Monthly Archives: October 2014

Review: Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Undeniably one of speculative fiction’s “events” of 2014, The Southern Reach trilogy comes to (strangling) fruition with the publication of Acceptance (FSG Originals, September 2014). (“Strangling” because of the strange text explorers find in Area X’s most remote environs, “Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner…” Get it? Oh, never mind.)

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer

The speculative fiction community has rapturously received The Southern Reach trilogy, due perhaps, in part, to Jeff VanderMeer’s obvious literary ambitions. This ain’t your granddad’s science fiction; Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance are well-written (and slickly packaged) commentaries on the developing global environmental crisis, as well as examinations of the nature of “weird fiction” itself. The Southern Reach has enjoyed more muted success beyond its genre. The reviewer for The New York Times (definitely not a cutting-edge resource for speculative fiction news) was decidedly mixed in his reaction to Annihilation. 

Full disclosure: I thoroughly enjoyed Annihilation and, having now completed the trilogy, consider it the best entry in the series. Annihilation seemed, at least in comparison to its successors, to be the most “distilled” essence of what VanderMeer was trying to accomplish. I suspect this is due in part to the origins of the story (it came to VanderMeer in a dream), but it is also related to the structure of the story: If Annihilation serves as the “setup,” and the establishment of the mystery of Area X, then Authority is the “bridge” to Acceptance, the “resolution” to the story. I use quotes here because, of course, resolution is a relative term. Given the constraints of the genre, as well as simple good storytelling sense, VanderMeer was forced to walk the line between spelling out his vision for readers and providing them no answer at all. Some readers will be disappointed that VanderMeer hews more to the latter than the former.

Of course, all of this goes to show the ways in which the separate volumes in a trilogy (or series) ultimately become subsumed into the larger story. Would Acceptance stand on its own? I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having first read Annihilation and Authority. Acceptance follows in the wake of its preceding “chapters.” Even were it not the concluding volume in what amounts to a serial novel, though, Acceptance isn’t quite up to snuff, at least when compared to Annihilation, but it’s certainly head-and-shoulders above most other entries in the genre.

VanderMeer reading at Free Library of Philadelphia.

VanderMeer reading at Free Library of Philadelphia.

Acceptance alternates perspectives between Ghost Bird (the Area X produced doppelganger of the biologist from Annihilation), Saul (the lighthouse keeper), and Gloria, the former director of the Southern Reach–related to the reader in the second person, an effectively unsettling decision on VanderMeer’s part. The threads of the story bring together different timelines (pre-Area X, post-Authority, etc.), further disorienting the reader. Ultimately, the effect is to mask the nature of Area X to the reader, who will be busy trying to figure out just what the hell is going on. But VanderMeer uses the technique to build tension, too, moving the story forward, keeping the reader guessing, if not always successfully–after all, the reader knows how Gloria’s story will end, and, to some degree, Saul’s. Of course, it’s the “why” and the “how” the reader is chasing here, not the “what.”

VanderMeer employs in Acceptance the same recursive, elliptical syntax he began building toward in Annihilation and Authority. His sentences uncoil outward, clause upon a clause, lending them a strangely hypnotic quality well-suited to the subject matter. There are times when VanderMeer’s flow works against him. For instance, some of the sections discussing Gloria’s involvement with the Southern Reach, and her bureaucratic in-fighting with Lowry, can tend toward tedium, but, as with his examination of institutional decrepitude in Authority, that may well be the point. VanderMeer’s prose demands patience of the reader.

That patience may or may not be rewarded in the book’s conclusion. How satisfactory a reader will find the ending of Acceptance is, of course, a matter of personal taste. That said, it’s safe to say that readers who expect definitive answers or resolution from their narratives are better off steering clear of The Southern Reach. Answers of a sort are given, and the fates of characters decided. Word is VanderMeer may further develop the ending with a follow-up novella.

The Southern Reach is successful both because of its actual achievements, which are sometimes limited, and its ambitions, which push forward the boundaries of speculative fiction as a genre. Readers still on the fence in regards to whether or not they should read the trilogy are advised to consider how patient they are and to what degree they require definitive endings; VanderMeer asks much but dispenses little. That said, there are great things to be found in Area X, especially in Annihilation and Acceptance. A highly accomplished, if flawed, series that is recommended to most speculative fiction readers, especially those who appreciate atmosphere and character over plot.

Note: For those of you who are interested in “what it all means,” I recommend checking out this thread on Reddit. (Includes spoilers.) A friend tells me that, during a signing, he discussed the thread with VanderMeer, who said it “has some good ideas in it.” I have my own intuitive, uninformed theory; DM me on Twitter if you’re interested.

Review: Faitheist: How An Atheist Found Common Ground With The Religious, Chris Stedman

Near the end of Faitheist: How an Atheist Found Common Ground with the Religious (Beacon Press, 2012), Chris Stedman wonders if he’s too young (24) to write a memoir. Stedman concludes that he isn’t. Turns out he’s wrong. Faitheist is full of good ideas, but it’s an article (or two) posing as a book. For those of you keeping count, the book’s metadata–that is, its bibliographic information–indicate that Faitheist is approximately 200 pages. If that’s accurate, 20 pages must be blank, and another 10-15 consist of front matter and notes. In other words, contrary to the advertised length, Faitheist is about 170 pages long, and, even then, it’s puzzling in its lack of specificity when it comes to Stedman’s life.

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Faitheist, Chris Stedman

Stedman is a native Minnesotan, and his sunny, Midwestern disposition shines through here. He cheerfully recounts his childhood, as well as his adolescent and adult difficulties, always concluding on a triumphant note, with success achieved or a lesson learned. Stedman’s optimism might be annoying if it weren’t so obviously sincere. It’s just hard to stay mad at that Chris, even when he’s kicking in church signs, or, in the case of the book, glossing over large chunks of his life.

Faitheist is clearly the work of a young man. This is not to say that young men aren’t capable of great things; they clearly are. But Stedman doesn’t seem to be aware–or willfully chooses not to acknowledge–that, as a twentysomething, his story has only just begun. Stedman presents as complete, or near complete, a story that, by rights, is just getting underway. He wants us to think he’s in chapter 15, when he’s really only in chapter 2.

Consider, for instance, the beginning of the book, in which Stedman goes into poignant detail regarding his grandmother and mother, his love for them, and their influence on his life. These women were independent, strong, and encouraged those qualities in Stedman. Of course, there is a glaring absence: Stedman’s father, who is not discussed. Stedman’s parents divorced, and it’s clear from the Acknowledgments that Stedman and his father are working on their relationship. Stedman clearly was uncomfortable with discussing in his memoir his relationship with his father. But that omission is obvious, and, in itself, speaks volumes about where Stedman is in his life. Given another 10 years, perhaps Stedman would be able to reach more meaningful conclusions about his relationship with his family. (His siblings are given short shrift.)

Of course, the draw of Faitheist is not Stedman himself, although he is charismatic, but his role in American religious life. Stedman is a “faitheist,” an atheist who is comfortable engaging in interfaith work and dialog with the religious. (The term is pejorative when one atheist applies it to another; Stedman’s intent is to reclaim it, as the LGBT community did with “queer.”) Stedman has had a remarkable spiritual trajectory, from a nonreligious childhood, to an adolescent infatuation with evangelical Christianity, to angry and alienated atheism, and, finally, to his interfaith work on behalf of atheism and Humanism, movements (or philosophies, or ways of life, what have you) that he goes to pains to point out are not religions.

Even here, in what should be the meatiest part of his memoir, Stedman is inconsistent. His struggle with his sexuality (he is gay) as an evangelical Christian is excruciatingly drawn. It’s after the chapters devoted to that period of his life, though, that Stedman’s narrative loses its momentum. Stedman discovers liberal Christians who welcome gays, and throws himself into the social justice work in which his community engages. Then, relieved to be welcomed into a new community, to have his very identity validated, he goes to college and, almost immediately, kinda, sorta gives up on religion for no reason other than that was his intellectual path. The angst of his adolescence and the joy of acceptance would seem to be at odds with Stedman’s almost apathetic abandonment of his faith. But wait: Stedman was angry. He carried a grudge against religion because of the box it had put him in, because it couldn’t live up to his expectations, because, try as he might, he couldn’t intellectually convince himself of the existence of God. But he’s okay with it, really. But he’s not. Stedman’s vacillations are understandable, especially in someone who is still relatively young, but, in the presentation of his narrative, he appears unaware of its internal inconsistencies. Stedman might have been advised to engage in more introspection as he considered his story.

Stedman’s philosophy is better thought out and will be of interest to the average reader. Put simply, Stedman encourages atheist engagement with the religious. He advances several reasons for this, for instance, education. Stedman argues that atheist-religious dialog serves atheists because it works both ways, allowing believers to discover that atheists are not the bogeymen they’re perceived to be (if popular polls are to be believed). In short, Stedman believes that “atheism” is a negative philosophy, defined as it is by what it does not stand for, and advocates for “Humanism” as a positive, active promoter of secular values.

Stedman is a social justice warrior (and I say that as a compliment) and advocate for his beliefs and those who share them. He is a promoter of understanding and dialog. He is a leader. But Faitheist is a poor reflection of Stedman’s ideas. It is not the book his movement needs. Faitheist is, like its author, sincere, well-intentioned, but callow. Give Stedman another 10 to 15 years. Perhaps then he’ll produce a memoir worthy of his goals.

Review: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Have you heard of this guy, Stephen King? I get the impression he’s a big deal, a Young Turk of the publishing world, taking the horror genre by storm. Pay attention to him. He’s going places.

Har, har.

Stephen King, of course, needs no introduction, having attained decades ago authorial, if not literary, success. Likewise, King’s books don’t need reviews, at least not from bloggers as insignificant as I. Some of his novels–The Stand, The Shining–are so well known that they’ve become pop-culture artifacts with lives of their own. I might as well review the sun or the stars. Still, even if King is beyond my reach, I think it’s worth my time, and perhaps yours, to consider my encounter with him.

onwriting

King, in some ways, serves as a bellwether for readers’ tastes. My father read all of King’s books when I was a child, and, knowing that his name was synonymous with horror, I was leery of him. Later, I looked down my nose at King, without ever having read him, of course. A friend of mine sniffs at the mere thought of reading King, despite her interest in urban fantasy, which is to say–not literature, as you might expect. King can have a polarizing effect on readers.

Let me state my own biases up front. I’ve only read a few of King’s books: The Shining, The Gunslinger, and The Drawing of the Three. (And, now, On Writing.) I enjoyed The Shining, found The Gunslinger entertaining, and did not like at all The Drawing of the Three. In other words, my experiences with King have been hit-or-miss, and variable enough that I approach with caution the thought of reading any of his books. So it was that I bought a copy of On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft several years ago, but put off starting it for fear that I’d be disappointed.

I needn’t have worried.

On Writing is easily the King book I most enjoyed, which I think says more about me than it does him. King’s prose here is clear and straightforward, perfectly suited to his “instructional” intent. Quite simply, the entire book is a delight to read. King breaks his memoir into three parts: First, a discussion of his childhood, with an eye toward how an author, or, at least this author, was made; an examination of King’s opinions regarding what constitutes “good” writing; and, briefly, a description of the accident that nearly killed him (and which interrupted the completion of this book).

on-writing-a-memoir-of-the-craft

The recounting of King’s childhood is pleasant enough, soaked, as it is, in nostalgia. Indeed, much of the content of this portion was familiar to me, weaned as I was on my mom and dad’s stories of their mid-twentieth century childhoods. Readers may nor may not acquire any particular insight into King’s career path, but, in any case, it’s damned fine storytelling.

The portion of the book most likely to be of interest to readers is the second part, in which King discusses his philosophy of writing. Interestingly, there are few big surprises here. King advocates extensive reading and writing for wannabe writers. Eschew adverbs, advice I have not taken. Have a door you can shut. The tidbit I found most surprising was King’s claim that he doesn’t plot his books. Rather, he discovers them: The story is a preexisting entity that he “excavates.”

King touches upon his accident in the last third of the book, in excruciating language. He describes, for instance, the unnatural way his lap was shifted to the right, and recalls his screams as the EMTs loaded him onto a helicopter. This portion of the book has little to do with the previous parts, but it serves to assure readers that, even after having been hit by a van, King continued to write. Indeed, writing seems to have been part of what brought him. back. Perhaps it’s a balm to the aspiring writer, too: Although his first sessions back at the keyboard were painful, King soon regained his rhythm. If a man whose body had been smashed can do it, presumably you can, too.

On Writing is my favorite of the few King books I’ve read. There are no pretensions here, just the goal of speaking plainly and entertaining and enlightening the reader. If King’s advice is simple, perhaps that’s because that’s all it really takes, and his honesty is refreshing. A highly recommended look into the writing practices of one of America’s most successful authors.

Fun fact: While writing this review, my browser crashed every time I typed “The Stand.” And then the walls started bleeding.

Review: City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

It’s been some time since I read a book I enjoyed so much that I wished it wouldn’t end. Robert Jackson Bennett’s City of Stairs (September 2014, Broadway Books) is one of those books. Gorgeously written, epic in scope, and brimming with big ideas, City of Stairs should be on your must-read list for 2014.

Welcome to the ruined city of Bulikov, center of the Continent and Seat of the World. The Continentals, once favored by the gods, have been cast down, and their holy city occupied, by their former slaves, the Saypuri. A generation earlier, the great Saypuri hero, the Kaj, developed a weapon capable of killing the Divinities, and used it to liberate his people. The Kaj’s slaying of the builder Divinity, Taalhavras, resulted in a cataclysmic moment known as “the Blink,” when the removal of the divine architect’s magics reordered reality, wreaking such havoc that Bulikov is still in ruins decades later. As the novel opens, the Saypuri, now the premier world power, occupy Bulikov, ruling the restless Continentals and denying them the right to speak of their fallen gods.

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

City of Stairs, Robert Jackson Bennett

Whew. You still with me? It’s better the way Bennett tells it, more seamless, more natural, and in a way that’s deliciously agonizing: What happened to the Divinity Kolkan? Is he going to explain it? Spoiler: He does. I believe Bennett has achieved with City of Stairs what might be termed “page turner” status.

The action begins when Shara, a top Saypuri agent, arrives in Bulikov to investigate the murder of the Saypuri historian Efrem Pangyui. Saypur had dispatched Pangyui to investigate the Divinities, to learn why it was they favored the Continentals at the expense of the rest of the world. Of course, having access to the Continental legacy, access the Saypuris deny the Continentals, made Pangyui enemies. Pangyui’s murder isn’t so straightforward, of course; Shara’s investigation points to layers of conspiracy…

The plot of the book, as Byzantine as it is (and I say that as a compliment) takes back seat to Bennett’s world building. Hear me out! If you’re like me, you’re weary of the world building fad, an overused device that should support, rather than supplant, the act of storytelling. City of Stairs is an example of world building done right. (Seriously. Broadway Books, put that on the cover and sell it to all the aspiring writers out there. They need this.) Bennett’s world feels natural and alive. The age of miracles ended when the Kaj killed the Divinities (and his armies rounded up and slaughtered their “children,” fairies, nymphs, and other, more exotic, creatures). Shara and her cohort inhabit a fallen world in which it’s illegal for people to mention the Divinities’ names, but where some followers still adhere to their gods’ laws. Kolkashtanis, followers of the Abrahamic lawgiver and meter-out of punishment, Kolkan, insist upon modesty, and are horrified by women’s seductive “secret femininity.” Most impressive, Bennett achieves this level of detail seamlessly and naturally: He invites the reader into Bulikov.

Of course, even the best books suffer from problems, and City of Stairs is no exception. The Dreyling (read: Viking) Sigrud, the muscle to Shara’s brains, appears to be a fan favorite, but, to this reader, at least, was one dimensional, especially in contrast to Shara’s inner life and the conflicted emotions of her former lover, Vohannes Votrov. Sigrud, capable of any physical feat, has been robbed of meaning and pursues death. Attentive readers will be able to predict Sigrud’s fate soon after Bennett introduces him.

I prefer this cover.

I prefer this cover.

The plot, although wonderfully complex, feels, by the end of the book, to be too finely planned. There are no loose ends; every thread is accounted for. While that degree of closure might be satisfying to some readers, it lends an artificial air to the book’s ending. Certainly, readers will have suspended disbelief early on, when they learn that gods and men once (literally) walked and talked with one another. But it’s the old conundrum of convincing readers that something fantastic is real, only to break the spell by noting something mundane but incorrect, like the top hat Ben Franklin wore. The very comprehensiveness of the story’s resolution strains credulity–but this is a minor quibble, given the book’s strengths.

Bennett, too, engages in some very obvious and, at times, heavy handed commentary. There is something provocative, of course, about deicide. Kolkan, a stand-in for the Abrahamic god, is cast in particularly poor light, as are his adherents (although, to his credit, Bennett makes even Kolkan a more complicated character that readers might expect at first blush). The followers of Olvos, the Divinity who disappeared millennia previously, wear orange robes, eschew wealth, and serve their fellows, an obvious reference to Buddhism, or, at least, its ideals. Ultimately, the relationship of people to their gods is revealed to have existed in a way that points towards Bennett’s message for his readers (a message that this reader found understandable but unrealistic).

Complaints aside–and they are minor ones, I assure you–City of Stairs is a remarkable book. Readers have asked if City of Stairs is “epic fantasy” or “urban fantasy.” The answer, as cute as it might be, is both, and neither. City of Stairs is not readily classifiable; it plays with, and transcends, genre. Fantasy has painted itself into a corner with its retread of the same tired tropes on one hand and its retreat into nihilistic “grimdark” on the other. City of Stairs is the antidote to that conundrum: It is fantasy’s way forward. City of Stairs is highly recommended and not to be missed.

Review: Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

Once, during my senior year of college, when I was immersed in the study of early American Puritanism, I came as close as one can to experiencing the inner lives of our ancestors, people who really believed not only that our lives had some higher meaning, but also that that meaning could be known, that it was made manifest in signs and omens. Stomping along, lost in thought, I wondered what it might have been like to hear in the crackling leaves behind you the creeping of Satan, or to expect the devil to leap out at you from behind the crook of a tree. And, for a brief moment, I experienced the world with horror, and with wonder.

Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

Not in Kansas Anymore, Christine Wicker

And then I snapped out of it, because I am a modern, educated rationalist. (I may be revealing my prejudices here.) Christine Wicker is, too, but she’s made a career writing about people’s beliefs. Wicker wrote about the cradle of American spiritualism in Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town That Talks to Its Dead. She turns her attention to Americans’ magical beliefs in Not in Kansas Anymore: A Curious Tale of How Magic is Transforming America (HarperCollins, 2005). Wicker is writing about the magical because she’s “convinced that when a good number of people start to do something that makes no sense to the society at large, when they cling to it for a long time and increasing numbers of people take it up, they’re on to something.” She’s not altogether successful in her aims.

Wicker begins by dumping readers into a magical gathering held, aptly enough, in Salem, Massachusetts. (Never mind that the witch trials took place in what is, today, nearby Danvers.) Wicker introduces readers to vampires, witches, and werewolves. All manner of peculiar things happen, although, of course, none of it is obviously supernatural. Wicker is setting the stage for her exploration of what she claims is a surge in modern Americans’ belief in magic. Whether or not there is really a definitive change in the national attitude towards magic is less certain. Wicker notes, briefly, American religious history, including the fact that, for most of the past several centuries, the majority of Americans and their ancestors have been “unchurched.” In other words, contrary to the common wisdom, most Americans have never formally belonged to a particular religious tradition, in the sense that they attended church every Sunday, and so on. Likewise, America has a history of the occult dating to its earliest settlement that has also informed Americans’ supernatural beliefs. (See my review of Occult America.) The trend that Wicker notes, then, is perhaps less dramatic than she asserts.

Wicker’s survey of the breadth of American magical belief is necessarily impressionistic. Although she covers a wide swath of the magical “community” (I use quotes only because the term may imply a cohesion that is, in reality, absent), she cannot get to it all. Wicker remains at a “helicopter level” in the first section of the book, which is more general. Still, the reader is never certain just how many Americans might be involved. Magical belief is, by nature, informal, and data not readily available. (“Magic,” too, is a slippery term, bleeding, as it does, into “mainstream” religion.) Still, Wicker manages to touch on Wiccans, practitioners of hoodoo, and “Otherkin” (people who believe they are lycanthropes, elves, and so on). Extensive portraits of several individuals provide readers deeper insights into certain strains of magical belief.

Lily Dale

Lily Dale

To some degree, every book is about its author, and such is the case with Not in Kansas Anymore. Wicker is forthright about her Baptist upbringing, before the denomination gave itself over to the evangelicalism that peaked shortly after the millennium. She describes a poignant scene in which, as a teenager, she convinces her father to attend a Pentecostal service. The look of disapproval on his face, as he sits patiently observing the pastor’s histrionics, will be immediately recognizable to most readers, and sets the stage for Wicker’s transition to skepticism. She is avowedly atheist, but retains her interest in the supernatural, aptly, as a journalist. Still, to her credit, Wicker is sympathetic to her subjects; she does not put them down or demean them. It is clear, though, that Wicker retains at the core of her being her stubborn Baptist morality, which sometimes interferes with her explorations of the more libertine aspects of the magical community.

Ultimately, Wicker finds meaning in her study of magic. She participates in hoodoo, is blessed by a voodoo priest, and, near the close of the book, takes the Eucharist at Westminster Cathedral. Wicker, rationalist that she is, realizes that magic, or religion, or whatever one might call it, affords meaning to its adherents: “You can call it religion, you can call it spirituality, you can call it magic. Maybe what you call it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you don’t settle for being cut off, that you take the power, that you demand the completeness of human experience…What we must not do…is allow ourselves to be cut off from our own experience of life as it presents itself to us.” Amen to that. Not in Kansas Anymore is an intermittently successful look at Americans’ “fringe” magical beliefs and Wicker’s own relationship with them. General in scope, it’s accessible to the average reader, and serves as a primer for certain movements, for instance, hoodoo and Wicca. Recommended for readers interested, but who do not have a background in, American religious and occult belief.