Thursday, 18 April 2013

Against Nature Not Too Bad, Claims Bloke

Well, I'm hugely gratificated and enhumbled to have received the first full review of Against Nature by someone who actually shelled out for a copy. James Douglas Burton - to whom I should probably stress I am not knowingly related - posted this on the Gallifrey Base bulletin board on Wednesday 17th April. Whilst I have a few minor quibbles here and there, I have to say he really seems to get what the book is about, and I'm greatly pleased to learn that for the most part it reads as I hoped it would read.

Without further ado, here's what he wrote:
All right, I finally just finished reading Against Nature this morning. Took me a week to read - mostly because I have been working an awful lot and been extremely exhausted. And when a book is as complex as this one, reading when your brain is at the refusing to take in what is on the page stage of consciousness, you definitely have to just put the book down.

But I finally had the time to complete the novel, and what an excellent book it is. I am going to attempt to present some of my thoughts in a very random order here, so bear with me. It also may be less thorough than many of my book ramblings, because as sophisticated and complex as the book is, we end up in such a different place from where we started, with so much having gone on inbetween, that I find my initial thoughts gone by now. I will try to retrieve one or two of them.

I guess I'd better preface this by stating what ought to be obvious: the following is, of course, my opinion. Not just my opinion, but a specific description of the way I personally reacted to the text. My experience of it is likely to be different than the next person's - and I certainly don't want to suggest that it is reflective of the author's intent. Anything I take away from it is just that: what I take away from it.

Keeping that in mind, much of what I write here is likely to be nonsense. So be it.

Speaking of personal reactions, and of nonsense, I should state that my knowledge of Central American culture and history is so limited (to basically nothing) that I cannot tell how much of what Lawrence Burton writes makes sense and how much doesn't. (I refer specifically to the twists and turns of the mythology and culture as it applies to the events of this story, by the way - not to his prose in general!) I approach it all (including all of the long Nahuatl words) the same way I approach the Homeworld-related stuff - as a bunch of things I cannot possibly understand, so just roll with it.

Hopefully my approach is close to that which is expected by the book and its author - taking the wrong angle at this material is likely to end up with your experience of it being quite wrong. So I hope mine isn't too far off course.

Basically, whether I am reading the passages about the gods and history of the native Central Americans, or the technobabble of House Meddhoran, I read through it and try to take in the gist of what is going on, hoping I have gleaned enough for it all to make sense, and don't bother trying to fully understand every little piece of what is being presented.

If anyone here ever watched the TV series Alias from a few years back, the writers there had an interesting approach. They would begin by hitting the viewer over the head with fragments of backstory presented in a way that was impenetrable, then rattling off complicated explanations of who was on what side, in relation to whom, and the plot would usually unfold quickly with much back-and-forthing on motives and loyalties. Basically, the creators of the program presented the viewers up front with things they couldn't possibly understand completely - and in doing so were attempting to reassure the viewer that they were not going to fully comprehend the details and that we should just go with it.

In that context, it was possible for the approach to have the unfortunate effect of switching off one's brain and simply enjoying the ride. That wasn't quite what was intended, but I think it was the way most viewers would experience the show.

Here, obviously, that isn't even close to what ought to be experienced. But some of the same mindset had to be taken by me. Rather than try to parse every sentence, grasp the significance of every Nahuatl word, or Homeworld jargon, I try to grasp the implication of what is occurring, to get a sense of the situation and the motives of those involved, and accept that some things I simply will not understand. In the land of Faction Paradox it is usual, after all, to be unable to grasp the entire situation.

I'm also reminded here of a failed attempt at the same kind of thing. K.W. Jeter's novel Noir (set in a strange cyberpunk future that doesn't make much sense at all) opens with a chapter that deliberately throws every piece of nonsensical terminology native to this future world at the reader. It is deliberately unreadable, designed to throw the reader in at the deep end and say this is the world you're going to be in, folks - deal with it. There (partly due to the world's unrealistic nature, partly due to the author's lack of skill) it was merely off-putting and failed to have any positive effect.

Lawrence Burton is, of course, much more capable than Jeter. Rather than throwing these things out there as a challenge, or a warning, or a test, or whatever purpose such a technique may be designed for, Burton merely presents the world in which his characters live. No thought is given to the uneducated reader - but neither are terms and references tossed at us in order to specifically affect us one way or the other. Whether the character is from modern day America, seventeenth century Mexico, or the Homeworld of the Great Houses, the text is presented as one natural to the lead character of that segment. Terms that the protagonist would be familiar with are presented matter-of-factly, whether the alien reader will understand it or not.

This approach helps to give the feeling of a real world - not one created for our consumption, but one which exists with all its complexity, regardless of our reaction to it or conception of it. As much as I may be confused by it at times (and I use the term loosely - my favorite filmmaker is David Lynch and I enjoy the way one can fully experience something without necessarily understanding it) the novel always feels genuine and sincere and solid. Three-dimensional. Four-dimensional. Real people, in a real world.

Now, that's not necessarily to say that the book is centered on real people and how the events affect them. Burton has clearly put some work into making these into fully-developed people - but the complexity and fluidity (and mythicality) of the story take the focus away from how would these people react to this situation and more on the unfolding of the legend and the greater themes, and what happens to the world. Many novels focus their stories on the inner progress of their characters; some see the characters as simple game pieces to move about on their board to create the plot. (Both of these can be equally valid ways of storytelling). Against Nature is neither of these, and is more about the unfolding of a myth and the recreation of the characters' realities. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at explaining what I mean, so you will have to read the book itself to get a sense of the approach it takes.

Because of the mythical tack the book takes, I'm not sure a plot is something I can say it has. But allow me to briefly describe the premise of the novel:

Structurally, each chapter is split into five, describing five points of a quincunx. East, North, West, South, and Center. Each segment focuses on a different protagonist - though their lives overlap significantly and they will appear in each other's segments as the story unfolds. East focuses on Primo - a Mexican youth who is beset by a mysterious ailment. North is about Todd, a man whose recent history begins to unravel. West we see House Meddhoran and its Kithriarch - Emiousha - as they encounter the nebulous Netherweald in which they are stranded. South is for Momacani in ancient Mexico as he moves toward what will be a very important ceremony for everyone. And in the center of everything is Goralschai from the Homeworld, whose motives are impossible to comprehend.

The whole tale is rooted in Central American culture. It shapes the Homeworld segments as much as it does the Earth-bound ones. Mictlan, the underworld, becomes the most important location in the universe as the story progresses, being entwined with the paths and fates of all parties.

Anyone who has read Lawrence Burton's work before knows that he is a ridiculously good author. This novel shows that particularly well. The amount of work that went into this is plain to see, and the talent that causes it to come into being is immense.

That's not to say that I have no issues with it. I don't believe I have ever read a book that I had no problems with. Against Nature can at times be vague. It is deliberate, of course, but can be off-putting. Never more so than at the climax of the book - which I didn't even realize was the climax until after the fact. As I say, it is intentional (Whatever had happened back there had apparently been for the best, but no one seemed clear about what that might have been, the book says of this event) but can be frustrating - for me at least.

And we all have out little bugbears, right? This author's fellow Lawrence (Faction-creator Lawrence Miles) has a tendency to present things that he thinks are profound statements about life and the universe, but which are often inane. But I am able to ignore the things that bug me about an author's work (again: nothing and no one is perfect). With Lawrence Burton, I have discussed before how the way his extreme dislike of the current direction of Doctor Who gets into so much of what he writes gets a bit wearisome for me. His Señor 105 novella (The Grail - a very good story indeed) devoted a large part of its plot to being an allegory of the way he feels modern Doctor Who has been ruined, and of its fans' attitudes.

He hasn't done much of that lately (I mean, he still hates modern Who but it doesn't usually pervade his writings either here, on facebook, or wherever) but I admit that when I read this comment (about a tapestry from the Homeworld) I groaned a little:

It told of some minor President, a record of his later years, a narrative that had turned garish and vulgar; of interest only to an addlepate.

As I said, though, this is just a little bugbear of my own, and not a black mark against the novel, or its author.

While I am commenting on little details, I wish I had made more highlights on the text to discuss now. There are a lot of lovely little touches in the text, but one humorous aside tickled me particularly. One character has just been tested by having another character attack him unexpectedly - the attacker loses an arm in the process of this little test.
Had someone simply thought to ask have you or have you not recently found yourself tainted by sacred forces? he might simply have answered yes and Chitilma would still be blessed with a plurality of arms.

One of my favorite quotes of the book, that...

There is an awful lot of attention to detail in this book. The author's knowledge of Central American history and culture is obviously great, and I imagine the specific research for this story must have been immense, but his realization of the people from the Homeworld and their technology and society is wonderful as well. I am actually a little surprised at how much of Marc Platt's House structure Burton was able to use (looms, Drudges, Kithriarch - the word cousin is not used in the House, since in this universe the term is too tied to Faction Paradox) but there is a lot of the West segment that has been fleshed out by Burton himself. I don't pretend to understand the technology, or the way the Netherweald works (even after later revelations as to its nature) but it all feels very much of a piece. The actual denizens of House Meddhoran are not fully realistic individuals, but there are reasons for this. Besides being Homeworlders (and largely unknowable therefore) they are newly-loomed childrene, and deliberately unique ones at that. Some of them are more individual than others, and the way the House works (or doesn't) is fascinating to me.

Goralschai, the center-piece of the novel, as it were, is a less interesting character than the others. His motivations are unclear (deliberately) and even his specific intent is something I am incapable of understanding (and hopefully everyone else is as well - I wouldn't like to think I am just being stupid here). Worst of all (for me) is the finale (in which he and the other characters are, of course, involved) which comes and goes without the reader (or, at least, this reader) realizing that it even was a finale.

The resolution is disappointing (to me) but not crushingly so. It fits in with the mythological approach of the novel, and works exactly as I am sure it was meant to. (Commentary on the event afterwards makes it appear that the characters feel the same way about it that I do.) I refuse to spoil the events of the novel by explaining what about it seemed unsatisfactory to me, but would be interested in seeing if others experience this in the same way that I did, or if their way of seeing it is dramatically different.

You may or may not have noticed that I have mentioned no specifically Faction Paradox-related characters or events yet. In fact, there is one such in the book, who has a distinct hand in events. Called variously Yaotl or Lorraine Conti she is (or was) an agent of Faction Paradox who takes a specific interest in events and ends up really stirring things up. She is, I suppose, the only real outsider to this tale - and while not one of the primary forces in the book, her actions are central to several of the story strands.

But the whole story is very "Paradoxical" - even without the Conti character this book would sit right at home among the Faction Paradox works. One of my favorites of the series (This Town Will Never Let Us Go) doesn't even have any real members of the Faction either. It is the themes of the book, the way they weave together, as well as the complex way they are told, that make this a very Faction novel.

As I seem to have waffled on for ages without actually saying anything (I look at the clock ticking away in the corner of my screen and wonder where the morning went to) let me briefly mention some nice little allusions in the book that tickled my fancy.

I mentioned already an oblique reference to Burton's dislike for modern Doctor Who. I may groan at the intrusion of the sentiment into this novel, but it is amusingly and slickly done. And frankly, all of the Lungbarrovian allusions in House Meddhoran make me smile.

In one character's dream-vision early on, he sees a masked wrestler speaking to a young boy selling chiclé - an obvious reference to Señor 105 and Rodrigo.

There is a face-painted Aztec priest called Tlohtoxcatl, and one reference to an exile named Yauhtloc. Are these more accurate renditions of characters from the Doctor Who serial The Aztecs?

I'm sure there are lots more references to other things that I either missed or forgot, but those are some that amused me personally.

Obverse Books has produced an awful lot of wonderful stuff. For my money, Against Nature is the best so far; the bar has been raised, and I hope someone sees this as a challenge and is ready to step up to the plate. To mix my sports metaphor even further: this one's a knockout.

Thanks to James for taking the time and effort to set down his thoughts, and for conceding to my reproducing them here, and also to Cody for the strangely philosophical illustration...

Against Nature is available from Obverse Books in print form here or as an eBook here, just in case I didn't already mention that five billion times.

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