Octavia Butler wrote these three books I read in a one volume collection called Lilith’s Brood. They’re sort of generational novels about humans who’ve been rescued by aliens after we destroyed most life on Earth.
In Dawn we follow Lilith as she’s awoken by the aliens on their ship and taught about what’s happened and what the aliens want them to do. See, the aliens want to incorporate humans into their genome (they’re biological collectors) and they want to put the humans back on Earth in a few carefully chosen areas so they can make them into something else. They’re totally fascinated by cancer, which allows the aliens to do all sorts of cool new things. Also the aliens have three genders including one that basically is there to manipulate DNA. The aliens want the humans to cooperate with them and choose Lilith to be their intermediary. By the end of the book she’s got the remaining humans ready to be rereleased on Earth, though she’s hated as a species traitor.
Adulthood Rites is about Lilith’s son and how he tries to get the rebel humans on Earth to accept their alien patrons. The humans who hybridize with aliens get to be practically immortal and have alien hybrid babies, while the ones who resist have all been sterilized and will grow sick and die. It’s kind of brutal. By the end of this book most of the resisters are sent to Mars where they can have children without interference from the aliens.
Then in Imago the protagonist is the first of the intermediary gender alien human hybrids that’s ever been born to a human mother who happens to be Lilith (families by this point usually have two human and two alien parents). This person is hated and feared and is desperate to find humans it can have sex with. By the end it does.
What I loved about the books was that they didn’t take the perspective of the human resisters. It’s always about the people who are adapting and accommodating themselves to the aliens, which is very interesting and different.
These books are weird because they’re pretty much all about the drive to procreate. Once the aliens get involved, people find the touch of their human lovers gross if they don’t have an alien with them. It was all very interesting but I didn’t quite get why everyone within minutes is pairing off and trying to repopulate the planet. It’s like there aren’t any other concerns that anyone has in these books beyond their bodily security and fucking. To me that’s weird, but that’s why I read science fiction.
Reading a Samuel R. Delany book is something I do very slowly. I’ve learned it’s necessary to really think about what’s on the page to appreciate his work. I don’t know if I got that when I first read Dhalgren a decade ago, but I’ve got it down now.
Flight From Nevèrÿon is Delany’s third and final sword & sorcery book. There are three parts to the book. The first is about a young smuggler who collects stories of Gorgik the Liberator. He has a sexual encounter with a man who might be Gorgik’s companion. He meets more people who might be Gorgik or know Gorgik and all of them disappoint as new versions of stories get recreated in the smuggler’s mind. It’s very much a story about shifting perception. Then there’s the Mummer’s Tale, which is also about making up stories and performing them and the ways the subjects of those stories are represented.
But the big thing about this book is the story of Nevèrÿon mixed with the story of AIDS in New York in the early 1980s and the story of creating this story. There’s a plague in Nevèrÿon and a plague in New York and no one knows what is happening. The numbered sections fragment everything into this multifaceted beast of a story that seems like it could have no possible ending. It’s very different from most sword & sorcery.
I’d have to think much more carefully about it to be able to do the book justice in my own analysis/response, but for now I’ll just say it does reward slow reading. If you have the time, it’s a great book about power and sex and story.
Nick Harkaway’s The Gone-Away World is kind of a gonzo post-apocalyptic novel. One of the main characters is, in fact named Gonzo. But it’s also the story of how the world came to be this way, through the use of Go Away bombs that destroyed the world with no pesky fallout. Except for making the planet a place where nightmares become real.
The story starts with the narrator and Gonzo’s company of truckers and general bad-asses being called in to do a job, put out a fire, save the world. There’s a cataloguing of the various kinds of pencil-necks one finds in the world, ranked according to their dangerousness, and the idea that resonates through the book is introduced: being a professional means giving up your personhood to be part of a machine.
Can you see why I liked this one?
But then the first chapter is over and the trucks are rolling towards doom and glory and we drop back to childhood. We learn about being trained to fight ninjas by a daft elderly man, and having lots of sex as a political student, and absurd stupid wars featuring absurd terrible soldiers (and fearsomely brilliant ones) and terror and friendship. It’s awesome. And funny. And there are mimes.
I liked this better than Angelmaker, but that might be because I wasn’t trying to figure out how seriously to take it the whole time. It was the kind of crazy awesome book the world needs more of.
Killing Velazquez is the story of a teenager being involved with a priest doing inappropriately sexual things in Quebec in 1983. The frame for the story is a news report in 2000 when the priest is apprehended in France for doing the same sorts of things. That frame is interesting because you know what the big problem of the story is going to be, and you’re bracing yourself for it. The story proper begins with Philippe out in a Wolf Scouts camping trip, so I was suspicious of the pack leader. And then Philippe is in Catholic school and I was suspicious of the priest teacher. And then, only then do you meet the priest that’s the predator. I really liked how the story did that.
The story does a very good job with the whole story. It’s not graphic and sensational, not played for melodrama, but creepy and effective. The way the priest gives gifts and says stuff like “Now that you’ve accepted my gifts, we’re friends” put terrible chills down my back. The story also does interesting work with contrasting tradition and cool new ways of doing things, using Velazquez and Picasso as the analogy. I also loved how Girard brought in speech from the next scene panels ahead of time (in white-on-black text but coming from in-panel sound sources). It’s one of those cinematic techniques that I’m not sure I’ve seen done in exactly this way before.
Chris Beckett’s book Dark Eden felt like it was going to be a lot like The Knife of Never Letting Go when it began. It’s about a small community called Family on a planet with no sun, but warmth comes from the trees that extrude from the ground. They struggle through their lives trying to gather enough food to keep them going another day. Every AnyVirsry they tell stories of Hitler and Jesus fighting over the Juice, and the three companions who came and settled Eden from Earth in their Veekle, and how if they stay right by the Circle when the ones who left for help return from Earth they’ll be able to get them.
Family has been waiting for the people to return from Earth for 160-ish years.
The story begins with 15-year-old (though they don’t naturally talk in terms of years or days, not having a sun, but wombtimes and wakings) John Redlantern asking why they do things the same way they’ve always done them. Why don’t they try to do something new? The rest of the book is about what happens when John Redlantern tries to do something new. Which is cool and the stuff of many an adventure tale. That’s not where Dark Eden stops though.
What makes the book great is that it really gets into what an asshole John Redlantern is, and how he manipulates people, and how that’s a part of the myth he’s creating for himself. It’s done by giving chapters to a number of other characters, some of whom are more aware of the importance of things than others. The moral ambiguity of everything in this book makes almost everyone sympathetic. John Redlantern is the kind of quintessential frontier-pushing explorer, and this story doesn’t just hold that up as a model of what people should be, but how that can break people. Killing a person was unheard of on New Eden, and they had no word for rape.
The other thing I love about the book is how it tries to avoid imposing 21st century Western moral scruples on things. Everybody has sex with everybody, and there are loads of batfaced and clawfooted people resulting from 160 years of breeding from the two people who started human life on New Eden. Sex is really interesting and eventually when things get more tense in Family you can see the germs of patriarchy and sexual control of women start to arise. There’s an incident where a character is almost raped and the way they dance around giving that act of violence a name is so intriguing.
All in all, it’s a great book and also has things to say about how we build the stories of a society and how we use the stories as well. If you’re interested in science fiction you should really give this a try.
The Complete Lockpick Pornography is two of Joey Comeau’s short novels (Lockpick Pornography and We All Got It Coming) put together in an attractive pink binding that belies all the violence inside.
The first story is about a guy who tries to overthrow hetero-normative society by stealing from straight people. We first meet him smashing a sex partner’s boyfriend’s TV and then stealing a new one to make up for it. He gets involved with a queer team who come up with a plan to break into elementary schools and leave books about gay grandfathers inside. And through all of this the narrator is calling a stranger in the suburbs and asking her questions to try and destabilize her life. Everyone is hurt and angry and trying to make the world better. There’s lots of sex and people trying to negotiate complicated relationships. It’s kind of like a lighter (and non-science-fictional) Samuel R. Delany story.
We All Got It Coming is a much gentler story about two guys in a relationship. The narrator gets pushed down the stairs at his shit job and he quits and tries to find something new to do with himself. He wants to raise hell and be awesome, but the world isn’t going to make it easy. This one is more about responding to violence and being weak and wanting to be otherwise.
They aren’t direct sequels, but I think reading the two stories right after each other works really well. The violence in We All Got It Coming is handled very differently from Lockpick Pornography – it’s much less of a way to blow off steam and maybe think about a little and more something that completely destabilizes a person. Putting the two together gives good perspective on the idea of violence being omnipresent and how control of that violence empowers and disempowers people.
Joey Comeau writes excellently spiky language to get caught in your brain. It’s a great book and I highly recommend it.
I love love love the first two volumes of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the ones where the league of fictional characters are assembled into a team of literary Victorian superheroes and thwart badguys. I also really liked the Black Dossier too, mostly because of the variety of forms of fiction they used in it.
The third volume is called Century and deals with more modern happenings and I’m sorry but I didn’t really care for Century 1969.
Because the characters are immortal they’re in London in 1969 trying to head off the summoning of an Antichrist by a magician who’s swapping his consciousness across bodies. Mina and Allan are having relationship issues and then there’s some astral plane tripping and it’s over. I never got really engrossed in the story. Maybe it would have helped if the famous people involved didn’t have to be obscured because they might still be alive/protected by copyright. There might have been something great in there, but it never made itself known to me. This is probably my first dud of an Alan Moore book (I haven’t read everything he’s done, obviously).