Margo Lanagan, The Brides of Rollrock Island (2012)

brides of rollorck

I have always been fascinated by the origin stories of evil sorceresses – what were they like when they were young? Is there perhaps a traumatic event that, while it does not justify their villainous behavior, may go some way towards explaining it? Fairy tales retold are usually a good place to find such stories, and over the years I’ve read about Rapunzel’s jailor, the Wicked Witch of the West, the witches from Hamlet, and a truckload of other witches. The legend of the selkie – the seal who turns into a beguiling young woman when she sheds her skin – is not strictly speaking a fairy tale, nor is Misskaela strictly speaking a witch, but The Brides of Rollrock Island tells of how she comes to run a mail-order bride business for the men of the eponymous island. As you might imagine, she charges exorbitant rates. Speaking as a veteran of the wicked witch memoir genre, I can say with some authority that Misskaela’s deep dark personal trauma (TM) is the most heartbreaking, humanizing, and logical (vis-a-vis her subsequent actions) one I’ve ever encountered.

The book is narrated in first person by a succession of child narrators, some of whom reappear in later POVs, all of whom grow up on insular Rollrock Island where the primary economic activity is fishing. It’s a bit disorienting when you first slip into a POV because you’re floundering for a point of reference – what’s the relationship between this narrator and the previous one? How much time has elapsed? Children being children, they take things for granted that an adult might question, and they question the very things adults take for granted. Thus it takes some time to discern the peculiarity of the island’s social institutions. Then, too, there’s the language. Lanagan’s language is beautiful, but it’s terrifically Irish, in fact it’s rural turn-of-the-twentieth-century Irish, and as an American I blunder through the dialogue aided by a lot of guesswork. Her style, though. Her style makes me swoon. On a sentence level she pares out extraneous adverbs/adjectives with the result that it’s evocative without being bloated or flowery; on a scene level she has a gift for depicting moments of emotional intensity that pack a helluva punch.

So The Brides of Rollrock Island is about selkies, but since the only way to hang onto a selkie is to steal her skin and hide it, it’s about gender relations and how oppressive systems can be destructive for everyone involved – not just the victims but the oppressors too. Children are not innocent bystanders; on the contrary, they are assimilated by the system. If there’s a message that’s it that’s the message. And yet this isn’t a “smash the patriarchy” sort of story. I’m not sure what kind of story it is; all I know is that it’s a sad story.

For the men of Rollrock Island, the attraction of a sea-wife is not so much her ethereal beauty as her utter dependence on him. Physically, of course, she’s got to get accustomed to her new body, and when I read Lanagan’s descriptions of how these newborn girls have difficulty walking (especially wearing petticoats) it strikes me how women’s discomfort/insecurity with their bodies is exploited (possibly even created) by men. It suits men to have us perpetually dissatisfied with our bodies, because then they can set themselves up as the ultimate arbiters of whether we’re valuable (ie. attractive) or not. I am obviously not accusing individual men of perpetuating a vast misogynist conspiracy; these attitudes are institutional rather than individual. And Lanagan recognizes that. There’s a scene where the boy-narrator steals into the locked storeroom where the selkie skins are kept, and he realizes that what’s keeping them there is not the lock – which he jimmied open with ease – but the collective decision of every man on the island to take a selkie to wife. [HERE BE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON OUT IT’S ALL SPOILERS] The courage that it takes this boy – eventually, all the other boys join him, all of them the product of human-selkie unions – to go against everything he’s been taught and free his mother and all the other mothers too, is beyond reckoning.

In the end the men of Rollrock Island are not monsters. Lanagan doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. She shows us, quite convincingly, what might entice a man to take up such a lifestyle. Dominic Mallet left the island when he was twelve. He’s engaged now to a lovely girl from the mainland, and he returns to Rollrock for the ostensible purpose of putting his parents’ affairs in order. (As soon as he decided to go back I was like LOL THIS WON’T END WELL.) So of course he meets (or Misskaela arranges for him to meet) a selkie woman on the beach, and here is him comparing her to his betrothed, Kitty:

No one, no man or woman, had ever regarded me so steadily, so trustingly. Kitty herself never looked at me this way; always her own next purposes and plans moved somewhere inherent eyes and readied words behind her lips. This girl only waited, her whole being, her whole future, fixed on me.

Like of COURSE he chooses this docile creature over a human girl who’s always going to have her own needs and desires. This one, the only thing she wants is to please him. She’s the fulfillment of the ultimate male fantasy – she’ll never say no to sex, never upbraid him for not pulling his weight with housework/childcare, never be hurt when he chooses to go out with his buddies instead of spending time with her. And what was Dominic doing down on the beach that night anyway? It’s hard to take seriously his later protestations to Kitty (he does the decent thing and goes to her house to break off the engagement in person) that it “just happened.” Kitty is like ok listen, this is not something that just “happened” to the two of us, this is something you did to me on purpose, and I will not absolve you of responsibility for it.

This is one of the moments I was talking about, this breakup scene – one of the moments of such emotional intensity that their clarity is blinding. I don’t think it would be fair to say that I liked The Brides of Rollrock Island. Or that I disliked it. I feel like, my feelings don’t really come into it? This book is perfect. I don’t mean “perfect” in the sense of good – I mean it creditably accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Done. Finito. Perfect.

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Ken McLeod, The Restoration Game (2011)

restoration game

This book was sold to me as a techno-econ thriller about the nature of virtual reality, and I think that’s a pretty accurate summation. It sounds like a fascinating concoction of things relevant to my interests – which, again, it is. The only problem is that the end product is less than the sum of its parts.

The story unfolds through the first-person narration of Lucy Stone, a twentysomething programmer who works for a small video games startup. We learn about her family’s entanglement with the fictional former Soviet republic of Krassnia, which goes back at least four generations. Lucy’s family members – the ones who appear onscreen – consist of her mother (an academic who leads a double life as a CIA asset) and her great-grandmother (who was born into the peerage). Right off the bat we have two strong women. It occurs to me that the entire book can be read as an account of Lucy’s hunt for her biological father – who turns out, of course, not to be any of the candidates she parades before us. I am not advocating it should be read that way; only that it could be. At one point Lucy comments wryly that she feels like she’s in a production of Mamma Mia.

Lucy makes a lot of on-point observations. She likes a lot of the same stuff I do: Guy Gavriel Kay and Heroes and catching up on her LiveJournal feed; and even though these are things I would more likely be doing five or six years ago than now, I understand Lucy. I understand the kinds of books and TV and movies she grew up on. The biggest difference between me and Lucy is that I don’t know the first thing about code. Lucy’s is an administrative position but she explains that in her office everybody codes; and despite being the only woman as well as by far the worst coder, Lucy’s camraderie with her co-workers is never shown to be strained. She banters with the lads at work and goes out for a pint after. And that seems … too easy to me. Look, narratives don’t exist in a vacuum. Even an ignorant layperson like me who knows nothing about gaming knows this: Video games are the site of some of the worst, most vituperative rank misogyny in existence. To the point that when somebody tries to systematically examine how bad the representation of women is in video games, she’s subjected to a prolonged online harassment campaign. Because the video game community would rather jump down her throat for airing their dirty laundry than admit that they have a problem. Given that gamers, like comic book fans and the larger SF fandom, have a track record of complaining about fake geek girls, I find it inconceivable that Lucy (the WORST coder in the house) is wholly accepted as “one of the guys,” that there is no questioning of her competency, no microaggressions in the workplace. Don’t get me wrong – it’s great that Lucy’s competent, just like her mom and her great-grandma. Yet when such competence is presented as natural and effortless it erases the struggle of real women under patriarchy who have to scrabble for every scrap of grudging recognition and respect they get. It makes Lucy “Not Like the Other Girls,” which says as much about the other girls as it does about Lucy.

But the real reason this book didn’t work for me is not because it botched the women-in-geekdom angle. It’s because it wants to be a supernatural Cold War spy novel. Which is a fine objective. As it happens however I already have an excellent supernatural Cold War spy novel and it’s Declare by Tim Powers, and I’ve taken it out of the library four times in the past year (I don’t own a copy because every time I check my Amazon shopping cart the price seems to rise). Compared to the breadth of Powers’ imagination and the intricacy of his plotting, The Restoration Game appears amateurish. It was a quick read partly because none of the settings or characters (including Lucy) left an impression on me. And if I can’t even bring myself to care about Lucy, with whom I have so much in common and who has the additional advantage of being the one whose thoughts we are privy to, then there’s not much to be said for the rest of it.

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Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel (2010)


Sometimes I remember that Cassie Clare exists and that she can be relied upon to turn out reams of entertaining fluff. The book is on loan from my fifteen-year-old sister, who is a huge fan – she owns the “Mortal Instruments” series as well as the “Infernal Devices,” of which this is Book 1. It’s set in the same universe, populated by Shadowhunters, Downworlders and Mundanes (ie. ordinary nonmagical people), during the Victorian age. There are lots of quotes from Romantic poets, which is probably supposed to be atmospheric but in fact just feels cumbersome. That’s because no matter how good a job Clare does describing the era’s fashion, architecture, etc. – and I am willing to admit she does a fine job – the main characters read like modern teenagers transplanted into a gaslamp fantasy.

Clockwork Angel is the story of Tessa Grey, a penniless American orphan newly arrived in England. She expects to be met at the docks by her brother, except she’s abducted by a pair of sinister hags instead. Tessa is informed that her brother is a hostage and that she herself possesses magical abilities. Eventually she’s rescued by a pair of Shadowhunters, Will Herondale and Jem Carstairs, who (by coincidence) break into the house where she’s being held captive. Well color me surprised it’s a love triangle. That took all of ten minutes. Anyway my thoughts in bullet point form, because I’m too lazy to organize them:

  • I like Tessa because she’s a bookworm like me. An example of her internal monologue: “According to novels, the main function of a ladies’ maid was to listen to you as you poured your heart out about your tragic love life, and occasionally to dress in your clothes and pretend to be you so you could avid being captured by a villain.” Which is pretty accurate actually.
  • Tessa’s special ability is some combination of psychometry and shape-shifting, a two-for-one deal where she can assume the physical form of any individual (living or dead) provided she comes into contact with a personal artifact belonging to them. When she assumes their form, she also has access to their instincts and surface thoughts, though it’s not clear how exactly this works. So here’s the thing: I remember when I was reading Animorphs, a children’s series targeted at a middle-grade audience, that there were weighty ethical quandaries associated with morphing human subjects. Here we have a young adult book presumably written for an older, more reflective audience, and the issue isn’t even broached? It’s a puzzling omission, or maybe a telling one.
  • Does the entire fandom just sit around shipping Will and Jem all day long? If not, why not? Because that’s sure as hell what I’ll be doing for the remainder of this series. I think I’m supposed to. I find it hard to believe that Cassie Clare – Cassie fucking Claire, of Draco trilogy fame – could have been unaware of what she was doing when she paired up two attractive white boys and made them brothers in arms. (Yes Jem is half-Chinese; so what. I am going to delcare on my authority as a Chinese person that this is some exoticizing bullshit.) Will is reckless and insolent and a lethal fighter; Jem is steady and sensitive and has a chronic medical condition. Will is forever mocking everyone with acerbic remarks that drive them up the wall, but Tessa notes that “Whatever Will did, the most extreme reaction he seemed to be able to provoke in Jem was mild exasperation.” Then you get to the part where Jem explains what they are to each other: “‘Parabati in Greek is just a term for a soldier paired with a chariot driver,’ said Jem, ‘but when Nephilim say it we mean a matched team of warriors – two men who swear to protect each other and guard each other’s backs.’” Did she really just reference the well-known homosocial culture of ancient Greece? At this point Cassie Clare is just straight-up queerbaiting.
  • Whatever else you might say about her, Cassie Clare never fails to nail the sexual tension. That scene between Will and Tessa with the gloveporn? Holy mother of god so hot. He’s lying in bed recovering from a vampire bite, and when she brings him water he takes her hand and kisses it and peels her glove off. That’s it that’s the scene. The part where they kiss on the mouth (Tessa’s first kiss) is almost an afterthought?
  • One thing I don’t get: The novel’s Big Bad, the Magister, has nefarious plans for Tessa including but not limited to marrying her. Here’s a quote: “It looks like you weren’t the only thing in the Dark Sisters’ house that was being prepared for the Magister’s use. These clockwork creatures were as well.” First of all, I don’t know if by invoking the sexual connotations of the word “use” this line is hinting at the threat of rape, but no thank you, Do Not Want. What’s interesting, though, is that it contrasts the Magister’s biomechanical automaton abominations with the perfectly natural, organic magic of Shadowhunters (who are descended from angels). I mean, I just don’t get it. Magic vs. technology? That’s so Lord of the Rings.
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Eva Ibbotson, A Song for Summer (1997)

a song for summer

Well, this is it, I’ve finished Eva Ibbotson’s YA ouvre. Eva Ibbotson writes romance novels set in the early twentieth century, and they are invariably heartwarming, brimming with sensational goings-on and dramatic reversals. My god, I make it sound like a soap opera. But there is an insuppresible effervescence about her stories that renders them joyous rather than pathetic, so that even if I disagree with her politics I still care about her characters. She reminds me of C.S. Lewis that way. In fact, her prose shares a much closer affinity to Lewis than, say, John Green: it’s not snarky or gritty, it doesn’t aim to deconstruct anything, it plays all the tropes straight. I think in a lot of ways Young Adult Literature is still living in J.D. Salinger’s shadow. The problem with this – leaving aside for the moment how much I hate Catcher in the Rye – is that even when YA authors produce a story with overtly fantastical elements, it still feels postmodern (cf. Kristin Cashore, Philip Pullman). Eva Ibbotson’s work makes me feel the same way Anne of Green Gables or A Little Princess does – that is to say, comfortable; which is not a synonym for uncomplicated since there is plenty to unpack, but there is no angst in the sense that modern teenagers understand the word. There’s just … problems that the protagonist encounters.

Our protagonist, Ellen, is a young British woman who accepts a post at an unconventional boarding school in the German countryside. She arrives on campus to find a turtle zooming around on wheels. Eventually she falls for the guy who made them, because why wouldn’t you fall for a guy who makes wheels for handicapped turtles right? Bonus points if he’s living incognito/running away from his past/really rich and famous but she doesn’t know it. Anyway, while Ellen and Marek are great, I do think the ensemble cast is a bit weaker than in previous Ibbotson books. There are all these faculty and students and villagers plus a bunch of random people from the Viennese opera scene, and the only ones I can recall by name are Ellen’s and Marek’s exes. (By contrast, I was so concerned about the fate of the secondary characters in A Countess Below Stairs that I reread the final few pages to make sure they were all accounted for.) None of the kids had personalities to speak of. Like, I only noticed Leon because I have a weakness for insufferably arrogant twats who turn out to be deeply vulnerable little boys hungry for affection (cf. The Avengers’ Loki). Leon becomes much more palatable – in fact he becomes outright endearing – when he starts hero-worshipping Marek.

So Ellen and Marek’s grand romance is put on hold because NAZIS. Which achieves the desired effect, I guess? ie. prolonging the suspense. After all, there is only one way the marriage plot can be resolved, and that is the nuptial payoff. On the way there, though, I have a couple comments to make:

(1) Ibbotson has written yet another novel about conscientious gentiles courageously defying the prejudices of their day by standing by their Jewish friends. And yet the focus is never on the Jews themselves. The scene when Marek returns from South America to attend Isaac’s concert – only to discover that Isaac has been hauled off to a concentration camp – is practically a carbon copy of the scene in The Morning Gift where Quin finds out that Ruth’s father has been removed from the university faculty. In both cases you have a male protagonist who is conveniently returning from an extended trip abroad (in an “exotic” locale, so news from the Continent would have been hard to come by), who is outraged by how the Reich treats one of his Jewish friends. Yes, the moral outrage is genuine. But it’s so clean; if it was this easy to stand up to the Nazis, 75% of Europe would warrant a place in the Righteous Among Nations. My issue with Ibbotson is not that she doesn’t depict the rise of the Third Reich realistically; my issue is one of representation. When we focus on how Hitler’s policies were so abhorrent to Aryan aristocrats like Marek or British peers like Quin, it feels disrespectful. It feels like we’re silencing the victims. Which, to be fair, Ibbotson was herself Jewish and The Morning Gift is about a Viennese Jewish girl (albeit one who is not religious and whose family has been mostly assimilated). Obviously I’m not arguing her books are anti-Semitic! What I am arguing, I think, is that a book’s commercial success depends on a variety of factors, and if you write about a character who is an ethnic/racial/religious minority you’re much more likely to be shuffled into a “niche” market. Remember Tom and Susie from A Countess Below Stairs? They were minor characters; Tom, the heir to a great estate, wants to marry Susie even though she’s Jewish and this is the 1920’s. Tolerance, it seems, is the cardinal virtue in our liberal age. Yet A Countess Below Stairs is not about Susie, just as A Song for Summer is not about Isaac; as, indeed, Schindler’s List is not about a Jew but instead about the man who saves them, Oskar Schindler. It’s curious, isn’t it, how we like to tell stories about tolerant gentiles? What I worry about is when the Jews – or the gays, or the African-Americans – become instrumental to the story, merely a means of establishing the protagonist’s liberal credentials. Again, this is not a criticism of Eva Ibbotson per se but of a worrying tendency that she happens to embody.

(2) I’ve written before on why I find Ibbotson’s treatment of older women distasteful. In three of her four novels, the youthful heroine displaces a much older previous love interest – but not because the other woman is middle-aged or ugly, oh no! When Marek declines to resume his relationship with Brigitta, she says, “It’s because I’m getting old. It’s because I’m nearly forty.” This accusation is meant to be discredited by her petulance in uttering it; we are meant to believe, basically, that “It wasn’t because she was young that he wanted Ellen.” It’s because Ellen’s beautiful inside, you see. And I’m not denying that she is! Ellen is a lovely young lady; Brigitta is a diva and a bully. I am only observing what a passing strange coincidence it is that ALL the young ladies have beautiful personalities and ALL the women in the their thirties or forties are bitter and cruel and self-absorbed. Finally, I love it when the ageism is compounded by sizesim: Ellen, in her own words, goes to the opera to “watch that overweight cow sing.” The cow in question being Brigitta, the most highly regarded soprano in Austria.

(3) As invested as Ibbotson is in the institution of traditional marriage + babies, I do have to give her credit for her treatment of female sexuality. In A Company of Swans there was premarital sex. In A Song for Summer there is extramarital sex. In both cases the experience is described as AMAZEBALLS (which is unlikely since they were virgins but whatever, good on you girls for doing it). I think for Ibbotson sex is sacred, not because marriage is a sacrament, but because sex without love is a kind of profanation? That’s why in The Morning Gift Ruth’s assignation with Heini ends in coitus interruptus – not because (as I believed at the time) she’s technically married to Quin, but because she doesn’t love Heini. It’s the same deal in A Song for Summer: Ellen and Kendrick have a marriage of convenience, but Ibbotson doesn’t let them consummate it. Ellen remains a virgin until she finally sleeps with Marek. And while I want to side-eye the concept of ~saving yourself~ for your true love, I have no problem getting behind the message that SEX IS SACRED. If only more people thought so!

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Peter Hamilton, Great North Road (2012)

great north rd

It’s a space opera. With clonesssssss. Which starts off as a police procedural? I liked that part actually. It got me invested in the story a lot sooner than this 900-page doorstopper had any right to expect. Here’s this middle-aged detective back on the beat after six months’ suspension, and first day on the job him and his partner have the bad luck to fish a politically radioactive corpse out of the river. It’s a North – one of hundreds of clones of bioil conglomerate founder Kane North running around interstellar space. The question is, which North? Whoever dumped him in the river took the trouble to peel the skin off of all ten fingertips first. The thing that works about this murder mystery is that your go-to hypoethesis – also Sid’s hypothesis, since Sid is a good detective – is that the victim was killed so somebody else, another North clone, could impersonate him. And that’s essentially what happened. I mean yes there are a bunch of mind-reading aliens involved, but that’s the bare bones of it. So I liked the simplicity of the solution. I also liked Sid’s wife! She’s a bit-player in the scheme of things but here are some reasons I like her: (1) it’s suggested that as a nurse she actually makes more money than Sid (2) it is NOT suggested that this is embarrassing or emasculating for Sid (3) she insists he take responsibility for 50% of the child-rearing duties and when he fails to do so – because he’s working overtime on the biggest homicide case of his career – she holds him accountable for it even as she resignedly prepares to dial the babysitter (4) she and Sid discuss major financial milestones like buying a new house or swindling the taxman – discuss them openly, like rational people. This is important because I feel like we only ever see dollar signs when couples are going through a nasty divorce, or cheating on each other, or losing their life’s savings to a government conspiracy. It’s nice to acknowledge that happily married people sometimes talk about money.

If Sid is an Everyman, his co-protagonist Angela is a walking prototype of weaponized femininity. Angela is serving a life sentence for fifteen counts of murder. She is also the key to solving Sid’s case. And when I say “weaponized femininity,” I mean she literally went and got some blades made of organic tissue surgically implanted in her knuckles, and when she imbibes the right growth hormones she turns right into Wolverine. Here is the thing about Angela: I want to like her. I want to like her business acumen and her uninhibited sexuality and the fact that she has truckloads more agency than anybody else (with the exception of the mind-reading aliens). Angela leaves me feeling meh. I’ve nothing against “avenging my daddy by methodically plotting to bring down the goons who killed him,” but I thought the execution was off. I just feel like “insinuating oneself into a powerful man’s circle by becoming a sex worker in his harem” is a trope that needs to be handled carefully, if at all. Also nothing about Angela’s background/motivations makes sense. Her whirlwind romance and elopement are esepcially devoid of any iota of sense. I understand why she has to have the baby for plot purposes, but you do not need to litter the text with neon placards indicating “This Romance For Plot Purposes Only.”

The thing about Angela is that she is young and hot. Just like every other female in the entire book. Even Sid’s wife, whose accolades I was singing earlier, fends off wrinkles with aggressive visits to the plastic surgeon’s office. Meanwhile Sid has a beer belly. We’ve already established that they’re a dual earner family who divide domestic duties equally between them, so I can only conclude from the fact that Sid hasn’t found time to go to the gym that looking attractive for one’s partner simply doesn’t rank high among men’s priorities.

Angela works out regularly, but she also has stellar genes. It turns out that her multibillionaire parents had her genetically engineered to age more slowly than ordinary humans – for every ten years that pass she only ages ten. She’s what’s called a “one in ten.” That’s how she can be released from prison, where she’s served twenty years of her sentence, and immediately pick up plotting again. For most people twenty years is half their lives gone – the good half. For Angela it barely registers. She’s got centuries ahead of her. When she encounters the prosecutor who put her behind bars twenty years ago, the contrast between their physical conditions is painful: He’s balding and sagging and she’s young and healthy. And hot. Did I mention all the women are hot? Angela’s genetic quirk makes it possible for her to be reunited with her daughter, who’s grown into a lovely young lady … and for both of them to be unbelievably attractive. Together. I just. I’m sorry but let’s look at the other female characters in this 900+ page novel ok? There’s Ian’s girlfriend, a goddess so virtuous and gorgeous that she successfully reforms a notorious rake. There’s one or two bureaucrats and a waitress and maybe oh Brinkelle North. Brinkelle is a bitch who runs her portion of the North emporium with an iron fist but you know what? She’s a smoking hot bitch.

The exaggerated imbalance between men of average attractiveness and OMG ALL THE WOMEN ARE KNOCKOUTS is hard for me to accept. I think it’s wonderful that this is hard science fiction that features a strong, smart female protagonist, yes it’s great we’re not sidelining the female characters but I’m troubled by the implication that competence is coupled with sexiness. What happens when women lose their youthful allure? Do they stop being awesome? Do we just stop paying attention to them? Does a woman’s value rest, ultimately, on how much men want to fuck her? To all of these questions Great North Road offers an uncomfortable silence.

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Connie Willis, Doomsday Book (1992)

doomsday book

I’m coming to Connie Willis from Blackout (2010) and All Clear (2011), the duology everybody agrees does not constitute her best work. That one was about time-traveling historians stranded in London during the Blitz. This one is about a time-traveling historian stranded in medieval Oxford during the Black Death. Can we just take a minute though to speculate on why Oxford University has a monopoly on time-travel technology? It hardly seems fair to the poor scholars at Cambridge, who are probably hawking the souls of their firstborns for a chance to get their hands on this shit. Meanwhile, within Oxford, there’s bitter animosity between Professor Dunworthy of Balliol College (which specializes in the twentieth century), and Professor Gilchrist of Brasenose College (which specializes in the middle ages). Gilchrist has been named Acting Head of the History Department during the Christmas holidays, and he seizes the opportunity to send one of his most promising students to the fourteenth century. He lowers that century’s hazard rating basically by fiat, he runs the whole operation on a skeleton crew (because it’s Christmas), he uses inexperienced technicians and he fails to take appropriate safety precautions. None of this sits well with Dunworthy, who is a mentor to the student in question, Kivrin. Kivrin herself is adamant about getting this show on the road so she can start studying arcane medieval church rituals already. The drop goes ahead as planned. Then everything goes to hell in a handbasket.

Of the two paralell plot threads – Kivrin in the fourteenth century and Professor Dunworthy in the twenty-first – I found the second one the more compelling for maybe 50% of the book; until, that is, the bubonic plague arrives on Kivrin’s doorstep. Prior to this she has no inkling that she’s in the wrong decade (she was supposed to arrive 20 years before the pandemic hit England), and though she’s been inoculated against it, obviously the other villagers haven’t. When she started digging graves is when I realized that I cared.

The other plotline follows Dunworthy, his colleague Dr. Mary Ahrens, her eleven-year-old nephew Colin, and a coterie of fanatically single-minded American bell-ringers as they scramble around a quarantined Oxford that’s been hit by a mysterious new strain of the influenza virus. Dunworthy suspects that something went wrong with Kivrin’s drop, but he can’t prove it because (a) the technician who supervised the drop was the very first person to fall ill, and (b) Gilchrist insists that the drop went off without a hitch; as Acting Head of the History Department he has the authority to stymie Dunworthy at every turn. Dunworthy spends a lot of time trying (and failing) to locate the actual head of the History Department, a Mr. Basingame, who has apparently gone fishing in Scotland. The idea is to get Basingame to override Gilchrist’s instructions, ascertain Kivrin’s safety, and extract her if necessary. It was really frustrating getting to the end of the book not having seen hide nor hair of Basingame, because by then Dunworthy has been attempting to get ahold of this guy literally for weeks – harassing his wife, his secretary, probably the lady who bags his groceries, anyone who might know where the man has gone. As it turns out, however, the entire crisis is resolved without Basingame ever making an appearance. There is a neat parallel here to what happens in Kivrin’s plotline: she’s staying with the household of a Sir Guillaume d’Iverie, and although we become well acquainted with the man’s wife, mother, and daughters, Sir Guillaume himself does not feature in the narrative. We’re told he’s in London as a witness in an important trial, we’re told to expect him any day now, we’re told he’ll put everything to rights as soon as he gets here, and then he … doesn’t. And everybody just has to carry on as best they can. You can’t call on a distant authority figure to sort out your problems.

Things Connie Willis does well
– Kids! Brilliant, exasperating, exuberant, obnoxious kids. Agnes, whose unofficial babysitter Kivrin becomes, is tough and smart and whiny and needs attention like oxygen. Colin, who latches onto Dunworthy after his aunt’s death, is the same way, probably because he suffers from the same borderline abusive level of parental neglect.
– Older women who are (a) not sexualized (b) not ridiculed for being old/ugly (c) marvelously competent at their jobs! RIP Mary Ahrens.

Things Connie Willis does poorly
– A lot of people have talked about the bizarrely anachronistic state of communications technology in the mid-twenty-first century. That’s where all these characters come from, after all, 2060 or thereabouts. Doomsday Book was published in 1992 so it’s understandable that there was no email or cell phones, but come on, long distance telephone calls did not work like that in the nineties. How do you get a busy signal after dialing three numbers? It gets worse in Blackout/All Clear (2010/2011) – if you live in a dormitory it is apparently necessary for your roommate’s girlfriend to take down important messages for you. Jesus take the wheel, honestly. And even though the 70’s technology annoys me and interferes with my suspension of belief, I can also see why she does it: suspense. All the rushing around trying to get a hold of people whom you urgently need to speak to, the anxiety over what-if-I-just-missed-them, would not be possible in our own networked age. Willis uses the missed connections and misunderstandings to build the stakes of her comedy of manners, and I can’t fault her for what she did there because I was legitimately sobbing by the time I finished this book.

At the end of the day I’m not certain this is even sci-fi like I’m pretty sure it’s a thriller, one of those historical ones. I mean of course it’s sci-fi in the sense that there’s a science-fictional device, but the structure is not an adventure, it’s a mystery. I remarked earlier that Kivrin doesn’t realize she’s landed smack dab in the middle of a bubonic plague outbreak until halfway through the book – but we, the readers, know from the get-go, thanks to the cover blurb. And so one way Willis builds tension in the first half of the novel is by making us wonder when the shit’s going to hit the fan. We are also genuinely baffled by the provenance of the influenza virus, just like Dunworthy is. As an added bonus, Willis manages to stock the beginning of the book with a veritable armory of Chekhov’s Guns that are all accounted for by the end. A++ would stay up all night again.

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Mira Grant, Feed (2010), Deadline (2011) and Blackout (2012)


“Newsflesh” is a trilogy about a pair of bloggers and a zombie apocalypse. The zombie apocalypse happened 20+ years ago, and the human race has more or less survived. By “more or less” I mean that the Indian subcontinent is a dead zone populated by zombified cows, but other than that (and Alaska), and having to take a blood test every time you step outside, everything is hunky dory.

So zombie apocalypses are the flavor du jour. It’s hard not to draw comparisons between this series and the other one I finished recently, the one that might be more properly called a vampire apocalypse although let’s not split hairs about why the undead are trying to sink their teeth into us ok. The one I’m referring to is Justin Cronin’s The Passage (2010) and The Twelve (2012), with The City of Mirrors due in 2014. Cronin’s work is … much less pretentious than what you would expect from the graduate of America’s most prestigous MFA program. It takes some effort, yes—I don’t think I was hooked until page 150 or so—but I would not rank his books as any less entertaining than Grant’s. They even start from the same premise: Scientists try to cure cancer, accidentally unleash freak virus on humanity, cue end of the world as we know it. Which just goes to show that the supposed dichotomy between boring, esoteric high art and vapid mass culture is bullshit. I can see that Cronin’s prose has a timeless quality to it that Grant’s lacks; hers is immediate and colloquial—it has to be, it’s a first-person narrative. So it’s true that Grant’s language is easier for me, even as I’m aware that Cronin’s language will be far more accessible to my grandkids. He’s also got a much, much bleaker vision of the post-apocalypse world; in his version I think like 95% of the population dies or is infected.

Mira Grant’s post-apocalypse world, meanwhile, functions well enough that presidential elections are still a thing. Our protagonists, Georgia and Shuan Mason, are tasked with covering the campaign of an idealistic Wyoming senator. This is their big break as much as it is the candidate’s. Up till now Masons have been blogging under the umbrella of news aggregation entities (sort of like Al Jazeera or BuzzFeed I guess?), but now they’ve finally landed the story that will let them strike out on their own. It will also give them the financial wherewithal to move out of their parents’ house, which, oh boy, what is there even to say about their parents, those mercenary motherfuckers.

Twenty-odd years ago during the Rising, elder!Masons lost their eight-year-old son. He was bitten by the neighbors’ dog. That was before it was widely understood that the virus could jump between mammalian species, and that anything surpassing the 40 pound threshold was susceptible to its effects. The dog weighed over 40 pounds. Elder!Masons dealt with their grief by ceasing to care about other human beings and channeling all their emotional resources into chasing the news ratings. They went on to become phenomenally successful bloggers as well as abominable parents to their adopted children, whom they treated like ratings-generating machines.

Shaun and Georgia survived their childhood by adopting an us-against-the-world mentality that leaves little room for other other people in their lives. And who can blame them, when the parental relationship that should have been the most nurturing turned out to be the most manipulative? It’s like they built an emotional bunker and never learned to climb out of it. Georgia even uses the term “codependent” to describe it. Georgia is our narrator, and she’s so badass she wears shades indoors and never cries. No seriously. Here’s the real explanation: She’s got a disability—what’s a called a “reservoir condition” where the virus takes up residence in a body organ, in her case the retina—meaning basically that she has zombie vision; she can see ridiculously well in low light situations but direct sunlight will blind her. Hence the shades.

I’m thinking right now of one time when they’re in the field and a federal agent orders Georgia to take her shades off and Shaun nearly goes ballistic on him. That’s the way they are. You mess with one of them, you’ll have the other to contend with. Georgia is the sensible one—she takes care of the administrative and financial end of their little blogging business—while Shaun’s job is to “poke dead things with sticks” while their viewership watches with rapt, vicarious exhilaration. And as over-the-top as the shades may be, I have to admit that I like women who are significantly more reserved emotionally than their male counterparts [see also: Laura Roslin and Bill Adama]. It helps to balance out the still-hegemonic media portrayal of female characters as “the ones who cry a lot and panic at the least provocation.” Shaun actually notes at one point (he narrates the second book) that the reason he’s physically affectionate with people is so they won’t try to hug Georgia. Like he will literally intercept any hugs directed at her in order to spare her the discomfort of enduring them. I just. I cannot with these kids.

That’s it, that’s the summary: I CANNOT WITH THESE KIDS because they won’t quit stomping all over the broken pieces of my heart. Are there aspects of this series I am less than satisfied with? Sure, but neither Georgia nor Shaun is one of them. I guess I should maybe enumerate the bits that could have been improved. In the interest of ~science or whatever:

  • The whole thriller/conspiracy angle seemed weak and underdeveloped. I was never sure who, exactly, constituted the Big Bad; was it the Centers for Disease Control? The Secret Service? The moneyed financial interests who bankroll our elected representatives? Dozens of people are murdered to further the plot—the body count starts piling up 1/3 through the first book and keeps rolling on like a tank—but there doesn’t seem to have been a coherent rationale for why these people needed to be gotten rid of.
  • Buffy. I get that she’s Shaun and Georgia’s in-house tech expert; I get that she’s perky and blonde and writes porn in her spare time. I get that appearances can be deceiving, and that Buffy deliberately cultivates hers so that people will underestimate her. Because she’s Really Good At Circumventing Security Apparatuses, So Good She Was Aggressively Recruited by the CIA, you see. Well, bully for her. I’m not sold. There’s too much telling and not enough showing going on with Buffy, plus she’s got a geektastic Asian boyfriend, which in other circumstances would be fine; the problem is that said boyfriend gets so little screentime he’s effectively reduced to a stereotype, which, ugh, do not want.

I pulled an all-nighter to finish these books and I regret nothing. They’re books that go after your heart rather than your brain, which is ok because my brain needed a break anyway.

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