Archive for the ‘Book Reviews and Recommendations’ Category

Not that we should confine our celebration of authors of the African diaspora to just one month (belated happy Black History Month!), but to close out February I thought I would highlight some African American authors I’ve either been reading recently or have loved for a long time (and maybe a few I’m still looking forward to reading). But to open–there’s a new Afrofuturist short fiction magazine out there called FIYAH, and it looks great! As has been pointed out lately, the world of speculative fiction is not immune to racism structural or otherwise, and black authors have suffered in the short fiction market as a result. The establishment of FIYAH does not let us off the hook, of course–the goal (or a goal) with this journal and its predecessor Fire!! of the Harlem Renaissance is for the larger discourse (or more concretely, you and I and all concrete individuals engaged in this as readers, writers, editors, etc) to see and repent its(/our) complicity in the marginalization of black voices.


Delany has been one of my favorites for a while now. Note the cover for Babel-17, which does feature a female protagonist, but an Asian one. Ursula LeGuin had similar problems with her EarthSea characters being portrayed as white on the covers of her books.

The two authors always brought up in a discussion of black science fiction and fantasy are Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler, and that will be the case here as well, though I do recognize that there were times when they were awkwardly bundled together solely for being the only black people in the room (which is not to say we can’t speak of them together as black authors–I’m doing that here, duh–but prioritizing that connection at random can certainly reinforce the marginalization we are trying to counter here). Delany, along with Ursula LeGuin, is one of the New Wave authors who became favorites of mine post-college (and to a degree post-Tolkien, or at least the point at which I embraced fantasy that was not just imitative of Professor Tollers). Delany’s science fiction writing is mostly confined to that period from the 60s to the 70s, followed by a foray into poststructuralist fantasy in the 80s, but to my tastes his early sci-fi remains fresh and original even next to the more avant-garde elements of today’s market. I especially love Nova, a novel which anticipates cyber-punk while remaining solidly in the genre of space opera, incorporates the Tarot in an interesting way (as does Calvino–lots of potential work meta-narrative moments there), and to my mind also has some nice echoes of Ahab and his white whale, though I wouldn’t push that too hard. Babel-17 is an interesting and trippy space opera with a linguistic novum at its heart, and to my mind a must-read for fans of the New Wave. Empire Star was apparently meant to be packaged with Babel-17, though this was only done more recently–equally trippy, and I hope to teach it one day. The meditations on cognition, intelligence, and the arts are all very worthwhile, and well-woven into the fabric of this weird but engaging story.

The late Octavia Butler I am less familiar with, I’m afraid, though I have been impressed with what I’ve read. I’d heard of her before, of course, but I was primarily turned on to her by Orson Scott Card’s in-depth analysis of her prose in his book on on writing science fiction and fantasy. What I’ve read of hers can be pretty uncomfortable–she had a knack for weaving the despicable and the morally ambiguous into disturbing but productive and interesting stories–but it is well worth it. I’ve been especially wanting to read her Lilith’s Brood novels for a long time, and will hopefully get to them soon!

There are two more recent authors I want to specifically mention here: N.K. Jemisin and Nnedi Okorafor. I’d read Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few months ago and have been meaning to write a review, but I like to have an illustration ready before I write reviews, and never got around to making one. Maybe after I’ve read another book of hers… In any case, THTK was a solid, entertaining, and highly original bit of fantasy, and I strongly recommend it. An original cosmology, a realistic and rich diversity of cultures, courtly intrigue, and a well-developed apotheosis–this book has got it all! Again, maybe a more thorough review later. I’ve read at least one short story of hers as well, but simply with regard to her novel writing have to note that she has been quite prolific since her debut. If her other books are even half as good as THTK they are well worth reading. Do yourself a favor and check her out! You can find her website here.

wp_20170228_12_55_34_proI discovered Nnedi Okorafor through her collection of short stories, Kabu Kabu (I’ve read several so far and gladly recommend the collection on their basis). While I love Jemisin’s work as well, I feel more kinship to Okorafor’s narrative style. Her first fantasy novel for adults, Who Fears Death, is a skillful blend of both science fictional and fantasy tropes, set in a post-apocalyptic Africa but primarily focused on a realistically drawn and ethnically complex society featuring supernatural elements and magic practitioners drawn (to what degree I am not qualified to say) from African culture. I’m still working through this–the story is quite dark in a lot of ways (that tends to slow me down), and we are clued in early on to the fact that there will be some tragedy involved in the conclusion, but don’t let that scare you. This is a beautifully written coming of age story as well as a fantasy of the somewhat “messianic” sort (think Paul Atreides, Luke Skywalker, etc). The prequel to this book came out in 2015–I wish it were a sequel, because then I would be able to pretend the tragic foreshadowing in WFD are red-herrings, but alas…

Binti Fanart

A quick sketch from when I reviewed the first book–not as cool as the covers for the actual book, alas.

Okorafor is (deservedly) getting the most attention at the moment for her novellas for Tor.com Publishing, centering around the young heroine Binti. I’ve read the first and am making my way through the second now. I’ve already reviewed the first in the series, so check that out! In sum–space opera, with a lushly developed far-future that, alas, can only be hinted at in a shorter work like this, but also a story which acknowledges the continued existence of marginal communities and nicely works the tension between globalization (or here, galacticization?) and local identity into the main plot. It is also a story about a university, so of course I like it. 🙂  I’ve noted before that the Binti series feels a bit YA to me, though I don’t believe it is being marketed as such. I think this is a function of the age of the protagonist (though the same could be said of Who Fears Death, but that has some clearly adult themes going on), Okorafor’s experience as a YA writer (that is where she started), and the shorter form of the novella. In any case, it is delightfully good, and I heartily recommend it! You can find Okorafor’s website here.

A couple of authors on my radar but whom I have not gotten to yet: Nalo Hopkinson, who has been a significant figure in speculative fiction for a while but who does not get as much press as some others mentioned here, and Kai Ashante Wilson, who has had two novellas published with Tor.com as well.  From what I have been hearing he is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in fantasy, so check him out now!

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WP_20150909_10_56_31_ProFinally getting around to reviewing one of the books I picked up in Sweden a couple summers ago–Havsmannen, or The Merman by Carl-Johan Vallgren. Already translated into English, alas–I would have liked to take it on myself.

“Havsmannen” means “the merman” in Swedish, hence the English title. Regular followers of this blog may remember that a couple years back I reviewed two fantasy short stories about sea-folk, Alyssa Wong’s intense but powerful “The Fisher Queen” and JY Yang’s “Cold Hands and the Smell of Salt”, itself actually more rooted in Scandinavian “merman” and “draug” traditions than Vallgren’s novel–Havsmannen only references the general Western tradition of mermaids (even if we have a man rather than a maid here), rather than specifically Scandinavian traditions of people living in the sea. Incidentally, both Alyssa and JY are rising forces in the world of speculative short fiction, and I heartily recommend following their work.


Not a scene from the book–just one of my earlier mermaid pics. 🙂

Vallgren is no slouch either, of course. I first encountered him through his prize winning novel Den vidunderliga kärlekens historia (literally “The story of monstrous love”), in English as The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot. Both that novel and Havsmannen are great examples of a “literary” or “mainstream” author making use of the tropes of speculative fiction, something that seems to happen more often in Scandinavia (or perhaps these are just the stories I pay attention to), where the sci-fi and fantasy market is fairly anemic when it comes to native genre authors, but the related tropes find their way into “respectable” literature often enough (including, for example, Nobel Prize winner Harry Martinson’s epic space poem Aniara). A Danish review of the book cited on the inside cover describes Vallgren as blending “hyperrealism” with the supernatural element of the merman–as is often the case with the trope of “realism”, we can take this as referring to the novel’s close, “unvarnished” view of the lives of some of the most vulnerable. I assume this is an element in much of Vallgren’s work–I still haven’t finished Barefoot because I couldn’t get myself to read further once the madame of the brothel the main character grows up in decides it is time to put his very underage playmate “on the market.” Havsmannen has some tough stuff to read as well, and it is very worth a trigger warning–if you have abuse in your past, or just know that you would not be able to read through accounts of severe abuse/bullying of children, then this book is not for you. Perhaps this is no surprise, given the comparisons to Stephen King (I don’t know whether I would call Havsmannen horror per-se, but there is a definite family resemblance). Speaking of horror, this novel also reminds me very much of Sweden’s biggest writer of philosophical horror, John Ajvide Lindqvist, author of Let the Right One In, Handling the Undead, and others. I don’t know to what extent the rest of Vallgren’s oeuvre lines up with these sensibilities, but in my mind I have them grouped together as a particular way in which the supernatural shows up in contemporary Swedish literature (for a slightly different [and Finnish] realistic take on that theme, see Johanna Sinisalo’s Troll).

So once more: Trigger Warning for graphic accounts of the abuse and bullying of children (and no, I don’t mean “he pushed me” type bullying), and Spoiler Alert for my final comments below.

The narrator of the story and the main protagonist is Nella, the protective older sister of Robert. Their parents are a mess (drunks, addicts, criminals, whom they can’t help but love at the same time their parents continually betray and abandon them), Robert has a learning disability, and throughout the story they are plagued by the increasingly serious persecution of Gerard, initially a school bully but much much more as we proceed through the book. The merman doesn’t come “on screen,” so to speak, until relatively late, though, knowing the title of the novel, we guess early on that he is the secret held in a boat shed by the mildly criminal brothers of Nella’s friend Tommy. To an extent the merman is incidental to the central action: Nella’s efforts to preserve her life and Robert’s, escape as much bullying as possible, and keep the two of them together. The desperation of their situation and Nella’s willingness to sacrifice herself and others for Robert is at the heart of everything that happens, though we do catch a nice blend of ecocritical and social themes, as the abuse and plotted exploitation of the merman (as well as the bloody business of the mink farm, where the merman is later kept) is at the hands of down-and-out working class men grasping at whatever they can to get by, or, preferably, to get-rich-quick–it saves us a bit from creating too easy an ecological villain, instead showing a messier reality “on the ground” as it were.

Perhaps as part of its “hyper-realism,” the story, or at least Nella’s narration, gestures towards a lack of narrative coherence in the “real-world.” The novel opens with Nella saying “There is no beginning and there is no ending. I know that now. For others perhaps there are stories that lead someplace, but not mine.” (my translation) Of course, the novel does actually have a narrative arc, and when we reach the end we know we have reached the end–but of course, we get to walk away. In the prologue that opens with the quoted lines, we discover that for Nella stories are what she uses to soothe Robert with the promise of a brighter future. We also know that she is aware that her “victory conditions” are likely impossible, in particular staying with Robert if they are taken away from/abandoned by their parents. This drives her distrust of adult authorities (who, to be honest, are often revealed to be incapable of resolving many of the at times quite horrific predicaments the children find themselves in), in turn prolonging the conflicts revolving around Gerard and the Merman. I find it a realistic portrayal of the reality for many children in this situation–surrounded by horrors and adults who are either untrustworthy or incompetent (or simply bound by the often problematic rules and aims of the adult world). Fulfilling the potential of speculative fiction as a genre or narrative practice, the irruption of the otherworldly merman into this perhaps too-familiar world serves to draw out these complications and make them visible in a new way. The epilogue shows the two children separated, though back in touch again–Nella’s key victory condition of staying with Robert (who is now safe, but not in the friendliest of foster care situations) has not been met, and so this story has not fulfilled the function she has for stories. No beginning and no ending, only the ongoing tension regarding Robert’s well-being. This is a story of trauma, and insofar as trauma entails a lifetime of working-through, we are certainly not meant to hold this gloomy perspective against Nella.

There are nevertheless spots of hope and positive momentum in the narrative–not the sort of nice-and-tidy happy endings of the stories Nella tells Robert (which, we must be honest, are the stories you need when you are in the position of our two protagonists–is there a sense in which their story cannot be a story “for” them? I suppose that is the case with any story about kids but written for adults…), but sacrificial love shines bright throughout, even if caught up in all the horror and impossible choices that confront our protagonists specifically as well as any neglected and vulnerable children. The merman, in addition to the thematic functions addressed above, also comes in to the semiotic system of Nella’s relationship with Robert and their parents, and his disruption of this system (or resolution of the underlying tension) is the arc and closure this story provides, even if, being a story of trauma, we must agree with Nella that in an important sense there is “no beginning and no ending.” Initially the merman is just another victim–not even one Nella is related to, and so a potentially dangerous distraction from her efforts to ensure her own and Robert’s survival. But Nella is compelled to help him, at increasingly great risk to herself. So initially the merman’s victim position reinforces Nella’s usual position of surrogate parent, stepping in where the actual adults have abused or neglected the victim. But from there the relationship is complicated, breaking up the fixed positions of Surrogate (Nella) Victim (Robert) and Adults (incompetents). The telepathic merman is physically adult (and dangerously so in spite of his weakened condition), but must be cared for. As the story progresses he uses his telepathic connection with Nella not only to request help, but to reassure and comfort–where Nella was the one to tell Robert comforting stories in which everything ends up all right, now it is Nella’s turn to be told all will be well. Can an adult promise that? No, and Nella will be more aware of that than most–but she has personally gone to great lengths to back up her reassurances, at significant cost to herself and others, and at the end, just as she is doing the same, she is finally displaced from her position as surrogate adult and gets to benefit along with her brother from the sacrificial action of the merman.

I will have to finish up here–forgive my lengthy notes at the end, this was my first opportunity to “think out loud” about the book. This novel would fit in perfectly with my “Nordic Otherworlds” course, and I was going to assign it (while I was still reading it myself) last time I taught Reading and Composition–but on realizing how graphic and intense some of the abuse was (no, it is not like that constantly–just some high points) I decided to put it off for the time being. I haven’t read the English translation, but I’m sure it is fine. I recommend it, with all the reservations I mentioned above. No shame in deciding it is too much for you.

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My poor amateur watercolor skillz… A practice sketch, inspired by Leckie’s series, though done a while after reading, so I won’t claim it matches the universe of the books… Apologies for the bad scan, can’t seem to manage a good photograph or scan of my watercolors, and my photoediting options are rudimentary at the moment.


Since news of the first book came out, I’d been looking forward to reading Ann Leckie‘s Ancillary Justice and its two sequels, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy. From the beautiful (if generically sci-fi rather than plot-specific) covers by John Harris to the buzz over the protagonist’s confusion over gender grammatical and otherwise (an anthropological touch that I found very well done), it seemed like just the sort of sci-fi I would like. Took me way too long to get to it though–I always have way too many books going at once (there are some many I started over a decade ago in the chaos of grad school that I haven’t been able to finish yet…), and between fun reading and work reading I just always have too much to cover–so Audible has been a Godsend lately, and I finally caught the series as an audio-book. I had a different narrator for the first book than for the other two–looks like you can get the same narrator for all three, so look into that if you go the audio route.

I am going to try to avoid a very in-depth review, since there are surely plenty of those already, and I don’t want to overdo the spoilers. I suppose my elevator-summary would be that this is a great far-future space opera, escapist fun at the same time that it brings intelligence and (let’s say) anthropological nuance to its world-building, plot, and character development. Some have pointed out a sort of kinship with Iain M Banks’ Culture novels, though we should note that Leckie has stated that she had not read Banks until after her own work was well developed. The comparison occurred to myself as well, but it is a matter of family resemblance (late 20th/early 21st century New Space Opera), rather than clear and direct inspiration–far future cultures, prominent if not main characters who are the AIs for spaceships, politics dirty, idealistic, and otherwise at scales ranging from hyper-local to galactic, the complications inherent in dealing with alien species, etc. There are significant differences as well, in particular in the political settings for the stories. Banks’ Culture is a sort of Utopian projection of liberal ideals into a post-scarcity future and the problems the Culture encounters when interacting with those very different from it, whereas Leckie’s story is set in a militant, religious autocracy that dominates the human population of the galaxy, but has run up against some very strange aliens that far outstrip them in abilities. Leckie suggests reading the work of CJ Cherryh for a more accurate precedent, and regardless whether you find them similar or not I heartily second her recommendation.

The books follow Breq, the assumed name of the last remaining ancillary (human body integrated into the consciousness and control of the AI of a ship) of the troop carrier Justice of Toren (slight spoiler, but not much–this all becomes clear fairly early). The first book is woven of two threads, Breq’s present (and the contemporary storyline of the whole series) and past (the events that resulted in Breq being the last survivor), and I felt like this was very nicely done–I was a believer by the end of the book, at any rate. The two sequels are entirely rooted in the “present” and are a bit more connected as far as plot causality goes, so you could almost think of the trilogy as two books, the second one in two volumes (but don’t worry, the middle book has a complete plot arc).

Feminine pronouns are used throughout, regardless of gender, as the Radchaai (the culture Justice of Toren belongs to) does not distinguish between male and female either grammatically or socially. I felt this was believable and well-done, and a welcome bit of social speculation added to the far-future prognostication–and it proves an interesting bit of color for plot and character development when Breq is forced to deal with cultures that do distinguish (think of a “grammar-heavy” language like Icelandic, where the forms you use must change according to the gender of the person referred to). The gender-play of the book also ties in to the central plot points of Radchaai imperialism and the question of the personhood of AIs (check out this recent article at Strange Horizons for more on that as well on the ways the term “gender” is used with expanded range in contemporary discourse on the topic–though I suggest you wait till you’ve finished the trilogy). I can’t get into these threads too much without spoilers, but I will say that I liked how Breq’s development as/insistence on being a person and not a thing is done in a way that nicely emphasizes the intersubjectivity of personhood, with Breq’s own (somewhat deeply hidden and often grudging–Breq is BAMF AF) love and compassion infecting those around her (and incidentally, the ship AIs provide a nice opportunity to bring both BAMF and rather maternal characteristics together). The divided self, recognized as itself an inescapable part of subjectivity since at least Freud, if not the Apostle Paul, is also productively exploited, as the sheer complexity and extent of the transhuman intelligences in the story entails the possibility of more obviously divided selves–and this in turn provides opportunities to explore the ways in which the “self” is more an artifact of one’s place in a social network than it is some mystical singularity out of nowhere–and all this in ways that are essential to the plot and which make the whole thing more interesting.

It’s been a decade since I’ve read CS Lewis’ Experiment in Criticism, but I was always fascinated by the way he seemed to gesture towards the interests of later Reception and Reader-Response theory. In particular he argues that there are two types of reading–reading that transforms us, and reading that is purely escapist and “fun.” Neither is necessarily morally superior to the other, and he suggests that this is more a factor of the way in which we come to a book, rather than something inherent to the book itself. But of course, the text is not absent–it is as much a part of the process as the reader (otherwise we are just projecting onto a blank screen), and a person will find some texts more challenging and difficult because they demand more of you (what texts work this way can vary depending on the person, of course), while others seem tailor-made for escapism (escapism not in-and-of itself a bad thing, in moderation–but I would suggest this is also where we tend to become more prone to masturbatory power-fantasies). Science fiction and fantasy at their best can sustain the tension between these two ways of reading quite well, and Leckie’s books, as well as many others I’ve reviewed here (Zen Cho, Lois McMaster Bujold, and short fiction from Rose Lemberg, Alyssa Wong, JY Yang, and others) do very well on this count. Highly recommended. 🙂

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Sorry for the lack of posts–too much going on lately. I’ve got a ton of books I want to recommend, and I just have not been keeping up with posting about them here, so I will see if I can catch up the next week or two… no promises.

The first I want to recommend is Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Cho is a Malaysian author and lawyer, based in London. Sorcerer is her first book, and the first in a series (so looking forward to the rest of the trilogy coming out!!!), but you can check out her website for links to short fiction and interviews if you need more. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can practice law and write at the same time–38 and I’m still trying (and failing) to figure out how to keep space open for both my academic and my creative lives. :/  But more power to her, and I will take inspiration from her example.


My hasty bit of fan art of Zacharias, Sorcerer Royal–sorry, will have to try Prunella another time. And yes, I know, I’m a lousy illustrator of period costumes–I tried… a little…

Sorcerer to the Crown is a fantasy set in Regency England–so Jane Austen meets Harry Potter, I guess. OK, sorry, not really… If you’ve heard any buzz about this book, it has probably (apart from the Potter/Austen mashup) been the fact that it has a black male lead and a half-Indian female lead and gets into everything from microaggressions to outright racism to colonial politics. All true, but I find myself frustrated by the fact that this will be taken by many as a “gimmick” (crazy, I know, but Sad Puppies and Rabid Puppies are a thing)–if we are going to imagine that making a main character a POC and involving racism and colonialism in the plot is gimmicky, well, we are lost. The racial and colonial situation of the book and the two protagonists are perfect material for fictional obstacles and conflicts, and Cho does an excellent job exploiting this throughout. This aspect of the book is explored better than I can manage in Alex Brown’s review at Tor.com, so I will direct you there for a more thorough discussion. Cho notes that she is not interested in turning into a spokesperson/mascot for diversity, and the novel is not in the least preachy–the attention to perspectives and contextual material so often ignored in Western (especially speculative) literature is refreshing–there is serious untapped potential here. I’m reminded of the collection of Southeast Asian steampunk stories I picked up a while back–both fantasy and steampunk have long been ripe for a “The Empire Writes Back” moment (bracketing off for now all the complications involved in postcolonial literature and what exactly constitutes a legitimate subaltern voice), and Sorcerer is one of many excellent contributions in this vein. But again, the novel is not reducible to its relationship to racism and colonialism (or sexism, though it weaves that very realistically into the treatment of women’s magic throughout). Mild spoilers below:

The plot revolves around our two protagonists, sensitive and idealistic Zacharias, a former slave who was rescued and adopted by the former Sorcerer Royal for his magical talent, and pragmatic and proactive Prunella, half Indian and raised in England as an orphan by the mistress of a house for magically gifted women–the point of such a house being to suppress their magic, “for their own safety.” Following a short prelude, we open the story with Zacharias as the Sorcerer Royal, a position you come into by virtue of being able to bear the staff that goes with the office–and the suspicion among those inclined to suspect those of darker shades is that he has achieved that office only by murdering his mentor, the former Sorcerer Royal. This is complicated not only by the color of Z’s skin, but by the fact that magic, a sort of resource that comes from Fairie, a realm with its own political complications in this story, is on the decline in England, a fact that also tends to be blamed on this unprecedented new Sorcerer Royal. Zacharias remains slightly mysterious to the reader until the end, since the story requires him to keep quiet about so much–a bit frustrating at times, but it does feel necessary for the story and I appreciated Cho’s keeping us in the dark till all is revealed at the end–suspense accomplished. Prunella’s own mysteries are unknown to herself as well as to the audience, and while for much of the novel it feels like Zacharias is the moody, cosmic hero whom the Big Deal plot revolves around, Prunella turns out to be quite a Big Deal herself as she upends the cultural assumptions about “women’s magic,” in many ways eclipsing Zacharias as Special Hero(ine)–and while I think Zacharias is still very lovable and certainly still as much a Big Deal as P in this book, I did appreciate Prunella’s Leia (oh, going to make myself cry…) standing toe-to-toe with Zacharias’ Luke (even snarky, accomplished princesses tend to get displaced by sensitive, special farmboys, alas)–while the book starts with P falling into Z’s orbit, they are a nice binary by the end, and P has her own very real motivations–while they are allies to a degree, she still has her own very distinct story, motivations, and strategies. And while they may at times feel like a very opposite binary pair, I think they go really well together (which I suppose is the point), and I look forward to a more developed romance in the sequels (did I really say that? I must be mellowing with age if I’m wanting more romance in the book… But it may be a mistake to take a continued romance for granted, we’ll see.).

So in summary, I loved the plot and the way in which we are gradually introduced to both the worldbuilding and the character’s secrets, I really loved the two main characters (both as foils and partners), and I felt like Cho very expertly tapped into the potential in the racist/colonial/sexist elements (all entirely realistic, let’s remember–these three things are not fantasy) for compelling plot and characters. I’ve seen reference to occasional “purple prose” in an otherwise positive review–I sometimes felt that way myself, but, while I can’t speak for Cho’s intentions, I feel like (however serious the Big-Deal conflict is in-world) there is enough humor and playfulness to signal that when the prose does get a bit overdone it may be read as part of the game. Well, this is my perspective two months on, so it isn’t really fresh enough in my head to comment. I also listened to it on Audible, and I’m not sure whether I judge things the same when I listen to them–but I will note that the narration is very professional and I enjoyed it a lot. I’ve got it on Kindle now and may try a reread soon… but we’ll see. I have too too many books in progress. 😦

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A friend recently shared Atlas Obscura’s post on Hollow Earth theories. At once fun (because it is always entertaining to look at the crazy stuff folks once thunk, plus it’s a neat setting for fantastical tales) and terrifying (given that there aren’t only the flat-earthers and young-earthers out there [confession: I was one of the latter for a period as a child], but also the hollow-earthers). The article mentions Dante’s Inferno as a potential first-visualization of such an idea (I believe the genealogy of the idea has been traced back further, but hey, not my specialty), stops briefly at Halley, then skips on to 19th century pseudo-science, before getting into science fiction from Jules Verne onwards–which completely misses my favorite hollow earth story, Niels Klim’s Journey Under the Ground (links to various digital transcriptions of the English translation here).  I’ve taught Niels Klim at least 4 times now, in various incarnations of my “Scandinavian Other Worlds” course (somewhat an overview of the history of Scandinavian literature, somewhat an exploration of different variations of the theme “Other Worlds”), though I am not an early-modernist (I’m a [Scandinavian] medievalist first, maybe a Scandi folklorist after that, then a general Scandinavianist), so the info provided below is brief and just a matter of a few things I found helpful/interesting/insightful when teaching it.

Image from Wikipedia

The story, from the same period as Gulliver’s Travels and clearly influenced by the same (though I’ve heard one person suggest it might go the other way, positing a very early Holbergian draft…) follows upwardly-mobile Niels Klim, who, on attempting to explore a mysterious cave in the mountains (and Scandinavian legend tradition re: underground populations of “under-earthers” is a relevant echo here, even if the story here opts for a very different direction), falls deep into the earth, emerging into the center of the earth, which consists of three parts–the lands on the firmament (the underside of the crust), a mini-sun in the middle, and a small planet (later we learn it is called Nazar) circling that sun. Niels is brought to the surface of the planet by a giant eagle, and there meets the inhabitants, who are sentient trees.

The larger narrative can be divided up geographically to a degree, and while Holberg’s point with the whole, apart from, well, entertainment, is fairly polemical, his strategies for his polemicizing shift from utopian to satirical with each location/section–though I suppose both elements are active here and there throughout: utopian in Holberg’s visions of social perfection, satirical in his biting commentary on contemporary Denmark and Europe.

Potuan Maiden by Callego

Haven’t consulted the text in a while, so no promises this is an accurate depiction–but hey, close enough to an illustrious many-branched Potuan maiden.

First we have Niels’ initial stay in Potu, a country on the planet Nazar. This is an explicitly Utopian portion of the narrative, as may be clear from the name (Potu is derived from Utop[ia] in reverse–also, apart from this name, the language of the Potuans might be considered an early conlang, though I don’t know whether it was a serious enough construction to really be labeled such…). We get a first glimpse here of Niels’ role as buffoon, a role Holberg would use in his comedic plays as well–a particular characteristic would be taken to extremes in a buffoonish character, or such a character would seek to live outside his proper place and abilities, and so would be exposed to ridicule, such that the audience could point and laugh and say “Oh, OK, that is definitely not the right way to do things, is it…” (so not satire on specific real-world people or institutions, but on generally attitudes, behaviors, etc), but here this is primarily in terms of Niels as European foil to this logical and perfect society of intelligent trees. Examples of the perfection of the Potuans: no arguing allowed over religious points, and the religious outlook is vaguely Deist (so no Catholics and Protestants burning each other); apart from a hereditary ruler (this is the age of Absolute Monarchy and Villainous Aristocrats, after all) all jobs are assigned according to who can best do them (instead of matching the prestige of the job with the prestige of the person); as a development of the latter point, we get a pretty gender-progressive stance from Holberg (not Klim, alas) as the Potuans think it ridiculous to exclude women from, for example, prestigious government posts, so long as a given woman is most suited to that particular job; and introducing any change to society must be brought to the learned to consider, and if rejected the innovator will be executed–so that people will only offer an innovation if they are really very certain about it. Careful thought and consideration is the name of the game here, and Niels Klim is too hasty to even listen to the rules, and from the start the Potuans pity him, and he bridles under his reduced estate (ie, no longer so upwardly mobile–hm, maybe this subterranean position has a figurative connection to his career…). This brings us to the next section…

Unhappy with his humble position as courier (since, not being a tree, he can move quite fast), he convinces the king to let him go on a journey around the planet, surveying the other societies there. Here we might say we’ve gone Dystopian, though perhaps it is better to understand it as more satirical education via buffoonery, just projected on to the level of entire nations. Each place he visits has one particular thing taken to extremes (again, in true buffoon fashion, contradicting the Golden Mean)–a place where women are not just equal, but in fact in charge (which nicely illustrates how lame it is to actually be a woman in a patriarchal society); a place where everyone is a philosopher; a place where people live too long; a place where people know when they will die; etc. And of course, while many of these might be taken to derive from some vision of perfection (“wouldn’t it be nice if everyone…”), put into practice we see that nothing taken to extremes is good. So there!

This ends with him returning to Potu, but he is still unhappy–so he decides he will make a name for himself by introducing an innovation! Sure, it means risking his life, but a clever, upwardly mobile Norwegian boy like himself (OK, my blog title says Danish, but Norway was under Denmark at the time, so whatever) should have no trouble, right? So he suggests that women not be allowed to hold office. Well, it doesn’t go well, but because he is a stupid foreigner (not in so many words, but that is essentially it) they decide to exile him to the firmament instead–the inside surface of the earth’s crust. This is done using eagles of the sort that initially brought him.

Image from Wikipedia

On the surface we can still detect some dystopian elements and buffoon-at-the-level-of-nations polemicizing, but to a large degree this is where we finally actually start getting a narrative interesting in its own right, moving into adventure mode, and later into conquering hero mode–but all still very much a parody, and involving countries of apes, of tigers, of horses, and other animals, and of very primitive humans, along with our hero going from clever courtier to galley slave to “Yankee In King Arthur’s Court”-style antics that make him a celebrated, and then cruel, and, frankly, stupid conqueror and emperor. And OK, we do get one more intriguing bit of explicit satirical commentary as Klim discovers a manuscript from an subterranean explorer who went up to explore the surface–there are of course many details relevant to that period in European history (it is targeted satire, of course), but it essentially comes down to “Holy crap, those Europeans–smh.”

Klim screws up and has to run (spoiler alert), and ends up getting blown by a wind back up through the hole he fell into–on exiting he is mistaken for the wandering Jew (another bit of folklore to add to the “underearthers” reference), but ends up finally being taken care of by an old acquaintance, who helps him get a minor position–but of course he will forever remember that he was once a magnificent ruler and has a queen and princely children somewhere in the earth below, and the story itself is framed by a preface purporting to answer the ridicule of those who say it is all, pardon my language, balderdash (not a Danish/Norwegian word, btw). I tend to assume this was all tongue-in-cheek and that no one was going to be mistaking this for anything but a polemical flight of fancy, but hey, not a period I usually work with.

Like the Atlas Obscura article points out, the Hollow Earth idea has been around a long time. Wikipedia seems to have a good summary (and actually mentions Holberg), but if I remember correctly, this edition/translation has a good introduction covering not only Holberg, and not only the story’s place in the Hollow Earth tradition, but in literary history more generally. Alas, it is not in print any more, and the used paper back versions are a bit pricey. 😦 But again, feel free to read it for free online!

[EDIT: Holy crap, to think that only days after I published this that whole election thing happened. I’ve got to say, our president elect seems to have stepped right out of a Holbergian satire. Klim-as-buffoon ranges from relatively harmless ridiculousness as he gets himself exiled for his attempt to capitalize on his ostensibly ingenious misogynistic policy recommendation to very harmful (=world war level) ridiculousness as this very small-minded and entitled man pushes the martial, imperial, and colonial programs of Europe to extremes in the subterranean world after managing to displace an emperor–and when he himself is displaced from his ill-gotten throne he is full of his tragic downfall, oblivious to his role as hyperbolic object lesson. I’m tempted to get into political cartooning… but I suppose a centuries-old Danish utopian satire is not going to be the most accessible allusion for US politics…]

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[note: it occurs to me that, as with many stories taken from folklore, this is a bit of a NSFW post–for those not acronym-savvy, that means not so much that it is violent, which it is, but that some of the dismembered body parts involved are (in the normal course of events) used to make babies. So reader beware.]

inktober_10_31_16_the_grisly_box_by_callego-damzua7Happy Halloween! Now that the “Paganism Past” conference this last weekend is over, I’m relaxing today by, among other things, reading some non-Scandi folkloristic type stuff–right now Japanese Tales edited and translated by Royall Turner (who was apparently placed at the University of Oslo at one point, so it just goes to show that everything connects to Scandinavian Studies in the end). Appropriately enough today I hit the “Haunts” section of the book, and thought I would illustrate the short but grim story “The Grisly Box” for my last Inktober 2016 drawing.

Like most of the other texts in this volume, the story is from Heian-era Japan, so if I remember my Japanese history correctly (that one class in undergrad is a long time ago now…) this is prior to the Samurai, and instead the period of poetic aristocrats improvising on cherry blossoms in the court at Kyoto. Well OK, this story really has nothing to do with that. In “The Grisly Box” a bureaucrat who works for a regent is traveling home to see his family and comes across a woman on a bridge who gives him a box, which he is to 1) give to a woman on another bridge, whose name he does not need to know because she will be there, don’t worry, and 2) ABSOLUTELY NOT OPEN. Btw, his servants don’t see anyone and are wondering “What the hell is our master doing?” He takes the box, but forgets to stop at the other bridge so ends up taking the box home with him. His wife say “Well, Mr, that’s a nice box, where did you get that WHAT IS HER NAME” and, of course, because we can already tell we are in a story that is going to either stereotype women’s motives or turn them into absolute monsters, she opens it and inside there are EYEBALLS AND PENISES. (btw, spoiler alert). Then the husband is like “Oh heck, we better get this to the right person now” but when he gives it to the other bridge woman she says “hey you looked didn’t you” but he denies it, and some time later he dies. The end. I know, out of possible Japanese-themed stories I don’t know why they didn’t do this story instead of Kubo and the Two Strings…

Some comparative comments as a folklorist (OK, I am more a Scandinavianist than a Folklorist but whatever):

-Not uncommon in a patriarchal society to find female monsters/supernaturals coded as sexually threatening (male supernaturals can be as well, but they turn up in different sorts of stories), so this is not an especially surprising story to come across. The inclusion of a jealous wife highlights the theme as well, with whatever guilt we might impute to an unfaithful husband displaced onto the castrating, apparently voracious (what else do they need all those pricks for?) spooky women. I don’t have comparable castrating legends in mind at the moment from Scandi folklore (doesn’t mean they aren’t there, but my recall is not great at the moment), but we do find supernatural women coded as sexually threatening in many narratives, as with the Swedish skogsrå. The “point” of these stories (not that they were always intended explicitly as moral lessons) is not always consistent, which serves to remind us that each individual version of a legend comes from an individual, and so can be taken as part of a larger debate regarding, for example, gender norms, the status of the supernatural community, etc–but the threat in many of these stories is framed around the danger of leaving the human community, diminishing the reproductive and other capacities of that community, in favor of the supernaturals, who to some degree (not to say this is somehow the most primal or foundational meaning) stand in for competing communities in general. And of course, it inverts the usual run of things in a patriarchy–the woman becomes powerful, the man weak, perhaps simultaneously expressing patriarchal guilt (“if they treated us like we treat them…”) as well as justifying the status quo (“if we let them have power…”). But let’s also note that, again, there is no need to assume culture is monolithic, and what might seem subversive can nevertheless end up be a fairly prominent part of the cultural production–I’m thinking here of the fact that the Valkyries of Norse mythology in some instances (not all) get a fairly positive treatment while in others they seem tied to quite thoroughly patriarchal cautionary tales. Also, spooky, castrating women can be used in politically subversive ways rather than cautionary/kinky ways, and of course, subversive readings are always possible as well.

-The eyes–well, it is an easy enough Freudian move to take the eye itself as a phallic symbol. Not that we need to take Freudian symbolism and apply it “willy”-nilly (did you see what I did there?)–but if this is a matter of supernatural women subverting the patriarchy, then this is a good complement to the theme of castration, as the “woman as seen, man as see-er” is an obvious binary opposition in patriarchal ideologies (btw, I wrote a dissertation on this… well, on related things).

-The fact that these women show up at bridges is a great example of the association of supernaturals with liminal space (though I confess I have no idea if these bridge women are common in Japanese folklore or not). By liminal I mean in-between. This is easiest to see in terms of geography, as these women are found at rivers, common markers of boundaries (I think also of the fact that liminal spaces are common in oral poetry, a point I picked up somewhere but can’t remember, and that many important moments in Norse mythology take place in in-between places, like a coastline), but it has a semantic dimension as well, meaning, involving the boundaries between things/concepts. Think “both/and” or “neither/nor”–fairies show up at twilight, when it is neither day nor night, people in Scandinavian folktales, at least, are at-risk during in-between times of their life (between birth and baptism, between childhood and adulthood, etc), and (again in scandi folklore, sorry, it is what I know) you find spirits associated with water mills, which are often geographically on the periphery, between the human community and the wilderness, and semantically in-between in that it is both/and neither/nor land/water (build above a stream as it must be). The bridge location is an obvious one for a supernatural, then–both/and neither/nor land/water (which, of course, is why the Billy Goats Gruff run into a troll at a bridge). Liminality in this sense is, of course, bound up in some very basic cognitive/linguistic faculties, and so it is no surprise that this seems to be a pretty universal aspect of folk narrative (and other narrative–though this is not to say that we can’t find supposed “universals” expressed very differently, or expressive of very different concerns, from culture to culture and person to person).

And to end, I can’t help but note how even at the academic level it can be easy for us to think “what! penises! this is ridiculous, no one believes something like this might happen!”, given that at this conference this past weekend my friend and colleague Merrill Kaplan, who does both Old Norse lit and Scandinavian folklore like myself (but more and better, if I may say so) gave a talk reinterpreting one of the words in a particularly odd tale about the conversion in Norway in which our intrepid missionary comes across a cult in which women cuddle a dismembered and preserved horse prick. Yup. In the very lively discussion that followed (wow, people had Opinions on this…) one of the throw-away comments implied that none of us took seriously the idea that there ever actually was a cult practice like this, since it was really just totally ridiculous. Merrill (and for the record, I’m quite convinced by her argument throughout, but can’t say I am super familiar with the philological issues) insisted we had to take the story seriously–not meaning we had to assume a cult actually did look like this once, but that, however much it was meant to ridicule pagans, the story must be taken as believable against the (admittedly biased) horizon of expectations of medieval Christian Icelanders when it comes to what paganism might look like. I do find myself agreeing that, in a more explicitly historical text like the one in question (Flateyjarbók), however much the intent is to mock, it will still build on what people are willing to see as a reasonable expectation. And you know, there is so much crazy stuff (sorry, not an emic perspective there) in world religion and mythology (can’t single out my own religion here either) that at some point you have to say a horse-penis-cuddling-cult is not necessarily out of the question… Nor are spooky women collecting eye balls and pricks, apparently, at least at the level of legend.

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Grettir according to a late 1600s manuscript

Grettis saga, or The Saga of Grettir the Strong (I’ve used both the Scudder translation and the Fox/Palsson one) was the first saga I taught, way back in 2003, my first time as a Grad Student Instructor doing Reading and Composition for the Department of Scandinavian at Berkeley. It is counted as one of the Icelandic Family sagas, or Sagas of Icelanders, which were set in the period of about 930-1030. Some of these sagas take place primarily before the conversion to Christianity in 1000 (eg, Egils saga, Gisla saga--parts do take place after the conversion, but the main action takes place in the late pagan period), while others straddle the conversion (Brennu-Njáls saga, etc). Grettis saga, as far as the main character goes (the story of the earlier generations takes place in the pagan period), primarily takes place after the conversion. The saga itself is also believed to have been written relatively late compared to the other Sagas of Icelanders (they are generally thought to date in their original written forms from the early 1200s to the early 1300s), and has often suffered in comparison to the shining reputation of, say, Njáls saga, often seen as the height of the (classic, family) saga form. We can lay the blame on Grettis saga‘s relatively scattered plot (we can point to some central conflicts, but the story-matter itself tends to be very episodic) and the “folkloric” (read: monster fights) elements.


A (very cartoony) image of Grettir lifting a rock–there are standing stones in Iceland that are referred to as “Grettir’s lift”, and the saga tells us of one or two such stones that he supposedly lifted while lazing about waiting for someone. Grettir continues to make a point of reminding us that he is the strongest even across all these centuries…

Of course the more casual reader, especially the one raised on Tolkien, Martin, Rowling, etc, will probably enjoy the saga for precisely the over-the-top elements, though do brace yourself for the episodic nature of the story. Where the more “respectable” sagas can be read as largely revolving around a central feud or chain of feuds (it has even been suggested that the structure of the sagas corresponds in essence to the structure of a feud–for more on feuds in Medieval Iceland check out WI Miller’s Bloodtaking and Peacemaking), I suggest reading Grettis saga as revolving around the growth of the main character–well, OK, this is debatable, but I feel like the person who compiled the material for the saga (I am assuming here that much, not necessarily all, of the material was circulating in various forms in oral tradition, and we have some evidence of that with this saga) put it in its final form with an eye towards Grettir’s arc from “coal-biter” (a sort of male Cinderella, unpromising youth eventually rising to prominence–though in the male versions it is not so much a matter of being poor and badly treated, but of being a lazy, cocky little shit who doesn’t seem like they will ever make something of themselves) to tragic outlawed hero, doomed by the fact that he takes to long to (mildly) repent his hubris. Well, look for that arc and see what you think–I admit it does take a bit of work on the part of the reader…

Also, a quick trigger warning–a late scene in the saga appears to involve the rape of a serving girl. The saga frames it such that one of my students (long long ago) argued fairly convincingly that we were supposed to understand it as consensual, but the very patriarchal world of the sagas (in spite of the presence of many strong female characters) did not always distinguish so strongly between rape and “seduction”–at issue were the interests of the nearest male kinsman rather than the woman involved. As a woman of an unlanded family the serving girl of course did not have anyone to take issue, and the saga shows some of the typical saga disdain for the lower classes by portraying her as a “naughty wench who had it coming”. I don’t point all this out to excuse things, saying “oh, you know how the Middle Ages were…”, just a heads up since we do run across these things. :/ This particular episode is the most explicit thread in the ongoing “short sword” joke that runs through the saga. The erased bawdy poem Grettisfærsla is probably evidence that the traditions surrounding Grettir were often enough rather titillating–not a surprise when it comes to folklore about a famous outlaw, I would think.

Some last notes:

-The monster stories are interesting in that there are a decent number of echoes between individual episodes, and if you have read Beowulf (no, none of the movie versions count) you can try your hand as a scholar yourself and consider whether or not you think there are any plausible connections between the early 1000s Old English poem and the 1300s Icelandic saga. I do think the parallels between the monster fights in both works are compelling, but I’m willing to see them as migratory legends rather than direct borrowing.

-Speaking of monsters, one of the interesting points of Grettir’s character is how much he resembles the monsters he deals with. Well, don’t go thinking he is a simple brute–he is also a poet, and his orneriness initially manifests more in his obnoxious use of poetry and proverbs to deal with his father than in his strength–though his strength is enormous. As a great hero, Grettir ends up being the “who ya gonna call” guy, dealing with ghosts (not the same sort as in Ghostbusters tho), bears, trolls, you name it he’ll kill it. Many of these stories, like Beowulf, or like many other heroes of a more mythic cast, I expect, have Grettir standing in as either 1) the defender of human space (think Beowulf defending the Hall against Grendel) or 2) the invader of monstrous space (think Beowulf attacking Grendel’s mother and the dying Grendel in their underwater home–but for both of these, also consider the relationship between the gods and the giants in Norse myth). The tragedy seems to be that Grettir is a bit of a monster himself, or often confused for one, and at times more at home in the world of monsters–it is the world of other men that causes him trouble.

-The saga concludes with a mini-saga (a “thread” is actually the technical term) where Grettir’s half brother goes to Byzantium to get revenge on his behalf and the story suddenly turns into a Romance (in the sense of Tale of Chivalry–though there is romance in the modern sense as well), so those into the likes of King Arthur, Tristan and Isolde, etc, will get a special treat at the end.

Well, those are a few quick thoughts, and now I really ought to go–sorry for this super late post, and sorry that it is only this one so far this month. I’m presenting at a conference this weekend, plus had some health issues, so I’m a bit delayed. That said, I have managed to keep up with Inktober on Tumblr and Deviantart, so check out my art there!

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