to Wallace’s. Wallace has wealthy patrons and does not suffer many deprivations during his years in the wild, so that he is able to spend time analyzing his specimens and thinking about evolution, ultimately writing important papers proposing major new theories. Alec is poor, struggling to survive during his work. One time he does earn a portion of money which might support him for a long time, but his father swindles the money from Alec’s agent so that Alec receives none of it in Malaysia. Thus Alec is so pre-occupied with finding new specimens, trying to sell them to collectors back home to raise enough money to survive, that he has no time to analyze or devise theories (it never occurs to Alec that perhaps he is not smart enough to devise any theories). And while he considers himself a scientist, and the progress of science is indeed his goal, he actually accomplishes nothing more in his career than providing fancy specimens for rich collectors.

The centerpiece of the entire collection though is the short novel Ship Fever, a powerful tale of the Irish immigration to Canada as a result of the potato famine in the mid-19th century. Due largely to the inhumane conditions aboard the ships, the immigrants bring with them a massive typhus epidemic that affects such cities as Montreal and Toronto, but most notably Grosse Island, which is the point of debarkation for the European ships.

The story is told from the point of view of Dr. Lauchlin Grant, a young research scientist who has accomplished very little scientifically in his life and feels obligated to validate his learning by serving on the meager staff of doctors and nurses on Grosse Island. The story is equally concerned with Grant’s rite of passage among the horrors of the epidemic as with the sufferings of the immigrants themselves, the latter revealed mostly through Nora, a young immigrant whom Grant nurses to health and who becomes his own assistant and eventually his nurse when he contracts the disease. Through their eyes we see the horrid conditions of the arriving immigrants and the often-futile attempts made by the meager medical staff on Grosse Island to heal them. This is a major story about desperation, passion, and commitment, with a bittersweet ending that is both appropriate and moving.

Saturday, December 18, 2004

Last Light of the Sun

One of my favorite storytellers is Guy Gavriel Kay who writes historical fantasies disguised as alternate history. While I have not read all his novels to date, of those I have read the finest is The Last Light of the Sun.

This novel is the story of Viking raids against the English coast during the early middle ages. Its focus alternates between three groups:

• the Vikings themselves as we watch two youngsters grow up, including an orphan who escapes servitude by stealing the dead king’s horse, which was intended to be buried with him, and joining a mercenary troop on the mainland

• the Welsh people, particularly the sons of a regional prince, and their dealings with the most influential Welsh leader who twenty-five years earlier killed an infamous Viking marauder

• the Anglo-Saxon king who has unified his people and strengthened them against both the Vikings and Welsh

The plot is fairly complex, starting with a cattle raid by the two Welsh prince’s sons on the home of the Welsh leader, a raid destined to fail since they had no idea whose property they had invaded. They are rescued by a Catholic cleric who realizes their intent as well as their inevitable fate, so he brings them to the leader as his companions on his tour of the region.

The ensuing celebration at the estate is interrupted by a Viking raid, which sets off a series of events culminating in a more extensive raid against the Welsh leader a short period later.

These events might sound like fairly simplistic machinations of an action adventure, but they are not the focus of this book at all. Last Light is epic in scope in its examination of the changes in the balance of power between the marauding Vikings and the agricultural Anglo-Saxons. This was an important era in European history, since fear of invaders was the foundation of the feudal system, and once that fear ebbed, European civilization resumed the evolution which had crashed following the fall of the Roman Empire.

What made this book successful was that the very engaging plot involved equally-engaging people, with whom it was easy to relate and whose fates really mattered. Many of the important characters are youngsters, including the children of both the Welsh and Anglo-Saxon leaders, whose participation in the novel is definitely a coming of age.

I described Last Light as a historical fantasy, because it also involves the historical struggle between the ancient Celtic religion and the imposed Christianity. Celtic supernatural entities living in the feared “god woods” are an important factor in the novel’s climactic race to protect the Celtic leader against the Vikings.

I also mentioned that Kay disguised his fiction as alternate history. That was because nowhere in the novel does he mention Anglo-Saxons, Welsh, or Vikings. Instead the novel is concerned with Anglcyns, Cyngaels, and Erlings. The cleric is a follower of Jad. The ancient empire which fell centuries ago was based in Rhodia. There is mention of a mainland empire by a ruler whose name is suspiciously like Charlemagne.

Why did Kay take this approach, when it seemed unnecessary to what was a strong historical fantasy already? Although my knowledge of this era is not deep, I suspect that taking the alternate historical approach enabled Kay to alter events as he wished, without either arousing historians or angering readers expecting faithful adaptions of true events. Thus, it laid the emphasis on the story itself rather than on questions of authenticity.

Whatever his reason, he has written a gripping novel which I recommend highly to fans of both historical fiction and historical fantasy, or just good story-telling. This is my favorite book of the year so far.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Settings of fantasy and science fiction

Last week I was reading Michael Chabon’s latest anthology attempting to blend literary fiction with genre fiction, McSweeney’s Enchanted Chamber of Astonishing Stories. Overall it was a good collection, with stories from genre insiders such as China Miéville, Stephen King and Peter Straub; literary superstars such as Margaret Atwood and Roddy Doyle; and writers who have always straddled the boundary of the two, such as Jonathan Lethem and Joyce Carol Oates.

But when I finished reading the book, I was left with a vague sense of dissatisfaction. It took me awhile to figure out what caused that sense. It was not because of the stories themselves, since the majority of them were worthwhile reading, although certainly not all of them. But I have grown used to erratic quality in anthologies, so that was not the problem. Then I realized what it was: every story in the book was set in the present time.

I began reading science fiction decades ago as a venue for getting away from the contemporary world in which I lived. To some extent, that is still the reason I enjoy fantasy and science fiction. The fact that my other favorite type of fiction is historical fiction tends to support this reason. As I thought about it, there are basically four main settings for f&sf.

The first setting is the past. While this tends towards historical fantasy and alternate history, some pure science fiction set in historical times (Lest Darkness Fall, for example).

The second setting, and my least favorite, is the present time. Alien beings make their first appearance on Earth (Clifford D. Simak’s Way Station). Cutting edge technology makes an incredible breakthrough (Frankenstein and its offspring). Urban fantasy. Rural fantasy. For other examples, read any issue of 1950s Galaxy and you will be inundated with sf set in the world at that time.

The third setting, and perhaps the least common, is settings away from the real world entirely. This tends to be mostly fantasy rather than sf, but not exclusively. Where is Lord of the RingsMiddle Earth, for example? Or Gormanghast? Or Phil Farmer’s Riverworld? Do any of them take place in the world as we know it, whether past, present, or future?

The final setting, and my personal favorite, is the future. This is the traditional setting for science fiction, and gives the authors the most gist for their creative processes. It ranges from near-future cyberpunk to far-future end-of-the-world settings (Jack Vance’s Dying Earth and Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun). It includes many of the sub-genres of science fiction, such as future history (which is primarily concerned with how civilization / culture develops due to evolutionary or technological changes; world-building, both the Hal Clement “hard science” type and the sociological/anthropological/political types of Kim Stanley Robinson, C.J. Cherryh and Ursula K Le Guin; space opera; planetary romances.

I have no pithy conclusions to end this discussion, just another reminder that fantasy and science fiction really do have something for every reader, even so-called “literary” readers, as Michael Chabon’s anthology shows. And since that symmetry is probably as good a closure for this blog as possible, I guess I’ll stop right here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2004

Chinese Roundabout

China is one of my major interests, for reasons too complex to go into here, and my two main “teachers” in this field of study are Jonathan Spence and Howard Goldblatt. Spence is a professor at Yale University who has spent his entire career studying and writing about China. He first became interested in China during his undergraduate days, and that love has been his life's work in the decades since. I have several books by Spence in my collection, including his masterwork The Search for Modern China and his study of the 19th century Taiping Rebellion entitled God's Chinese Son.

For somebody with a moderate interest in Chinese history and culture, one of the best places to begin is Spence’s fascinating collection of essays Chinese Roundabout. It is a far-ranging collection divided into such sections as Crossing the Cultures, The Confucian Impulse, Sinews of Society, and After the Empire. The essays themselves are basically introductions to some fascinating people, both Chinese and Western, who were important either to China itself or to the West's relationship with China.

Crossing the Cultures features articles on Chinese people who have studied in the West as well as westerners who have visited China. My favorite essays in this section concern Matteo Ricci and Sidney Gamble.

Ricci was a sixteen century Jesuit whose goal was converting Asia to Catholicism. Like most Europeans of that era, the Jesuits' opinions of Asians was so narrow-minded as to be bigoted. First they tried to convert India before despairing of those people and turning their attention to Japan which they eventually despaired of as well. Finally Ricci entered China where he remained for nearly thirty years until his death in 1610. Spence's article is a fascinating look at missionary work in the face of European condescension towards a totally alien culture.

Sidney Gamble was an early Twentieth Century photographer / sociologist who made four extensive trips through China ranging from the dying years of the Qing Dynasty through the Japanese occupation. His views were much more open-minded than those of the Jesuits, resulting in several important books on the study of Chinese society.

The first essay under The Confucian Impulse is entitled "The Seven Ages of K'ang-hsi" and is a brief, but fascinating look at a man who became emperor of China in 1661 at the age of 7 and ruled until 1722 when he was 68 years of age. According to Spence, K'ang-hsi (whose name is Kangxi in the modern pinyin method of translating Chinese characters into English letters) was considered a great emperor both by the Chinese record, by the Jesuit records sent back from China at the time, and by the standards of Spence himself. This essay is a splendid introduction to the career of Kangxi. Spence ends the essay by stating that the reign of Kangxi "is the very latest point at which a study of modern China should begin."

Another fascinating figure was Chang Po-hsing, subject of "Collapse of a Purist". Chang was an early eighteenth century scholar and philanthropist who at the age of 48 attracted the interest of the emperor. Chang was forced to accept influential government positions such as governor of Kiangsu Province, for which he was both unqualified and disinterested. How Chang coped with the stress of such jobs, ultimately becoming an acute paranoid, is the subject of one of the most fascinating articles about the peter principle that I have ever read.

Chinese Roundabout is absolutely loaded with fascinating historical characters in a living, breathing culture so different from western culture. And Spence is a fabulous tour guide, ably blending historical scholarship with deft storytelling. This book is highly recommended.

Thursday, December 02, 2004

The Scar

One of the most difficult feats for a writer is to follow a masterwork with another novel which does not disappoint its readers. Thinking back through my nearly 40 years of reading science fiction (40 years? Where the hell has the time flown?), it is hard to find many contemporary writers who wrote two consecutive masterpieces. Many subsequent novels were quite good, but two masterpieces in a row? Perhaps Orson Scott Cad who followed Ender’s Game with the superior Speaker For the Dead. Going back farther, Alfred Bester followed The Demolished Man with The Stars My Destination, which I also thought was superior to the first one.

What difference does it make if the followup novel to a masterpiece is its equal? Objectively, not much, but subjectively, when reading the followup novel there is often the anticipation in the back of a reader’s mind of the second novel being as good as the previous one, so that if the novel is 80% as good, or even 90% as good, it is still not the equal of its predecessor, and hence can be somewhat of a letdown.

Years later, when the followup novel is reread on its own merits, without the stigma of following the masterpiece, it generally stands or falls on its own qualities without such a subjective comparison. Such novels often seem much better upon that second reading than they did initially. Which might explain why Michael Bishop has not published another novel since Brittle Innings was published a decade ago since, in my opinion, Brittle Innings may have been the finest science fiction novel ever written.

So why am I discussing all this now? Because China Miéville’s Perdito Street Station was the type of masterpiece which comes around once or twice a decade and immediately anoints its author as one of the contemporary grandmasters of science fiction. I think it only had 2 equals among sf novels in the past decade, the aforementioned Brittle Innings and The Fall of Hyperion.
I try not to raise my expectations for a novel too high, but what could Miéville possibly do for a sequel? The initial reviews of The Scar were generally positive, and one of them even claimed it was better than Perdito Street Station. Knowing that was unlikely, I still ordered a copy of The Scar as soon as it was published, and began reading it the day it arrived in the mail.

The Scar features many of the same strengths as Perdito Street Station: Miéville’s ability to create a living, breathing world which is strikingly original compared to most generic fantasy; characters who are obviously products of his fantastic world, a combination of alien and familiar, yet always realistic enough to provide emotional ties for the reader.

But Miéville never forgets to be a storyteller first, realizing a book set in a fantastic world can still be tedious if nothing worthwhile happens in that world.

The setting of The Scar is pirate city; no, not a city of pirates, but a square mile-sized city in the middle of an ocean built of hundreds of pirated boats permanently tied together. Its inhabitants are either captured from pirated boats or descendants of captives. With a few exceptions, nobody goes to Armada voluntarily; nearly everybody is there by force. Most inhabitants learn to love it, although some accept their entrapment there grudgingly and make the most of their lives.

Armada is a fabulous creation, and Miéville makes it both believable and continuously inventive. The city has its own ecology, its own political structure, its own tourist attractions. The book is equal parts travelogue and a complex plot involving Armada.

Unfortunately, the plot itself is not nearly as successful as the setting. Where the plot of Perdito Street Station fit the setting perfectly, the plot of The Scar suffers from a lack of believability. Parts of it reminded me of a Rube Goldberg creation in literary form: needlessly confusing and impossible to succeed without stretching credibility near the breaking point.

Nor did this lack of believability happen only once, but several times in the book. I won’t discuss them for fear of spoiling the book’s surprises for other readers, especially since what I consider weaknesses might be pleasant developments for others.

In spite of its weaknesses, the marvelous setting and characters carry The Scar very well, and while it never achieves the level of a page-turner, it never drops below the level of pleasant reading. If only Miéville had thought a little bit deeper about some of his basic assumptions though. The Scar had the potential to equal Perdito Street Station as another masterpiece, potential which it did not achieve.

However, this did not lower my expectations for Miéville’s latest novel, Iron Council, about which my comments must wait until the paperback copy appears in the Spring.