Last July I began reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I finished it last week. I’m glad I read it but there were definitely aspects I liked more than others.
I came to the series through Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes From a Multiverse‘s Gunshooter strips and the upcoming movie. I like to know about these big event pieces of fiction that people will talk about even if I haven’t been to a movie theatre since Fury Road (no wait, I saw The Force Awakens in the theatre). In this case I wanted to get a bit of my own opinionating underway before the flood of other people’s thoughts overwhelm me. Casting Idris Elba as the gunslinger pissed off racists (Rosenberg’s second wave of Gunshooter strips reflected this casting) so that’s cool, but I wanted to have more of a reason to care about this story, and that meant reading it.
There are seven books in the series and they range unevenly between post-apocalyptic western and alternate-universe-hopping Sliders knockoff and self-indulgent hamhanded metafictional pastiche. I liked it best when it was doing the western thing (The Gunslinger (Gunshooter interpretation), the middle 3/4 of Wizard and Glass and the non-priest-focused parts of Wolves of the Calla), and the ending was pretty great. I hated the Doombots and the Harry Potter references and the “Stephen King: maintainer of the universe” bullshit. The way things were kludged together in terms of timelines and reinventing how timetravel worked with a handwave about a keystone world annoyed me, as did most of the dialogue.
But. I’m glad I read it. I like it as a frame for reading the rest of Stephen King’s work through. It felt supremely self-indulgent but that’s what you trust an author with, right? If it had ended worse I’d have been pissed off, but it ends well (deus ex machina note from Stephen King aside).
Dial H: Into You is the first trade paperback I own from DC’s New 52 initiative (though not the first I read). The New 52 was DC’s superhero universe reboot that happened in 2011 in an effort to get new readers. I’m not a huge fan of being reminded how crassly commercial the literature I consume can be, so I haven’t been reading a lot of mainstream superhero stuff recently.
Dial H is not a normal superhero book.
I mean, sure there are cosmic problems which are solved by punching, but China Miéville is writing this book so those problems get weird. Plus the superhero at the centre of it is a Colorado schlub named Nelson Jent who, when he dials H-E-R-O on a payphone, taps into some other universe to become a random superhero for a while. Random superheroes like Boy Chimney (powers of smoke-control and telepathy through pollution), the Iron Snail (heavily armed and power-armoured snail shell and tracks dragged by a ‘roided-out soldier-type), and the Cock-a-Hoop (a giant metal hula-hoop with the head of a rooster).
I like how the book makes a ridiculous concept into a kind of exploration of the universes of weirdness and how they’d intersect with DC’s own universe of “normal weirdness” (with its aliens, magic, unnatural disasters and high-technology). The main story is about learning how to deal with the powers of the dial (which does get disconnected from the payphone) and coming to terms with weirdness. I also really like that his superheroing partner is in actuality a woman in her 60s.
I bought this one because it’s China Miéville doing superheroes. While it’s not as good as a Miéville novel, there’s enough good stuff in here to let me forget that it’s part of a stupid comics event. At least while I’m reading it.
It’s weird that a science fiction series that ends with a huge American nuclear attack on a fantasy world feels like it petered out, rather than built up to a grand huge climax, but that’s how the final couple of books (The Revolution Business and The Trade of Queens in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series felt to me. I’ve talked before about how each book felt like it was only a small part of a bigger story and the thing as a whole is probably what should be judged. But well, now that I’m done I have to say I can’t really recommend this series. Charles Stross has way better stuff out there.
What I did like about these books was the use of actual American politics in dealing with the revelation of other worlds. The books were set in the mid 2000s and the American administration at the time is used to full effect. There are stolen nukes and terrorist attacks and not creating fictional politicians to deal with that, but using the real characters helped.
Sadly, the story just kind of flops along. Miriam was pregnant with the heir to the throne in Gruinmarkt and then she has a convenient miscarriage and the nobles hide in a refugee camp in the other world, and everything is generally unsatisfying. Stross seems to have had a good time planning out the nuclear bomber wave, and that chunk of the final book was my favourite since the economic thinking from the first two books.
That’s what really got me about this series. The cool concept of these parallel worlds and the realistic way characters reacted to it by figuring out how to make a better living, well that gets lost along the way. Maybe it would have worked better if the books had jumped bigger timeline gaps so the economic stuff had more time to develop. I don’t know.
So my advice is to read the first two books of the series (The Family Trade and The Hidden Family) and stop there.
It seems fitting to review the second third and fourth books in Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series together because the flaws they have as stand-alone books make sense if you look at them as chapters in a longer story.
At the end of book 1 in the series we were up to date with Miriam Beckstein, tech journalist who is also a countess in an alternate universe where the geography is shared with Earth but technology and society has spun off on a very different track. Miriam and her clan are people who can hop between that world and our own (it’s set in the early 00’s U.S. homeland security paranoia).
In The Hidden Family Miriam has learned about a third world which is where there are more world walkers who are trying to destabilize the Clan’s power base in the medieval world. This third world is kind of steampunkish and hugely politically repressive. Miriam is trying to create a new economic base for her extended family in that new world.
In The Clan Corporate basically nothing happens. It’s an intensely frustrating book, to Miriam as well, because she’s basically just locked up while her family figures out how to sell her to the royal family to squirt out worldwalking babies. We also meet a DEA agent who’s dealing with the aftermath of one of the medieval spies turning on the Clan’s drug smuggling operation.
By The Merchants’ War the Clan is plunged into civil war and Miriam is on the run in the steampunky world and we’re learning just how genre distinctions between Science Fiction and Fantasy are kind of dumb.
I really like the story this series is telling. People are clever and behave like real clever people might. I just hate how it’s broken down into these separate volumes so you need to have recap time and setup time before the grand climax of the book, which in books 3 and 4 don’t even really happen. It’s the kind of series that’s crying out for a one-volume edition with some of the redundant bits edited out, since nothing is standing at all on its own. (You may remember that I had the same issue with Dance With Dragons. Too much like catching up with the characters and not enough story-structure for my taste.) But I’m looking forward to finishing the series because Stross writes great, thought-provoking stuff and the fact that it’s getting less and less like Zelazny and more like, well, Stross makes me very happy.
The Family Trade is the first book in The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross. It’s the story of Miriam Beckstein who’s a just-fired tech journalist. In the aftermath of the story that was too big to let her keep her job she discovers she’s a countess as part of a feudal clan in an alternate Earth that she has the rare ability to travel back and forth between.
While that sounds like it could be the basis of a pretty simple fish-out-of-water tale, this is Charlie Stross, so of course Miriam sets out to deal with the world, and change it. The riches of her clan on the other side are based on basically being drug mules on our side. While this is lucrative it’s also vulnerable to market fluctuations (if the war on drugs in the US ended, there would go their wealth and power).
Stross writes characters that are competent and resilient and generally deal with things so you can get to the next idea. It keeps the plot moving when you don’t have to wait ages for a character to figure out some problem the reader saw the answer to as soon as it was proposed. The grander idea of “how will Miriam reshape her clan’s economy” is an idea you want to puzzle over, and the main reason I’m going to be resolutely avoiding spoilers from here on out. I’ve read the background on how this series got split into volumes kind of weirdly and yeah, it’s pretty noticeable, since this book ends kind of right in the middle of things happening.
Good light, fast-moving stuff. I’m looking forward to the next book.
Doctor 13: Architecture & Mortality is a metatextual comic by Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang, about superhero universe retcons and the lives that get snuffed out when they happen. All of the main characters in the story are long-forgotten 8th-string DC characters fighting The Architects, who are comics creators. There are lots of puns and things that must have been awesomely fun to draw because they’re pretty excellent to look at (in the same way Dr. McNinja does this kind of madness). By the end the Nazi Gorilla Vampire is saying “I guess I’m an anti-hero” and the fourth wall is smashed quite nicely. But there’s also a good little meditation on how the past is all the universe there really is.
I was actually surprised this was done back in 2007. It felt very much like a pre-New 52 kind of story, but I guess that just shows how regurgitative the business of superhero comics really is.
Haruki Murakami is one of my favourite writers. I make no secret of this, so take this review with that in mind. I really liked 1Q84 (though I still don’t know how to say the title in English – it’s Ichi Kyu Hachi Yon in Japanese – maybe Nine-Cue-Eighty-Four).
One of the things about knowing an author’s work pretty well is you can see the recurrent characters and themes from other works. 1Q84 feels a bit like a greatest hits collection of Murakami themes. We have (and here thar be spoilers): two worlds being traversed (Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, Sputnik Sweetheart), disappearing women (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), affairs with an older married woman (Sputnik Sweetheart), mystical people with weird powers (TV People), Ushikawa (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), a cynical older peer figure (Norwegian Wood), a piece of classical music with great significance (The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, The Second Bakery Attack), cults (Underground), becoming a writer (Norwegian Wood), a thirty year old narrator vaguely disconnected from life (almost every thing Murakami’s ever written) and there are probably more. In any case, a lot of the book felt familiar, but it was all rearranged into a more or less pleasing form.
There is a fakeout ending that isn’t so severe if you read the three volumes in one shot the way my translation is put together, which was robbed somewhat of its impact. And I feel like the whole thing ended too easily. There was a lot of time spent talking about issues, restating them and not pushing forward. I feel like this could have been a leaner story, and it’s not going to be the first Murakami book I’d recommend to someone. For me so much of the pleasure was in the interplay of the old stories and seeing how these characters behaved differently from their previous incarnations.
For my money I’m still pegging Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World as my favourite Murakami novel. The themes are very similar to 1Q84’s but I think it’s a better working of them.
None of this is to suggest I think 1Q84 was a bad book. I loved it as I read it. The page-numbering goes up and down the margins, flipping into horizontal reflections as they pass the midpoint. That’s the kind of beautiful little detail emphasizing the characters’ situations that I loved to pieces, and really only gets to happen in a book by a famous writer who keeps on being in the Nobel Prize conversation.
Actually, a bit about that. I don’t really understand why Murakami would be in the running for a Nobel. I love his books, but they don’t scream “This is the pinnacle of World Literature” to me. They are books that I love but they feel too idiosyncratic to be winners of that kind of award.