Darth Paradox (darthparadox) wrote,
Darth Paradox

Books #13-15

I could have sworn there was another one I finished recently, but I can't recall it. I might be wrong.

#13: At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft

I suppose it's not so odd these days for a geek to be relatively conversant with the Lovecraft mythos without ever having set eyes on an actual page of text. Regardless, I still find it strange that this is the first work of his I've ever read - and that I did so at the prompting of a "1001 Books to Read" list that was going around a while ago, and that some friends converted into a spreadsheet to track their progress on the list.

Anyway. If you've seen Lovecraft pastiched or parodied anywhere, you've got a pretty good idea of what to expect here. The story, such as it is, is in main part a thin veneer of narrative stretched over a brief history of the civilization of the Old Ones and their slave/servant Shoggoths, along with the necessary framing to justify it. But it's a short read, so just when the history was starting to wear on me, the story closed with a bit of genuine action and a couple scenes that were reasonably creepy, and probably truly horrific to a 1920s audience that had not been pre-steeped in the mythos. The best part of the story was likely the fact that it hints at a wider universe beyond what it describes; the worst part of the story was probably how ham-handedly it did so. So it goes.

#14: Glory Road by Robert Heinlein

Sora's been urging me to read this one for years, and it does seem like a perfect example of post-juvenile Heinlein. A disaffected Army hero gets yanked into a fantasy world and given a chance to play Hero-questing-for-a-princess. The lady in question is Heinlein's usual combination of unreasonably beautiful, unabashedly competent, and completely unashamed of her sexual nature. But my favorite part of the book is actually the quarter or so of it that takes place after the quest is done - what do you do with a hero that doesn't have any heroing to do? Turns out it's a pretty tough question, for everyone involved.

#15: The City and the City by China Mieville

I've had a lot of Mieville's work suggested to me, so it's about time I actually read some. A lot of the SF/F I've been reading has been a little on the popcorn side in one way or another, but here's a piece of speculative fiction truly deserving of that particular term. Essentially: the city-states of Beszel (think Slavic/Eastern European) and Ul Qoma (more Arabic/Near Eastern) are somehow colocated and interleaved in the same place. Some places are pure Besz or Qoman, but some "crosshatched" Everyone knows this is the case, but it is forbidden for a person in one city to interact with anything in the other city except across the one defined point of boundary - this results in inhabitants of both cities being well-practiced at "unseeing" each other and each other's buildings and other contents of their respective neighbors.

The first-person narrative of the book proceeds with the usual device of referring to this whole arrangement incidentally and letting the reader patch together a full understanding from the clues and other bits and pieces as they're presented. In this case, the device does an excellent job of disorienting the reader, much like foriegn visitors to either or both of the cities tend to be disoriented by the arrangement. It feels like an utterly fantastical arrangement, something on par with parallel worlds or secret realms side by side. It feels like something Neil Gaiman would come up with.

But why do the cities unsee and unhear each other, if they're capable of doing otherwise? It turns out that there's a seemingly supernatural authority, simply called Breach, that enforces the boundary. Anyone disrespecting the border in any way - noticing too much of the other city, let alone actually attempting to cross over - is at best severely warned and at worst utterly disappeared. The combination of child's bogeyman and totalitarian authority is sufficient to scare off everyone except some radical groups proposing that the cities be somehow unified, and even they step carefully to avoid actually bringing Breach down on them. The more usual governments of the two cities also censor most literature that discusses unification or other verboten political ideals about the cities' partition.

Here's the thing, though - the point that I've been setting all this up to talk about. As far as I can tell, despite all the supernatural appearances, despite the supposed colocation and the shadow of Breach and the unseeing and unhearing... I don't think there's anything supernatural going on at all. It feels to me like an odd cultural accident that somehow got codified into a social more, or something even stronger. A sort of mass brainwashing or conditioning of the two populaces. Thinking about the nature of the boundary after finishing the book, I'm pretty sure it's a purely human invention, maintained and enforced by people. Breach, supernatural though it may appear, is made up of people as well.

So where does this leave us? I think Mieville is trying to make a point about the futility of boundaries and borders, about how silly it is that different cultures and different countries throw up walls of stone and ideas between themselves. The people of Beszel and Ul Qoma could be one if they wanted - and if Breach would let them - but instead they keep themselves apart, by culture and indoctrination, and the interventions of a dictatorial and utterly unnecessary agency. And it will stay that way for as long as the people of the two cities - including the narrator and nearly everyone he encounters - just takes the separation of the cities as a given instead of challenging the idea.

These are the sorts of things that this book got me thinking about. It might be some training from my high school and college literature classes reasserting itself, but I feel like there's a paper somewhere in here. I'm not the person to write it - but I really enjoy being able to think this deeply about a book, and I'm looking forward to picking up something else of his.
Tags: 2010, books

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