Sunday, October 21, 2007

Some anthologies

Not a review, since I mostly lack the patience to go through anthologies story by story, but I thought I'd mention a few.

I've been reading some of the stories in Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow's latest anthology, The Coyote Road: Trickster Tales, but while some of them are pretty good, I think their anthology The Faery Reel is still the one I enjoyed the most. (They also did The Green Man and some others that I haven't read.)

I've also been reading Gene Wolfe's Starwater Strains and Strange Travelers. I enjoyed many of the stories in Starwater Strains and almost all of them made at least some sense ("The Game in the Pope's Head" was the exception, but perhaps I just didn't want to understand it since Wolfe introduced it as a Jack the Ripper story). "Viewpoint" stands out as the first story and as an original, disturbing take on "reality TV"; "Empires of Foliage and Flower" is a fable nominally set on Wolfe's Urth, but which really could be anywhere; "Golden City Far" also stands out, as the first and last stories in such collections tend to do. In Strange Travelers, "The Haunted Boardinghouse" caught my attention, as well as the nifty idea of a traffic jam that has lasted for years, long enough for its occupants to begin developing their own unique freeway culture, which appears in the first and last stories in this collection.

Last night I started reading Vera Nazarian's collection Salt of the Air. The writing is pretty good, although I'm not sure what to make of the cover art. $29.95 also seems awfully expensive for such a small book (I checked it out of the library); sure, it's probably a small press, but for that price you would think they could have done a better job proofreading. (For example, the running titles at the top of the page are not always right, and there is a glaring typo in Gene Wolfe's three-page introduction.)

I can't remember what the "other things" I wanted to put in this post were (I knew last night, but alas...), so I'll stop here.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

We the Underpeople

Anthology of six stories by Cordwainer Smith; the stories are "The Dead Lady of Clown Town", "Under Old Earth", "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons", "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard", "The Ballad of Lost C'Mell", and the novel(!) Norstrilia. (Since it is over 250 pages, I think it counts as a novel, not a novella.)

I found this because Elliot recommended it. For reference, he says in that post that his favorite Smith story is "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" and his second favorite is "Under Old Earth."

But first, a digression. Consider John C. Wright's discussion of his treatment of religion in the Chaos books. While reading them (twice!), I never approached the level of depth and generalization in his analysis (for example, his classification of the four paradigms and what they believe regarding knowledge and divinity). I don't think I would have ever said or thought that Amelia's paradigm was marked by its mystery, by the presence of unknowable things. I paid attention to how things got done, not how the book was written; I am not a student of writing. (Occasionally I cannot help noticing elements such as the abundance of paper and ink simile and metaphor in Alphabet of Thorn, but even then it me until my second read to notice.) The point is that I read books mostly for enjoyment and rarely detect the structures below the surface. (Or even the ones at the surface.) Would you expect a reader to notice all the things that Wright mentions in his explanation? I did not, for whatever that says about me.

This applies to Cordwainer Smith's anthology because I suspect there were such things under the surface that were, in fact, very important to the meaning of the story, and I fear that I did not see them.

I did enjoy "The Dead Lady of Clown Town": it has sympathetic characters and high emotions, although the plot, like many of these stories, seems to wander. (You can read Elliot's more detailed analysis here.) Norstrilia was the other one I really enjoyed, and is easier to describe despite being much longer: a young man buys and visits Earth and gets away alive. (Actually, the author tells you that much within the first few pages; maybe you are supposed to suspect that isn't really what it's about? I am not so cynical in this case.)

All of these stories are set in the same universe and most feature underpeople, genetically- (or otherwise) modified animals shaped more or less into humans who are used as servants, while "True People" are kept perfectly and inevitably happy by the mysterious Instrumentality. These stories are all also subtly or overtly horrifying. Hypnotism, telepathy and drugs are widely used to control people. Sub-par humans are drugged and laugh themselves to death as their brains melt. The underpeople who believe in the "sign of the Fish" and the "three forgotten ones" (let the reader understand) defend their secrets by inducing suicide, memory loss, etc., with no apparent qualms in Norstrilia, a loud contradiction to the spirit of love evident in "The Dead Lady of Clown Town." (Smith also wrote, for his day job, a widely used manual on psychological warfare; there may be a connection.)

Most are very readable stories. Smith's prose is clean and suggestive. (I found "Under Old Earth" to be an exception, since I didn't understand it.) However, the horror underneath makes me reluctant to recommend them; even "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" is suspect. One wonders whether this is only the element of "the grotesque" that Flannery O'Connor wrote about, present to shock the audience into seeing themselves clearly. However, I somehow missed whatever deeper truths might be present to redeem these stories. Since Cordwainer Smith has been dead for 40 years or so, he is probably not responsible for the way the anthology was assembled; perhaps his selection of stories would have included ones that revealed more about each other, since, as I said, they all touch on the same universe. For a story like "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" there is no apparent excuse; for "The Dead Lady of Clown Town" there are redeeming elements, but consider finally what happens to Elaine when she is reluctant to go with her "True Love" (this is probably a spoiler but shows what I think is most wrong about this story):

Elaine, her hand to her mouth, tried to inventory symptoms as a means of keeping her familiar thoughts in balance. It did not work. A relaxation spread over her, a happiness and quiet that she had not once felt since her childhood.

"Did you think," said the Hunter, "that I hunted with my body and killed with my hands? Didn't anyone ever tell you that the game comes to me rejoicing, that the animals die while they scream with pleasure?"