Reading: Genevieve Cogman — The Burning Page

The third in Genvieve Cogman’s The Invisible Library series, which I started reading late-2015 with The Invisible Library, and followed a year ago with The Masked City. Read what I blabbed about both of those so you know what I’m on about with The Burning Page.

It’s afternoon and I have work and other bollocks to be doing, so this isn’t going to be a long one. I also came straight off Revenger into reading this, so I’m a little un-nuanced here, that being such a brilliant, consummate piece of story-telling. This was the weakest for me of the three, like the middle child, or the second act when it’s used as a setup for the final bout of mayhem. I felt like she’d told the story before in the first novel, and let neither the characters nor the implied story to progress.

I’ve been watching Shadowhunters lately. Ok more than lately, it’s on the second season and I’m still watching. Not for the soggy white tea-towels of Clary and Simon, but for everyone else. It’s frankly trashy as a story. Young Adult vampire werewolf fantasy dirge with profoundly derivative narrative and action of the “bad decisions made for drama!” kind. Yet the supporting actors — who carry the weight of the show and are far more interesting, as well as being a solid multiethnic and queer mob — are deliciously entrancing to watch. Plus sexy as all fuck. But the show doesn’t commit to them or their stories.

And that’s the problem here and, after three books, the series. Let them fuck, ditch Irene, or let her be competent operator she we saw in the first book. We’re two stories on from that and she’s both kicked arse and had hers handed, yet I’m not reading any of those scars or notches she’s earned. There’s a really good story possible in the world Cogman’s created, but it isn’t here.

Reading: Tricia Sullivan — Shadowboxer

A couple of months ago, I decided I needed some more fiction to read—right about now I’m in the same frame of mind, so will probably go off on a book-ordering spree shortly. One of the first to arrive was Tricia Sullivan’s Shadowboxer. I read her Double Vision a long time ago, I’d bought that in Zürich when I was going through two books a week during rehearsals. I hadn’t read any of her since, but being in a mood where I want to punch stuff, this being a book about mixed martial arts and sitting somewhere on the fantasy side of things, it slid onto my shelf with minimum of fuss.

I read it a couple of months ago, which shows clearly how far behind on book blogging I am. It also means anything I write is through a dim blur of partially rememberedness. I do remember liking the main character, Jade, who was quick to punch on and anything that needed ending she would end. Fists before thinking. Which of course gets her into all kinds of shit and sent off to Thailand to train in a not-posh establishment, the kind foreigners would only pay to avoid.

It’s around here it got a little wonky for me. I’ve read a lot of fiction which has either been set in or at some point of the narrative has ended up in Asia. The further south it goes, the more it generates something suspicious in me. Hong Kong stories in the ’90s are a good example of this, as are quite a few expat-y ones set in Bangkok. The last thing I read by Neal Stephenson before deciding he was serious in his ’Murica parochialism, Reamde was right up in this for southern China. Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is another recent one so full of problems, yet so loved by an audience that really needs to read Orientalism.

Lately, another exotic locale getting its own orientalising is trans women. William Gibson had one in the otherwise pretty fucking good The Peripheral, as did Rachel Hartman’s Shadow Scale. There’s one here too, probably because if a book is set in Thailand it has to.

Gibson based his trans-signifying characteristics around ‘big hands’ (Fukkin’ WTF? I know!) and a propensity to cry (LOL trannies, amirite?) It was so obviously a weak attempt at a cash-in on what someone somewhere—ok what Gibson has decided is cool right now, and so very poorly executed. Lately I’ve been wondering how this can happen. A book—or any work of art—doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there’s always editors, proofreaders, blahdeblahers who are reading this shit long before it goes to print, and when not one of them picks up on it, it’s clear either no one in the room has the skills, or no one gives a shit. I have to wonder if cis people should be allowed to make art about trans people when they so evidently fuck it up every time.

I don’t remember so well the bollocks in Shadow Scale (a book I did like a lot), except it was a bro smashing things on top of a mountain who later on—when met in real life—was a chick. So, the angsty transition cliché. Yeah, ok, this stuff is real, but about the only good representation of a trans character I’ve seen lately is Nomi in Sense8, and that’s got Lana Wachowski writing/directing/producing so you’d kinda expect absence of fuckery. (Laverne Cox on Orange is the New Black somewhat counts. She’s brilliant, but the series itself has big problems beyond just the awful white fool front and centre.) I want to see cis writers not falling for the trans clichés which cis people themselves manufactured and if they can’t bring themselves to do that, I want them to fuck right off.

Then there’s Shadow Boxer. I’m still not sure what I read, though I think the male Thai martial art star was supposed to have been kathoey of the beautiful, extremely feminine female type. Or it could have been the other way: beautiful feminine female got up on T and turned into international male kickboxing hero. My first problem here was—presuming the former is correct—the interpretation is Sullivan wrote a trans female character who detransitions. (I’m obfucating here between trans and kathoey; they’re not interchangeable, however I do think Sullivan is writing a Western cliché of kathoey which does not see one as different from the other.) The subsequent problem is she wrote that for the sake of some narrative trickery, cos it’s all about this bro in Las Vegas and this other chick in Bangkok and woah! Same person!

In fact, this is exactly what Gibson did, so neither of these novels had a character who was trans, instead they just used trans identities to pull a bait and switch. It’s important to remember here that not telling your lover you’re trans can result in a person being changed with sexual assault (in the UK and elsewhere) and that ‘trans panic defense’ is a real thing which men who’ve just beaten a trans woman to death can and do successfully use to get acquitted. So writing in a trans character just to use them for this kind of gimmick is … currently I’m listening to Syringe Stick-Up Mama, Te hare cavar tu tumba.

I don’t want to go into an excruciating analysis of this, but I have some highly dodgy feelings around Sullivan and her fiction. Even more than with the Gibson stuff she should have known better. She gets the MMA and Muay Thai, has all this down convincingly (less so when the setting moves to Thailand and partakes in quite a few clichés), yet around kathoey and trans stuff it turns right shady. It’s the downside of representation. We all want to see ourselves in works of fiction (look no further than the response to Empire for evidence), yet once this becomes a selling point, we end up with an ocean of shoddy ‘representation’ that demonstrates the lack of diversity within the industry (be it publishing, television, whatever) by virtue of being allowed through.

Reading: Nicola Griffith — Stay

Bought on Saturday; read on Sunday. Fiction is such a different thing for me to read. Caroline Walker Bynum’s Fragmentation and Redemption (as with all her works) takes me weeks to months to read, and most other non-fiction is a steady plod over weeks, which I usually intersperse with skiffy and fantasy (yeah, turns out fantasy, which I was so leery of I’m now reading kinda regularly). Which I haven’t been doing lately, so instead I sit on laptop late at night and don’t sleep so well.

Off to the bookshop! So I decided to read some earlier stuff of Nicola Griffith, she of the awesome Hild. Stay is what would happen if Hild was born in the late-20th century, where working with fists and violence is not such a high-class job. And it’s crime fiction. I haven’t read crime fiction for years. The last was probably James Ellroy on a plane somewhere, though OK, Neal Stephenson’s and William Gibson’s recent work (besides the latter’s The Peripheral) slipped out of sci-fi/fantasy into that nebulous world of ‘thriller’, which shares much with crime fiction, and OK too, most stuff I read technically revolves somewhere in the plot around a crime committed, at least from the perspective of the protagonists. Anyway, actual crime fiction, not for years.

Was kinda weird. Crime fiction. Almost hard-boiled, thing, whatshisname, the famous one, Chandler, a bit like Chandler, also a bit like Ellroy, in the damage of the main character, the one who fixes things. If the background was changed, like a cyclorama, pulled up into the grid and a new one labelled ‘sci-fi’ or ‘fantasy’ was dropped in, the former with space opera, latter with dragons, Stay, like most fiction, would still work. Yesterday I was talking with a friend, who differentiated the genres by naming what isn’t, “high literature.” So you scene change and high literature becomes genre.

I kept wondering when the main evil guy would resurface. Because I watch far, far too many Hollywood action films, and Main Evil Guy always, always returns in the last scene to fist it out with Main Good Guy. After making monologuing at each other. He didn’t. He was stepped out not even half-way through. Aud still got to bring it and finish it on a couple of others. Actually she’d make a good addition to team Fast and Furious. The Rock and Vin would love her, in that platonic way they do with co-brawlers, though she wouldn’t stick around.

What else? It’s not Hild, but there’s much of what will become her world and herself here. It’s the second book in a series, the first I haven’t read, but I liked that missing knowledge, things unsaid and unexplained. The landscape, and Aud working, that I could read for a whole novel, especially with her dead girlfriend holding conversation while Aud beats herself up in the forest at night.

Reading: Genevieve Cogman — The Invisible Library

My book for Düsseldorf, as recommended by Charles Stross (ooh yeah, authors on Twitter!) (And I finally worked out it’s possible to search single user’s Tweets, otherwise I’d be saying “as recommended by Ysabeau Wilce or Anne Leckie or Saladin Ahmed or someone completely other.) It lasted on the train from Berlin to around Bielefeld. Isabelle said, “Have you finished it already??!?!” I made sad face.

Wow it’s awesome when you read a writer’s first published novel and it’s like they’ve popped out fully formed and mature and running like buggery and causing mayhem. Anne Leckie, I’m looking at you! Saladin Ahmed! Genevieve Cogman now also. Considering how bereft I was when Iain Banks died, thinking I’d never have so much fun in skiffy again, I mean, I’m biting my foot over here, far too much amazingness for me.

So I was trying to think what I’d read recently that it reminded me a bit of, The Lies of Locke Lamora? Nah, a bit but not really, The Folding Knife? Also nah-a-bit-but-not-really, I think Living with Ghosts, but maybe I’m making that up. It’s actually a crime suspense thriller with a library, so I should mention Among Others, though it’s far from that. Anyway, when a good writer throws out a killer tale of inter-dimensional libraries (Legend of Korra!) I am totally there and down with it.

So we’ve established I loved The Invisible Library and I will read the shit out of whatever Cogman writes next, and this has turned into a review. A moment of criticism then. Basically I expect three things from any fiction I read (sci-fi & fantasy, cos I don’t read anything else), things that largely I don’t get from the dominant genre written by straight white men, things that don’t necessarily appear just because an author isn’t one of that triad: I want a lot of women, women who are complete characters and not tropes or clichés; I want fucking queerness (for want of a better word), bisexuality, gender diversity, bodies that reflect the reality that science has been unambiguous about for decades now; I want different skin colours, eye colours, hair colours—and not just on the ‘aliens’. Of course if it’s a specific dystopia or whatever where there’s a clear and justifiable reason (not fucking likely, but) for not having this, then ok. Probably not going to read it though.

The Invisible Library is kinda gothic, vampire, steam-punk-ish—or at least draws on tropes and clichés from these and other skiffy/fantasy worlds—because of particular (magical-ish) plot devices. Unfortunately in these tropes as they exist in the history of real novels published in this world, vampires tend to be pale, white, european, blonde (maaaybe not if it’s a Christopher Lee type reference), historical fantasy novels tend to this also (and so very much in the history of sci-fi), and there seemed to be a lot of characters here who were pale and blah. Maybe it’s how I read it, maybe even some of the central characters weren’t this. It’s not about individuals, it’s the milieu in which they exist, and I just have this memory of being introduced frequently to characters described as pale. (I did a quick re-read in case my brain actually was tofu, and Kai, Brandamant, Silver were all described as pale; Vale as an “aquiline … perfect example of a lead protagonist in certain types of detective fiction”, so I’m presuming Bogart white; Coppelia and Dominic (who was murdered) as dark. Interestingly Irene, from whose perspective the story comes from is never described this way; (unless I—yah likely—missed something) her lack of definition seems a purposeful decision). Anyway, I want black or Chinese or Persian vampires fuck it. (Or pale and Turkish?) Look at Mr. Vampire, it’s not as though there isn’t at least 30 years of precedent. Same applies also for relationships, attraction, desire, looks, gazes. Even two of the main characters (Kai and Vale) who seemed ambiguous, or at least bisexual were somehow corralled towards the end into more overt or defined heterosexual identities. I want sex and desire in my fiction reading like I get it in Oglaf!

I’m cheering, but it’s a bit subdued. I wanna like The Invisible Library as much as I think it deserves, but I’m kinda suspicious over here, I’m not entirely convinced, even though it’s published by Tor Books, even though it’s really good. I have this feeling that there are things here that I can’t quite explain away by the narrative device of staging within a world where fantasy clichés have come to life. Or perhaps I’m too uptight about this stuff from always seeing the world in this way and need to smoke a joint before reading & blogging.

Reading: Philip K. Dick — Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Another one of the pile I recently collected of older science-fiction works. This one I’ve read before, and the film it became is perhaps my all-time favourite; director’s cut or original. I’ve just finished the mammoth Water Margin, so this is quite an abrupt change — only 200 pages, American science-fiction of the psychologically disturbing kind instead of classical Chinese epic of the drunken brawling kind.

Sometime long ago, but after seeing Bladerunner, I read Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but somehow don’t have a complete memory of it. Perhaps I stopped before getting all the way through, as even from the beginning it’s not that film, and by the tenth chapter has gone somewhere completely different, reminding me of the film of A Scanner Darkly, and the precarious conditionality of memory, identity and self. The language also is beautiful at times, a viscerally descriptive style that seems to confront the fragility of the mind with a that of slight but pervasive corporeal revulsion.

It’s amusing and awkward and curious to read these old sci-fi books that anachronistically manage to remain futuristic in some aspects, and yet fail entirely in other; the beginnings of interstellar colonisation by the early ’90s with a still existent Soviet Union, yet still dealing with carbon-copies and cathode-ray technology, compared with in 2012 the latter three barely remembered while the former a far more distant spectre than in 1968 when the book was written.

So I shall enjoy this, also knowing two of my favourite authors are waiting for me to collect; a treat I shall reserve until I’ve got through my books of the year list later next week, and got through a mass of art and dance and (oh horror!) funding applications.

intellectual property for the people

I’ve been reading about two books a week, and have amassed a large-ish pile during my time in Zürich. I’ve read alot of absolute crap, the top of that list goes to James Lovegrove, who simply should not be allowed to write. Almost in a tie, the (barely) redeeming points being a) set in Beijing and b) lots of teenage rocknroll angst is Beijing Doll by Chun Sue.

Books with moments of genius that I couldn’t stop thinking about to the point of distraction include Iain M. Banks’ latest, The Algebraist, a couple of William Gibson books which seem dated but reminded me why cyberpunk was so good the first time around, and John Burdett’s Krung Thep Buddhist cop with attitude Bangkok Tattoo.

Currently it’s Charles StrossAccelerando. The first few pages left me a bit numb, it seemed like a bit of a Gibson rip-off loaded with techno-cues for anyone who spends too long on the internet and is a compulsive trendspotter, but then it sucked me in. Anyway, anyone who gives away his books for free under the Creative Commons licence is pretty cool.