Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Anubis Gates

Tim Powers The Anubis Gates is pure poetry and magic.  I tried to follow all the transformations and soul-communications for a while but it just got too crowded in my mind.  It would've been like watching a fireworks show and trying for each burst to assign a set of coordinates to the explosion.  It all just happens too quickly, and to do so would be against the spirit of the story anyway.

The spirit of that story does not shy away from the physically repugnant, the gory, from blood, injury, distress, and trauma.  These are essential components of it, alongside an incredibly inventive cast of spells and magical devices, characters and time-travel trajectories.  The time-travel aspect is very tightly conceived and executed, and it relies upon a river trope.

Time is essentially a river frozen over, but the frozen sheet has holes, through which one can 'cheat' time.  In other words, travel through time.  Backward time travel is fairly easily achieved, but forward travel is bloodier and much more complicated, involving here the use of a ka to jump forward through bodies across generations, which is obviously a much slower process.

This is all tied to Egypt, magic, and London, and there is travel across space as well as time in order to set in motion a series of jumps, backwards and forwards, all in the name of Romanelli and a Master who control goodly sections of time and have gangs of henchmen all over the place (time) to keep an eye on the use of the various (time) holes.

All of this is really beside the point, because reading the book you are swept into a series of action-sequences that lasts hundreds of pages and involves all kinds of spells being cast, counter-spells, evasions, near-misses, bloody hits, deformations, and deflations (of the ka) amongst a few characters that we follow.  But it's hard to keep track because they keep switching bodies.

It's really a lovely book, and it actually starts out pretty straightforwardly as a kind of group-back-to-the-future science experiment that predictably goes wrong.  There is, however, nothing predictable about this book which, it has been claimed, is one of the very first 'steampunk' novels ever written.  Herein, I think, lies its real appeal.  It is not a straight historical novel.

Nowadays steampunk is a set of fashions or genre expectations, but it is really a kind of philosophy (I would argue).  It is a comment upon and counter-mapping of the past and as such it is one of the most critical forms of speculative fiction.  It explores what might have been had certain technologies existed earlier in time than how we know them to have appeared.  It is therefore ontological.

The epistemology comes into how that situation is rendered fictionally, into a world, and as a representation.  So, in Gibson and Sterling's The Difference Engine we follow some very famous characters around the world of London in the mid-1800s with Darwin and Lyell and Huxley introducing their ideas, but we also have functioning computers.

How that plays out is seen through the eyes of various characters, but it is also apparent in the architectures, in the streets, and in the ambitions and political beliefs of the (mostly famous) people teeming through the pages of the novel.  In The Anubis Gates, we follow Coleridge and Byron around for a while, seeing things they may or may not have seen, but with magic and poetry alive.

We also have casts of incredible characters, including gangs of beggars led by an evil clown on stilts who meet in the sewers to discuss the state of street politics, finances, and power.  The underground spaces are vast and strung across with massive hammocks, jails, and waterways all dimly lit and traversed at one point or another during various struggles that take place.

The structure is innovative, and it first jumps backwards in a series of steps, out of that first jump out of a fairly normal post-magic present, at one point to the coldest winter London has known for centuries, where accents change, and chases (of course) take place; we then have from there a series jumps forward, and people become unmoored.  They start to float and hang sideways from chains.

It is an incredible thing to behold, this novel.  It is getting me to think about modern post-Tolkien fantasy a lot, and I've added some Moorcock and some Harrison to my must-read pile, all part of the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks series. 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

The Just City

Jo Walton's The Just City operationalises, in fictional form, Plato's Republic.  It takes, in other words, the idea of Plato's ideal political form and makes it (fictionally) real, setting the initially utopian community and city on the lost island of Atlantis before it fell into the sea.

This puts an expiry date in effect one that is a distant thought in the participants minds.  The latter includes too many children to count, many of whom have been bought from slave-owners to be given the 'freedom' that the just city provides, and that will be built up slowly through the generations.

The Just City utilises what I call a philosophical novum within a speculative fictional framework to explore, in a thought experiment with characters that react to each others' actions and thoughts, social implications of putting the idea into practice.

The difference here and other kinds of speculative fiction is the fidelity with which the narrative sticks to the philosophical as opposed to simply the technological otherwise materially instantiated innovations the book creates and describes.

These material instantiations appear frequently, but are not the driving force of the narrative. Instead, it is powered by philosophy, which results in certain kinds of technologies.  With this said, there is a necessary conceit introduced here, and it works well.

The conceit is that anyone through time who has ever wished that Plato's Republic were true, a real thing, or prayed that it were so, is now transported into the experimental and very real world that they just wished they were in, and are in it.  And they are now on the island of Atlantis as well, doomed as that situation may be.

The society that these 'guardians' (for they look after all the children present on the island) are bourne into is one in which each individual strives to be their best self, through practicing philosophy, through athletics, music, and various arts and sciences.

They (and these guardians include Socrates and Apollo) are also, initially, tasked with overseeing a set of robots brought from the future to undertake the building of the city of the Republic.  It comes to be that the robots gain consciousness and are granted status as sentient beings.

The way this whole revelation is described and evoked is really a thing of wonder, and it lies at the core of the book's appeal.  Socrates comes to life, is eccentric, and drives a set of inquiries forward that end up granting artificial intelligence an equal status to that which is human.

The gods are petty, jealous, and often physically incapable of doing things humans can do, despite their superiority in many other ways (i.e. immortality and at least partial omniscience when not in human form), and they fall in love with and otherwise mingle with humans.

Conversations with robots and with gods; becoming your best self; running in armour; being free in a philosophical city; experiencing a lost world (Atlantis); having exquisite dinner parties on long summer evenings; sucking lemons; eating a healthy vegetarian diet.  These are the everyday things of which The Just City partakes.

It is a welcome break from the kinds of everydayness I experience.  It also breaks down after a while, and the city splits.  There is warfare.  I'm now reading the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, and will enter a review here when I'm done.  After that it is the third in the trilogy Necessity.