Weekly Read: Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War

Music, those who make it and consume it often think, is a universal language. A beautiful melody or an infectious rhythm or a soothing wash of noise doesn’t require any kind of verbal communication to enjoy. Surely if there’s something that can exist outside of the mess that is politics, music should be yet. Sadly, the takeaway from Jonathan Rosenberg’s Dangerous Melodies: Classical Music in America from the Great War Through the Cold War is that politics, like religion, poisons everything, in spite of anyone’s best intentions otherwise.

Dangerous Melodies examines this through a particular lens – the American classical music community and how it interact with the First and Second World Wars and the early part of the Cold War. In each era, political considerations informed what was played, by whom and where.

One of the fascinating things about the WWI section of this book (along with PANDEMIC, which of course covers that time period) is how fervent people were with regards to the war and the United States’ role in it. Of course, this was the period of the Sedition Act and the Supreme Court’s deeply horrible First Amendment law, but it really brings the xenophobia home when you hear about German musicians being interned for nothing more than their nationality.

German composers proved a particularly tricky proposition, since, at the time, the American classical music scene was heavily indebted to Germany composers and musicians. Wagner, of course, featured prominently in all this, but he at least had the good sense to be dead when the conflict began. Discussions about whether to continue to stage his operas or play his music were a bit more esoteric than those surrounding, say, Richard Strauss, who was both very popular in American concert halls and still alive to cash the checks.

If the issue during the First World War was what to do with Germans in general, in the Second World War there was some attempt to distinguish between garden variety Germans and actual Nazis. This was easier said than done, however, since some great conductors were at least Nazi-adjacent, if not actual (if unenthusiastic) party members. Their rehabilitation after the war mirrored those of their predecessors in the Great War – in that the result of the uproar had little to do with actual facts and more to do with repeated assertions of bad behavior (I shook my head reading how a judge in a court case involving one conduct admitted there was no evident to prove his alleged sin, but enough people believed it that it didn’t matter).

One odd part about the Second World War is that, at least as Dangerous Melodies tells it, is that Wagner came roaring back and was basically unscathed. To the extent the Nazis glorified him and tried to make a paragon of the Reich it didn’t impact his work being played in the United States. On the other hand, there’s no discussion of Wagner’s well-documented anti-Semitism, which would seem like a pretty good reason for programming other stuff while the Holocaust is happening.

Where the intersection of classical music and the two World Wars was largely about restricting what was played (with one notable exception I’ll discuss in a moment), once the Cold War begins the tables turn. The universalists gain the upper hand, only to see that universalism weaponized in the name of American foreign policy. American orchestras made numerous state-funded tours of Europe, including behind the Iron Curtain. At best this was benevolent cultural exchange, but there was also some hope that it might show the Soviets that we weren’t all a bunch of burger eating, beer swilling, country music fans, either.

As an aside, after I read this book I listened to the Wind of Change podcast. Done by Patrick Radden Keefe (he of the amazing Say Nothing), it’s a deep dive into the conspiracy theory that the CIA wrote the Scorpions’ late Cold War hit of the same name. It doesn’t really prove that, but along the way it talks about how the American government used the same kind of state-sponsored cultural junkets in more popular music forms, too – sometimes without the knowledge of the artists.

There was one composer whose career spanned the Second World War and Cold War to devastating effect. One of the most famous and celebrated musical achievements of the Second World War was Dmitri Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, called Leningrad. Premiering in 1942 it was seen as embodying the resistance of the residents of that city (now, once again, St. Petersburg) to a lengthy Nazi siege. There was even a kind of bidding war over the US premier! It was a big fucking deal in a way that I don’t think we can comprehend in 2020.

But when the Cold War began, Shostakovich was drafted into the Soviet Union’s culture war against the West. There’s an episode in the book where a conference arranged in New York – assailed by Red hunters for being anti-American – winds up becoming a mouthpiece for Soviet propaganda, giving a not particularly enthusiastic speech condemning Western music that he pretty clearly didn’t write. Shostakovich got both the highs and the lows, in other words, of political influence in music.

As it happens, after I read the book, I dug out my recording of Shostakovich’s Seventh I have by the Dallas Symphony. The liner notes go into a little more detail on his most famous work and its political impact. According to his memoirs, published in 1979, it wasn’t the war anthem people made it out to be (it “had been planned” before the war started):

Naturally, fascism is repugnant to me, but not only German fascism, any form of it is repugnant. Nowadays people like to recall the prewar period as being an idyllic time, saying that everything was fine until Hitler bothered us. Hitler is a criminal, that’s clear, but so is Stalin.

* * *

Actually, I have nothing against calling the Seventh the Leningrad Symphony, but it’s not about Leningrad under siege, it’s about the Leningrad that Stalin destroyed and that Hitler merely finished off.

Where does that leave music and politics? As Shostakovich learned, they’re inexorably intertwined. Thinking that music can escape the taint of politics when nothing else can is a pipe dream. At best what music can do, better than just about any other form of art, is escape the shackles of the political sometimes and reach across barriers. It ain’t much, but it ain’t nothing.

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Weekly Read: The Last Emperox

I like John Scalzi. I really do. I came to him via his blog, Whatever, before I read any of his books, so I kind of got to “know” him first before I knew his work. I like the snark. I like the politics (mostly). I like the open and honest way he talks about his writing and the business aspects of it. He seems like a very open guy who is helpful to emerging writers and still a complete geeky fanboy about established ones (and, for the few moments he stopped by my table at the WV Book Festival a couple years ago, just a nice guy).

I wish I liked his books better.

Late last year when I was putting together my list of favorite books from the last decade I was surprised that only one of Scalzi’s made the initial cut based on how I’d rated them on Goodreads. Redshirts, which wound up making the final list, was the only one I’d given at least four starts. I’d enjoyed all the others – there were no 2-star clunkers – but most things didn’t get beyond “like” to “really loved.”

I mention that because I really hoped that The Last Emperox, the last book in the Interdependency trilogy, would break through that ceiling. The first two books (I reviewed the first one here) had a lot of promise, but seemed rushed, like there was more in them. With the end in sight I’d hoped it would tie things together in a super satisfying way. Instead, it was more of the same – good and good fun in spots, but ultimately short of great.

The best part of The Last Emperox (and the entire trilogy) is the idea of The Flow. Analogized to a kind of river in space it’s the in-universe way of travelling between distant stars. It isn’t really FTL, but it works like it. The operative fact for the trilogy is that The Flow is collapsing, which is going to cut off planets from each other and basically dooming human civilization.

Against this backdrop the story of the trilogy is various people coming to grips with this. Some are trying to solve the problem, some are trying to profit off of it, and some are trying just do the right thing. This is fairly interesting and some of the characters involved are great. Kiva Lagos is a great, fun character to read about. The suddenly and unexpectedly enthroned Emperox Grayland II is pretty interesting, too, as are several of the supporting players (one is essentially a sentient spaceship). All good stuff.

The problem is that all these interesting people are racing around pushing the plot so hard that sometimes the books come off like extended Wikipedia entries. Part of this has to do with some things that Scalzi does repeatedly that don’t work for me (your mileage may vary, as they say). One is that something will happen – suddenly, with no warning (given who the POV characters are), and often violently. Then we’ll get a couple of characters talk about what happened. It’s like in-world telling instead of showing. Plots – in the sense of plotting, conniving, conspiring – are a lot more fun when you can see the gears working during the wind up. Just getting the incident itself with an ex post explanation isn’t very satisfying.

Another thing that happens repeatedly is that something happens to a character that should move them off the board – a conspiracy foiled or an assassination – that really doesn’t mean anything in the end. The evil doer caught in the act escapes, the target of death really escaped serious harm – all explained after the fact. It gets to the point that when a very major “death” occurs in The Last Emperox you can’t care about it very much because there’s little chance it’s real.

Those issues wouldn’t matter all that much if the ending wasn’t so underwhelming. As I said, the entire motivation for this tale is that The Flow is collapsing and civilization is at risk. Folks come up with a clever way to save it and . . . then we learn that will happen years in the future, after this book is over. So, yay? You think it’s heading for a galaxy-defining moment and it just doesn’t.

Which brings me to my biggest gripe with this trilogy – it doesn’t feel like a complete story. It feels more like the first part of a larger trilogy (for epic space opera these books aren’t long), where a certain challenge is surmounted but the big one that would overarc the series has a lot of legs left to it.

I suppose that’s appropriate, though. The first two books mostly left me feeling the same way – I liked a lot of what they had to offer, but felt there was more there, lurking in the aether. I know the old show biz saying is “leave them wanting more,” but I’m not sure it applies to books – trilogies, especially.

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What Makes A Compelling Main Character?

Last week I started a book. The two main characters were from a different race and were essentially vampires, although they weren’t called that. It was kind of a romance, kind of coming of age, but it involved a lot of sex and murder, without any hint of conscience or consequence. Nor was there any other character trying to put a stop to it.

I didn’t finish the book.

I decided to bail because I couldn’t get into either of the main characters at all. It wasn’t that they were bad or did evil things – I don’t need the protagonist of every book to be a flawless hero (read The Water Road if you don’t believe me). But there has to be something there and it made me start to think about what we expect, as readers, from our main characters.

Stories are all about characters. Regardless of how inventive the world building or how labyrinthine the plot, if the people who are living in that world and doing those things don’t connect with readers than it’s kind of a wasted exercise.

Do main characters have to be good heroes who strive to do right and seem like really fun/nice people to be around? That’s certainly one way to go. Having your main character be someone who’s easy to root for makes it easy for readers to be swept away in their story. Those kinds of characters tend to be kind of dull, though, since they’re always doing the right things for the right reasons. Still, people generally want good to triumph over evil, so it’s one approach to take.

A more subtle approach would be to have a main character who has flaws and sometimes makes bad decisions, but who’s heart is basically in the right place. This is where most main characters fall, I think. Since I referenced The Water Road before I’d say that’s where Antrey belongs. She does a horrible thing, but spends the rest of the trilogy trying to make up for it and learn from it.

But what about bad guys? Anti-heroes? Can’t people identify with main characters who are generally doing wrong? Of course! It’s a much trickier situation.

One of my favorite main characters I’ve come across recently (and who I’ve mentioned recently) is Johannes Cabal, necromancer and start of the series that bears his name. Nobody would accuse Cabal of being a good guy – in fact, a lot of his troubles come from the fact that he’s fundamentally involved in wicked shit (when your first book involves making a second deal with the devil, you’re working overtime). Why do I like him? For one thing, he’s funny. He gives very few fucks about the people he comes across. That, I think, is key to having a main character who’s a bad guy – if they’re fun to watch do what they do, even if it’s evil, it’s easier to be on their side, so to speak. Also, deep down in Cabal’s core, he’s trying to do a good thing – cure the human race of the disease of death. It’s a laudable goal, even if the only way to get there is to slog through darkness.

Another way you can make a main character who does bad thing someone to root for is make their antagonist even worse. The wife and I stumbled across Freaks this weekend on Netflix. Neither a remake of the Tod Browning classic or an adaptation of the Marillion tune, it’s about a little girl with powers and a father trying to protect her. Not “evil,” particularly, but since the kid has no idea of her powers or personal boundaries she does some seriously bad things. That said, the government agency charged with hunting these people down was even worse. It’s easy to wish for a bad, but perhaps redeemable, character against someone who just wants to exterminate them.

I suppose the bottom line for any main character (or any character, really) is that readers have to be interested in them. Maybe not love them, but at least be curious about them and where they’re going. It’s easy to buy in with heroes and people trying to do good. But even people wandering around doing evil have to be interesting. If they’re not, why waste your time reading about them?

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Plus ca change . . .

There has always been controversial art. The reasons change – whether it’s the frank depiction of sex, or violence, or challenges to religious or political orthodoxy – but the fact that words or images piss people off is as old as time. We tend to think there’s more of it going around these days because social media tends to amplify controversies when they emerge. Just because the cacophony is louder doesn’t mean it’s any kind of major change in society.

This was driven home to me by a recent article in The Atlantic. Though the current title is “The First Novelist Accused of Cultural Appropriation,” the title that shows on the browser tab, which more accurately captures the theme of the piece, is “Could My Father Have Published ‘Nat Turner’ Today?” Bucking the usual rule of headline questions, the answer, from the story itself, appears to be yes.

Some background first. The literary controversy of the year so far has been American Dirt, a novel by Jeanine Cummins. With a major push from its publisher, and a spot on Oprah’s list, it was poised to be the breakout title of the year.

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It’s about a woman and her son fleeing Mexico after a drug kingpin murders the rest of their family and, ultimately, their experiences as migrants heading to the United States. This article does a good job of highlight the resulting controversy, which ranged from questions of cultural appropriation (Cummins is neither Latina nor a migrant) to how writers of color are locked out of the publishing industry to the fact that, maybe, the book just isn’t that good at what it wants to be (this is an interesting takedown along those lines ).

The merits of the arguments about the book aren’t really important. What you need to know is that some people took issue with what was set to be a wildly popular book (there was a film deal before it was even published) and weren’t silent about it. Thanks to social media, blogs and what not their complaints reached a fairly wide audience.

Back to the Atlantic piece. The subject is The Confessions of Nat Turner and the “My Father” in the title is William Styron – the author of the article is his daughter, Alexandra. The Confessions of Nat Turner came out in 1967. Turner, of course, was the leader of a slave revolt in antebellum Virginia. The book is a fictional narrative of Turner as told to a prosecutor who will try Turner after the revolt. It won the Pulitzer Prize, so it must be pretty good.

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Nonetheless, it led to some controversy, driven largely by the fact that Styron wasn’t black, much less a slave. How could he write a narrative from the standpoint of one? If it’s a familiar objection, it’s worth looking at how familiar the arc of reaction to the book is to what happened with American Dirt.

First, there was a swell of praise from traditional sources:

Through much of 1967, he was at ease, enjoying the swell of prepublication buzz for Nat Turner. The Book-of-the-Month Club (the Oprah’s Book Club of its time) paid my father the highest price for a novel in the company’s history. The paperback, serial, and foreign rights sold in a frenzy. Hollywood came calling. That July, when riots erupted in Newark, New Jersey, and in Detroit, newspapers asked him to help white America understand what was happening. By October, when the first reviews appeared, Nat Turner was a juggernaut. ‘Magnificent,’ The New York Times declared. “A new peak in the literature of the South,’ Time wrote. ‘It will endure as one of the great novels by an American author in this century,’ the Los Angeles Times predicted. In November, my father was awarded an honorary degree by Wilberforce University, a historically black institution in Ohio.

At this point, as Styron’s daughter points out, with one exception “no black writers were invited to critique Nat Turner in any major national publication.” Slowly, however, those overlooked voices started rising:

The first signs of black dissent appeared by the new year. Articles in, among other publications, The New Leader, The Negro Digest, and Freedomways condemned the novel and the white media that endorsed it. Around the same time, an ugly spat erupted in The Nation between my father and the Marxist scholar of African-American history, Herbert Aptheker. (They both behaved like self-important assholes.) In February, The New York Times ran the first of several pieces exposing an angrier vein: ‘Styron’s Nat Turner, the house nigger,’ declared the professor Michael Thelwell, ‘is the spiritual ancestor of the contemporary middle-class Negro … [the] type with whom whites including Mr. Styron feel most comfortable.’ The writer William Strickland groused that the novel was ‘the worst thing that’s happened to Nat Turner since he was hanged.’ My father’s critics took issue with the book’s dialect and character development, with what he put in (a master who teaches Nat to read, motive for the rebellion separate from bondage) and what he left out (a black wife, unyielding conviction). But probably his greatest crime, as my father reflected 25 years later in an essay for American Heritage, was ‘apparent from the book’s first sentence: How dare a white man write so intimately of the black experience, even presuming to become Nat Turner by speaking in the first person?’ In June 1968, the backlash reached its zenith when Beacon Press published William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond. The book generated its own front-page notices, and kept the Nat Turner dispute alive well into the summer.

 

The backlash led to the film (to star James Earl Jones) to be shelved.
None of this is to say that the detractors of American Dirt or Nat Turner had the right of it. Maybe they do, but I’ve never read either book, so I don’t know. My point is that the experience of Nat Turner that Styron’s daughter lays out sounds almost exactly like what happened with American Dirt. Maybe the controversy didn’t burn so brightly, since it didn’t have social media to fan the flames, but it still burned pretty good.

Which is only to observe, as the song says, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Anyone who writes a book (or makes a movie or paints a picture) risks blowback, whether the blowback is warranted or not. The arts are simultaneously vague and subject to so many interpretations, yet stir such deep passions. It will be a change when new books are written that don’t provoke any negative reaction. Human nature being what it is, I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Weekly Read: “A Problem From Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide

There is no such thing as a magic word.

As a writer, much less a writer of fantasy, that’s a hard thing to remember some times. But the reason words can hold sway in fantasy is precisely because the story being told isn’t set in the real world. Here in reality, even that most magic of all words – “Abracadabra!” – only has power because the magician uttering it has convinced the audience to buy into the trick their performing (as someone in The Prestige points out, the audience wants to be fooled).

Pro se litigants in the criminal justice system often think words have some kind of magic power. If only they can find the right sentence in a Supreme Court decision then the judge will have to overturn their conviction or vacate their sentence! I’ve seen it over and over in my years practicing law. That the law is rarely that clear and that their ultimate fate is left in the hands of another human being, with all their flaws and biases, can be hard to accept.

I thought about that a lot while reading A Problem from Hell. Samantha Powers’ 2003 Pulitzer Prize winner is an exhaustive examination of how the United States did (or, more often, did not) respond to genocidal crises that arose in the 20th Century, from the Armenian Genocide during the First World War through the multiple rounds of horribles in the former Yugoslavia.

Power spends a good amount of time on Raphael Lemkin, a Polish Jew who fled at the earliest inklings of the Holocaust. He eventually came to the United States and made it his life’s work to create some international law that would address the systematic destruction (or attempted destruction) of an entire people. It was Lemkin who coined the term “genocide” and helped shape the Genocide Convention that was passed by the newly formed United Nations in 1948.

Make no mistake – this was a big deal. After the Holocaust and the Nuremburg Trials it wasn’t a given that the international community would make a fairly unified statement that genocide was a crime against humanity. And yet, the fact that there was a name for such horrors (along with a legalistic definition) didn’t magically change behaviors. Not only did further atrocities occur, but the international community, now committed to the idea of “never again,” nonetheless let it happen repeatedly.

One reason is that once the atrocity has a name, it gives the parties involved a way to argue that this particular set of killings or expulsions doesn’t rise to that level. In other words, if it’s not “genocide,” then there’s much less incentive to do something about it. That’s because, very often, there are other considerations in play than just stopping someone from doing evil. At best there’s the fact that exactly how to deal with genocide while it’s underway is always hard to figure out. In fact, Powers, for all her catalogs of what the United States didn’t do, doesn’t offer many alternatives, aside from the use of military force. That can be a hard ask in the 21st Century (not for nothing, but Powers’ book was written just as 9/11 happened and before US quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan). At worst, the people doing all the killing are allies, even if we’re reluctant about calling them that (US policy towards the Khmer Rouge was basically driven by “yeah, but they hate the Vietnamese, too” thinking).

As a result, a lot of time is wasted on terminology. So long as perpetrators can drag out the question of whether something is genocide or not, the killings go on and their plan comes closer to fruition. Since there are no magic words, what’s the point in wasting time making sure we’re using the right one? That dance of nomenclature is one of the themes of Powers’ book.

One of the others is how bipartisan US politics was when it came to dealing with genocide. The champions of ratifying the Genocide Convention – which the US didn’t do until 1988 – came from both parties. Indeed, in classic American fashion, the final ratification wasn’t a triumph of principle, but a political gambit to deflect from a scandal.

The other thread that I found really interesting in all of these genocides is how unready the world is to believe it’s happening. Part of that is down to people just not wanting to believe something so horrible is going on. There’s an anecdote about Lemkin trying to convince a Supreme Court Justice (I forget who, specifically) that the Holocaust is happening and the Justice’s response is, basically, “I can’t believe you – I just can’t wrap my head around the barbarity of it.” Beyond that, though, there’s two related lenses through which people look at these situations that keep prompt responses from happening.

The first is that information about atrocities often comes first from people who survive them, mostly refugees fleeing to other places. Repeatedly, authorities downplay the reports of refugees until they reach such a critical mass that they can’t be ignored. While we know more and more about how unreliable eyewitness accounts can be, it can be all too easy to let prudence and caution roll over into dug in skepticism. The second is that there are repeated examples of the outside world doubting atrocities are taking place because it’s not a logical thing for the perpetrators to do. Who would risk the opprobrium of the international community by trying to kill off or otherwise destroy an entire population? But, of course, history shows that perpetrators usually get away with it, at least to a certain extent. And for true believers, what’s the big deal about after-the-fact punishment if you succeeded in your goal?

Ultimately the problem of how to deal with genocide is the problem of international law at its most acute. Put simply, international law only works as well as the nations committed to it allow it to work. There is no outside force, no world police, to enforce promises nations make to one another if those nations aren’t willing to enforce them. One of the provisions of the Genocide Convention was to allow one state to take another to an international court to stop an ongoing genocide. It took until 2019, when The Gambia took Myanmar to the International Court of Justice on behalf of the Rohingya, for that to happen and it’s still not clear whether the court’s ruling will really have any impact.

It would be great if words were magical, but the hard truth of history is that they aren’t. It takes more than a label to get people and nations to do the right thing, even if it should be as simple as stepping up and saying, “stop killing defenseless people.” That’s why something like genocide really is a “problem from hell.”

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When The Gimmick Gets In the Way

Last year I wrote about some stories I’d come across that were told in a non-traditional that really worked well. I suppose turnabout is fair play – sometimes the gimmick just gets in the way of the story.

Daytripper is a beautifully put together graphic novel. In each chapter it tells the story of Bras, a writer (first of obituaries, later of novels), as he experiences certain turning point days in his life. It gets a little treacly and really hits you over the head with the “wonder of the everyday” stuff, but some of the individual pieces are good and the art is uniformly excellent.

Daytripper

Here’s the thing – at the end of every chapter, at the end of every vignette – Bras dies. Most of the time he does so in sudden, horrible ways, since they happen at all times of his life, from childhood on up. That’s an interesting way to structure a story, provided you do something with it. Creators Fabio Moon and Gabriel Bá don’t, however. There’s no overarching fantastic of magical realist element that gives the repeated deaths meaning. Everything just resets and we get another version of Bras – one blissfully unaware of his prior fates – to live out another last day.

Without that, the gimmick overwhelms the rest of the book. As readers, we know what’s coming at the end of every chapter. It becomes a macabre game, wondering just how Bras is going to snuff it this time, with methods ranging from the mundane (traffic accident) to the ridiculous (murdered by an old friend living in a shack in the desert). Meanwhile, frustration builds as you wonder just what the point of all this, beyond the hammering home of the tired old cliché about living every day as if it’s your last.* This is clearly a minority view when it comes to Daytripper, so take it with a gram of salt.

My point is this. It’s possible to tell perfectly good stories in the traditional, third-person POV, past tense, linear kind of way (at least I hope it is!). It’s also possible to deviate from the expected in order to throw your readers off, make them engage with the story in a different way, or what have you. But the gimmick has to serve something. Making readers struggle through a non-linear story just because you can isn’t clever, it’s just mean. If I, as a reader, am going to have to put together the puzzle pieces, the final picture better be worth it.

* I’ve never understood the wisdom of this. If it was really my last day on Earth, I wouldn’t worry about mundane shit like paying bills or going to work. But if I lived my ongoing life that way I’d quickly be homeless, unemployed, and (I suspect) divorced. Recognizing this isn’t likely to be your last day and you need to plan accordingly is part of being an adult.

Weekly Read – Quick Hits

While I was off doing NaNo and writing a book last month I was also consuming a few (that’s much easier). Here’s some thoughts about the ones I finished . . .

The Raven Tower by Ann Leckie

Leckie broke out in 2013 with Ancillary Justice, a Hugo-winning sci-fi epic that I really enjoyed. She takes odd approaches to characters and settings that make the stories more interesting. I wasn’t as thrilled with the sequel, Ancillary Sword, but when I heard she wrote a fantasy novel, I had to check it out. As I expected, it’s got quite a different feel to it – the main character is, honestly, a rock. OK, so it’s a god embodied in a rock, but still. The rock god stuff works better than the human story until the two begin to intertwine. The ending really knocked my socks off, even though I predicted it. My usual is to love the openings of books and be let down by the finish – this was just the opposite.

A word on the audio version – if  you sometimes listen and sometimes read, I’d definitely recommend reading this one. The narrator for the audiobook (who also did the Ancillary novels) is horrible, imposing difficult to understand dialects on just about every character and turning the main non-rock character into a whining child.

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The Terror by Dan Simmons

In high school when I started The Grapes of Wrath I had to take a break after the first chapter and go get a drink – Steinbeck’s description of the Dustbowl was so vivid I was literally parched. Long stretches of The Terror are like that, too, but with bitter cold in the place of thirst. Simmons takes the unknown fate of a doomed Arctic expedition and spins a tale that’s both historical fiction and bleak horror. Yes, there’s a monster involved, but the real evil lies in the hearts of men, naturally. It’s a little too long and doesn’t stick the landing (a hard right turn into native mythology), but there are some superbly vivid and disturbing set pieces along the way that make it worthwhile.

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The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. It’s got a great setup – in an alternate 1950s (Dewey really did defeat Truman, for some unexplained reason) a meteorite slams into the East Coast near D.C., killing millions and wrecking the economy. But it gets worse – the main character, a “calculator” at this world’s version of NASA figures out that the impact will cause climate issues that will render the planet uninhabitable. This jumpstarts the space program and leads to said main character becoming the first woman in space (this is not a spoiler – this is essentially a prequel to a short story written about this character years ago). The story is interesting enough, but it’s frustratingly narrow, since the POV is focused only on the main character. One suspects there’s so much else going on in this world as it comes to grips with the situation that would be interesting to explore. Also, while I thought it was great that the main character’s husband was perfectly loving and supportive, the repeated rocketry-punned sex stuff got really old really quick.

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The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

This is almost like the flip side of The Calculating Stars. In this book, the asteroid hasn’t hit Earth yet, but it’s coming and, as a result, everything’s gone to shit. The main character is a young cop in New Hampshire trying to convince anyone who will listen that the “hanger” found in a pirate McDonald’s bathroom is a real murder, not just yet another suicide. The investigation plays out against the background of impending calamity and what it does to society and the human psyche. That was by far the most interesting part of the book, which unfortunately was mostly pushed back in favor of a fairly lackluster mystery. As with The Calculating Stars, the POV being limited to the main character means we get fascinating glimpses of the wider world, but never really get to engage with it.

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I’d recommend any of these, depending on what kind of story tickles your particular fancy. Obviously I really liked the first two, while the others were just OK. Still, they’re both award winners, so who am I to say?

Weekly Read: Espedair Street

There are worse reasons to read a book.

A few weeks ago Fish, original lead singer of Marillion and solo artist in his own right, put up a link to a news story from the 1990s. It was part of a regular series (apparently) about how famous people met each other. In this case, the other famous person was author Iain Banks. As a fan of both guys I naturally went to read the article. Imagine my surprise when someone else I love popped up:

Back in 1990, I was walking away from my lawyer’s office in London, disconsolate over the way my foolish litigation against my record company was going. I was drowning my sorrows with the novelist Neil Gaiman, and he asked if I’d ever read Espedair Street, the Iain Banks novel about Weird, a very tall Scottish rock star. I hadn’t, and Neil said: ‘‘You’ve got to read it – the hero of that book is you!’

Naturally I had to read the book, so I downloaded Espedair Street from Audible (not all of Banks’ stuff is available there, sadly) and dove in. It probably never had a chance of living up to the expectations that arose from this particular singularity of my geekdom.

The book is the story of Danny Weir, aka “Weird, bass player and songwriter for a band called Frozen Gold that broke big in the mid 1970s. Weird tells the story in flashback from his life in the 1980s living as a recluse in an old church filled with stockpiled goods from the Eastern Bloc (they don’t really trade in currency, he explains at one point). He has adventures in the modern worlds as he relates the band’s rise and fall.

Since Banks is a great writer the book is a good read just on the basic level of words – there are wonderful words on display here. And Weird is, for the most part, a pretty good guy to hang around with, moderately clever but never taking himself (or his success) so seriously that it goes to his head. Having said that, his story itself is kind of dull. It’s basically a series of anecdotes that could be pulled from any rockumentary kind of thing from that era. Weird comes off as the kind of guy who would be a frequent guest on talk shows because he’s always likely to whip out some tale from the past that’s outrageous enough to laugh at but not horrible. They are, at the least, entertaining.

The problem is that, eventually, things turn serious and the narrative can’t really support it. The band breaks up after one lead singer dies in a stage accident you could see happening to Spinal Tap (or in South Park), while the other is murdered by a Christian zealot during the “modern day” narrative. Weird blames himself for both, even though they weren’t his fault, so he turns into even more of a sulker, until he decides to pursue a long lost love (who, of course, welcomes him with open arms). It just all adds up to a nice read, but nothing more.

And, I have to say, the musical nature of things are more than a bit confused. Weird (and therefore Banks) occasionally drop the word “progressive” in talking about Frozen Gold’s music. There’s even a reference to the band releasing a double-LP all instrumental concept album – which is just about as prog as it gets! But the timeline doesn’t quite fit (the band is just getting signed about the time prog peaked commercially) and when contemporaries are name dropped it’s the standard classic rock fare – Zeppelin, the Stones – rather than, say Yes or King Crimson. Frankly, the idea that a new prog band hitting it big in the late 1970s is as out there as anything that appears in Banks’ Culture novels.

Was the combination of Banks and Fish, with the assist from Gaiman, the brilliance I’d hoped for? No, but it was still a pretty good read. That’s all you should really expect, right?

EspedairStreet

Weekly Read – The Great War

Ever just fall down a rabbit hole and disappear into a topic for a while? For the past couple of months I’ve been reading nothing but books on the First World War. I hadn’t been driven to do so during the 100th anniversary observances over the past few years, so what dragged me in? Would you believe me if I said it was an interest in genre fiction?

Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror is exactly what it sounds like – an exploration of how men (mostly) who fought in World War I impacted the development of horror, particularly in the nascent motion picture industry.

Wasteland

Many of the early classic horror films – from Nosferatu through Bride of Frankenstein – have connections that date back to the carnage of World War I. Wasteland does a good job of surveying the various developments in the arts as people began to process the industrial scale of death that the war brought, different in orders of magnitude from anything before. Plus, I had no idea Salvador Dali was such an asshole!

Reading Wasteland made me realize that, aside from some broad brush strokes I picked up in school, I really didn’t know much about World War I, so I decided to dive into some of the history of it. Where better to start than the beginning, right?

On June 28, 1914, a Serbian nationalist name Gavrilo Princip shot and killed Archduke Ferdinand of Austria (and his wife), heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary. Most people know that as the “start” of the war, but the truth is much more complex (and interesting). In fact it was a month before hostilities broke out, a month during which diplomatic wheels were constantly in motion. That month, the “July Crisis,” is the focus of July 1914: Countdown to War, which exhaustively covers the debates, maneuverings, and petty squabbles of parties all over Europe as the continent slouched towards war.

Coutdown

What was most amazing to me (aside from the fact that in a large number of states a hereditary autocrat was actually in charge – 100 year ago!) is how little emotional investment the various players had in Ferdinand’s death. Certain his own father didn’t seem all the broken up, as did most of the power brokers in Austria-Hungary, who saw him as a potential reformer and were happy to be rid of him. Only German Kaiser Wilhelm really seemed broken up about it. So what Ferdinand’s death just a cynical crisis used to give everybody an excuse to go to war? No, the roots of the war date back into the 19th century (who knew the integrity of an independent Belgium was so important?), but what is clear is that everybody involved had a plan if war was coming and once they committed to them, the die was pretty much cast.

Moving on from the start of the war, my next read was A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914 to 1918.

WorldUndone

Rather than getting bogged down in the details of a particular battle of campaign, the book provides a swift (if lengthy) overview of the war on all fronts. Sometimes it’s a little too much overview. For example, the chapter on Gallipoli mentions how a British force could have taken advantage of something had it moved quickly, but it took four weeks – we never learn why. Unfortunately for me, it spends the first section (of six) on the July Crisis, so it was a little redundant for me. More disappointing, it didn’t deal in similar detail with what happened after the war and during the various peace talks. In between, though, it’s a depressingly fascinating catalog of the various failures of the parties to figure out something to do other than grind millions of people through useless battle after useless battle. You’d think, for example, that generals and politicians could put aside petty personal differences in the face of existential threats to their country (one of the interesting recurring themes is how the propaganda of the war made pursuing peace settlements hard – who wants to make peace with the devil?), but, alas, people are people, even in the middle of the Great War.

Since A World Undone didn’t touch much on what happened after the war I decided that I needed one more book to finish things up. Rather than dive into a book about the peace conferences and treaties (of which the Treaty of Versailles was just one) I went with The Vanquished: Why the First World War Failed to End. Provocative title, no?

Vanquished

The point of The Vanquished is that the war destabilized Europe and the Middle East to such an extent that the “peace” actually constituted a lot of revolutionary violence and civil wars. Most of it was in Eastern Europe (don’t forget that Russia got out of the war once the czar was deposed) and the places that had been carved out of the late Ottoman Empire like new-fangled countries Iraq and Jordan. Of course, Germany didn’t escape unscathed by all this, setting the stage for the rise of Hitler. Even countries on the winning side, like Italy, fell to popular revolution.

On the one hand he First World War wrought huge changes in the world. It swept away the last vestiges of most European monarchies, at least as the people who actually ran their countries. It launched the United States into place as a major international player. And, technologically, it introduced a host or horrible things to modern warfare. But, in a lot of ways, it didn’t change much. Or, more accurately, it left so much unresolved that the Second World War was almost inevitable.

I’ve got a better handle on that now, thanks to all this reading. I can’t say it restored any of my faith in humanity, though. I recommend all these books – but maybe not to read all in one go.

Favorite Reads of 2018

Since it’s getting down to the wire – I’m not down with “Best of” lists that show up in October – I figured now was the time to give a shout out to my favorite books from 2018. Two important notes: (1) these are favorites, not necessarily bests or whatever; I just loved them, and (2) the key phrase is “that I read in 2018,” so it includes books from before 2018. With that said, here we go (in no particular order) . . .

Nemesis Games (2015)

Nemesis

I’ve basically been keeping one book ahead of where the TV version of The Expanse is, but with the next season on Amazon taking parts from both the fourth (Cibola Burn) and fifth (this one) books, I figured I had to get a little more down the road with this series. I read Cibola Burn this year, too, and while I got the criticisms some people had with it, I didn’t think it was this bad. In comparison to Nemesis Games, however, it was a wet patch on the road. To say “things change” in Nemesis Games is to severely undersell it. That the writing hive mind that is James S.A. Corey managed to explode the cast, sending them off in different directions before pulling them back together, is no small feat, either.

Saga, Vol. 9 (2018)

Saga9

Oh, boy, that last twist. The good news is that after nine volumes Saga continues to be inventive, thrilling, thoughtful, and capable of numerous gut punches. The bad news is that writer Bryan K. Vaughn and artist Fiona Staples are taking “at least” a year off from the series before getting back to work on it. Part of me thinks that’s a good idea, but part of me worries if this shunts Saga into the realm of great, unfinished stories. Given the way this one ended, I sure hope not.

If you’re not reading Saga yet, here’s why I think you should.

The Field of Blood: Violence In Congress and the Road to Civil War (2018)

FieldofBlood

Many people know that, in the run up to the Civil War, Senator Charles Sumner was beaten by one of his Southern colleagues with a cane, providing the perfect metaphor for the turmoil that would soon rip the nation apart. What most folks don’t know is that, while Sumner’s beating stood out for its brutality, it was merely different in degree, rather than in kind, from numerous other incidents of Congressional violence. One Congressman even died in a duel (not on the House floor, to be fair). Not just a colorful “you were there” history, The Field of Blood looks back at another time when the political norms broke down and things sound frighteningly familiar to modern ears.

Johannes Cabal the Necromancer (2009)

JohannesCabal

Pure fun. Well, pure darkly humorous fun, at the very least. Johannes Cabal sold his soul to the devil. To get it back, he’s have to deal in bulk, gathering 100 souls for the devil to replace his own, all while running a demonic travelling circus right out of the darker portions of Ray Bradbury’s psyche. This was probably the most fun I had with a book this year, partly because of what I’d just read before (see below), but also because there’s a sharp, dark wit that runs all the way through it.

Shattered Earth trilogy (2015-2017)

Broken

N.K. Jemisin’s trilogy – The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stone Sky – made history early this year when it won the Hugo Award for best novel three years in a row, an unprecedented achievement. Is it that good? Absolutely. The Fifth Season, in particular, is a structural high-wire act that shouldn’t work, but completely does and leaves the reader knowing precisely why it was done. The other two books don’t quite reach that level, but the overall arc of the story and the characters that drive it is brilliant. Pretty heavy (I needed Johannes Cabal . . . to brighten me up a bit), but completely worth it.

I’ve written before about these books here and here.

The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist (2018)

CadaverKing

I wrote a review of this one here, so I won’t say much more. If you want to get really pissed off about what “justice” looks like in this country (and you should), this is the book for you.

Neuromancer  (1984)

Neuromancer

Yeah, I know, very late to the party on this one. My college roommate read it and, for some reason, I let it get away from me. Does it hold up? Pretty much, although it’s clearly a product of its time. As a foundational text for cyberpunk it’s something every sci-fi fan and writer should check out. That it continues to tell a gripping story while introducing a lot of ideas we now take for granted is icing on the cake.

Children of Time (2015)

ChildrenofTime

I gushed about this one right after I read it, so check out the details here. Suffice to say, any book that can make you care about the macro evolutionary development of sentient spiders is an achievement.