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Trials of Communication and Triumphs of Empathy, a review of Avi Silver’s Two Dark Moons

DISCLAIMER: I do have a personal connection with Avi Silver, the author of this work. We met in freshman year of college and roomed together the following year. It is up to the reader to decide if that kind of intimacy and co-habitation makes a critic more or less likely to extend unreasonable courtesy towards a given author. I was graciously sent an electronic advanced reader’s copy of the book, and the review that follows is as honest and thoughtful as I am able to render a personal opinion. 

The world of Ateng is one rife with ritual and auspice. 

Ama and Cheheng, the two moons in the night sky over Ateng, govern most aspects of life in the hmun. In Ateng, the heavens do more than assign purported characteristics of personality, as the zodiac is said to do in our world. The moons one is born under determine most aspects of one’s life in the hmun; they govern gender assignation — male, female, or both; they inform what marriages would be considered beneficial; what positions one may hold in the community (leadership, responsibilities, etc); and more, in addition to the more familiar behavior and personality traits. 

The struggle of being out of joint, an interruption in the flow of life and tradition has been a part of Sohmeng’s life ever since her birth. But a catastrophe which resulted in a total collapse (literally) of the traditional migration of the hmun between its two mountain top territories, also ultimately stole the lives of her parents and stalled any chance of Sohmeng and her generational cohort of completing the ritual known as tengmunji which would usher them into adulthood.

The trappings of childhood grate at Sohmeng Par (the second name supposedly denotes the aspect of the moons in the sky on the night of her birth), and her impetuous, “speak first, ask for forgiveness later” character has gotten her into trouble again. The beginning of the novel finds her arguing with her brother as she goes to plead her case to the council of hmun elders.

The narrative of Two Dark Moons is the deceptively simple outer garment of a complex mystery. It follows in the tradition of “Young Adult Fantasy” or “coming of age” novels in that it includes a home, a fall, an adventure beyond the boundaries of what is known, and the journey to return, during which it becomes clear that the person who left the village at the beginning is a stranger to the one who now attempts to return. 

Instead, I believe that the beating heart of Two Dark Moons are the questions of language and communication – epistemology and belonging – which it engages so effortlessly. These questions are so intrinsic to the characters and the story that they are almost rendered invisible.

Every world, every community, every person has a story, a mythology, a structure which defines them and their place in creation. One of the great myths of humankind, passed down from the Ancient Egyptians to the Greeks, that encompass the Torah, the Talmud, the Bible, the Quran, ties language to divinity. We need not invoke the fall of Babel and the fracturing of mankind into disparate groups unable to communicate. Prometheus may have given humankind fire but Thoth taught Pharaohs and their priests to write and in so doing changed the fate of humanity forever.

The utilitarian definition of language sees it as a means of conveying information, words become signs which point to objects or abstract concepts thereby allowing individuals to articulate information about the world. It is also the framework within which any group or community makes sense of the world around them, and of their place within it.

Without sliding into linguistic determinism, Silver’s novel carefully lays out how language reflects and perpetuates the knowledge and structures of a given community. It is no surprise to those familiar with the convention of the “coming-of-age novel” that the limitations of culture and community, and the impositions they place upon the conception of the self, are tested by the experience of travelling outside and beyond them. 

Constructed languages (or “ConLangs” [1]) are a misunderstood though increasingly prevalent aspect of science-/speculative-/fantasy-fiction. In Two Dark Moons, Silver does more than apply the anti-censorship obfuscation tactic of TV (“She’s a fracking Cylon!”) or the use of “foreign” language as a way of making the Other more remote and unknown (“Cthulhu fhtagn” or “the practice of Kelno’reem”). Language is a vital component of life in  and structure of communication in the book form an important dimension of the story from the very beginning.

Language is a constant battle in Two Dark Moons. Sohmeng, the hot-headed protagonist, struggles to communicate, her “speak first, apologize later” attitude has landed her in hot water (the ‘again’ is implicit) at the beginning of the novel. 

As she makes her case before the council of elders, 24 total, representing each of the lunar phases, with the exception of Minhal – the darkest night, the “bad sign” of the new moons, when the Gods’ eyes are turned away from the hmun

As she prepares and makes her case to the council of elders, it becomes clear that Sohmeng is no stranger to the difficulties of communication. The complexities of clarity and diplomacy are rendered vividly. 

The struggle to remain both truthful and diplomatic (the first of which, for Sohmeng, is fundamentally compromised by the circumstances of her birth), to balance being understood and to convince others to give you what you want, is put front and center. 

At home, among the hmun, Sohmeng has already lost the battle and tipped the scales more toward brutal clarity, and suffers the subsequent social isolation familiar to anyone with an undisciplined tongue. Sohmeng is the victim of another trait of those who find themselves too close to the edge: she sees with great clarity the threads of responsibility and choice that bind her community together. She has the consigned/committed pariah’s certainty that if people would just take her seriously, life might be easier for everyone.

Somheng’s parents were traders and as such, she speaks the trader pidgin used to conduct transactions between different hmun[2], putting her a full step closer to bilingualism than anyone else in her community. The cognitive and intellectual flexibility introduced with any form of bilingualism (a trait the novel engenders through the use of the incorporation of hmunpa into the narrative), a subtle alienation from a unified or totalizing description of the world which can sometimes develop as a result of monolingualism, primes Sohmeng (and encourages the reader) to successfully re-evaluate the world around her and her position within it. 

Two Dark Moons does not limit itself to exploring language as an instrument of epistemology. It also commits itself to the complex project of understanding sentience and communication in both non-human and non-linguistic terms. In our world, the efforts of conservationists, naturalists, and cognitive scientists have done their part to show that the rest of the animal kingdom has as much claim to sensibility and complex cognition as does humankind and, moreover, that the distance between “human” and “animal” is insignificant.

The forests in the valley from which the five fingers of Ateng emerge shelter a reptilian apex predator, the Sãoni. Even from the safety of the hmun they are all too real to be dismissed as some kind of boogeyman. Like the stories European explorers brought back of panthers and leopards – natives ceding territory to the uncontested regents of the jungle – the Sãoni are a death sentence to those exiled or separated from the community. 

Where Silver’s world building and empathic sensitivity shine, setting the shared world of Eiji and Ateng apart, is their refusal to recognize the traditional barriers of intelligence and love. Anthropomorphized animal narrators are a staple of fantasy fiction, as is the reversal of the seemingly “animal” into an intelligent Other. Silver chooses to remind us that speech is not the be-all, end-all of communication. 

Even as our own scientific exploration now shows that elephants, whales, and dolphins possess a greater capacity for complex thought than previously afforded to them by humanity, the colony of Sãoni she joins show Somheng that viewing language-based communication as the pinnacle of intelligent evolution is an affectation of humanity. 

Ultimately, the demand for complex empathy across species is a lesson which prepares Sohmeng (and the audience) for the much more complicated business of empathizing with those human strangers who look and speak in unfamiliar ways.

It is easy to focus on the tradition of social commentary which has defined speculative fiction from early eu-/utopias through the tradition of feminist and queer SF/F, a tradition of which Two Dark Moons is undeniably a part. Indeed, the novel works diligently to challenge the audience’s assumptions regarding the “natural” organization of human beings and expands the possibilities of gender assignations, linguistic conventions, and reproductive configurations, in addition to more common topics in mainstream SF/F such as styles of governance and environmental systems. 

Silver is also able to impart a wisdom so often lacking from the ever-rising tide of apocalyptic and dystopian fiction which threatens to overwhelm every imaginable media outlet. They recognize that a community and a culture, even in the midst of crisis, is often able to carry on with a semblance of normalcy which can conceal impending catastrophe. As an author, Silver is willing to confront the re-traumatization inherent in history and discovery. There are questions which lurk in the caves and hollows which will never yield answers and the grief of them is something Sohmeng, and ultimately her hmun, must learn to live with, without hope or promise of closure. 

There is a transcendental impulse in Two Dark Moons, best recognized and understood by looking out at the world and knowing enough of life and death to be able to name what is before and around us, that great cycle of which we are a part, as “One.” The decision not to hold one’s self apart from the complexity and intricacies of “everything” reminds us that we are governed as much by the salt of the earth as we are by the movement of the heavens.

Perhaps my only complaint, and it’s merely a matter of form and personal preference, is that the story ends not quite on a cliffhanger (that comes at the start of the novel, actually) but with an unrepentant promise of a sequel. There is much still to learn of Ateng, Eiji, the hmun and the travails that await them, but in a world gone mad for sequels, prequels, series, et. al. it can be exhausting to add another to the list. That having been said, I would not trade my experience traveling through Eiji for anything. 


Two Dark Moons is now available at Amazon. Grab a copy! (Not an affiliate link)


1. “Constructed Languages” can refer to a variety of different types of languages which are intentionally developed by individuals. There are conlangs which are nominally dedicated to facilitating global communication or even communication with extraterrestrials, such as Esperanto and AI. However, the kind currently proliferating are those often referred to as “Art Languages” or “ArtLangs” which are languages developed as part of a wider artistic endeavor or for personal use and/or entertainment. The most well-known artlang is undoubtedly Tolkien’s Elvish, though Dothraki (developed for television by David Peterson) and Klingon are not unfamiliar. Both art- and conlangs are held to fairly stringent linguistic standards, and to be a fully developed “language” must meet the same requirements as any organic or naturally occurring language. For example, they require grammars and vocabularies which exceed a specific quantity. Therefore, most conlangs are developed over years and decades and are the result of an astounding quantity of work and thought. For more information about Constructed Languages and the people who love them, check out the Language Construction Society. (They have a really great convention, I went to it once, it changed my life.)

2. I think it is a collective noun, it could follow the plural prefix format and be bahmun as a plural, but that might be a human/animal plural instead. Without a full grammar for the language, this will have to remain speculation. I hope that we do get a chance to dig into the linguistic world of Ateng in the future. 

No detours, a review of Cemetery Beach

Rating: ★★★★★

Maybe Warren Ellis is in my head, or maybe what he and Jason Howard achieved with Cemetery Beach is just genius, wrapped in subtlety (a shocking claim, given the number of explosions it contains) wreathed and garlanded in weirdness.

If you want to know what’s going on, if you need answers, if you enjoy carefully laid out intricacies, then Cemetery Beach is not for you.

By a certain measure, the 7-issue story (now collected into a single volume) is nothing more than a series of provocations. I see that more as a feature than a bug. It is entirely possible that a year and change of being subscribed to Ellis’ newsletter – Orbital Operations – has rotted my brain, like the chemical inhaled by the gas mask wearing denizens of the outer ring on the planet where Cemetery Beach takes place.

Cemetery Beach provides a vicious, demented contrast to eutopic visions of a post-scarcity world (such as Corey Doctorow’s Walkaway – more on that soon). The unidentified (though by no means unnamed – protagonist, scout, and Earthling Mike Blackburn provides a number of expletive laden possibilities) planet on which the majority of the story takes place is literally made up of the material necessities for life: a substance, a mix of protein, sugar, etc. oozes out of cracks in the mantle; the planet is ripe with refined nuclear material, providing functionally unlimited energy; and a mysterious pool provides the means of extending the human lifespan – the exact process is (perhaps mercifully) vague, but seems to involve fungal infection and cancerous cell growth in addition to longevity.

Whether the found of this – in their words – Utopia are Nazis or not is never entirely clear. The early-20th century military aesthetic of the ruling class automatically produces the comparison, and knowing that the colony was a result of a secret program in the 1930s does little to disabuse the idea. However, they could just as easily be British or American, handily collapsing the distance between the various strains of fanatical social engineering which sprouted up as we moved from the Victorian into the Modern era.

The lack of clarity regarding the exact quasi-historical origins of the hideous situation Mike stumbles upon, as part of his reconnaissance mission from Earth to this recently uncovered project, is a refreshing break from the unwieldy exposition we have come to expect (and accept) from dystopic and/or apocalyptic fiction. While it might be a stretch to say that its absence lends the narrative anything like ‘realism,’ it, at least, does not demand the attenuated suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, while the native guide explains to the non-native (and the audience) how all this came to be… While they get shot at.

Instead both Mike and the audience are left to speculate and extrapolate as to the processes which resulted in the colorful and horrifying tableaus Mike and dissident Grace Moody (imprisoned for “murderous shit”) make their way from the prison in the capitol (inner ring) out to Cemetery Beach (last outpost before the wastes) where Mike’s transport home awaits. All the visitors from “Oldhome” must make up their own minds about this alien, if not totally foreign, world.

This is the point where I say something like: ‘the guiding principle of an extractive “economy” – one encompassing the physical, biological, environmental, etc. – which guides all life on Utopia can be seen as a caricature of neoliberal, late-stage capitalism. A ruling class – whose sole interest is their own self-perpetuation and maintenance of power, an avarice so fervent they operate without care, or seeming awareness, that the end result of their project will be their “utopia” sitting  atop a blasted, toxic wasteland – can be said to reflect the probable outcome of willful inaction on the part of the ruling classes on our Earth to protect any kind of “greater good.”’

But Cemetery Beach can just as easily eschew any kind of overtly political analytic hack job and instead stand as an oasis, a space apart from the dystopic/apocalyptic mainstream.

Sometime after the half-way point, Mike says, “You know, at some point along the way, this stopped being fun.” They have just breached the outer ring, mercilessly slicing their way through the denizens of this perverse, human “cold storage” – the icy waste that Grace Moody called ‘home.’ She checks over the bodies littering the snow, looking for survivors. The moment, a reprieve in the otherwise non-stop, nuclear-powered, at times literally face melting pace of the narrative-action, provides the opportunity to reflect on the real stakes within the story.

Amazingly, it turns out that a simple demand for empathy might be an effective way to solicit it.

Cemetery Beach stands up to do the job which the previous decade’s cinematic revisitations of 90s graphic novels (an era known for its addiction to unremorseful violence, brutality, and sex) has failed to do. The 2008 adaptation of Wanted fell back on the unimaginative horror of having been duped by a shadowy international conspiracy – and having the hot girl you were lusting after die to save the world, and your ass. Then there’s the cognitive dissonance of Colin Firth in the Kingsmen movies – although by 2014, the shadowy international cabal at least had a veneer of political vitality, following the bank bailouts and the increased willingness of the super rich to outright state their plans to retreat to enclosed havens while the rest of the world burns (I’m looking at you, Peter Thiel). We could include the SyFy channel adaptation of 2014’s Deadly Class (also from Image Comics), with its relitigation of the Reagan-Thatcher era cuts to public services. Secret organizations – especially the kind that assassinate people – proliferate.

Warren Ellis is smart enough to know that the people who are most deserving of our compassion, and the people we are all most likely to become are the incidental casualties. Those with the power are likely to throw themselves into the line of fire to protect whatever travesty sustains their way of life. The rest of us will mourn or die as those who never had the chance to decide whether or not we want a revolution.

This isn’t to say that Ellis doesn’t make room for the political gallows humor which fueled the likes of Transmetropolitan (the work which converted me to an Ellis fan). Mike’s loved ones have all met with tragic ends, comprising a laundry list of social ills resulting from willful political inaction spanning the last three decades. The tragedy has left Mike with suicidal tendencies (a quest for “the good death” according to Grace) and a martyrous inclination to self-sacrifice. These traditional affectations of the male ego are nonetheless more palatable than the sexual assault and provocative political misbehavior which negatively impacts so much of the contemporary work produced by his generational cohort (yes, I mean Alan Moore).

It might be that fridging his protagonist’s entire family and social circle enables Ellis to avoid the sexist under-/overtones of allowing his hero to off-load his survivor’s guilt onto the nearest only sort-of vulnerable female acquaintance. Instead, it takes on a more holistic character, for a Freudian psychological substitution, with Mike seeking absolution for the failure to save one world, by saving another from the ravages of institutionalized madness.

Given that Ellis and Howard had scarcely more than 150 pages to work with, ‘Everyone I love is dead, at least let me save one person,’ is a succinct and digestible motivation. (The motivational Occam’s Razor, if you will.)

Cemetery Beach is a wild, 7-issue ride, and will leave you inquisitive and energized; two things we’ll need to face the coming future. After all, it’s already here. (You’ve been trained for this, hold on tight.*

*: to quote from my favorite part of Mr. Ellis’ newsletter

Future Imaginary and the role of Horror

When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality. But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror.

After reading Capitalist Realism, with its focus on what I have decided to term a “failure of the imagination” – not in the sense that we, the collective political and human consciousness, are exhibiting a personal failing – produced by the peremptory enclosure of possibility inherent in capitalist realism, I have re-committed myself to questions about the Future.

I have a terrible tendency to submit to the logic of “realpolitik” (in itself a form of capitalist realism) when evaluating the possibilities for creating better systems and better outcomes. While I believe it is partially the result of the natural contrarian in me responding to the more daring potentialities imagined by the people whom I choose as friends and compatriots, it nevertheless perpetuates a limited and limiting view of what could be.

On the Always Already Podcast, at the end of December 2018, the hosts contended with Eugene Thacker’s In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy. Without having read it, my understanding of it is of an imaginary book. This book is co-written by the description of the other book’s contents as provided by the crew at Always Already and by my own already-developing thoughts on the role of horror (both genre and emotion) and fear (both affect and effect) in philosophy – but philosophy writ large: any mode and means of asking questions.

Horror, according to Thomas Ligotti, is something which exists independent of the human mind. In “Professor Nobody’s Little Lectures on Supernatural Horror” he says:

“[O]ne thing we know is real: horror. It is so real, in fact, that we cannot be sure it could not exist without us. Yes, it needs our imaginations and our consciousness, but it does not ask or require our consent to use them.” (187)

Horror is something with which we must contend, not because it offers us anything in particular, but because it is unavoidable. Horror, whose handmaidens are Pain, Death, and Uncertainty, is, in point of fact, the soil in which the tree of philosophy has taken root.

Listening to Always Already, Thacker seems to be asking that we prepare ourselves to contend with something that cannot ever be perceived, a something which…

“…is that which paradoxically reveals the hiddenness of the world in itself. […] [You] reveal something which is a paradoxical re-hiding of it at the same time…”

One of the big debates around Lovecraft – the conundrum of his rich, descriptive prose and the his narrators’ perpetual encounters with the “indescribable,” – was put to rest (in my mind) by Mark Fisher, who was building on an analysis by China Mieville, in his essay “The Out of Place and the Out of Time: Lovecraft and the Weird” (collected in The Weird and the Eerie):

“After (1) the declaration of indescribability, and (2) the description, comes (3) the unvisualisable. For all their detail, or perhaps because of it, Lovecraft’s descriptions do not allow the reader to synthesize the logorrheic schizophony of adjectives into a mental image…” (23)

In other words, Lovecraft creates a cognitive rupture by providing enough (or so much) information so that a solution – a coherent image, in this case – ought to be possible, while simultaneously frustrating any attempt to generate that solution. This question of a something or somewhere which is perceptible as a logical and/or affective possibility but which, at the same time, cannot be constructed or imagined as a coherent whole is a powerful philosophical tool.

When considering the “failure of the imagination” which traps people within capitalist realism, the potential in invoking an incoherent – though not necessarily unreal – alternative mode of thought or existence is crucial to breaking out of the bind of capitalist realism. Being able to posit an incoherent alterity is the first step towards being able to move towards a coherent alternate reality.

But trying to pull away from the familiar and towards a new paradigm inevitably produces an encounter with Horror. Following from Ligotti’s assertion that Horror exists independent of the human, then perhaps it can be said that, in the way that venomous creatures are able to prolong their existence by disrupting the biological systems of their predators, Horror serves a similar function in the preservation and perpetuation of particular realities; Horror is a defensive tactic of collective existence which disrupts the cognitive systems of those seeking to change it.

Here it is important to distinguish between Horror, horror-as-genre, and horror.

Little-h “horror” is that which can be described as a feeling or emotion. It refers to a strong negative reaction, often literally embodied, which combines characteristics of disgust, pity, revulsion, and an instantaneous rejection which can be a precursor to fear.

Capital-H “Horror” by contrast is that philosophical/affective entity which Ligotti described as existing independently from the human consciousness. “Horror” is part of the collective consciousness, it is a fundamental part of both generating and processing reality itself.[1] Here, Horror refers to an affective quality which can be perceived even when it is not accompanied by horror. While some philosophical projects (as well as scientific, religious, and narrative) projects inspire horror in those who encounter them, all philosophical projects and re-imaginings of reality will produce Horror.

(While this is exceptionally true of efforts taking place in the tradition emergent from the Enlightenment and ultimately the Modernist philosophical projects, there is reason to believe that even in non-Western Rationalist reality paradigms Horror is emergent all the same. Regardless of what their precepts may be, collective reality rejects its own re-interpretation.)

This means that “horror-as-genre,” as a collective, wide-ranging aesthetic project dedicated to exploring the production of both horror and Horror, is kin to the philosophical and scientific projects which seek to push the boundaries of what is admissible in reality. But horror-as-genre can be deployed in the service of two outcomes: the first is the exploratory, imaginative function of positing the “outside” of reality, and the second is as an inoculation. Exposure to horror and Horror (especially in the places where they intersect and intensify each other) encourages familiarity with them, and that familiarity introduces the possibility of separating horror and Horror, making it possible to engage with each quality separately.

An inclusive survey of horror-as-genre quickly reveals the variety of emotional impulses present in a seemingly inclusive category. (This is partially a result of the diversity of any given audience. However, it is also because horror-as-genre traffics readily and effortlessly in pity and grief from tragedy,  and a variety of pleasurable sentiments.) So the evocation of mere horror is insufficient as a metric by which to recognize the shared quality which unifies horror-as-genre. What brings the disparate elements of horror-as-genre (a quality which enables a recognition unimpeded by the sometimes confounding confluence between genres) is the evocation of Horror – the affective, philosophical conundrum of the supposedly “unimaginable.”

By transforming the now-cliched Nietzsche quote into its raison d’être, horror-as-genre prepares us for life on the precipice. On one side, the worn-out, inhospitable, hazy terrain of the past, on the other, the abyss of the future, and between the two, the narrow ledge of the present. Capital-H Horror is the cognitive vertigo which comes with a prolonged gazing into the uncertainties of what is not-yet-known and what has not-yet-happened. It is the result of rejecting the materiality of the present and the collectively imagined real in favor of supposing that the void may not be empty after all.

Postmodernism created a Horror in modernism with its fundamental re-imagining of reality as inherently self-contradictory. The capacity of subjects and objects to contain themselves and their opposites generates unmitigated chaos in a modernist reality. The narrative complexity of postmodernism, the constant reproduction through speech and act, can make it impossible for a model of collective imagination which is still bound by the systems of modernism to adapt and respond. Meanwhile, the parts of reality which have embraced and adapted to the postmodernist model are already distant enough from large parts of the collective imagination to be perceived as an already reimagined “future.”

This implicit (though inaccurate) distancing is the result of both an evocation if Horror and the fundamental assumptions of modernism. As a post-Enlightenment ideology, modernism sees all change as progress, any modification, addition, or change constitutes a progressive evolution. This progressive assumption means that postmodernism is – by virtue of being “new” – both more recent and more forward thinking. But it is also disruptive, and that disruption, with its demand of a new paradigm, produces Horror in those attempting to engage it. The alterity of postmodernism to modernism renders it unreadable, especially at the beginning, or, in other words, “indescribable.”

The clash between perceived temporalities or other paradigmatic structures is a perpetual source of Horror. Horror which is very effective at disrupting the processes of the collective imagination. Developing a recognition of the role of Horror in demarcating reality modes and, more importantly, becoming comfortable with Horror as part of the imaginative process is a necessary component of liberating ourselves from the reality systems which have begun to negatively impact the collective imagination.

[1] Always Already discusses the intellectual crutch of the phrase “something itself” in the Thacker episode, which brings up a lot of very interesting questions. Nevertheless, at this time, the phrase will have to stand.

Bibliography

Aultman, B, et al. “Ep. 60 – Eugene Thacker, In the Dust of This Planet: Horror of Philosophy.” Always Already Podcast, 27 Dec. 2018, alwaysalreadypodcast.wordpress.com/2018/12/27/thacker/.

Fisher, Mark. The Weird and the Eerie. Repeater Books, 2016.

Ligotti, Thomas. Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe. Penguin Books, 2015.

Aztec-Futurism, Mental Monster Movies, and Chinese Speculative Fiction

Quick fiction recommendations featuring Latine fiction, mesoamerican mythology in a variety of configurations, Chinese history and politics, and a variety of possible futures.

Lords of the Earth

Rating: ★★★★★

The high concept movie pitch for this book is: Mesoamerican myth meets Godzilla. But Hollywood would never make this movie, and not only because they’re afraid of having a predominantly Latine cast. (Although now I’m imagining Robert Rodriguez and Guillermo Del Toro teaming up to bring this to the big screen … It would be amazing.) The real reason Hollywood could never bring this majestic adventure to the screen is that it would require a fundamental reconfiguration of the archetypes they rely on to make up the difference between “high concept” movie pitches and “great stories.”

This book has, at its core, the very thing that made the original Japanese Godzilla movies so good (and that which has been largely absent from any Western remakes) – there is no singular epistemology which will account for everything humanity is set to encounter. Just as in Mothra it is necessary to return to the folk stories to save Japan, so in Lords of the Earth must Western science meet and meld with indigenous knowledge to save Mexico and the world from the creatures awakened in the Earth’s mantle.

Bowles does a wonderful job fleshing out his characters in unexpected (though nevertheless natural) ways. He manages that nigh impossible feat of presenting genuinely complex – and at times irritating – characters in a way that lets them be fully human. We get to know them in the way you know old friends, full of faults and genius and particularities that make someone we can love.

The form of the novel shifts between points of view (always in the third person) and carefully unfolds the tangled history binding the different voices of the novel together. The famous physicist and TV host, the decorated general, and the Indigenous archeologist form the core of the story, with a shared, semi-public history spanning decades. Now, trapped together by the apocalyptic events set in motion by the emergence of huge, unknown creatures from Mexico’s volcanoes, that history is determined to meet its denoument.

In many ways, reading this book is more like being along for the ride than the slow unspooling and discovery of the narrative which can be said to characterize other SF/F stories. Despite its conglomoration of mysteries (What happened to bind Elena and General Marcos? Where did these monsters come from? How does an upstate New York transplant to Texas in the 1930s factor into all this? How did Elena and Alfonso end up so at odds with one another?) the action never abates.

So, if you like giant monsters, science, mythology, and adorable, kind of fucked up people trying to save the world, you should definitely take this one for a spin.

High Aztech

Rating: ★★★★★

Another book from the Latine SF/F Story bundle curated by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and another unadulterated triumph. I’ve already described it elsewhere as “The book American Gods wishes it was,” but that feels like a diminishment of what High Aztech achieves. (No insult intended to Neil Gaiman.)

High Aztech has all the best parts of cyberpunk/futurepunk speculative and science fiction. It makes me want to convince you of the potential for Aztec-Futurism as a mesoamerican corralary to Afro-Futurism. The novel has mind altering viruses, weird technologies, and a new world order following a global cataclysm (never fully explained). Hogan grabs you, the reader, and immerses you without remorse in the vibrant, familiar unknown world of Tenochtitlan – a new Mexico City undergoing a cultural revolution oriented toward bringing back Aztec beliefs.

The novel overflows with the mid-80s to early-90s hallucinogenic perpetual reconfiguration, like The Invisibles, Transmetropolitan, and Repo Man, except that to survive this story you had better get familiar with Nahuatl and the Aztec pantheon. It’s all worth it.

I haven’t been so moved or so convinced by a transcendental, spiritual apotheosis since I finished Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. Finally, at a moment when the U.S. and Mexico are poised to alientate themselves even further than already provided for by history, this is a story about perspective, and has more than enough political allegory for those not won over by awesome futuristic polyphonic insanity.

Broken Stars

Rating: ★★★★☆

The English-speaking world owes Ken Liu an enormous thank you. With 2017’s Invisible Planets and now with Broken Stars, Liu is bringing some of the best contemporary science fiction to audiences who cannot read Chinese.

Trying to compress my gushing praise and enthusiasm for Invisible Stars to comply with the limitations of coherent English is essentially impossible. Thus far it has most effectively been conveyed through immediate purchase and distribution of Invisible Planets to friends and loved ones, as well as fractured sentences, hand waving, and pleas for people to believe me when I say they must read it, if they wish to experience the full spectrum of what this life has to offer. In short: It’s amazing. Waste no time. Go read it immediately.

But that’s not Broken Planets. Broken Planets is also a requirement for anyone who wishes to experience the totality of human experience. It also requires slightly more patience and is possibly best considered as a more advanced continuation of what Ken Liu started with Invisible Planets.

The stories in Broken Stars are longer and combined with Liu’s push to include both more material from authors featured in the original collection as well as new authors, the editor freely admits the limitations this introduced on how many stories he could present from each author. Hopefully, galvanized by the response of Western audiences to the initial collection, Liu also chose to include some stories which draw more heavily on Chinese history, culture, and genre forms (such as wuxia novels). So while Invisible Planets could readily be given to someone with limited knowledge about Chinese politics, Broken Stars is best appreciated by readers with a little more experience. (For example, Baoshu’s “That which has already passed will in a kinder light appear” is entirely contingent on the reader being able to track events between existing history and a new one.) Footnotes are included throughout, but Liu and his fellow translators work hard to keep them minimal to avoid interrupting the flow of the stories.

Ultimately, I hope everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the work of Xia Jia. Her work has been as a sunbeam cutting through the winter gloom for me. Every single story of hers I’ve read has made me cry, and every one has been worth those tears. (It is not hard to make me cry, but it can be difficult to make me not resent it.)

DRM, the Designated Regret Model for ebook readers

Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

The need to ensure the profitability of people’s work, especially for small and/or independent publishers and authors is obvious. Digital media formats have absolutely changed the game in terms of ease of “unauthorized” redistribution of materials. (The very concept of redistribution of intellectual property being “un/authorized” poses a number of significant philosophical questions.) At the same time, there is something very wrong with the way in which DRM software has been implemented.

The metaphysics of intellectual “property” – do you really own the ideas? can anyone be said to own an idea once it has been put out into the world? where do we draw the line between influence, extrapolation, and plagiarism? can two people spontaneously produce the same ideas? how do you litigate such a case? – are impossible to cover here, if onlyb because there are so few good answers. (And even fewer which are acceptable to the Disney corporation, Bono, and, presumably, the entity or entities which make up the romance novelist “Nora Roberts”.)

One of my issues with ebooks, like many others, is the way in which they destroy the materiality of books. In this case, I don’t mean the way they feel, or smell, or sound, or taste, or whatever sensory aspect people usually invoke. I mean that almost every book I own, and certainly the ones I love, are the means with which I discourse with the author.

Unlike the sterile overprotectiveness which causes such divisions amongst “Booktubers” – the collective reader/writer community of YouTube – my books are heavily marked up. I have usually extensively highlighted, annotated, dog-eared, and sticky-noted any book I found worth my while, in addition to having dropped, sat and spilled and slept on it. I like to lend my books out, and get them back with a little additional wear showing that the other person enjoyed it enough to carry it around with them. (Obviously, I’d prefer that my books come back in a form where they are still legible and mostly intact, but I’m never particularly concerned about their physical status beyond those basics.)

In other words, I’m exceedingly particular about the ways in which I’m allowed to interact with my books. Ereaders, such as the Kindle Paperwhite (and certainly its predecessors), were never going to work for me, because highlighting and annotating are low-priority functions. For now, the ebook app which works best for me is Google Play Books. This is largely thanks to the automatic syncing of highlights/notes to a Google Doc.

Other apps have attempted similar features, but Google has done a remarkable job of making it easy to annotate your reading and make those annotations accessible and usable. Four highlight colors, which are all imported along with their content to the annotations document (It shouldn’t be necessary to remind developers that exporting the color of the highlight is as important as exporting its content but here we are. I’m looking at you, Xodo), allow a range of different active reading methods, and any notes added to a given highlight are exported as a related annotation along with the highlighted text (Again, I didn’t think we needed to remind people of this, but…). It isn’t fully customizable, but it is remarkably flexible.

This isn’t to say that Amazon’s Kindle app can’t or doesn’t do some or all of these things. I merely happen to like Google’s material design. But I’m not actually here to extoll the virtues of one ereader or ebook app over another.

I’m here to talk about personal preference. Almost everyone has had an experience where the format, layout, or design of a book has negatively impacted their experience of it. Some people have almost certainly found themselves unwilling, unable, or at great pains to continue reading a book based on one of those factors, be it font choice, page gutter, or book size. Ebooks are intended to be less susceptible to those types of user experience failures thanks to flowing text, which allows the reader to resize and reformat the text to their liking, making it easier to read purely in terms of eyeball mechanics. (Obviously, format contingent works, such as House of Leaves, are unable to benefit from this kind of malleability.)

When the use multiple and/or variable devices – in a range of sizes and weights – is factored in, the portability and maneuverability made available to readers is unparalleled. (Consider the difference between reading something like David Graeber’s Debt, the first 5,000 years (534 pages), Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum (641 pages) or K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (891 pages) in a physical format versus a digital one. It’s the difference between being able to read them in bed and needing a table.) Additionally, for people who like to annotate as they read, the digital space is without limitation, because comments and ideas are liberated from the confines of the margin.

This kind of flexibility should make ebooks vastly appealing to people. In so many other parts of our lives, we have been converted by the adaptability, convenience, immediacy, and shareability of the digital world. Newspapers, magazines, videos, television, etc…. And yet, not so with ebooks. This is not down merely to the fact that “book people” are all luddites who prefer the “physicality” of the book.

It’s because publishers have done next to nothing to make the ebook an appealing alternative to its physical counterpart.

The real advantages of the physical book over the ebook are as follows: anything with the prefix “re-”. Re-selling. Re-gifting. Re-mixing. Re-using. Re-reading. Books, unlike most other commodities, are rarely entirely personal. Cars, underwear, and plates of nachos are all things we acquire with the understanding that they are not intended to be shared. I don’t offer to give you my car or a perfect nacho just because I enjoyed it. Books, on the other hand, are regularly swapped, lent, borrowed, entrusted, assigned, given, and gifted.

Adam Driver and the perfect nachos in What If? (2013)

The treatment of a book like a single-use, limited-use, or personal commodity is to fundamentally misconstrue the social use and function of “the book” as a cultural object. Intellectual property may cover the ideas embedded within a book’s pages and may need protecting. But books, in general, exist and proliferate explicitly because those ideas are intended to be distributed.

Why, specifically, am I so mad about this? How does DRM software specifically tie into this screed about the nature of books and ebooks?

The issue moved from the theoretical (intellectual property management in the digital age) to the personal. In the capitalist fashion, this was through financial investment and subsequent “buyer’s remorse”.

It is now abundantly clear to me that the primary way of ensuring that an ebook is not wildly proliferated across the web is to tie the file (in my case, an epub) to a specific reader application (in my case, Adobe Digital Editions). If you do or cannot buy your ebook through one of the combo purchasing/reading ebook ecosystems in accordance with your personal preference (Amazon → Kindle, Google Play Store → Google Books, Barnes & Noble → Nook, Kobo → Kobo, etc.), you may make the mistake of attempting to purchase a DRM protected ebook from somewhere else.

I made the mistake of not reading the fine print.

Always read the fine print. Even if you have to search for it, always, always read it.

Ebooks.com was, I thought, an oasis in the desert. It seemed I would be able to purchase an epub of K-punk: the collected and unpublished writings of Mark Fisher (which is not available through Google Play Books) from them. In my unbridled enthusiasm to dig into the writing of Mark Fisher, I did so.

Don’t want to download the ebooks.com app? Click this link and download an epub, instead. (This was were reading the fine print comes in.) But I didn’t get to download an epub, actually.

What I could download is an acsm file. ACSM stands for “Adobe Content Server Message” and it is a file format which Adobe uses to pull content protected by Adobe’s DRM software to your computer. My unmitigated irritation does not permit me the patience to dig into the technical details of how Adobe uses this method to enable permissions across devices through Adobe Digital Editions to access the ebook. Suffice to say, you create or use an account associated with Adobe products and are able to sync that account’s library.

Just to add insult to injury, once you have opened the ACSM file with Adobe Digital Editions, a copy of the epub (as in, an actual booktitle.epub file) does come to live on your device. Forget opening it, though. It is impossible to open with any software other than an Adobe product. (While someone has undoubtedly designed software specifically designed to crack the DRM code embedded in the file, but I’m not actually interested in stealing anything today.)

The end result of all this is that I cannot read a book I paid $13 to access using the ebook reader of my choice.

Reading is an incredibly personal, intimate experience. Some people prefer to read on vacation, some prefer to do it while listening to music, some prefer silence, some prefer to do it upside down or in the bath or only between the hours of 4 and 6 in the afternoon. With physical books, we are at the mercy of the publishers and designers for the format of the book, but it is only with ebooks that we are at the mercy of international digital conglomerates about the exact manner in which we can access an object for which we have paid.

You know what I found really galling, though? The thing that finally pushed me over the edge, after paying to be digitally inconvenienced?

Ebooks.com says they cannot accept returns, because they have not handed over a physical object. Therefore, there is nothing to return, according to them. Given how many times I had to feed my email address into Adobe Digital Editions and ebooks.com, I find it exceedingly improbable that they would not be able to revoke my access to any DRM encoded file which requires the usage of their proprietary software to be read.

This isn’t Schrödinger’s epub. The file can’t both exist enough to be monitored and secured with proprietary software and simultaneously be so immaterial that I can’t have my access to it revoked in return for my $13.

It is probable that neither publishers nor the wider “book people” community care very much about how ebooks are managed. The publishers are probably happy to conform to the digital mediocrity produced by proprietary DRM software, as it does the work of securing their IP and therefore their profits, while “book people” are happy to take it as proof that the physical book is still preferable to the digital one, and everyone else is more interested in audiobook integration than anything else.

So this is my rallying cry into the void:

We all deserve better ebooks. Authors and publishers deserve DRM software that limit the amount of mass, “unauthorized” distribution of the material that produces their livelihood, and readers deserve DRM software that doesn’t completely incapacitate their engagement and enjoyment of that same material.

Whether this means cutting out the middle man, so I can buy my ebooks directly from the publisher, or if it means an aggressive diversification of the distribution channels so that more books are available across more services, I neither know nor care. Ideally, it would involve a practice of building new DRM code which enables transfer of the files without copying them, in addition to non-proprietary or locked formats.

Whatever publishers and authors decide, at the moment, the only ones with any respect for their audience are the ones brave enough to distribute their ebooks DRM free.