Category Archives: Books

I’m 35 pages from the end of The Shadow Rising and tomorrow I start right away with another “epic”: The Man Without Qualities, Robert Musil.

I’ll read it on the sidelines, the same as I’m reading Parallel Stories by Peter Nadas (another “hefty” 560k volume), so it probably won’t be put on my reading progress tab. I’m also reading the Italian version since I trust more the translation and I know it to be very good.

The Man Without Qualities is unfinished, though. One English version in two volumes out there is 1770 pages, but that includes a bunch of rough sketches and drafts at the end. If counting only the finished to almost-finished part (so including the galley chapters) then it’s around 520k words.

Reading the preface, I was reminded of George R. R. Martin. See if it doesn’t fit perfectly:

The extent to which Musil regarded this novel as experimental was extraordinary. He had begun work on it in earnest in 1924 and was most reluctant when the urging of publishers and worsening external conditions forced him to publish parts of it in 1931 and 1933 (pages 1-1130 in this edition). From his point of view, the entire text ought to have remained “open” from the beginning until it had all been written and he could then revise the text as a whole. He complained that partial publication removed those parts of the novel from the possibility of further alteration, as well as distorting the shape (again, a never defined, “open” shape) he had in mind for the whole work. As it was, in 1938, in less than robust health and apparently apprehensive that he would again be forced into premature publication, he withdrew the first twenty chapters that appear in “From the Posthumous Papers” when they were already set in galleys, in order to rework them still further. These chapters were intended not to conclude the novel but to continue “Into the Millennium.” Like Goethe, Musil had a strange sense of having infinite time stretching out before him in which to complete his task. One is tempted to see in his solitary and stubborn pursuit of his ideal more than a little of Kafka’s Hunger Artist.

Stubborn writers with artistic ideals bigger than life.

HA! I’ve got this one in Italy one day BEFORE official US release. Take that, and blame Amazon Europe that didn’t respect the date (and if you are in Germany they got a really low price). Usually it takes me at least one week past release to get a book.

Anyway, while I’m not a big Sanderson fan and this isn’t exactly my preferred reading, I’m still very glad of getting this book and happy to start reading it right away (at my pace). It’s been three years and a few months after The Way of Kings. Maybe I could have planned my reading queue better since right now I was focusing mostly on The Shadow Rising and I consider Sanderson and Jordan relatively similar, in that both are fairly light and leisure kind of reading, but I’ll stick with it.

This Stormlight Archive series is a big investment for Tor, in this age post-Jordan, and you could have seen it concretely in the first book. It wasn’t just a way to deliver words on a page to you, but a rather nice package that had been very carefully built to draw attention and do the best service possible to the words it contained. They wanted this book not a book, but an event.

First, it got Sanderson’s favorite artist for the cover, Michael Whelan, who actually made a really good cover, with warm and strong basic colors and an evocative scene that let transpire the book’s aspired breadth and epic range. It celebrated the scenery more than it celebrated some chosen hero. It then had a bluish hard cover with a sword-like symbol impressed on the front, and a nice texture. Then you flipped the page and there were two gorgeously colored illustrations, one with a map of the regions of the world, the other with a Tree of Life wannabe diagram with fancy symbols. Again the two full-color illustrations mirrored on the back cover, one showing some spiritual equivalent of the map, the other a variation on the Tree of Life theme (and my disappointment was that absolutely none of this was introduced or even glimpsed in the actual text). Than a two-pages acknowledgements by Sanderson telling you how this wasn’t just another book he wrote, but actually the apex of his ambition, the one true project he was really investing himself into. So up the hype.

Then you got an index. And you could see that Sanderson was using every single permutation that he had available. Fantasy books indulge with structure-related artifices, like quotes or poetry to start a chapter, frontispieces, prologues and epilogues, maps. Sanderson took everything (almost, he’s missing family trees and Dramatis Personae). He had a Prelude, sub-division into Five Parts, Prologue, three Interludes (which I enjoyed the most out of everything else in the book), an Epilogue, Endnotes and even a quick & dirty Appendix. And then he took also quotes at the beginning of each chapter, and illustrated chapter headers. But not like WoT chapters headers, with a symbol to represent the chapter. Nope, he had an arc-like thing whose sculpted faces changes as the chapters change AND an illustration within a circle to better represent the theme. And then he got illustrations. Actually good and sometimes useful illustrations. Nineteen of them. Some of which artsy, inspiring maps of cities or other regions.

So the book was overflowing with presentation-driven aids and embellishments. It wanted to make this book more than a book, an experience. It wanted to seduce you with words and colors and art. Because that’s the point: ten of these 1000 pages volumes are planned by Sanderson for this series (without even considering a wider structure to which this series is supposed to belong to). He wants you with him for the long haul. This is his, and Tor, contemporary Wheel of Time, and this time, instead of being found by success, they are planning for it. Planning big, all in.

I can at least enjoy and empathize a little bit with this hype. It doesn’t hurt and I always admire and appreciate ambition. So if I can breath some of that hype it just adds to the experience and makes me actually excited to read the book without overthinking that in the end it’s average fantasy, really. At that point the writing itself is alone to prove itself, but up to that point the presentation made sure to put the writing in the best position possible.

So the point now is: has Tor weakened its effort and marketing push in regards to this second volume? The answer: it’s about the same.

I was worried that after the big splash we’d instead get far less commitment for this second volume, but instead Tor at least made the fist volume into a canon. So this second volume is a very precise copy of what we got with the first, with maybe slightly less love overall. The new cover is rather underwhelming, and nowhere comparable with the one used for the first volume. The chosen hero is now featured prominently on the cover, in a rather cheesy pose/act. The environment is dull, the colors a sickly and drab yellow palette. It seems more like a cover for Peter Pan. The scene has none of the depth of the one in the first volume, and the lance that the character is holding could have at least given the cover some dynamism, but it’s completely obscured by the title. So a mediocre cover overall (if you told me it was made by some dude imitating Whelan’s style I’d believe it). But it retains the style and artist, so it’s the artist in this case who failed to deliver. The book itself is instead red, with a nice silk-like texture to it and another symbol/glyph engraved in the front, different but in the same style of the one in the first volume. You flip the page, but the illustrations with map+Tree of Life are gone. We get instead a two-page illustration by Whelan again with Shallan on a rock, and it’s actually far, far better than the illustration on the cover, whoever chose that one over this is a total fool. On the back cover instead we get a two pages color illustration of the map. Which is basically the same map that you get in black and white within the book. So overall the four gorgeous illustrations in The Way of Kings don’t have an equivalent parallel in Words of Radiance, sadly. A bit of slack.

The inside instead follows closely the first volume. We’ve got again Acknowledgements by Sanderson, this time two pages and half, but only because they greatly embiggened the font. Sanderson again pushes on the hype with this book that is not just a book, and also explains that writing a book is becoming a thing of teamwork, with various “consultants” to help with specific aspects of the writing, like continuity, character psychology and horse behaviors. Then the usual Index listing the exact number of illustrations that were in the first volume, and a similar smattering of Prologue/Interludes/Epilogue. Interestingly, The Way of Kings played with part two and four subtitles: “The Illuminating Storms” and “Storm’s Illumination”. Words of Radiance does something similar with parts two and five: Winds’ Approach” and “Winds Alight”, but where ‘approach’ and ‘alight’ are titles of respective parts. The illustrations appear on a individual basis less cared for compared to the first book, somewhat more perfunctory. Everything else follows the model of the first book. Thankfully We get the exact same font, size, lines on each page. The official wordcount for The Way of Kings was 387k for 1001 pages. Words of Radiance has 1080 pages, and even if I didn’t manage to get a wordcount from Sanderson & assistant, we’re likely around 405-410k since everything is the same, including the wide margins on the page. In the end 400k make for a REALLY long book, but conventionally so. There’s nothing extraordinary about that.

So overall the quality of Words of Radiance, when it comes to the package & presentation, is slightly below the level of the first book, but thankfully Tor maintained the exact same, already lofty, standard. I’m very glad they are sticking to the format, and I roll my eyes thinking that most surely at some point in the life of this series will come an overzealous editor that will start playing with font sizes, pagination and overall layout just to ruin the consistence you expect. Because it always happens.

But for now the two books are a perfect match, and look great side by side.

As she danced she reduced the distinction between heath and sky. The horizon, never convinced of itself, melted. Vera was left crossing and recrossing a space steadily less definable.

This isn’t a review attempt, it is instead an admission of total surrender. I read this post on Harrison’s blog and that’s the perfect thing to catch my curiosity. I’m always for the epic: “this is my last stand, right on the edge of literature”. The idea that this story wouldn’t let go, and haunt its writer is a romantic ideal that has influence on me. So I decided to go read it. In the complete Viriconium paperback I already own this story is only eighteen pages, so it would be quick and I’d get right to the point.

I’ve read already a bit of Viriconium, the first book. I probably made past its middle point, or some sixty page of The Pastel City. I know it isn’t very much representative of what the Viriconium or Harrison’s writing actually is, but I enjoyed and grasped enough the dreamlike quality of setting, story and characters. It certainly has an unique flavor and charm, and it stands apart from everything else. At some point I’ll go back and read all the rest. This story instead, deep into “Viriconium Nights”, the fourth volume made by a collection of short stories, is what I could as well name “unreadable drivel”.

It’s not that I don’t try, but I have to admit failure when it happens. This short story seems to me as if someone took a novel, cut lines and paragraphs all through it, then reassembled them at random, and took every sentence to twist and turn it upside down. But this is not quite. The dreamlike substance that makes Viriconium is present here. This story, and its fictional world, is unstable, as unstable is the fabric of dreams. The instability itself is not perceived, because the fabric of a world defines perception itself. So the sense of wrongness (or weirdness) is perceived by the readers, but the characters go their way without awareness (or sight). Characters, and places, that seem culled from different stories, different worlds. Viriconium, the city, is the improbable intersection where these all meet. An amalgam of different cities, different places. But again it’s even more, because it’s as if the only trace left by all this is only a sort of radiation, a vague imprint. A ghost trace that is reshaped every seconds and receives afterimages from the outside. It’s like an archaeology dig site, a city that was here with its inhabitants, so long ago. Only crumbled walls, pot shards and dust are left. But instead of having the remains of one city, we have countless of them, and from different times.

So this is the structure: different places, different times, coexisting as a backdrop for a story. How would it be living in such a place? The few characters mirror that. As if characters that do not belong together, coming from the most disparate stories. It’s like an earlier movie by Werner Herzog with the actors acting under hypnosis. Characters suddenly standing up and shouting nonsense, then running off in a random direction. The prose, that I know is much praised, has no sense of flow and is actually a deliberate attempt at being clunky, broken, breaking any sense of pacing. Crooked sentences that do not belong to the paragraph they are in. The story is like an assembled puzzle where most pieces aren’t even there, only fragments forced to fit together. It flows and fades in and out, as if only very vaguely leaving behind a trail of coherence. A very weak, and always fading, link with reality.

These regions are full of old cities which differ from Vriko only in the completeness of their deterioration. The traveller in them may be baked to death, or, discovered with his eyelids frozen together, leave behind only a journal which ends in the middle of a sentence.

I guess as an art form it is quite good. It has that link of reality, it has the deliberate creation, it has consistence between style, structure and theme. I kept reading with the fading hope that it would eventually make sense. It obviously didn’t (or maybe it did, an imaginative watchman watching, seeing a story with Viriconium its theater). I can imagine the writer writing this all the while thinking about that. But I couldn’t follow, and in the end this is way more esoteric than Gene Wolfe. I have an intellectual appreciation for the aesthetic, and a respect for the writer and what he attempted. But reading this story was for me quite frustrating and ultimately annoying.

“Ajencis once wrote that all men are frauds. Some, the wise, fool only others. Others, the foolish, fool only themselves. And a rare few fool both others and themselves — they are the rulers of Men…”

World-born men, Kellhus had found, despised complexity as much as they cherished flattery. Most men would rather die in deception than live in uncertainty.

If The Silmarillion and Dune had a baby, and it had a truly dark soul, that baby would be the Prince of Nothing series. The Warrior-Prophet is book 2 in a trilogy sub-series. Another trilogy comes after whose third book is expected to come out later this year, depending on how long Bakker continues working on it since the first draft has been completed already. After that there may still be some other kind of follow-up in the form of duology or something similar, and what is important to consider is that all of this was already part of the original vision and not further extensions to take advantage of some success, since the risk here is the inverse: that the relatively narrow reach of such a work may cut its expression before it reaches the end. At least we know that the final book of the second trilogy is going to happen, and that it should lay out Bakker’s Grand Plan in its full potential, if not exhausting it. Potential new readers should then consider that this is already a satisfying work even in its current state.

Instead I’m still at book 2. This one is by far the biggest in the first trilogy, 200k words for 600 pages. Maybe not that HUGE compared to other typical epic doorstopper, but to me Bakker’s books feel so packed with ideas and tight focus that they lose none of the feel of epic breadth. More to the point, he deliberately channels with his writing style and tone the biblical feel that can make characters and events bigger than they are. I think the greater majority of Bakker’s effort when writing goes in this aspect: make every line of text the bitch of his purpose. Bakker, the writer, is a madman possessed of clear intent and indomitable determination. Nothing escapes his writing. It’s all heightened sight focused on purpose, and you could say that this, right here, is where he loses most potential readers.

Bakker’s writing is, if you let me play a bit, mono-tone. In the sense that every page sustains the same purposes and similar focus. This book has a true center in its protagonist, the nail of the revolving heavens, and there converges everything else. Mono-tone not in the sense of “dull” or “boring”, but meaning that the same obsession that drives every line also drives the story and characters. It drives the events and all the themes that smolder underneath. Other writers can have an advantage playing with a range of different tones, breaking rhythm through a different sense of pacing. Alleviating tension while building familiarity and camaraderie. But Bakker’s writing gains in integrity and consistence. Every part of the book serves its purpose. There’s no digression, no distraction. No “fanservice” to reach for a certain audience to please it. No compromises. It feels, maybe, “driven”. As driven are the people in the book blindly following their holy faith. Everything sacred and holy is what’s at the heart of the book, and Bakker approaches and seizes it with blasphemous ferocity.

And Cnaiür grinned as only a Chieftain of the Utemot could grin. The neck of the world, it seemed, lay pressed against the point of his sword.

I shall butcher.

This is not a tale conceived to be narrated to a reader. It’s more an inward kind of study and, with no compromises, can very easily drive readers away. But it is not hostile, it is not falsely pretentious or esoteric. It definitely tests a reader. It is not a test of “purity” or “worthiness”, but it’s definitely a test in prejudices and a challenge to how far you can reach, or how close you let it cut. It’s even easy for me to acknowledge some criticism against this book, accuses of misogyny and brutal violence. I do think that here and there some compromises would HAVE helped. A few things felt gratuitous and trying too hard. The very last scene could have been removed and the book would have lost absolutely nothing, and maybe gained some from it. The “Circumfix of the Warrior-Prophet” is another of those things that tips the balance over to the ridiculous, mirroring quite closely (I even suspect Bakker may have glimpsed this at some point) the scene where Achamian tells his story, thinks he’s finally reached his audience, when in the end they all burst in laughter. But it is true that Bakker would rather cut himself for playing on that edge over and over again, than back off and desist. He becomes Achamian (a kind of self-reference being played), ready even to humiliate himself just as long he stays “true” to his purpose. The other way, I’m sure, would have been easier. And this, I think, makes Bakker more like an ideal “artist”, who surrenders to art in order to serve it fully.

So “grimdark”. The Prince of Nothing is grimmer and darker than grimdark. Violence, sex, and sexual violence. Monstrosity, blasphemy. There’s filth and this book bathes in it as if the only possible and ideal place where to be. But again all this doesn’t serve a deranged appetite, only truths that are way more complex than how they appear. The horrors in this books are horrors that other books try to hide or completely deny. Like an inverted horror story where you pray the Boogie Man won’t come, but HE IS. Places where you’d rather not be. Other books are harmless, this one is not. But all this “ugliness” isn’t merely justified by some higher purpose, it is there because it is part of everything this story is. It is not simply excused to be there by the kind of setting the story uses, but it’s instead the fabric it is made of. The Inchoroi, the mysterious otherworldly race obsessed over human carnal activities and exploiting them in the ugliest way possible, are described as an “obscene race”. Magic is blasphemy, unclean because it undoes the order of reality. These themes revolving around the idea of purity and its perversion are what the book first and foremost engages with, and if it wants to reach deep it can’t recoil and filter just so the story is more palatable. It goes through an unavoidable path where absolutely no one dares going and conflating this to other books that show and exploit violence and sex is the huge misunderstanding, and the big risk this book takes without resorting to any compromise. “Grimdark” is usually used as a pejorative but it’s the greatest injustice to call this book so. The reason is that it would make this book sit in the center of a genre, but this book couldn’t be less representative of a genre. There’s nothing like it out there, especially in the fantasy genre, and even more specifically the Grimdark genre. The writing has an opposite focus, looks elsewhere. What you can identify as an “act” is instead completely different here.

If anything, Bakker tries to copy the more solemn, scriptural Tolkien (The Silmarillion), and the “vision” of Frank Herbert in Dune. The Prince of Nothing is a direct descendant of those works, maybe even to a fault. But at least it can absolutely stay up to lofty standards. Bakker is radical and takes no sides, including his own. His writing is ruthless, spares no one, carries no prejudices. Its grimdark posture is just that, what it looks from afar but that couldn’t be more alien from it. Look at the moon, not at the finger. Sadly, superficial looks is what books and their writers get most of the times. It is legitimate, and a reader is not to be judged if refusing this book. But there’s more to it than its “act”. So I can only implore, whatever you decide, to still approach this book after leaving behind all prejudices and with an open mind. You will find value, and it’s of a necessary, very rare kind.

To open a book was not only to seize a moment of helplessness, not only to relinquish a jealous handful of heartbeats to the unpredictable mark of another man’s quill, it was to allow oneself to be written. For what was a book if not a long consecutive surrender to the movements of another’s soul?

Characterization is a strong quality. There may be some controversy around this topic but I think that all characters are treated equally, whether Point of View characters or bystanders, women or men, they seem all cared for equally and very precisely characterized. Some choices could appear dubious and sometimes you don’t see the ideal arc of character development being realized, but once again the focus of this book is different and not simply about retracing those ideals. Some characters are described as trapped in their own cages and the reader expects them to eventually get free, to complete that ideal trajectory, but in this case Bakker isn’t interested in going through the standard movements. If you take someone like Martin who’s praised for his strong characterization you can see that every character is bound tightly to his own story, they “make sense” together, drawing an ideal path. There’s a sense of masterful craft in what Martin does, a search for narrative perfection and balance. But for Bakker this kind of idealism is made to be violated, undone. Bakker is an heretical voice, always subversive but never gratuitous. If Martin’s work dances on the edge between beauty and ugliness, Bakker instead explores some dark, bottomless pits where no one dares going and where it’s legitimate a reader refuses to follow. Nudity and shame. Unclean, unclean! He can show beauty too, but it’s often so vulnerable and momentous. Too exposed for the world not to spoil and devour it.

This quality of characterization surprised me not simply because it’s well motivated and coherent or consistent. But because the writer has a very fine attention for the subtler details, the very little gestures or partially hidden reactions that truly make a character into a whole. Bakker’s characters answer directly to the mantra of the book: what they are, the movement of their thoughts, depends on what came before. Who they’ve been, what and how they live determine what they become, the way they think. Being stuck in this middle position ideally constructs this “cage” that represents the universal human condition. So not only Bakker provides the finest characterization I’ve read, as true as possible to the singularity of the personal world of that character, but all this is still facing toward the core of the book, giving it power. He’s true to the small detail without ever forgetting about the sharp intent. The tone and purpose of the book, its direction. And so I admire this mastery where you notice both the sheer quality of the smallest element, yet realize how that element plays the fundamental role within the overall construction. Success on these two levels means reaching a kind of perfection in art, and I think Bakker goes very close.

Yet again this doesn’t mean universal acclaim. The frenzied, extremely lucid, but maybe self-absorbed writing style isn’t ideal to reach a wide public. And it becomes especially easy to misunderstood. Too incomprehensibly bleak and filled with unpleasantries. When Bakker does characterization the focus is on “being”, not “doing”. The cage of being can sometime, with certain characters, become intolerable from the passive position of the reader. After the accuses of misogyny and whatnot I still believe that what happens in the book and what the characters do is always coherent and necessary for this story (if not “opportune”). I do believe that women in the book are treated awfully, and if you reduce the book to this single aspect, everything becomes a catastrophic failure. But doing this is a manipulation, partial, partisan and single-minded. Because I do believe that women are treated equally to the men, it’s just that some readers decide to only see one side while obscuring the rest, and make that one part into the whole. No one is left standing, every single man is made into a pathetic fool and seen through the same lens. Bakker desecrates everything and everyone. Men and women. Offenses are taken personally.

Most, by and large, were born narrow, and cared to see only that which flattered them. Almost without exception, they assumed their hatreds and yearnings to be correct, no matter what the contradictions, simply because they felt correct. Almost all men prized the familiar path over the true. That was the glory of the student, to step from the well-worn path and risk knowledge that oppressed, that horrified.

There’s also to consider the aspect of “worldbuilding”, though I hate to deal with it as a separate thing. As it was with Tolkien, Bakker excels with it. This work is extremely well crafted and lends itself to (and is able to sustain) that type of close examination and speculation the fans love to do, much more than Malazan. Bakker doesn’t quite reach Tolkien’s levels of obsession but I really do believe that right now he absolutely has no rivals in the genre. There’s a great care for all the small details and structure that are only hinted in the background, the idea of a fully realized and consistent world, with its strong personality. And even more than Tolkien this isn’t just pointless detail, but still intricacy that contributes to an unique purpose. Motives that run deep and that aren’t simply scenery and choreography. So the attention for the little things is paid off aplenty, rewarded. For example the way magic works isn’t a “system” that is conceived to be just intriguing, but it engages deeply and meaningfully with the themes of this world, a sustaining force through it. That’s Bakker’s talent at creating a so incredibly complex, yet consistent world where none of its smallest cogs act independently or without reason. No writer I know comes even close, it’s just the way it is.

Lately I’ve heard often the expression “it’s very good at what it does” and I think it applies well to Bakker’s work. What’s most important for me to underline is that there’s no other thing out there like this. It’s epic fantasy, it can be called Grimdark, but there’s absolutely nothing in or outside the genre that does similar things or has a similar ambition (and sheer talent at craft). The only cousins are The Silmarillion and Dune, as I said, but that’s only in tone and as a search for a certain aesthetic, because purpose brings this book into a completely different territory. Bakker can actually channel Tolkien’s epic range and solemnity better than Tolkien himself, but where Tolkien’s world is all completely luminous and ideal, Bakker uses it to shatter the same holiness. To expose the ugly truth under it. The writing in this book feels extremely well measured, always sharp. Erikson can have a more varied tonal range, but Bakker loses that to gain in focus and consistence. In the next years it is likely that we’ll get more good writers in the genre, as it always happens, but Bakker represents exceptionality. Something that will stay unmatched because it goes outside every genre or trend. Books come out every year, in every genre, this is one that isn’t going to be replaced or obscured by anything else.

There’s an article on commenting Donaldson’s final book in the Thomas Covenant series, but it is more a simplistic wrap-up of the series as a whole.

I have only read the very first book whereas this guy has read them all, yet I’m pretty convinced that he just doesn’t “get it”. At all. He basically writes poorly motivated insults throughout the whole article, clumping together with some humorless snark all the worst cliches about Donaldson. But he then tries to play the surprise card by saying the series is great. In italics, because italics gives so much emphasis to throw out of balance all the insults preceding it.

I’ll get to the title, but the first thing that really annoyed me is this rhetorical device of using pejoratives while still trying to write a praise. As if one’s too coy to admit liking something and so proceeds using 99% of the space just to apologize for all the bad things. Why should a reader loving Thomas Covenant books APOLOGIZE? Are we really at this point of rhetorical shame? Of utter dishonesty?

He basically starts, after slyly comparing these books to adult diapers just to set the mood you’ll find for the rest of the article, by saying the series’ theme “of self-pity, and its deeply problematic nature” is “gross”. That’s like a first and final declaration of intents: whatever happens, you won’t empathize. Which means you should already close the book. Thomas Covenant can ONLY work as long you shed your own prejudices and judgement. You have to listen. If you don’t want to, go read a different, complacent book.

The other aspect that makes me think he doesn’t get it at all is this comment about The Land:

Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder, but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence, even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash. So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work, but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness.

You can see again the rhetorical device of using pejoratives even if the point is really to praise the work, even if that’s also another coy rhetorical device whose actual point is to truly diss the work. One slap and one pet, because the true kings of judgement are always squarely in the middle, and able to discern.

Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder (bad), but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence (good!), even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash (bad!). So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work (bad!), but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling (very good!) that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness (huh… bad?).

He makes you believe that the ultimate judgement is, surprise!, positive, but leaving a so bad taste in your mouth that’s in the end you won’t dare touch the soiled diaper. And he wins! Because that was the true, unsaid purpose. The “cleverly” disguised goal.

But again, the worst thing is that he doesn’t get it. There’s already this big misunderstanding in the genre about “world-building” that seems the most important prerequisite writing fantasy. It make sense it is, but here it completely sidetracks the purpose of the work. Donaldson writes about a secondary world called “The Land”. The name already should tell you how utterly generic and inconsistent the thing is. The key element here: a writer who brands his important secondary world as “The Land” is not a bad world-builder, he simply isn’t even TRYING. Branding this world as The Land is a declaration. It is generic not because Donaldson is unable to come up with a fancier, more specific term, but because it being generic is THE POINT. This land he’s describing is specific, but it is also, and most importantly, abstract. It is a symbol. It “represents” a land more than it actually “is”. By being generic it can embrace and represent every internal imaginary landscape. It’s one cliche of fantasy world, a metaphor turned into a specific object. But still a metaphor, so abstract and generic to apply to all sort of imaginary spaces. “One ring to bind them”.

Everything else follows from there. The Land is imagined. By being imagined, and so man-made, it is meaning-full. Objects ooze sense. They ooze emotions. The emotions, that are usually seen as impalpable and metaphysical (hello Bakker, I’ll get back to you) here are made into rocks, tree and grass. As in The Matrix, where things are made of numbers, this “Land” is made of thought and feelings. It is imagined because there’s a guy named Donaldson who imagines it. And because, in the book, this device is perfectly retrieved: there’s a guy named Thomas Covenant who imagines it! Thomas Covenant, SPOILER!, is dreaming. Dreams are made of symbols, not of “things”. And dreams have, very obviously, the “intensity of feelings”. That’s the whole point, you know? So this isn’t a weird collision of good and bad writing skills, or good and bad world-building. This is a collision between this guy getting and not getting the thing. Mistaking deliberate choices in the writing, for “flaws”. And he makes sure you don’t misunderstand all the “praises” he wrote:

That’s not to say he’s a writer without flaw

And finally we come to the more controversial bit. The blatant declaration:

As with the Flashman series, you are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character, but there is no denying or mitigating it: Thomas Covenant is a rapist.

I really tried to understand what his purpose is with that line. It’s not immediately clear to me. It starts with “your are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character BUT”. Thomas Covenant is a rapist.

That’s an affirmation. He underlines the fact it is. It’s like saying “Thomas Covenant has blue eyes”, but not quite because it’s more than just an observation or description. It’s a “label”. It is meant to reverse in the mind of who reads it. A rapist is Thomas Covenant.

Thomas Covenant: rapist.

That’s the label. He’s being flagged. This is a character reduced to a single angle, one dimension. And that’s the kind of intersection that does exist in the book. You either decide to be nonjudgmental here and actually go deeper in the story, or this fact is a screen and you bounce back. The whole thing is a “test”. It is a test as much for Thomas Covenant as it is for the reader, and neither seem to pass it.

But IS Thomas Covenant even a rapist? Because things aren’t that simple, and that claim is actually not correct. In fact, the book reproduces directly within itself the boundary between “real” and “fictional”. The same barrier that seems rather problematic for some readers and that brings them to absurd affirmations like saying that if Bakker writes a book about a misogynist world then it means Bakker himself is a misogynist. Blurring constantly fiction and reality, interpretations for facts.

In the case of Thomas Covenant the character rapes a girl in HIS DREAM. Not only, but it’s one of those “lucid dreams”, so he’s also aware of the fact the world he’s dreaming is fictional, and so that all the harm he may cause is also FICTIONAL. He’s “guilty” of raping a fictional character in a dream. Making it close to accusing a writer of murder because he wrote a crime story. “No fictional characters were harmed in this book”. And it’s not just that, because Thomas Covenant never backs up from what he did. He never tries to justify himself, and so he suffers the consequences of what he has done as if it was actually real. He rapes as if it wasn’t real, but from that point onward he acts as if it was. The society finger-pointing “a rapist!” doesn’t even come close to the way Thomas Covenant is changed by the experience. And no, I’m not implying that rapists do suffer as much as their victims and we should all pity them. NOPE. The story here remains an imagined landscape that plays with that burred barrier of fiction and reality. Being an imagined landscape it means Thomas Covenant himself is the “measure”. The “society” cannot rise to judge Thomas Covenant because all this is happening within Thomas Covenant, and that includes the society itself. It’s Thomas Covenant recreating society within himself. The point of view here is authoritative, as authoritative is the fact you’re reading a written story. It is introspection. The rape and its consequences are BOTH introspection. No real girl was harmed. No fictional-real girl was harmed (since even in the book this happens within Covenant’s thoughts). Stephen Donaldson didn’t rape anyone and him and Thomas Covenant are both only guilt of introspection, and maybe wild imagination.

Thoma Covenant is not “a rapist” because that label empties the character entirely of its worth. It replaces a number of fundamental, ambiguous questions with an affirmation that is entirely false on all accounts, and so it means not engaging at all with the story at it is written. The rape in the book is never justified in any way. Neither in subtext, nor directly by Thomas Covenant. I’ve justified it here, but in the end it’s a challenge thrown at the reader. You will empathize or not, you will understand what Thomas Covenant did or not. The ambiguity, and actually difficulty in answering that question, is one of the book’s central themes. Can there be redemption when what you’ve done can’t be recovered? What will you do if you can’t go back? That triggers most of Thomas Covenant self-pity, because nothing can compensate what he did. What is sufficient compensation or punishment for rape? You throw yourself (because it’s introspection) in jail for the rest of your life? You cut the manhood, throw it in a jar and make her a present (“we are even now”)? You give her a knife and let her stab you till the end of times? You go to her and repeat “I’m sorry, I’m so very sorry!” a billion of times? The answer is that there’s no answer. So what now? That’s one of the questions.

And I wouldn’t be surprised if now someone claimed what I’ve written here is “rape apology”. Or that since I liked reading a book about a rapist then I’m a rapist too. Or that I’m saying all this because I’m “male and white”.

Nitpicking, the rape actually represents rape toward the land as a symbol and not as a sexual act. It represents Thomas Covenant lashing out against his dream and “violate” it. Soiling it in a non salvageable way. So the girl he rapes is actually just the spirit of the land that was humanized, innocent and pure. The way dreams usually work.

I got today a really nice copy of “Weaveworld” by Clive Barker. I was a fan as a kid, when I read Cabal and then proceeded to read most of the Books of Blood. Then I entered a new phase and left the “horror” genre behind. Now I’m back with my interest focused on the more “fantastic” side, Weaveworld and Imajica.

Nice copy, I said, with textured cover and seventeen black & white illustrations by the author inside. The book opens with a powerful quote:

…the spirit has its
homeland, which is the
realm of the meaning
of things.

-Saint-Exupéry, The Wisdom of the Sands

That’s tied always to the same theme. The dichotomy. “This” side we have language, meaning, symbols, gods and mythologies. The spirit is the realm of human beings, separate from nature. The “fantasy” genre has the power to paint it more vividly. Meaning-full.

The book also contains a very interesting introduction by Clive Barker. It has a number of parallels with Steven Erikson. I’ll quote the latter part:

It isn’t necessary for a storyteller to have answers to the questions they pose, of course; only to be interested enough to ask them. Weaveworld is full of unrequited enquiries. Why does Immacolata’s hatred of the Seerkind burn so intensely? Is the creature in the Empty Quarter an angel or not? And if the garden of sand in which it has kept its psychotic vigil is not the Eden of Genesis, then where did the Seerkind arise from? There are certainly answers to these mysteries to be wrought and written, but they would, I am certain, only beg further questions, which if answered would beg yet more. For all its length and elaboration, the novel does not attempt to fill in every gap in its invented history. Nothing ever begins, its first line announces; there are innumerable stories from which this fragment of narrative springs; and there will be plenty to tell when it’s done. Though I get requests aplenty for a sequel, I will never write one.

The tale isn’t finished; but I’ve told all I can. That is not to say my attitude to the work does not continue to change. In the past ten years I’ve gone through, periods when I was thoroughly out of sorts with the book, or even on occasion irritated that it found such favour with readers when other stories seemed more worthy. And in the troughs of my discomfort, I made what with hindsight seems to be dubious judgments about fantastic fiction as a whole. I have been, I think, altogether disparaging about the escape elements of the genre, emphasizing its powers to address social, moral and even philosophical issues at the expense of celebrating its dreamier virtues. I took this position out of a genuine desire to defend a fictional form I love, from accusations of triviality and triteness, but my zeal led me astray. Yes, fantastic fiction can be intricately woven into the texture of our daily lives, addressing important issues in fabulist form. But it also serves to release us for a time from the definitions that confine our daily selves; to unplug us from a world that wounds and disappoints us, allowing us to venture into places of magic and transformation. Though of late my writing has concerned itself more and more with detailing that wounded, disappointing reality, as a reader I have rediscovered the pleasures, of unrepentant escapism: the short fiction of Lord Dunsany, early Yeats poems, the paintings of Samuel Palmer and Ernst Fuchs.

The author who wrote Weaveworld has, however, disappeared. I’ve not lost faith with the enchantments of fantasy, but there is a kind of easy sweetness in this book that would not, at least presently, come readily from my pen. We go through seasons perhaps; and Weaveworld was written in a balmier time. Perhaps there’ll be another. But its tender inventions seem very remote from the man writing these words.

Nothing ever begins.

There is no first moment; no single word or place from which this or any other story springs.

The threads can always be traced back to some earlier tale, and to the tales that preceded that: though as the narrator’s voice recedes the connections will seem to grow more tenuous, for each age will want the tale told as if it were of its own making.

Thus the pagan will be sanctified, the tragic become laughable; great lovers will stoop to sentiment, and demons dwindle to clockwork toys.

Nothing is fixed. In and out the, shuttle goes, fact and fiction, mind and matter, woven into patterns that may have only this in common: that hidden amongst them is a filigree which will with time become a world.

Ah! That last line.

If you want a mindscrew here’s one, even though it probably goes against the criteria listed there and is good because of it. For once it breaks my habit of 800+ pages big volumes, A Dream of Wessex is a perfect 200 pages containing a well paced and well calibrated story with a definite conclusion. It doesn’t need one page more or less. More importantly, it is a significant milestone in the pattern I’m following, the fil rouge of this blog and post-modern spin (a pretense I put there and that is not in the book). As one could guess from the cover, it’s also not exactly a new release, though it is connected with new releases. It came out in 1977, thirty-six years ago, but with the time, even as a science fiction story, it acquired significance. It’s far more actual now than how it probably was at the time, and none of the ingenuity of old stories that try to imagine a future.

I could say it’s one of those “perfect” stories. I can hardly find a flaw in it. The writing is superb because of how it does a service to the story. Sometimes with sci-fi plots you have to fight the suspension of disbelief, as you have to try to make the reader accept the “gimmick” (I won’t use gimmick negatively here, I just mean sci-fi stories built around a specific “invention”). A Dream of Wessex is a story of the future, it has fancy technology, but the way it’s structured makes it all completely realistic and even conventional. The power of subversion and mindscrew need no fireworks, they hide behind everyday life. Christopher Priest, maybe the same as Philip K. Dick, writes in his own genre that he calls “slipstream”:

Slipstream does not define a category, but suggests an approach, an attitude, an interest or obsession with thinking the unthinkable or doing the undoable. Slipstream can be visionary, unreliable, odd or metaphysical. It’s not magical realism: it’s a larger concept that contains magical realism.

I’d add to this definition the “feeling” of slipstream, a sense of displacement from reality. As if you suddenly step through some invisible threshold and everything around you appears looking just the same, but wrong.

“Have you seen Tom?”
“Tom? Tom who?”
“Benedict. Tom Benedict.”
“Never heard of him.”
No one knew him. Later she found Allen, spoke to him.
“Did you treat Tom today?”
“I’ve been in Dorchester, Julia. Is he still ill? Who is it?”
Then she found that she couldn’t remember his surname. She ate a meal with a group of the others, trying to think of it… But by the time the meal was finished she could not even remember his first name.
She felt a sense of great loss, and an overwhelming sadness, and a sure knowledge that someone she had loved was no longer there.

The power of A Dream of Wessex is not about “making you believe” in the plausibility of the gimmick. It’s not an Asimov novel (I’ll return to this). The power is to have the subversive layer of the story seep in your real non-fictional life. Like a virus, invisible before you feel its effects. It eats away your sense of reality and sends you to a sense of vertigo, as if suddenly your real self sitting on a chair and reading the book isn’t anymore as tightly bound to a concrete sense of reality. This book has a staggering power of abstraction. It’s not based on a neat, fun idea, but it feeds on some truth at the core, only disguised as “fiction”. And so it traps you through the fictional pretense and drags you on that other side.

It was odd how memory seemed to detach itself from experience; already, the sight of Julia’s boat heading out across the black, multi-coloured water seemed distant from himself. It was as if there were a false experience in memory, one given to him. It seemed that he had been walking alone through the boulevard all evening and into the night, with entirely spurious memories appearing in sequences to supply the false experience.
Memory was created by events surely?

At the bottom of it there’s no horror, but a sense of silent dread just hanging there. It plays subtly with perception, as if what you’re watching has its perspective slightly askew. A strangeness in the familiar. The plot is fairly straightforward and not too convoluted. Some fancy technology development allowed to build a virtual reality machine. It works like a participatory universe, where a number of minds are pooled together and “project” a universe. In the book this experiment has a scientific goal at its back: the imagined reality is set 150 years in the future and so it’s meant as a research on how the extrapolated future might be.

In the early days the reports the participants had made had reflected the spirit of the projection: that they were discovering a society, and speculating about the way it was run. As time passed, though, and as the participants became more deeply embedded in that society, their reports had gradually became more factual in tone, relating the future society to itself rather than to the present. Expressed in a different way, it meant that the participants were treating the projection as a real world, rather than one which was a conscious extrapolation from their own.

But there are no flying cars or A.I.s taking over the world. This imagined future is a social research and the premise is a technological stagnation that made the future not unlike the present. It turns out like a holiday resort with a hippie community living into an old castle. Being participative, this universe needs to extrapolate a coherent whole from all the minds projecting it, using the interesting property of memory (not explicitly stated in the book, but described as exactly this) of spontaneously smoothing whatever problem or inconsistency may come up. The unconscious mind spontaneously discards the parts that it can’t make sense of, unknowingly rearranging them to find coherence. Hammering down pieces that wouldn’t fit. Reality, past and present, is not static. It shifts subtly, or even more dramatically. Leaving only a fleeting impression that something is missing.

All this played out against the characters’ layer. We got here a “strong” female protagonist, really well written in my opinion. This is where the story always return and always gives a priority. Maybe I could nitpick that this woman still seems to draw her worth and strength in the way she’s able to oppose a male guy, and so she’s a female protagonist that still draws her strength from having a guy next to her, instead of just herself, as if that male figure remains indispensable. But this isn’t a problem in the book and it depends too much on a modern “bias” in the way we pretend stories should be told. Characterization here, outside of prejudices, is really solid.

I could say this book isn’t relevant for “what it says” but for “what it does”. It wouldn’t be correct, though, and that’s why it’s even better than I thought. This force that the book has and that I’ve described, does not bog the story down. Here I return to Asimov. He can write some great stories but sometimes the characters suffer. It happens often that in SF stories the characters are created to be in service of the idea at the core of the book. They are built to fit the story and to make the most out of that idea. So one could say that the characters are added to be in service to the rest. Objects more than subjects. Functions of plot. What instead Christopher Priest achieves here is that the characters remain at the apex regardless of the power of the story. When it’s all over and the power of the idea at the core already discharged, it’s the characters who remain and give a perfect (satisfying) closure. Even seen as a whole, that core idea still remains one step below of the significance of the characters, without overshadowing them. This priority is very strongly defined, and yet it doesn’t weaken the power of the idea itself.

If it was Philip K. Dick writing this he’d have probably sent the story spinning wildly out of control toward the end, in an explosion of blurred possibilities staggering the mind. Completely open to ambiguity and open interpretation. Instead Priest does the opposite. Just after the biggest charge is set off, it starts turning counterclockwise for the last 20 pages. The reader can run with the idea and give it more spin, but the book itself defines, and strongly, its “canon”. Most of the book was carefully “seeded” with small elements that Priest would then activate at the end of the book so that the many possibilities that suddenly opened would be instead suppressed. Instead of the open ended finale, for most readers annoyingly unsatisfying, this story clearly defines its official interpretation. It tries to make it as explicit as possible by expressing and then clearly negating doubts that the reader would voice. There may be a minor flaw in this, if one considers that the powerful climax comes too soon and that the last 20 pages instead only do the busywork of putting the pieces back together in a way that makes sense, but the result is that the book doesn’t lose the power of the idea while giving a definite conclusion that one doesn’t often get in these types of stories. No hanging questions left at the end, beside the haunting “slipstream” feel that stays with you a little longer.

There’s only a little door open toward the end. It reminds me the problem of “infinite regression”, or even Zeno’s paradox of Achilles and the turtle. Whether you want or not, stories that deal with virtual realities ultimately fall into these cases of recursion. Turtles all the way down. What happens if while in the virtual reality you lose the link with the “true” reality. Can you lose the way back? And how do you recognize a true reality if you don’t have anymore a context where you can properly recognize the point you’re at? It’s like Wile E. Coyote using a ladder to go up, then pulling up the ladder to use it again and keep going up, even if the ladder doesn’t stand anymore on the ground. It happens in your everyday dreams. You know, viscerally, you were dreaming the moment you wake up. Like a hierarchy of dreams, you can only know with certainty you had a dream when you exit it. When you have a context to compare it to. But how can you be sure that the stage you are at, right now, awake, is the “real”, final one? Perception is one-directional, as if you are looking through a window that is transparent if you look from one side, and opaque from the other.

This is the first book by Christopher Priest I read, but not the last. Not simply because I enjoyed this one so much, but because from the start I had a plan. What I’m interested about is specifically his more ambitious and puzzling meta-verse. Some grander vision that ties together some of his most interesting works. It starts with The Affirmation and then continues with the more recent The Dream Archipelago (short story collection), The Islanders and The Adjacent, all of which got enthusiastic reviews:

This is a superb novel, written by an artist at not only the height but also the breadth of his powers.

So A Dream of Wessex fulfilled exactly what I expected it to be. An appetizer for all the good, mind-bending things to come. A teaser of one of the most genial writers out there, who still enjoys thinking the unthinkable.