Murmuration

Murmuration
TJ Klune
Difficulty: Easy
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Blurb from the Amazon page:

“In the small mountain town of Amorea, it’s stretching toward autumn of 1954. The memories of a world at war are fading in the face of a prosperous future. Doors are left unlocked at night, and neighbors are always there to give each other a helping hand. The people here know certain things as fact: Amorea is the best little town there is. The only good Commie is a dead Commie. The Women’s Club of Amorea runs the town with an immaculately gloved fist. And bookstore owner Mike Frazier loves that boy down at the diner, Sean Mellgard. Why they haven’t gotten their acts together is anybody’s guess. It may be the world’s longest courtship, but no one can deny the way they look at each other. Slow and steady wins the race, or so they say. But something’s wrong with Mike. He hears voices in his house late at night. There are shadows crawling along the walls and great clouds of birds overhead that only he can see. Something’s happening in Amorea. And Mike will do whatever he can to keep the man he loves.”

Of the many many (many) books TJ Klune has written (that I’ve read), I think Murmuration might be his strongest. Oftentimes in his work the conventions of the romance genre impose themselves in unfortunate, highly visible ways onto his narrative. An otherwise original idea or plot suddenly veers back into frustratingly familiar territory in the form of a random relationship crisis or an obligatory ending sex scene. But in Murmuration, Klune successfully avoids these pitfalls, or rather, he finds a way to turn them to his advantage, allowing his characters and dialogue to thrive uninhibited. But the success of the plot hinges on a central mystery, so unfortunately I can’t say much more than I already have without potential spoilers.

So here are some things I can talk about. Murmuration isn’t one of Klune’s humorous books, but it’s not too grim either (in my opinion) and it doesn’t have the suffocating angst of Into This River I Drown. It just takes its subject matter very seriously, and the reason for this becomes very clear when reading. While he previously dabbled in post-apocalyptic fiction in Withered + Sere, Murmuration is Klune’s first foray into the harder side of science fiction. Traditionally, hard sci-fi deals mostly with technologies and societies, but rarely with individuals, and I used to steer away from it for that reason (though I read it plenty now). So it’s refreshing to see a take on it that foregrounds real people with real lives and real relationships. I’m deleting every sentence after I write it because I’m unsure what’s safe to talk about without giving anything away, so I’m just going to cut this entry short. I recommend giving Murmuration a shot and going in blind, or as blind as you can after having read this.

Warchild

Warchild
Karin Lowachee
Difficulty: Easy
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Ender’s Game was my absolute favorite book as a kid. I read it over and over, even listening to the audiobook while I was falling asleep. I’m not sure exactly why I was so into it, but, being the obnoxious child I was, it probably had something to do with the too-smart-for-you kid protagonist whose intelligence alienated him from his peers. Still love that book to death. Anyways, Warchild is channeling that same child-prodigy-in-a-space-opera energy and it’s still awesome. Joslyn Musey is only eight years old when he’s orphaned in a violent pirate attack and taken captive by one of Earthhub’s most infamous pirate captains. Suddenly finding himself in a hostile environment without family or friends to turn to, it will take all the strength and resolve Jos has to stay alive, but an unexpected turn of events delivers him from his captivity… straight into the arms of the alien strit, Earthub’s longtime enemies. Now he’s caught in the middle of an interstellar war and discovering that everything he thought he knew about it was wrong.

Warchild is first and foremost a story of trauma. It’s a deeply psychological and character driven military drama that departs from the traditional sci-fi focus on technology and society in order to concentrate more on individual people. Jos is not alright, but he’s trying to be, and that’s what Lowachee is writing about. What really gives the story its edge is the sexual dimension of Jos’ abuse. We’re never really told exactly what happened, but we can observe its effects on his character. The world of Warchild seems to be one of sexual fluidity, with little distinction made between hetero- and homosexual relations, but Jos himself displays little inclination towards either sex. It would be inappropriate to make assumptions about his sexuality given his past experiences, but his behavior at least tends towards asexual. 

After I finished rereading Warchild I was reflecting on how strongly the book stayed with me and how much I enjoyed it. I tend to shy away from too-tragic or depressing stories, a side-effect of reading too much mid-century gay literature, so why am I fine with this one? I guess I don’t really think it’s that depressing; it’s a story of trauma but it’s also one of recovery, and I find that really uplifting. I also wonder how much the sexual component of the book contributed to that. I never had an experience remotely similar to Jos’, but many years of denying a core part of yourself must cause its own type of damage. If Jos can recover, why can’t I? Or anyone else for that matter. That’s probably a little melodramatic and self-indulgent, but fuck it, it feels good to be that way sometimes.

The Left Hand of Darkness

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The Left Hand of Darkness
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Difficulty: Medium
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Ursula Le Guin was one of the most prominent figures in the science fiction New Wave movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which introduced a greater variety of voices to the genre and refocused on peoples and cultures rather than potential technologies. It’s difficult to overstate how groundbreaking The Left Hand of Darkness was when it was first published in 1969. Many sci-fi writers had dabbled with alien sex and gender before, but they did so in the same way they might give that alien an extra arm or eye; it still wasn’t something normal or natural to them, or even human. But in Le Guin’s work, these issues are nothing if not human. Her explicit goal was to “[eliminate] gender, to find out what was left”, and the result was a near-universally acclaimed classic work of literature.

Genly Ai is a human emissary tasked with contacting the planet of Gethen to invite them into the Ekumen, a galactic confederation of planets. For most of each month the Gethenians are androgynous, and only assume a male or female sex as needed when they enter their period of sexual fertility. The effective non-existence of gender has caused Gethenian culture to develop in ways never before seen by humans, and this creates a cultural gap Genly Ai must struggle to overcome. Together with his Gethenian patron, Estraven, he journeys across the planet and learns to navigate its complex political and cultural structures to accomplish his mission.

What I admire most about Le Guin’s writing is her ability to secure buy-in from skeptical readers. Her world-building is meticulous and strategic, designed to respond to those who might claim that her ideas are delusional and have nothing to do with humanity. All she asks of her readers is that they listen, even if they’re skeptical, because if they start to listen then she can start to change their minds. The Left Hand of Darkness is more like an anthropological journal than a galactic space-opera, but it still has a clear plot and narrative arc. The relationship between Genli and Estraven is ambiguous and dynamic, and there’s a nice dose of political intrigue to keep events moving. Plus, there’s cool sci-fi stuff like space travel, telepathy, and prophesying, which keeps the book interesting all the way through.

Also, nobody can make me like the ugly 50th anniversary cover 😡

Dhalgren

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Dhalgren
by Samuel R. Delany
Difficulty: Very Hard
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Samuel R. Delany was the first commercially successful black sci-fi author and the first commercially successful gay sci-fi author. He was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 2013, and is often cited as a primary inspiration for both the afrofuturist and cyberpunk movements. Many consider Dhalgren to be his magnum opus, with its unbridled formal experimentation, critical dialogue on minority cultures, and intense, unexplained surrealism.

Dhalgren takes place in Bellona, a burned out, hollow husk of a city in the American midwest, inhabited only by the margins of society and forgotten about by the rest of the country. What exactly happened to Bellona is never made clear, as, indeed, is the case for most things in the novel. At this city arrives the protagonist, a Half-native American amnesiac wearing one sandal and trying to remember his name. As he explores the constantly shifting city he encounters many different types of people, finds a girlfriend, finds a boyfriend, and becomes a poet, hero, and gang leader all at once.

Full disclosure, Dhalgren is pretty much my favorite book and I’ve got a lot of nice things to say about it. So before I do, let’s talk about some of the less nice things. This book is notoriously difficult to finish, on par with or perhaps even surpassing other postmodern door stoppers like Infinite Jest, Gravity’s Rainbow, or The Recognitions. Most of the book appears to have little to no plot, and long stretches of it are intentionally, infuriatingly boring. It opens with the second half of a sentence only completed by the fragment which ends the book, and the story is periodically punctuated by inexplicable schizophrenic soliloquies. Many find the experience of reading Dhalgren to be literally maddening.

But many others, like myself, find the experience to be revelatory instead. It must be read with a willingness to accept, but not understand, and in a way that came very naturally to me. The real world is full of many things I cannot understand, yet must accept anyway, so why should I approach Dhalgren any differently? Bellona’s society showed me a new perspective on what it means to be a social minority, ways in which it can actually be liberating, freeing me from the oppressive institutions of heteronormativity, capitalism, patriarchy, and colonialism. Dhalgren was a tremendously influential book for me, and I have since dedicated myself to reading and studying the rest of Delany’s bibliography in order to better understand the man behind it.