Oct. 19th, 2012

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"Why do you read what you read?"

 

It's a question someone asked me once, knowing that I read voraciously, knowing that my reading material ranges from the really lowbrow (Academy 7, Laurell K Hamilton, urban fantasy - I've even read Oh John Ringo No) through the ordinary rungs of genre, to more literary and intellectual of the SFF genre (Steven Brust, Elizabeth Bear, Ursula LeGuin, Samuel R Delany, Michael Chabon) with occasional forays out into mysteries, and the wild world of literature soi-disant: Angela Chambers, Anthony Burgess, Lawrence Durrell. And knowing, too, that I read widely in historical nonfiction (leaning towards the academic side) and in as much of the material - primarily the mythical and primary-source historical material - in the Oxford World's Classics and Penguin Classics series as I can get my hands on and my brain to digest.

 

I've been thinking about this question for a while. On and off - on whenever the topic crosses someone's blog, as it did a while back; and off when I've other things to do, which is most of the thing. (Really I should be doing some of them even now.) And I've come to the conclusion that there's more than one reason why: or rather, that I read different sorts of things for different reasons. (It would be a more elegant construction were I able to put it in ancient Greek:  houtōs dē anagrafō toutous men hōsper legō, huper toutōn logōn, toutous de allous huper toutōn allōn - or at least I think that's how I'd put it.)

 

The first reason is for comfort: to distract my brain from stressful thinking, or to provide undemanding occupation in the absence of proper, coherent thought. When I read for this purpose, the books tend towards the lowbrow. I'm not necessarily reading for style and grace, sometimes not even for plot or logic: I need a book that will hit enough of my narrative kinks to carry me along, with interesting character and ordinary prose, and enough of a eucatastrophe about them not to perturb my emotional equilibrium. They have a simple palette of emotions, and don't require excessive consideration either on stylistic grounds or for the choice of moral evils; sometimes they're just pure trope and string, but I prefer a higher grade. Examples of the good kind include Kelly McCullough's Broken Blade, Elizabeth C Bunce's Liar's Moon, Rae Carson's Girl of Fire and Thorns, anything by Tamora Pierce, Tanya Huff, Jim Hines, Carrie Vaugn. More complex books sometimes arrive in the comfort category through long familiarity: Lois McMaster Bujold's Curse of Chalion and Paladin of Souls are among these.

 

The second reason combines aesthetic with emotional pleasure. These are more complex books, requiring concentration and a certain amount of focus. The joy here is seeing a good thing intelligently done, with style and verve and attention to detail: with characters facing hard choices, with realism and freshness and attention to choice turns of phrase, juicy bits of language, and cascading, complex what-ifs, in SFF - and enough of a visceral hook to kick me in the metaphorical squids. (Elizabeth Bear does this to me regularly. Steven Brust on occasion. Marie Brennan, Chaz Brenchley/Daniel Fox/Ben Macallan: Above and The Bone Palace did it in a massive way, and so in a way did The Cold Commands. Anthony Burgess reached the shining pinnacle of this in A Dead Man In Deptford.)

 

The third reason is primarily for aesthetic pleasure: the joy is the language above all, the execution: my emotional connection is slim, only intermittently present, and I find this to be the case for most of literature-so-called, though the brilliantly-crafted language of Chambers, Burgess, and Durrell appeals to me on the level of appreciation-for-excellent-craft. But it requires some effort to unpack, and as a result I read this sort of thing seldom.

 

The fourth reason is intellectual. Curiosity. There's aesthetic pleasure in the good history books, and emotional satisfaction sometimes too (not to mention in the Classics series) but it's the grand satisfaction of knowledge that brings me back to the history books: knowledge, and a fascination with cultures and times and places not my own. People are fascinating, and complicated, and weird - and so are the social systems which they make and take part in and surround themselves with.

 

The fifth reason is work. Do you find it odd I should say so? But since I've started reviewing for paying publications - and especially since starting the column with Tor.com - I've been pushing myself to read things I otherwise wouldn't have finished, and to start things I otherwise wouldn't have read, to have more context for my opinions. (Context is important. Proper understanding of context is perhaps the most important thing, in analysis. It's certainly up there.) (And also because if I say I will review a thing, there is contract of expectations there. Can't stop halfway through and say, First half sucked, so I stopped.)

 

There is intellectual satisfaction in acquiring that context, but the aesthetic and emotional dividend varies wildly - and it is work. More work than I expected, if I'm honest. So sometimes lately I might read a book from a sense more of duty than anything else, which I haven't done with respect to fiction since I was forced to read assigned texts in school.

 

Anyway. This is something of an answer.

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Weariness + insomnia is no fun at all.

Soddit, body, why do you do this to me? I had things to do today. Things I was looking forward to. Now I'll be lucky if I can snatch some utterly-exhausted morning sleep and drag around the afternoon like a zombie.

At least I am comforted by the fact that my new laptop does not, in fact, overheat like a pyromaniac on speed.
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Books 2012: 200

200. Max Gladstone, Three Parts Dead. Tor, 2012. e-ARC courtesy of the publishers, via NetGalley.

Lads. Lads, this book. THIS BOOK.

I started reading it on a whim last night, due to being unable to sleep. Ten pages in, my impression was weird, intriguing, interesting. A hundred pages after that, I was all but bouncing gleefully on my seat.

Three Parts Dead is Gladstone's debut novel. It doesn't read like a debut. It reads like a book from a writer confident in their skill, with the burnish that comes from practice. Gladstone builds an intriguing world, a second-world fantasy that's both recognisably modern and imaginatively, invigoratingly magical. And does so skillfully, incluing rather than infodumping, revealing the depth of background naturally in service to the story.

And in that world he sets a tricksy and tense and compelling story in the mode of the legal thriller, involving dead gods, necromancy, politics, murder, and power.

All that, however, is as nothing besides the characters. They are excellent characters, strongly-drawn, interesting, complex. Tara Abernathy, recently-employed associate of Elayne Kevarian of the necromantic firm of Kelethres, Albrect and Ao, brought to the city of Alt Coulumb to assist in the resurrection of the dead god Kos Ever-Burning. Abelard, a junior priest in the service of said god who's undergoing a wee bit of a crisis of faith. Cat, an officer in the service of Justice - a dead god resurrected into something much less than the previous living deity - whose communion with the god while she's on duty leaves her with a burning addiction when she's not. Kevarian herself, cold and calculating and fascinating and occasionally strangely principled.

And the Stone Men, and their relationship with the god from which Justice was made. And the way everything builds towards a climax that had me going: "!" and, Did not see that coming.

It works, is what I'm saying. It's the best debut I've read since Above. (And Above was the best I'd read since The Drowning City.) It's fresh and hectic and several different kinds of brilliant, and lads, I want the next one.

Now.

(I also want a hardcopy of this. But even now that I have funding I must be careful with it, and wait for the paperback.)
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Books 2012: 201

Not-201: Christopher L. Bennett, Only Superhuman. Tor, 2012. e-ARC courtesy of the publishers, via NetGalley.

I bailed on this after fifty pages. Science fiction with superheroes. All the flaws of the superhero genre and few of the benefits. Excruciatingly infodumpy, contains far too much male gaze, general feeling after thirty pages is: Why should I care about your brittle emotionally-stunted superhuman of a girl protagonist? and after forty: Shit, only complete fuckups of Irish parentage would call their daughter Emerald.

Maybe it picks up from there, but I can't be arsed to find out. Not recommended.


201. Lori Selke and Djibril al-Ayad, ed.s, Outlaw Bodies: a speculative fiction anthology. Future Fire Publishing, 2012. e-ARC courtesy of the publishers.

I'm not usually much for short stuff. It's not what I read by preference or habit. And this collection I read last night in the throes of angry sleeplessness, so I wasn't exactly feeling the happy.

That said, this is an interesting collection. Two of its constituent pieces, one of the strongest and (by me) one of the weakest, previously appeared elsewhere: the others appear for the first time in print. It is, naturally enough, uneven: Vylar Kaftan's "She Called Me Baby," (first published 2005 in Strange Horizons) is perhaps the most vivid piece, about the uncomfortable reconciliation of a daughter and a mother. Other strong contenders include Jo Thomas's "Good Form," an interesting and uncomfortable piece; "Millie," by Anna Caro, whose protagonist doesn't have a body, not in the normal sense of the word; and Tracie Welser's "Her Bones, Those Of The Dead," which has a striking central image and concerns itself with its protagonist's choice of self-determination, of abnegation of the fleshly body in favour of a machine one. Stacy Sinclair's "Winds: NW 20km/hr" is an interesting and compelling look at pregnancy and strangeness, and I'd rate it second behind Kaftan's story, out of the whole collection.

Fabio Fernandes' "The Remaker" has an interesting conceit, but lacks power in the conclusion. M. Svairini's "Mouth" posits an interesting division of genders but is far, far too involved with sex what is so Not My Kink for me to have an opinion other than Not My Kink. "Elmer Bank," by Emily Capettini is... odd, and seems like a second-wave-feminism War Of The Sexes story. And Lori Selke's "Frankenstein Unravelled" appears to concern itself primarily with the bureaucracy of the American (lack of) healthcare system, and really doesn't work for me.

The collection is weighted towards science fiction. There is an argument to be made for reading "Winds: NW 2okm/hr" and "Elmer Bank" as modern fantasy, but they could as easily be read SFnally. Of these, two are post-apocalyptic underground-civilisation, and more than one of the remainder has a dystopic flavour.

There's not a single unambiguously fantastical story in the bunch, which is, I think, a sad loss in a collection titled Outlaw Bodies. Still, it's interesting reading, and if you like short stuff more than I do, worth checking out.
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[27a]συνεπισκέψασθε δή, ὦ ἄνδρες, ᾗ μοι φαίνεται ταῦτα λέγειν: σὺ δὲ ἡμῖν ἀπόκριναι, ὦ Μέλητε. ὑμεῖς δέ, ὅπερ

Reckon up for yourselves, then, O men, for which [why] he appears to me to say these things: and you answer us, O Meletos. And you [plural], with respect to the very thing which

[27β] κατ᾽ ἀρχὰς ὑμᾶς παρῃτησάμην, μέμνησθέ μοι μὴ θορυβεῖν ἐὰν ἐν τῷ εἰωθότι τρόπῳ τοὺς λόγους ποιῶμαι.

ἔστιν ὅστις ἀνθρώπων, ὦ Μέλητε, ἀνθρώπεια μὲν νομίζει πράγματ᾽ εἶναι, ἀνθρώπους δὲ οὐ νομίζει; ἀποκρινέσθω, ὦ ἄνδρες, καὶ μὴ ἄλλα καὶ ἄλλα θορυβείτω: ἔσθ᾽ ὅστις ἵππους μὲν οὐ νομίζει, ἱππικὰ δὲ πράγματα; ἢ αὐλητὰς μὲν οὐ νομίζει εἶναι, αὐλητικὰ δὲ πράγματα; οὐκ ἔστιν, ὦ ἄριστε ἀνδρῶν: εἰ μὴ σὺ βούλει ἀποκρίνεσθαι, ἐγὼ σοὶ λέγω καὶ τοῖς ἄλλοις τουτοισί. ἀλλὰ τὸ ἐπὶ τούτῳ γε ἀπόκριναι:

I've begged of you from the beginning, remind yourselves for me not to make an uproar if I make my arguments in my accustomed manner.

Who is it among men, O Meletos, thinks human concerns exist, and does not think human beings exist? Let it be answered, O men, and let no uproar be made in any way: is there anyone who doesn't think horses exist, but thinks equestrian things do? Or who doesn't think flute-players exist, but thinks flute-playing things do? There is not, O best of men: if you don't want to answer, I tell you and these others here. But answer it at least in on this:

[27ξ] ἔσθ᾽ ὅστις δαιμόνια μὲν νομίζει πράγματ᾽ εἶναι, δαίμονας δὲ οὐ νομίζει;

οὐκ ἔστιν.

ὡς ὤνησας ὅτι μόγις ἀπεκρίνω ὑπὸ τουτωνὶ ἀναγκαζόμενος. οὐκοῦν δαιμόνια μὲν φῄς με καὶ νομίζειν καὶ διδάσκειν, εἴτ᾽ οὖν καινὰ εἴτε παλαιά, ἀλλ᾽ οὖν δαιμόνιά γε νομίζω κατὰ τὸν σὸν λόγον, καὶ ταῦτα καὶ διωμόσω ἐν τῇ ἀντιγραφῇ. εἰ δὲ δαιμόνια νομίζω, καὶ δαίμονας δήπου πολλὴ ἀνάγκη νομίζειν μέ ἐστιν: οὐχ οὕτως ἔχει; ἔχει δή: τίθημι γάρ σε ὁμολογοῦντα, ἐπειδὴ οὐκ ἀποκρίνῃ.

Is there someone who thinks spiritual things exist, but does not think spirits exist?

There is not.

As you benefit, that you scarcely answer being compelled by these here. So you say I think and teach spiritual things do not exist, either in fact new or old, but in fact I think - according to your argument - spirits do exist, and these things you even swear on oath in the indictment. And if I think spirits exist, perhaps it is even very necessary for me to think spirits exist: does it not hold in this way? Indeed it holds so. For I take up the position that you're agreeing, since you don't reply.

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