Sunday, April 28, 2019

Bonus Book! Valis

Valis by Philip K. Dick
Science Fiction (1981 - 241 pp.)
For two thousand years the single rational element in the world had slumbered. In 1945 it woke up... (112)
In Valis, Philip K. Dick moves away from fabricated quasi-humans and alternate post-World War II reality to tell a story about... a protagonist with his own name having a series of out-of-body experiences, all set against the backdrop of Cold War-era California. The lack of Replicants or arms races is barely noticeable, as Valis is such a twisting story it could only have been written by Dick. It follows Horselover Fat, who is also a fictionalized Philip K. Dick, through failed relationships, a near suicide, and a journey with his friends to discover the meaning of life, all set in the 1970s.

Everything in Valis is rational to a horrifying extent. Fat's girlfriend Gloria is insane because it behooves her to be insane: "Gloria's mind had total control over her body; she was rationally insane." (11) Dick digs back into his The Man in the High Castle-era Sinophilia, using the I Ching as a reference point, as well as Yin and Yang to represent the balance in Fat's world. (239) Dick references Chinese fingertraps throughout, showing how the characters are trapped into their situations by the only events that could logically occur. On Fat's growing realization of his building sanity, "Let it be said that one of the first symptoms of psychosis is that the person feels perhaps he is becoming psychotic. It is another Chinese fingertrap. You cannot think about it without becoming part of it." (17) Dick is Fat, and Fat is Dick, but Dick sees Fat from a third-party bystander's perspective. Fat's version of his psychosis is, understandably, far more favourable to him: "I am illuminated by holy light fired at me from another world. I see what no other man sees." (30) That sentence may be the thesis, if Valis could ever have just one.

If Fat is insane, he certainly has a difficult time of his brief sojourn in a mental institution. Dick portrays mental institutions as places where nothing happens, (54) yet immediately presents the reader with a cruel paradox: prefrontal lobotomies are available only to those patients who consent to them. (57) Given the difficulty of informed consent to psychosurgery, Fat appears to have landed in a One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest-style situation, in which Ken Kesey describes a draconian mental institution based on his own experiences. Fat is alarmed at nothing, though, and instead sees his institution as a place where he could get better: "Dr. Stone wasn't insane; Stone was a healer. He held down the right job." (65) He doesn't, but it's not because he doesn't try. Dr. Stone and the other staff appear legitimately helpful, though, avoiding a situation like "The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether". At least, Dick/Fat leads the reader to believe this.

Media before, in and after Valis are crucial to the reader's experience. The title is taken for Vast Active Living Intelligence System, a device used in a movie, also called Valis, the characters watch. (139-144) Watching Valis, Fat realizes the movie tells the story of his own life, which causes him and his friends to reach out to the movie's makers. Naturally, for Dick at least, this results in Fat likely writing a series of letters to his past self, "All You Zombies"-style. The closest comparison is if, in A Midsummer Night's Dream, the play-within-a-play starred Hippolyta and Puck. Looking forward, 1990s media has some Valis in it. The disembodied protagonist watching his own life is played up even farther in Martin Amis's Time's Arrow. Fat's visions could easily be an influence on Tool, of Los Angeles alternative metal fame. Fat is able to see using his third eye. (116, 230) When a third self emerges, the mercurial Zebra, everything doubles back on itself: "On some level Fat guessed the truth; he had encountered his past selves and his future selves - two future selves; an early-on one, the three-eyed people, and then Zebra, who is discorporate." (120)

When Fat meets Valis's makers, he comes to understand the true nature of reality. Yes, telling you exactly what Fat discovers would be a spoiler, although it involves a movie producer who calls himself Mother Goose and a virtually omniscient two-year-old named Sophia. These bizarre encounters lead to a series of epigrams about salvation, which rank among Dick's all-time great one-liners. After nearly dying a few times, Fat feels far greater urgency: "You always need the Savior now. Later is always too late." (213) Sophia appears to Fat in a dream that convinces him she is able to use dreams to communicate; in the dream, her description borders on Biblical: "The dark eyes filled with light and life and fire." (215) Tying together the otherworldliness of it all combined with Fat's growing need to uncover life's mysteries, Fat realizes that for all his rationality, he has extremely little control: "The divine intrudes where you least expect it." (228)

Valis is from the Cold War, in both release date and setting, which means the USSR persists. This is fine for the 1970s, but the book opens with a fake dictionary entry for VALIS. The dictionary, of course, is "Great Soviet Dictionary Sixth Edition, 1992". Not to worry - the USSR fell less than a year earlier. In Burning Chrome, William Gibson has communists in the 2300s.

Ease of Reading: 4
Educational Content: 3

Thursday, April 11, 2019

April's Book: Throne of Jade

Throne of Jade by Naomi Novik
Fantasy (2007 - 398 pp.)

Throne of Jade is the second book in Naomi Novik's epic Temeraire series, starring Napoleonic-era Royal Navy Captain Will Laurence and his trusty dragon Temeraire. In the first book, His Majesty's Dragon, Laurence captures a French ship carrying priceless cargo from China: a dragon egg, from which sprouts our lovable living tank Temeraire. In Throne of Jade, a Chinese prince demands Temeraire be returned to China, leading Laurence and crew on a perilous voyage in which a Chinese prince threatens to separate our two main characters. Throne of Jade takes place in 1806, in the aftermath of Trafalgar and Austerlitz (163-164), at a time when Napoleon was becoming weaker at sea while stronger on land. The British, though, control the air.

The voyage leads the Allegiance and its crew, headed by Laurence, past Madeira, the Cape of Good Hope, and what is now Indonesia, to its destination at Macao. The intervening cultures are little discussed except that they provide a true transition from a European to an Asian setting. The characters' behaviours follow suit. One of the first joint English-Chinese dinners on board is a suckling pig (141-142), whereas later on Temeraire discovers his love for highly spiced Chinese and Southeast Asian food. Laurence bemoans the frequent sullying of his military uniform, which is inevitable considering the sheer frequency of battle scenes in Throne of Jade (approximately one every twenty pages), yet he is relieved when he finds his new Chinese clothes cleaner than anything he had worn in months. Still, Laurence cannot accept the presence of so much bribery in Chinese markets (315), nor can he go any farther than bow to the Emperor. (270-271)

Temeraire is a pet of sorts, but it's tough to call him a true pet when he understands poetry better than the highly educated Laurence, has a charming British wit, and is capable of sinking entire warships by himself. Temeraire is more of a familiar spirit, specifically a divinatory animal, which fits perfectly with historical British mythology and with the importance of dragons in Chinese culture. He therefore ends up as an outsider wherever he goes, equally frustrated by the lack of women in the British armed forces despite the gender-blind military purposing of dragons and his inability to write before the dragons in China show him how. When Laurence explains female dragon aviators being the only English women allowed to serve, Temeraire notes that "I do not understand in the least, why ought it make any difference at all? Lily is female, and she can fight as well as I can, or almost". (205) Upon hearing a poem composed by a Chinese dragon, Temeraire laments that "I might like to try, but I do not see how I would ever put it down; I do not think I could hold a pen." (145) Above all, Temeraire's loyalty to Laurence is both British military camaraderie and Chinese filial piety; Temeraire is at once Laurence's army buddy and his son.*

As with His Majesty's Dragon, another high point is how realistically Throne of Jade presents the characters' surroundings. Novik has clearly researched the period, down to the characters' wording choices and clothing. Although a book starring a talking dragon is clearly not meant to be realistic, Novik suspends the reader's disbelief on the dragon point well, and keeps the rest Earthly.** When the heroes are still yet to embark, a European dragon battle happens, yet with the humans using realistic Napoleonic-era guns. (102-103) Likewise, what should have been a wholly unrealistic fight scene on deck during a storm ends up becoming a gripping description of the wind, clouds, mist and fog that decide Laurence's fate. (231) The Scientific American article linked earlier in this paragraph applies to the experience of reading the series:
Being transported emotionally into an alternative reality helps us to invest more completely in a piece of fiction, no matter how unbelievable.
As with fantasy novels in general, Throne of Jade could have used some reining in on the third-person omniscient narrator's commentary. If I had a PDF of Throne of Jade, I could Ctrl+F the word "almost" and probably find dozens of extraneous examples, such as "Her hand tightened almost painfully on his arm" (12) - why not just "Her hand tightened painfully on his arm"? or even "Her hand tightened on his arm"? Novik uses the word "only" much the same way, as in "He turned only reluctantly" (10) - why not just "He turned reluctantly"? A proverbially thorough thinning of the adjective and adverb soup would have been useful here. That's on the editor(s) more than Novik.

I read His Majesty's Dragon back in February 2016 - although I had 29 days to read it - and found Throne of Jade an appendage rather than a separate story. I therefore had to spend much of the first 50 or so pages reminding myself who all the characters are, making Throne of Jade a nearly impossible read for someone who hasn't read His Majesty's Dragon.*** For example, Catherine Harcourt and Admiral Lenton, two characters from His Majesty's Dragon, rarely appear in Throne of Jade but are mentioned semi-frequently by both Laurence and Temeraire. (190) Novik's books are so widely available, and such quick reads, this shouldn't be a major issue. Someone interested in Napoleonic-era British captains and their dragons should simply read the books in order.

Ease of Reading: 9
Educational Content: 2

*This has potentially awkward implications when Temeraire is able to meet his mother but not his father. Or it's just fitting.

**The phrase "willing suspension of disbelief" having been coined by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1817, only eleven years after Throne of Jade is set.

**Whether unintentionally waiting from 2016 until 2019 is an unintentional example of the Book One Effect is debatable. The third book, Black Powder War, will probably not take so long for me to start.