Welcome to the very first edition of The Fandomentals Classic Sci-Fi Book Club. We’re making our way through some of the works considered to be essential reading for anyone interested in this genre.
This time we looked at Neuromancer by William Gibson. First published in 1984, this novel helped pioneer the cyberpunk movement and is credited with popularizing many of the ideas that would eventually develop into the world wide web.
Plot Summary: Case is a washed-up hacker who can no longer work because a poisoned neural system doesn’t allow him to enter “cyberspace,” so he spends all his time trying to get high in Japan. Then a mysterious man, who has a technological augmented “street ninja” named Molly working for him, offers him a second chance and a job pulling off a heist that gets him involved with a mysterious business clan of clones, and the artificial intelligences that they created.
What do you think of the world building?
Julia: I suppose the defining feature of cyberpunk is high technology juxtaposed with squalor. But even the high technology feels like it’s probably a little squalid too.
Lisa: It definitely does! It feels dirty and invasive. Grungy, even. The tech Case uses to “flip” feels dangerous and scrappy. I highly doubt the rich of this world tap into the Internet the same way.
Barbara: It was very effective. I felt completely immersed, at times even overwhelmed by the world. It was an interesting contrast with the lack of immersion in the character. And as a small aside, I cannot help but mention that I completely hated the depiction of Istanbul as compared to the other places they visit.
Julia: Oh Barbara, is there any fictional portrayal of Istanbul you DO like? But your point his well taken. And I’ll add in another point about stereotyping with the Japanese Yakuza assassins and the perma-baked Rastafarians. It was almost funny how the black side-kick character just randomly came along on the deadly mission for the climax because… he bonded with Case so much?
I think Lisa is right about everything feeling “grungy.” In my mind’s eye, everything is just dirty and the technology is held together with duct tape. Whenever I think of the Sprawl I just picture used take-out containers and Red Bull cans littered everywhere. And I can almost smell the red, infected skin around half of these cybernetic implants.
This is, probably intentionally, in very sharp contrast with Freeside and Villa Straylight, which seem almost sterile. Like an isolation ward in a hospital. You know that people like 3Jane don’t have any weird mirrors grafted to their eyes, or any such nonsense. Though the weird cloney incest ways of the Tessier-Ashpools and those fake contour tanlines are as gross in their own way as the Sprawl.
Lisa: Totally. Those tan lines are synthetic grunge. Perfectly placed but grimy all the same.
Barbara: Ha, yes, trust me Julia, I remembered my beef with that adaptation of Orient Express when I read Neuromancer as well. I swear it’s not me, it’s every author who thinks Istanbul is the best place to live their Orientalist dreams. But you’re right about the other stereotypes as well, of course, I actually wanted to mention the Rastafarians and forgot about it. Like you, I almost laughed out loud at the absurdity of some of it.
I have to disagree about the tanlines though – I want that.
Caroline: To add to the conversation regarding the stereotyping, the word “gaijin” is thrown around a lot when they are in Japan. Gaijin is the Japanese word for foreigner. I studied Japanese in college and went to Japan as part of an exchange program and, from what the Japanese college students explained to me in 2012, gaijin is often used in an insulting way. I found it weird that the narrative used gaijin so often, seeing as it closely followed Case, and Case himself seems to be a foreigner (I don’t think he’s ever described as Japanese?). It stood out to me during the story. I don’t know how people felt about the word in 1984, or what contact Gibson had with Japan prior to writing this, but it felt sort of forced into the text.
Otherwise, I felt the world-building was thorough but confusing, and definitely reliant on stereotypes! I guess that begs the question: can/how do you build an entire world without using stereotypes as a base?
The political and social aspects of the world building were very vague. What impression did you get of what the world is like in those ways?
Lisa: Maybe it’s just the current climate, but the lack of politics was a bit unrealistic. Is this future society so apathetic that they generally don’t care about their piss-poor quality of life? Most of these people live in “coffins”…it’s hard to believe a whole populace would take that lying down.
The lack of economic structure was weird, too. Besides the random service employee here and there, what does most of the populace do for a living?
Taking all that into consideration, it would seem that this future world doesn’t exist within the confines of any political, social, and even economical parameters that we can really understand. It is a race of people that is nihilistic in nature. The only being in the book that seems to have an innate desire to improve and grow is Wintermute. Everyone (and everything) else is stagnant, simply treading water to stay alive.
Barbara: I felt like the social commentary there was more implicit, but it definitely was there. It worked for me, because I didn’t think Case was very political personally, nor any of the people directly around him. But you’re probably right that from the wider cast of characters, one would expect at least someone to mention something.
Julia: Yeah, I don’t think I got the impression that most people in this world live like Case does. I don’t think it’s usual for entire families to be shoved into “coffins” or anything like that. Though Molly’s rather vague descriptions of her childhood did make poverty seem… not unusual. There was some political content with the Panther Moderns, for instance, that gave the impression of political instability and endemic violence.
Oh, and the offhand mentions of nuclear war. Apparently most of Germany is a radioactive wasteland or something? And, of course, there was a war with Russia that featured prominently in Armitage’s backstory.
It seems to be an SF trope that technology will make us superficial and materialistic. Any human energy towards “self-improvement” seems to be directed towards things like upgrading your implants, or cloning a better granddaughter, rather than towards anything intellectual or spiritual, let alone towards improving social conditions.
I (Caroline!) felt very disjointed throughout the story – the short sections and jumps from scene to scene threw me off for a long time. I definitely struggled getting a grasp on the setting, even with some of the nice descriptions. Did anyone else feel this way? If so, do you think it was intentional? Does a disjointed/jumpy narrative style reflect on themes of the story?
Caroline: To answer myself, I think there might be a connection or meaning when comparing the narrative structure to the life Case is living. The narrative jumps from place to place in quick slices; Case, likewise, jumps from living in the real world to being in cyberspace, experiencing reality and artificial reality in segments. I think the disjointed structure gives us the best understanding of Case’s brain, even more so than Case or any character development (if there was any…). It seems that the structure reflects the story, or the story reflects the structure.
Julia: Gibson apparently has a reputation for never spoon feeding the word building. He just throws terms and concept out there for the reader to figure out. I suppose that can extend to the story itself as well. Case knows about the whole nuclear war thing, so why would be explain it. He knows what’s going on too, so why should his close third-person explain it?
I can’t say it makes for an enjoyable reading experience.
Did you find the protagonist in any way memorable or distinctive?
Barbara: The protagonist actually makes this really hard to read for me, since he’s a very distinct type of (anti)hero, and one I’m really tired of. It’s obviously unfair to the book, because it was in many ways first in this (though there are inspirations Gibson pulls from), but I couldn’t quite free myself from it…
Lisa: I couldn’t connect with Case at all. I still feel like I know nothing about him (except that he really likes to get high). I think all Gibson’s characters are a bit shallow, if i’m being honest.
Caroline: Agreed. I know almost nothing about Case. At best he is a struggling drug addict; at worst, he’s just a literary device to let us see Gibson’s neato sci-fi world. Neither is abhorrent, but neither is compelling.
Julia: Yes, exactly. I feel like I know nothing about him. There was an attempt, I think, to make us care about him, specifically with the sacs of neurotoxin and Linda Lee (who he’s… mourning?) but I don’t think I at any point actually cared if he succeeded or not. That moment when he was screaming and crying because he thought Armitage was going to take the secret with him as he died and Case would be poisoned again did nothing for me.
Lisa: Nope. No feelings for Case, at all. I felt worse for Armitage!
Molly. Let’s talk about the her role in this novel and her relationship with Case.
Barbara: I can’t get over that first sex scene. Like, what even was that?
Caroline: I know right!
Lisa: Conceptually, it kind of reminds me of Sleeper, a movie Woody Allen directed in 1974. In the movie, Allen and Diane Keaton use an “orgasmitron” to have sex. The couple doesn’t touch each other at all and instead relies on the orgasmitron to stimluate the body to orgasim.
I think it’s a play on the idea that technology makes us less-human. Gibson takes it a step further, in my opinion, by partnering Case and Molly. They way they copulate is strange, foreign, and seemingly robotic, inferring a lack of intimacy. However, even though these two people have been manipulated both intellectually and physically to reflect the hyper-tech world they live in, they still find the need to sleep in the same bed. They still desire companionship, a very basic human need.
Barbara: Well the whole book is intentionally rather low on introspection, you only rarely find out what the protagonists are thinking or feeling, so that’s part of it, I think (and also relates to what you said about not connecting to Case). But that first scene…on one hand I tend to read it as some kind of strange male fantasy – he is in the same space with a woman, so of course she would want to have sex with him – but on the other, it read like borderline rape, given the state Case is in and that the initiative is entirely hers…
Julia: I think I’m questioning the decision of the author to have them have a physical relationship at all. I’m not sure what it adds to anything. It’s like it happened out of some sense of obligation. I’m don’t know if it was Gibson’s sense of obligation, or the characters’.
Lisa: Agreed. I don’t think the sexual relationship is necessary. Neither character is ever driven by their undying love (or even lust) for one another. If anything, the relationship is simply commentary on loneliness.
But I think that’s giving Gibson too much credit. This was written in the early 1980s when sex-scenes in entertainment were rampant. Instead of a time-lapse montage, most movies in the 80s included some kind of sex-scene montage. I think that’s just what audiences wanted back then.
And good point about the entire book being incredibly not introspective, Barbara! Thematically, is that a play on the mysteries of the AI world? We can never know exactly what a machine/computer is thinking?
Barbara: 100% agreed on the sense of obligation. I think it was primarily Gibson’s, and he transferred it to the way the characters acted…
Caroline: Do y’all think Gibson actively thought, “I must have a sex scene,” or do you think it was his unconscious bias about how men and women must interact in a story that led to it? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was written because it was just assumed a male (anit)hero has a female love interest, and of course she wants him, too.
Julia: I’m not sure why she would want him. I guess he doesn’t actively creep on her like Peter Riviera does.
Molly’s description of sex work in this world seems particularly disturbing, with the workers not in control of their bodies at all and not aware of what they’re doing.
Barabara: It seems to stem from this idea that sexwork itself is a deeply unpleasant experience that no one really wants to be present for. Because the vibe I got, at least, wasn’t “they force sex workers into this”, but rather “sex workers prefer not being present”, which is very disturbing indeed.
Julia: It reminds me a little bit of the well observed phenomenon of people feeling more free to express opinions they know aren’t socially acceptable on the internet because of the anonymity it offers. In this case, the anonymity is extended to sex. No one has to know about your weird kink, not even the sex worker you’re doing it with.
Lisa: Which plays into the idea of sex, and sexual deviance, as taboo, right? Gibson is acknowledging sexual “deviance” and it’s overwhelming existence in everyday life. This is chillingly similar to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Staying on Molly and Case, how do we feel about the uplink thing that lets Case see things through Molly’s eyes?
Julia: Not good? The Dolyist reason for this is rather obvious, the author wanted be able to see plot things that were happening to Molly without actually having her point of view. And that rubs me the wrong way, I’m not going to lie. Especially given the whole puppet sex worker thing she went through before.
Lisa: I think it’s cheap, too. It would have been much more interesting to write from Molly’s perspective. The uplink/flip could still happen, but from Molly’s perspective, we would have known what it felt like to have Case in her mind like that.
Caroline: If a plot device is only a plot device, does that make it a contrivance? I agree with all above – it’s obvious Case’s ability to see through Molly’s eyes was solely for the reader’s benefit to see what Molly sees. I can’t connect it to any themes, etc., at all. I think if a plot device serves no other discernable purpose than its single purpose, it may very well be a contrivance. This felt very contrived and, as pointed out, very cheap.
Barbara: I second all that. Or at the very least they could have had some discussion about it or something, some more in depth exploration of the experience…the degree to which it was waved aside effectively confirmed that it was a plot device. The only moment when it was an issue was when Case felt Molly’s pain. I don’t know if we were supposed to believe this was everyday stuff for Case and so he felt no need to mention it, but I really don’t see what in his personal history would make it so…
Julia: Now that I think about it,God is Molly ever repressed. She spends most of the time she’s uplinked to Case just kind of talking about all her past trauma’s in this oddly detached way. She seems even detached from her own emotional reactions to things. We, the reader, are aware that her trauma with growing up in poverty and being sexually exploited motivate her, especially with things like her hatred for Peter Riviera, but I don’t think she’s much aware of it.
So, I don’t think I want to call Molly a “shallow” character, because that depth is all there, but the narrative didn’t explore it much at all. Which is a little infuriating, because, yeah, Case is that shallow. He wants money for drugs, I think. He has some kind of feelings about wasp nests maybe.
This society seems very afraid of Artificial Intelligence. Do you think the narrative argues that this fear is justified? How do we see Wintermute and Neuromancer as characters?
Lisa: This is one area where I felt Gibson really did well. The fear of AI is very well-depicted and real. Maybe because our society has been afraid of AI for decades…who knows? My favorite scene in the entire book was when Wintermute annihilated the Turing officers that were chasing Case. The way the AI used the environment to decapitate one of them was everything I would expect of an all-powerful sentient being.
Wintermute and Neuromancer were my favorite characters in the entire book. They were incredibly interesting and complex. I found Wintermute to be intellectually stimulating, whereas I wanted to snuggle up in a blanket on the beach with Neuromancer. In a lot of ways, the two AI felt more human than the humans…
Julia: Wintermute is everything Case is not in a protagonist. He’s (?) got that introspective self-awareness that makes him very interesting and just the right amount of mysterious. And Neuromancer is everything thing the humans are not and really should be, as Lisa just said. They both seems to actually care to ask questions about their own natures and how they can be better and grow. They’re like flowers that grew out a of pot of dirt at this point.
Why is Case the protagonist and not Neuromancer?
Million Dollar Questions: Is this book “good”? Did you enjoy reading it? Does it age well?
Lisa: I can see why it turned heads in 1984…the language and the story is incredibly unique. But no, I did not enjoy reading it and I do not think it ages well.
The lack of diverse characters (and the stereotyping Julia mentioned) doesn’t reflect modern day readers. I also think the characters are pretty shallow and unrelatable. I didn’t really like this book at all…
I’ve recently re-watched the Matrix trilogy and in a lot of ways, it’s a Neuromancer rip-off. (The matrix, Zion, uplinking, etc.) But the Matrix has done much better in terms of scale because it’s simple and relatable. There are diverse characters and a clear enemy. (There’s also an unnecessary sex-scene in Matrix Reloaded.)
Julia: Maybe it is just because the concepts, which were groundbreaking in 1984, one assumes, are all so old hat by now, but I didn’t find anything about this book particularly compelling. I don’t think I would have finished it if I didn’t have to for this book club. I suppose it goes to show that even hard sci-fi needs to be character driven.
Barbara: I picked up this book for the first time when I was fourteen, and couldn’t get into it. When I opened it now, I was curious if it would be better…it wasn’t. It was worse, actually, because it hasn’t aged particularly well and I see problems now that I wouldn’t have seen at fourteen. I would say that I enjoyed moments of it (the actual action is done well, in my opinion), but then there were long passages that left me completely indifferent and also bits that were downright unpleasant.
Caroline: I started out liking it – I was impressed by the world building and the sheer number of words Gibson created. But it quickly dissolved into a realization that the book is not particularly well-written, and in many cases is impossible to follow. The fact that the main character is totally unrelatable doesn’t help. I agree that much of it was unpleasant. Perhaps worse, a lot of it was boring. Without solid characterization, I couldn’t care much about what happened. I felt like I was watching the season finale for a show I’d never watched before and didn’t care about.
Apparently this book predicted the internet. Discuss.
Lisa: I’m not sure it was Neuromancer itself that predicted the internet…Gibson first wrote Burning Chrome in 1982. That’s where the term “cyberspace” was born.
Via history.com, “ARPANET adopted TCP/IP on January 1, 1983, and from there researchers began to assemble the “network of networks” that became the modern Internet. The online world then took on a more recognizable form in 1990, when computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.”
So while, yes, Gibson can certainly be partially credited for “predicting the internet” as we understand it today, but it was in the works before Neuromancer was written. (Maybe ARPANET got their hands on Burning Chrome? Who knows….)
It certainly is interesting that both Burning Chrome and Neuromancer were written while the Internet was being developed/established. It’s highly unlikely Gibson really knew anything about that, right? He certainly familiarized himself with computer components, hardware and software…but where did he come up with the idea of a “network”?? According to Wikipedia, Gibson was TERRIBLE at math…
One thing I personally made note of while reading was that the technical concepts were actually quite difficult for me to visualize. The only thing I can think of is that tech is much more refined now and understanding raw, rough, seemingly archaic tech, is confusing.
Anyone else have that issue? Or was it just me?
Barbara: I definitely agree that it was hard to visualize most of the things he’s describing. It didn’t really bother me, because I tend to skim over descriptions in any case when I read, even when they are descriptions of regular things…but usually I know I could actually imagine it if I wanted to. I think it’s made harder by the amount of made-up tech words he uses. It helps worldbuilding, but makes it more difficult to imagine a scene, paradoxically.
I wouldn’t dare to speculate on the internet genesis topic, but I do find it interesting to see – as I often do in sci-fi – what he did not imagine. Like how the way the protagonist searches for information is so much less efficient than, you know, Google. Partly because he just doesn’t imagine encyclopaedias being made specifically for that kind of medium. It probably goes with the atmosphere, too, that things must be, as Julia said, squalid. Wiki is too tidy for that.
Julia: I think that it was easy enough to predict the concept of a global network that one can access regardless of physical location, but no one was able to predict how we were going to use it. It integrated into our society, rather than taking it over. All these concepts had a network that was totally immersive, “a consensual hallucination,” as this novel famously says, a mode of existence rather than a tool. And one one predicted that there would still be this focus on the written, rather than the spoken, word that the internet still has. And I certainly don’t think that we could have predicted that I could be writing a collaborative piece like this, with three other people in two other countries, while I was making breakfast.
Caroline: I agree with the point about the difficulty of imagining the technology. The fact that Gibson uses his special sci-fi lingo from the jump doesn’t help much either – it took quite a while for me to figure out a lot of the terms. In a way it adds to the immersion, but without an idea of what those things are, it just leaves big gaps in the mental image of the story. This is a place where written science fiction may falter while a visual adaptation would succeed. For instance, the “transporter” in Star Trek is explainable by watching things step onto the pad and disappear, reappearing somewhere else. This is much harder to explain in a written format, since so much detail is needed to convey that idea. A lot of Case’s jumping around from Molly’s eyes to cyberspace elsewhere is confusing because of how much detail he’s really seeing, as opposed to what we’re presented on the page.
I can’t make a determination one way or the other about the internet thing. Looking at it now, I’d like to say it’s not hard to imagine a network like the internet – but then again, I can’t predict what new technology will come out next year. I think we’re able to imagine concepts in technology, things we want to have – transporters, food replicators, robots, cell phones – but of course we can’t get the specifics down because it’s all speculative. Case’s experience with cyberspace is very different from a modern experience, I think (I don’t think he watched any funny cat videos during the story…), but the base concept remains the same.
Next Time: The book that put the OG in “Oh god, what have I done!?” Frankenstein, or The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley. Who was an eighteen-year-old when she started writing it. No, really.
This should be awesome.
Featured image: Neuromancer by Josan Gonzalez
GRRM’s The Hero is a strong commentary on war
Part of the GRRM Reading Project.
We started our journey through the works of George R. R. Martin (GRRM) with his early amateur writing, published for the first time in the Dreamsongs collection. Like The Fortress or And Death His Legacy, GRRM wrote The Hero during his college years. It marks an important point in his career: this is Martin’s first professionally published story. That’s right, our boy GRRM went pro!
The long story behind its publication is told in the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs. I recommend you all to read it, since it’s an interesting account on the backstage of publishing in early ‘70s and what it meant to start a career in writing. Written in late ‘60s, The Hero was published for the first time in the February, 1971 issue of Galaxy.
How well did it age?
From here on, spoilers for The Hero. Due to the nature of the points chosen for analysis, that segment contains spoilers as well.
The Hero follows Field Officer John Kagen, a soldier from the Terran Expeditionary Force on a quest to conquer new planets. The natives of those planets are no match for Terran technology, in all the glory of its Hollywood Science.
Back at the outpost, Kagen has orders to see Major Grady about this pesky little thing he wants:
“My term of enlistment is up within two weeks, Major. I don’t plan to reenlist. So I’ve requested transportation to Earth. That’s all there is to it.”
After twenty years of service, Kagen is entitled to retire with full pension. Major Grady doesn’t want him to leave, citing his great records and all the excitement that is to come now that they’re close to open war against the Hrangan Empire. Despite his insistence, Kagen is adamant about retiring and settling specifically on Earth. Born in one of the War Worlds that provide soldiers while Earth provides high-ranking officers, Kagen wants to see what he’s been fighting for all those years. He’s getting bored of fighting and feels he’s getting older and slower. Also:
As you say, everyone on Earth must know me. I’m a hero. […] On Wellington I’m just one of hundreds of old vets. Hell, every one of the troopers who does retire heads back to his old barracks. But on Earth I’ll be a celebrity. Why, I’ll be the fastest, strongest guy on the whole damn planet. That’s got to have some advantages.
When it becomes clar that Kagen knows his rights and won’t step down, Grady tries to reach his gun. Kagen stops him, but is seized by the tractor beams protecting Grady’s office. Still, Grady decides to give Kagen what he wants.
On the day of his retirement, Kagen takes a shuttlecraft for a starship to Earth. He’s kept in place with tractor beams for the liftoff, but instead of releasing him the tractor beams get tighter and tighter, to the point of hurting him.
“‘Cut it out!’ he cried, his voice shrill with pain. ‘You’re killing me. Damn you, you’re killing me!’ And suddenly he realized he was right.”
In the outpost, the perpetually bored Grady tells his aide to space Kagen’s corpse, release a fake news note on his death blaming the Hrangan Empire, and send his medals to the barracks museum in Kagen’s homeworld.
On Corps and Corpses
There are many reasons why I’m a fan of GRRM’s work, but when it comes to stories like A Song of Ice and Fire his skill with characters and worldbuilding stands out. To my disappointment, those two aspects fell flat in The Hero during my first read. It was only with time, thinking about the story and its themes, that I came to appreciate what GRRM was trying to achieve.
The story has only three named characters, but Ragelli doesn’t really count because he simply exists. Kagen and Grady have better characterization and we can tell more about their motivations and personalities, but they still feel quite bland.
The story constantly emphasizes how bored Grady is, and I think it’s part of the point that GRRM is trying to make with this character. He seems very aloof, seeing soldiers and natives as nothing but tools to achieve his goals. He clearly considers War Worlders second-class citizens, to the point of feeling offended with the idea of Kagen moving to Earth. Overall he reads as a sharp criticism against the people responsible for wars, who hide behind desks disregarding the lives of soldiers and civilians alike.
Kagen barely has any inner life and the only information we have about his personal motivations comes during his conversation with Grady. He feels more machine than human, particularly when he meets a group of natives early in the story:
One began to speak. He never finished.
During the brief flickering instant before the natives’ fingers began to tighten on their triggers, Kagen did not pause, Kagen did not hesitate, Kagen did not think. Kagen killed.
Kagen spun, still reacting, searching for the next foe. He was alone.
His reaction feels almost automatic, and it’s an effective moment to show how this violence has become a part of Kagen’s routine. His apparent lack of inner life does have a point: after twenty years of service that translated into killing, maiming, and conquering, there seems to be a little less humanity left in him. Kagen dedicated his life to military service and it took everything it could from him, both physically and emotionally. Even his death will serve to further an agenda against his personal wishes.
So both Kagen and Grady have a reason behind what feels like an apparent lack of characterization, but I wonder if the execution was done effectively or if they’re more commentaries than characters.
The setting suffers from a similar problem, because for the most part it feels very generic. There are a few hints of something more interesting underneath the surface: the near paranoia of the Terran Expeditionary Force, the fact that soldiers are expected to be on drugs to keep their performance, the hinted conditioning of soldiers in the War Worlds, the dynamic between Earthers and War Worlders… but most of this isn’t explored.
I suspect this also has a point: it’s not about this planet in particular or these people in particular, but the pattern on this military and those behaviors that GRRM denounces. The fact that the setting is so generic turns it into a surrogate for any real life conflict the reader may see on it. We never learn the reasons behind this conflict, but it doesn’t really matter.
So both characters and setting share this quality, an apparent blandness that is almost the point. I can’t say how well it worked for me, but I can understand why they were written this way.
What I can’t really understand is again the lack of diversity. Yes, I’m going to insist on this in every single story of this reading project, because it’s becoming a pattern in GRRM’s early writing. All his stories are about men, presumably white, straight, cis, etc. I say “presumably” because I don’t like the idea of assuming whiteness or heterosexuality as default, but he doesn’t give us any hint that this may not be the case. I realize the story has very few characters, but women aren’t even mentioned.
War… war never changes
The most interesting aspect of The Hero for me is GRRM’s commentary on war. Different readers may have a different reading since each country has different views on war and military forces—as for me, coming from a country that experienced a long military dictatorship in a not so distant past, I must confess I’m not very fond of the guys. It’s useful, however, to keep in mind the context during which The Hero was written.
GRRM wrote this story in the late ‘60s, during Cold War. We know from the autobiographical segments of Dreamsongs that he opposed the war in Vietnam and even applied for conscientious objector status. When we consider those circumstances, we can see their influence in the story.
The Hero isn’t even subtle on its sharp criticism on war. We never learn the reasons of the conflict between Earth and the Hrangan Empire, so the whole thing feels somewhat pointless. It’s two major nations measuring forces against each other in a cold war, conquered people and territories be damned, but we never understand what they’re fighting for besides this expansionism. It doesn’t help that Kagen himself says he wants to see what he’s been fighting for, implying he doesn’t know that yet.
What we do see of this conflict are its consequences, from the vivid description of the assault of a nameless city in the story’s opening scene to everything that happens with Kagen. Furthermore, we have no reason to believe that Kagen’s exhaustion or his drug use are exceptions. It’s just how it is.
Those issues, the character of Kagen as a whole, and his dynamic with Grady remind me a lot of the way GRRM handles war in A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIAF). I’ve seen fans defending that ASOIAF is an anti-war statement, but I don’t think that’s the case. It’s hard not to see a point in conflicts like Robert’s Rebellion or the war against the Lannisters, even if we don’t agree with how they were conducted. I think ASOIAF, much like The Hero, wants you to think about the consequences of war. It argues that the people fighting this war or suffering its effects more directly are often not the ones that will benefit from it.
I see echoes of Kagen’s story in the famous “broken man speech” from A Feast for Crows. The speech is too long to copy on its entirety, but it deserves its place among the most well-remembered lines in ASOIAF:
“One day they look around and realize all their friends and kin are gone, that they are fighting beside strangers beneath a banner that they hardly recognize. They don’t know where they are or how to get back home and the lord they’re fighting for does not know their names, yet here he comes, shouting for them to form up, to make a line with their spears and scythes and sharpened hoes, to stand their ground. And the knights come down on them, faceless men clad all in steel, and the iron thunder of their charge seems to fill the world . . . And the man breaks.”
One could argue that Kagen is a broken man, or a man in the verge of breaking. War isn’t glorious, but now there’s no going back. And who is he fighting this conflict for, anyway? He gave so much of himself, physically and emotionally, and it was sort of… expected?
The ending is perhaps the sharpest criticism of all: what do we do with our war heroes? Once the war is done and we took everything we wanted from them, what do we do? Do we fulfill whatever promises that sent them away from home? Do they get rest, peace, an exciting life for themselves? Are they honored as heroes or celebrities? Or do we honor just their medals, but not the person carrying them? What do we do with that person?
Despite its shortness and shortcomings, The Hero was a surprisingly deep story. It’s still not classic GRRM destroying our hearts with his sweet, sweet themes, but he’s getting there.
The story’s commentary on war and the treatment of war heroes are surprisingly contemporary. It’s not the first time one of GRRM’s old stories touches issues similar to the ones we’ve been dealing with, and I suspect it won’t be the last time either. It’s not very subtle and the execution isn’t perfect, but I think The Hero is very successful in making the reader question those issues in real life.
Next time: haunted highways and genre mash-up await us in “Exit to San Breta”
The Force Resurfaces in Legends of Luke Skywalker
So, with Ken Liu’s Legends of Luke Skywalker Luke is finally really back to the extended canon of new Star Wars. Of course, it is not his first official appearance. He took part in many adventures in the comics series, for example; but, Legends of Luke Skywalker is the first new canon novel installment to focus on the Jedi and his personal path. The first to give us a close-up on him.
It is quite understandable why Luke stayed on the margins of larger story for so long. Luke is the centerpiece of The Last Jedi, after all. So, when dealing with his character and plot, they have to avoid both spoilers and a chance for out of character actions. Which is great, by the way, as such caution is new for Star Wars.
All that to say, Ken Liu had a very complex mission cut out for him. And oh my, did he succeed! Gretchen wrote a really deep and insightful essay on how the book acts as a manifesto of New Canon’s overarching goals, particularly the emphasis on diverse storytelling. Me, I’m going to take a different route and talk a bit about the world- and character-building aspects of the book and how they relate to the Expanded Universe (EU).
Meeting Luke Skywalker
But did we actually meet him? Ken Liu himself advises us against this assumption:
“Without giving away spoilers, I do want to caution the reader against assuming that any of the Luke-like figures they encounter in the book is in fact Luke Skywalker. Sometimes we retell legends not just by recounting the stories, but by emulating their heroes.”
However, having read the book, I think we can assume that we did in fact, as did the people telling us these stories, meet Luke Skywalker and walk with him for a while. That’s the assumption I’ll be working with in this piece, that this novel gives us actual insight into what the Luke Skywalker of New Canon did, said, and is like.
And this person we met is somewhat of a stranger to us, especially to those of us who are accustomed to the much less closed off, much more outgoing and social-oriented Luke of the EU. It is difficult to imagine the Luke of Legends changing girlfriends once an issue/novel and being a prototypical Masculine Hero of the whole Galaxy. It’s hard to imagine Legends Luke in this (perfectly canon; those women are physically attracted to him because he’s a Jedi, you see) situation:
The Luke we meet in Liu’s book is a dreamer, a hermit, a pilgrim. We see him interacting with other people and see that despite being friendly and helpful he is very closed person. He seems estranged from the others—all the more as years pass.
What Does Being a Jedi Mean?
This Luke, unlike his EU counterpart, comes with a question: “How does one be a Jedi?”. Which is understandable, given that this Luke, unlike his older counterpart, is created in the post-prequel era.
Before those movies there was no true definition of what a Jedi was, apart from the general idea of being a Force-user. Thus, Luke could both be a Jedi and adventure around the Galaxy with random girls who leave him as soon as a story arc ends. He could even afford to marry the most fanbase-acclaimed of them, Mara Jade.
Even more so, he could afford to create his own Jedi Order with only such vague rules regarding what it meant to be a Jedi as existed among the authors at that time. Those Jedi married each other and lived with their families in a Jedi temple; they kinda practiced some Force technique or another; they served the New Republic. They fought the Dark Side, too—which mostly meant “some weird guys who believe they are new Sith.” The Dark Side as “something bad within a person” was generally just that: something bad, like envy, hatred, or anger. They were spiritual, of course, but again, it was a very vague spiritualism and adapted to the needs of the authors. Nothing was standardized.
The Luke we encounter in Legends of Luke Skywalker exists in the post-prequel universe. This shows not only in a quick mention of Padme Amidala, but also in how the Jedi theme is presented. A Jedi is meant to be an ascetic, selfless person now. With no attachments and no interest in the outside world, apart from serving the Republic they are sworn to protect that is.
And while Luke is not quite free from being interested in worldly matters, he is still much closer to that ideal than he ever was in the EU.
As a side note, I find it interesting that while Luke’s character has changed because the concept of Jedi has changed, Star Wars: Rebels provides us with a very old-fashioned New Jedi Order-like figure in Kanan. But old (and by “old” I mean “pre-prequel”) EU traces in the series are a subject for a different essay, I think.
The Force And Luke
So, as our main hero is a Jedi, he has to deal with the Force, has he not?
And this book is rich in Force worldbuilding. Some of it is fairly traditional; we see people talk about Dark Side and Light Side, using familiar tricks and all that. Some of it is truly revolutionary, and I can’t help thinking if it may be connected to The Last Jedi.
I mean “Fishing in the Deluge,” of course, which included a idea truly new idea for the Star Wars universe: that using the Force in and of itself may be wrong, or at least inherently prone to distortion. If the Force is what it is believed to be, why try bending it to your will? Better devote yourself to it, and let it flow freely and do its job. This is interesting as a religious view, as well; it reminds me of Orthodox prayer “do not what I want, please, but what Thou think would be better.”
Along with “Big Inside,” Legends also provides us with glimpses of non-Jedi Force-using communities. While they are very different from each other—one is primitive fishermen tribe, the other a highly organized society with the ability to weave time itself, one deems using the Force always wrong and other has mastered things nigh impossible with it—they share important elements. They both are post-prequel creations. They both seek freedom from attachments, for example, though not in the same way as each other, or the same way as the Jedi do.
It was a hasty essay, I freely admit it, but I hope you’ll still see some value in it. For the final thought, I want to talk about how this book gives us a glimpse of Luke after Kylo Ren’s fall. I am talking about the first story, that from Dwoogan: “The Myth Buster.”
Given that Luke had already gone missing by the time Dwoogan meets the mysterious man in the teahouse, this event would likely be after the tragedy. And this gives a whole new meaning to his words about the Dark Side…
“The heroes of the New Republic didn’t think of themselves as heroes. They thought of themselves as ordinary men and women who did what had to be done to restore freedom and justice to the galaxy. For me to challenge her would have been giving in to fear, fear that their reputations, rather than their deeds, were what mattered. It would have led to anger, anger that they were not worshipped by everyone who benefited from their sacrifices. It would have led to hate, hate that the truth was not enough by itself. But that would have been giving in to the dark side.” (p. 55)
Makes you think, huh?
Images courtesy Del Rey and Marvel Star Wars
Book Review: Shattered, by Lee Winter
I’ve been looking forward to reviewing another book by Lee Winter for a while. Her book, The Red Files, about a May-December relationship between two journalists on the case was an engaging read, and I expected nothing less from this book. This review does contain minor spoilers, but more in regards to craft than content.
Shattered leans into Shattergirl, a first-generation alien/superhero who has gone off the grid. Lena Martin, an alien tracker, is tasked with finding Shattergirl and figuring out where she’s been for the last 18 months. From this premise, we follow Lena to Socotra, otherwise known as the Island of Bliss, to track the missing superhero and figure out how to bring her in.
I expected that this book would take much longer to get to the point. Often, when reading a book where one character must find another, the author labors under building up the mystery character, with the detective character spending chapter after chapter following false leads, missing connections. The tension of the book is contingent on finding the mystery character. What this often leads to is a pacing issue, where the action of the story is backloaded, leading to a tedious start, an arduous middle, and frequently an unsatisfying ending. Winter, however, is far too deft of a writer to do that to us. She instead, comes out in front of the pacing issues, and after setting up the world with only as much detail as the reader would need, makes sure that a quarter of the way in, we’re at the tension of the story.
What works more than anything in this story, is the tension between Shattergirl (who goes by Nyah once she warms up a bit) and Lena. Lena, who poses as a writer so as not to immediately give herself away, begins to interrogate Nyah. And while it is revealed that Nyah knew all along that she was indeed a tracker, the sharp tongues and wit between the two sets the stage for further relational development.
Winter has the ability to profoundly flesh out a character without dropping information. Characteristics are dropped in during moments of suspense, without much staging, allowing for a roundness that I don’t usually see unless I am 5 books into a series. The way characters are painted allows for broad strokes, providing only the most necessary and relevant information first, then going in with finer detail later. This allows for the plot and action to take center stage, and for the characters to be more complimentary.
What struck me most about this book was the angle of looking at celebrity and heroism. The way Lena’s perspective changes through the book, both in response to her job and to Nyah reflects that of the reader. Lena can’t be bothered to have a personal life because she is renowned in her field, leaving her only with the soft reminder of humanity in her apartment neighbor. Nyah, who is adored by the world as a hero, is burdened with the pressure of trying to save everyone, and crushed by the weight of the vulnerable ones she can’t save. Lena, who spent her childhood admiring Nyah for her heroism, is knocked down a peg to the reality of what heroism really looks like.
In a book filled with grace and profound observations, I wish more than anything that this book was longer, or that it had a movie deal or something. Winter has a way of crafting stories that feel real and raw and cut past genre or the obvious direction a book could go in. My only criticism for such a short book is waiting for the other shoe to drop. This book builds itself up to the highest peak, and with thirty pages left, you as the reader are left wondering where exactly all this build up is going. I won’t say that it doesn’t have a satisfying ending, because it does, but the reading experience is certainly unique.
You can find Shattered by Lee Winter by clicking here.
*An earlier version of this review incorrectly identified Lee Winter as Lee Winters. This has been corrected and we regret the error.