Posts Tagged ‘possession’

The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu

June 29, 2013 2 comments


The Lives of Tao by Wesley Chu (Angry Robot, 2013) is playing in the sandbox of male fantasy wish-fulfillment. From the earliest days of the comics, boys have been presented with heroes who suddenly discover they’re not the usual downtrodden losers, endlessly condemned to slave at the chalk face as bored students before transitioning seamlessly into unemployment or the miseries of exploited slave labour. At a stroke they find they can leap tall buildings in a single bound, fight crime as a caped crusader, and avoid acne. It always was a seductive dream. Then along came the anime series which showed us that the only requirement for being able to win in competition or battle was self-belief — the power of your will was translated into the strength of your Pokemon or BattleBot (sorry that’s real world fighting with geeks using physical robotic avatars but the idea’s the same). Some of these stories are painfully exploitative rather than inspirational, i.e. they exist to sell the games, the cards and other tied-in product lines rather than to provide practical guidance on how to mitigate the pain of everyday existence in our current reality. People cannot suddenly transform their lives by their own efforts. They either start with natural abilities or they have guidance on how to make the best of what they have. Only a tiny percentage of the young become major performers in their chosen field of activity.

Because comics are strongly gender biased, those aimed at young males naturally cater to the fantasies of their target audience. That means all the girls are mere ciphers who fit the prevailing male stereotypes. They must be stunningly attractive and, at first, cluster around the confident but brainless hunks already in the scene. But when our protagonist’s superpowers emerge, he becomes the babe magnet as a fan club forms for the masked or thinly disguised alter ego who now bestrides the neighbourhood doing good. So our hero gets to do cool stuff in physical terms and becomes the most sexually attractive person on the planet with the pick of all the most attractive women he sees. You can’t have a fantasy better designed to sink its hooks into young males.

Wesley Chu in hero mode

Wesley Chu in hero mode

So the point of this story is to find a man who could not be farther from the hero stereotype. Meet Roen Tan. Naturally, he was bullied at school and has grown up overweight and with a level of self-esteem one point above zero. He’s what the IT trade would laughingly call a code monkey and he’s pathetically grateful to be bullied by his line manager into working an insane number of hours for very little money. This provides him with enough cash to drink himself silly in inappropriate clubs, not picking up girls or having any fun (other than the consumption of more pizzas which add to his girth). So you can imagine his surprise one morning when he wakes up on the floor of his shared apartment. Usually, he manages to make it to the bed before he passes out. What he fails to realise is that he’s now become the host for an alien who can control his body while he’s asleep. OK so this is not the most original of science fiction tropes. The alien is one of a group who crashed on Earth several million years ago and all they want to do is get back home (thank the powers above it’s not an alien invasion story). Except they have to wait until humans have developed a level of technology that will make return possible (ignoring the passage of time and the fact their return might not be entirely successful as things will have changed back home while they were away). Originally all our aliens were singing from the same hymn book but, as time passed, a disagreement arose as how best to push our evolution. One group was all for using conflict and wars to drive development. The other wanted to be more patient and encourage curiosity and creativity. When they could not agree, they broke into armed camps and have been fighting each other using humans as their hosts ever since. Yes, they provoked all the more recent wars and had hosts in key positions on both sides. Yawn. We’ve been there and got the T-shirt on this trope so many times.

So only one thing saves this book from dropping into oblivion. No matter how competent the alien, he’s only as good as the host when it comes to doing anything “important”. Although the alien can control the body when the host is asleep, this is not going to produce anything useful when the host wakes up (people on average sleep between seven and eight hours which leaves the host exposed to danger the rest of the time). So the alien has to negotiate with the host to persuade him to sign up for combat training. The bulk of the book therefore follows the slow process of losing weight, getting fit, and developing the reflexes to be able to fight and shoot. Except the mind is less than willing. This produces very indifferent results when our hero suddenly finds himself at risk. No matter how much he has trained, he still lacks self-confidence. His first instinct is to run but that’s not going to save him. At some point he has to fight. The interest therefore comes in watching the alien manipulate the human into at least attempting all this training, and then supporting him until his mind catches up to the new levels of physical fitness.

The result is slow moving and, despite the action sequences going on around him, less than engaging because the only way he survives is by accident. Coincidence and contrivance loom large to save our hero from his failure to develop proper reflexes and complete lack of self-confidence. There are vague attempts at humour but the jokes are repeated and quickly grow tiresome. It all goes on far too long before we get to the predictable climax in which the girl our hero has fallen in love with is threatened by evil Emperor Ming and he discovers he can hit harder than a girl. If someone in an editorial role had cut out all the deadwood, this could have been a good but limited story. There would have been some degree of balance in the characterisation to include believable human and alien females, and some explanation of how the alien sexuality works. We seem to have male aliens in male hosts. What happens when the genders fail to match up? Why is a coma not the same as sleep? These and other questions are just left hanging. Sadly, The Lives of Tao is bloated and boring. That it’s set up for a sequel is not good news unless someone with a lot more experience takes over the editorial role and guides this young writer round all the pitfalls.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins

December 16, 2010 Leave a comment

It is always interesting to read two episodes in a series back-to-back, seeing a world created over some years suddenly reduced to a few days of reading. So here we are following Maledicte with Kings and Assassins by Lane Robins. In this instance, it is hard to say whether this was a good strategy, but four things are obvious. The info-dumping in the first section of this episode is really annoying. Yes, new readers who have not had the sense to read Maledicte before picking up this volume do need to be given a chance to understand who everyone is and some of what has gone on before, but this is really clunky. A simple one or two page summary before we start is always better. Second, the quality of the language has dropped from a high fantasy, somewhat florid style, to something more prosaic. This is not a criticism. It simply reflects a decision to abandon some of the pretension and get on with the story. Third, we have a lot more interior monologue and, frankly, it is not that constructive. As a literary device, it should illuminate our understanding of characters and help move the plot forward. It would have been very useful to have had more of these insights during Maledicte. But, in this volume, many of the scenes in which it occurs are more everyday than plot drivers. Finally, the big change is that Maledicte is gone, but not forgotten, and Janus is the focus of interest. I will come back to this later.

So, let’s get back to the debate about pronouns I began in the last review. We have the continuing gender dysphoria over Maledicte and now, the polar opposite. This author is obviously running with gender issues and has a transvestite male in a prominent role. This is a far more understanding and sexually liberal culture than the one we have now. It seems to accept fairly overt displays of homosexuality so long as it is kept reasonably discreet and, without so much as turning a hair, a man in woman’s clothing can put on a public display of technology without exciting a lynching. More importantly, there’s something really weird going on in the writing. He is called Delight when en femme, i.e. he changes his name, but is always referred to using masculine pronouns. He does this, his dress, saw him in women’s clothing, etc. This is an amazing double standard. If Miranda is always “he” when dressed as Maledicte, why does the same convention not apply to Delight? Perhaps it is that Miranda was never suspected of being female in public and Delight makes no secret of his sex. If so, this strikes me as a very unsubtle form of discrimination.

I had two major concerns about Maledicte: that it lacked a political context for the action, and there was a real failure to explain the relationship between gods and mortals — indeed, I am still less than convinced that a god could be balked without immediate consequences. Kings and Assassins makes good progress in remedying the first and gets even more frustrating on the second. Although the Luddite theme is slightly clichéd, it does make a convenient peg on which to hang the fifth columnists trying to destabilise the kingdom. Antimachine rallies are a good excuse for potentially violent disorder and the destruction of the kingdom’s industrial potential. But the presence of Ivor Sophia Grigorian to mastermind the overthrow of the kingdom gives the book a much better balance. We can, from the outset, see the plots and counterplots clearly. This is a major improvement. But the gods/mortal theme is complicated by the reappearance of a second god. As if it was not difficult enough to understand the working of Black-Winged Ani, now we have to contend with another diffuse presence in Haith — except, like Ani, he seems to be able to dole out death on demand.

Psyke — a slightly obvious name substituting a k for ch, creating historical credibility and giving a nod to psychic abilities — is possessed by Haith and counterbalances the assassin. She is the reason why we have a revision of the policy on interior monologuing/dialoguing. Courtesy of the god uplink, she can talk to the dead, i.e. we need to be inside her head to hear the conversations. Once the dam breaks, we get to see inside many characters. Except there are very few helpful revelations on the god front. When you know from the outset that the humans are going to have to negotiate with or “fight” the gods, they should be researching urgently and endlessly trying to think up the best strategies. But it is all very low key. This was the real problem with Janus in the first book. He ended up doing all the right things to “cage” Ani, but we still don’t really know how he knew what to do. It was all just a little too convenient.

Having remedied the problems from the first by having a real set of political issues to work through, Lane Robins is still failing to explain the history or practicalities of all this god stuff. If you are going to create a world in which real supernatural beings can directly affect the humans, you need more background and explanation than is on offer here. It should be Shakespearean, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods. . .” with them unstoppably pulling off everyone’s wings. We do get an answer at the eleventh hour and it is not unsatisfying, but it is all just too convenient (again). The structure of the narrative should be set up as a mystery — how to control or deflect an angry god — but it is weak. What should be building in parallel to the unfolding political crisis suddenly emerges, almost unbidden, and with Janus beaten, he is rescued.

This is not to say Kings and Assassins is a bad book. Once it gets into its stride, it has a more economical approach to the plotting and has a good level of inventiveness on the political front. Indeed, we would have been better if there were no gods at all. As it is, we are left with significant numbers of humans dead and the city in ruins without any understanding of how it was all done. Truth be told, I don’t think Janus as interesting as Maledicte. She was more in control of her own destiny. You could feel her/him warring with Ani. This poor man seems only to be beaten from pillar to post. He does his best to plan, but he tends to be reactive and is often outmatched. He is not really the hero which, perhaps, is what should be happening. Beating gods is a challenge — too much for one person — and needs to be a team effort. Overall, this book is merely OK.

Maledicte by Lane Robins

December 14, 2010 Leave a comment

The world is always a complicated place. We hope it is all laid out in a conveniently foreseeable way with A Street parallel to B Street and the crosshatched roads sequentially numbered. All navigation would then be precisely cartesian, lacking only elevation to achieve absolute certainty, assuming we follow the plotting. Yet, more often than not, city planners have renovated rather than replaced, randomly naming streets that follow the cattle tracks of yesterday. So, walking down a winding road, thinking you are making progress, you can suddenly find you have turned back towards where you started.

Books are also like ancient cities. You walk down the streets designed by their authors, looking for names and signs of likely destinations. But part of the games authors play is to obscure directions and allow an element of surprise to creep into the journey. If they play the game well, we all enjoy the meandering through the pages of the plot. Play the game without skill, and the journey becomes less entertaining and potentially frustrating.

Blurring genders is alway a difficult art whether in real life or in fiction. Frances Clallin served as a Union artilleryman in the Civil War, while Billy Tipton played a mean jazz piano and lived with several women, even adopting three sons. Without the need to rely on the help of a god who may enable a glamour, a few women have contrived to invade the world of men. In Maledicte by Lane Robins, we have a young woman who contrives to pass as a man in a royal court where manners and etiquette limit physical touch. In a world where appearance is everything, perhaps people really do see only what they expect to see. But how should the author describe this transgender behaviour? Ignoring the practical details of a corset to restrict the breasts and carry the padding to fill out the waist, should a third-person description refer to the resulting body as male or female?

In some senses, this is a trivial issue. Why should it matter how an author uses pronouns? Well, in biological terms, sex is clearly determined by the absence or presence of external genitalia. Gender is a role constructed by the local culture, allowing or refusing different social abilities. Perhaps I am old-fashioned, but I prefer an author to stay true to the biological sex of the characters, no matter how they act or dress.

And this sense of confusion continues on to the question of divine possession. In this world of real gods who have, for now, withdrawn from routine interaction with the humans, it is possible to converse with them through dreams and to make bargains with them. Miranda/Maledicte has made a compact with Black-Winged Ani. This god is an embodiment of violent revenge who feasts on the emotions of those possessed like carrion crows feast on the dead (somewhat along the same lines as in The Crow where Eric Dravin, played by Brandon Lee, seeks revenge for his own death). Yet the detail of the compact with Ani and how it is supposed to work are left somewhat obscure. A part of the interest in this situation is understanding the working of the interaction between divine and human potential. How does a god give a mortal greater power, what price must be paid and how do they communicate with each other? Just as Joan of Arc claimed she had visions from God, we should see something similar in Miranda/Maledicte. Yet, for most of this novel, the workings of this contract remain obscure. All we learn early on is that, if the host does not act quickly to realise the desired revenge, more of Ani becomes invested in the human. This allows Ani to push aside the human’s conscious control and seek a revenge of her own devising.

Because of the early failure to give any kind of interior monologue showing what is happening inside Miranda/Maledicte’s mind, we are left with a semi-routine set of courtly intrigues. There is little new or different in these manipulations and manoeuvres. People fight for honour, status and wealth. They kill for inheritance and succession. Yet the first third of the book does manage to maintain a good pace and the hook of curiosity is well set. Unfortunately, it gets more pedestrian when Miranda is reunited with Janus, her lost love, the second third devolving into a more prosaic romantic drama with a love triangle complicated by the gender deception. Obviously, nobility are expected to marry and produce heirs. Homosexual dalliances are scandalous and those involved are expected to be discreet. In this, Robins handles the jealousy and emotional complications realistically.

Unfortunately, there is little or no real background to the political situation. Just as the background to the gods is hazy, there is little real information as to the alliances and disputes between the inevitably almost-warring states. The power in the heavens and the lands is only vaguely defined. Thinking about the length of the book, there is a case to be made for cutting back a little on the intrigue and giving more context for the action.

Although the more supernatural or magical effects of the possession do become more clear in the final third of the novel, I think this too little and too late. There is a balancing of love and hate, of revenge and forgiveness which produces a form of compromise between the god and the possessed. But the resolutions are slightly perfunctory, and I have the sense that it all relies rather too much on the cleverness of Janus whose name, as you will understand, is chosen to encourage us to doubt his love.

As a final thought, the language is that of high fantasy and, through most of the text, it is managed without being too intrusive. So, for example, the Prologue begins, “The horse-and-four racketed down the broken cobblestone street, shuddering and jolting on the uneven surface. Midmorning sunlight lanced off the blue-lacquered carriage, lighting it like a jewel in a tarnished crown.” There are inevitable lapses when modern usages intrude but, overall, this is a brave attempt at a difficult writing challenge. So, if you enjoy high fantasy with a slightly more romantic edge, Maledicte is for you. The sequel is called Kings and Assassins.

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