Dhalgren — Samuel R. Delany

Cover of Dhalgren

Samuel R. Delany
879 pages
published in 1975

Question: what are the two places man will never reach? Answer: the heart of the sun and page 100 of Dhalgren.

A corny old joke, with a kernel of truth because Dhalgren is not an easy book to read. Almost 900 pages long it’s a monster of a book, even more so when you remember it was published at a time when any science fiction novels over 200 pages was a bit on the long side. And unlike certain modern novels of that length, Dhalgren demands your attention on every page; you can’t get through it on the autopilot. It’s therefore no wonder that it took me most of February to read it, with no time for other books. But it was worth it as even almost forty years later this still is one of the most ambitious and challenging science fiction novels ever written.

Some people think it’s the symbol of everything that went wrong with science fiction. That “joke” I opened is less a joke than a sneer, repeated by people still mad at what the New Wave did to science fiction though they were born long after it. According to them Dhalgren is dense, impenetrable and unreadable, elitist fodder for literary snobs. What really sticks in their craw though is that Dhalgren was one of the biggest science fiction bestsellers of the seventies, going through fifteen printings between 1975 and 1980. Somebody must’ve liked it; in fact, like Dune or Stranger in A Strange Land, much more palatable bestsellers to these embittered fans, it must’ve appealed to people outside science fiction’s core readership.

In fact, what made me read Dhalgren, after I’d tried it years ago and failed less than twenty pages in, was reading how it was actually an entry point into science fiction for at least one reader:

i don’t know why everyone considers Dhalgren a bad place to start, it is what convinced me to love SF, because it was about cities, and queerness, and how language worked, and about the potential of otherness…and so much of the SF i read, even the work about cities was so tight and ironically contained.

That convinced me I should try and give it another go. Delany was already one of my favourite writers, but for the most part I’ve stuck to his earlier, more accessible or at least more mainstream, more explicitly science fictional novels. Dhalgren scared me, if only because with its length it would take a large investment in reading time to finish it. Indeed it took me the best part of February to get through it.

It was worth it though.

At its simplest, Dhalgren is the story of a man suffering from amnesia coming to a city suffering from an undefined apocalypse, having some adventures in it, then leaving again. The city is Bellona, cut off and forgotten in the rest of America, abandoned by most of its inhabitants, all law and morality and society broken down, the city in fact seemingly rearranging itself from time to time. The man, charismatic and easy going, coming into Bellona nameless but quickly nicknamed the Kid, Kidd or kid, taken into the various people and groups making a home in the post-apocalyptical city, enjoying the freedoms of it.

Kid is no leader, not interested or even thinking about rebuilding the city or even surviving; this is no post-apocalyptical survival fantasy or cozy catastrophe. He’s almost completely passive, willing to go along with other people’s plans and ideas. In the chapter before he comes to the city he meets up and fucks a strange woman; the first thing he does when comes to the city is to sleep with a strange man, just met. Significant that in a book filled with people who’ve taken new names for themselves, he’s the only one who was named by others and as a consequence, the only one whose name is in constant flux.

The city doesn’t have water, gas or electricity but nevertheless feels like a hippie wonderland, with one group living in a sort of earnest commune in the city’s park, another, the Scorpions, being the equivalent of a bikers gang. The Scorpions use an advanced holographic device to create signature holograms which envelop them and transform them into magical creatures. The closest we come to the tired tropes of post-holocaust fiction is when Kid one day takes the bus towards downtown and ends up at a department store controlled by a gang of middle class people who take potshots at anybody coming close. There are of course also those people who are still pretending to pretend that everything is normal, isolated in apartment buildings at the edge of town, reminding me a bit of that French-Vietnamese family in Apocalypse Now and how that clung to its habits.

Dhalgren has no plot, perhaps not even a story, but rather a series of events and vignettes Kids drifts in and out of, as the narrative is changed alongside his wanderings. Things move, events shift and time is unreliable. It’s mostly the Kid who notices this, but at several points it’s clear to everybody in the city, as another Moon rises in the sky, or the Sun comes up, huge and terrifying as if in the last of days.

Kid himself is perhaps the most typical of all of Delany’s protagonists: virile, rugged, not afraid of being dirty, with dirtied hands and bitten off, chewed up fingernails, wearing only one shoe, going barefoot on the other, armed with a bladed orchid worn at the wrist, blades sweeping out over the hand. Not necessarily homosexual but not afraid of sleeping with men, artistic but without artistic pretention, working class and autodidactic. He’s white but comfortable with blacks, accepting and accepted by them. Race, as befitting a 1975 science fiction novel, being one of the undercurrents in Dhalgren and even in the apocalypse there are racial differences. Bellona wasn’t a black city before, but is now.

Gender gets less of a look in. Delany has always been a very male writer I’ve found, not bad with or hostile to female characters, but much more interested in men. Here, there is some mention of contemporary gender concerns as there is of racial concerns, but it’s far less present. Race flows as an undercurrent throughout Dhalgren; gender only pops up on a few occasions.

This is a novel that makes sense only from scene to scene, where events follow each other in an apparant orderly fashion only to fade away leaving seemingly little impression. Things repeat, Kid finds a notebook in the park that contains some of the text we’re reading, starts writing in it himself, later is unable to tell which is his and which was already there. In the hands of a lesser writer this would all be irrating, boring and confusing, but Delany keeps your attention, keeps your interest, because you have to work to understand what he is doing while keeping you entertained doing so. But it is hard work and I can understand those who’d have to give up halfway through.

Fantasms and Magics — Jack Vance

Cover of Fantasms and Magic

Fantasms and Magics
Jack Vance
192 pages
published in 1978

There was a time when I devoured each Jack Vance book I could find, back in my personal Golden Age of science fiction (which is age twelve, as you know Bob). I wasn’t the only one: Vance has always been popular in The Netherlands and most of his novels and story collections have been translated. His appeal is not hard to understand: a great sense of style, excellent writing and a flair for creating exotic yet believable worlds and the science not too rigorous. Granted, some of his novels and especially his series did not so much end as gutter out because he lost interest in them halfway through, but you don’t really read Vance for the plot anyway. With Vance, you’re there for the journey, not the destination.

Because of this I’ve therefore always found him better as a novel than a short story writer, though he has indeed written several classic science fiction and fantasy stories. None of them are in this collection though, which is a bit of a grab bag. There’s one classic Dying Earth story in here for example, also included in the actual Dying Earth collection. Worse, this is a reprint of a previous Vance collection, Eight Fantasms and Magics, with two of the stories removed, including the best one, “Telek”.

Nevertheless this is an entertaining read, perhaps not the best introduction to Vance, as there are better novels or collections for this, but not something to skip either, though the original collection may be a better one to seek out.

  • The Miracle-Workers
    This is the longest story in the collection and features an old theme of Vance: a decadent society that has forgotten about the high technology it uses, prefering magic (or “hoodoo” here) instead.
  • When the Five Moons Rise
    A horror story set on a planet where if the five moons rise together, nothing is what it seems.
  • Noise
    Stranded on a strange planet one man makes first contact with a very alien civilisation.
  • The New Prime
    The tests designed to objectively find the right ruler for a galaxy of two billion suns may not be as perfect as thought.
  • Guyal of Sfere
    One of Vance’s elegiac Dying Earth stories, set in an age where technology for all intents and purposes has become magic and surviving humans have no real purpose in life other than to entertain themselves during their long lives.
  • The Men Return
    In a world where madness reigns, being sane is not a survival trait.

The Warrior’s Apprentice — Lois McMaster Bujold

Cover of The Warrior's Apprentice

The Warrior’s Apprentice
Lois McMaster Bujold
315 pages
published in 1986

As you probably know, Bob, The Warrior’s Apprentice is the second novel in the Vorkosigan Saga series of mil-sf adventures and came out in the same year as the first, Shards of Honor. Whereas that book starred Miles parents, this is the introduction of Miles Vorkosigan, the just under five foot crippled before birth by a neurotoxin attack on his mother, insanely charismatic, insanely hyperactive military genius who, at the start of the novel is trying to make it through the eliminations for officer candidacy in the Barrayaran Imperial Military Service. The written exam is no problem; it’s the physical tests that are a challenge for somebody who could break his bones just by sitting down hard.

His strategy is to take it slow and careful, but being seventeen he lets himself get goaded by one of his fellow candidates, takes an unnecessary risk and breaks his legs, with it shattering his chances to get into the military. Worse than his own disappointment is his grandfather’s, the liberator of Barrayar of the Cetegendans, who dies the next night — Miles convinced he killed him by breaking his heart. In his despair and sorry he’s glad to get away from Barrayar and, because of the political situation his father too would like to see him visit his mother’s family on Beta Colony, a nicely civilised part of the galaxy where aristocratic notions of honour are held for the anachronisms they are. He doesn’t travel alone; his bodyguard, sergeant Bothari, of course has to travel with him and he manages to persuade his mother to ask Bothari’s daughter, Elena, to come with him as well. He’s of course half in love with her and thinks a trip to another planet and perhaps the chance to learn more of Elena’s long dead mother, would get him into her good graces. Yes, Miles is somewhat of a nice guy but trust me, he grows out of it.

To be honest, Miles is a bit of a schemer and an impulsive gambler; not with something as uninteresting as money, but he does have a knack for spur of the moment impulses landing him in jams that only his gift for gab and quick thinking can get him out of. It’s this impulsiveness that got him to take Elena to Beta Colony and that, not even an hour after landing gets him into trouble again, as he intervenes in a dispute between a desperate pilot and the yard owner who wants to scrap the ship he’s holding hostage. In the end he ends up buying the ship, taking the pilot into his service, then devising a plan to actually pay for all this by smuggling a shipload of weapons to a planet under siege, in the process also rescuing a deserted Barrayaran officer stranded on Beta. All of this not so much planned, but the result of Miles boldy going forward to try and gain enough momentum to get himself out of the mess he just made. As Bujold puts it:

At the end of two days he found himself teetering atop a dizzying financial structure compounded of truth, lies, credit, cash purchases, advances on advances, shortcuts, a tiny bit of blackmail, false advertising, and yet another mortgage on some more of his glow-in-the-dark farmland.

Things get worse once his scheme actually gets underway and he and his plucky band of followers — most of whom following out of curiousity as much as anything — arrive at their destination. Ultimately it ends up with Miles in control of The Dendarii Mercenaries, a mercenary band he had first made up to get the representative of the planet he was going to smuggle weapons to to trust him and that ended up consisting of most of the mercenaries actually besieging that planet. Watching this all unfold is a collossall romp punctured by “I’ll figure something out” from Miles.

It’s in fact such an entertaining romp that it can be hard to notice the more serious parts of the story. These aren’t bloodless adventures and when people die, it has an impact, even on their killers. Early in a jump pilot dies as the result of an interrogation Miles had ordered to get the codes for a ship and it haunts him. Similarly, while the way in which he swears people to his service at the drop of a hat is played for comic relief, Bujold also makes serious points about loyalty and leadership.

I’m not sure when exactly I first read The Warrior’s Apprentice, but it was before Shards of Honor. The revelations about Elena’s true parentage and her father’s role in it therefore came as much as a shock to me as it did to her, as she turned out to be the product of rape, the mother who had supposedly died when she was a young child still alive, her father having been the rapist. In the hands of a lesser writer this could’ve been tacky, out of place in what seems at first to be a wish fulfilment adventure story, but Bujold handles this sensibly and believable. She doesn’t shy away from the fact that Elena’s ignorance of her father’s past did her no favours, or that Miles’ parents had been more concerned with her father’s well being than perhaps her own.

What also puts The Warrior’s Apprentice above mere wish fulfilment is the fact that Miles doesn’t get the girl. Elena falls for somebody else entirely, turns out to be her own woman, not just an trophy or a pet project. That’s really what puts the whole Vorkosigan series on a higher level than most other adventure sf series; Bujold never forgets there are other people besides Miles and while he might sometimes only see object to be manipulated, she never forgets.

Blood Trail — Tanya Huff

Cover of Blood Trail

Blood Trail
Tanya Huff
304 pages
published in 1992

What do you call urban fantasy when it moves to the countryside? Because that’s what happens in Blood Trail as Vicky Nelson, ex police officer turned private dick and her vampire partner Henry Fitzroy trade the familiarity of Toronto for the charming wonders of the Canadian countryside. Vicky had met Fitzroy in the first novel of the Blood series, Blood Price, now in the second — as seems to be de rigeour in urban fantasy — she gets involved with werewolves. But these aren’t your average, shirt ripping, feauding with vampires werewolves: these are sheepfarmer werewolves, leading a quiet existence near London, Ontario, just another Dutch-Canadian family. Until somebody starts killing them, somebody who seems to know that they’re werewolves.

Which is when they call Henry Fitzroy, who first met the Heerkens wolf clan during WWII, when he was a member of the British secret service and they were in the Dutch resistance. Because the wer could obviously not involve the police without their secret getting known and since they’re mistrustful of outsiders anyway, Henry was their only option. And Henry of course in turn wanted Vicky to come along and use her investigative talents. Meanwhile, back in Toronto detective Mike Celluci, Vicky’s ex-colleague and still occasional love interest is convinced Henry is hiding something. Of course not knowning he’s a vampire, it may just be jealousy that’s driving his investigation…

The plot driving Blood Trail is on the slight side; though Huff does her best to mislead, it’s clear quickly who the killer is and what their motivations are. Motivations which, in their religious origins are a bit cliched to be honest, even for a novel first published in 1992. But then the plot isn’t the real point of this novel and series anyway, but there just to provide a scaffolding for the continuing adventures of Vicky, Henry and Mike and their relationship to each other. It’s a classic love triangle, with Vicky and Henry lusting after each other but wary of consumation, while Vicky and Mike dive in the bed whenever they’ve had a good fight.

There’s always an erotic charge to vampirism of course, what with all those aristocratic men drinking the blood of various sultry beauties, not always involuntarily. In Blood Price Huff already had Henry drink Vicky’s blood, but at the time it was for a purely practical reason, to enable him to defeat the big bad. Since then they neither had sex nor had Henry fed again on her, though both wanted it; the circumstances hadn’t been right. All part of that slow dance of attraction between the heroine and vampire in novels like this; less common perhaps is having Henry not only feed, but share the bed with Tony, a young streetwise protege of Vicky’s. This sideplot was never really followed up here, nor had Vicky much of a response to this.

With Vicky and Mike things are much more casual, colleagues turned lovers, though not in lover. Or at least that’s what they’re telling each other. Because Mike doesn’t know what and who Henry really is, his inexplicable to Mike relationship with Vicky makes him suspect. Which is why Mike comes butting in on her investigation: suspicion fueled by jealousy. Mike in general is a bit of a bull in a chinashop, very different from the urbane Henry.

Central to Vicky’s relationship with both men is her progressivily worsening disability, her blindness at night and at low light. She’s still trying to come to terms with it, while not wanting it to define her or admit to her weaknesses, especially not in front of either Herny or Mike. I found this to be the most realistic part of Vicky’s character.

What Blood Trail also does well is the nature of the werewolf pack. It’s clear that the werewolves are not quite human even apart from being able to turn into wolves; the relations between the members are wolf like already and they seem slightly less bright, more impulsive than “normal” humans. Their murderer uses those qualities against them and it’s only Vicky, Henry and Mike’s outsider perspective that enables them to track him down.

Blood Trail does suffer somewhat from being a series book, with slow moving subplots and the slow moving evolving relationships between the three main characters. Read on its own it’s therefore not quite satisfying; you want to have read the previous novel. As popcorn reads these books are great, but don’t expect anything profound.

Lagoon — Nnedi Okorafor

Cover of Lagoon

Nnedi Okorafor
306 pages
published in 2014

There has been a bit of a spat about the use of dialect and “non-standard” English in science fiction lately, as various people were critical about using dialect all together, finding it gimmicky or too difficult. As Juan Diaz put it “Motherfuckers will read a book that’s one third Elvish, but put two sentences in Spanish and they [white people] think we’re taking over” which is more true than it should be. A novel like Lagoon therefore, which is not only set in a city and country –Lagos, Nigeria — unfamiliar to the average science fiction reader, but which is (partially) written in Nigerian English, using Nigerian vocabulary and grammar, may be somewhat of a challenge. Because while we as science fiction readers supposedly crave the shock of the new, often it’s only if it’s cloaked in familiar language and cultural expectations.

And I have to admit, I did have to struggle a little bit with Lagoon, getting used to the language and the setting, though to nowhere near the extent I had to get used to Feersum Endjinn. For me this was a turn-on rather than a turn-off; I don’t mind working harder for my entertainment if a book is worth it and Lagoon certainly is. This is a novel of first contact where the people encountering the alien are not square jawed space marines but a marine biologist (Adaora), a troubled soldier (Agu) and a world famous rap star (Anthony), taken as representatives of humanity into the sea as the aliens landed there, to be returned to Lagos with Ayodele, an envoy from the aliens who needs to meet up with the president of Nigeria to discuss the future of the country now they’ve made their home there.

As Lagos starts responding, first low key and cautious to the impact the alien spaceship made in the ocean and the subsequent flood of its beachfront, the four make their way to Adaora’s home that she left earlier to escape her husband, increasingly under the spell of a fundamentalist Christian cult and more and more convinced Adaora is a seawitch, something that her return home with strangers and an alien in tow doesn’t help with. That conflict is what drives much of the novel, but Agu and Anthony also have their own histories to content with, as they attempt to get into touch with Nigeria’s ill president. In a city already primed for chaos with what happened out in the ocean, their actions light the powderkeg as Lagos explodes, the alien contact only serving as the pretext for what happens, as various people try to exploit the crisis for their own end.

What impressed me in this is the way Okorafor allows almost every character, no matter how minor, have their own story and motivations, many of which having nothing to do with the aliens and what they represent, their stories crossing and intersecting with the main plotline until it becomes unclear what actually is the main storyline. Some people may find this chaoting or weak writing, but it fits the nature of the alien contact, too big, too incomprehensible, to be contained by a more linear story and not really contained here either. As in real life, we don’t actually get to know the resolution of every story she started.

There’s the Black Nexus for example, “one of the only LGBT student organizations in Nigeria”, who hope to use the event to come out and put LGBT rights back on the agenda of what hopefully be a new Nigeria. Really their story has nothing to do with what is supposedly a first contact novel, but it fits so well with what might happen in the real world if aliens ever did land in a place like Lagos.

The other way in which Lagoon isn’t your average, clinical first contact novel is that Okorafor takes great pleasure in crossing and recrossing the boundaries of fantasy and science fiction. Not only do we have marine life given intelligence by the aliens, not to mention the old gods of Nigeria coming to life (or perhaps remanifesting themselves), but there are also evil spider killing highways and other assorted oddities. In a lesser writer this would’ve been either a mess or incredibly naff, but Okorafor makes it work and is not afraid to leave things unexplained.

In the past year or so, thanks largely to mildly obsessed with afrofuturism, an art form, literary genre, music and more that’s rooted in African history and mythology as well as the realities of the African diaspora. Lagoon fits in well with this tradition, unapologetically straddling sf and fantasy as well as Nigerian history and the American science fiction tradition. Her own background, the child of Nigerian parents raised in America may have had something to do with this.

This is a novel I will have to come back to at some point and is certainly going on my shortlist for Hugo candidates for next year. One of the best books I’ve read so far this year, or any year.