The Great Game

a review by bob roman

The Betrayals by Bridget Collins, William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2021

What is this novel by U.K. author Bridget Collins? Well, as it is an intricately plotted, character-centered story, one could call it a soap opera. But at 400 pages, it is about half the length one might expect of the literary version of that genre — I mean, think War and Peace or Anna Karenina… No, it’s too short. It might be a gothic novel as most of it takes place in an isolated mountain academy, Montverre, with a vulnerable female protagonist: the Magister Ludi, to name her by her title, and yes, there is that ongoing element of repressed sexual tension there too. But “gothic” would be a far too partial a characterization to be accurate. Or you could call it alternate history / speculative fiction. This comes closest to the mark as the setting is, like most sci-fi, very much a character in the plot. But whatever niche is occupied by The Betrayals, the novel is not for everyone as the plot depends on ambiguity to maintain its momentum.

Ambiguity! Obviously I am enthralled. I love ambiguity (just peruse this blog and you’ll see). But ambiguity is something that others may find difficult or disappointing.

Consider one of the major elements of the setting, the grand jeu. This is French for big / great game. But what is it? Baseball? Quidditch? It won’t be much of a spoiler to say that Collins was inspired by Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, but it has been decades since I’ve read any of Hesse’s work and none of it has remained in accessible memory. This is probably true for most of her readers. So how does Collins handle this? It’s as simple as “The gostak distims the doshes.”

Nonsense? Not really. The syntax alone imparts information (see the Wikipedia article). All the author need do is carefully layer additional suggestions, clues if you will, that evoke meaning and relations in the mind of the reader. If it is done well, the reader is led on, following a trail (or trails) to find greater resolution. Bridget Collins is a master at this.

Collins also does this with her main characters, and I found this to be wonderfully attractive. For all that they are bright, educated people, none of them are entirely aware of why they make the choices that they do, and they second guess and suffer for it. Western culture in particular glorifies rational self-interest, but in fact we are often miserable at calculation and torn unaware by our own conflicting agendas. And then there are the circumstances surrounding these choices. To paraphrase old Karl Marx: Humans make history, but not just as we please. The combination is fertile ground for betrayal after betrayal.

Collins isn’t perfect at drawing her characters. One of her main characters, Léo Martin, begins the novel as an aspiring cabinet minister in an extreme right-wing, authoritarian party (referred to only as the Party) recently elected to power and consolidating its hold on the government and the country. Her portrayal of this portion of Martin’s life shows him far too naive and resourceless, not at all C suite material if you will, but I doubt most readers will notice. Politics has become so professionalized and thus out of most people’s experience that most folks would have a hard time sorting fantasy from the plausible. Remember this: about three quarters of all politics is gossip.

It is tempting to regard Léo Martin as an unreliable narrator. And he is. But he is also clearly not entirely in touch with himself. One might say he contradicts himself and thereby becomes legion. It is beautiful to see this aspect of personality manifested in prose. I do think this may not be unusual. Which one of you is reading this. Which one of me chose or typed these words?*

The story is told in the present tense. Flashbacks, in the form of journal entries, are in the past tense. It’s an interesting arrangement. I like Collins’ prose generally, but my favorite is the first chapter, introducing Rat. Not all the rest of the writing is this good.

The author brings the story in for a deft landing that includes a bouquet of betrayals and a twist that seems to offer a way out. And maybe it does. Ambiguity, remember? You can write the post-ending story as some manner of happy-ever-after romance, but the nature of authoritarian regimes is to make as many as possible complicit in their crimes, actively or passively. It’s a seemingly never ending series of betrayals, large and small. My humble opinion is that it ends well for no one.

Oh, and apart from my humble comments on technique, what’s the novel actually about? Read the bloody book; anything else is a spoiler. If you like the first chapter half as much as I do, you’re very likely to like the rest.

I am so pleased to have had the opportunity to read this book. Maybe you will too.

Photo by Roman.


* Dissociative Identity Disorder would be an extreme example of this, but I’m not suggesting that everyone has these separate identities, rather merely multiple personalities that are assumed almost like clothing to fit the circumstances. When these personalities have conflicting agendas, the stage is set for self-sabotage…


“The Unraveling”

a review by bob roman

The Unraveling by Benjamin Rosenbaum, Erewhon Books, 2021

It’s not unusual for me to find a library book that I’ve never heard of by an author I’ve never heard of, only to find that the author has been hitting them out of the park for years now and the book has a fearsome buzz. I routinely plead guilty, confessing how thoroughly unhip I am.

But I had heard of this book and the author, having read a review of the book by Jake Casella Brookins at the Chicago Review of Books and an essay about the book by Benjamin Rosenbaum himself at John Scalzi’s Whatever blog. When I ran across the volume in the Harold Washington Library’s “Popular Library” section, I didn’t need to contemplate the cover or its blurbs.

It is also not unusual for me to complain just how much genre books end up seeming like Frankenstein’s monster, made of whatever parts are available or popular. These chimera can seem to have a life of their own, but they lurch and sway on the precarious edge of falling into a tar pit of boredom. Most of the pieces from which The Unraveling is constructed have been scattered about the sci-fi / pop culture scene for a while but out of these bits Rosenbaum has constructed something fresh. This happens only now and then, so while Rosenbaum has been nominated for a variety of sci-fi awards, it is about time that he wins one and this book may be it.

The Unraveling is basically an illicit love story and coming of age story that shakes the world that it inhabits, set some half million years in the future on a vaguely named planet some 400 light years from Earth. If that time and place seems a bit wild, there is no fantasy physics here (no faster than light travel, for example) and while some of the biology may be pretty speculative, our species, Homo Sapiens, is already about a half million years old in 2021. The future’s remoteness allows the familiar to seem a bit alien and the alien rather less outlandish. (The late Gene Wolfe did a brilliant job with this in his series The Book of the New Sun.) As one blurb-writer described the protagonist: “Fift has 3 bodies, 9 parents, 50 million viewers, 1 (?) forbidden love [and] 1 chance to save the world.”

This effect also makes for a good setting for one of the central themes of the book, gender as a social construct. The society in The Unraveling has two binary genders, “vail” and “staid” that are almost entirely divorced from reproductive biology. For the curious, the protagonist, Fift Brulio Iraxis, gets a brief childhood “birds and bees” conversation early on and in Fift’s world changing a person’s reproductive role is not much of a medical challenge. The profession of “genital designer” is a thing in The Unraveling. Maybe something for the stylish…

If that seems a bit weird or overly philosophical: guys, consider your pectorals, those muscular pecs you’re so proud of — or not. Gals, take a good look at his pecs too. Are you done? Sorry to break the news but those are boobs or, to be less colloquial, breasts. No, I’m not being insulting. All the biology to make and dispense milk is present; male nipples are not some useless evolutionary left-over. This is true of most all mammals, incidentally, and I would speculate that it may be one of the reasons mammals made it through the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event when so much else was buried by that asteroid etc. That doesn’t clear gender of all biology, but it should make apparent just how much the meanings we assign to gender influences our perception of ourselves and of others.

For the reader, the immediate consequence is new pronouns to learn, ve and ze. Understandably, Rosenbaum uses them liberally, particularly in the earlier parts of the story and this is a bit of a challenge. (It also reminds me that, in my humble opinion, we routinely over-use pronouns.)

Likewise, the portrayal of multiple bodies sometimes create a textual confusion, with several diverse conversations or storylines simultaneously in progress on the page, undelimited except as paragraphs. Sometimes this works to comic effect, as in a family quarrel or debate. Other times, not so much. With this feature, Rosenbaum may (or may not) have made unnecessary extra work for himself and his readers. While it adds to the strangeness, I found myself considering the octopus whose intelligence is more widely distributed in its body than just in its head but includes each of its eight arms. This is not unlike the multi-bodied denizens of Rosenbaum’s future, but I have read that each of the octopus’ arms seem to have something of their own personality while all of Fift’s bodies are closer than genetic twins. On the other hand, it widens gender’s divorce from reproduction.

Fift’s parents, incidentally, struck me as something out of turn-of-the-century pop culture: absurd, well meaning but in some respects out of touch or self-absorbed and only sometimes effectual.

Such challenges ought to demand soaring, vivid writing. There’s not much of that in The Unraveling. But there is heart-felt writing about the pecking-order games that children often play or the awkward and anxious stirrings of love and affection and commitment or the fear of discovery and of falling or the confusion of sorting out expectations, or the fear and demagoguery of the social media mob. The language did not need to soar for it to be rewarding. It speaks to the experience of growing up in the latter half of the 20th Century and the 21st thus far. That the story prospers in the face of such challenges to the reader speaks well of the writing.

In stories such as this, the imagined universe wherein the story is set can be counted as one of the characters in the drama. Rosenbaum has done a terrific job in creating this future society. As a mostly post-scarcity society, popularity has assumed the role of money, making social media mobs all the more fraught and the basis for something resembling social class. Judging by Rosenbaum’s essay at Whatever, the imagined universe may have benefited from an extensive false start on the novel. Regardless, it’s well done and mostly show not tell.

Lately I’ve been attentive to how writers end their story and Rosenbaum’s solution was clever and to the point, as the novel is about the kids and not so much the revolution. I liked it very much.

I’m looking forward to reading more of Benjamin Rosenbaum’s work.

Photo by Roman.

Who Is Arthur Dent?

three short reviews

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, Harper Perennial, 2003

Some weeks ago, I posted a brief review of Jonathan Lethem’s new novel, The Arrest, wherein I noted a marked resemblance between his main protagonist, Alexander Duplessis, and Douglas Adams’ Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Not long after, I decided to reread Neil Gaiman’s classic Neverwhere. This would not ordinarily be fodder for a review, but gosh! Doesn’t the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, resemble Arthur Dent? And the story is basically Hitchhiker’s Guide as well: The hapless anti-hero loses his comfortable place in the universe and confronts a series of frame-of-reference-shattering challenges before returning… home? By golly, once you see the blocks, telling a story is almost like building with Legos! If this were a proper review, a discussion of the underworld’s political economy would be in order and how that economy is of a type for certain fantasy, that is to say magical, stories, as well as its appeal to those who don’t quite belong. And furthermore, how should we recognize an Arthur Dent when we meet one: “Arthur Dent, I presume?” What bundle of traits, circumstances, character and tropes define an “Arthur Dent”? But this is a brief review, so I’ll end it by noting: Arthur Dent is everywhere, once you begin looking for him.

False Value by Ben Aaronovitch, DAW Books, 2020

Once again, this is not a book I’d ordinarily review. Being but the latest in a series of police procedurals (the Rivers of London novels) involving magic (and magical institutions), it’s basically mind-candy that follows familiar conventions in both mystery and urban magic genres. As is typical of many mystery series, the Rivers of London novels focus on a particular character, Peter Grant, where each book is a challenge that evolves the character in a sort of life journey. And how did Peter Grant begin, in that first novel, Midnight Riot? As someone with a distinct resemblance to Arthur Dent?

No! Wait! There is another reason for reviewing False Value. Earlier this year, I noted how unions are so much not a part of science fiction. Well, you can add Aaronovitch to that short list of sf authors who at least mention unions. Take this line of questioning from the protagonist, Peter Grant:

“… Vampires were a problem, of course – they always are. You burn out one nest and another would pop up. Got real bad in the ’70s until a bunch of homeless vets went after them with homemade napalm and flame-throwers – quite a war by all accounts.”

“You didn’t intervene?”

“I was a teenager at the time, but the Association stayed out of it,” said Mrs. Chin. The Association being the New York Libraries Association, the militant magical wing of the New York Public Library Services. “Although we’re all members of the Green Machine as well.” That being the AFSCME, the union that most mundane librarians belonged to.

This is, I think, an act of mischievous dissonance. After all, magic is personal power, an act of will as well as incantation and calculation. Why should magical librarians need collective bargaining and solidarity? Are contracts magical? Is the magical vulnerable without the mundane? Well, this is a brief review so I’ll just note that this series of novels is one of those that is a) good if you like both police procedural mysteries and magical fantasy and b) best begun with the first of the books, Midnight Riot.

Driftwood by Marie Brennan, Tachyon Publications, 2020

Driftwood is a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel and doing it quite well, thank you. The major difference in such situations being that as a collection, the author need not be so much concerned about closure, about bringing the whole edifice in for a landing at the end. Nor is the author confined to a particular few POVs. The stories, regardless of POV, all feature two characters: a guide / broker / informant / facilitator with an unnatural lifespan named “Last” and the universe that includes each story, “Driftwood”.

Driftwood is about aging and death. It is a constantly shrinking, constantly accreting amalgamation of fragments of different universes, each fragment being the remnant of a larger universe that has suffered some apocalypse. Wedged in with other fragments, they evaporate and shrink and settle toward the center of Driftwood where they, for a time, exist as ever diminishing parts of an urban shanty town, the Shreds. After all, when an organism (such as yourself) dies outside of extreme conditions, it doesn’t die all at once. Under the right conditions, individual cells might struggle along indefinitely. Heck, cells from your mother may still live within you. And ageing? We regress toward death, forgetting and losing, one by one. Or all at once.

Its worth noting that each of the fragments of Driftwood contains a particular culture and species of intelligence, often wildly different from their neighbors, but quaintly referred to as a “race” rather than as a “species”. This is an old science fiction practice that sometimes has a metaphorical function (aside from the fact that most science fiction aliens are humans in drag). In this case, “race” may be more apt as most of them can interbreed, and do: that being another characteristic that defines “the Shreds”. It’s not clear to me what Brennan’s point is except that it is likely also a part of the death metaphor. As is the character “Last”.

At some point, someone needs to write a compare-and-contrast essay about the political economy of fantasy novels… But I said that already, yes?

I always look forward to new writing by Brennan and am rarely disappointed.


Photo by Roman.

Four Short Reviews

The Last Emperox by John Scalzi, TOR books, 2020

This is not a book that I would have ordinarily reviewed. I mean, it’s basically brain candy; one could as easily do a bong or a shot. But it’s good for what it is. Scalzi is what I would call a genre writer not simply because he writes mostly within the genre of science fantasy but because he is capable of writing well enough in just about any genre, even if the product is not necessarily great literature. And The Last Emperox is not great literature, it’s biggest weakness being that much of the dialogue sounds like Scalzi talking to himself. There are a few plot-holes, though none that will damage your tires. Also, the book is the final entry in a space opera trilogy, and great literature rarely appears outside of where literary critics expect to see it.

As a reader, I can tell you that trilogies are a special problem for authors, especially in Sci-Fi: How to tell the story that has gone before and to introduce the characters to-date. Too often it’s lots and lots of (quite possibly boring, staged) exposition. I was totally overjoyed with Scalzi’s use of action to set the stage. I mean, there’s nothing like a ground-to-air missile headed in your direction to inspire a life-passing-before-your-eyes introspection. My delight in Scalzi’s execution of this plot device carried me through the first part of the book. The rest went down more slowly.

The central drama of the trilogy revolves around an interstellar empire (a sort of corporate feudalism) that becomes embroiled in a leadership crisis (with good guys and bad guys of various genders) right when it becomes apparent that the aptly named “Interdependency” is facing a something of an existential ecological crisis, the end of FTL interstellar travel. As you might suspect, elements of the setup are borrowed from the present; conservatives may have some difficulty with that. Want more? Read the damned books. Or at least the publisher’s blurbs.

The Arrest by Jonathan Lethem, Ecco / HarperCollins, 2020

Speaking of literature and genre fiction, Jonathan Lethem is one of those authors who has successfully done both, getting his start with science fiction then drifting into the mainstream. With this latest book, Lethem returns to science fiction though it could equally be argued that he has gone further into literary territory with magical realism.

The basic set up is a post-apocalyptic New England wherein modern technology has ceased to work. This has a long history in science fiction. I first encountered this plot device in a 1945 short story by Fredric Brown, The Waveries, and it has popped up every now and again since. Lethem’s story spans both sides of the apocalypse but not the event itself, focusing on three individuals: Alexander Duplessis, mostly referred to as “Journeyman” or “Sandy” in the text; Alexander’s old college chum, Peter Todbaum; and Alexander’s sister, Maddy. The protagonist of this story is Alexander Duplessis, who could easily be a not-so-funny version of Douglas Adam’s Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. While the focus of the storytelling stays on Alexander, the real conflict, the drama, is actually between Peter Todbaum and Maddy Duplessis. What is it about? I never did figure that out, though maybe there is herein some sympathy for the “unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski.

A City Made of Words by Paul Park, PM Press, 2019

This short book is an anthology of some of Park’s short stories, plus an author interview, and it is an entry in PM Press’ “Outspoken Authors” series. Paul Park is another science fiction author who has literary chops. Geez Lueez! What mighty teeth hath this talent! But unfortunately for most of the time, he’s just better than average and so I am usually disappointed when he’s merely very good. This collection has some fancy writing that I should love, but mostly I was bored. Great title, though.

The Expert System’s Brother by Adrian Tchaikovsky, TOR Books, 2018

Adrian Tchaikovsky (a pen name, I’m given to understand) is an award-winning U.K. science fantasy author. I’m sure I’ve read at least some of Tchaikovsky’s other work, but none of it has stuck with me. The set-up for this short novel is the problem of human settlement on habitable worlds other than Earth. What do you do about incompatible biomes? How do you preserve knowledge in the face of its irrelevance? This is a coming of age and rebirth story, a journey with a number of interesting twists and surprises and a few predictable plot devices as well. I would regard all of the above as a spoiler, except you’ll get a bit more from the publisher’s blurb and so there. Nice work plus another great title.


I’ve not been posting reviews lately for a variety of reasons. Mostly it is because I think of reviews primarily in the context of books. The COVID plague has been a boon for the reading habits of some, but for those of us as are library-dependent, not so much. But now things, including libraries and used book stores, are beginning to open up. Another reason has to do with my perception of the reviews’ utility. But if these serve as at least a memo to myself, maybe it’s worth the effort. There are other reasons that I’ll incorporate into any reviews henceforth.

Photo by Roman.


Ubuntu Upgrade

actually more of a mildly sulpherous vent than review

I’m a semi-willing user of Ubuntu / Linux on my home desktop, though I also have a Mac G4 with OS 10.4x and OS 9.x installed and a Compaq Prolinea 486sx with Windows 95 installed.* The Compaq generally gets used as a DOS box rather than for old Windows programs as I still have a dBase IV application that I still use. I sometimes use the Mac as a CD / DVD player as the iTunes light show is fun. But Ubuntu / Linux on a System 76 mini about the size of a candy box is my main machine.

Semi-willing? Well, I’m willing because first of all, the price for Ubuntu / Linux is so right for a poor boy. Free. And as an interface / operating system, it’s not bad and even deserving of a contribution ($) of some sort from me. As a cheap and penurious geezer, that’s a recommendation. There are also some reasonably adequate home office applications that come with it, as well as others that are about what you might expect for the price (free). Depending upon what task is at hand, that may be all that you need. Or it may be a pain in the ass.

I recall starting out with Ubuntu 14.x. For the past several years, I’ve been using version 16.04 LTS. I’m given to understand that LTS = “Long Term Support” and, just as with commercial operating systems, periodic updates have been available for download. Generally, I’d wait until there were at least 100 megabytes of download pending before updating: once or twice a month, effectively. But version 16 was almost old enough to be considered quaint. Version 20 was the happening thing or, for the experimental DIY types, Version 21. This last April, the “long” in LTS finally came to an end for version 16; it was time to upgrade.**

After looking at the upgrade options, it seemed to me that upgrading to version 20 directly from 16 was going to involve rather more DIY than I was willing to do, but upgrading to 18 looked to be pretty much automated. It was but it took a total of three hours to accomplish, and one did need to be on hand to answer an occasional installer questions. Apart from that, it was only minimally painful.

Version 18, however, is rather different in layout and function than version 16. Some of the changes seem aimed at making the interface more consistent. Generally, most of those changes are annoying but not particularly burdensome. Others speak directly to one of my pet peeves: sure this New and Improved version has useful new features, but suddenly a few important things that were once simple to do have become awkward, at least. This has been so typical of my experience with software for the past several decades, and don’t get me started about the WordPress block editor: another example.

So far my major disappointments about version 18 concern work spaces and file management. Work spaces basically allow you to have separate desktops open, four of them in version 16, giving you the equivalent of a single desktop four times the size of your screen with ease to shift between them. Heck, you could have an open window spanning different work spaces. (Why would you do that? Ease of resizing an oversized window, for one thing.) With version 18, additional work spaces are available as needed, but opening a new work space now requires extra steps. Shifting between them might still be easy with keyboard shortcuts but otherwise that, too, is extra work. I may very well be missing something, but right now it looks like my desktop has effectively shrunk to a single screen.

Like many similar products, Ubuntu includes a dock wherein you can park shortcuts to your favorite software. Obviously the file management software should have a place there; only if you make it so is it there in version 18. My beef is that with version 16, one could right-click the icon and get a list of your top level folders to go to but no longer. Now you need to open the manager first then choose your destination. One is tempted to describe version 18 as being the product of minds unreasonably obsessed with consistency.

Some of the software that gets distributed with Ubuntu also gets updated but it’s far too soon for me to have much of an opinion about it, though I will say: It took far too much noodling around to get Firefox properly configured. Though I’ve had worse experiences with early versions*** of Windows: an endless, fruitless cycling between dialogue boxes that promise yet are never quite what one was looking for. Firefox was nowhere near as bad but still. I am also looking forward to seeing what this new version of LibreOffice can do as the versions included with version 16 were not really ready for prime time (useful enough for home and maybe some microbusiness), and Scribus barely qualified as a useable page layout tool but maybe that’s changed.

Likewise this barely qualifies as a review. Ubuntu 18, after all, is almost as much history as version 16 and I’m not sure how much time is left on its support clock. A further upgrade to version 20 may be on my agenda for later this year. Nor are my software needs so diverse as to give everything a fair workout. But this has been my experience so far.


* There are, I’ve read, Ubuntu / Linux programs to run a virtual DOS box, and given that they seem to be intended for nostalgia gamers, it sounds pretty sophisticated. But I haven’t been inclined to even explore the issue. Aside from whether the dBase IV installation disks are still readable or not (from age), the particular version I have would not have run on a DOS box running faster than 66 MHz. (It wasn’t impossible but it required some lame workarounds.) The problem, IIRC, was a time-saving feature that turned into a bug when run so fast.

** Apparently version 16 is hard to kill. Security updates will continue to be available. This is more than what could be said for Apple’s support for older OS versions.

*** Come to think of it, early versions of Windows is all that I have experience with.

Review Updates

by Bob Roman

Two years ago, I posted a review of Walter Jon Williams’ Quillifer, the first volume of a sword-and-scorcery pseudo-historical fantasy. I liked the book very much, thank you, or I would not have done a review of it. The second book in the series, Quillifer the Knight, came out late last year. The Chicago Public Library serendipitously had both the first and second volumes available together so I was able re-read the first before reading the latest. If you like the first volume, I’m pretty sure that you’ll like the second.

In this second volume, the protagonist, Quillifer, begins a climb in the feudal hierarchy. As someone who is very much an outsider to that class and as someone who has something of an ego, his adventures have a “Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” quality to them, albeit without Mark Twain’s humor.

In my original review, I complained about Quillifer being the narrator of the story. Who is his audience? Not the reader. This becomes more of a feature in the second volume, but for my part, my complaint is answered by a growing doubt about whether Quillifer is a reliable narrator. Can you really believe all that he is relating? I’m probably just slow, but this disorientation didn’t arise for me until maybe the last quarter of the volume. In My Humble Opinion, this was just the something needed to make this second volume almost as interesting as the first. But if you are inclined to read this series then you really should begin with the first volume. Don’t skip it.

*

Back in June of 2019, I posted a review of Tade Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy. The final volume, The Rosewater Redemption, had not yet been published, but I was pretty enthusiastic about the first two in the series. The third volume finally popped up on the shelves of the Chicago Public Library this February. This final installment isn’t bad but at the end, I found it really hadn’t added much. Over the decades of being a reader, I’ve come to the conclusion that conclusions are a tricky business for writers. So many stories, so many plots seem to go SPLAT! against the windshield of “The End”. In My Uriah Heepishly Humble Opinion, Thompson does okay with this last book, but you’ll be glad to be back on the ground and at the debarking gate. If you feel the need to bail out before then, there should be no regrets. While the trilogy is something of a metaphor for the experience of being on the receiving end of Western colonialism, it didn’t seem like this last volume contributed to that discussion.

That’s my opinion: keep in mind that I can’t abide most of William Gibson’s work and furthermore (IMHO!) The Matrix movie trilogy is very nearly worthless after the first installment. With that kind of attitude, Thompson’s Rosewater trilogy is, for me, heavily burdened for a take-off in thin air. That the first two volumes flew so well was a marvel and a wonder and a thrill to behold, even with my allergy to the cyberpunk elements. But if you like the cyberpunk sub-genre, you should get through all three volumes and profit from having done so.

Buying Legal Weed in Illinois

Photo by Roman; panel from the 2006 Artists of the Wall

Weed is now legal in Illinois. That’s not news even if it is new. The long lines to purchase cannabis in various formulations were a spectacle. They were crazy. Unappealing. Deterring. But along came Friday, January 3rd. I had an errand at a bank several CTA Red Line stations southward… And there’s a cannabis dispensary / store just a few more stops south. Surely some of the crowds must have dissipated by now… Should I check it out?

Isn’t it amazing how reason can be enlisted to fulfill a heart’s desire?

So Noon found me walking up the street toward the dispensary, except it suddenly seemed the dispensary was across the street and a block south from where it should be. What gives? There were two security guards on the street. They confirmed: This is the line for recreational customers. Oh look, there’s only a dozen folks queued before the door. I didn’t ask the guards for the wait time.

Isn’t it amazing how blindness can be enlisted to fulfill a heart’s desire?

Well, it didn’t take but five minutes or so for the line to move indoors. That was a majorly optimistic event, but the scene inside should have argued otherwise. When you fold the queue as if it were an intestine, you can pack away quite a few people. And they don’t even complain about what they are going through.

Isn’t it amazing how “in for a penny, in for a pound” disarms sensible responses among humans? You can do almost anything to them. It’s like hypnotizing a chicken with a white line.

But truly, the dispensary had done something clever and almost wise. It was clearly not a good thing all around to have a line of customers down and around the block outside. A storefront show room was available just down the street from the dispensary. Rent this, use it to house a line that would have been otherwise seriously miserable and unsightly. The dispensary embellished this by handing out order forms with a redemption coupon that both promised a future discount and I.D.’d your order. It would be there when you finally made it to the dispensary.

Placing the order turned out to be a bit of a hassle though it was minor compared to the wait. Each clipboard with order form included a printed menu of what was in stock. The people staffing the line clearly did not trust the dispensary’s stated inventory, especially of cannabis flowers, whether prerolled or bulk. They recommended ordering a general category, e.g. sativa flowers 1 gram. And quantities were rationed.

It turns out that once you arrived at the point of sale, the check-out staff were pretty flexible, within State law, about revising your order. I suspect that it was partly that customers were going to insist on this flexibility anyway, and when you’re dealing with a long day of dealing with a huge crowd, who needs the hassle?

The wait stretched on. The line moved periodically, in quanta just large enough to subtly reward your patience. It helped, also, that most of the waiting customers were in a generally good mood, maybe some had taken a head start while at home. This was bolstered by a few security personnel who seemed both mission driven and genuinely appreciative of people. They also periodically handed out free hot dogs (including ketchup for all the out-of-state visitors), bottled water and tangerines. A magician worked the line, pulling items from noses and ears and fooling with unsuspecting decks of cards. Unfortunately, I had no thirst nor any discernible appetite. Give me access to a bathroom and I’ll be okay. Incidentally, considering the crowd, the men’s room, at least, was okay.

For my part, I’m a geezer. My time is both incredibly precious and incredibly devalued. Waste an afternoon in line? I can do that! The out-of-pocket cost is negligible but in the long run…

The crowd, come to speak of it, was largely white and male, though most ethnicities and genders were represented, only not in numbers that reflected the local population. It was possibly skewed toward youth. Certainly my fellow geezers were there, but not many and I’m not old enough for the casualty rate to be quite that high. And on that Friday afternoon, it turned out that a large percentage, though not a majority, of the waiting customers were from out of state.

If there were anything amiss with the dispensary’s strategy, it might have been in relying on a pacific crowd. There were a lot of people in that waiting room and there was only one obvious exit. (There were other exits but not obvious.) It was not a place for any sort of panic.

The final step was queuing to clear the dispensary’s identification check: driver’s license or passport. They scanned the barcodes on these, so just how much information you’re giving up by engaging in this transaction… now that is an interesting question, even though the transactions were all cash.

It was a gruelling experience. It reminded me of the time, some decades ago, when a great many AMTRAK trains had unreserved seating. I boarded a way oversold train in Springfield, Illinois, then had to stand all the way to Joliet, Illinois. It’s a long state, is Illinois. And on Friday, I finally made it home from the dispensary after 5 PM almost as exhausted as I was at my homecoming on that trip from Springfield.

I also smelt distinctly as if I had been rolling about in a barn full of harvested weed. Come to think of it, the crowd in the waiting room smelt like that, too, and none of them had been to the dispensary. One could only blame the staff, then, as the dispensary itself did smell like a harvest barn. The latest research into human biomes suggests that we shed our passenger micro-organisms (who reside in and on us in often in greater numbers than our own cells) in a way that is distinctly individual. By sampling a room, they can, for a few hours, identify previous occupants. Wow! Imagine that waiting room as a Grand Central Station for microbes. Do they have a ticket to ride?

So: was it worth the adventure? No and yes.

No: I would not willingly again spend 4 or more hours waiting in line to buy weed.

On the other hand: When the steam heat begins to sound like a chorus of castrati singing like theremins accompanied by Tuvan throat singers in complex melodies and rhythms… Well! You know you have arrived.

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Photo by Roman.

The History of SOUL 2065

a review by Bob Roman

The History of SOUL 2065 by Barbara Krasnoff. Mythic Delirium Books, 2019. $15.95

I might not have been motivated to write a review of this book, except that the storytelling was, for me, a most pleasant delight early on. Probably I should have seen the twist coming but was not reading closely enough. It came as a surprise. For me, that experience was like tripping on a hot sidewalk but falling into a shallow pool of cool, delicious water instead of an unforgiving pavement. I was instantly in love.

The setup is simple. Two pre-teen Jewish girls meet in a forest in the early years of the 20th Century, not long before World War I. It’s not a meeting either was expecting, and it’s made more confusing for them as one is living in Russia, not far from Kiev, and the other is in Germany. Despite this impossible oddity and maybe some class differences, the two girls pledge to be friends forever. It’s a magical forest, and a pledge like that in a magical forest is serious business. The book then tells intertwined stories of the two families for the next 150 years.

And that is stories plural. Most of the chapters had been previously published as short stories in zines, magazines and anthologies. This means that most of the excursions, elaborations, digressions that one might expect from a novel are not there; the storytelling is local to each chapter and like most good short fiction, to the point. Various elements of the stories are not always fully explained or developed even across the entire book. If this were a conventional novel, that would be a bug. As a collection of short stories masquerading as a novel, it’s not as much of a problem.

The stories straddle fantasy and science fiction. There is, for example, time travel of a sort and the stories extend into our future. But there are also spirits, possession, and afterlife, the sort of premodern magical thinking that so comforts our brief on stage in the play of life. It’s all rather sentimental and understanding in a romance novel sort of way. This is not something that usually appeals to me these days, but as I said: I was charmed.

Give the book a read. I think you’ll be charmed as well. My only caution would be to skip Jane Yolen’s introduction or read it as an afterword. It really isn’t necessary.

The Wormwood Trilogy

a review by Bob Roman

Rosewater by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2018
The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2019
The Rosewater Redemption by Tade Thompson, Orbit / Hatchette, 2019

“Trilogy” is not a sales hook for me. My knee-jerk reaction is that I’m likely to be spending a great deal of time with characters who will become tiresome and with stories that grow boring long before closure. It doesn’t matter much that the author of The Wormwood Trilogy also disdains the idea. What counts is that Tade Thompson has produced a work that kept my interest across two sizeable volumes. The third volume is to be published in the Autumn of 2019 and I’m very much looking forward to its release.

First, a thumbnail sketch of the author: Thompson was born in the United Kingdom to Nigerian parents. The family moved back to Nigeria in 1976. Thompson returned to the United Kingdom in 1998. He studied medicine and social anthropology and finally specialized in psychiatry. He’s also something of a compulsive writer.

While Thompson has written horror and fantasy as well as science fiction, The Wormwood Trilogy belongs firmly in the science fiction corner of the general speculative fiction genre. The main plot device is the old war-of-the-worlds-alien-invasion scenario (hello, H. G. Wells!) but in this instance the invasion is largely non-violent except that the aliens, on occasion, do pretty much whatever they need to do without much effective resistance from humans. But who is fighting? However disruptive it may be, the alien presence has set off a technological revolution and provides almost magical additions to human society around the alien enclaves: healing illness, for example, though the results sometimes resembles comic mistranslations. Rosewater, indeed, is a city that has grown up around an enigmatic alien enclave in rural Nigeria, much like a shanty town around a port. The alien invasion is not by force of arms but by the gradual displacement of Earth’s native biology and ecology, a process at once beneficial and existential, gradually turning Earth into a version of “Home” and ending life, particularly humans, As We Know It. You can indeed take this as a metaphor for colonialism as experienced by the colonized.

There are other familiar plot devices. Thompson borrows heavily from William Gibson’s imagery of the web, though by Thompson’s mid-21st Century the web has been mostly supplanted another info-space (not to mention the info-space brought by the aliens). Thompson also throws in secret societies, secret and somewhat siloed government bureaucracies, zombies, surveillance and hyper-competent individuals. He even comes up with a MacGuffin in the second volume.

One of the hyper-competent is Kaaro. I would describe Kaaro as a Nigerian slacker living in Rosewater. The first volume, Rosewater, is told in first person by Kaaro. First person story telling is always of interest. How will the author handle it? To whom is the narrator speaking? To a chronicler who is or pretends to be the author? To a general audience, breaking the “fourth wall”? To the narrator himself? In this case, it’s probably the last, but I’m not sure. Kaaro may also be a weak spot in the storytelling. If you actively dislike Kaaro then you may have some difficulty finishing the first volume, although it is written with very short chapters around multiple flashback stories, making a long book bite-sized.

Thompson says that he is assiduous plotting the books. Even so, there are plot holes suggesting that his vision of Rosewater and its universe changed in the writing of it.

The second volume, The Rosewater Insurrection, demotes Kaaro to a secondary character. Several secondary characters from the first volume become primary characters, along with a few new characters. It is told almost exclusively in third person, mostly in the present of the year 2066, and it retains the short chapter format, each chapter following a particular character. But if Kaaro was telling the story in the first volume, who is the omniscient narrator in the second?

It was surprise to me that I was okay with the politician, Mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques. Politics and politicians are difficult to portray these days because so many readers view politics, if at all, as spectators. Artists can tell their audience anything about politics and the profession of it, the more cynical the more plausible it seems. But in The Rosewater Insurrection, the role of gossip in politics and obsessive grooming and self-presentation were close enough to keep me happy.

In my old age, I complain and complain about genre fiction and how it uses, uses, and reuses so many common plot devices, characters, and clichés. That Thompson does this with some care and thoughtfulness would not exempt him from my whining except that readers here in the States have an additional bonus. The story takes place in Nigeria, a future Nigeria that has to be recognizable even if still foreign to a Nigerian of 2019. To a Nigerian, this might bring into play a whole series of familiar plot elements and characters – not to mention ethnic stereotypes – but to most American readers, this will be fresh air.

I’m reduced to complaining that the final volume won’t be out until October…

For more information

I’d really recommend this interview of Tade Thompson by Nick Wood at Short Story Day Africa.
Jessica FitzPatrick had an insightful review of Rosewater at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Triplets of Belleville

I have mixed feelings about movie trailers. With DVDs, I usually watch them without the sound. It’s better that way, usually. And music videos… need I repeat that I don’t like ’em?

That said, I was visiting Roy Edroso’s blog recently, part of my weekly list of reading. If the name sounds familiar, Edroso was a columnist for the late Village Voice where he covered and made fun of the conservative commentariat. He still does that on his blog and he has a newsletter you can subscribe to… which I would do if Social Security paid more than the rent… but what I was getting at is: His post for Friday, April 26, had embedded music from one of my favorite films, Sylvian Chomet’s The Triplets of Belleville.

When it was first released in 2003, something resembling the following clip was used as a trailer.

I was instantly hooked and actually went to see it at an actual movie theatre. However, some folks could easily freak out over this particular presentation, so SONY is using this as the official promo:

Unlike most movie trailers, you’re not likely to learn just what the movie is all about from either of these. But you will get a taste and, yes, the movie has a sweet, sentimental and totally bizarre story to tell.

It was also released on DVD and you may be able to find it in that format — I’ve not checked — but it is available online from Amazon Prime Video, Vudu or iTunes.

See it.