This Week, I Read… (2020 #28)

#106 – Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke

  • Read: 7/16/20 – 7/17/20
  • Mount TBR: 95/150
  • The Reading Frenzy: Read a book under 300 pages
  • Rating: 5/5 stars

A startlingly different picture of a Utopian society and what the ultimate fate is for mankind. I’ve read things like part of it–I can see traces of this story sprinkled throughout modern science and speculative fiction–but never anything approaching its whole. This was a unique experience, and that’s most of why I like it so much, despite some obvious flaws.

Discussing everything I found fascinating would make this review into a dissertation, so I’ll limit myself to highlights.

Framing the early part of the story through Stormgren and his “friendship” with one of the alien Overlords was a charming and inventive way to assure us of their relative benevolence. Usually when a story talks about the world uniting in peace, it’s against an alien threat, not under alien guidance. The Overlords are undoubtedly dictators, and but once you know their role in the full story they’re both morally questionable and ultimately sympathetic. So establishing this aura of reluctant power early was key in driving the mystery of “what the heck is going on here?”

Choosing to leave that POV character behind and time jump forward for the middle part of the book left me briefly reeling, but after a quick overview on how the Overlords restructured society, we get new characters to keep us entertained with how both like and unlike us (now) they are. For a book written nearly seventy years ago, I was genuinely surprised by how many things Clarke predicted for his Utopian society have actually happened in real life, unaided by aliens. His view of those changes wasn’t perfect, of course, limited by the technology and social patterns of his own time, but especially compared with other classic sci-fi I’ve read, this one is eerily prescient.

But this is also when I need to address the elephant in the room. For a good chunk of that Utopian description, I was wondering how he was going to deal with racial equality, or if he was going to address it at all. His thinking on what it would look like manages to be both progressive for its time and woefully naive. He explicitly has a POV character reflect on how his skin color doesn’t matter now but would have limited him in the past, okay. But in describing the few characters of color in the story, he uses terms that are frowned upon now (but language does evolve, so…) And, he manages to exoticize one of those characters by emphasizing her beauty, but she’s explicitly mixed-race, so part of her beauty is apparently whiteness. Not ideal. The real kicker, though, is that his ultimate marker for the success of racial equality (for black people, anyway) is the reclamation and destigmatization of the n-word, which yes, he did include in full. Really? That’s the high bar you set?

And on top of all that, no other races are even mentioned. This utopia fixed racism against black people, so let’s clap our hands together and say “that’s that, then” and go home happy with ourselves.

Progressive for the time, but still woefully naive.

Moving on the ending–well, I didn’t see that coming. The foreshadowing offers enough clues to make sure you feel like you don’t have the whole picture, but when that picture is revealed, it’s a real doozy. Normally I’m lax about spoilers in reviews, but I don’t want to give this away, because it was so out-there, so “this could only happen in classic sci-fi, it would be laughed at now.” I’ve skimmed other reviews and I almost can’t blame readers who felt like this was a curveball, too much, too silly, too strange. But I loved it. I loved it because I’ve always had a soft spot in my daydreaming brain for (view spoiler) and it’s so rare these days to see those taken seriously, they’ve really gone out of vogue.

I definitely recommend this for classic sci-fi fans who might have missed it (I mean, 2001: A Space Odyssey is by far Clarke’s best-known work these days) and anyone who wants a bit of a brain stretch they’d never find in modern fiction.

#107 – The Mist Keeper’s Apprentice, by E.S. Barrison

  • Read: 7/18/20 – 7/20/20
  • “Hot Single Books Looking for Readers” Book Club July Selection
  • Rating: 3/5 stars

Bear with me, this is going to get complicated and go to some uncomfortable places, but there are good things along the way, too.

A few months back I came to the realization that in a lot of cases I don’t like what seems to be a “good” story because its priorities don’t match mine. This story has good bones. This story as a debut makes me think this author is going places, because the concept and world-building feel fresh in recombining ideas I’ve seen before (and in some cases, that I love) into something original.

But the text itself prioritizes plot over character over lore. That doesn’t match my priorities, and that’s certainly not the author’s fault. But I also don’t believe it’s the right balance for this story.

Massive, massive spoilers ahead, and I’m not going to mark them all because it would look like I’m trying to leak a classified document. Stop here if that’s not what you want from a review, and take away from this that the book is good enough that I wished it were also better than it is.

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

I love that the core of this story is about the love between two people becoming the strength they need to defy a world order that would stifle them both into nothing. Sign me up, I am on board. What I don’t love is that Brent and Bria love each other because. There’s no romance, there’s no growth of their relationship. They were in kiddie love before the story starts, then circumstance and a few poor choices separated them, then they were in love again; it’s all tell and no show.

I love that Brent is an atypical, clumsy, bumbling, endearing protagonist. He is a disaster and I want good things for him. But I don’t love that he never finishes his sentences because of an overuse of ellipses in dialogue (not limited to him but worst with him.) I love that the story puts his mind and identity at risk, because that’s an interesting type of danger, but I don’t love that it means Bria has to keep dragging him back to reality (constant emotional support) when I don’t see evidence she gets equal support from Brent.

That leads to my next issue: just how often is it really necessary to have Bria nearly raped? I’m not opposed to sexual violence being included in a story, but this casual and repeated treatment of it just hurt to read. I have actually lost count of how often it happens, and in nearly every case, she’s pretty much fine in the next scene–no one does much to acknowledge what has happened to her (aside from Caroline remarking that one of her assailants deserved his fate, I did appreciate that.) The story moves on as if it weren’t a traumatic event. This is in pretty marked contrast to the treatment of the little girl’s soul that Brent releases–she was molested, and when Brent loses his identity in hers, he experiences some of that horror, and it’s taken seriously. It’s just not a good look that rape matters when the male suffers it vicariously, when the female lead can’t take ten steps without somebody trying to assault her, but don’t worry, she’s fine. (This is, by far, my biggest complaint about the book.)

As for the relative lack of attention to world-building, that’s really an odd choice here, because there’s plenty of magic, and it gets explained and structured well enough I could mostly follow it, yet there’s very little sense of place. The settings for scenes rarely get described beyond the most basic, and since the tunnels can take B+B anywhere, distance doesn’t matter and nothing feels grounded. So that’s weak, but on the other hand, I love that the structure of the world is “here’s these two apparently opposed systems, the Order and the Mist Keepers” and you’re meant to think Brent should be a Mist Keeper, except they’re actually both bad? The Mist Keepers are actually sort of awful people who hate magic that isn’t like theirs? I love it! I love that the whole system of Brent’s world is “evil” and he and Bria escape for a while to a distant city where magic is accepted and they can live peacefully for a bit! I love that Brent reinvolves himself in his former world because he feels responsible for the monster he accidentally let loose! I love that he (apparently) sacrificed himself to defeat it! It’s a solid cliffhanger ending. What I don’t love is that I could rarely “see” the story in my head because it took place in settings given only the most generic of descriptions.

So to bring it back to my original hierarchy, this book is plot-based, and a lot about the plot is solid and interesting. But by focusing on moving the action briskly from one point to the next, we lose out on character development and sense of place, both of which I think would enrich this story more than having some of the subplots or minor characters that are squeezed in.

I do want to know what happens, though. Cautiously optimistic for the eventual sequel.

#108 – An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

  • Read: 7/21/20 – 7/24/20
  • Around the Year in 52 Books: A book from the New York Times ‘100 Notable Books’ list for any year
  • Mount TBR: 96/150
  • Rating: 2/5 stars

Though I didn’t pick it up specifically because it was an Oprah pick, this is an incredibly “book club” book. What I mean is that I’d rather talk about what it wants to say rather than what it actually said.

Though Roy’s arrest and trial happen at the speed of light, barely a single chapter, the shadow it casts over the story is inescapable. The point isn’t the process; the point is the aftermath. And on the surface, yes, it’s awful and I’m queueing up books about prison abolition so I can learn more about it.

But for a book with this little plot, a book that should be a character study while we watch the shifting relationships unfold, I don’t like any of the characters. Not even Roy, by the end, whom I felt incredible sympathy for throughout most of the book.

I thought–I hoped–that this would give me a more nuanced look at infidelity by approaching it from the incarcerated-husband angle. I hate books about cheating, and I inevitably hate cheaters. I don’t think infidelity is interesting, but usually when I’m decrying it as the central plot point or theme of a work, I’m railing against some Old White Male Author whose literary “brilliance” is an excuse to write a blatant self-insert protagonist who gets to have an affair with a beautiful, often much younger woman. Whether the story is autobiographical or merely a fantasy of what they wish they could get away with, I’m left with a sour taste in my mouth and a twisting stomach.

Here, it could have been more interesting, and I’m truly disappointed that it wasn’t. Roy was sympathetic until he got out of prison and fell into the arms, kitchen, and bed of the first woman he recognized from high school. (And I don’t understand her motivations at all, having a brief fling with a guy you haven’t seen in years and don’t really know, then acting like he should move in and forget about trying to go back to his old life.) Also his treatment of Celestial at the very end; telling her he could rape her if he wanted to, then expecting brownie points for not raping her. Absolutely disgusting. I tried to keep an open mind about Celestial, but even if I could forgive her the loneliness of being separated from her husband for so long, she was selfish about everything else in her life too, so why would I think for a second that she wouldn’t end up cheating? And Andre was a placeholder, a trope, the best friend. Andre was the biggest disappointment of the whole book, not even because he knowingly got involved with a married woman, but because he never managed to convince me he mattered.

The central problem I have with this setup is that none of the main characters, at any point, actually seemed to love each other. I’m not expecting romance-levels of devotion or high melodrama. Roy and Celestial never had a marriage worth saving, but Celestial and Andre were even worse. There’s no on-page evidence that they actually care about each other, Andre isn’t even believable as the best friend. Andre’s constant close-lipped, “this is how it is, accept it” attitude gives him an out from actually having to say to Roy that he loves Celestial, and I simply don’t believe that he does, because he has the least personality of anyone in the whole book.

The only character I believe actually loved their spouse was Big Roy. Big Roy is a treasure.

If I’m supposed to be invested in the outcome of this tangled set of relationships, shouldn’t the characters be worth caring about? Shouldn’t there be love present, shouldn’t I either be rooting for Roy to win Celestial back, or even Andre to stay with the woman he loves? But neither side of this “love” triangle is worth investing in, because the point was never the love, it was the struggle.

Alternately, if the point of the book is “you can’t go home again”–because that’s definitely the message I got from the ending–then why isn’t this just Roy’s story of getting out, finding that his wife has essentially left him, then reintegrating in society with a new woman and a new job, as he does in a one-page letter in the epilogue?

As usual, I’m coming out of a book about cheating thinking that everyone involved is a bad person in some way. I know that doesn’t align with popular opinion, but if this book made me angry about our broken justice system (and it did manage that!) it didn’t get me invested in the fallout of justice’s failure. I still don’t find infidelity compelling enough to carry a story. Morally gray characters will only keep me going if there’s something believable or interesting (like love!) to make me want to examine their “hard” choices, but here, the emotions are simply too shallow or not even present at all.

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