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The student-directed seminar instantiation of my class is looking more and more likely. My thinking about it is starting to infect my negotiations of academics more generally, examples from science fiction novels cropping up in the paper on gender identity (I'm supposed to be) working on right now. Not entirely by coincidence, I've been especially interested lately in reading fiction that lends itself to that sort of analysis.
Elizabeth Bear, By the Mountain Bound
Charles Stross, The Jennifer Morgue
Ursula K. LeGuin, The Left Hand of Darkness (reread)
Maureen F. McHugh, Mission Child
Samuel R. Delany, Dhalgren
China MiƩville, The City & The City
Months are long sometimes! I remember those first two books but not as things that I've been reading recently; the back of my mind puts the LeGuin through the MiƩville in a block together and expects those to fall somewhere nebulously before. Anyway, I'm just going to say things (at more or less length) about the last three on the list, but I could expand on anything if someone were curious. (Have we been here before?)

Mission Child is my new favourite McHugh. I've only read one other before but I don't care.

I used to think of Delany as a novelist that I admired more than I enjoyed, but now on the basis of the last two I've read he's turning out to be one of my favourites. I first heard of him when an online quiz suggested that he was which science fiction author I was, which would have been in 2002 or 2003, since I remember writing about it in my weblog; so, in the tail end of my teenage. At that time I picked up Dhalgren, bounced off it within a couple of pages, and came away with this impression of what it was like: a plotless prose-poetic experiment detailing a series of mysterious encounters between an unnamed protagonist and a series of equally opaque others.

Turns out that's not what it's like at all! Even though it would be easy to describe it that way. It's full of undreamy specificity, a post-apocalyptic story exploring the way that, in the wake of civilization-collapsing calamity, the people still there immediately reconstitute civilization, as they work out consciously and publicly how to live together. There's a lot about being an artist and a lot about being an artist's creation: there's one strange occasion on which the protagonist interacts directly with Delany, which I would have thought self-indulgent if anybody described it to me, but which comes across both deft and creepy. There is a lot of creepiness; the book is partially also a kind of horror story in which the horror is not being able to trust one's own memories or perceptions. On the back-cover blurb it's described as a work of "American magical realism", which I'm not sure is accurate or is not an oxymoron; but it might be magical realism by Jo Walton's taxonomy, which holds that fantasy has internally consistent laws by which magic operates, while magical realism has magical things take place because they are emotionally appropriate to the moment. One of the things that Delany does with that is to build up a sort of vocabulary of associations with certain recurring images, so that there's a sense of the frightening and/or the numinous about them despite our never understanding what they actually imply is going on. This is difficult to explain without examples, but the examples on their own, isolated from the rest of the text, probably wouldn't carry enough weight to make it any more explicable. Anyway, I really liked it.

The City & The City was just nominated for the Hugo, which doesn't surprise me. (It's nice to be a little ahead this year! I already had a hold on Boneshaker, too. Of course I don't end up reading everything I take out of the library, so don't be shocked if it doesn't show up here.) It felt very Hugoish, by which I mean that it was built around a clever speculative premise that was essential to the plot, intelligently explored, and such a new and yet such an obvious story element that after you've read it it transforms in a small way your conceptual vocabulary. The specifics of the plot are well-enough done, but it's the elaboration on the central idea that kept me fascinated. It made me think a lot of Judith Butler -- it's about the performativity of nations, how they're socially instantiated and in that sense real, but at the same time things that could be troubled and disrupted by performing differently, which is precisely why there are such strong socially punitive reactions to those who begin to do so.

Which could lead me rather suddenly on a tangent about nationalism more generally, with reference to the recent proliferation around here of enormous Canadian flags and to Stephen Harper's distressing tendency to respond to criticism by saying that "Canadians don't care about that," but it's late and this here is a long enough entry for now, so I'll content myself with mentioning the possibility and go to bed.

Date: 2010-04-07 12:01 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I love Mission Child. And I also liked The City & The City. Yay!

Date: 2010-04-07 06:12 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Are there any of these that I, being me, should read? I super-like the way the Delany sounds, but as you know I have a lot of squeams.

Date: 2010-04-08 07:33 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Addressed in conversation elsewhere.

-Andy H.

Date: 2010-04-08 06:05 pm (UTC)

Date: 2010-04-24 01:02 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
What was the other McHugh you read? China Mountain Zhang? That was the only book of hers I had read until I finished (thirty seconds ago) Nekropolis, which is now my favorite McHugh.

Date: 2010-04-29 07:29 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
Yes, it was Zhang. My library has Nekropolis, so either that or Half the Day is Night is probably next.

Jo Walton describes Mission Child as a book that she admires rather than loves, but I felt at no such remove. Between it and China Mountain Zhang I begin to feel as though I can see a pattern of tendencies in McHugh's plots, but it's difficult to articulate. She puts her characters through pain and difficulty and allows them to answer, not with any conventional resolution or catharsis, but through growing increasingly complex in their negotiations of themselves and their relationships. They begin apolitical and desperate, and out of that they become gradually iconoclastic and kind. We'll have to see if this seems to hold as I go further.

Mission Child is also a gratifying exception to Jed Hartman's remark (recently relevant to this weblog) that science fiction underrepresents the real world's range of gender possibilities.

-Andy H.

Date: 2010-04-29 04:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
A good complement to Left Hand of Darkness, then? I should reread that--it's been almost ten years.

I'll have to think about your McHugh plot analysis; at first blush I think it applies pretty well to Nekropolis, which may explain why I found its arc frustrating ("stop being afraid and DO something, don't you realize YOU'RE THE PROTAGONIST") even as I devoured the book. I'm pretty steeped in the Campbell/three-act tradition of "downtrodden hero gathers knowledge to defeat obstacles," and McHugh does seem to sidestep that, as you say.


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Andy H.

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