The Book of Cthulhu is a collection of short stories based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work. These are all stories that were written in the last thirty years and are the kinds of things that make me overlook a lot of HPL’s actual terribleness (inre: sexism & racism). The mythos, the secrets, the sense of foreboding are all what I like in a horrific world, and because these stories aren’t written by an early 20th century weirdo they don’t have the same kind of baggage.
Indeed, there were a number of stories in the collection that dealt with race pretty much head-on. I loved David Drake’s “Than Curse the Darkness” which was a colonialist tale of Africa in which the heroes (a British scholar and American gunman) team up with a pack of pigshit-terrible Belgian slave-drivers to stop a summoning ritual by a cult the Belgians have been feeding through their murderous disfiguring practices in the pursuit of rubber. This was a story where the Belgians are constantly using the word nigger and chopping off black people’s ears and genitals and generally being horrible human beings, but they’re also necessary. It’s a story about evil and siding with evil and fighting evil and by the end of the story you feel kind of terrible that they did manage to save the world. That’s a mythos tale for you.
Also, Elizabeth Bear’s “Shoggoths in Bloom” was awesome because it posited a world where yes, these creatures existed and were inexplicable, but that just made them more interesting to scientists. It’s a science story instead of a horror story and it worked really well. Charles Stross’ “A Colder War” was about mythos weapons and their escalation, and Joe R. Lansdale’s “The Crawling Sky” was a pretty badass western featuring more rancid horsemeat than I expect in a story.
My least favourite story in the book was the Brian Lumley one about a circus sideshow. It felt too much like a Tales From the Crypt episode. Most of the book was really quite good though.
Last week I found three volumes (Dead Mothers, The Gravel in your Guts, & High Lonesome) of Jason Aaron’s Scalped on the library shelf and delved into them for a few hours. They’re the middle of the story so you’d want to start with Indian Country to make any sense of what’s going on.
The rest of this is less about these books and about how conflicted I am in liking them. So Scalped is a contemporary crime story set on a South Dakota First Nations Reserve. It’s brutal and violent and I’m a little wary of really loving it because there’s a lot of potential for it being totally racist. Or if not racist, at least unhelpful.
A few months ago at a local writers festival we had a first nations poet talk about her work and one of the things she talked about was that first nations people should tell first nations stories. That’s not something for white people to do. In the larger cultural milieu, Spike Lee took Quentin Tarantino to task for Django Unchained, because slavery wasn’t Tarantino’s history to talk about (Jesse Williams has a great essay about the problems with Django, which you should totally read).
At our writers festival people in the audience were disgruntled that this woman would be telling us that there are some stories we cannot tell. I completely get that disgruntlement. I have long held the idea that freedom of expression means that I can write about whatever the hell I want and deal with the consequences, and fuck anyone who tells me what is and isn’t appropriate for me to do. But I’ve been coming around to see how privileged a point of view that is, and how voices from the dominant culture telling those stories crowds out the voices telling it from the inside. You really don’t want people to be learning their American history from Django Unchained.
The thing is that I really like Scalped. I love the small-scale politics and the way people with scraps of power interact with the immovable force of the US government, and how Dashiell Bad Horse is tearing himself apart to do this job between two worlds. It’s a great story. Just one that makes me feel guilty for liking it, because I haven’t sought out neo-noir stories written by first nations people themselves. Scalped is easy because it’s published by DC Comics, and I haven’t gone beyond that easy corporate mass-media approach.
Anyway, if you like crime stories, and all of my hand-wringing hasn’t put you off, Scalped is definitely worth your time.
I read Should We Burn Babar? because I’m interested in the idea of radical children’s literature. Herbert R. Kohl’s book is a collection of essays that are about this but are also about radical education, which, I guess would be more interesting to me if I were a teacher than a librarian.
The first essay, on burning Babar, is very good at looking at the racist colonialist enterprise that Babar is enmeshed in and questioning how to read this book with kids, and if we even should. Kohl’s conclusion is that it can be read, but it must be done critically so the readers don’t get sucked into the idea that all the troublesome things that happen in the story (the bringing of European customs to the naked elephants who are left behind, the complete lack of agency that Celeste has in marrying Babar, the fact that symbols like Babar’s hat are bandied about as if they self-evidently mean something in regard to power).
There’s also an essay on Pinnochio, which was interesting because of its focus on how the real story doesn’t turn him into a good little boy. He remains mischievous and more human than Disney would have you believe.
Once the book got into educational methods and things I lost interest. He’s obviously an older guy and I wonder how much of what he discusses as radical has been incorporated into education curricula these days. I’d be interested to hear what people with more knowledge of that kind of thing have to say.
Photo Credit: Mars, once by kevin dooley, on Flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/pagedooley/4410885928/ shared under a cc-by-2.0 license
I’m one of those people who loves a good frontier story. The idea of going somewhere new and pushing the edges of what the people you know have seen appeals to me. I’ve also heard that idea being described as a Western-centric colonialist/racist perspective so yeah, there are problematic issues there. But the beauty of science fiction is getting to do some of that bold infinitive splitting in places where there are not cultures to feel superior to. Which brings us to Mars.
I love a good Mars story. Ian McDonald’s Desolation Road, and Kage Baker’s The Empress of Mars are the two I can see on my shelves, but I’ve got my own Douglas Quaid thing going. Which makes it weird I’d never read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. I have now begun.
The first novel, Red Mars, begins with a murder once a colony on Mars has been established, then it jumps back in time to show us the trip from Earth and the training the First Hundred went through, then the work of starting a colony and the politics of science. Eventually the story takes us past the opening murder into greater politics and dust-storms and mysticism. The whole book spans decades (they also develop longevity treatments on Mars, while Earth is tearing itself down in overpopulated war).
We read about these decades through the perspectives of a bunch of the first settlers, and their perspectives are all very different. What I really liked about the book was that the political choices were real and taken seriously and not very much was solved easily. Getting into these characters’ heads made a difference and it was very clear how few villains there were, just people trying to make life work in a cold harsh place.
One of the things I found disorienting was some of the 1990sishness of it. There was still an assumption that in the 2040s the important nations would be the Americans and the Russians. There’s literally one Asian person in the first 100 colonists, and she becomes a mystic orgy saint pretty quickly. Hm. Maybe that’s not such a typical ’90s thing. There’s definitely a bunch of otherization going on with the Sufis and Bedouin that feature in parts of the story, which does get in the way of some of my pure enjoyment (this is a problem that Ian McDonald’s Mars books don’t have, FYI).
The science in the book was intriguing. Robinson really delved into what it would take to make Mars habitable and how that changes the unspoiled nature of a lifeless rock. That geology (sorry, areology) has purpose beyond being fit for people and commercial interests.
Very good book, though I’ll wait a while to read the next ones. I like to make this kind of story last.
Scalped is a crime story set on the fictional Prairie Rose Indian Reservation in South Dakota. There are corrupt politicians who own the new casinos, people who just want to get the hell away from poverty, and Dashiell Bad Horse, an undercover FBI agent who grew up on the reservation and is now back to expose some seedy underbelly to justice. In Indian Country Dashiell Bad Horse gets set up as a cop on the reservation in employ of bad people, and there are double-crosses and a casino opens and people end up dead.
It’s really good crime fictiony stuff. Each issue within the trade paperback ends on a story-changing reveal but it doesn’t feel forced. If you like 100 Bullets, this’ll probably appeal.
The thing that makes me a little twitchy about the book is that neither Jason Aaron nor R.M. Guéra are Sioux or any other First Nation. Does it matter? Well, at one point a big nasty character feeds right into a corrupt savages kind of viewpoint and actually scalps another one. Does that happen if this is a book about the underside of the writer’s culture, rather than some other-ized culture? I don’t think it does. (And to be clear, every white person in the book so far is a terrible murdering double-crossing selfish asshole too. But they shoot people, not scalp them.) At this point, one volume in, I don’t know if that’ll keep on being an issue. I’ll keep reading to find out.
Blacksad is a collection of three noir comics in a world of anthropomorphic animals. John Blacksad is a private investigator who is also a black cat. He does the standard noir detective shtick of solving crimes, working with people he doesn’t like and never coming out ahead.
The world has characters who fit into their animal roles, it’s not like there’s a bear society and a cat society; everything is a lot more individual than that. In the second story in the book there’s a Nazi in all but name group of white supremacists with polar bears, arctic foxes, snowy owls and weasels all dressed up in uniform with red armbands with a snowflake.
The art is very painterly with lots of detail and a colour scheme that makes me think calling this noir might be off. It isn’t filled with shadows at all, just muted colours. The edition I was reading was really big so you had a lot of room to really look at the art.
Very well executed detective stories which I liked a lot. They’d work even with lesser art, but with the great art it makes the book something special.
I really liked Mat Johnson’s comic, Incognegro. It’s about a light-skinned black journalist going undercover as a white man to cover lynchings in the south in the 1930s. Well, that’s kind of the setup. In this story he’s going south to stop the lynching of his own jackass twin brother (who isn’t light-skinned at all).
It’s a tight little small-town mystery with more ins and outs than I’d expected at first. There’s moonshine and backwoods religion and klansmen, and it all hangs together pretty magnificently. One of the themes running through the story is that white people assume we’re the default, that our food isn’t ethnic food, that we don’t have accents, all of which makes us easy to fool. Obviously this is set in a different time with lynchings and much stronger threats of violence based on race, but it’s interesting how much of that “looking like you’re a minority or not” still plays into how people are treated.
Anyway, I recommend this one pretty highly.
The Inheritors, a science fiction story by Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford, wasn’t very good. It’s about a writer-narrator who abandons his ideals by doing political hack writing. It’s a science fiction story because the titular inheritors are “from the fourth dimension.” The narrator is in love with one of them, even though they’re cold and unfeeling and simply want to turn human society into a collection of sociopathic nihilists.
Most of the plot is about a European duke wanting to colonize Greenland and the language around that is kind of terrible to modern sensibilities. Race plays, not a big part, but a very noticeable part. The narrator whines about how unjustly he’s being treated saying “I’m not a nigger, after all.” It’s just kind of uncritically tossed out there, along with the casual discussion of the Jewish race and the Greenland savages. I guess that’s what you get when you read century-old books but yeah.
Apart from the language, the story’s kind of shitty. The narrator doesn’t do anything but whine about how he’s abandoning everything he should be valuing. You just want him to shut up about it or actually do something. So yes. Not the best book I’ve read recently.
It’s kind of sad when the Lovecraft book is the least racist in a series, but it’s also kind of good, because I really like At the Mountains of Madness. Most of why I like it is because of how ass-backwardsly the story is told.
The first 40% is telling the reader this story as a kind of cautionary tale about going back to Antarctica, but it’s done in this “As you know from the news reports…” style that doesn’t convey a lot of cautionaryness. Then the last 60% is a recounting of 14 hours that got glossed over the first time the story was told.
In those missing 14 hours the narrator and a pilot went off investigating an alien city. The most frustrating thing about this part of the story is how hyper-competent this geologist and pilot were at deciphering millions of years of history written in sculpture and alien dot languages in flashlight lit bas-reliefs on walls. I mean, the amount of backstory they deciphered was unimaginable. Lovecraft puts forward that their discoveries that these Elder Things (I use the more standardized term as opposed to Old Ones which is used in the story, because these aliens are fundamentally different from the Great Old Ones and I’m not a big fan of confusing them) had a civilization millions of years ago before fighting Cthulhoid creatures as well as the fungi from Yuggoth as sanity shaking, but the fact that a few hours in a cave could figure all that shit out is amazing. There must be stories that take this story and run with it in the “that guy made up a whole pile of crazy shit direction” right?
But the description in parts is pretty awesome. It’s a very exploratory story, and I like that. If it had a more sensible timeline I’d like it better. The actual horrific reveals are good and understated and not prefaced by the narrator’s “I must be direct even though i don’t want to. I have to warn you, but not intrigue you” shtick, which gets old really fast.
But the whole thing, though it’s told weirdly and you know that they get out all rightish because the end is written 40% into the story, is kind of endearing. Lovecraft’s obsession with decadence is in there but that’s about as offensive as it gets. It works as a story and I like it like an odd uncle.
At the Mountains of Madness draws on Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, but much more obliquely than Verne’s Antarctic Mystery (and there’s no reference to the Verne tale at all).
It’s a sequel set 11 years later when an intrepid man learns that Poe’s fantastical tale of imagination was actually true! Then he joins a captain who’s looking for his lost brother who was also on the ship Pym was on. There are hidden identities and sailing and mutinies and uncomfortable racial profiling and loads of Men of Vision not feeling bad when they cause people to die because of their ideas.
I liked the style of this a bit better that the Pym book, but the dismissal of the people who were fed up with sailing to the south pole to look for some guy who had undoubtedly died 11 years ago annoyed me. Something approaching two dozen people died to save four people. And the cost is only given the lippiest of service. I guess that’s what happens in a true tale of Science!
But I love these versions of Antarctica with their tropical islands and channels past the pole and icebergs that get caught on the ocean floor. Next up: At the Mountains of Madness. And then maybe my historico-mythical Antarctica kick will be over. Or maybe not.