Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The world simply did not permit plans

The Traitor Baru Cormorant, by Seth Dickinson, is the story of an accountant.
Baru's guard found a fulling mill by a nearby stream. They brought her there to wait.

The terror that took Baru came from the deepest part of her soul. It was terror particular to her, a fundamental concern — the apocalyptic possibility that the world simply did not permit plans, that it worked in chaotic and unmasterable ways, that one single stroke of fortune, one well-aimed bowshot by a man she had never met, could bring total disaster. The fear that the basic logic she used to negotiate the world was a lie.

Or, worse, that she herself could not plan: that she was as blind as a child, too limited and self-deceptive to integrate the necessary information, and that when the reckoning between her model and the pure asymbolic fact of the world came, the world would devour her like a cuttlefish snapping up bait.

The millwheel had been uncoupled from the machinery and it turned in useless creaking circles.
OK, so she's not an ordinary accountant. She was born in Taranoke, an island country with liberal sexual mores. When she was seven, it was conquered by the Empire of Masks, governed out of Falcrest (by committee, it turns out; the Emperor is a faceless — masked — figurehead). She goes to their schools, is indoctrinated into their Incrastic philosophy. It appears that she has a protector; she is essentially groomed for public service. She performs well on their exams and fresh out of school is awarded a post as Imperial Accountant of Aurdwynn. This conquered nation has a history of rebellion; Baru Cormorant determines that her task is to quell the insurgents, but instead she fuels a revolution.

I've described this book to some people in terms of Game of Thrones: a similar level of politics, machination, and battle planning, but minus the melodrama. A system of government that is if not exactly more modern, a little less barbaric — more complex. This book is more intimate, but somehow no less epic.

The Empire offers education and scientific advancements, medicine and sanitation. But. Incrasticism, possibly from Latin crāstinus ‎"of or belonging to tomorrow", from crās ‎"tomorrow", possibly related to Latin crassus "solid, thick". Never explicitly defined, but we have a clear sense of the dystopian evil of Incrastics.

It occurred to me early on in my reading that this could have been a work based on history. And that would've bored me to tears. Pages of balancing the books, examining the intricacies of trade agreements. Instead, it's genre fiction, so I'm all over it. But this world is ever so subtly removed from an actual one. The character's name are exotic. They practice — and enforce — social and moral hygiene, and some kind of eugenics ("hereditary regulation"). Midway through the novel we encounter the Clarified, conditioned from birth by drugs and other methods to serve.

Quite apart from that, this novel gave me the feeling that it's telling of a time in our actual history. These fantastical elements are expertly woven into the background world; the story is not about these things, but it is a story because of these things.

It was serendipitous to have read Claire North's Gameshouse novellas before embarking on the Traitor's story; it served well as a warmup game of chess, people as pawns.

There's a lot to chew on in this book: hegemony and colonialization, the logistics of rebellion, civic duty at what personal cost. I want to follow the rest of Baru Cormorant's career. I want to explore the rest of the Empire. I want to better understand the hygiene, the regulation, the Clarified, the Incrasticism.

Seth Dickinson: The Secret Design of the Traitor Baru Cormorant
"In order to make Baru a useful citizen, the Masquerade hopes to create a state of learned helplessness: no matter what you do, it ends up serving our purposes. Accept your place."

Niall Alexander: Tor.com
"To tell the truth, Baru is terrifying at times; a barely-suppressed scream of a human being — yet we want what she wants."

Kameron Hurley: What Will You Sacrifice? The Traitor Baru Cormorant, Kameron Hurley
"It's set up from the beginning as a tragedy about power and commerce and sacrifice, and that's exactly what you get."

Arkady Martine: A Response (spoilers)
"From the beginning this is a book about complicity; it is a book about committing great and profound injustices for the sake of some future possibility of justice."


Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Short and uncertain

A note I made on my phone, February 9, 2014, 10:17 PM:

"She looked short and uncertain, like an accordion in pajamas."

It's further noted that it's on page 53, so it's not some clever observation I made, it's something I read in a book.

I have no idea which book.

I've checked page 53 of several plausibly possible books. I feel like an accordion in pajamas.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Chernobyl apples

"If you don't play, you lose. There was a Ukrainian woman at the market selling big red apples. 'Come get your apples! Chernobyl apples!' Someone told her not to advertise that, no one will buy them. 'Don't worry!' she says. 'They buy them anyway. Some need them for their mother-in-law, some for their boss.'"
— from Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich.

I'll take two, please.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Lost property cupboard

This is my Lost Property Cupboard theory of the afterlife — when we die we are taken to a great Lost Property Cupboard where all the things we have ever lost have been kept for us — every hairgrip, every button and pencil, every tooth, every earring and key, every pin (think how many there must be!). All the library books, all the cats that never came back, all the coins, all the watches (which will still be keeping time for us). And perhaps, too, the other less tangible things — tempers and patience (perhaps Patricia's virginity will be there), religion (Kathleen has lost hers), meaning, innocence (mine) and oceans of time — Mr Belling and Bunty will find a lot of time in their cupboard. Mr Belling is always sitting at the wheel of the Rover, parked in the driveway, looking at his watch and fuming, "Do you know how much time we've lost waiting for you, Ruby? On the lower shelves will be the dreams we forgot on waking, nestling against the days lost to melancholy thoughts (if they paid dividends Patricia would be rich). And right down at the bottom of the cupboard, amongst the silt and fluff and feather, the pencil shavings and hair swept up from hairdressers' floors — that's where you find the lost memories. Deinde ipsa, virum suum complexa, in mare se deiecit. And perhaps we can sign our names and take them home with us.
Kate Atkinson's Behind the Scenes at the Museum is the story of Ruby Lennox, beginning with her conception, and of various things — a button, a rabbit's foot — commemorated in footnotes, telling of the three generations of (primarily) women before her.

Atkinson has discussed the title, but I have my own ideas. There's only one scene, in the book, in an actual museum, the Castle Museum, and it references Ruby's dream about the museum at night, the secret museum, where things came to life. The museum may as well be a symbol of marriage, what is meant to be seen, and this novel's footnotes show us the secret workings.

Like her most recent books, this novel — Atkinson's debut — also had me laughing out loud, and it made me weep; we live such stupid lives and die such stupid deaths and spend so much time misunderstanding each other. If it weren't so ridiculous and random we'd die from the tragedy of it.

Saturday, February 06, 2016


All the men and women are merely players. But the world's not a stage; it's a gameboard.
At his command were seven other men, of whom two were brothers, four cousins and one they'd picked up as a child and brought along, and who suffered terribly for his lack of genetic bondage. He also had three elephants under his authority, which regarded the great turbulence of the humans about them with the patience of wily priests who have seen rebellion and heard the changing of the psalms, yet looked up and known the heavens never altered for man's delight.
Over the last few weeks I had occasion to devour Claire North's trilogy of Gameshouse novellas: The Serpent, The Thief, and The Master.

I meant to be reading other things, but I moved a few weeks ago, so books were being folded into boxes, at first in a fairly orderly fashion, almost shelf by shelf, but it quickly entropified, books were everywhere, and books were packed alongside the blankets and coffee cups they kept company with. Books I vowed not to lose track of haven't been seen in weeks, including the small book I decided to keep in my purse; at some point I must've decided that it would be safer not rubbing against the measuring tape and screwdriver that I also kept at hand in my purse — I'm confident that it will turn up eventually. Books are now spilling out of those same boxes rather randomly.

I always knew where my ebook was, however, along with my laptop and a few other "valuables." I found myself downloading books at odd hours, because, it seems, I needed them desperately. Someone told me about an article that said reading pageturners significantly reduces stress. I can't find the article, and I've puzzled over the many ways one might define "pageturner," but I've used this "research" to support my sometimes seemingly injudicious use of precious time — this was time I used not merely to read but to recalibrate my emotional and mental well-being.

I'm not sure exactly how I discovered these books. Somehow they were related to some book (which wasn't available) that I'd looked up based on some review. "In seventeenth century Venice exists a mysterious establishment known only as the Gameshouse,"and I was sold.

The Gameshouse novellas are certainly pageturners. The first book lays out the premise. What at first seems to be nothing more than a casino — a gathering place for the rich, the bored, and the desperate — is an institution that spans all of time and encircles the world, insinuating itself into the fabric of cities that hold wealth and power.

The games vary in breadth. In The Serpent, players vie to have their allotted token elected as Doge of Venice. Players are also dealt cards — representing people — which they may also bring into play.

The stakes are high. Fortunes and careers, but also memories, specialized knowledge, physical characteristics, time. The mechanism behind how these transactions are processed is never divulged, but I'd trade my funky knee for someone's facility with Sanskrit in a heartbeat. Others deal in heartbeats.

The Master is my favourite of this set of novellas. A game of hide and seek. The board is 1930s Thailand. Geographically more vast than The Serpent, the game is more intimate.
"Abhik thinks that a game can only be won with ruthlessness and calculation. Were this chess, he would be right, but you, Remy, you have the greatest gift of a higher league player — you remember that your pieces are human. At a superficial level, some might say that makes you kind, but I would suggest it makes you beautiful. To play people is a vastly more elegant skill than mere number-counting."
It also becomes clear that most games are only minor skirmishes in a much larger power struggle.

The third novella, in a modern-day setting, brought closure to the series, but I would love nothing more than an infinite series of Gameshouse game novellas, set in worldclass cities across time. It might bring a new level of paranoia to the conspiracy-minded. We are all, after all, merely pawns in the great game of chess.