Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven (2014)

station-eleven

An Arthur C. Clarke winner for 2015, a 2014 National Book Award nominee (lost to Phil Klay’s Redeployment, and having read both I can say that justly ;)), a poetic novel set in a post-apocalyptic world, where the Traveling Symphony – an orchestra slash Shakespeare troupe – wanders through a dangerous territory reclaimed by wildness, bringing the light of civilization to the places which long have forgotten something like civilization even existed.

Sounds mysterious as well as stilted and full of itself. And to a degree – is, on both accounts. But the most interesting part of Mandel’s novel is the rest, which is neither – namely, the full of life, glittering account of the world before catastrophe.

The world after the Georgia Flu decimated global population is a place of fear and great distances. It’s also a place which has forgotten its past. Only two decades passed from the death throes of the global civilization – cars stopping, planes crashing down, electricity plants going dark, water resources drying up… and all of it just sorrowful side notes to the main theme – the rapid and chaotic death of 99 percent of humanity. But before we see the end, we are allowed to catch a glimpse of the world-that-had-been, rich and colorful and brimming with life, in its last, most triumphant (even if unknowingly) moments. It’s no accident that the most important scenes of Mandel’s book are either the depictions of a theatrical play or a sf comic book. She shows the readers scenes of unreal, ephemeral life, renditions of a nonexistent world, fantasies born entirely in the minds of humans. Juxtaposed with the post-apocalyptic, brutal world they are intended to show the humanity’s ultimate victory, over the deeply rooted bigotry, close-mindedness and cruelty of our species.

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Tim Powers, The Anubis Gates (1983)

Anubis-GatesA novel about time-travel set in Regency London, with mad Egyptian sorcerers, hordes of murderous beggars, an evil clown, a dwarf, clones, the Mameluke, fiery ifrits, body-changing werewolf, a young woman posing as a man, Romantic poets and a band of Gypsies. Sounds good? It definitely should :).

The Anubis Gates has plots within plots within plots. It starts innocuously enough, in contemporary England, with a discovery made by an extremely reach eccentric J. Cochran Darrow. Darrow, terminally ill, desperately looks for a way to cure himself. Instead, he (or rather a team of scientists employed by him) discovers gates in time. There is a finite number of them, leading to a finite number of points in the past and future, and they are ruled by a set of immutable, physical rules. Nonetheless, they make time-travel possible. What the famous tycoon does with this breathtaking discovery?

He invites rich people for a trip to a live Coleridge lecture, which the poet delivered in 1810.

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Roger Zelazny, Roadmarks (1979)

roadmarksRoadmarks’ original title was “The Last Exit to Babylon”, but the publisher declined it, so it became a part of the cover illustration instead. One of the best-known novels by Zelazny, Roadmarks is a rather short and seemingly unprepossessing, ending in less than 200 pages. As do most of Zelazny’s books, one might add ;). Roger Zelazny, as befits a poet, was a great believer in succinctness. Forget 700-pages bricks in hardcover, suitable mostly for beating somebody to death with them. If you want to read his works you will need to be content with stories tightly bound in a very limited amount of choice words.

The structure of this book is somewhat baffling at first – it starts with chapter “Two”, followed by “One” and then by another “Two”, and so on, right to the end. The names of the chapters have nothing to do with chronological order, they are just two perspectives on the events happening in this book: “One” follows the fate of the main protagonist, Red Dorakeen, while “Two” shows us jumbled in time vignettes of other Roadmarks characters: from Randy, Red’s son, through a bunch of all-time assassins, to a left-over alien killing machine currently engaged in the art of pottery, and finally to dragons. Apparently Zelazny wrote all “Twos” and then shuffled them and inserted each between the chronologically structured “Ones” in this new, chaotic way. It was supposed to serve as a physical reminder that on the Road there’s no such thing as timeline – whether successful or not, that is the reader’s decision.

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Tim Powers, The Stress of Her Regard (1989)

Yes, it’s Wednesday and I’m back from vacation 🙂 Time for a review!

The-Stress-of-Her-Regard1Tim Powers doesn’t write much, and even though he started writing a long time ago, back in seventies, the list of his novels is rather short. His most known novel is Anubis Gates. Have you heard of it? I haven’t, till a few months back ;). Powers is not a very well known writer, but after reading The Stress of Her Regard I believe that this is a problem that should be remedied as soon as possible.

Why? Because The Stress of Her Regard is an exceptional book. Intriguing, fascinating, visceral (literally!), terrible and amazing, and written with remarkable precision. The real and the fantastic are joined together seamlessly, which is all the more astonishing because Powers bases his books on real past events. He focuses on a certain point in time, on certain real, famous characters and the real events that they have taken part in, and around those historical facts he builds a fantastical story. In short, he artfully supplies us with a supernatural cause of historical processes and occurrences. In The Stress of Her Regard the real background are political events in Europe in the early XIX century – and in that setting we become witnesses to the lives of English romantic poets: Shelley, Byron and Keats. According to Powers, all their obnoxiousness, weirdness and irrationality should be ascribed to the fact that all of them were victims of another sentient race on Earth – the nephilim, a vampiric form of life based on silicon instead of carbon. Our guide in this subtly altered, subverted world is Michel Crawford – a Navy doctor, obstetrician and a fellow nephilim victim. We see the world through his eyes, and we witness up close all the temptations, rewards and costs of vampiric addiction.

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A few thoughts on poetry in fantasy.

It’s mu turn and I really wanted it to be a review. But I couldn’t, yet again, finish my review of “Fatale” graphic novel series, and I’ve found something I want to share. So today’s post goes into the “wyszperane” (“found in the net”) category. My source is, as usuall, /r/Fantasy, where Mark Lawrence’s “When the language flexes its muscles” was recommended (with entry entitled “Get your stinkin’ poetry out of my fantasy book!” 😉 ). The initial purpose of this category of posts was not to write big texts, but rather link interesting and thought-provoking essays, add a short commentary and maybe initiate discussion in the „comment” section.

First – I generally agree with the author. Two important quotes:

„A lot of people say they hate poetry. That’s fair enough – the school system bears a considerable responsibility for that.” – amen to that, it almost killed my interest in poetry.

And:

„Poetry is a distillation, the highest concentration of linguistic content, and like all strong flavours it won’t be for everyone at every stage in their life.”

I’ve read and enjoyed my share of simple, action-oriented novels, where language was almost reduced to its utilitarian function. But literature is more than a description of a sequence of events and the beauty of a fantasy/sf masterwork is in its language as well as its plot or characters.

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