Welcome to this fortnight’s links!
Welcome to this fortnight’s links!
I was up way too late last night reading. That’s okay: I planned for it. You see, Amazon brought me Mira Grant’s latest, Deadline, and I’d set aside time to read it.
I’ve been asked a number of times in interviews about what my favorite book is, or what I like to read. I have a hard time listing a favorite. I have lots of favorites, the books I’m nostalgic about, the books I come back to reread year after year, and the books that grab me, and make me keep thinking, long after I put them down.
But one of the things I often talk about is why I read science fiction and fantasy: in brief, it’s because I love exploring the possibility of “what if”. By their very nature, books set in a different place, a different time, let us ask different questions, or see the answers from a different perspective. And books that do that especially well, give us a way to bring back those ideas, those understandings, those steps towards answers, back into our own lives.
Back to this series.
Mira Grant is the name used by Seanan McGuire for this series, and some other related work – basically, things that fall more in the horror genre than in fantasy or science fiction. And Seanan McGuire is very good at what she does: she’s the winner of 2010 John M. Campbell Award for Best New Author, and Feed was selected as one of Publishers Weekly’s best books of 2010.
She’s also a prolific writer and creator: there are four books currently out in her October Daye series (also awesome), another one coming out in September, she’s released three CDs, and has a couple of other projects I’m avidly awaiting. In between that (and a day job!), she writes a fair amount of short fiction, much of which she shares for free on her journal and website.
For example, as a run-up to the release of Deadline, she did a series of almost 30 short fiction snippets about the world. (They take place about 20 years before the first novel opens, so they won’t spoil any of the actual plot if you read them before you read Feed, and they’re a great way to get a sense of the world and her writing style.) I think this is an awesome way to share a sense of the books, without spoiling the actual content.
I’d been aware of her Tobe Daye series for a bit, but what got me hooked on trying Feed was a post in John Scalzi’s (another SF authors) blog series called The Big Idea, where authors talk about the ideas that got them writing a particular book. This has turned into one of my favorite sources of books, and even more interestingly, the books I find out about here have tended to be widely successful when I’ve suggested them to library patrons. (In part, I think, because the posts give me as a librarian a great way to talk about the book and why someone might find it interesting that goes beyond the cover blurb.)
Anyway, I recommend the Big Idea posts for both Feed and Deadline to get a sense of the series. I’m not usually a huge horror reader (there are times my imagination doesn’t need a lot of help, y’know?) but the Big Idea about Feed immediately made it clear to me that there was a lot more going on there that I’d find fascinating.
And so it is. The book has zombies, yes, and there’s a certain amount of death and blood and misery. But it’s really more about living in a world we don’t understand, and that we don’t always have as much control over as we think we do. It’s about speaking truth, and making connections, and trying to leave the world a little better than we found it – but it’s also about the question of “who decides what’s better?”. It’s about friendship, and love, and collaboration, and it’s about how we decide who to believe. And it’s about how fear changes the world we live in, and whether we ought to let our fears win over our truths and hopes.
And those are all things I find totally awesome in books.
It’s also about something near and dear my heart: the power of writing and technology to bring people together, share information, and create community (because, after all, in a world full of zombies, many people don’t go out much.)
One of the things I love about both books is how the narrative is interspersed with excerpts from blog posts (the main characters are professional bloggers in a world where that’s one of the major news sources.) I love how the reason there are zombies has a reasonable scientific background. (These are science zombies, not magic zombies, in other words.) As something of an epidemiological geek myself (though not to the extent Seanan is), that’s awesome.
Okay. Back to why you should read this book. (Actually, why you should read Feed and then read this book, because you’ll care a lot more about this book if you do.)
I agree with the comments on the Big Idea article that the author makes – Feed is a political thriller, while Deadline is much more psychological. Put another way, Feed is more heavily plot driven (with some awesome characters), while Deadline is much more about the characters (and the inside of their heads), with a good helping of action and plot. (Zombie fights! Daring escapes! Intrigue and espionage! Plenty of action.)
Deadline is also an amazingly strong second book – often the weakness of trilogies. There are some places that’s obvious (especially the end), but the beginning does a great job of easing you back into the world and reminding you how things work before the story accelerates (which it does quite rapidly.) And then there’s a solid plot that both serves this book, but is clearly laying down foundation for a powerful conclusion. Waiting a year for the last book in the series is going to be hard.
What I loved was seeing a wider range of interactions. It was particularly awesome to see more about how After The End Times (the blog/news service that the major characters run or are involved with) staff interact. Learning more about Maggie, and about Mahir was lots of fun, too. They don’t always agree, either, in a way that’s messy and complicated the way people can be, even when they’re mostly wanting the same basic goal.
But I also loved the way that we got more depth into things going on. What the Rising did in other parts of the world. What that changes. How things we mostly take for granted (grocery shopping, flying, driving) are a whole lot different. And I loved how, in this book, the damage from the first book – the hurts, the pains, the misery – isn’t wiped away. These are human beings, who don’t bounce back from that sort of thing all the time, not idealised symbols.
This is not a book to read if you want to be cheered up. It is not an easy book in places: hard things happen, miserable things, things that will probably make you want to scream at the book. People make choices that may have you doing the equivalent of yelling at the TV screen.This is not the best book to read somewhere if people are going to look at you funny if you start laughing, crying, or talking back to the pages.
But amazing things happen, too. And it’s a book that will almost certainly make you think differently about your world, and what matters, and what to trust, than you did before.
No links from me today, because this week has involved interviews for two very different jobs, in very different places. (Erm. Both of them have serious Winter. And they both involve education and learning. But that’s about it for the similarities.) Both are things I could see myself doing, but they’re totally different directions, which is quite cool. Anyway, that means I’ve been prepping for the interview yesterday (for one of those jobs) and the interview today (for the other) all week rather than doing.. well, much else.
But, since my interview today was at 2pm, and since the new Narnia movie came out, and since I am not often out near suburban movie theatres at times I could easily go see a movie, I bought a ticket online for a showing at 4pm, and had a lovely time watching it.
This is not a movie review: I loved it, but it does not follow the letter of the book (and does, on review, mangle it in more than a few places), but does, to my mind, follow the spirit of it. It’s a distillation of essence, not a replica. It is absolutely stunningly gorgeous and visually powerful, though the first line was not the first line it should have been. I recommend it. In part, I wanted to go see it in its first week because what I *really* want them to make is the Silver Chair, which has always been the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite. On which more in a moment.
But I am also a fairly deliberately uncritical watcher of most movies (except for picking on historical inaccuracies in movies that are trying to take themselves seriously that way and getting it wrong) because my head is full of literary analysis and musical analysis and historical costume design, and theatrical staging analysis and much more, and I have found that I need at least *one* media form where I do not cling that tightly to the analytical, and allow myself to get swept away by the pretty. And this was very pretty. Dazzling, in fact, and rich in detail.
(Also, in general, I believe that books and movies are different for a reason, and I’d rather see a movie do things that movie can do well, rather than try to do the thing that books do well and fail. Which, again, I think this managed, though at the expense of some of the things that make the book an amazing book.)
There are places where I cried, even while knowing perfectly well what was about to happen – or perhaps, because of it. The movie (all three of them now, really) get something right that movies don’t always do, which is the sensory richness of Lewis. There’s a point where he describes digging hands into Aslan’s mane, for example, or the richness of the colors, or the feeling of dragon scales being torn away. And the movie gets that part right.
Back to the books.
My copies of Narnia are well-worn, and from an edition that puts The Magician’s Nephew where it properly ought to be. (Which is to say, last.) They have dog-eared pages, and broken spines, and they’re going yellow, in the way that books that are thirty years old do.
They were not the first books I read, when I could read books like that – The Wizard of Oz wins that award. But they’re there, very early. And they continue to be there. They’re one of the series that are a repeated touchstone for me, as they have been for so many others. (And like many of my friends, I always wanted to be Lucy.)
But watching today, I thought about why that is. Part of it is that – given the series as a whole – Lewis actually does a fascinating job of telling different kinds of stories. You have The Silver Chair, which is in many ways a very medieval fable or lais. You have The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is partly ‘defeat big evil’ and partly coming of age. You have Dawn Treader which is very much a hero’s journey.
And yet – and especially if, like me, you have not only read his other fiction, but his non-fiction and his letters – what continues to fascinate me about his writing is the complexity of what lies beneath the surface. Oh, it’s possible to get irritated, as an adult reader, at occasionally heavy-handed allegory. (And of course, there are places where he is so very much writing from a mid-20th-century English male perspective.)
But it’s the glimpses of those depths – or perhaps, glimpses of the stained glass light through a cathedral window – that fascinate me. Those moments where questions of identity, of what it means to be a grown-up in the best possible ways, show through. Of whether honor is bravery in the face of danger (maybe), or whether it’s really something more: being willing to look at yourself, and to try and do better. Of looking at what we might have become, if we had not taken that one extra step forward into transformation and a new world.
It’s those questions that paved the way for so much of my adult reading, into the questions raised by the post-Great-War novels from Evelyn Waugh and Dorothy Sayers to Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series. (Of how to go on after tremendous loss, with something like grace and dignity. Most of the time.) It’s that exploration of the ‘what if’ moment that has guided my reading into character-drive science fiction and fantasy: into Lois McMaster Bujold, Pamela Dean, Emma Bull, and many others.
And there’s something in what it means to be responsible – the power and importance of knowing what you’re changing, when you’re king, or queen, or wielding magic – that also lies in the heart of the Narnia stories for me. And that, of course, has lead me deep into all kinds of non-fiction, and into one of the paths of the numinous in our world: connecting people with information that changes their lives.
I could stop there, but there’s one more thing. I mentioned that The Silver Chair is the one I pick if I have to pick a favorite, and I think it’s because it’s in many ways the most medieval of the lot. Lewis was, of course, a medievalist by profession, and his writing on courtly love is still some of the finest on the topic.
But what that reminds me of is something that it’s so easy to forget. It’s so easy to place people in a tidy little box, and label them with something. What Lewis reminds me of – what Lewis *always* reminds me off – is of what we lose if we do that. If you read Narnia, you read richness and story, and heroic acts and growth and redemption and transformation. But if that’s all you read, you lose the moments of adult and mature grief that echo in some of his works. Of his own transformation from a determined bachelor into a loving husband. Of someone who could become his own devil’s advocate, or write letters to friends of great power and potential. And none of those truly touch his actual professional work, or the students he taught directly, or many other topics.
The Narnia stories echo all of that, but I think you have to be looking for it to see all the places those things are tucked away. But once you know it’s there, the glimmers and gleams of those other moments, those glimpses into sideways worlds, touching alongside ours as much as Narnia does, but just as distant, reward attention again and again.