Friday, October 25, 2019

The Book of the New Sun – Gene Wolfe

Where to begin with even preliminary notes on Gene Wolfe's dizzying, monumental sequence The Book of the New Sun? The death of Gene Wolfe earlier this year prompted me to return to the sequence starting with The Shadow of the Torturer to give the whole series its second (and in some volumes third) reading, but the whole remains a staggering and sometimes frustrating work, frequently brilliant and occasionally baffling.

At one point in The Sword of the Lictor, the narrator-torturer Severian climbs down a mountain cliff that is composed not only of natural materials but human-made elements, strata of artificial structures, metals, made objects: "the buildings and mechanisms of humanity," layered in geological sediment. As Tolkien created a sense of the mythic past of Middle-Earth by building ages of imaginary history, Wolfe creates a sense of an ancient world illuminated by a dying sun by generating these accumulated layers of future history. But this history is also so vast that it is mostly unknowable, at once so compressed and remote that there is little to be gleaned from it. This scene is something of a touchstone for my reading of the whole work.

You might say that Severian's eidetic memory, able to record a mass of episodic detail but rarely able to draw back far enough to show the implications of what he witnesses, enacts this kind of layering. Severian is often described as an unreliable narrator, despite the precision of his recall. In fact, the text itself is like this, layering allusions, metaphors, stories, histories, and forms of meaning. One of Wolfe's most effective conceits is to conceal high technologies behind antiquarian terminology by way of "translation", such that energy weapons are described as lances, grounded spacecraft as citadels, and often the apparent significance of an item conceals and transcends its material nature, as the Claw of the Conciliator, the healing relic of the messiah, is eventually whittled down from jewel to claw, and eventually shown to be a thorn from a wild rosebush.

This mirroring (mirrors can also transcend space and time in the New Sun) can be both dazzling and perplexing. For instance, after two or three readings I'm still at a loss as to describe precisely how the far future messiah boot-straps himself into temporal existence, or precisely how and where and for what function he comes by the Claw. It's suggested by the end of the sequence that Severian is destined to travel in the corridors of time, and thereby somehow guide his own apotheosis, but where Severian intrudes in his own story, or his precise relationship with menacing, distant figures such as the abyssal giants, is not apparent after this reading any more, I expect, than the next.

The dying earth genre, from The Night Land to Viriconium, is by implication an elegy, located at the point of entropy where the fictional world is ossified and decayed. The Book of the New Sun certainly partakes of this moment and its dizzying perspectives. But perhaps Wolfe's most profound piece of misdirection is that his work ends not on the edge of dissolution but of renewal. This theme, the movement from executioner to broader moral consciousness to redemption, is one Dickens deployed and I've used myself, most clearly in the figure of Gabriel Carver. There is always a tendency, from Tolkien to Wolfe, to chase after deliberate allegories, in this case between Catholicism and the cult of the Increate and the New Sun, but for me it is Severian's meandering journey, sometimes impressive, sometimes perplexing, in the labyrinths of the far future that hold the greatest satisfaction and interest.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Thursday, April 25, 2019

After Christchurch, March 15, 2019

One of the comforts of mystery and detective fiction is that there is an effort to discover motive and make it knowable. Greed, jealousy, fear, revenge, desire are all intelligible to the detective's eye. But we are sometimes confronted by events in which the motive is not merely lacking, but vacant, horrific.

I write this in reference to the mass murder in Christchurch on March 15, and because I was born and lived a large part of my adult life in Christchurch, and so it is the city I still regard as home, familiar ground, before all others. The Christchurch where I grew up, the city on the plain in the shadow of the sun-browned Port Hills, with its green, fragrant parks and quiet, windblown streets and patches of Neo-gothic stonework, has been altered and scarred by inevitable change and two severe earthquakes, but these are natural events as opposed to willful slaughter.

Shaun Yeo Crying Kiwi
Shaun Yeo

Faced with a crime, we seek the motive in the first instance of shock and dismay. However, I no more mean to read or reference the shooter's "manifesto" than I mean to grant him the presence of mentioning his name. It's enough to read the summaries by those familiar with acts of terrorism and hate-crimes to realize that the same tired lies and malformed justifications repeat themselves again. In any case, the slaughter of innocent persons utterly vacates even the pretence of a reason. The shooter has no just cause to defend.

So, what remains? Jordan Peterson, for one, in the context of school shootings holds that: "“They make a display of their hatred for Being by massacring the innocent. That’s what’s happening — and they write that,” but this is generalizing to the point of uselessness. Mass murderers of this sort may indeed express a hatred for Being, but the beings they murder are, by their own choice, highly specific. Indeed, as Sri Lanka shows, the hatred is always targeted, rooted in bigotry and paranoia, from whichever side. Conrad, as usual, had the better sense of it, as in the end of The Secret Agent:
And the incorruptible Professor walked too, averting his eyes from the odious multitude of mankind.  He had no future.  He disdained it.  He was a force.  His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction.  He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world.  Nobody looked at him.  He passed on unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.
The terrorist is not lost, nor does he lack purpose, but he measures his own worth by the ruin and destruction his fixed and futile ideas entail. He does not lack self-worth, but revels in his contempt for others. It is only that his self-aggrandizement is fixated on the power to negate other lives.

Conrad's concluding simile is apt. Terrorism is an infection. It is possible to identify the toxic ideologies that drive and support white nationalism. It's possible, as New Zealand shows, to restrict access to weapons that have no purpose in civil society, It's possible to call out the Internet trolls and the politicians, the pseudo-thinkers and the networks that lend tacit support to hate and bigotry. We can police the crime. And, in the long-term, we can plan to overcome the inequality and injustice in which hatred festers. But what we cannot do is lend a moment's credence to the supposed grievances and agendas of fanatics. Faced with this crime, the motive is void; only the pathology matters.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Blog tour - Interview on Bookish Rantings

As of March, there's a blog tour underway for A Hangman for Ghost, and an interview with myself has landed on the Bookish Rantings blog.

See the Author Interview for A Hangman for Ghosts here.

Bookish rantings says that: "If you love a good mystery and historical fiction is your jam, this might be the next book you want to add to your TBR." [That's your To Be Read list.]

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

A new review and the executioner's call for Google+

First the good news, as they say.

I'm grateful to Peppermint Ph.D. for a glowing review of A Hangman for Ghosts. What's intriguing to a writer about this review is the list of "Historical 'stuff' I've Been Googling." It's a pleasure to see the nuggets of historical detail one scatters, large and small, being picked up by a reader.

Now, my normal response to a review such as this, among other things, would be to click the G+ button, which adds a "like" to your stream on the Google+ social network. Google+, however, as many of us will know, is condemned, and the executioner is little moved by the small and active communities among writers and others that found a home there.

I should assure readers that Blogger, and Displaced Pieces, are going nowhere, but the option to share and +1 posts on Google+, as well as any Google+ comments coming back to the blog, will be deleted as of February 4.

If you are a follower of my work through Google+, please keep coming back to Displaced Pieces, and the excellent network of blogs around historical and mystery fiction.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

The Saruman trap — or Tolkien on politics

The Lord of the Rings is not overtly a political work, being more concerned, broadly, with the problem of power, but where we can say that questions of politics are also questions of power, then this recent piece on the "Saruman Trap" has particular resonance.

Saruman is, of course, the greatest of all the wizards of Middle Earth, who chooses, nevertheless, to side with Sauron, his justification being that Sauron's victory is inevitable, but with the even more insidious rationale that his wisdom, his persuasion and knowledge, can direct and control the brute strength of Mordor, guiding evil to high ends while deploring its methods.

This, as Gandalf knows, is nonsense, but it is persuasive nonsense, just as the "voice of Saruman", subtle, insinuating, lying, is a metaphor for the worst forms of political persuasion, the reasoned tones that cloak abhorrent policy.

This year, in the mid-term elections, many of us may consider the Saruman trap, particularly those conservatives whose Republican Party has been captured by extremism and naked bigotry under the cloak of populism, but also, perhaps, those progressives who are berated for their lack of civility in debates with figures who have no concern themselves for civil liberties or reasoned positions.

Tolkien had first-hand experience of totalitarianism in its most dreadful forms, and Donald Trump is neither Sauron nor Hitler, which is not to diminish the grave danger his posturing, lying, self-aggrandizing incompetence and cruelty pose to American democracy. But Tolkien understood the  risks of opposing totalitarianism on its own terms, of confronting brutality with brutality, and lies with lies, or tacit acceptance that ends up as complicity. Gandalf chooses the path that is neither, knowing the dangers, but knowing also that it is better to answer a lie with a simple truth, no matter how dangerous to the truth-teller.

When Saruman makes his last, most formidable appeal from the balcony of his ruined tower, Gandalf can only laugh, and the spell is broken.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

The System – and two more reviews

One of the questions that emerge in the course of A Hangman for Ghosts, and a question that also preoccupied Dickens, most notably in Bleak House, is whether social systems represent and embody human intentions, or inevitably come to supersede them.

The legal system and its demands gives rise to the system of transportation. Transportation necessitates the penal system, and yet piece by piece the penal colony generates its own systems: magistrates, constables, free-convicts, settlement, commerce, trade, and land transfer, until the colony becomes its own state. Human beings in the story are subject to the system, and yet from the top and the bottom they also seek to subvert it, and bend it to their ends, both moral and immoral.

This is one of Carver's greatest tests: even as hangman, does he rely on the system to evade his past and give his life structure, however cruel? And later, as he takes up the magistrate's cause, is he twisting the system to his own ends even as he advances in it? Is he able to maintain his integrity, even as he discovers how the system can be both abused and perpetrate abuses?

Perhaps this question, along with the others, was part of the interest for these two generous reviews for A Hangman for Ghosts.

Yvonne, from A Darn Good Read:

Stephanie, from 100 Pages A Day: