“The ship drifted on the horizon like a symbol of escape”
“I wonder…when it was that the world first went amiss, and men forgot how to live and to love and be happy.”
I loved this book so much! It’s exactly what I needed right now. Daphne Du Maurier is so skilled in creating a perfect atmosphere, exciting plots, and dynamic relationships between her characters. This novel is escapism at its best.
Frenchman’s Creek follows Dona, a beautiful 30-year-old woman who is part of London’s upper class. Dona married Harry years ago and had two children with him. She never liked propriety, or the aristocracy, and would try to visit saloons and infiltrate other parts of society but it never felt enough, and it never felt right. The passion and love between Harry and Dona had faded many years ago (and never really existed in the first place) and Harry stopped trying, being completely inattentive to his wife. He was so preoccupied with his projects and hobbies that he might as well have been single. Feeling trapped, Dona decided to leave Harry for the summer and spent her days in absolute freedom at their summer home/cottage Navron House, right by the coast. We get a sense that Dona wants to escape. She wants absolute freedom and adventure. Upon arriving she thinks to herself as she stands by the coast:
“this was freedom, to stand here for one minute with her face to the sun and the wind, this was living, to smile and to be alone.”
Upon arriving, Dona finds all of her household staff missing with the exception of a rugged man named William. Rumours around town are that in recent months a pirate and his crew have been robbing the rich families around Navron House. Dona finds all this quite odd, until she comes face to face with the pirate ship hiding right by her house in a creek by the forest. Dona develops a friendship with the captain of the ship, who is a Frenchman (hence the title) by the name of Jean-Benoit Aubéry. The pirate is dark, handsome, French, and an incredible artist. He loves the sea, basking in freedom, and has a fondness for birds, naming his own ship La Mouette (the seagull). The novel picks up from there and there are so many escapades, and Three Musketeers-like fights, and adventures, filled with excitement and passion. The whole time Dona must reconcile her position in society with her longing for escape, and her role as mother and part of the aristocracy with her pirate adventures. There are two prevailing themes brought up over and over in this novel. The first is contemplating what it means to be happy and free, and the second is the realization that excitement and absolute ecstatic happiness can only be experienced temporarily. Good, nay, great things cannot last for too long or they lose their charm.
William says to Dona:
“a man is faced at once with a choice. He must either stay at home and be bored, or go away and be miserable. He is lost in either case. No, to be really free, a man must sail alone.”
Later Jean-Benoit and Dona discuss life as a pirate and she asks him if this life has brought him happiness, to which he responds that it has brought him contentment. When asked to explain the difference he says:
“contentment is a state of mind and body when the two work in harmony, and there is no friction. The mind is at peace, and the body also. The two are sufficient to themselves. Happiness is elusive—coming perhaps once in a life-time—and approaching ecstasy.”
The novel’s dominant feeling of uneasiness is best captured in this conversation between Jean-Benoit and Dona as she knows she must return from her first one-day escapade wishing their love-affair could last forever, and that her life could always be at sea. He says:
“you forget…that women are more primitive than men. For a time they will wander, yes, and play at love, and play at adventure. And then, like the birds, they must make their nest. Instinct is too strong for them. Birds build the home they crave, and settle down into it, warm and safe, and have their babies.’
‘but the babies grow up,’ she said, ‘and fly away, and the parent birds fly away too, and are free once more.’
He laughed at her, staring into the fire, watching the flames.
‘There is no answer, Dona,’ he said, ‘for I could sail away now in La Mouette and come back to you in twenty years’ time, and what should I find but a placid, comfortable woman…with her dreams long forgotten, and I myself a weather-beaten mariner, stiff in the joints, with a beareded face, and my taste for piracy gone with the spent years.’
‘and if I sailed with you now, and never returned?’
‘Who can tell? Regret perhaps, and disillusion, and a looking back over you shoulders…perhaps no regrets. But more building of nests, and more rearing of broods, and I having to sail alone again, and so a losing once more of adventure. So you see, my Dona, there is no escape for a woman, only for a night and for a day.’
To follow this story from Dona’s perspective and to know what she wants, what she is capable of, and to know that even those who ‘love’ her are not willing to join her in either adventure, or nesting, or misery is one of the ways in which this novel pulls at the reader’s heartstrings. The adventures she has are very Wendy-like: temporary. I would like to think that Frenchman’s Creek is almost like Peter Pan for adults. Both novels incorporate pirates, a woman trapped between a world of fun and one of responsibility, a woman longing for adventure, two younger children, and they are both filled with bird-references. (Totally cool fun fact, Daphne Du Maurier’s aunt was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies–the mother of the children who inspired Barrie’s Peter Pan). I don’t know if this book is too deep, or heavy in any way. It is light, and fun, with a bit of pain, but what makes this light narrative worth your time is that it’s very well-written. Daphne Du Maurier has such dexterity and uses language with such craft. The landscape alone will place the reader in an amazing state of mind. This is very much an escapist novel, and like Dona, the reader will temporarily go on an amazing journey. I highly recommend this book, it’s really fun, and has many funny bits (particularly when Dona pokes fun at the aristocrats in their faces without them realizing what she is doing).
I haven’t written for a bit but I have been reading, and I’m starting to have some feelings affecting my overall disposition and attitude towards books. I had my Goodreads goal set at 100. I’m now at 56, and I am sure I’ll reach 100 anyway, but numbers in general really stress me out. I like numbers at the end of a year so I can see what I liked, or what I picked up, but while I’m in the process they are overwhelming. There is an undeniable pressure on two accounts: the first is that I MUST reach that 100 goal, and the second is the rating. It’s a little complicated but sometimes I really enjoy a book, or it stays with me for a particular reason, but I wouldn’t consider it great literature. At the same time, others tackle extremely difficult subjects and important conversations must be had around them, but again, I wouldn’t consider it amazing. An idea worth a sentence or two stands out and I still remember it but I don’t know if I would read it again. I decided to set my count on Goodreads to “52” as if to say one book per week just so I don’t have to worry about it anymore, and from now on to review books without assigning them a rating on Goodreads UNLESS it is a 5 star-rating, or if it made me so mad I had to give it a low rating to emphasize how bad it was (rarely happens). I also need to keep my book-buying habit in check and spend less. I will try to focus on books I have, and use the library more. I am certainly doing better than last year, but it still requires some improvement. The majority of books however fall under the 2-4.5 ratings and the pros and cons add and take away on an individual level. I also learned something about myself and a particular pet-peeve I have lately which is this:
- Books (normally culture-based or gender-based) that have a topic but instead end up being an autobiography of the author (who is often not of interest to me), or a series of people’s experiences. These kinds of books are disguised as “non-fiction” but at the end you learn nothing except for one person’s experience of life, which most certainly cannot be replicated. This same thing often results in people trying to have academic or non-biased conversations around a topic and suddenly attach their personal experience with this topic which now skews the topic in their favour because attacking their stance, means personally attack their experience. I am going to use an example to where a book failed and one succeeded. First you have books like Spinster by Kate Bolick. It is a cultural non-fiction book meant to discusses spinsterhood (by choice or not). Instead we get really large portions of Bolick’s life story and it turns into an autobiography using spinsterhood as a frame while mainly discussing her dating history and upbringing, and relationship with her mother. Then you have books like The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains by Thomas W. Laqueur. The book follows burial practices from various cultures, using examples from each, ties it all together around geography, architecture etc. and how it affects us on a human level. At no point is there a long story about all the people in Laqueur’s life and how he coped with death etc. Turning a cultural topic into an autobiography IS NOT cool (to me). Others might like it, but that’s not how I read.
- “Self-Help” books that recycle everything from other self-help books but pretending that they’re original. This to me is a sign that the author didn’t read all that much (especially if they think they’re original). Sometimes it’s interesting to see how many people reach the same conclusions, but is it worth printing out so many copies and flooding the market and planet with hundreds of these?
- Books about other books that again have hardly any analysis or insight but are completely one-sided and irrelevant to anyone else. Example: Dear Fahrenheit 451
This has left me generally unenthusiastic about a big chunk of the books I read this year (and some from last year). Learning that will help me make better selections in the future, because obviously I’m at fault for picking these up. So here’s a list of books that I haven’t talked about in much detail but have been reading. A detailed post about Alan Watts will follow, and a full review of the Robertson Davies Cornish Trilogy. As for the rest, there is either nothing I can really criticize like in Naomi Morgenstern’s book and Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay, or the rest which didn’t have much of an impact on me but were “just okay.”
- The Curse of the Boyfriend Sweater by Alanna Okun.—young woman discusses her passion which is knitting. She weaves in parts of her life, the people in her life who have passed away and how knitting helps her cope with many things. It’s a book about art mixed with life. The topic being so micro-focused made it all work out.
- The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai—book about a 26-year-old librarian who has a favourite young patron who is stuck in a religious family and is homosexual. She takes it upon herself to save him. Fictional work. The main character is weirdly a lot like me so it was nice to read from a very personal self-invested perspective.
- Lady Killers Tori Telfer—book about women serial killers. It hopped back and forth between: look how baddass this woman was! and: even when they kill women aren’t taken seriously, like they get hardly any jail time and get silly nicknames instead of cool ones like Jack the Ripper. Sometimes the wording made it sound like certain serial killers plead insanity as a cover-up…but people who murder repeatedly are mentally ill. There were weird lines where the author uses mental illness as an excuse for murder, or as if the murderers chose it to get away from real jail, and you’re never quite sure what the author thinks it’s right or wrong.
- Not That Bad edited by Roxanne Gay: individual accounts of rape and how it affects women differently and all the different ways rape exists. This is extremely difficult to read because of the subject matter, and it opens an important conversation.
- The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson: although it recycles many other philosophies it words it in a ‘bro-ish’ way for millennials using present-day examples and targeting out present-day anxieties. It was like an energy shot. Very quick, I liked the audiobook way better, because TONE is everything with this book.
- The Wisdom of Insecurity by Alan Watts—I’m going through an Alan Watts addiction phase right now. I will elaborate on him further. He is a philosopher who brings together Eastern Philosophy with Western Religion/Theology. He is in conversation with Buddhism, and the works of Carl Jung as well as several others. He’s currently my favourite person.
- The Wild Child: Intensive Parenting and Posthumanist Ethics by Naomi Morgenstern: this is an academic book that just got released looking at parenting and engages with several works like Room by Emma Donoghue, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Lioner Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin, Toni Morrison’s A Mercy, and a film called Prisoners. It is extremely well thought out and well-written, but again this is an academic work. The introduction alone engages with the works of Derrida, Philip Aries, and several other takes on childhood and child-bearing (particularly regarding scientific involvement) and Freudian psychoanalysis.
- The Rebel Angels by Robertson Davies: book one of the Cornish Trilogy, follows a group of eccentric academics in Toronto following the death of Arthur Cornish who was a really interesting art and manuscript collector. It involves a lot of wit. Reading this is like reading a rap battle between Winston Churchill and Oscar Wilde.
- Shrill by Lindy West: Lindy West’s account and experience of being overweight, being a feminist, and how she exists or sees herself in mainstream media.
- Vampires: Afield Guide to Creatures that Stalk the Night by Bob Curran: a very short book on Vampires not going into much depth on any particular subject.
- Cities in Flight by James Blish: science fiction work where science is the new religion. Buddy-read this with a few people and everyone had a hard time with how dated and verbose this book was.
- Zero Waste Home by Bea Johnson: the person who started the Zero-waste movement shares her experience with being Zero-waste when she is also a mother, fully employed, and applies this to her entire home with all her family memebers, showing people it is possible to live in the city and apply the Zero Waste Lifestyle.
- Starve Better—Nick Mamatas: explains the difficulties with writing, particularly science fiction and trying to make a living. He focuses much more on short stories and the craft of short stories, and/or the difficulties of selling short fiction
- The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid. A fictional work about a “famous” actress based on the likes of Elizabeth Taylor and other women from the good Hollywood years, being interviewed by a young journalist.
There were others that had no effect on me which I haven’t mentioned, but here’s a full account of what I read this year if it’s of interest.
WHAT I’M CURRENTLY READING
- Book II of the Cornish Trilogy by Robertson Davies called What’s Bred in the Bone
- Listening to Out of Your Mind by Alan Watts on Audible
- Buddy-reading The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry with James Chatham
What I plan to Do from Now On:
- No more Goodreads Ratings, and ignore the count tracker
- No more reading cultural/gender-studies books. Either scientific or historical non-fiction, or fiction.
- Read better fictional works that have been around for a while and I know they are worth investing time in
- Three Reviews will come soon including: Apocalypse Nyx by Kameron Hurley, The People’s Republic of Everything by Nick Mamatas, and At the Teahouse Cafe: Essays from the Middle Kingdom by Isham Cook.
Perhaps it’s tough to step back in time just a little and see that David Foster Wallace saw the dangers of what is now on demand 24/7 media consumption in the form of Netflix and other film networks, YouTube, etc. While Infinite Jest is an attempt to present some of the dangers thinly veiled in fiction, it is a bit exclusionary by being over 1000 pages, serving a very narrow, elitist, academic crowd, taking Shakespearean strides and inventing too many new words hoping the reader understands, and has a fragmented structure with layers of references, meta-references, and irony. It’s certainly readable but it is intimidating. If I had to discuss David Foster Wallace, or give an introduction to him, I would start off with the first essay in this collection: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction.” It’s one of my favourite essays of all time, and one I re-read often. While this collection contains seven separate pieces (one including an academic discourse, an analysis of David Lynch’s films, a tennis essay, and a retreat), I will discuss in this post two of my favourite David Foster Wallace essays: “E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction” and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again” (henceforth I’ll refer to them as “E Unibus Pluram” and “Supposedly Fun”). I will highlight some of my favourite passages and add to it some of my experiences. This is not a review, or an analysis. This is me jotting down my favourite parts of these essays with a few notes from my annotations and what it reminds me of, as well as the feelings it stirs. Let’s call it a ‘reader’s diary?’
What has drawn me to DFW is my highly addictive behavior—something DFW himself struggled with, and a theme he incorporates in his fiction and non-fiction. Television, porn, and weed more than anything else (in Wallace’s work). We see traces of all these things in Hal Incandenza in Infinite Jest, the whole of “Big Red Son” focusing on pornography alone in Consider the Lobster, and television in this collection. I’ve always watched a lot of television as a kid, a teen, and in undergrad. Not only did I stream things continuously, I would watch several of them again and again. I would have it on in the background to avoid silence when cooking, cleaning, painting etc. By third year of undergrad I was on Netflix and YouTube non-stop but this time actively watching. I calculated that I had spent a total of 56 days of the year watching (24 hour days) when I put all the calculated time of all the seasons of all the shows I had watched in second year. Netflix made things even worse by automatically going to the next episode, something YouTube now does too—like an all-you-can-eat buffet of media. The strangest thing was, that I felt like I was doing some sort of artistic research, or like I was doing this for the purpose of learning something. Lost kind of put an end to my TV watching days because nothing ever compared, but the YouTube watching persists. You will immediately be able to see why this essay struck a chord with me. Wallace begins with:
“Fiction writers as a species tend to be oglers. They tend to lurk and to stare. They are born watchers. They are viewers. They are the ones on the subway about whose nonchalant stare there is something creepy somehow. Almost predatory…but fiction writers tend at the same time to be terribly self-conscious.”
This of course results in watching television as a voyeur, or ‘peeping-Tom’-ism hoping to see some human behavior and in on the secret lives of others:
“We can see Them; They can’t see Us. We can relax, unobserved, as we ogle. I happen to believe this is why television also appeals so much to lonely people. To voluntary shut-ins…lonely people tend, rather, to be lonely because they decline to bear the psychic costs of being of other humans. They are allergic to people. People affect them too strongly.”
The problem however, is that all of these lives that we are watching are not real. The actors know that they are filmed, it’s all a fakery. These behaviours transcribe later on into social media where everyone on you know presents only the best versions of themselves, and everything is filtered and edited on YouTube, and even to the extreme in Hollywood films and shows.
“The people we’re watching through TV’s framed-glass screen not really ignorant of the fact that somebody is watching them. In fact a whole lot of somebodies…they are on the screen engaging in broad non-mundane gestures at all…we’re not voyeurs here at all. We’re just viewers…television is pretending ignorance. They know we’re out there. It’s proffered—illusion…not real people in real situation. We’re not really even seeing ‘characters.’”
This seeps into the lives of celebrities as well. Wallace writes of our relationships with these celebrities:
“…we worship them. These characters may be our ‘close friends’ but the performers are beyond strangers: they’re imagos, demigods, and they move in a different sphere, hangout with and marry only each other, inaccessible “
In assessing these relationships Wallace states:
“This illusion is toxic. It’s toxic for lonely people because it sets up an alienating cycle (vis. ‘Why can’t I be like that?’ etc), and it’s toxic for writers because it leads us to confuse actual fiction-research with a weird kind of fiction-consumption.
We spend enough time watching, pretty soon we start watching ourselves watching. Pretty soon we start to ‘feel’ ourselves feeling, yearn to experience ‘experiences.’”
I think here is where this sort of disjunction occurs because since Wallace wrote this essay and killed himself in 2008, social media has sort of become the everyday person’s form and response to these celebrity lifestyles. Zadie Smith related that in her criticism of Facebook when she says that you behave like a mini-celebrity with ‘fans’ before becoming a full person, or becoming someone at all. The voyeuristic nature of our relationships to our immediate social network is just as detrimental as the pretend-voyeuristic nature of our relationship to television, because like these actors, people filter, and edit and choose which version of themselves they present to the world. The gap between the Wallace essay and “the now” comes in the form of Franzen-Smith in the conversations on Facebook (see my full essay on that here). The part that Wallace concerned himself with is the way this longing for experiences and a way into another human’s life becomes as addictive as a substance. He writes:
“An activity is addictive if one’s relationship to it lies on that downward-sloping continuum between liking it a little too much and really needing it. It both cases problems for the addict and offers itself as a relief from the very problems it causes…[television] is a ‘distraction’ –diverts the mind from quotidian troubles…television also purveys and enables dreams, and most of these dreams involve some sort of transcendence of average daily life…offering a dreamy promise of escape.”
The reality is you’re sitting on a piece of furniture inside a box staring at another piece of furniture in a box. In this essay though, Wallace isn’t only observing an entire culture’s relationship to television, rather he’s looking at how this lifestyle then becomes the contemporary American life, and then it ultimately gets placed into fiction and art. He writes:
“This culture-of-watching’s relation to the cycle of indulgence, guilt, and reassurance has important consequences for U.S. art…giving in to collective visions of mass images that have themselves become mass images only because they’ve been made the objects of collective vision…I want to persuade you that irony, poker-faced silence, and fear of ridicule are distinctive of those features of contemporary U.S. culture that enjoys a significant relation to the television that has my generation by the throat.”
Wallace then says that when media makes ‘loathing oneself’ references and is meta-referential, then it’s a sort of permission slip for the viewer to continue to indulge. Now that you notice the hypocrisy and irony of it all you are somehow better than the masses, because you’ve noticed it, and we are giving you permission to keep going because look, you’re better than everyone else. The beginning scenes of Norton’s character in Fight Club come to mind–IKEA nesting and daily numbness. Anyone?
Wallace’s bottom line is that what this cycle does is create a society of lonely people. He writes:
“The well-trained viewer becomes even more allergic to people. Lonelier…. the viewer’s exhaustive TV-training in how to worry about how he might come across, seem to watching eyes, makes genuine human encounters even scarier.”
The second essay in this collection “A supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again” is Wallace’s account of taking a cruise and ‘enjoying’ himself—but mostly capturing the pressures that exist on a vacation (as they do on birthdays, Christmas, summer and other such designed places, times, and spaces) to enjoy oneself. He writes:
“It’s more like a feeling. But it’s also still a bona fide product—it’s supposed to be produced in you, this feeling: a blend of relaxation and stimulation, stresses indulgence and frantic tourism, that special mix of servility and condescension that’s marketed under configurations of the verb ‘to pamper.’… You are excused from doing the work of constructing the fantasy. The ads do it for you…a seductive promise. The ads promise…. you will have NO CHOICE but to have a good time.”
But Wallace captures something in this essay that I’ve personally felt on every resort and every ‘pamper’-oriented trip or event. An overwhelming sadness, despair, and loneliness. Wallace writes it beautifully:
“There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad…especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety-noise ceased—I felt despair. The word’s overused and banalified now, despair, but it’s a serious word, and I’m using it seriously. For me it denotes a simple admixture—a weird yearning for death combined with a crushing sense of my own smallness and futility that presents as a fear of death. It’s maybe close to what people call dread or angst. But it’s not these things, quite. It’s more like wanting to die in order to escape the unbearable feeling of becoming aware that I’m small and weak and selfish and going without any doubt at all to die.”
By taking choice away from you the cruise-line has made decisions for you, and now you must be forced to enjoy them. The alarm comes from realizing that being on this vacation in itself was your choice and it’s a choice you are now stuck in and a choice you must live with, which becomes a metaphor for life at large. Wallace writes:
“It feels like much time has passed and it’s passing faster and faster every day. Day to day I have to make all sorts of choices about what is good and important and fun and then I have live with the forfeiture of all the other options those choices foreclose. And I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time.”
Which reminds me of the ever-famous Fig Tree passage from Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is now framed on my wall.
Yes, I know this post was long. That’s why it’s called Infinite Text folks.
What Makes This Book So Great is a series of reflections and essays written by Jo Walton for Tor.com between 2008 and 2011. There are several essays where she offers her opinion and personal experience on a particular topic in a frank, and personalized way. The other essays however are specific things Walton wishes to discuss from her reading experience of particular books. They are not quite reviews, rather, they are snippets of what worked or didn’t work in a book or series for her (as a reader). She states in the introduction:
“there’s no impersonality here, no attempt at objectivity. These are my thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth, my likes and dislikes, my quirks and prejudices and enthusiasms”
For the most part I think she has certainly achieved what she set out to accomplish with this collection. There are three essays that caught my attention, which I’d like to discuss at length here. The rest of the essays just made my TBR longer with about five new long series, and a dozen other individual novels. I loved the ways Walton describes how she reads when she is cozy, or down, or sick, and how comforting is to be in the company of a great book that seeks only to entertain and be fun.
In the very first essay Walton takes a stand for ‘re-reading’ in favour of only reading new books at all times. There are books one would like to read, or likes the idea of knowing its contents, but not necessarily willing to put hours into reading the material itself. Certain histories and political books fall into this category for Walton, and others alike (myself included). This topic is reoccurring through the collection and becomes apparent in the ways Walton describes certain long series. She writes:
“There are readers and re-readers…when I re-read, I know what I’m getting. It’s like revisiting an old friend. An unread book holds wonderful unknown promise, but also threatens disappointment…upon a re-read one is not surprised…you have more time to pay attention to the characters.”
The second essay that caught my attention is one where Walton discusses Speculative Fiction as it stand in opposition to the mainstream. She writes:
“when mainstream writers come to write SF, it’s normally the case that they don’t understand the idioms of SF, the things we do when we (SF readers) read SF…the mainstream writers know how to do all the basic writing stuff, stories and characters and all of that, sometimes they know how to do that really well. They really want to write SF…but they don’t know how SF works…they explain too much of the wrong things and not enough of the right things…In a science fiction novel, the world is a character, and often the most important character. In a mainstream novel, the world is our world and the characters are in the world. In a mainstream novel trying to be SF, this gets peculiar and can make the reading experience uneven”
I think this topic gave me pause, for two reasons. The first is that now I think the SFF field has its own sub-genres and its own version of the mainstream. For instance, I consider books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season to be so mainstream, because on Booktube everyone talks about it (or has in the past) particularly in the Science Fiction and Fantasy channels. It’s hard to keep in perspective how small this group is overall, and how within society avid readers (10+ books per month) are a small subgroup. I now pride myself on knowing the most obscure texts rather than the mainstream, and yet ‘mainstream’ Science Fiction, is not recognizable by the average person (or reader) as it is a subgenre of a subgenre (speculative). It sort of reminded me of the Jeffrey Eugenides quote from The Marriage Plot:
“College wasn’t like the real world. In the real world people dropped names based on their renown. In college, people dropped names based on their obscurity.”
Walton also made me me reflect on the ways I interact with Science Fiction, and how, compared to many other SFF readers I’m still very much a beginner. This language Walton refers to with technicalities, and knowing what needs explaining and what doesn’t is at the beginning very excluding to a beginner. When I approached this topic I felt like there was a group of smart people, a nerdy and intellectual crowd, and they ALSO told me that I can’t sit with them. It’s almost like they’ve made up an entirely new vocabulary telling the ‘norm cool kids’ or the ‘belonging to no group’ people like me: NO, YOU can’t hang out with us. It’s like being rejected by every group on the social spectrum.
In chapter 95 “SF reading protocols” Walton is in communication with Samuel R. Delany’s nonfiction works, particularly when he was attaching a vocabulary to Science Fiction in 1977 when the field was still finding its defining characteristics. She points out how other genres are defined by their tropes, i.e. romance is two people finding each other, mystery has clues, etc. But
“SF not defined by tropes. Samuel Delany suggested that rather than trying to define science fiction it’s more interesting to describe it, and when describing it, it’s more interesting to draw a broad circle around what everyone agrees is SF than to quibble about the edge conditions…look at the way people read it—those of us who read it have built up a set of skills for reading SF which let us enjoy it, where people who don’t have this approach to reading are left confused.”
Walton also considers what leaves a ‘friend’ who borrows a Sci-Fi book and returns it claiming ‘I didn’t get it’ say that they ‘don’t get it.’ They are not stupid, and they can read sentences. But Walton states that Modern Science Fiction assumes you already know how to interpret its language and:
“It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.”
The last essay (and its alluring title) is the main reason I checked this book out in the first place. The topic is “Literary criticism vs. talking about books.” All I’ve ever wanted to do: talk about books! I want to talk about the books I love, and the ones I hate, and sometimes I simply have an emotional reaction, whereas in formal discussion people want a more objective, distant analysis, which makes things very difficult. In undergrad I joined ‘writing groups,’ ‘poetry clubs,’ and all kinds of groups that weren’t quite what I wanted. They all required of me something different from pouring out my heart and soul on what a book meant to me. The way I’ve been using this platform for instance, is mainly me trying to introduce everything I’ve highlighted in a text so I can keep all the quotations I loved from a book in one place. Some turn into reviews, others just into a log of quotations, and most somewhere in-between–but at no point would I call myself a critic, even when I draw lines of comparison between other texts or schools of thought (at times). Walton writes:
“Critics are in dialogue with the text but also in dialogue with each other…I resist the term because critics are supposed to be impersonal and detached, they’re not supposed to burble about how much they love books and how they cried on the train. Most of all I resist because I hate the way that necessary detachment and objectivity seem to suck the life and the joy of reading out of the books critics talk about.”
There’s also the matter of ‘spoilers.’ Often academics go to the core of what they want to discuss in order to have a frame for their greater philosophical or historical point, that they completely forget that some people might have not read the book. The way SF assumes you know the terminology, academics assume you have read every book they refer to. Walton mentioned how a footnote from a Penguin classic of a Victorian book about three chapters in spoiled the ending of the book. This doesn’t happen in bookish circles (like on Booktube, Book Blogs, or just gatherings of bookish friends) because we are quite cautious of spoilers.
“In academia spoiler warnings are fannish and embarrassing….re-reading is forever, but you can only have the experience of reading a book for the first time once.”
The fact that a footnote, or an academic/critic can ruin someone’s first reading experience of a text is devastating, and I have a feeling this happened for lots of people who took literature courses in University, carefully choosing courses they loved, and subsequently having those books ruined for them. Finally I loved the ways Walton distinguishes herself from critics and puts herself in the category of people who love to read and just to talk about books. She writes:
“I’m not standing on a mountain peak holding them at arm’s length and issuing Olympian pronouncements about them…the lines of respectability in the SFF world, or that if something is studied it ought not to be fun, and you can only have fun with certain books…I feel as if I’m not really a grown-up critic. And I don’t want to be. It’s too much of a responsibility and not enough fun”
I will do a full author spotlight on Matt Haig, particularly regarding his fictional works, where I will get into further details about my strange connection to this author, and my fascination with his work. I did want to tackle his non-fiction/memoir/self-help book independently. I will say that this blog entry is less a book review and more of a personal interaction with this work. I mostly jotted down notes of the portions of this book I enjoyed, and found striking in a way. It’s more of a ‘personal reading log.’ I would recommend this book for times when you are in a depressive state, but I think the first time you read it, I would ideally recommend this at a time when you are out of a depressive episode, and then use it as a guide to return to when it hits. I also saw this image often on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram, and I always found it wonderful, but I had no idea it was taken out of this book.
This work is Haig’s account of his lowest point in life when he was brought down by a mixture of Anxiety, Depression, and all other physical and psychological effects they bring.
“We humans love to compartmentalize things. We love to divide our education system into separate subjects, just as we love to divide our shared planet into nations, and our books into separate genres. But the reality is that things are blurred. Just as being good at mathematics often means someone is good at physics, so having depression means it probably comes with other things. Anxieties, maybe some phobias, a pinch of OCD…”
Haig’s lowest point happened in Spain where he wanted to kill himself and he describes in detail the pressures and negative thoughts enveloping his days for months to follow, and the ways in which his parents and girlfriend supported him through this. He writes about the ways our awareness of death can often be both an anxiety-inducer and a life ‘activator’ and the paradoxical relationship between depression and happiness:
“It is a hard thing to accept, that death and decay and everything bad leads to everything good, but I for one believe it…that’s the odd thing about depression and anxiety. It acts like an intense fear of happiness, even as you yourself consciously want that happiness more than anything.”
What I particularly enjoyed about this work was the way Haig introduces us to his relationship to books, literature, authors (both dead and alive, both depressed and not) and often quotes another writer associating it with his immediate feeling or concern. The way he talks about books made me highlight uncontrollably:
“There is this idea that you either read to escape or you read to find yourself. I don’t really see the difference. We find ourselves through the process of escaping…So yes, I loved external narratives for the hope they offered…most of all, books. They were, in and of themselves, reasons to stay alive. Every book written is the product of a human mind in a particular state. Add all the books together and you get the end sum of humanity. Every time I read a great book I felt I was reading a kind of map, a treasure map, and the treasure I was being directed to was in actual fact myself. But each map was incomplete, and I would only locate the treasure if I read all the books, and so the process of finding my best self was an endless quest…. the plot of every book can be boiled down to ‘someone is looking for something.’”
Haig also urges us (or challenges us in order to be happy) to:
“Read a book without thinking about finishing it. Just read it. Enjoy every word, sentence, and paragraph. Don’t wish for it to end, or for it to never end.”
A secondary point of focus of Haig is the observation on how we view the mind as separate from the body, and how in reality the two are highly connected. He looks at the psychological symptoms and physical symptoms of a mental illness and notes that there are much more on the physical side. He describes his relationship to running, meditation, and yoga and throughout this work returns to how important physical movement, physical nourishment, and physical forms of self-care influence the mental state.
Haig examines our relationship to ‘greats’ in literary and artistic history who have killed themselves. I know I am certainly one of those. But Haig takes a different approach. He urges us to admire and look up to people who certainly have depression but get out, putting aside Woolf, Plath, Sexton, Wallace, Hemingway, Van Gogh, and look at a much longer list of people who made it out. He even mentions the great long list that he keeps on hand of depressed celebrities who did make it out. There are also greats like Linocln and Churchill who overcame great depression and thrived on the lessons learned from the experience. Haig writes that maybe biographies of Lincoln and Churchill shouldn’t say that they thrived “despite” having depression, rather that they should say they thrived “because” of it.
There are moments in the book where Haig will mention something a famous writer says and in a way responds back to it with his own take. Here are two examples:
“Anais Nin called anxiety ‘love’s greatest killer,’ but fortunately, the reverse is also true. Love is anxiety’s greatest killer…forcing yourself to see the world through love’s gaze can be healthy. Love is an attitude to life. It can save us.
As Schopenhauer said, ‘we forfeit three-fourths of ourselves in order to be like other people,’ then love—at its best—is a way to reclaim those lost parts of ourselves.”
I particularly enjoyed his thoughts on time and time anxiety. This has certainly been a fixation of mine in the past I found some of his lines on time to be quite powerful. He writes:
“I was as obsessed with time as some people are about money. It was the only weapon I had…We feel an urgency to get on because time is short. Pain lengthens time…pain forces us to be aware of it…turning life into a desperate race for more stuff is only going to shorten it…in terms of how it feels.”
The whole book is also filled with advice from Haig and reminders that happiness will return, even when you are in a depressive state feeling shrouded in hopelessness:
Hate is a pointless emotion. Hate is the lack of imagination
Be around trees
we find infinity in ourselves, and the space we need to survive.
The key thing about life on Earth is Change. Cars rust, paper yellows, caterpillars become butterflies, depression lifts.
Accept. Don’t fight things, feel them. Tension is about opposition, relaxation is about letting go.
You will one day experience joy that matches this pain…you will stare down at a baby’s face as she lies asleep in your lap…you will eat delicious foods…there are books you haven’t read yet that will enrich you, films you will watch while eating extra-large buckets of popcorn, and you will dance and laugh and have sex and go for runs by the river and have late-night conversation and laugh until it hurts. Life is waiting for you…hang on in there if you can. Life is always worth it.
Lastly, as I was reading this book I took note of every quotation by other writers that Haig brought into this work that I enjoyed and each gave me pause. I jotted most of them down here to look at from time to time.
Quotations from other people scattered through the book that I really enjoyed:
“The wound is the place where the light enters you.” –Rumi
“is there no way out of the mind”- Plath
“The object of art is to give life a shape” – Shakespeare
“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet.” Emily Dickinson
“I know why logs spit. I know what it is to be consumed.”-Winston Churchill
“it did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.”- David Foster Wallace (on Advertising).
“Time crumbles things”- Aristotle
“The sea is only the embodiment of a supernatural and wonderful existence. It is nothing but love and emotion; it is the Living Infinite.” – Jules Verne
“The lotus flower…grows in mud at the bottom of a pool but rises above the murky water and blooms in the clear air, pure, and beautiful.” – Buddhist Teaching
Peter Watts’s The Freeze-Frame Revolution is an addition to a longer series including The Island (2009) for which Watts received the Hugo Award for best novelette in 2010, Hotshot (2014), and Giants (2014). The Freeze-Frame Revolution will be published in June of 2018 by Tachyon Publications. These works are certainly part of what would be categorized as “hard sci-fi” for Watts does not spoon-feed his readers, nor spends too much time explaining. He drops his characters in some unusual circumstances, and tries to convey ideas about technology, life, the universe, and the limitations of humanity. It is simultaneously focused on macro scale settings and ideas and on micro details with few characters in a rather condensed space of 185 pages. Given these limitations I think Watts was very successful.
The novel/novella follows Sunday who is part of a large crew (in the tens of thousands) and was trained for this mission, to build a web of wormhole gates through space, making interstellar travel more accessible. Eriophora is their spaceship, and simultaneously used for creating ‘gates’ or wormholes through which they can continue to travel. Of the tens of thousands involved, only a handful of people are awake at a time while everyone else is still suspended in unconsciousness. The gate-building ship is controlled by Artificial Intelligence: the Chimp—who decides who he will wake, and what information it will provide to the awakened ones. The people are awakened only for a few days at a time when they are, which leaves very little room to accomplish anything.
As in most hard sci-fi character development isn’t a priority, and the reader will be left with a lot of questions about the characters, the ‘world,’ and sometimes even the plot. This novella will also leave you with a lot of questions but with the knowledge that there is a certain suspenseful beauty in leaving them unanswered.
The travelling through space and gates has been happening for millions of years, and people have been maybe awake a total of few full conscious years where they have scattered memories here and there from the few times they have been awakened at several time intervals (thousands of years apart). The people grow uneasy about their ‘leader’ and AI: The Chimp and plot against him, which is quite the task when they are only awake one day of every thousand. There are also problems relating to the AI’s relationship to the ship, because they are essentially one and the same. The “consciousness” of the ship is also their home (at least that’s how I read it). We are told for instance:
“Eriophora’s riddled with blind spots: shadows in crawlways and corners, in the spaces behind looming machinery where no one had any reason to put a camera. There are even places—near powerlines whose massive currents swamp the milliamp signals that connect artificial brains to natural ones—where Chimp is blind to our cortical links.”
The thought that Chimp can automatically know what happens on every surveilled location on the ship makes the ship itself unreliable which gives the reader a sense of uneasiness at all times.
I really liked the ways in which Watts presents some ‘dilemmas’ or concerns for the characters which resemble our daily struggles with online personas, and simulated experiences, particularly with the ability to “plug in.” I do have a tendency to read into social criticisms as hidden between the lines of every work, but in all seriousness Watts wrote a book here that is really fun and sprinkled with philosophical questions. Here’s an example:
“’I suppose I’m thinking that maybe there’s more to life than living like a troglodyte for a few days every couple thousand years, knowing that I’m never gonna see an honest-to-God forest again that doesn’t look like, like’– She glanced around—’nightmare someone shat out in lieu of therapy.’
‘Honestly, I don’t understand. Any time you want a—a green forest, just plug in…you can experience things nobody ever did back on Earth, any time you want.’
‘It’s not real.’
‘You can’t tell the difference.’
‘I know the difference.’”
It’s hard to omit these dark philosophical moments from the overall suspense and tension—particularly since the main mission itself: creating a wormhole gate network, has lost meaning for the people involved. I enjoyed very much the dark aspects of this novella. The ways in which Watts has this meaninglessness looming over every one little action of the characters, and the atmospheric tension he creates with the ship, and the crypt, coffin-like places the majority of crew members lie in made this work worthwhile and rewarding.
It’s a work of great talent, and I hope that soon all of his connected works, or “Sunflower Cycle” will be published in a single volume together. Peter Watts has created a sci-fi work of art where every word is refined, and has a purpose. I highly recommend this work to lovers of science fiction.