My Kindle and my library card also have my deep affection (and occasional abuse). Every so often, I look at the shelves and think it’s time to lighten up, thin out, get rid of some of the years of hoarded titles, and rely even more fully on the Kindle and the library. I got so far as making a list (an activity which is nearly as pleasurable, in itself, as accumulating the books in the first place). But last night I finished reading Saint Mazie by Jamie Attenberg, a novel about a real life woman named Mazie Phillips, who sold movie tickets at the Venice Theatre on Park Row in New York City during the Depression. I gobbled this book up, just as greedily in love with Mazie as everyone else who learns about her. The novel was over, but I wasn’t ready to be done. Reading the interview with Attenberg that was attached at the back of the book (library loan for Kindle, it should be noted), I discovered that the first piece of journalism about Mazie had been written by Joseph Mitchell and published in The New Yorker. It was later published in his wonderful collection Up In the Old Hotel. I looked up from my reading and locked eyes with Joseph, up on the shelf, where he has been waiting for me to remember him. And that clinches it. There’s no substitute for the books themselves. I love my Kindle, and I wouldn’t part with it. As long as there are libraries, I’ll do my civic duty and run up (and pay off!) overdue fines. But there is kinship and conversation in my piles and shelves and tiny landslides of books, and I can’t do without it.
For the last several months, I’ve been reading along with selections for the scifi book group that Phil co-hosts. Seed, by Rob Ziegler, is September’s selection for Different Skies. I finished it several days ago, and it took me two days to mark it read on Goodreads because I couldn’t figure out what star rating to give it. (Compulsion to star-rate, personal criteria for star-rating and my need to serve the algorithm with accurate star-rating should be a whole other blog post.) I’ve never been so much at a loss to gauge my own reaction to a book.
The world of Seed is a drought-ravaged middle America, in which the bulk of the population is starving in cruelly harsh conditions. The primary currency is barcoded seed, genetically engineered and distributed by an entity called Satori, both a corporation and a living biological city with a literal flesh and bone structure.
Three main storylines interweave towards the climax. Brood and Pollo are orphaned brothers, originally from Texas but now part of the vast and piecey mass of migrants constantly traveling in search of shelter, water and fertile earth. Sienna Doss is a military commander who loves her work and lives by the mantra Don’t Fuck Up: do the job and don’t get bogged down in the stupidity and carelessness of long chains of command. Sumedha is an administrator of Satori, a genetically engineered human who can analyze and manipulate DNA.
Each of these storylines revolves around the defection and subsequent disappearance of Pihadassa, Sumedha’s partner and the creator of Satori’s drought-hardy engineered seed. Brood is caught up in a group that calls Pihadassa the Corn Mother, and believes she will save humanity from starvation. Doss is tasked with finding her and turning her over to the US Army, who believed she was defecting to them before she disappeared. Sumedha is struggling to understand why his mate, his perfectly engineered other half, has taken herself out of the circle of connection and creation that was their life in Satori.
These are three complex arcs with distinctly different tones, and Ziegler ties them together skillfully. The story is compelling, and the characters are well-developed. And yet, and yet: I didn’t actually enjoy this very much. I think I would have given it a higher rating if it had been a worse book. There’s a conundrum. There were too many miraculous escapes from certain death; I stopped fearing for the safety of my protagonists fairly early on. There was no attempt at giving a global context to the story, which is a thing that you often encounter in post-apocalypse stories, but which bugs me. Unless you’re writing in the first person, in which case your character probably doesn’t have access to information about anything but what’s physically in front of them, I feel like apocalypse is a thing that happened to the whole world and the existence of the rest of humanity should at least get a mention. Every storyline evoked a profound sense of pity in me, but no actual affection to hang my hope on. I will say that another way: I didn’t know what to hope for. I’m not sure I’ve ever read a book that made me feel that way before.
Every time I read a post-apocalyptic novel, I wish I had a better background in political philosophy, and Seed was no exception. This time, I had to run to Wikipedia for a quickie education on Thomas Hobbes, who gets a casual mention from a maddeningly serene pundit early in the novel. Hobbes isn’t mentioned again, but the pundit keeps punditing smugly and at very inconvenient moments. He gets one of the last lines in the book, and it’s a very dark breadcrumb pointing in the exact opposite direction from the cautiously verdant ending. I think Ziegler intends the ending to be hopeful, but there are enough hints and unexplored trails in the narrative to make me doubt, and I wish he’d really sunk his teeth into the moral ambiguity and made Seed a harder book. The review in the New York Journal of Books ended by describing the book as “Not light. Not heavy.” I agree, but I’d have liked it better if it was one or the other. It could have been a much lighter B scifi novel and been thoroughly enjoyable, but what I really wanted was something deeper. I’m looking forward to seeing what Ziegler does with a second novel.
Yesterday I finished reading Railsea by China Mieville, and it’s left me with rustling, unquiet feelings. I love Mieville, and I’ve been rapidly working my way through his entire canon since I first read Kraken about three years ago. Reading him is a little like trying to keep level footing while standing on an accordion. He is adept at drawing richly detailed, slickly un-right worlds. The setting and the story expand and contract beneath your feet with a speed and grace that’s both wonderful and nauseating. There are a number of themes and conceits that he relies on consistently, but his main meat is hybridization. Combined words, enmeshed bodies, physical worlds that are built on a sort of bio-steampunk ethos. I’ve written before that every Mieville novel starts in a place that seems familiar and easy to follow, but quickly rotates the camera and lets you see that you are in fact standing on the ceiling. Railsea is true to that pattern.
The basic premise is a world in which railroads are so prevalent that they’re like a body of water. There’s a permanent tangled network of ties and tracks, so thick that all their terminology and lore are language we use for oceans and sailing. Insects and small burrowing creatures have evolved to staggering, predatory size and are hunted by trainsfolk for commerce and, sometimes, for glory and revenge. There’s a very heavy cord of Moby Dick running throughout. Mieville’s books are themselves hybridizations: tangled, looping, referential cultural markers that make use of material from dozens of other literary sources. I’ve never come up with a word to adequately describe this. It’s not delicate enough to be called literary allusion, not is it anything so sly as to be described as theft. He just straight up uses obvious pieces of what has gone before to make his own thing. Sort of like what would happen if you could build an entirely new house using pieces from existing houses, without actually removing anything from the existing houses. Look, the foundation: that’s Melville. The doorframe is the Strugatsky brothers, that paint is a color called Penelope Lively. The result is a proper Painted Lady, but it’s Mieville’s house, and you couldn’t mistake it for anyone else’s.
This particular house is full of monsters, civilizations and un-civilizations, and people who are looking for something. It’s a sailing story, all pitch and roll, and the hero is trying to find his feet. He doesn’t know what’s true, and so he doesn’t know what he wants. So he keeps pushing and pushing at the edges of what is assumed about the world, looking for what’s under the wallpaper. He starts in little ways, like saving a bird from a cockfight even though he knows it will enrage his crewmates, and keeps picking at those elusive things that spur him to action until eventually he finds himself with people and a story that fire his engine and make him move.
I enjoyed Railsea less than any of the other Mieville books I’ve read. There was no shortage of beautiful words or memorable passages, but I never fell all the way into it. In part, I was irritated by an of-the-moment tone in several places that didn’t serve the story and kind of slapped me out of it when I came across them. It had the usual rhythmic, wordy beat that all his writing does, but it seemed more carelessly executed than usual; less durable, somehow. And for the first time, the world he described was one I just couldn’t cognitively accept. Tell me about a world where houses contract technological viruses through flawed spoken language and become biologically ill, and I am right with you. A city that is actually two cities existing in the same physical space and within plain view of one another, but operating as separate entities with blinders on? Absolutely. But show me a world where railroads built hundreds of years in the past are so thick on the ground that they are like water, an infrastructure so old that it’s spawned the vague religions of prehistory, that is governed but not maintained by any municipality and is assumed to be repaired by angels – here you have lost me. It’s choppy. This world never felt real. That explains my general dissatisfaction with the book. My specific itchy feelings about it stem from the religious element in Railsea.
Every one of Mieville’s novels deals with religion, or with cultural assumptions so ingrained that they resemble religion. (He also has kind of a thing about angels, and the myriad ways he’s made them is strange and wonderful.) The religious elements in his books are viewed with a very wide lens, an anthropological pin in the map of the world he’s writing. There’s always a wide range of established beliefs, levels of faith, and degrees of action based on that faith (or lack of it). He’s very effective at using the language of religion to establish the boundaries that are about to challenge his characters (and thereby challenging the language of faith and the nature of belief in every story he tells, whether that faith is in something supernatural or in the accepted order of things). Even when religion results in very concrete actions (basically all of Kraken), the belief itself is a fluid thing. It grows and shrinks, it flows into other forms of thought, it remakes itself in insidious ways, it drains down between the cracks in the concrete and swells back up through the kitchen sink: it is alive.
The belief system of Railsea is finite and brittle. It has the language of the supernatural, it’s acted upon as supernatural, but in the end it’s purely mechanical. The taboos of this world are misunderstood words, the gods are machines set in motion so long ago that no one remembers what they are. The protagonist pushes further and further out against the vague chittering warnings of religious faith until it dissipates like so much fog.
I grew up in a very religious home, but have spent the better part of my adult life pushing against the lore and the language and the assumptions of that faith. This was not a go-to-church-on-Sunday-and-make-the-best-of-it thing; it was an all or nothing thing. As an adult, I see a lot of things in that life that were unwell, and I’ve fought to get away from them. But I can’t ever shake my belief in God entirely, and I’m not sure I want to. What I do want is to know if what belief I have is real or just a habit that’s so old it’s in my cells. I’m forever taking that rusty habit out and examining it in the light to see how sound it is, but I never have an answer to that question. I’m never going to have an answer to that question. Living with that kind of complex uncertainty about what makes us ourselves is just part of being human. What made me uncomfortable about Railsea was imagining a world where it was possible to push on the last door of belief and see it evaporate. Where you could know for certain that your deities were mechanical creations with concrete financial goals, and your holy texts were simply misunderstood place names. Hoping for that kind of certainty, fearing that kind of certainty.
I don’t think think it’s necessarily a bad thing to feel my uncomfortable places so acutely, but I wish the book that did it had been better.
I left a library book on the Max yesterday. Specifically, I left Shadows by Robin McKinley on the red line train at Beaverton Transit Center, as it ended its westbound run and switched over to the eastbound. It was about 8:40 in the morning, I was carrying coffee and a tote bag and an umbrella and my phone. I had been reading the book at the beginning of my commute, but then set it aside to do something else, thinking I’d get back to it before I arrived. It was wedged between my left leg and the wall. When the train got to Beaverton TC (which always comes before I’m expecting it, and I have to switch there for the blue line), I got up with my coffee and tote bag and umbrella and phone, and walked off without the library book.
I’m describing this in excruciating detail in order that I might feel every little grain of salt I’m rubbing into my own wound. I left a library book on a train. The ignominy of this is large. Big ignominy.
Oh, I’ve forgotten a detail that makes it even worse. It wasn’t even my library book. It was a loaner from a friend who finished it early and knew I had it on my hold list.
The worst part, of course, is that I was only about a third of the way through, and it was zipping right along and I was loving it, and now I can’t read it until I can get another copy, or until I spend $9 and change on a Kindle edition. Which I’m not going to do, because, well, I’m not. Robin McKinley’s great with the vocabulary and the vivid and unexpected characters who are chock full of normal human details and feelings in the midst of their epic magic thing. But not even to punish myself will I spend $9 on the Kindle edition. Having to wait for another copy to roll up the library hold list is punishment enough.
But I can’t stop wondering what’s happening to this book in the meantime. It was pointed towards the airport when I left it. Did someone find it and think it looked interesting and take it somewhere fun? Did somebody pick it up and return it in a library drop box (this is Portland, I’d bet money there’s one of those at the airport)? Is it still sitting on the train? Was it there at the end of the day, and did the driver find it during a final sweep, and drop it in lost and found where it will lie unread forever and its soul will slowly die? Did a kid find it and stash it in her backpack, where it will sit for the next eight months, in a bath of gum wrappers and nail polish and nickels and pens until she finds it at the very end of summer vacation and reads it and falls in love and can’t stop telling all her friends about it and they’re all totally over it and wish she’d shut up about the main character who loves dogs just exactly as much as she loves dogs and how she doesn’t really like her stepfather either and did you guys know that origami figures can ward off evil?
I hope that one’s the one. I’ll happily pay to replace the book that never returned if that’s the one.
The library of my childhood was across the field from my elementary school. I’d sometimes go there after school to wait for my mother to pick me up; when I picture it now, it’s from the perspective of my height at about 7 years old. I spent long hours there all through my childhood and well into my teens, but that’s the way I remember it: from low to the ground.