Thursday, July 16, 2020

What I'm Reading Now

Or What You Will by Jo Walton

Jo Walton, Or What You Will

I love Jo Walton and will read anything she writes. If you haven't yet read her Thessaly trilogy (starts with The Just City) you should do that now.

If you have never read Walton before, Or What You Will is not the book to start with. It's complicated and meta and very much relies on you knowing her body of work, as well as two Shakespeare plays, nearly by heart.

That said, I love this book. The structure is the sort I like best, intricate and moving back and forth through time, alternating points of view and (in this book) levels of narrative. The writing is compulsively readable, as always. And the setting is Florence. (I immediately re-read A Room with a View after reading this book, just to get more Florence.)

I'm going to need to re-read this one a few times before I can say I know exactly what it is about. It's worth it, though. In fact, you should go read all of Walton just so you can read this book.

Jo Graham, The Black Ships    

Black Ships (Numinous World, #1) by Jo Graham

I read this one because Jo Walton recommended it in her monthly column, Jo Walton's Reading List. It's very much the sort of book I like -- a survivor of the sack of Troy ends up on a ship with Aeneas's best friend, and they make their way to Rome. Lots of historical detail, extremely readable.

If you like Mary Renault, you'll like this. I can see the influence of Renault on every page in this. It's also LGBTQ friendly, in the Renault sort of way. (By which I mean there's a trans character, and lots of bisexual characters, and no one bats an eye, because that's just the norm in that society.)

Joe Ide, Wrecked, Hi Five

I swear I wasn't picking books by sorting for people named Jo/e.

These two are sequels to two books I read some time ago, IQ and Righteous. They concern the further adventures of Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) and his Watson, Dodson, as they struggle to survive and solve mysteries in South LA.

On one level they're mystery novels; on another, they're an examination of a specific place and time. These last two also deal with white nationalism, the hyper-wealthy, and the brutalization of black and poor citizens by our militarized police force, so they're interesting for that reason as well.

Definitely start with IQ, though, or you won't know what's going on. They aren't stand-alone novels, I mean.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

I had read this in high school, and possibly re-read it in college. I remember not liking it much, despite the interesting details about the Brave New World. (I'm a sucker for world building.) I re-read it because there's an adaption coming soon, and I wanted to see if the novel was as bad as I remembered.

It's not (quite) as bad as I remembered. But it's not very good. This is very much an early 20th Century science fiction novel -- ideas over character, over plot, over style. It starts with a huge info dump: one character walks a bunch of other characters through a factory that produces citizens. They're created in test tubes and gestated in artificial wombs, during which they are "conditioned," which is to say some are deprived of oxygen at key stages and others inundated with various chemicals, all to create castes of human workers: Betas, Deltas, Gammas, and "semi-moron" Epsilons. Every embryo is "budded," to make eight to 96 identical "twins," since it's a conceit of this society that when everyone around you is exactly like you, the world runs more smoothly.

Then during childhood, these "twins" are conditioned through sleep-study -- that is, they have their morals and ethics implanted in them through repetition of key slogans (like ads) that they hear every night in their sleep.

Also everyone takes Soma, which is a drug that induces euphoria and also sleep.

However, there are also the alphas, who are not twinned, and who go to Eton instead of getting sleep-conditioned. They run the world, though they also adhere to the ethics of their lower caste siblings. 

All this is perfectly okay, and even interesting, despite how ludicrous the science looks now. The problem arises when Huxley had to create a story for this world he's built. Ugh.

The characters are all flat -- which might make sense in the Hatchery world, where no one is really an individual, and everyone spends half of their time stoned or having (stoned) sex. But we see the same flatness when two of the characters go to visit the "savages" in America. (These are people living without technology, for reasons that aren't made clear, and without Hatcheries.) Here, the main character, Bernard, meets John, a Noble Savage. He brings him back to the Hatchery world and we get the fish-out-of-water plot for awhile. 

Everyone is kind of stupid, though, including the Alphas, and including John (he's more priggish than noble), which makes it easy for Huxley to impose his plot on them, but also makes for a boring narrative.

This is more of an essay than a novel, in other words. There's some good stuff about capitalism and its need to make everyone into a consumer, and as I said the world-building is fun. But there's also more than a little racism, and some really unbelievable nonsense. The Noble Savage, for instance, has been made Noble because he finds a copy of Shakespeare's Collected Works which somehow -- even though he's had literally no education at all -- he's able to read and understand. 

Also everyone is unrelentingly heterosexual and cisgendered, which, come on. This was written in 1931. That's the same era in which Isherwood and Auden were writing their best works. Maybe we could believe everyone is (conditioned to act) cis and straight in the Hatchery world, but we also see only straight people among the "savages" as well.

The real flaw, though, is that we don't care about any of the characters, because they're not actually characters, so the narrative has almost no impact on us.

Worth read for the world Huxley shows us, I guess, but don't expect a novel.


Nanani said...

The best part of Brave New World's worldbuilding has got to be that the women are actually treated the same as the men. No brood-mare caste, or anything like that.
Unless I've managed to forget something in the decades since I last read it.

delagar said...

No, that's (mostly) true!

Men and women are conditioned in the same ways, and both are encouraged to live in the same ways -- that is, promiscuous consumers who focus almost entirely on pleasure and drugs. There's no apparent belief that men are better than women or the reverse.

On the other hand, almost all the positions of authority are held by men, all the alphas are men, and there's a certain amount of male-gaze going on in Huxley's writing -- that is, we get loving descriptions of Beta women showering and prancing about dressed only in their long stockings and high heels. But we also get some details about women viewing men as sexual objects, too, so you can see that Huxley was trying.

delagar said...

And yes, none of the women exist in order to bear children. That's all done in the Hatchery!

nicoleandmaggie said...

Brave New World was one of the most influential books I read as a teenager. One big thing is that it made me realize that rape is about power and control, not about sex itself. If sex isn't considered taboo, then sexual rape is no longer a real thing-- sex is not used for that purpose. (I wrote this up as my orientation placement essay for college, but whoever graded it must have hated my argument so much that I had to retest to avoid taking remedial English. Either that or I was really tired from traveling.) I'm sure this was not what he intended (I think he meant us to feel disgust with the young kids experimenting with sex), but the book transcends Huxley. It also showed propaganda in a very different, less obvious way from 1984 and I still sometimes think about tradeoffs between knowledge and happiness.

I did think the end of the story with the Native American etc. was super stupid. I was like, Huxley accidentally made a Utopia and had to somehow destroy it but did it in an unbelievable very dated way. (My dream as a young alpha was to go to the island where they sent all the rebellious alphas. I don't remember them only making alphas male, I think I thought we just didn't follow any of their stories because Huxley was a product of his times and followed some old tropes.)

I have not read it again and do not plan to, but it really stuck with me. Definitely not a great story, but definitely a great Utopia/Dystopia.

delagar said...

Yes, I like the world-building a lot. And I like how Huxley has mind-control being derived from advertising -- the poor poet is so distraught because all he's allowed to write are jingles.

There might be some female alphas. We certainly don't see any in the book, though. All the scientists we meet are men, and at Eton the female students we overhear (we don't see any) are Beta-minuses. I do think this is Huxley being from 1930; but there were writers in the same era who wrote about women in positions of power. I'm thinking of Dorothy Sayers specifically, but there are others.

C.S. Lewis, of course, wrote that any thinking man shuddered with loathing at the thought of a woman in power. He's also a contemporary of Huxley's.

delagar said...

Oh -- but Huxley DID have female students at Eton! We shouldn't overlook that.

nicoleandmaggie said...

p.s. I think my high school dream about going to the alpha rebellion island was waaay better than #2's high school dream of going to that Ayn Rand place all the takers went. (She outgrew it, thankfully!) (I tried REALLY hard to get into Atlas Shrugged on her recommendation but just could not. Also tried to read Mists of Avalon because EVERYONE was reading it but couldn't get past how creepy it was-- it did not seem feminist at all even though all my friends other than #2 were selling it to me as such. I feel vindicated about both failures.)

nicoleandmaggie said...

... I am glad to be an alpha...