Haxan – Weird(ish) West

There’s a lot of cross-pollination between Science Fiction and Western. Both are genres about boundaries: the border between settled and wild, the boundary between right and wrong action, the boundaries between nations (as the United States pushed aggressively westward, absorbing New France, pushing Mexico south and driving the indigenous nations before them in one of the most infamous, and and infamously un-discussed, genocides of human history).

The mythology that sprang up around the great colonial push westward is thus one about these boundary conditions, how boundaries change and how boundaries change people. In addition, the characters in westerns are frontierspeople, and their life is defined by exiting the familiar and colonizing the unknown.

Science Fiction deals with much of the same psychic content. Especially in the case of space exploration fiction, but also in stories like Starfish, or even Ancillary Justice characters find themselves thrust out of the familiar (be that the comfort of being one body of many networked to an AI, their remembered time or dry land) and sent to colonize the unfamiliar (a deep sea rift, the future, an existence as an individual) knowing  that they can never return unchanged.

Justice of Toren / Breq can never go back to being a vast AI ship mind. Seivarden cannot return to her past. Lenie Clarke does return to dry land, but what comes back isn’t really what went in. And like the history from which the western genre sprang, these colonizations of the wild are often highly destructive, especially to the people or creatures who already lived in those places.

With so much shared conceptual space, it’s not surprising that weird west is a thing that exists. And I’ve got to say, it’s one of those genres I really should read more often than I do. I like weird west. I even liked Wild Wild West – giant steampunk spider and all. It’s not a short hop from science fiction to weird, and it takes an even lighter touch to tint the already mythological ground of the wild west with a weird brush.

But a lot of weird west jumps up and down on its weirdness: spell slinging cowboys, monsters, demons, zombies, giant robot spiders whatever, just throw it all at the wall and sees what sticks.

This can be very entertaining. But it’s not very subtle.

Haxan is a subtle book.

It’s fully possible to read the book without any supernatural or unnatural context at all. The things that happen in the story are grounded in the grit and mythological realism of the western genre so thoroughly that there’s no actual need to say, “It’s western, BUT…”

However you can also read Haxan as a story about an immortal warrior, summoned from somewhere nameless to fight for order in a town that might exist at the behest of a psychic settler from a vastly distant elsewhere.

And that reading would be just as valid as the gritty mythological realist one. This is a story that assumes a Navajo understanding of the spirit world is at least equally valid to a surface reading. This is a story that takes the romantic ideal of the quickdraw gunslinger and simultaneously roots it in the dust and death of all-to-real gun violence while simultaneously cranking the mythic resonance of the act of the duel to 11.

This is a story where coyotes encroach on a town because the land is dry and they’re thirsty. But also because the town must be isolated so that its lone guardian can stand against What Must Be Faced.

Hoover has a beautiful talent for description, and the town of Haxan and surrounds is powerfully realized. But it’s not just the ability to see, taste and smell the world that gives this book power, it’s the author’s ability to infuse those descriptions with a sense of doom in the old Scandinavian sense of the word.

Haxan is the first western I’ve read in a very long time, and it hit just the right note of weirdness without going all to tentacles and mechanical spiders. And if this is indicative of the state of the genre, perhaps I should read more.

Review – Silence by Michelle Sagara

Ok, so it’s a new adult novel.

— Alright, I like those.

An urban fantasy.

— Cool.

Set in Toronto.

— Good

On the topic of how the support of a strong community can help somebody cope with grief.

— Nice, I like it.

And it’s all about psychopomps and necromancers.

— Shut up and take my money.

Silence is the first book in the Queen of the Dead series by Michelle Sagra. I’ll be honest, I do enjoy reviewing books by local authors, because I like reading books by local authors, and so when I recently came across Sagara’s first book I jumped at the opportunity much faster than some much more well known new adult books that I’ve not gotten around to.

The fact that this book was not a dystopia also played into my interest in reading it. As much as I like dystopian fiction (I do read a fair bit of the stuff) it is nice to see a book that took a different approach.

Now for the most part I want to talk about what’s good with this book, because it’s mostly very good. I do have one tiny little complaint though, so I want to get that out of the way up front.

The middle of the book has a small problem: the protagonist is largely in the dark, and a character shows up who knows precisely what’s going on. But he straight up refuses to provide any exposition for several chapters, with repeated conversations where the protagonist says, “tell me what’s going on, because this situation makes very little sense,” and him replying, “no,” or alternatively finding a fortuitous distraction to avoid having to disclose any exposition.

This carries on somewhat too long, and by the time the weirdness around the edges of the story boil over to the point that OTHER characters start providing the exposition that Mr. Mysterious straight up refuses to, I kind of wanted to punch him. A lot. And he’s supposed to be one of the good guys.

But that’s a moderately minor quibble, and with a good setup, a solid third act and, Mr. Mysterious aside, an exceptional cast, I’d definitely recommend this to anybody interested in new adult fantasy fiction.

So let’s talk about why then.

Finally a book that isn’t about how awful cliques are

A common feature of a lot of new adult books lately seems to be clique as source of tension. Whether it’s the Cullens against the other vampires in Twilight, the various factions of Divergent or the districts of the Hunger Games, social organizations of more than three people almost always seem to become engines driving conflict. Of course, considering the preponderance of love triangles in new adult fiction, even social groupings of three people can become engines of conflict, but that’s another issue altogether.

Now high school wasn’t wonderful for me. I was a weird kid. I read a lot, was wordy, played with religions the way other kids played with musical identities.

At school I gravitated in loops and whorls toward a small collection of drama, music and English kids who became the core circle of friends I had within school. There was occasionally tension between some of our number, but in general having people to sit with at lunch, to hang with on slack periods and to drink with after grad dance was how I coped with a lot of the pain that comes with being a weird kid.

They were, effectively, a clique. And they were, in retrospect, awesome. (Kaitlyn, Jeremy, Scott, Jim, Farah, Danny, Colin, and the rest, you guys rock. Even those of you I haven’t seen in over a decade.)

Furthermore, the conflict I had in high school wasn’t some grand battle between cliques, because these social circles were generally loose, and even if some kids in one circle enjoyed tormenting the weird kid, that didn’t mean that their friends even cared enough to do likewise.

In Silence, the protagonist is, in a special kind of way, saved by her clique. She has a loose circle of friends who have woven together through the organic connections that tie one person to another and even when they’re very different, they’re there for her.

This is reflected in the story in two ways: first, in the willingness of her friends to believe and support her when her life starts getting strange; second, by establishing what differentiates herself from other people with necromantic ability. Because necromancers are usually disaffected loners, antisocial and distant from human connection. And Emma isn’t like that. She has friends who care about her and who she cares about. And those human connections are what allow her to come to terms with her new capabilities without losing touch with her fundamental humanity.

So we have a story that celebrates friendship among teenagers, and shows how the ties we form in our formative years can help us to become better people. I find this a wonderful antidote to the pseudo-tribalism of so many other new adult entries.

There’s no love triangle

Emma’s boyfriend dies prior to the opening of the novel, and she’s grieving as the story begins. She’s certainly not looking for a new love. Sagara handles this with deftness and humour when Mr. Mysterious shows up and starts acting interested in Emma (because of her developing powers).

Her friends warn him off, let him know she’s not interested. And he’s like “oh god no, I am not trying to hook up with her,” and that’s the end of that.

Seriously, not every relationship has to be about romantic love. By deliberately, and pointedly, sidelining any romantic subplot right out of the gate, Sagara clears the stage to tell a story that’s instead all about the importance of friendship, and the bonds of family.

The magic is cool

It’s pretty much obvious from the moment that Emma hears the word “necromancer” that she’s going to end up a psychopomp. Where necromancers treat the dead as metaphysical batteries to fuel their honestly frightening array of powers, she treats the dead as people, and shows the same compassion to them that her own friends have to her in the wake of her own grief at the loss of her father and boyfriend in quick succession.

So we’ve got baddies with interesting powers, a protagonist who has a well-defined character-driven reason to use those powers differently and a strong connection between the theme of the story and the nature of the magic inserted into the world.

Simply put, it’s very well done.

If you like new adult urban fantasy and if the idea of a story that centers around the bonds that form within families and friends, about how we’re strengthened by bringing people close, by compassion given and received, this is a book you will enjoy. Minor quibbles regarding pace in the second act aside, it’s a strong series start, and I’m looking forward to reading more books with this delightful group of friends.

Retro Review: Consider Phlebas

I first heard of Iain M. Banks when the Hydrogen Sonata was released in 2012. I know, I know, I was a few decades late to the game there. Anyway, I read the glowing reviews of the Hydrogen Sonata and thought, “perhaps I should read this guy.” Then I took a look at the length of the Culture series, 10 novels of weighty length and said, “maybe later.”

Fast-forward two and a half years and a Culture book finally came up to the top of my TBR pile. Thus me posting this review nearly thirty years too late. (Also, being fair, Consider Phlebas would have been a challenging read for me at age eight. I didn’t even start on Asimov until I was about 11 or 12.)

Ok, enough with apologia, I read this book and I have thoughts! Thoughts and opinions! Fair warning, this review will include spoilers. I know, shock, spoilers for a 28 year old novel.

Life at the edge of utopia

I do want to like Consider Phlebas, and I will probably read other Culture books in the future, and the way it explores ideas of utopia is key to that. The universe of Consider Phlebas is one at war. On one side, a giant species of tripedal religious fanatics and on the other a vast network of human-like and post-human (but interestingly, not Earthling) species and subspecies who have formed what is effectively a post-scarcity communist utopia.

The tripeds believe that it’s their relgious and moral duty to subjugate lesser species, while the utopians of the Culture have been engaging in a much gentler form of subjugation, contacting younger species and occasionally manipulating their development in order to increase the likelihood that these species will see the light of AI mitigated utopia.

I find it very interesting that Banks makes it evident immediately that there is a moral grey zone here. Our first encounter with the Culture is a diplomat who has detected and outed a spy serving the tripedal Idirans. He’s going to be executed in a truly vulgar and awful manner, and she makes a half-hearted attempt to commute his sentence.

But when his spymaster comes to rescue him, she’s found to be bristling with weapons and seems to be every bit as much of a spy as he was. She turns out to be an inveterate survivor, and in the later scene handily manipulates this same spy, and the team of mercenaries he’s managed to wrestle control over into accomplishing her goals for her while she stands back and watches.

By the time the story ends it becomes very clear that she could have wrestled control of the spy’s team and his vessel away from him at any time, but chose instead to provide a finger on the scales, reserving her hidden capacity for violence until the most opportune moment.

By contrast, the theocratic Idirans are booming, loud, overt, petulantly destructive and strangely impatient for a species Banks makes such a point of repeatedly reminding the audience is effectively immortal.

And this gets to where Consider Phlebas falls down worst – its treatment of religion.

Religion’s Bad, Mmmkay

Parts of Consider Phlebas come across as a castigation of religion every bit as severe as His Dark Materials.

This point is driven home with jackhammer subtlety during an episode in which the protagonist, the Idiran-serving spy from the beginning has become stranded in a freshwater ocean on a three-million kilometer diameter ring shaped space habitat due to be demolished as part of the war.

For some reason the administration of this satellite have allowed a cult of cannibals, ruled over the most cartoonishly “monstrous because he’s fat” character since Baron Harkonnen who somehow has convinced all of these people to murder any passers-by or each other in an orgy religiously motivated self-degradation.

Meanwhile a Culture shuttle with an artificial intelligence sits there, blithely ignorant to what’s going on literally right next to it. Apparently the AI which is tasked with flying the ship doesn’t bother switching on external cameras when it’s on the ground.

The takeaway from the misadeventure is that religion brings people to make irrational and destructive choices that harm both themselves and everybody around them.

Later, we encounter two Idirans whose names I’ve chosen to forget in favour of calling them Dumb and Dumber. These two collossal assholes have managed to sneak onto a world which is believed to hold a highly advanced AI belonging to the Culture. The protagonist of the story has been sent, by the Idirans, to recover this AI and bring it in for interrogation.

However the Idirans, woefully ill-equipped to complete their mission have decided, against all logic, that it’d be better to destroy the AI and lose its intel. Furthermore, when the spy turns up, claiming to be working for them and with a Culture agent rather obviously his prisoner, they decide, for religious reasons, nope, gonna just kill everybody instead.

Irrational, self-harming, destructive.

Dumb forces the mercenaries to keep him as a prisoner and promises to be a bad one, despite repeat assurances from the spy that he’ll be brought home alive and successful in his mission, if he just cooperates.

Instead he makes two escape attempts, killing people each time.

Dumber decides to kill everybody, including himself, with a giant fusion powered armored train. Because religion. Yeah!

The good, the bad and the ugly

It’s interesting that Banks could manage so successfully to, with only a few characters create a nuanced, interesting view on what impact a post-scarcity technologically mitigated utopia would have on the universe, while failing so wholly to provide the same nuance about religious civilizations occupying the same milieu. On one hand the Culture, its agents, and the mercenaries who occupy its periphery are crafted with loving detail. These are intricate characters with complex inner lives beautifully rendered.

Even the stock tropes (the reluctant spy who must One Last Job during which he discovers camaraderie with his enemies, the smart-ass robot who is too useful to be discarded for his attitude, the decadent space casino, the mystery world)  are done with the loving detail of pinhead’s puzzle box.

And then the Eaters and the Idirans stomp all over chewing scenery and being cartoonishly evil because their religions tell them to. And it makes for a jarring juxtaposition.

I understand this is one of Banks’ early works, and the things he does with the Culture are interesting enough that I’ll probably pick up another of the books in that series in time. It’s fine to be critical of religion in fiction. I am very fond of Pullman. But to treat most characters with such delicacy and then to have a bunch of stock religious zealots crash the party (literally) makes for a disconnect in tone and structure which wounds an otherwise engaging read.