In many ways, Endurance by Jay Lake (TOR, 2011) is a slightly unusual book for a man to write because, at its heart, it’s an exploration of feminist issues. Not, of course, that this choice of subject matter bars a man. Our culture should always embrace contributions to intelligent debate, no matter what their source. But it’s interesting that a man should elect to explore the persistence of patriarchal power. The theme introduces itself quite innocently in Green, the story of a young woman taken from her home and then groomed to make her suitable as a consort for the Factor. This process assumes men do not find women acceptable in their natural state. Women only achieve value in a patriarchy when they have been taught the behaviour men want and expect. In our own society, there are complex systems for socialising women and teaching them how to dress and behave, and so become attractive to men. The implicit assumption is that women’s primary roles are to give men pleasure and, when the time comes, sacrifice their independence to become homemakers for the children. In the world described by Jay Lake, however, there are layers of divine beings who may, to a greater or lesser extent, interfere in or direct human affairs. Matching the human world, some of these divine beings take on a feminine aspect and, through their presence, empower the women who follow them. Indeed, some of the followers are trained to become the finest of warriors. They are role models for the young and may reach out to society in a policing function. Not surprisingly, this access to physical power is offensive to many men. Indeed, the more women assert the right to independence, the greater the pressure to force women back into a submissive role and bring down the female gods who would support them.
The secondary theme is a discussion of what it means to be a mother. Obviously, Jay Lake cannot write about this from personal experience. I hope he will forgive me for speculating that it might be a way for him to deal with the emotional issues surrounding his cancer. Although there’s a vast difference in outcomes between a benign pregnancy and malignant cancer, both processes involve growth inside the body. As Green describes Federo, “He carried the god Choybalsan as a woman carries a child beneath her beating heart.” I will stop such thoughts at this point. Whatever the motivation, I wish Jay Lake well. He’s a writer of great talent so I hope he endures many more years and produces more interesting books for us to enjoy.
Having begun in Green with what I would consider to be a fundamental misstep, we venture out into the second volume. For now, let’s leave the link between the first and the second books as being nothing more than the question of births. Through her agency, Green has given life to Endurance as a god. She’s a theogenetrix. His presence is as calm and unchanging as the natural world. No words are necessary to capture or explain deep thoughts. As the spirit of an ox grown into something more, there’s only peaceful acceptance. The sun may beat down, but he can be a source of shade to those who stand in his shadow and seek protection. If it rains, a few may sit or lie beneath him and find shelter. He’s the physical embodiment of “endurance” no matter what goes on around him. Green has also begun to take an interest in funeral rites. Preparing the spirits of the newly dead is comparable to the activity of a midwife. It prepares the dead for rebirth into the afterlife.
For Green herself, there’s also a physical pregnancy. Having birthed a god, she’s now readying herself to add another human to the world. This means physical changes. It’s affecting her balance and general mobility. There’s morning sickness and binge eating. She can still fight, of course, but now she’s slightly more cautious. As she goes about Copper Downs, she first clothes herself as an assassin for, as the carrier of new life, is she not also the embodiment of death? For a few hours, she wears more feminine clothing, but still gets into a fight. Her disposition has always been to live in the emotional moment. Given her training as a warrior, she naturally reaches for her knives when any threat is perceived as real. Then she reverts to dressing as a boy. When males are young, testosterone flows, but the ability to fight is limited by lack of strength. Fortunately, Green has her knives to compensate. The male clothing she adopts is not a denial of her femininity as such. Rather it represents an accommodation between herself, the city and the people she must meet. It also represents an evolution of attitude at a metaphorical level. If first she is death, then publicly acknowledges herself as pregnant, the final step is a move into a more indeterminate gender characterisation. To protect the baby, she must temper her aggression, but it’s still more comfortable to see life from a perspective that, when people meet her, they perceive her as male.
In her relationships both with humans and gods, she sits on the fence. She lives across the gender roles as a person and a lover. As between gods, she finds herself in a position to bargain for the greater good. At both levels, she remains a mother. Hence, just as she hopes to live long enough to give birth, she also hopes to see the city of Copper Downs reborn and, through that rebirth, protect the gods who would empower women around the world. In this, there’s also an irony. For any society to not only survive but also prosper, there must be balance. This includes the issue of gender equality. Hence, though it might pain a woman to take up her knives in defence of anything male, she must also fight in defence of any male god under attack. Hopefully, Endurance himself needs no protection as a god because he’s much more tied to the place where he was born into divinity. Other gods may be more vulnerable because they are of older stock and manifest more generally.
So Endurance proves to be a powerful novel as our heroine Green comes to occupy a more maternal role in her relationship to the people of Copper Downs. She accepts the need to think more carefully before she acts. Because she cannot be everywhere, she must trust others and delegate tasks to them. Through this she learns that some problems can be solved without the need for actual violence. Hence, when mustering her forces, she creates priorities in their disposition. Not that this slows her down in any significant way when the need arises. But she is only one and the city has many men and women, tulpas and ghosts, gods and goddesses, all of whom need a good outcome in this conflict. This is a most engaging fantasy and well worth reading!
The artwork from Daniel Dos Santos is suitably dynamic.
When reading a book such as this, the question that immediately comes to mind is what makes a good fantasy novel. In principle, the answer is when the author strikes a reasonable balance between the mythology that underpins the created world, and the actions that occur within it. An essentially mainstream plot would be converted into fantasy if the context is mediaeval, i.e. European, and some level of magic or other supernatural activity is possible. So instead of human traffickers buying girls and grooming them to sleep with CEOs with a taste for young virgins, it becomes a story about a corrupt supernatural being who, being increasingly lonely, has consorts prepared. Each new girl comes to him young and stays until she looks older, allowing him to pass the years of his immortality with a constant reminder of youth by his side. It doesn’t change the character of the content, but Green by Jay Lake is not so much a mediaeval as an early industrial revolution world with sail just giving way to steam for travel by sea. However, there’s little sign of any general enlightenment, an omission that’s perhaps understandable since it’s difficult to advance rapidly into a world of rationality when supernatural irrationality permeates the basic fabric of society.
Regardless whether we address this plot as mainstream or fantasy, there should be a strong authorial condemnation of such systemic evil. It commodifies women. They are no longer people with rights. They can be traded as chattels, recreating the old days of slavery when people were owned or inured to the land on which they worked. In this novel, the women are purchased from their parents, depersonalised, and rebuilt with the personality and skills nominated by the ruler. Raising our eyes from the page for a moment, current international conventions create a range of criminal offences for trading women across borders for sexual purposes. As a world struggling to agree on any international norms, it’s heartening to see forced prostitution one of the first international crimes agreed. Yet this is the primary theme of Green. The girl is purchased from her father and transported across the seas from a primitive “Eastern” rural backwater to a sophisticated “Western” civilisation. We then spend one-hundred or so pages watching child grooming as this woman of colour is transformed from a “savage” into someone suitable for her new environment. Her natural language is beaten out of her with new words to replace them. She becomes the epitome of exotic beauty, sufficient to tempt even the jaded palate of our immortal leader.
In the second phase of the book, she returns to the place of her birth and sees how local children grow up on a subsistence diet, ravaged by diseases. Through this juxtaposition, our “heroine” recognises how much better off she is by virtue of her grooming. Frustrated she cannot learn her real name, she confirms her own choice of name as Green. In the third phase, she returns to the place where she was uplifted and, in a sense, feels as though she’s coming home. More importantly, she fights to defend this home and, in the end, actually gives a gift to one of the women who groomed her. It was Alexander Pope who asserted that the ability to forgive is divine. Well, this girl who can talk to gods and ghosts is a regular saint when it comes either to forgiving people who have sinned against her or, if she kills or or two of them in a moment of anger, to experiencing guilty remorse.
This is a first-person narrative so we understand how angry she is at the treatment meted out to her. Indeed, her anger is what gives her the strength to survive (and prosper). But this point of view is morally dangerous for this topic. I suspect we are being invited to share in her Stockholm Syndrome as she forms positive feelings for those abusing her. In historical terms, this is the rape of the Sabine women all over again — a classic male fantasy in which Roman soldiers who abducted women from a neighbouring tribe convinced themselves these women became loyal and loving wives. In a way, it’s what we might expect a man to write in a contemporary fantasy novel.
What also makes this a disturbing book is the casual lesbian sex that shades over into sadomasochism. Ironically, this follows Sarah Monette’s The Doctrine of Labyrinths tetralogy (see Corambis) where gay men maximise their magical power through the use of pain. It’s amusing to see a woman fantasising about gay men doing magic, while Jay Lake restricts his gay exploration of pain to mere sexual satisfaction. Somehow that makes the male author’s view more voyeuristic.
Green is ultimately a failure in almost every aspect. As a fantasy, Jay Lake creates a world in which nothing is coherently explained. Supernatural stuff happens and there seems little rhyme or reason for it. There are “real” gods who can directly interact with humans. Ghosts and avatars of different kinds also seem available for discussion or as allies in fighting. Quite how different people can interact with any of these supernatural beings is never discussed. Nor, indeed, is it explained why the gods are not just a little more omniscient since their followers prove somewhat fickle. Better still, there’s a completely separate race of feline bipeds who turn up in increasing numbers, presumably as an example of parallel evolution. Whatever their source, they are highly civilised beings (albeit matching humans in aggressiveness when required). Frankly, it all feels as though it’s being made up on the hoof without any real thought going into the structure of the world being built. We’re left to like it or lump it. Shame really. I have the sense Green could have been good, but the decision to write it as a first-person narrative is the moral death of the novel before it starts.
An impressive piece of jacket artwork by Dan Dos Santos shows how Green marks her face as an act of rebellion before branching out on her own.
Here we are back with Subterranean Press and The Sky That Wraps, a handsome limited edition by Jay Lake with impressively evocative jacket art by Aurélien Police whose work is rather beautiful and haunting.
Leading off this collection, “The Sky That Wraps the World Round” (1) is beautifully understated, dealing with matters of planetary significance allusively, leaving it to the reader to make the necessary inferences. It is also pleasing to see a US author prepared to set a story somewhere foreign. Too often, American parochialism limits locales either to unreality through world-building or to some version of Poughkeepsie. “Journal of an Inmate” is a delightful story of innocence. Academic psychologists have grown increasingly fascinated with people too stupid to realise how stupid they are.(2) These are the terminally incompetent who will never understand why everything they touch always fails. So it is that a man who has given loyal service to a government upsets someone in power and is sent off to die in a distant prison. Soldiers are often victimised in this way. Civilian life is such a challenge to those who lack political skills. When hope dies, our hero surrenders himself to death only to find some acceptance of his lot in being denied even this simple request.
“Achilles Sulking In His Buick” is a good joke, all the better because the experienced Jay Lake knows when to cut and run. “Crossing the Seven” is also a kind of joke in that our hapless jobbing builder has the misfortune to be struck by lightning and caught in a compromising situation with a priestess. Yet, instead of executing him, expedience demands his transformation into a living symbol of hope, a messenger sent from a threatening star to take away the people’s fear. This sets his feet on a dangerous peregrination to the seven cities, allowing the seven Queens to use his progress as a kind of magic trick. His tenacious hold on life inadvertently saves the world from panic. It also leaves him with survival skills that may suit him to a career rather better than roof repairs. “The Leopard’s Paw” sees Flash Gordon becoming Conan becoming a leopard, although perhaps only in spirit. If that’s too much becoming for you, it shows how little you like Howardly barbarian fun. “Coming For Green” takes a harder edge to a barbarian world which in a young Amazon comes of age as she searches for a fellow acolyte forced from their Order after an assassination. The entry into adulthood comes when she realises she has become fearless. Meanwhile, back in the city, “A Water Matter” sees the consequences of that assassination begin to play out in a hunt leading to the death of knowledge.
Thematically, this continues in “Promises: A Tale of the City Imperishable” in which a young girl is schooled in survival and leadership, growing into a woman who can trust herself and the decisions she makes. Counterintuitively, this begins with depersonalisation, then each facet of what it means to be a woman must be experienced and shed like a snake. The question, of course, is simple. Why does this programming actually produce a better leader? I suppose the answer is that if no-one ever pushes you beyond what you believe are your limits, you will never find out how far you can go. “Witness to the Fall” is an elegant tale of magic and its ability to see through appearance to the petty jealousies of everyday life. Small communities live in each other pockets. Those who claim the key offices build themselves up and have the farthest to fall when the past and present collide. “Number of the Bus” continues with numerology as the magical skill. In another coming-of-age story, a young magician must sever the ties of the past and embrace his talent. “A Different Way Into The Life” continues the same magical methodology with a different wizard demonstrating state-of-the-art skills in understanding the magical landscape. I like the logical extension of the magic into accountancy and the cut-throat word of Mergers and Acquisitions. This is an author prepared to explore the implications of his own creativity. The third of the wizard stories, “Green Grass Blues”, changes the methodology to more conventional earth magic, but continues the trend of a young apprentice wizard slowly coming to recognise danger and then having to cope.
“Fat Man” takes us back out into the free-flow of the supernatural with a wonderfully atmospheric Bigfoot accidentally caught in the crosshairs of a hunter’s rifle. This is one of these hiding-in-plain-sight stories where you always have enough information to know what’s going on, but prefer not to think about it. The process to make our Sasquatch so big is pleasingly original. I can’t remember anything similar in more years of reading than I care to admit. “Dogs in the Moonlight” has fun at the expense of rural Texans who love their guns and dogs more than their wives, until someone else loves their wives. Then they get all-fired jealous and find good use for the guns. Shame that sometimes what you shoot don’t stay quite as dead as it should. “Little Pig, Berry Brown and the Hard Moon” is set in prehistory as a mother’s death teaches the child about life, love and memory. If you’re “On the Human Plan” (3) then all you have to look forward to is death. If this is something that bothers you, perhaps you’d better change plans. “Lehr, Rex” is a recasting of that most excellent film, Forbidden Planet, as King Lear with a little P. K. Dick and Doc Smith thrown in for good measure. It is a nicely paranoid rumination on what it might feel like to be human, assuming you should ever have cause to ask yourself the question, of course.
“The Man With One Bright Eye” is a son plucked out of time who finds possible true love, but is unable to make progress down the road of life until he can step out of his mother’s shadow. “To Raise a Mutiny Betwixt Yourselves” is also about who we are as people as we age. How much does the passage of time change us? In theory, the slow accumulation of experience should make us more wise but life is not always fair. Sometimes, the shadows from our own past haunt our present life. Incidentally, this might also apply to a machine intelligence as well. “To This Their Late Escape” adds the question of how best to occupy time while waiting for rescue. Perhaps a small-scale conflict might wile away the hours. “Skinhorse Goes To Mars” is a different take on life and death. Starting with the assumption we had made the Earth, Mars and Venus uninhabitable, would we just give up and die, or would we fight? Er. . . Who’s left to fight? “A Very Old Man With No Wings At All” wonders what happened after the Fall of Satan. “People of Leaf and Branch” plays with the idea of interacting life cycles. Through time, the culture of people changes. Just as a seed grows into a sapling and then a tree that drops more seeds, it’s plus ça change but not quite as la même chose as evolution plays its part. Similarly, “Chain of Fools” sees a newly promoted Captain take her first ship out only to discover that her sheltered training had not quite prepared her for the reality of leadership. Finally, “The American Dead” (4) tell us that while sex usually improves the mood, it’s not the panacea some priests would have the rich believe.
Looking back, we can now see general themes in Jake Lake’s work. He is interested in innate potential and how people get the best out of themselves. Sometimes, they are given the chance to do the heavy lifting on their own but, more often, they are prodded or provoked by circumstances or meddlers, and must shine to survive. Overall, this is one of the best collections of 2010 and worth every cent.
(1) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Sixth Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
(2) Justin Kruger and David Dunning, “Unskilled and Unaware of It: How Difficulties of Recognizing One’s Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-assessments,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1999, vol. 77, no. 6, pp. 1121-1134.
(3) Selected in The Year’s Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Seventh Annual Collection edited by Gardner Dozois
(4) Selected in The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year Volume One, ed Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books, 2007; The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror, Vol. 18, ed. Steve Jones, Robinson (UK), October, 2007.
Like many before them, the editors decided they preferred a unifying trope for the anthology. They gave it thought and came up with alternate history. Pausing at this moment, I confess very fond memories for Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee, Keith Roberts’ Pavane, and others of that ilk. There is something fascinating about posing and answering the “what ifs”. Except these editors, having picked the trope, then decided to challenge their authors to bust the boundaries and write something “. . .where the shift of history was something else entirely”. In other words, the authors were commissioned to write stories only tangentially connected with the notion of an alternate history. The plots could be anything from horror to science fiction. This is like announcing a Sherlock Holmes anthology and the first story has him downloaded as an AI program into a robot to catch another robot that is running a simulation of Professor Moriarty and responsible for a crime wave on the Moon. Actually, I have some vague recollection of reading or viewing something along those lines — readers with better memories than I, please remind me what that story is (was it an animated episode of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Fast Forward?).
As to the stories admitted between the covers, we start with a fascinatingly cruel reimagining of what might have happened to resolve the conflict between the North and the South. Robert Charles Wilson in “This Peaceable Land” cleaves to the trope more than others and shows what solution might have been applied had there been no war to abolish slavery. In every respect this is a powerful if disturbing alternate. In the literal sense, there is a horrific possibility that he might be right and, having given us all food for thought, we move on to “The Goat Variations” by Jeff VanderMeer. This is a brave story. Not many US authors have had the confidence to write 9/11 stories so, kudos to Jeff for taking it on. For those of you not up on the lore of the day, President Bush continued reading The Pet Goat to an elementary school class for some seven minutes after being informed of the attacks. Thematically, this is a multiverse story where multiple Presidents in parallel universes face an incredible range of different catastrophes on the same day — I love the idea of the Ecstatics and their god-missiles. Structurally, I am not sure that it all hangs together, but it is such an edgy attempt, it definitely deserves to be included.
Stephen Baxter’s “The Unblinking Eye” is another clever story. He postulates that the southern hemisphere achieved true scientific civilisation while Europe remained little better than the Dark Ages. You may note that I declined reference to Enlightenment because, despite their scientific progress, the Incas seem unenlightened. They come bearing decorative devices with the destructive power of atomic bombs and quietly place them in the capital cities of the North. Local leaders are flattered by these gifts and, not understanding their threatening nature, accept them and, perhaps, venerate them.
We then hit a roadblock. “Csilla’s Story” by Theodora Goss is one of the more turgid piece of fiction I have laboured through over the last few years. It has a not uninteresting premise: that there is reality in the mythology of dryads or nymphs of the woods. Or, perhaps, this particular group of women has some fairy in them. Frankly, it was just too self-obsessed, telling and retelling the stories representing the oral history of these women and, while I am completely sympathetic to the semiotic need for people to seek the preservation of the meaning in their lives, I prefer it about half the length presented here. By a curious editorial irony, we then have a model of how to write a short story about fairy magic. I see absolutely no connection between Liz Williams’ “Winterborn” and alternate history, but it is a very successful story. This is less florid than some of her other short fiction involving the use of magic and it is the better for being leaner.
Taking them slightly out of order, we then have two different World War II stories. The first by Gene Wolfe is a slightly pedestrian alternate in which Britain falls to the Nazis, and Alastair Reynolds has a haunting tale of an alternate Britain in which the protagonists have the same names but are subtly different from their real world originals. Wolf’s “Donovan Sent Us” has OSS operatives parachuting into occupied London for a dangerous undercover operation. Reynold’s “The Receivers” has a wonderful Heath Robinson approach to detecting incoming German aircraft and a delightful possibility of other sounds being picked up out of the aether. As an aside, I recall operators at the Lovell Telescope being able to pick up conversations from miles away. Although I admire the central conceit of Wolf’s story, I found the whole less than impressive. Had it been an attempt at humour, I might de cod cherman accents haf enjoy. But I remember reading comics in the 1950s and 60s where the German in the bubbles was more convincing. Frankly, any author who resorts to imitating foreign accents in stories like this has no confidence in the readers’ ability to “hear” the uses of different languages in context. Reynolds, on the other hand, offers an interesting piece for a “young” writer. He is playing around with the life histories of several people probably completely unknown to the modern generation of readers. I loved its darkly melancholic exploration of why some artists are driven to practice their art. Whether its message will be understood by the majority of readers is debatable so, in their decision to include this story, I give high praise to the editors.
The two war stories sandwich a pleasingly wry tale about life on the ‘gator farm. Greg van Eekhout tells a mean story of religious rectitude in “The Holy City and Em’s Reptile Farm” where a thief with “pure” motives comes through an ordeal like Daniel in the lions’ den and is able to bring the Pilgrims back to the farm. Paul Park’s “A Family History”, partly written as a series of auction prizes on eBay, is a slightly strange dalliance. Albeit for nonsexual purposes, this is a writer being playful, toying with his readers as a man essential to maintain the family’s lineage survives an encounter with a “savage” because of his earlier meeting with a flute-playing dryad.
All of which leads us to “Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard. This is the reason why you should buy this book. No matter how you look at it, this must be rated as one of the best novellas of the year. We are back in a variation on the multiverse theme where multiple versions of the same character are all drawn to a particular place down the Mekong River. The journey itself and ultimate explanation of why they are drawn to make it are riveting fiction. Intellectually, it is among the most satisfying pieces of fiction I remember reading for some time. I was faintly surprised this was not the final story in the anthology. For some reason not entirely clear to me, the editors felt the need for one more entry into the lists. Except this is rather more a short disquisition than fiction as Benjamin Rosenbaum offers us something slightly more substantial than a powerpoint catalogue of thoughts about alternate history.
Overall, this paperback anthology is sensationally good value and definitely worth buying.
For a review of another anthology edited by Nick Gevers, see Is Anybody Out There?