Four Literary Links: Two Critics on Doctor Thorne, “10 Tricks for Book Nerds,” & Robert Barnard’s Mysteries

Doctor thorne trollope 51XgTazilbL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_Oh, Anthony Trollope!  I’m besotted with you.  “How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.” In my twenties I binge-read the Palliser series and the Barsetshire novels; then I discovered two of his most powerful  novels, The Way We Live Now and He Knew He Was Right; and in the last ten years have read most of the others.  (Many are superb.)

So I was thrilled to find a link in an email to Laura Miller’s essay at Slate on Julian Fellowes’ new TV adaptation of Trollope’s Doctor Thorne.  (I still erroneously think of Slate as a kids’ paper, but I’ll read anything on Trollope.)  Miller enthusiastically reread Doctor Thorne, the third book in the Barsetshire series, before she viewed the film. She loves the book, but considers the new  miniseries the worst Trollope adaptation ever.

Nonetheless, Miller will make you want to read Trollope, if you have not yet discovered him.

She begins,

Anthony Trollope’s “great, inestimable merit,” Henry James once wrote, “was a complete appreciation of the usual.” He was right: You won’t find a single uncanny moment in that Victorian author’s 47 novels. Yet reading Trollope in the 21st century can nevertheless be a bit spooky. That’s because seemingly everything that happens today has already been covered in one of his books, albeit in a less technologized form.

Yes, Trollope does write about everyday life, as Mr. James says, but he also has great psychological depth, for which he is not given sufficient credit.  As Miller points out, he has written about all things modern.  I have been astonished  by his insights on  love, marriage, divorce, church politics,  Ponzi schemes, psychological abuse, and corrupt elections. And I do think he had his “uncanny moments”:  he even wrote a science fiction novel, The Fixed Period.

Miller is very slightly condescending about Trollope. That’s the way of critics with nineteenth-century novels. She  trots out the cliché about Trollope’s digressive fox-hunting scenes and descriptons of Tudor houses.  At this point I no longer think those are digressions.  Does that mean I’ve read too much Trollope?

doctor thorne tv series MV5BMWUxZWYwZjEtNzQ5ZC00ZmMwLWEwZWYtNWFhMmZiMzNjZjVmXkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyMjExMjk0ODk@._V1_SX1024_CR0,0,1024,1443_AL_Ellen Moody, the author of  Trollope on the Net, also panned the new Julian Fellowes adaptaion at her blog, Ellen and Jim Have a Blog, Two.  Ellen, who recently taught a class on the Barsetshire novels, has read all of Trollope multiple times and knows more about his books than almost anyone.

She begins,

Julian Fellowes has managed to turn the novel Michael Sadleir ended his ground-breaking study of Trollope on (the book that first attracted respectable attention to Trollope — with preferring Dr Thorne to The Way We Live Now) into an embarrassment. A telling travesty. Reviewers veer from lamenting the very existence of this throw-back to picturesqueness as a travesty to earnestly showing how it has eliminated just about everything that counts in the novel. Viv Groskop of The Guardian suggested we take a drug to forget this disgrace. The courteous and judicious Alison Moulds of the Victorian clinic demonstrated the central matter of the tale, medicine and illness, comic and tragic, is left out. As might have been expected, Philip Hensher of the Telegraph demonstrates that the point Fellowes gets across (and by implication, Trollope’s) is that it’s impossible to cross (ontological?) class boundaries.

So what say?  Do we skip the TV adaptation?  No, I have to see it!

3.  Looking for something light to read?  Check out Jeff Somers’s “10 Tricks for Book Nerds who Want to Fit in Reading Time At Work” at Barnes and Noble Reads.

4. I very much enjoyed this post by Random Jottings on Robert Barnard’s superb mysteries, which Pan Macmillan has reissued.  (I’ve long been a fan of Barnard’s books.)

case of the missing bronte pbb cover

Do These Covers Mean “Chick Lit?” & Week Three of The Tale of Genji

DO THESE COVERS INDICATE “CHICK LIT?”

I no longer hear about chick lit.  For several years it was all Bridget Jones and novels with pink and turquoise covers on the tables at the bookstores.  Then the genre disappeared.

I was at the bookstore recently and saw several new books with woman-friendly pastel covers!  Are these chick lit indicators?  Wouldn’t you love that martini or that beach hat?   These cute books look like fun.

And now:  Week Three of My Summer Reading Project, The Tale of Genji.

How am I doing with Genji?

The prose is lush, and I am enthralled by the poems, complete with allusions to Chinese poems, exchanged by the anti-hero, Genji, and his girlfriends, as part of their courtship. The Tale of Genji is one of the first long literary works by a woman.  The author, Murasaki Shikibu, a lady of the Heian Court, entertained the Empress and Emperor with chapters from her long romance.   And this 1,000-plus-page work of art has influenced many Japanese writers.

But I lack a cultural context.

In the introduction to the Knopf edition, translator Edward G. Seidensticker explains the publisher requested minimal notes. So the prose washes over one but I’d like more background.

tale fo genji royall tyler 7042And so I tried  The Summer of Genji website, where a readalong was sponsored in 2010 by The Quarterly Conversation and Open Letters Monthly. The intelligent post-ers were not, alas, Japanese scholars,  and I can’t pretend their witty posts elucidate the text.  Is  Genji really a stalker and rapist, as some of them suggest?   Well,  he is not violent, but on the other hand he is not adverse to slipping into the rooms of bachelorettes, young wives, and randy 60-year-old women, often without permission.   But Genji is, as I understand it, a tale of courtly love!

Shikabu describes Genji early on satirically but affectionately. Here’s a paragraph from the Dennis Washburn translation:

THE RADIANT Prince—a splendid, if somewhat bombastic, title. In fact, his failings were so numerous that such a lofty sobriquet was perhaps misleading. He engaged in all sorts of flings and dalliances, but he sought to keep them secret out of fear that he would become fodder for gossips who delighted in circulating rumors about him and end up leaving to later generations a reputation as a careless, frivolous man. Genji was keen to avoid the censure of the court and, thus constrained, went about feigning a serious and earnest demeanor for a time, abstaining from all elegantly seductive or charming affairs. No doubt the Lesser Captain of Takano, that legendary lover, would have been amused.

He is clearly a flawed hero! But I see no indication (yet) that Shikibu regards his affairs as rape. He is described as stunnngly attractive, both to women and men (who all think he would attract them if he were a woman).

So what did Shikibu think of Genji, and what did eleventh-century readers think?

I did find an excellent essay online by Royal Tyler, “Marriage, Rank and Rape in The Tale of Genji,” in which he talks about this ttopic. Tyler is the translator of the Penguin edition.

He writes,

There are two basic evaluations of Genji’s love relationships. One, established for centuries and still current, accepts the position taken repeatedly by the narrator herself, to the effect that Genji is all but irresistible; that he values character as highly as he values looks; and that he never abandons any woman with whom he has established a bond. These are striking or admirable traits, and Genji has often been praised by both men and women as representing an ideal. However, a reaction against this sort of view has set in recently in Japan, North America, and no doubt elsewhere… T he dissenters charge Genji with crimes against women

The Tale of Genji 9780393047875_300I do wish I had Tyler’s translation! As it is, I have gone back to Dennis Washburn’s scholarly edition, which I bought last summer and found a little heavy-going, but I need his extensive footnotes. And in the excellent introduction he explains that Shikibu “satirizes the foibles and hypocrisies of the nobility,… while at the same time reinforcing or affirming fundamental aesthetic, moral, and religious values in a way that was flattering to the self-regard of court society.”

And about the reception of the text:

The story has been read as a moral and religious guide, as a source for historical data on court society, as a feminist text and post-feminist text, as a marker of cultural literacy and national identity. Whatever we make of these individual interpretations, taken together they serve to remind us that the privileged position of the work is not based entirely on qualities intrinsic to the text, but is instead constructed from a long, complex history of critical reception.

I do believe it is necessary to know something about the context and not think about this simply in modern terms.  Thank God for scholars!

And so I read on…

Memorial Day Weekend Reading, Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, & Literary Links

The perfect beach read.

The perfect beach read.

We’re ignoring the flags but celebrating the first weekend of summer with beverages, barbecues, and books.

Beverage:  Arnold Palmers (half iced tea, half lemonade).  We rattle the iced cubes in Great-Aunt Helen’s big pink champagne glasses as we sip the tea. They are the last glass glasses in the house. We have broken all the rest–not like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Zelda, who simply did it for kicks–but because of dishwashing accidents. At this point we prefer plastic.

Books:  I’m finishing up the third volume of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, set in the late ’60s and the ’70s.  Yes, it’s literature (kind of), but it’s also a beach read, perfect for a wide spectrum of readers, from fans of Middlemarch  and The Group to aficionados of The Diary of a Mad Housewife and Fear of Flying.  It’s a grittily realistic pageturner, but, honestly, I find it somewhat trying. Both Lena and Lila, the two heroines, are getting on my nerves.

I am ambivalent about Ferrante’s work.  Enjoyable as it is, it is very hard for me to catch the worldwide excitement about these ultra-traditional novels about women’s friendship.  I can see why they are popular:  these straight-ahead reads require very little work.  Ann Goldstein’s translation is  smooth and readable, though I’m finding Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay  less riveting than the first two volumes, My Brilliant Friend (which I wrote about here) and The Story of a New Name (which I wrote about here). Whether Ferrante or the translator lost pep, who can say?

The narrator Lena has published her first novel and goes on a book tour, feeling insecure about the book but also excited by its popularity.  Visiting her parents in Naples, she runs into old girlfriends who fervently praise it for the “dirty” parts, i.e., beach sex scenes which capture women’s ambivalence toward sex. She is engaged to a likable professor, who insists on a civil ceremony, and that is a point of contention with her mother, who wants Lena to have a big wedding like Lila’s. And Lena is still fascinated by her childhood friend Lila, a working-class prima donna who has left her husband, lives with their childhood friend, Endo, with whom she refuses to have sex, and now works at a  sausage factory, leaving her child with a neighbor while she works.  Lila is sexually harassed at work, but is not a victim:  she takes care of herself and knows how to say no, thank God!   But after she confides in radicals about how women are treated, they show up to protest at the factory and she gets in trouble.  Then Lena writes a newspaper article based on Lila’s carefully-written study of the factory.  No wonder her old teacher, who saw Lila’s version first,  snubs Lena and pays more attention to Lila’s writing!  Of course that’s also part of what happens to people who succeed and come back to their hometown: people begrudge the prodigal’s success!  But Lena does exploit Lila’s experience for her writing.

days of abandonment ferrante 51MHqt44whL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_It’s a very fast read.  But honestly?  I  tire of Lila’s hyperbolic tantrums (are they Italian?). And Lena’s typical experiences with her insomniac baby and unsympathetic husband, who goes on writing and ignores the crying baby,  seem barely sketched in.  Of course that mightbe a translation problem.

For me, this one is the weakest of the novels (so far)!  I do want to love these best-sellers, and yet…

On the other hand, I do recommend Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment, a truly Kafkaseque narrative  peppered with the feminist outrageousness of Doris Lessing and Marilyn French. The narrator, Olga, a housewife, goes mad when her husband deserts her for another woman after 15 years, leaving her with two children and a dog.  She is mystified by his departure, and the hours, days, and weeks that follow are described with agony, spite, and humor.  Eventually Olga gets her own back!

If you’re not interested in reading Ferrante, here are some literary links that will give you other options for Memorial Day!

master and margarita 97801431082761  Boris Fishman writes in The New York Times about the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita.  This excellent essay begins,

Were it a kinder world, Mikhail Bulgakov’s incandescent novel “The Master and Margarita” would be commemorating its 75th rather than 50th anniversary, for the author completed it in 1940, just as his own brief life was ending. But in the Soviet Union of the time — then concluding one of the most grotesquely violent decades in history — the fate of authors like Bulgakov was so precarious that he was fortunate to die of natural causes. Having finished the book, he reportedly said to his wife from his deathbed: “Now it deserves to be put in the commode, under your linens.” She did not even try to get it published. A censored version finally appeared in 1966-67.

shrill 41wjF5kS+BL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_2 At Lenny, in the article “Lit Thursday: Books That Won’t Disappoint,” Lena Dunham says she is reading Lindy West’s Shrill.

Lindy has made a name for herself as one of the fiercest and funniest feminists working today. The Internet has been her medium and she’s used it beautifully, responding in real time to trifling comedians and even less impressive trolls. But a writer as skilled as Lindy deserves long form consideration and Shrill, her hybrid memoir-cultural critique-manifesto, does not disappoint. It fulfills the promise of her many well considered (and fucking hilarious) internet offerings. Lindy deftly moves between painful personal recollections, assessments of the sorry state of body positivity, and a clear eyed view of what the feminist movement needs to do so that sisterhood doesn’t kill off its sisters. I am so happy I’ve been reading her for half a decade. I’ll be doing it for another half a century.

3 At The New York Review of Books, Hermione Lee reviews All the Poems by Stevie Smith, edited and with an introduction by Will May  (New Directions, 806 pp., $39.95)

stevie smith all the poems 9780811223805

Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles

La Femme de Gilles Bourddouxhe 51RY8Lp9quL._SX339_BO1,204,203,200_

The Belgian writer Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s exquisite first novel, La Femme de Gilles, published in 1937 and translated  by Faith Evans in 1992, explores the pain of adultery.  It is told mainly from the point of view  of Elisa, the faithful wife who is in love with her handsome husband Gilles, a factory worker.

We don’t think of working-class marriages in fiction as erotic.  In most working-class novels, marriages are exhausting and unhappy: in  D. H. Lawrence’s  Sons and Lovers, Paul’s refined mother despises her coal miner husband; in Hariettte Simpson Arnow’s The Dollmaker, Gertie’s factory worker husband squanders her savings; and in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio, Jim works in a slaughterhouse and  beats his wife and children.

But Elisa, a housewife and mother of twins, is happily married and sexually fulfilled.  Bourdouxhe’s sensuous opening paragraph describes Elisa’s  intense longing for Gilles as she finishes her housework.

“Five o’clock,” says Elisa to herself.  “Soon he’ll be home.”  The thought paralyses her completely.  She’s spent the whole day polishing, washing, scrubbing, making a thick soup for supper–most people round here don’t eat a proper meal in the evenings but Gilles works at the factory, and only eats an egg sandwich for lunch.  Now she finds herself transfixed, unable even to lay the table.  Her arms hang helplessly, hopelessly, at her side.  Giddy with tenderness, she clings to the metal rail of the stove, stock still, panting for breath.

The present tense of the first chapter is very vivid and effective and captures the last of their happiness.  After the first chapter, Bourdouxhe switches cleverly to the more formal past tense.

Elisa doesn’t suspect Gilles would ever commit adultery.  Yet even in the first paragraph she is clinging to a stove’s metal rail, no doubt the product of a factory.  It certainly foreshadows her misery.  Soon all she will have is the stove.

Bourdouxhe switches to Gilles’ point of view to convey his  first flash of attraction for  Elisa’s younger sister, Victorine.   It takes a while for Elisa to realize  he is having an affair.  She follows Gilles at night to see where he goes.  Heavily pregnant with their third child, she tramps through the snow wearing  pattens and eventually loses him.

daunt press madeleine bourdouxhe femmedegilles  Then one day she realizes his girlfriend is Victorine.  Elisa is crushed but determined to stay  level-headed.  She pretends she doesn’t know; then she becomes his confidant.   And she is hurt very much.

Elisa is a working-class Anna Karenina, only her Vronksy is her husband.  This is a stunning minimalist novel, graceful and pitch-perfect.

And in the Afterword, Faith Evans quotes her own conversations in the 1980s with the author and includes the following statement Bourdouxhe wrote for a French edition.

If you watch Elisa from the outside, her struggle is barely perceptible.  What I wanted to do was follow Elisa through her interior life.  I created her from a composite of the women around me.  I’d see a fleeting look, an expression, a smile, for just a moment–then it would be gone… but it emanated from something that continued to live inside them, and it was the look that created the women they were.

What a dazzling book!

Extraordinary Women & The Graveyard Competition: How Absurd We Are!

Compton Mackenzie Extraordinary Women 655430I chortled over the quotation below from Compton Mackenzie’s comic novel, Extraordinary Women.

Madame de Randan had long ago decided that the behavior of her husband entitled her to display openly the animosity and scorn she had always felt for the male. The mere contour of a man affected her mind as unpleasantly as the contour of a mountain affected the old Roman mind.

In the flamboyant first chapter, Mackenzie tells us that this grumpy character left her charming French husband because she tired of meeting his mistresses in society. In her villa on the Bay of Naples she knew “no Phaon would ever again trouble her dreams.”  But how can she prevent her 16-year-old daughter Lulu’s amorous assignations by moonlight with the chemist’s son? She sends her to the island of Sirene with the English governess. According to the jacket copy, Sirene is populated by lesbian characters based on several of Mackenzie’s friends on Capri.  Out of the frying pan into the fire?

It’s odd the things that remind us of our mothers. My father’s behavior didn’t turn Mother against men, but she never dated again. “I didn’t feel like it.”  Longing to protect me from amatory agony, she was upset when I was very young and “Phaon troubled my dreams” in the shape of an older man.  Well, if I could go back in time and pass on that one…but we learn from bad decisions.

She died in 2013, and I spoke with her ghost till this year.  I’m psychic!  If it was not her ghost, it comforted me anyway.  Now she’s done with chatting and has gone on to the afterlife.   But DNA tells:  I look at my feet and eerily see her feet–probably because we both bought the same sandals!

I recently visited my hometown.   It was difficult to find her grave: it has a flat gravestone.  It is not far from the road, between my grandparents’ grave and my uncle’s.  It’s almost Memorial Day.   I left a basket of flowers.

Last year I  didn’t get there till after Memorial Day and was dismayed to find my mom’s  grave bare and the other relatives’ decorated.   It was probably an oversight on the part of my cousin, but she lives there and I don’t.  I can’t believe I think am in a Graveyard Competition!  But I know our super-competitive DNA:   she will be frustrated that I beat her!

I am apparently a character in a D. E. Stevenson novel rather than Compton Mackenzie’s.

The Tale of Genji, Lugging It in a Bike Pannier, & The Coffeehouse Umbrella War

tale of genji cover2Well, I’ve done it.  I’m well into my Big Book of the Summer, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, a stunning eleventh-century Japanese classic, which is sometimes billed as the first novel (though the Greeks and Romans actually were first.). Murasaki Shikibu, an elegant writer who served in the court of the empress Akiko after she was widowed,  entertained both the empress and emperor with parts of The Tale of Genji, her absorbing story  of the amorous adventures of  Genji, the son of the Emperor and his concubine.  At this point I haven’t gleaned enough about the culture  to understand exactly how Murasaki views her characters, though I appreciate the subtlety with which she shows the women do not always find his advances  acceptable.   In one chapter, after Genji is repeatedly rejected by the woman he is courting, he accidentally climbs into bed with the wrong lady but gallantly pretends she is the one he wanted.  In another chapter, he courts a reclusive princess simply because she never sees anyone,  and then rejects her because he finds her unattractive and unstylish.  In a very disturbing scene, he mocks the unattractive princess and makes fun of her red nose to a little girl he is raising.

So what are we to think of Genji?  My reading will gradually reveal more, I am sure.

Why am I reading this?  The gorgeous language. Genji and his girlfriends exchange poems.  It is delightful to read them.  As for the beautiful language of Murasaki’s prose, it’s  like being in an opium den, not that I’ve ever been in one, where language flows over and around you like smoke and you go into a dream and you aren’t aware of anything else  I hope I’ll eventually understand the tradition of the Japanese romance better.

Meanwhile I am fascinated by Murasaki’s life.  In Diary of Murasaki, she tells us about  learning Chinese, though women did not study languages.

When my brother Nobunori was a boy my fahter was anxious to make a good Chinese scholar of him,  and often came to hear Nobunori’s lessons.  On these occasions I was always present, and so quick was I at picking up the language that I was soon able to prompt my brother whenever he got stuck.  At this my father used to sigh and say, “If only you wore a boy how proud and happy I should be.

But she learned to conceal her knowledge of the least Chinese character, because she was told it would make her unpopular with men..

Sound familiar?

Being a girl, I meant so little to my father that he confronted me when he saw my name in the newspaper on the honor roll.   “We didn’t think you did well,” he said.

I didn’t bother to correct him. I was numb from years of put-downs and insults.  Yes, I was an honors student, I said blandly.  I knew it made him angry. All my life he had talked a lot of garbage like “Women can’t play chess,” “Women can’t do math.”  I once sassily said, “Not ‘can’t” but “refuse to.'”  Certainly he didn’t understand my interest in languages and literature.  And he didn’t give me any of the money from my so-called college fund until my last semester of college, after I had paid for my education through part-time jobs and small loans and was finally exhausted. Turned out I wouldn’t have had to take any loans. Great to know at the end of school, right?  But never fear, I paid back my loans with no problem. School was not expensive in those days.

tale of genji modern library 81wldFQ881LWhen we talk about Genji, we don’t think of the weight of the book.  But if you want to carry it on the bus or your bike, you should know  that the oversize 1,090-page Knopf paperback of Edward G. Seidentsticker’s 1976 translation weighs three pounds.

I thought I could solve my summer-reading-on-the-go problem if I found a less hefty copy.  It turns out the 1960 Modern Library copy of Arthur Waley’s original translation weighs only two and a half pounds.  I figured it wouldn’t break the bike pannier.

Wrong!

The bike can’t even stand up with this book in the bag.  The pannier came unhooked from the  rack!  I had to stop a couple of times and fix it.

image

Genji at the coffeehouse.

Once at the coffeehouse,  I had a few problems because of the translations.  Reading the Seidensticker at home, I was introduced to the character Tayu, “a very susceptible young lady who was in court service and from time to did favors for  Genji.”  She  distracts him from his pining for a governor’s wife with the story of a reclusive princess fathered by the late Prince Hitachi in old age.  But in Waley’s translation she is called Maubo:  her whole name , it turns out, is Taifu no Mayubo.   Thank God there is a list of characters at the front.

And then there are the coffeehouse umbrella problems.

On the terrace, in the bright 80-degree sun, there were several tables but only one umbrella.  The umbrella shaded one table.  And so I huddled at the table behind it, which at least caught a little triangle of shade. And then the guy moved the umbrella so the girl had more shade.  And then I had no shade.  Very exasperating, but what can you do?  Start a coffeehouse war?  I don’t think so.  The minute a slightly shady table opened up I was there!

Why Read SF Classics? George R. R. Martin, The Critics, & Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice

Genre fiction is popular, but it is still not quite the thing among the literati.   In order of acceptability, we have (a) mysteries, (b) historical fiction, (c) SF, and (d) romance.

SF is the most daring of the genres, but has long been considered a bastard child of literature, perhaps because it depends on “world-building” rather than corpses, Henry VIII, or flirting with guys with waxed chests.   It’s fairy tales, it’s epic, it’s tragedy, it’s fantastic voyages, and it’s medieval romance, but with robots and dragons, which doesn’t always go over well.   Critics  praise SF founders Jules Verne and H. G. Wells but have skipped over many stunning later SF classics.

In recent years, however, I have noticed that science fiction and fantasy have become more visible in literary publications. It may be solely because of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones series. Why?  Male critics John Mullan (The Guardian), John Lanchester (The London Review of Books), Daniel Mendelsohn (The New York Review of Books), and Tim Martin (The Telegraph) have compared the series to Shakespeare’s history plays and Lord of the Rings.  Fans, especially men, have gone mad for it.

Jo Walton's My Real ChildrenI very much enjoyed the first volume of Martin’s series, Game of Thrones, and if it brings people to SF/fantasy, I’m all for it. What the critics don’t seem to realize is that other SF  writers are equally well-acquainted with Shakespeare, history, and classics. For instance, the award-winning Jo Walton and C. J. Cherryh both have classics degrees.  Pamela Dean, author of the masterpiece, Tam Lin, has a master’s in English.  The genre-bending David Mitchell, twice nominated for the Man Booker Prize, has a master’s in comparative literature.

Sure, some SF writers write formula fiction, but the best SF writers take big chances. Not only do they create a viable future or fascinating alternate history, but some criticize the consequences of political and sociological trends. In Stand on Zanzibar, John Brunner describes the fragmentation of society in a postmodern narrative broken up by quotations from radical sociologist Chad Mulligan (who is rather like Marshall McLuhan), news blurbs, and rumors on something called “Scanalyzer.” (There is even, bizarrely, an African president named Obami:  pretty close to reality, right?)  Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren, another post-modern classic, is an SF lyrical Ulysses set in a city that has survived an unspecified disaster. Philip K. Dick’s alternate history, The Man in the High Castle, explores what might have happened in the U.S. if the Nazis had won.  All of them are brilliant writers.

Ancillary Justice Ann Leckie 51fearKC3QL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_But what about new SF?  I recently discovered Ann Leckie’s fascinating novel, Ancillary Justice, which in 2014 won the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the BSFA Award.  That’s quite a sweep. And it’s the first of a trilogy.

Is it an SF classic? Yes.  It is a beautifully-written first novel, a very fast read, and parts are brilliant.  I loved it from the opening pages.  The  narrator, Breq, a soldier who has trouble identifying gender, is in search of a very specialized antique on a dangerous trip to a cold, isolated wintry planet.  (A nod to Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness.)

The book opens like a noir western (if there is such a thing).  Breq finds a body in the snow.  Somehow it looks familiar.

Sometimes I don’t know why I do the things I do.  Even after all this time it’s still a new thing for me not to know, not to have orders to follow from one moment to the next.  So I can’t explain to you why I stopped and with one foot lifted the naked shoulder so I could see the person’s face.

Frozen, bruised, and bloody as she was, I knew her.  Her name was Seivarden Vendaai, and a long time ago she had been one of my officers, a young lieutenant, eventually promoted to her own command, another ship.  I had thought her a thousand years dead, but she was, undeniably, here.  I crouched down and felt for a pulse, for the faintest stir of breath.

And so Breq rescues Seivarden, whose body was frozen for 1,000 years after a disaster and recently rediscovered and thawed. Seivarden is  now a drug addict who will sell anything she can find  for drugs. But Breq understands the tragic history of the unlikable Seivarden only too well:  she refused “re-eduaction” and turned to drugs after she was suddenly awakened and found herself in a world she didn’t understand.  Breq never liked Seivarden, and yet she can’t let this victim of the past go.  It is a thankless job.  And yet they form a strange alliance.

Breq has business with a doctor/antique dealer, who can’t cure addiction but gives medical treatment to Seivarden.  It turns out Seivarden is a man (which we promptly forget, since Breq refers to everyone as “she, but it is a revelation:  I am surprised by how differently I regard her when I learn she is a man..). Breq’s purpose on this planet is to buy the doctor’s special gun, made by aliens.  At first the doctor pretends she doesn’t have it, but Breq has done her homework:  24 of the 25 guns have been recovered, and the doctor is the collector who vanished.

Why does Breq need the gun?  Gradually, through a beautifully-written unfolding of the story that is at first bewildering, we learn that she is not human but AI, with a revenge mission.  She used to be the central intelligence of a ship, Justice of Toren, or rather one of the ship’s  hundreds of ancillary soldiers.  Ancillaries are human corpses,  surgically rebuilt with implants and made into obedient soldiers to the ships and their human officers.  Their brains are connected to each other’s and the ship’s, until a catastrophe tears Breq from the others and she is forced to act as an individual.

Sound complicated?  It is.  But it is the quality of Leckie’s writing and the vivid characterization that keeps us reading as much as the storytelling.  Breq is an incredibly sympathetic character.  And she wins the loyalty of Seivarden.  After killing for 1,000 years or more, it turns out she can’t stop saving lives.

What a fantastic novel!  And I hear the next in the series is even better.  This is SF, in the tradition of the great C. J. Cherryh.