Human and not-human

A few days ago I realized I’d never mentioned Ancillary Justice here.  It’s an excellent book, and much metaphorical ink has been spent on it – it’s won several awards.  In all, I probably don’t have much that’s new to contribute.  On the other hand, if I wanted to be the first to have any given idea about most books, I’d be doomed to perpetual disappointment.  So here is what I love about Ancillary Justice: it has a really excellent main character.  A unique idea, executed well.  

The main character is a ship’s AI.  The ship is called Justice of Toren, but the ship itself has been destroyed (a story that unwinds slowly through a series of well-executed flashbacks), and the AI remains only in a single human body who calls itself Breq.  I’m sure this sort of thing has been done before, though I haven’t personally encountered anything similar.  It’s just so well done in this book.  Toren/Breq is human and not-human at the same time, and not just because she/he/it is a ship in a human body.  Breq has very human values, unsurprisingly slanted towards qualities like service and loyalty, but s/he doesn’t express them in the same way that humans do.  Justice of Toren has emotions, but it doesn’t emote.  I felt as I read that no matter what Breq was doing, s/he always seemed calm.  The feelings that motivated his/her/its actions had to be inferred.  Toren/Breq goes on a twenty-year quest across the galaxy, which must be driven by some stupendous emotion, yet that emotion is difficult to see.  Toren itself doesn’t really seem to feel it, exactly.  It seemed calm even as it told another character it hated him, even as s/he flung itself off a bridge to save him, even as its heart raced knowing s/he was discovered and killers were coming for him/her.  At times it almost seems that the character must be in shock, because s/he’s clearly acting under the influence of powerful emotions, but doesn’t seem to truly feel them.  Breq isn’t in shock, though; s/he’s just not human.

The other major way this shows up is that Toren/Breq doesn’t care about most human distinctions.  Class, race, gender – s/he’s aware they exist, they just don’t particularly matter to it.  Obviously, they don’t apply to Breq itself, so much so that I can’t even figure out what name or pronoun to use for the character.  Breq is a pseudonym and not the right name.  On the other hand, Justice of Toren doesn’t quite fit either because the character isn’t a ship any more.  Toren/Breq isn’t an it because it’s clearly a person, but male and female are just as clearly meaningless categories to him/her.  As for other people, Toren/Breq seems to view these distinctions simply as data, information that’s important only for its importance to others.  Physical descriptions are rare in the book, though the few scraps that appear make it clear that the confluence of class, race, and beauty standards don’t match up to those in our world.  More radical, however, is the fact that the book uses only female pronouns.  In the world of the story, this is justified by the idea that the dominant language doesn’t have gender-distinguished pronouns, but for the reader, it becomes one more way to elide what are, to Toren, meaningless distinctions.  It works, too.  The categories clearly matter to human characters, but to the reader, they’re immaterial.  It’s a fascinating and surprisingly refreshing perspective, being human and not-human at the same time, looking at human society when people are defined primarily by their actions.  I thoroughly enjoyed it.


Bits and pieces

Lately I’ve had a collection of minor thoughts, but nothing major.  I figured I’d throw them all together and have a grab-bag post.  Here we go!

Fables: Blood of Heroes:  My beloved local library did, in fact, have the tie-in novel I was unsure about reading.  Adventure, ho!  I requested it, and it arrived surprisingly quickly.  I read it even more quickly.  It’s a fun little light read, and certainly better than the tie-in novels I’ve read previously.  I’m not really surprised by that – like I said, I really like other works I’ve read by this author – but considering my earlier experiences, I’m still glad.  I tend to refer to books like this one as cotton candy reads.  They’re tasty, but not big on substance.  The game world the story is set in is generally fairly light-hearted, though, so that makes sense.  And for the record, I don’t mean cotton candy as an insult.  I read a lot of cotton candy, and so do most other people who are big readers, because often I (and other people) just want some fun entertainment.  

One of the things I like about this book in particular is that it has eight different heroes, each formed on a different stereotype (or archetype, if you like).  The book deliberately plays on the stereotypes for humor.  None of the characters is really developed past their archetype, but since the book seems to be winking at the reader, it works.  Cliches that might otherwise grate become endearing.  For me, it was like watching ghosts of other players going on their own adventure through a game I knew.  There’s a singular pleasure in watching someone else enjoy something, and I felt a little of that in this book.

Devil in the Wires: I finally finished one of the books I’d stopped in the middle of.  I am disappointed.  Like I said, I really liked the concept for this one.  It involves the various gods humans have worshipped over the millennia actually existing (in a Lovecraftian unknowable mind-breaking monster kind of way) and gaining power or sustenance or something from human worship (or human pain, or…).  Except now, human beings have found a way to trap these gods and extract the power from them.  Instead of burning coal for electricity, we burn gods.  

Cool idea, right?  Having finally finished it, though, I’ve figured out why it was such a slog for the longest time: first, I wasn’t interested in any of the characters.  It’s not even that I didn’t like them; I’ve said before that I can dislike a character and still find them interesting and want to see how their story develops.  But these didn’t interest me, to the point where I consistently confused two of them (the main character’s boss, who was on another continent, and the suspicious cop).  I thought it was just the writing style, which runs to gritty, that made them seem colorless, but even at the climax I didn’t much care about any of them.  And second, there’s a stretch in the middle where not much is happening.  Maybe there would be, if I cared about the characters.  But as it was, it dragged.  Which is disappointing, because I really wanted to like this book.  Another anecdotal data point: characters are a Big Deal when it comes to the quality and enjoyability of a book.

The Casual Vacancy: I actually read this months ago.  A friend of mine (who is now and again mentioned on this blog, namelessly) suggested that, since we often have excellent conversations about books, we should read a book together, record our conversation about it, and put it up here.  The Casual Vacancy was the book we decided on.  He’s taking a while to read it, though, so since I don’t know if or when that conversation will happen, I figured I’d toss up a few thoughts on here.

The Casual Vacancy was really painful to read at first.  It highlights the pettiness in human beings, the venial selfishness present even in positive actions, in a way that makes it impossible not to recognize those same traits in oneself.  Or at least, it did for me.  I started it immediately after finishing Grace of Kings, too, which only exacerbated the effect.  But over the course of the book, it gradually begins to feel humanizing rather than caustic.  Everyone is small and everyone screws up (often), but I found myself wishing for them to do better, rather than condemning them.  

This also made me wonder about Barry Fairbrother, the character whose death kicks off the plot of the book.  He’s simultaneously present and absent throughout the story, a looming gap whom all of the characters know but the reader does not.  At least, the characters know his public face – which is what makes me curious.  One of the things the book emphasizes constantly is the difference between people’s public faces and their private thoughts and feelings.  So I have to wonder, what lies inside Barry Fairbrother’s public face?  I have no way of knowing.

The Spell of the Sensuous: This one I actually haven’t finished reading yet, but a friend of mine recommended it to me and said she’d like to see me review it.  I was excited!  And I adored the opening.  It’s beautiful.  What I’ve read since then reads like a strangely harmonious combination of poetry, dissertation, and travelogue.  I’m looking forward to seeing how it develops.

A Truly Marvelous Book

Last time I talked about a Truly Terribly Book, but tearing things down isn’t generally my preferred MO.  So this week, I thought I would talk about a Truly Marvelous Book.  Marvelous is quite a word to live up to, but I just finished reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and I did a lot of marveling, both during and after reading it.

The world Liu builds is dense and vibrant, breathtakingly so.  It includes a rainbow of lands and cultures, alongside wonders both natural and mechanical.  There are falcons who nest and drink at springs filled with lighter than air gas who can thus fly longer and farther than any other bird; there are mechanical whales powered by steam and painted for camouflage from airships.  There’s much more.  The very richness of the setting makes the book difficult to get into at first, but the payoff is well worth it.  And the gorgeous world is only the beginning of what makes this book marvelous.

One thing that impressed me was that Grace of Kings manages to be both epic and, for lack of better word, human at the same time.  The story focuses on both ordinary people and heroes – and blurs the lines between.  Yes, there are great warriors, great intellects, powerful rulers, bloody battles and more.  However, heroes are ordinary people, too, with ordinary desires and flaws and insecurities.  And ordinary people prove themselves remarkable, doing great things and changing the flow of history.

Liu’s book subverts the usual trope(s) of the hero.  While there is one character who seems to fit the archetype, the book repeatedly shows the less-than-heroic repercussions of a person who sees the world in black and white and whose greatest ability is for violence.  And even this larger than life figure is only human in the end.  Conversely, the other main “hero” of the book starts out as a drunken ne’er-do-well, who becomes a petty bureaucrat, who becomes a bandit…  He repeatedly compares himself to a dandelion, a common weed.  But the various parts of the dandelion have a surprising number of useful properties, and its seeds fly far and wide as long as there’s wind to carry them.  His willingness to see the world in new ways and consequently to do things no one else will ultimately catapults him to greatness.  However, he unquestionably commits problematic acts on the way there.

Which brings me to something else I really liked about Grace of Kings: ultimately, there are no pure “good guys” or “bad guys.”  The major characters all have powerful virtues as well as powerful flaws.  Some of them are easier to praise or condemn than others, but it’s never possible to do it completely.  For example, the story starts with a promenade by the Evil Emperor, who is doing a victory lap after conquering most of the known world.  He’s widely hated for abusive taxes, conscription, and harsh penalties for failures in either.  Later in the book, though, it’s revealed that he’s also a visionary.  He wanted to take every sword and spear in his new domain and melt them down to be made into statues of the gods; he wanted to promote the flow of commerce, culture, and ideas between different parts of his new empire.  He succeeded in the latter.  Obviously, ideals don’t excuse actions, but the point is that he isn’t just an Evil Emperor.  He’s a powerful but fundamentally human person driven by desire and fear.

Unsurprisingly, the plot is as complex as the characters.  Multiple threads of stories weave in and out of one another, reflecting and transforming each other.  As a simple example, I can think of at least three or four variations of brothers (by blood or otherwise) who become estranged from one another.  Each variation is different.  The causes, consequences, and emotions shift in each, and each story rises, peaks, and concludes at different intervals in the book as a whole.  However, there are similarities in each, and they subtly influence each other.  Taken together, they seem like ocean waves rolling onto shore: none is the same as the one that came before it, but each is similar to and connected to the others.

Here, too, Liu subverts the usual tropes of epic fantasy.  Ordinarily, the plot hinges on the defeat of some great evil, with lesser evils to be fought along the way.  When the final foe is defeated, the story is more or less complete.  In Grace of Kings, however, the story is as much about conflicts within and among the heroes (or “heroes”) as it is about the conflict between them and the Evil Empire.  Arguably, it’s more about those other conflicts.  Not only that, but the empire is actually defeated with a large chunk of the book to go.  What happens after the heroes defeat the ultimate foe?  Grace of Kings delivers the answer, and how.

All of this makes the book feel remarkably real.  It’s perhaps a surprising thing to say about an epic fantasy, but Grace of Kings feels in some ways more real than many other stories I’ve encountered.  There are events in the book that shake the foundation of the world, yet these great events are just as often driven by accidents and mistakes as they are by the deliberate actions of heroes leading the charge.  Everyone is human.  Over and over again, the book shows how a minor failing – or a simple virtue – in the right place at the right time can change the course of history.  And Grace of Kings feels like history.  History is not simple; it is made up of a dizzying number of stories woven together into one long tapestry.  Some parts of it are obvious, others subtle.  There are no neat endings.  Like waves coming into shore, one story is always rising as another is subsiding.

If you like epic fantasy, if you like gorgeous world-building, if you like complex, believable characters and stories – and if you’re not looking for light reading – I highly recommend this truly marvelous book.

There was so much more I wanted to talk about in this post, but one can only include so much.  I’d love to discuss more, in the comments or elsewhere, if anyone’s interested.


Last year at NYCC (New York Comic Con), I came across a booth for a project called CharacTour and spent a little time chatting with the people there.  The project was ambitious – they wanted to catalogue thousands of characters in stories across all kinds of media and index them in a way that would help people find characters they liked.  Now I’m wishing I’d talked to them longer.  I’m thinking of questions I wish I’d asked them.  But they did tell me that they started CharacTour because they felt people connected with stories in large part because of the characters in them.  They wanted to help people connect with new characters and therefore new stories and even new media.

I think it’s true that people enjoy and relate to stories because of the characters in them.  There are other reasons, of course, but thinking back over books I’ve read, I can come up with a few in which the characters specifically drove my ultimate enjoyment (or lack thereof) of the book.

Bad news first: unfortunately but unsurprisingly, considering how much I read, I can think of books I liked otherwise in which the characters damaged my engagement with the story.  The most egregious that immediately comes to mind is a book called The Quincunx, by Charles Palliser.  I was genuinely curious to see where the plot was going, and the writing was decent, if not my usual cup of tea.  But the characters, dear god, the characters.  Not one of them seemed like a real, multifaceted human being.  They seemed more like roles in a play, with specific cues of costuming and action to communicate to the audience in quick-and-dirty shorthand what archetype the character represented and how the audience ought to feel about them.  In fairness, I only made it 100 pages into a 900-page book before I quit.  In that early part of the book, the main character is a child, and the narrator makes much of saying he was a brat back then.  Despite those limitations, better characterization ought to have been possible.  Other books manage.  I wish this one had.

That’s the negative evidence, but happily I can think of positive evidence as well, like the novel Stranger, by Sherwood Smith and Rachel Manija Brown.  It’s a fun book, and I would have enjoyed it regardless.  There’s mystery, danger, action; the writing is good; and the setting is bright and interesting (the authors stated outright that they designed the setting according to Rule of Cool).  But it was the characters that made me tell all my friends to read the book.  For one, the cast is impressively diverse, which is more refreshing than I can readily describe.  More importantly, however, they were just really good characters.  They had complex thoughts, desires, and motivations.  They acted in believable ways, and even when they weren’t likeable, they were sympathetic.  The best example of this is a girl named Felicity.  At the beginning of the book, I was surprised by her specifically because she didn’t seem like as good a character as the others.  She seemed like a cardboard cutout Mean Girl: selfish, manipulative, disingenuous, and haughty.  As the book went on and I learned more about her, though, I became more and more interested in her character.  I still didn’t like her, because she’s not a likeable person, but I understood and sympathized with her.  By the end of the book, hers was the story I was most interested in learning more about in further books.

So yes, I think the founders of CharacTour have a good idea, and I couldn’t agree more with their goals.  Connecting people with good stories, stories they’ll like, is great in itself.  Beyond that, though, I’m glad to see them trying to introduce people to stories across a wide variety of media.  I love books, obviously, and I’d be delighted to see more people reading more of them; I also love other less popular forms of media and would be delighted to see more people consuming more of them.  I think one character, one story, in an unfamiliar genre or medium can be like a gateway drug in the best possible way: it leads to consuming more stories that the reader might never otherwise have found and experienced.

CharacTour is in beta now.  Head on over and check it out.  I’ll just be hanging out, reading some new stories.