1.23.2011

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack, by Mark Hodder

The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack
The Strange Affair of
Spring Heeled Jack

Mark Hodder's The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack takes the grandfather paradox and runs with it in spectacular fashion. It starts out as a steampunk novel that uses historical figures as characters (such as Sir Richard Francis Burton, Algernon Swinburne, and Isambard Kingdom Brunel), but it becomes rapidly apparent that this novel is more than that when we start to learn the history and motivations of the eponymous Spring Heeled Jack. I would have finished this book sooner, but I had to keep running to Wikipedia to find out what really happened with these characters. As I read, I was astounded to see just how much actual history Hodder incorporated into his fiction. It's amazing what Hodder's done just by throwing a time traveler into the mix.

Two things struck me about this book. The first is the technology.The Victorian Age was a time of remarkable scientific and technological achievement. The Victorian Age of the novel is like that, but on crack. Not only are inventors and engineers creating steam-driven marvels, but eugenicists create genetically-manipulated creatures for transportation, communication, and sanitation. And it all happens within a few decades. Hodder drops in extracts from advertisements to show just how far things have gone. He's also keen to show the downsides of the technology, something absent from most of the other steampunk novels I've read. The detail is not quite Dickensian, but the topics are: orphan chimney sweeps, rampant pollution, abject poverty, and conscienceless violence. Instead of a bright, shiny world of steam vapor and bronze goggles, the world of Spring Heeled Jack is very dark. Burton, the chief protagonist, constantly compares places like Wapping and Whitechapel to darkest Africa--though Africa was not quite as bad as the East End.

The second thing that struck me was the use of the grandfather paradox. When we learn what Spring Heeled Jack really is and what he's after, the novel really takes off. I hate to give too much  away, but I will say that Jack is an inventor from the future, a descendant of a man, Edward Oxford, who tried to kill Queen Victoria. In order to erase this stain on the family history, Jack (actually Edward John Oxford, born in 2162) travels back in time to stop the assassination attempt. But every time he tries to change something, he just makes matters worse. As his time travel suit malfunctions, Oxford starts to go mad. In other time travel novels, I've seen authors bend over backwards to explain away or prevent grandfather paradoxes. They usually boil down to either a) history protects itself or b) one person can't change history. Hodder goes in the absolute opposite direction. Not only do all of Oxford's actions backfire, but even casual conversations with locals change history.

The language of this book is occasionally overblown and, at first, this is an unpleasant distraction. I chose to read this book as a more imaginative version of a penny dreadful. After I made that decision, this book was an absolute hoot to read. It's wild. It's inventive. It's gripping. I can only hope that Hodder's future books measure up to this one, because The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack will be damned hard to top.

1.22.2011

The Half Made World, by Felix Gilman

Half-Made World
The Half-Made World
Above all else, I'd have to say that Felix Gilman's Half-Made World is a very weird book. It's entertaining. It has a great story. It has very interesting characters. But, more than anything else, this is a weird book. We thankfully get to travel through this book's world in the company of a character who has never been to the wild western reaches of a world that is quite literally still forming itself out of primordial chaos. While things are never completely explained, Liv Alverhyusen does help one keep one's head in all the pell-mell action.

The book opens with Dr. Liv getting an invitation to work at a hospital at the far edge of the world treating the victims of noisebombs (which cause irreparable damage to the mind). She soon finds herself in the middle of a four hundred year old war between the Engines and the Gun. This war is terrifically fascinating and I loved the dribs and drabs of history that came out in the characters conversations. (I really hope that Gilman is writing more books set in this world, because I would love to know more about the Engines and the Gun's Agents.) It would be easy to read this book as a fantastical metaphor for the settlement of the American West. There are even a group of characters that could be stand-ins for the Native American tribes. But I can't help but feel that that interpretation would be a little too glib and a little too easy. This book is too original for that kind of reading.

Along with Liv's thread of the narrative, we also get to drop in on the respective agents of the Engines and the Gun. First, there's Creedmoor, an Agent of the Gun. Through a pact with a demon (that, yes, lives in his gun), Creedmoor becomes a larger than life outlaw: wily, anarchic, and hard to kill. Then there's Lowry, a Sub-Invigliator for the Engine. He's the complete opposite of Creedmoor. The only similarities they share are ruthlessness in doing their jobs. Gilman is brilliant at showing the flaws of both, making it hard to root for either side of the great war. Life in the Engines is like the worst sort of Dickensian nightmare, full of smoke and sickness and soul-crushing labor. They sweep all before them as they look for new resources to keep running. But the Gun, if they didn't have the Engines to fight, would be mindlessly violent. It's not safe to live in either world. I couldn't help liking Creedmoor. In spite of his pact, Creedmoor has a mind of his own and thwarts the Gun's demon at every opportunity.

As the book progresses, Liv travels further and further west, in the company of Creedmoor and a former General who may or may not have the secret to ending the war locked up in his noisebomb-shattered brain. And as they move west, they start to approach the edge of the world. Things start to get really, really weird. There are unknown and frightening creatures in the woods and the deserts and the swamps. The weather and the terrain change from day to day and hour to hour. It defies settlement. At times, it defies reality.

Perhaps the most intriguing character aren't the humans, but the land itself. No doubt like many other readers, I thought the title was a metaphor. The descriptions in the book of the world still making itself are magical. Between those passages and Creedmoor, this is a hell of a story.

1.04.2011

The Stranger, by Albert Camus

The Stranger
The Stranger
Continuing my efforts to read the books I missed as an undergraduate but should have read, I finished Albert Camus's The Stranger last night. At first, I wondered that it was the work of the same author. The first fifty or so pages were so plain, almost entirely devoid of reflection or even adjectives.* The most interesting part of this book happens after the narrator is imprisoned. The book comes strangely to life at that point. It reminded me of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz, as if we moved from black and white into color.

For the first part of the book, until the protagonist--Meursault--kills an Arab, the writing is a very spare narrative and mostly just describes how he spends his days. The overwhelming impression I got of Meursault was that he was quite apathetic. Whenever someone asks him for his preference, he replies that he has none. When his girlfriend asks him if he loves her, Meursault replies that the word is meaningless. He has small pleasures, but nothing affects him. Even when his mother dies, Meursault doesn't seem to feel any of the grief an ordinary person would feel. For many pages, I thought that he might be stupid, or autistic, or had some kind of affect disorder. Like the language of the book, the character really seems to come to life after he is put in jail for several months.

All the descriptions of the book I had read previously made me think that The Stranger was about the crime, with a Trial-like exploration of the judicial system. Indeed, Meursault's trial is almost as absurd as Joseph K's. Meursault's victim is clearly an afterthought as the prosecutor and the judge's are much more interested in how the protagonist reacted at his mother's funeral. In fact, his defense lawyer exclaims at one point: "Is my client on trial for having buried his mother, or for killing a man?" (121**). As I read on, I wondered if the eponymous stranger was Meursault because no one else could understand him.

But The Stranger is more philosophical than it is absurd. As soon as I stopped trying to find a psychological explanation for Meursault, I found that I rather admired his acceptance of his death sentence. Critics will say that this is an existentialist book, but I wonder if Stoic might not be a better description. Meursault doesn't worry about his place in the world or his purpose. He tries to appeal his sentence, but when that fails, he makes peace with his situation. Granted, Meursault doesn't pursue virtue like a true Stoic would. But I can't deny that he has the calmness of one. After a fascinating exchange with a chaplain who cannot accept his atheism, Meursault has this remarkable thought:
With death so near, Mother must have felt like someone on the brink of freedom, ready to start life all over again. No one, no one in the world had any right to weep for her. And I, too, felt ready to start life all over again. It was as if that great rush of anger had washed me clean, emptied me of hope, and, gazing up at the dark sky spangled with its signs and stars, for the first time, the first, I laid my heart open to the benign indifference of the universe. To feel it so like myself, indeed, so brotherly, made me realize that I'd been happy, and that I was happy still. (154)
The line about the "benign indifference of the universe" particularly resonated with me. I've long believed in something similar myself. Like Meursault, I take comfort in it because it truly gives us free will. We make our own choices and have to live (or die) with the consequences.

Like all good books, The Stranger makes one think about what one believes. Like a great book, it makes one question what one believes. I'm sure other readers will be disturbed by this book, especially in the way that Meursault thinks about death and what happens or doesn't happen after. The Stranger might seem a simple read, but I found it very profound.

* I apologize for the formality of my language. I've been watching the BBC's Pride and Prejudice and this always happens to me.

** All quotations are from the 1965 Alfred A. Knopf edition.

Bone Rattler, by Eliot Pattison

Bone Rattler
Bone Rattler
Pattison's Bone Rattler is an unconventional mystery. There are no police. The "detective" is an indentured servant who only investigates the crimes in the book because he wants to save an innocent man. And while there is a trial at the end, it's a parody of a judicial proceeding with two warring judges. I read Bone Rattler in two days. I didn't mean to read it so quickly, but I kept reading because I just had to know how it all worked out.

The novel begins with the protagonist, Duncan McCallum, on a prison ship some days out of New York harbor in 1759. We learn that he's been sentenced to seven years' indenture for the crime of sheltering a Jacobite relative. For several dozen pages, this remains one of the few clear facts in the book. McCallum is in the middle of what turns out to be at least three interrelated mysteries and it takes him (and the reader) a while to get oriented to the strange deaths on and off the ship.

Before long, McCallum is pressed into duty as an investigator because he had medical training and a stubborn refusal to let official lies slide past. As if this weren't enough, McCallum also find himself hip deep in some seeming supernatural weirdness. As they must, the different threads of the mystery eventually converge. The murder and suicides on the prison ship eventually trace back to a massacre some years before the novel and a truly impressive set of conspiracies. Unlike the more procedural kinds of mysteries, this book follows a winding path towards its resolution(s). McCallum picks up a part of the story from one character, another from a different character, and yet more from evidence scattered around what seems like the entire western half of the New York colony.

To his credit, Pattison doesn't explain things overmuch. There is a character inclined to exposition but, for the most part, McCallum has to figure things out on his own. Thankfully, he's a bright and observant man. He gives the reader a view of the New World that I haven't encountered in fiction or in nonfiction. Anyone who's been through American history classes has a basic understanding of what Colonial America was like: Pilgrims, Thanksgiving, French and Indian Wars, Intolerable Acts, Revolutionary War, and a lot of men in wigs and short pants. Because of that background, it's hard to imagine what it would be like to sail for months across and ocean, to settle in a wildly dangerous new land. And because of our global, connected world, it's hard to imagine what it would be like to encounter new peoples, with radically different cultures and philosophies. Following McCallum around, however, helped me to feel what it might have been like to live in an alien country.

I love books that can successfully blend genres. I'd recommend this to fans of mysteries, especially fans who like mysteries that can keep them guessing until the end of the book. And I'd recommend it to fans of historical fiction. Pattison does a terrific job of showing his readers just how dangerous colonial America could be. I lost count of the number of near death experiences McCallum has. In spite of the lack of explication, there are a wealth of details in the book that paint a very clear picture of McCallum's New York. I could swear that I could smell the trees as our protagonist and his allies trekked through the wilderness.

I am so glad my library has the sequel.

1.01.2011

The Plague, by Albert Camus

The Plague
The Plague
I've been meaning to read The Plague, by Albert Camus, for a long time. For some morbid reason, books about epidemics appeal to me. Unlike other pandemic books, The Plague asks readers to think about the meaning (or whether there is a meaning) to a devastating illness. No, The Plague doesn't just ask. It demands that its readers think about what it means to live in a city cut off from the world by one of history's most terrifying and leveling diseases.

At it's most basic, the plot follows a handful of characters in the city of Oran sometime in the 1940s as they cope with an outbreak of bubonic plague. It's been suggested that this book is also an allegory for the invasion and occupation of France during the Second World War. As I read the book, I could see the connections. I've found that very definite allegories don't age well, as history moves further and further away from the events the book or story explores and as readers move on to different topics of concern. For example, it's very hard to relate to books like Pilgrim's Progress (John Bunyan) or The Faerie Queene (Edmund Spencer). The Plague, however, has other things going for it that will keep it relevant no matter how long its been since Camus wrote it. As I read it, I felt that The Plague is probably one of those books I could read and re-read and still find new ideas to explore.

I won't be so presumptuous as to say that I know what the book is about. I will, however, say what the book was about for me, at this reading. Camus doesn't linger much on what the plague is or what its symptoms are, except when it serves the purpose of the story to do so. He does linger on the characters who try to assign meaning to the plague. The characters are not especially well rounded. Instead they serve as examples of how people chose to cope with something as horrific as an epidemic of the bubonic plague. Four characters stood out to me, as they demonstrate four different paths.

Cottard is a criminal who bizarrely thrives in the new Oran. Where other people cower indoors or join the fight against the disease, Cottard suddenly finds himself a big man in a smuggling operation. He could probably be seen as an analogue for war profiteers, especially considering what happens to him at the end. As the plague winds down, he grows increasingly panicked about what will happen after the plague ends. He all but hopes aloud that the plague will continue indefinitely.

Paneloux, the priest, represents a more traditional perspective on the plague--so traditional that his attitudes hark back to the medieval outbreaks of the plague. He gives two sermons, one after the city quarantines itself and another towards the end of the isolation period. The first sermon comes close to fire and brimstone at a couple of points, though Paneloux is a sophisticated, educated man. The first sermon boils down to Paneloux's interpretation of the plague as a punishment from God. The plague is imagined as a flail, whipping the population back onto the path of righteousness. It was hard to read, even though I know that that interpretation was not uncommon. To my way of thinking, it demonstrates a very human tendency to wonder why terrible things happen. If we suffer, there has to be a reason. Paneloux's second sermon is more temperate. Rather than being a scourge, the plague is a test for believers. He says:
[W]e must convince ourselves that there is no island of escape in time of plague. No, there was no middle course. We must accept the dilemma and chose either to hate God or to love God. (205*)
Even when finally succumbs to plague, Father Paneloux accepts his fate. He refuses a doctor and lets the disease take him.

Jean Tarrou had a different perspective. Rather than falling back on what theology dictates, Tarrou lets his more logical philosophy guide him. Towards the end of the book, Tarrou talks to Dr. Rieux about an experience in his childhood that lead him to a lifelong abhorrence of death, especially the death penalty. In a way, the plague can be seen as a death penalty being passed on all the inhabitants of Oran, and there are references to the plague in this sense in the text. Just as he found against the death penalty in his younger years, Tarrou fights against the plague in every way that he can. As he talks to the doctor, Tarrou starts to talk about the plague as a personification of the evil that humans inflict on one another and he explains why he helps as much as he can"
I only know that one must do what one can to cease being plague-stricken, and that's the only way in which we can hope for some peace or, failing that, a decent death. This, and only this, can being relief to men and, if not save them, at least do them the least harm possible and even, sometimes, a little good. (228)
Tarrou later asks "Can one be a saint without God?" (230). Speaking for myself, I think it is possible. I'm a little surprised that Tarrou didn't take that last logical step. He built for himself an admirable code of ethics and he stuck to it until the end. If nothing else, he shows that one can be moral without God or a church threatening one with hellfire in order to make them behave.

The fourth character, Dr. Rieux, is more atheistic than Tarrou. While he goes to church, Rieux doesn't ascribe any supernatural meaning to the plague. It's a disease and its his duty to save as many people as possible. He listens to the other characters, and doesn't argue with them directly. He just does his duty as he sees it. Interestingly, he's the only one of the four to survive the plague.

Rieux's the character I most identified with. I'm not enough of a bastard to profit while other suffer like Cottard does. And even when I went to church, I never thought the way Paneloux does. I wish I were as good and brave as Tarrou. The man is one of the most interesting would-be saints I've encountered. But Rieux, I think that way he does. Diseases are terrible things. An epidemic is terrifying, but it's just a disease. It's not sent to punish or to teach (unless it's to teach us better hygiene). A bacilli or a virus or a prion just does what biology tells it to do. We fight back as best we can or we die. It's simple, brutal biology.

This line of thought leads me to whether the book is existentialist or not. Camus split from the existentialists and didn't like being labeled as one. I haven't read a lot of existentialist literature, so I'm not sure what the hallmarks are. As I understand it, it's all about pondering what life is supposed to mean and what one's purpose is, outside of religion, at great length and in great anxiety. Camus doesn't have the anxiety part, but The Plague could be read as an exploration of how humans deal with life in general. Do we embrace the inner schmuck and take advantages wherever we can? Should we kowtow to a deity and hope for a reward after death? Do we create our own code of conduct and try to live without hurting one another? Or do we just live, as best we can, without assigning meaning to every trial and reward?

I don't know if I'm reading The Plague the right way, assuming there is a right way. But I found it a fascinating, profound read.

* All quotations from 1948 Modern Library edition.