“He tried to do away with Hell, you know.”

“[The Prophet Tarrant’s vision] was threefold,” he said at last. “One: To unify man’s faith, so that millions of souls might impress the fae with the same image in unison. Two: To alter man’s perception of the fae—to distance him from that power—thus weakening the link which permitted it to respond to him so easily. This meant a god who wouldn’t make appearances on demand, nor provide easy miracles. It meant hardship and it meant sacrifice. But he believed that in the end it would save us, and permit us to regain our technological heritage. Three: To safeguard man’s spirit while all this was taking place, so that when at last we cast off the shackles of this planet and rejoined our kin among the stars, we wouldn’t discover that in the process we had become something other than human. Something less than we would want to be.” […]

“So what happened?” she pressed.

“Humankind learned the lesson too well. Because if man could create a true God in his own image, why couldn’t he create an obliging godling with even less effort? What you worship shall come to exist, the Prophet wrote. The power of your faith will give your dreams substance. And so it was. A thousand selfish men designed their own prayers and their own psalms and gave birth to a thousand godlings, each feeding on man while serving his earthly desires. Even as the Church grew in strength, this trend continued, until there were over a hundred tiny states with their own pet deities, their own claim to power. So we went to war: man’s final recourse when diplomacy fails him. It was a disaster. Oh, if it had been a clean and glorious conflict, filled with images of faith and capped by a clear-cut victory, it might have stirred men’s hearts and won them to our side. It wasn’t. It was a bloody mess that spanned three centuries, and it ended only when we bit off more than we could chew and tried to do battle with the fae itself—or rather, with the evil the fae had spawned. Our power base destroyed, our precious image sullied, we crept back to our churches and our pews to lick our wounds in private.”

“And now?”

“We do what we can, Hesseth. We still serve the same dream, but defeat has taught us patience. We no longer see the Prophet’s vision as the end of a neat progression that’ll be consummated in our lifetimes, but an ideal state that may not be realized for centuries yet. For tens of centuries. Except here,” he whispered, and he glanced towards Toshida’s ship. “Isolated, unified, devout…they may have accomplished what the west failed to do. By establishing a state free of pagan influence, by raising their children in unquestioning faith…what power, Hesseth! It could alter the world. It may already have begun to.”

“And Tarrant?”

He stiffened at the sound of the name. “Cast out by his own creation,” he said sharply. “The Church knew that it would never alter the fae’s response to man until it had done away with private sorcery…and he couldn’t give that up. Not even to save his own soul.” He drew in a deep breath of cool night air, exhaled it slowly. “He tried to do away with Hell, you know. Excess philosophical baggage, he called it. Detrimental to our cause. He erased it from all the text, expunged it from the liturgy. They put it back. The habits of Earth were too deeply ingrained, the image of divine judgment too comforting for the righteous. In the end he lost that battle.” And so much more…

—C. S. Friedman, When True Night Falls (chapter 4)

X. recommended Friedman’s Coldfire Trilogy to me and I’m very glad I took her up on it. It’s an impressively thought through blend of science fiction and fantasy, and one of the most ambitious treatments of religion I’ve read in a while. Can’t wait to read the final volume to see if she’s really going to do what I think she’s doing.

“I am not a beautiful Asian”

I am not a beautiful Asian. I am not beautiful. There is a difference between petite and short; one is more attractive than the other. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter about my lack of physical beauty. My beauty lies beneath a tough surface, like a pomegranate, my Okasan is fond of telling me. Slither thinks all I need is a good orthodontist, a professional makeover, and a haircut done without a pair of toenail scissors. Maybe she’s right, but I refuse to succumb.

I am not beautiful, but I am a collector of abandoned shopping arts who has the most expansive collection of pajamas in the western hemisphere.

Clothing does not fit me. My big-boned arms, my daikon legs, my beta-beta feet, and splaying toes. My bratwurst fingers and nonexistent neck. And my head. My poor colossal head, too huge even to dream of a ten-gallon hat. It was excruciating torture when what clothes I’d finally found started threading into tatters. I held out as long as I could until the state of my unraveling would lead to public nudity. Then, I’d sigh, turn my money socks inside out and pick out linted coins to roll into dollar bills.

I spent years cursing the racks in the malls of despair. Jeans designed for long-legged hips. Slacks with no slack. […] Clothing either squeezed material across my square body, exposed my neck-gaping lack of chest, or confounded me with pant hems traling like a bridal train. I buttoned, squeezed, choked, sweated years snarling at lovely salesclerks, crying in the changing rooms. Until I stumbled across a pajama store closing down on its opening day, because no one was interested…

—Hiromi Goto, The Kappa Child (p. 51)

What I’m Reading, #32: Frederik Pohl, Gateway (1977)

“You are living with it, Bob.”

“Do you call this living?” I sneer, sitting up and wiping my nose with another of his million tissues.

“[…] Let me strike home for once, Bob. Let this sink in: you are living.”

“…Well, I suppose I am.” It is true enough: it is just not very rewarding.

Yesterday [July 13] was a rough day, but at least it was productive and I can rest for a bit instead of excoriating myself for being lazy. I have always had a very hard time getting myself to make phone calls. It’s even worse now because, living in a basement apartment, I get poor reception and often have to go outside to ensure the person on the other end of the line can hear me and I don’t get cut off. And sometimes I have trouble getting to the point where I can leave the house, which is probably hard to understand for anyone who has no experience with clinical depression. It takes a long time to wake up and get dressed and feed myself, and sometimes the mere thought of being around other people—even just fellow tenants or passersby on the street—is just too intimidating.

Hence it had been weeks and I still hadn’t called to schedule a doctor’s appointment or get in touch with my social worker. I finally decided that it was easier to go to the hospital (where my family doctor is) and make an appointment in person than to phone (and it was, despite being about a gazillion degrees out), and on the way back I stopped in the park to read Gateway and work up my nerve to call the social worker.

Gateway is a Big Dumb Object novel, set in a future where Earth and the colonies on Mars and Venus have become desperately overcrowded and resource-poor. Gateway is an asteroid-turned-spaceport long since abandoned by the (apparently) vanished alien race known as the Heechee. It’s filled with small ships programmed to go on round-trips to specific destinations. The problem is, there’s no way to figure out where they’re going to go and what’s at the other end. Enterprising prospectors might bring back priceless Heechee technology—or end up burned to a crisp or dead of radiation sickness or simply travelling so long they run out of rations and starve.

Our hero, Robinette Broadhead (“in spite of which I am male”), heads to Gateway hoping to strike it rich and escape the mines of Wyoming forever. The story switches between his time in Gateway and when he has returned to Earth, fabulously wealthy but spending a lot of time with his robot psychotherapist, alternately denying he has a problem and shying away from a place of acute emotional pain. Something awful happened during his trips out, and nearly all the book is spent hinting at and building up to that revelation.

I was expecting sensawunda along the lines of Chiang or Watts, but Gateway is primarily an exploration of the human mind. Well, one very fucked-up human mind, at least. When Broadhead gets to Gateway he loses his nerve and spends most of his time in a state of boredom and terror, distracting himself with other prospectors’ going-away or coming-home parties, or sex—with a woman who, despite her previous experience, has also become too scared to ship out. Of course, eventually he does go—and most of the trip is also stultifyingly boring, spent crammed in a can uncomfortably close to his fellow explorers.

(Some novels are said to have a good “sense of place”; Gateway has sense of time. The way anxiety drags out time, or compresses it.)

The therapy scenes (lying in the grass, sweating through my shirt even in the shade of a tree) really got to me, a lot more than I thought they would. I hate talking to doctors and psychiatrists and psychologists and social workers and such, I generally don’t like telling them about that kind of thing, and I’ve had to do it for years. So even the scenes in Gateway, with Broadhead snarkily parroting Freudian jargon to Sigfrid, rattled me.

I think what I hate is the feeling of exposure. Self-loathing, maybe; I feel like I’m an ugly, mediocre mess beneath a fragile veneer of normalcy. So having to open myself up to examination, whether it’s a psychiatrist asking about my depression or a social worker inspecting my bank statements, is just the most terrifying thing. Perhaps because of so much therapy in my childhood, or not getting a lot of privacy growing up in general, I have an urgent need for privacy now.

(I couldn’t explain any of this to my social worker, though. I could only say, yes, I know I should have phoned you weeks ago. No, I can’t explain why I didn’t. No explanation is coming. I just want to be let alone.)

You just sort of have to keep going, and let yourself feel things as they happen. Looking back on things, I think I prefer the fear and anxiety and self-recrimination and all that. It’s better than numbness, because it feels like you’re actually losing time—like time is going by and you haven’t spent it doing anything. I hate drifting. It’s just hard to pull yourself out some of the time.

“It is exactly what I call living. And, in my best hypothetical sense, I envy it very much.”

What I’m Reading, #27-31

27. Mary Gentle, Golden Witchbreed (1983)

An envoy to the planet Orthe, dominated by a low-tech, communal, quasi-medieval culture, learns it’s not so “primitive” after all. The hard way. If you don’t look too hard at the science and focus on the political intrigue and culture-building*, it’s great. I don’t want to say more, lest I spoil it. I think I only counted three uses of “sardonic”.

  • Orthe’s. The Earth that Lynne Christie comes from seems positively old-fashioned, especially with regard to gender, or maybe I just live in the future.

28. Joan Vinge, The Snow Queen (1980)

Picked this up because of Revisiting the Hugos. It’s sci-fi heavily steeped in fairytales and mythology. An oceanic planet named Tiamat cycles between long periods of Winter and Summer, each ruled by its own Queen. During Winter, interstellar trade and travel are possible; come Summer, which is dominated by traditional clans, offworlders leave Tiamat, taking new technologies with them. The current Snow Queen, seeking to maintain her power after the Change, secretly implanted several Summer women with clone embryos. The lone surviving clone, Moon, becomes a sibyl—a sort of oracle-mystic forbidden from the Winter city of Carbuncle. Nevertheless, she goes in search of her cousin Sparks, who has become the Snow Queen’s lover, and eventually to meet her own destiny. (Wow…I feel like I’m writing back-cover copy. Sorry.)

The part I enjoyed most, however, was the subplot about Jerusha PalaThion, a world-weary Carbuncle policewoman who gets drawn into the Snow Queen’s far-ranging schemes. It’s the little details that bring The Snow Queen from the mythic down to earth.

29. Octavia Butler, Dawn (1987)

The first Xenogenesis book. After an apocalypse, a woman named Lilith finds herself in the hands—well, tentacles—of aliens aspiring to redeem the human race, one hybrid baby at a time. There’s weird yet pleasant alien sex—does anyone write weird alien sex better than Octavia Butler? I’d like to read the rest of the series before making any grand pronouncements.

30. Geoff Ryman, Air (2004)

Trippy and awesome blend of magic realism and near-future sf. I loved Mae, the main character; she’s stubborn, petty, cunning, and dauntlessly entrepreneurial. Desperate to stave off poverty, she takes advantage of her access to the soon-to-be omnipresent technology called “Air” (the Internet in your head, basically) and attempts to educate—and prepare—her tiny village in the fictional Central Asian nation of Karzistan. She also has to contend with her failing marriage, rival neighbours, the return of a devastating flood, and Mrs. Tung, an old woman who upon death took up residence in Mae’s head. As you do.

31. Loretta Chase, Lord of Scoundrels (1995)

“In my dictionary, romance is not maudlin, treacly sentiment…It is a curry, spiced with excitement and humor and a healthy dollop of cynicism.”

I was SO ON BOARD with this Regency romance. You’ve got Jessica Trent, this feisty, ridiculously competent, nearly anachronistic bluestocking, and Sebastian Ballister, Marquess of Dain (just “Dain”), who is Tall Dark and Handsome Brooding Bad Boy squared. No, cubed. After an extended fiery Slap Slap Kiss flirtation, they get caught in a compromising position and Jessica lawyers up and gets him to marry her to Preserve Her Honour and all that. However, it takes them a little longer to become reconciled to each other. It’s so smartly written and consciously not quite over the top that I can forgive (and, hell, even enjoy) the spurts of bodice-ripping purple prose.

And then the plot made a sharp left turn that left me cold, and by “cold” I mean “throwing up in my mouth a little”. Jessica crosses paths with Charity Graves, a prostitute who has a young child (now a “ragged, filthy urchin”) by Dain. Dain explains how when Charity found out she was pregnant she wrote to Dain’s lawyer asking for—well, child support, basically.

“How much do you give her, by the way?”

“Fifty,” he said tightly. “More than enough to feed and clothe him—and let her spend all she makes on her back on herself. But I daresay the rags were all part of her game: to make me appear the villain of the piece […]”

“Fifty a year is more than generous. How old is he?” Jessica demanded. “Six, seven?”

And they also talk about how Charity totally could have gotten an abortion so she’s just a greedy bitch, plain and simple, and not once does Jessica get mad at Dain for, I don’t know, his habit of frequenting prostitutes all the friggin’ time. I was willing to chalk up the earlier slut-shaming to Jessica being jealous, but this just…yeeeeah. ?Did not finish.